Published November 20, 2014
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Pau Gasol used to spend this week in Paris each year, sitting in the shade at Roland Garros and watching Rafael Nadal torment his opponents on the clay courts.
Gasol's gracious summers ended when the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Gasol just over two years ago from the woebegone Memphis Grizzlies, putting him in the thick of the NBA finals for the past three seasons.
His good friend Rafa is on his own these days — and judging by Gasol's performance in Game 1 against the Boston Celtics, the 7-foot Spaniard is growing into a world-beater himself.
"I love tennis, but this is really the way I'd prefer to spend the early part of the summer," Gasol said.
Gasol showcased his evolving toughness with every rebound and big defensive play in the Lakers' 102-89 victory in Thursday's opener. He had 23 points and 14 rebounds while leading the Lakers' physical game with a stifling, aggressive performance against Kevin Garnett, who dominated their matchup in the clubs' 2008 finals meeting.
"I had to get myself mentally and physically ready for those types of challenges," Gasol said Friday after the Lakers' workout at Staples Center. "Just to be able to deliver and play the way I can perform, I had to work throughout these two years to be the kind of player that I am today."
The Celtics don't have Gasol to kick around any more, and it's giving the Lakers an early advantage. Game 2 is Sunday night at Staples Center.
Although the current Gasol, who turns 30 next month, is a sharp-elbowed low-post player who rarely backs away from a physical confrontation, he realizes he was marked as a marshmallow from the moment he joined the NBA in 2001.
"Most Europeans, we get that label no matter what," Gasol said. "It's just a given. It's like you've got to prove every single game that you're a tough player. It's pretty interesting, but it's more interesting that I keep (hearing about) it, which feels like there's nothing better to talk about, which is a little sad."
Indeed, Gasol's 28 months with the Lakers have given him a graduate diploma in the intensity necessary to win an NBA title. Gasol's teammates don't believe he fully understood it in 2008, when his arrival spurred them out of the Western Conference into the finals.
"He's deeply a part of us now, whereas in '08, he had been with us a few months," Derek Fisher said. "So the expectations and what this all meant was probably still foreign for him. Having been together two-plus, three years, the connective tissues and the core of our team is just stronger."
Gasol averaged 16.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in the 2008 playoffs, but the numbers don't reflect the intimidation unleashed in the finals by Garnett, then a frustrated veteran in search of his first championship ring. Garnett hounded Gasol on both ends of the court, culminating in Gasol's 11-point, five-turnover performance in Boston's title-clinching victory.
"He hadn't been out of the first round, and all of a sudden we're in the NBA finals playing against a great team like the Celtics," Kobe Bryant said. "That was a great experience for him, and as he got his feet wet, he started understanding more and more how we need him to play to get to a championship level. That's all I think it was, because he had all the tools and all the skills."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson essentially put Gasol on notice before this series even began when he said Gasol's matchup with Garnett would be the most intriguing part of the finals for him. Yet Jackson already suspected he would get a strong game from Gasol after seeing his maturing game this season.
"What I see from him is just the little actions that represent not backing down," Jackson said. "Getting hit, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other with the mentality to look at the referee, or wonder about the blow and the legitimacy of it. Those are the things he's learned in the last year-and-a-half or two."
The Celtics returned to practice Friday determined to match the physical effort led by Gasol and Ron Artest. Boston isn't likely to change much in its strategic approach to the Lakers, but the Celtics realize they must do more to make the Lakers uncomfortable.
"It's not a one-on-one situation between me and Pau," Garnett said. "To make this team better, I've got to be a lot more aggressive than that, and I will. They attacked us. They brought the game to us, and that's unusual for us."
Gasol has faced Garnett regularly for a decade, and the Spaniard said Friday they've both lost some of the offensive explosiveness they had in Memphis or Minnesota. But Gasol said he's physically stronger now, while Garnett has evolved into a dangerous jump-shooter.
"Before, he had a really, really quick first step and was getting to the lane, and he was more aggressive then," Gasol said. "Time passes, and we all suffer it one way or another, but he's still a terrific player, a terrific competitor, and he's going to bring everything he's got."
Although Gasol didn't mean to provide bulletin-board material, an out-of-context reading of his comments could be interpreted that way. Garnett wasn't biting when asked about comments he hadn't heard before the Celtics' practice.
"I'm just not getting caught up in what Pau's talking about, and what they're talking about," Garnett said. "Nothing motivates anybody more than coming short of a goal. Any time you do that, it motivates me."