One of the most memorable plays in Pau Gasol’s lengthy basketball career came in the 2009 NBA Finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers went on to win the series, securing the first of two consecutive NBA championships behind the pairing of Gasol and Kobe Bryant. In Game 2, the Lakers, who were looking for a 2-0 lead, led the Orlando Magic by three points, 94-91, with over a minute remaining in overtime at home.
Predictably, Bryant controlled the ball and whittled down the clock. Meanwhile, Gasol stood a few paces away at the top of the key and faced him, forcing Hedo Turkoglu to take a few steps back in anticipation of a pick-and-roll.
Gasol and Bryant made eye contact and the former was captured on camera mouthing a few words in an exaggerated manner to set the direction of their attack.
Bryant proceeded to drive right and Gasol stepped in to set a perfectly placed screen that caught Turkoglu off guard. Orlando’s Dwight Howard tried to cover for his teammate and attempted to get in the way of Bryant’s foray into the paint.
Howard, the league leader in blocks that year, successfully cut off Bryant’s path, but he fell into the clutches of the Laker duo’s scheme. Gasol craftily slipped behind Howard’s back and Bryant found him cutting through the lane for a lay-up that also drew a foul on Rafer Alston.
Alston, Orlando’s 6’2 point guard, switched over in place of Howard and was left helpless against Gasol at the rim. Upon hearing the whistle for the foul, Gasol let out a now-iconic roar that reverberated throughout the Staples Center.
Gasol and Bryant then converged, first pointing at each other before exchanging high-fives to congratulate one another on a well-executed plan.
It was a monumental moment for Gasol who was still labelled as a soft and passive player at that point in time.
In the prior season, the Lakers were embarrassed by the Boston Celtics in their title-clinching win. Gasol was highly criticized for his play, especially in contrast to Boston’s ever-passionate Kevin Garnett.
With the help of constant nudging from Bryant, Gasol responded the following year and made the 2009 NBA Finals his coming out party. The next season, he drew even with Garnett, battling him toe-to-toe as the Lakers eked out the 2010 title in a classic seven-game series.
Bryant will forever be remembered as the face of those Los Angeles teams, but even he has remarked on several occasions that he would not have won those two championships without Gasol.
A six-time NBA All-Star, four-time All-NBA member, and the 2002 NBA Rookie of the Year, Gasol was often overlooked throughout his career despite his many accolades. He arrived in Los Angeles via a midseason trade during the ‘07-’08 season with the Memphis Grizzlies who drafted the young Spaniard third overall in the 2001 NBA Draft.
Gasol averaged 17 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in 18 seasons, with his best years coming while with the Lakers from 2008 to 2014.
During that stretch, Gasol was consistently in the conversation as one of the best big men in the world. Garnett and Tim Duncan were still solid yet already showing signs of aging during those years. Howard was a force on defense and an athletic freak though his offensive repertoire left much to be desired. Dirk Nowitzki was still in the late stages of his prime albeit defense was never one of his strong suits.
Gasol was a force to be reckoned with on both ends, playing with a blend of finesse and power that was a delight to watch on the court. He was skilled in the low post and had a reliable midrange jumper. In his later years, he even extended his range to the three-point line as he attempted 1.6 per game in his two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
What set him apart from the other big men of his era was his knack for passing the ball. He was adept at locating his teammates and finding passing lanes in a way that was not typically expected from seven-footers during that era. Gasol would even take the ball coast-to-coast on occasion, dazzling the Laker faithful and looking like franchise legend Magic Johnson in the process.
On the other end of the floor, he was an adept defender and rebounder who made up for his lack of jaw-dropping athleticism with elite basketball IQ and timing. Beyond blocking shots and picking up a few steals here and there, Gasol was willing to draw charges and do the dirty work which is what truly set him apart.
A player of his talents and skills would have been even more successful in this era of positionless basketball. Gasol, who has helped pave the way for skillful big men like 2021 NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, would have thrived even more in today’s game.
As his career officially comes to a close, the Lakers have announced that they will retire his jersey alongside the two belonging to Bryant. Two decades after he was first drafted, Gasol will now officially take his place alongside the franchise’s all-time greats and he will go down in history as the roaring, long-haired seven-footer who turned out to be everything but soft.