Gasol's L.A. debut with Lakers a dandy

Three weeks ago, the Lakers left town with a gaping hole in their lineup and gnawing doubts about their short-term future.

Nine games and one astonishing trade later, they returned to Staples Center on Tuesday with a 7-foot souvenir named Pau Gasol and an air of invincibility.

Gasol, stolen from Memphis on Feb. 1, made his Los Angeles debut a night to remember.

Greeted with a roar during the pregame introductions and saluted during timeouts by fans waving the red and yellow flag of his native Spain, Gasol applied an emphatic flourish to the can-you-top-this trades that have made the Western Conference scaringly good.

Gasol scored 23 points in the Lakers' 122-93 destruction of the Atlanta Hawks, escalating the playoff-level buzz that electrified the building before he put on a home jersey for the first time.

"Once I jump out on the floor I let things flow and I've got the concept of the offense more or less," said Gasol, who also had six rebounds and two assists. "I'm still working on details and options and wrinkles here and there."

He showed he can dunk the ball, spinning around Zaza Pachulia for a right-handed slam that gave the Lakers an 18-12 lead with 4 minutes 52 seconds left in the first quarter.

He showed he could dish the ball, feeding Vladimir Radmanovic for a three-point shot to fuel a 13-0 run that ended the first quarter.

He made nine of 10 free throws, drawing cheers for his classic form and dead-on accuracy -- and for so forcefully plugging a hole that threatened to swallow the Lakers' season after center Andrew Bynum was felled by a knee injury Jan. 13.

The Lakers had lost four of five games before they acquired Gasol to prop them up in the post and provide offensive options.

They're 6-1 with him in their lineup and have won five straight games -- and eight of nine -- to move to within a game of the Phoenix Suns for the Pacific Division lead.

Take that, Phoenix, which will unleash its own newcomer -- a guy named Shaquille O'Neal -- against the Lakers tonight when the teams play at USAirways Arena.

Gasol has averaged 20.9 points with his new team, making a near-seamless adjustment from the woeful Grizzlies to the title-contending Lakers. He acknowledged he has been surprised by the smoothness of his transition.

"It's been hard to change the mind-set and everything around me, but at the same time it's been easy because of the excitement and the happiness that it created," he said. "It's very special, and the desire that I have for doing well and helping this team out as much as possible, it helps things out a lot."

He's living in a hotel while he hunts for a new house, but he has clearly found a home with the Lakers.

He did not have to be told that much more will be expected of him and his team here than was demanded in Memphis, where he did not win a playoff game in three appearances with the Grizzlies.

Gasol, 27, says he welcomes the chance to rise to another level. On a night like Tuesday, it was easy to see how that could be possible.

And just think of what could happen when Bynum returns and the Lakers can put such size, presence and scoring skill down low.

"It's great. It's a great situation for me to be involved and we're expected to win every night now and it's something wonderful," Gasol said, his English accented by an appealing lilt.

"I think it gives you that extra energy that in this league you need to play every night. I think it's lovely and it's going to get a little more pressure as the games go by, but I'm excited about it. I'm looking forward to it. Right now, I'm just trying to take it one game at a time and just keep continue to winning and getting better."

Gasol is a bright guy who adds several languages to the mini-United Nations that is the Lakers' locker room. He said he always enjoyed visiting Los Angeles, intrigued by the city's richness and the Lakers' history.

Now, he can contribute to both.

"It's definitely a special, unique city," he said. "You can breathe a little different flavor here in this city, a lot of glamour and class and there's celebrities and stuff.

"There's definitely a big fan base that is fully with the Lakers because of the tradition and the success that's been here. It's been amazing."

Seeing the championship banners above the court -- and seeing the championship-caliber team around him -- has inspired him.

"You want to do well," he said. "You want to play well because it's a great scenario to do well."

His performance Tuesday was a great start, even if a fan's hand-lettered sign proclaiming "Welcome to Gasollywood" went a tad overboard.

"I felt really good about it," he said of his home debut. "I was excited and honored to be here and have these fans and have these teammates. It's a pretty big deal for me."

As he spoke, he was surrounded by waves of reporters eager to record his thoughts. "That means things are going well," he said, smiling.

Better than anyone could have imagined before the Lakers last played here.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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