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Tribute to Pau Gasol, NBA Champion

We all have those, "I remember where I was when..." moments in our lives. For some reason, many of them are negative. My parents remember where they were when JFK was assassinated. We all remember where we were when we learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But there are positive versions of those moments, as well. Many people probably remember where they were when Barack Obama was officially elected president, and always will. I wouldn't be surprised if my folks can recall where they were when the Berlin Wall was torn down. Many sports fans probably remember where they were when one of their favorite teams won a championship.

So I have a question for you: Do you remember where you were when you learned that the Lakers had traded Kwame Brown's contract, a partridge, and a pear tree for Pau Gasol?

I was at work, and I remember the setting like it was this morning. I can replay the entire event in my mind. As I always did, I was checking up on Lakers news, when I saw a report of Gasol traded to the Lakers. I'll be honest with you, I knew who Gasol was, and I knew he was very good, but I didn't know him the way I do now. Now, I know him (as much as any fan can); then, I simply knew about him. But I knew enough to understand that this was a monumental event.

I immediately got out of my chair, went over, and told a couple of my buddies what had just happened. They couldn't believe it, either. I returned to my computer and utilized a few extra mouse clicks to make sure it was true. I pinched myself, and I checked the date – no, April was still a ways away. It was true, and it was real: The Lakers had acquired Pau Gasol without giving up anything they really cared about.

A year and a half later, the Lakers have given Gasol his first championship ring, and Gasol has given the Lakers their first championship banner. This is a tribute to him.

Click on through for more gushing over Pau Gasol...

Want me to sum it up for you? Here's how this went. The Lakers are 2009 NBA Champions because of Kobe Bryant. No, they didn't win the championship primarily because of Gasol; they won it first because of Bryant, the MVP of the team and of the Finals. However, it was because of Pau Gasol that Kobe Bryant was able to lead the Lakers to a title. Put differently: If it was because of Kobe that it happened, it was because of Gasol that it was possible. Gasol made the Lakers contenders, enabling Kobe Bryant to make them champions.

So thank Kobe Bryant for his MVP performance, and for elevating his teammates play, imparting to them his mentality, and putting them in positions to succeed. And then thank Pau Gasol for putting Kobe in a position to be able to do any of that. Bryant was the explosive force that drove the Lakers to their goal, but Gasol was his catalyst.

Along the way, Gasol had a coming out party of his own in these playoffs. Before this championship run, Gasol was merely a very good big man, a perfect fit for the Triangle Offense and the ideal pairing for Kobe Bryant – but still fairly under-appreciated in his own right. He was an All-Star for the second time in his career this year, but despite the Lakers' success, and the role Gasol played in that success, he was only voted onto the 3rd Team All-NBA, a selection that many felt to be a snub for Gasol.

Expect higher billing for Pau Gasol next time around.

Prior to these playoffs, he was appreciated by many primarily as a face-up "power" forward with an excelent mid-range game, good handles, and an ability to take his opponent off the dribble. In this postseason, however, the rest of the world witnessed what Lakers fans were already familiar with – that Gasol is an extremely talented player, with "7,473 post moves," as it has been said at Forum Blue & Gold.

The way he keeps the ball up at all times (contrasted with Dwight Howard's disturbing tendency to bring it down and repeatedly get stripped), the way he runs the floor, the beautiful mid-range game, and that oh-so-sexy anbidextrous hook shot – all this and more was on display for the entire basketball world to see and appreciate.

Prior to this postseason, the general consensus was that while Gasol had been forced to play center in Memphis, as well as here in L.A. when Andrew Bynum was down or out, his natural position is power forward, and he is not well suited to playing center. He shies away from contact, doesn't have the strength to "bang with the bigs," doesn't play well with his back to the basket... at least, that's how the story went.

In these playoffs, and especially in the Finals against the beast of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol proved otherwise. Howard is bigger, bulkier, and stronger, but it was Gasol who man-handled Superman, rather than the other way around. As for "banging with the bigs" in the low post, Gasol didn't have any problem. Andrew Bynum was on the bench for the majority of the postseason, and Gasol willingly stepped up as the Lakers' tough, capable center. As I mentioned recently, he defended Howard better than any other center in the playoffs:

Pau Gasol defending Dwight Howard was expected to be a huge advantage for the bigger, stronger Howard, but Gasol's defense of Howard was masterful. The Lakers provided Gasol with significant help, and their defensive scheme was hugely successful in frustrating Howard, but Gasol deserves a lot of credit for his defense on Howard. According to ESPN DB, Dwight Howard was held to 4-10 shooting when guarded one-on-one by Gasol (Gasol, meanwhile, was 9-19 when guarded one-on-one by Howard). In Game 5, Gasol was the primary defender on Howard for in 38 possessions – in those 38 possessions, Howard didn't make a single field goal, and went to the line only once, where he went 1-2, for a grand total of one points on 38 possessions with Gasol as his primary defender.

Never particularly known for his defense before this, Gasol has grown into (and is now recognized as) one of the elite post defenders in the game.

On the other end of the floor, the Magic simply had no answer for Gasol. In possessions where Gasol was guarded one-on-one by Howard, Gasol shot 9-19 from the field. In the paint, he scored 56 points on 28-44 shooting from the field (63.6%), compared to Howard's 42 points on 21-42 shooting (50%). Outside the paint, Gasol was 7-14 for 16 points, while Howard did not score a single point outside of the painted area.

Overall, Gasol shot 36-60 (60%) from the field, averaging 18.6 point, 9.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and only a single turnover per game in the Finals. Dwight Howard, on the other hand, shot 21-43 (48.8%) from the field, averaging 15.3 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. While he did record an incredible four blocks per game, he also committed four turnovers per game, and in the end, it was Gasol who turned in the better defensive performance at the center position.

Gasol's offensive efficiency was simply off the charts in the Finals. Despite mostly being guarded by the Defensive Player of the Year, his True Shooting Percentage was an incredible 64.7%, while Howard's was a mortal 56.2% – not bad, but low for a dominant center, and significantly below his previous playoff TS% of 65.0% (not to mention his TS% of 68.8% against Cleveland).

Meanwhile, Gasol showed himself to be a fantastic rebounder. While Howard got his rebounding numbers, the Lakers consistently dominated the boards, and a large part of that was due to Gasol's effort. In particular, the Magic were unable to get much in terms of offensive rebounds, which was yet another subtle way in which Gasol and the Lakers limited the productivity of Howard, the master of the offensive rebound and putback.

Simply put, Pau Gasol was the true beast in the low post. What he did both defensively and offensively in the Finals was not the work of a power forward playing out of position at center. That is the work of an elite NBA center, one of the best in the game.

His toughness has been questioned at times, most loudly after he wilted against the bigger, stronger front line of the Boston Celtics in the Lakers' 2008 Finals collapse. But in 2008-09, he came back stronger, tougher, meaner. He was willing to take a hit, and willing to hit back. He didn't take any flak from anyone, and he didn't need anyone to stand up for him, as he was more than willing to let opposing players know that he wouldn't be trifled with. He went toe-to-toe with players bigger, heavier, and stronger than him, and he consistently came out on top. Quite simply, he worked his ass off in the post.

Most importantly, Pau Gasol figured out that being tough doesn't necessarily mean being a banger. For him, it means being resilient, playing smart, and never giving up. It means using his superior speed, quickness, footwork, and intellect to gain an advantage over his opponents. It means working hard, remaining aggressive, and sometimes demanding the ball. And every now and then, it means getting in his opponents' faces and daring them to try that again. He may have faltered a year ago, but in the 2009 Playoffs, and in the Finals most of all, he figured these things out, and he executed them to perfection.

Prior to the 2009 NBA Playoffs, and the Finals series against Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic, Pau Gasol was known as a good offensive player whose skill set was a perfect fit for the Triangle Offense, an average defender whose length was his primary asset, and a not-so-powerful power forward who was out of place at the center position. Now, it is clear that Gasol's fundamental skills could give the Big Fundamental a run for his money, and he is quickly becoming recognized as an excellent defender and one of the best and most versatile centers in the game, who is also deadly at the power forward position.

Welcome to the big stage, Pau Gasol – and on behalf of all Lakers fans, a huge thank you for putting our team in a position to win, and then deliving in a huge way to help them do it.

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