Lakers’ Pau Gasol shows he can play the tough guy


Pau Gasol won’t ever be confused with Kurt Rambis or Rick Mahorn, but, yes, that was him in the middle of an on-court storm in Phoenix the other night.

Hardly an enforcer, the finesse Lakers forward was responding to what was asked of him — standing strong in the paint on defense while trying to reduce the number of lay-ups and dunks by opposing big men.

Gasol already had been beat for a three-point play in the game by Amare Stoudemire, arriving too late to stop a lay-up and then sending the Suns forward to the foul line, so Gasol made sure that another Suns post player, Louis Amundson, wouldn’t get an easy look on a fourth-quarter drive to the basket.

Gasol smacked Amundson in the head while trying to block his shot, Suns Coach Alvin Gentry was kicked out of the game while arguing for a flagrant foul, and Gasol was commended by Kobe Bryant for “just playing hard” after the Lakers’ 102-96 victory.

Two days later, Gasol’s play still was being discussed when the Lakers returned to practice after having Saturday off.

“We really asked him to be firm,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Sunday. “We have not asked him to give flagrant fouls at all but we’re asking him not to give up three-point plays. We’re asking him to be very physical when the time comes.

“I don’t know if that’s having a play in this or not but I don’t think it’ll really change the demeanor of him. He means well and he’s a solid, kind of friendly, guy. We’re just asking him that when you have to give a foul, give a hard foul.”

As if to demonstrate he’s not an ogre, Gasol approached reporters after practice and smiled broadly. He wanted everyone to see that his braces had been removed after 2 1/2 years on his upper and lower teeth.

“Hopefully now I won’t get popped in the mouth and lose a couple of teeth,” he said.

When the conversation turned more serious, Gasol said he wasn’t trying to hurt Amundson.

“We have to make sure that we don’t give any ‘and-ones’ up and just be a little tougher in the lane. It was an accident that my arm got to his face,” Gasol said. “In seeing the replay, they could have called it a flagrant.”

Break time?

In the muddled month of March, the Lakers now get a minor break in the schedule.

It won’t be delivered in down time but rather downtrodden opponents, the Lakers’ next four games coming against Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota and Washington. Combined record: 75-186.

The Kings, Warriors and Timberwolves represent the bottom three teams in the Western Conference. Washington has the third-worst record in the East.

This certainly isn’t Cleveland, Denver, Dallas and Orlando.

The Lakers are 7-0 against their next four opponents, but the Warriors and Kings “relish every game against us . . . and we know what that means,” Jackson said.

Translation: the Lakers can’t get too giddy, especially since their last game against Sacramento required Bryant’s three-pointer at the buzzer for a 109-108 victory.

After this four-game stretch, the Lakers have a five-game trip that will quickly welcome them back to reality: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta.

On the other hand, they’re feeling more secure after winning in Phoenix to snap a four-game road losing streak.

“I think that win helps us,” forward Ron Artest said. “It gives us confidence that we can win on the road, which we know we can — we’re good enough but for some reason we just haven’t played the right way.

“I think we’re over the hump . . .brighter days ahead for the Lakers right now.”