Analyzing The Anomalous: Pau Gasol vs. Denver
Pau Gasol vs. Denver. Los Angeles lost 113-96. Gasol’s statistics: 29 minutes, 3 points (1-10 shooting from the field), 3 rebounds, 2 personal fouls, 16.9% usage percentage, plus/minus of -29 (game-low).
Ever since the Lakers were unceremoniously swept from the playoffs by Dallas last season, Pau Gasol has been Los Angeles’ great scapegoat. Unlike Lamar Odom, when Gasol was traded this past December he came back, venturing forth in what retrospectively should go down as one of the most awkward seasons a player has ever had to endure. For the most part, Gasol made it work, deferring to Andrew Bynum in the post and Kobe Bryant everywhere else, allowing his elite mid-range jump shot to turn him into a glorified Brandon Bass, and attempting twice as many three-pointers in this shortened season than in the previous four combined. The public complaints were few and far between, and the result was a Lakers squad, devoid of anything close to a capable bench, winning its division and somehow becoming the league’s premier overachiever. Nobody, including the sportsbook review could’ve foreseen the success.
Now the playoffs are here; games are powerful enough to brush all those that were played over the past five months under a very large rug. This is the time to increase what you did in the regular season; a time when the brains of fans, agents, coaches, scouts, general managers and owners are trained to focus and remember. Barring a never-before-seen iconic performance, nobody who’s normal can recall what a given player did on a random night in February, but spring-time heroics are hard to forget.
Last night the Lakers played their second straight close out game against a Denver Nuggets team that’s equipped with an energetic personnel capable of giving Lakers head coach Mike Brown a migraine every 20 minutes. Calling last night’s game for TNT, one of the first bits of analysis Steve Kerr gave us was this: “It’s very important for the Laker bigs to establish the toughness that they lacked in Game 5.” They didn’t. Instead of helping them survive with their alpha dog Kobe Bryant laboring with a stomach issue, Pau Gasol helped tighten the noose around his team’s neck while Andrew Bynum kicked out the stool.
For this piece, I’d like to shine a bright light on the the worser of these two giants: Mr. Gasol. His “performance” was lackadaisical and confusing. At no time throughout the game did he assert himself in consecutive trips down the floor, and 12 of his 29 minutes came without Bynum by his side—that’s one quarter of the game where Gasol could’ve asserted himself with some sort of presence. Instead he had a lesser impact than Timofey Mozgov.
The story of this game, and the big question Mike Brown has on his hands heading into Saturday night’s Game 7, was Denver’s effectiveness when they doubled down on both Bynum and Gasol. Danilo Gallinari, Corey Brewer, Arron Afflalo, Andre Miller, and Ty Lawson were all great at leaving their man and helping their frontcourt teammates with some wonderfully timed double teams. Not only this, but the Nuggets front line also did a great job making each other’s lives much easier.
On the Lakers second possession of the game, Bynum catches the ball in the post and immediately draws a double team. He responds by skipping it weak-side to a wide open Devin Ebanks, forcing Kenneth Faried to rotate away from his well-established position bodying Gasol, and out to contest Ebanks’ 8-footer. As he does this Mozgov slides away from the non-threatening Bynum and throws his body into Gasol, pushing him underneath the basket and out of the play. Gasol shows absolutely no desire to do battle with Mozgov, instead taking on the physical movement of an empty plastic bag. Ebanks’ missed shot ends up going between Bynum’s legs and into Denver’s hands, eventually leading to a transition three-pointer from Gallinari.
Still early in the game, just a few play later, Gasol catches the ball with his back to the basket WAY to far out to do any damage. Regardless, the Nuggets stick to their strategy, and Gallinari drops down to double (in the process, completely ignoring Ebanks). Gasol makes the “smart” play, kicking it out to his open teammate who promptly misses a jumper. The problem with this play is simple: in order for the Lakers to advance and find any sort of meaningful success in these playoffs, they need their biggest strength to radiate. Gasol is half of this strength. A jump shot from a faltering 22-year-old currently playing in the first playoff series of his career, is nowhere near it.
In order to open up the floor for their perimeter players, early in the second quarter the Lakers choose to take Gasol out of play, positioning him behind the three-point line in the weak side corner. They’ve done this several times throughout this season, and in this series he’s taken four threes and made two of them. But I found it strange that this was Mike Brown‘s big in-game adjustment. Taking one of the three most talented players in the series and telling him to go stand in the corner? Really? That’s your answer to Denver’s double teams?
It doesn’t matter that the Lakers had success in both of the specific plays I’ve highlighted in the two clips above. When you take a guy like that and make him a decoy, it has an affect on the rest of his game; when you need Gasol to be aggressive in the fourth quarter (heaven forbid the Lakers make one of those relevant), he won’t have the first three quarters worth of physical preparation already in his head. It also hurts him defensively, as you’ll see later on.
At the time both of these plays were called, Gasol had yet to attempt a single shot. Part of that was obviously his own fault, but a small portion of blame has to be placed on the Lakers coaching staff. He ends up taking his first shot with 9:25 left in the second quarter, and grabbing his first rebound less than a minute later. That’s gross.
One of the bigger dilemmas that Gasol has happens to be to my personal favorite player to watch in all of basketball: Kenneth Faried. The rookie is simply wearing him out, racing up and down the court on every possession, dominating both ends. Take for example this play midway through the second quarter. Gasol catches the ball on a pick and pop (instead of rolling to the basket, as Zach Lowe pointed out earlier today) with Steve Blake and misses the elbow jumper. He is then badly beat down the floor by Al Harrington, a guy playing with a torn meniscus. That’s pathetic effort.
On his sixth shot of the game, Gasol appeared to force the issue. He tries to lob one of his high-low alley-oops to Bynum, but Faried reads it well, leaving Gasol alone on the baseline to drop down and help Mozgov body the rolling monster. Now wide open, Gasol takes the shot and misses.
On the very next play, Gallinari beats Matt Barnes off the dribble and catches Gasol in no man’s land. Gallo drops a beautiful no-look bounce pass to a cutting Faried, which forces Gasol to turn and hack. I would have no problem with this, as Barnes’ lack of defense is the real problem here, but Gasol puts absolutely no effort into actually hitting his man. It’s a soft foul and the result is an and-one opportunity that pumps up the crowd even more than it already was.
Soon afterwards, the play that effectively ends the game happens when a missed shot from Bynum leads to a loose ball that would’ve landed right in Gasol’s hands if he weren’t hovering out by the three-point line. (A possible explanation for this could be his fear of getting beat down the court by Faried, but all of Denver’s big men were down low fighting for the rebound, which makes Gasol’s position even more baffling.) The loose ball is tracked down by Faried, and that’s when Kobe takes a swipe at his head. After the game he’d say this was unintentional, but Charles Barkley disagreed, saying it should’ve been a Flagrant-2. I agree with the latter.
Just for fun, here’s yet another clip of Gasol not even attempting to exert any sort of effort whatsoever.
Being that the game was pretty much over, not much happened in this quarter from Gasol, but here’s a sequence that shows just how dedicated Denver was in not allowing him to do anything. There’s 7:50 left in a 28 point game—it’s all over—and yet they still choose to double him. Awesome stuff from Denver. Garbage from Gasol.
So, what can he do to make things different in Game 7? Well, for starters, he can show up to the gym. After that the keys to his success go as follows: be more active on the offensive glass, roll to the basket after setting a pick instead of popping every single time, be aggressive with his face-up game, attempt at least 10 free-throws, and help prevent Denver from starting their transition game so easily. To sum it up, what Gasol needs to do is make sure the Nuggets know he’s on the court, playing in a very important situation. If not, expect it to be his last game in a Lakers jersey.