Lakers' Gasol eager to shed image as 'soft'

"I feel like most Europeans, we get that label no matter what," the Lakers' Pau Gasol, of Spain, says of people calling him a "soft" player.
"I feel like most Europeans, we get that label no matter what," the Lakers' Pau Gasol, of Spain, says of people calling him a "soft" player. (Ronald Martinez/getty Images)
By Michael Lee
Saturday, June 5, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- He was just so gangly, 7 feet of skin and bones that looked even scrawnier as Kevin Garnett screamed at him and Kendrick Perkins consistently shoved him out of position in the 2008 NBA Finals. No angry screams, unkempt beard or scraggly hairdo could mask the fact that Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol was, for lack of a better word, weak. And, with him coming from Spain, what else could he be?

Gasol became the easy scapegoat for the Lakers' failings against the Boston Celtics two years ago; when he was a newcomer in a lopsided trade from a lousy team in Memphis, adjusting to the high-stakes demands of playing alongside an edgy Kobe Bryant and joining an organization rich in championship tradition. He can admit that he played poorly in his first Finals appearance, but having to hear incessant chatter about his lack of physical and mental strength or having others change his last name to "Gasoft" -- even after helping the Lakers win a championship last season -- has been beyond unsettling.

"It's something that has been a question that I've gotten the most throughout these last couple of years," Gasol said of being called soft. "I mean, it's pretty amazing to me why it's so. . . . You have a couple of tough losses or tough games or bad games and all of sudden, you've got a label there. I feel like most Europeans, we get that label no matter what. It's just a given. It's like you have to prove yourself every single game that you're a tough player. I keep getting it, which feels like there's nothing better to talk about, which is a little sad."

Gasol was finally able to vent out his frustrations in Game 1 on Thursday, when he not only outplayed Garnett -- showcasing the array of talents that have led him to also get the label as the NBA's most skilled big man -- but he also was the tougher player. He had twice as many offensive rebounds (eight) as Garnett had total rebounds (four). He blocked three shots, including a Garnett baseline jumper, and also leveled the burly Glen "Big Baby" Davis while setting a screen. He finished with 23 points and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers called him "the best player on the floor."

His desire to get a victory was evident as he missed a layup over Perkins, battled to get back the ball from Perkins and Garnett, then slid closer to the basket to lay it in. Perkins said on Friday that Gasol is a different player than the one Boston punked for six games. "I think he got a lot stronger, got a little more aggressive from two years ago. I think he came out and played with a chip on his shoulder."

Gasol said his performance was hardly rooted in getting payback. "Obviously, there's some memories there that are hurtful -- in a good way," Gasol said. "Now we're trying to beat them. We're trying to get that championship and that trophy because we don't want them to get it obviously. That's the only thing. There's no really revenge in our minds, we just want to win it."

Before the series began, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said he was "intrigued" by the matchup between Gasol and Garnett, given Gasol's ability to complement Bryant offensively and Garnett's importance to the Celtics' defense. Gasol didn't want to gloat over one game, but he was irked by the way the trash-talking Garnett belittled him in their last Finals meeting.

Garnett struggled on Thursday, as he scored just 14 points and missed an uncontested, point-blank layup as the ball squirted from his hands. Gasol said that Garnett has "lost some explosiveness. 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. You can count on that."

Garnett snarled when told what Gasol said about him. "I have no comments for his comments. For what? Who is he?" he said. "It's not a one-on-one situation between me and Pau; just Lakers versus Celtics. You know, it's the Lakers team, but I've got to be able to be a lot more aggressive than that, so I will."

Since Gasol arrived, Bryant has challenged him to grasp the intensity and aggression required to win; he even flattened Gasol with a hard screen during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Gasol has pushed back on occasion, even questioning Bryant's shot selection and demanding more touches at times during the regular season. Bryant said he has noticed the growth in Gasol, the most versatile big man with whom he has been paired.

"It's all a challenge, whether it's you're not tough enough or whether it's making teammates better or you're too old," Bryant said. "It's all about challenges that you have to accept and move on. He got his feet wet [in 2008]. 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."

When asked about the difference in Gasol, Jackson said, "I think he's just matured. I don't think he's actually changed."

Is he calling him soft?

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