Lakers’ Pau Gasol plays through the doubts

After a well-placed pass from Kobe Bryant slipped out of his hands, Pau Gasol picked up the basketball and smacked it against his palms.

A few moments after Steve Blake threw an unreachable lob over his head, the Lakers power forward slumped over on the bench on the next timeout.

When former teammate and Phoenix guard Shannon Brown sneaked around him for a put-back dunk that cut the Lakers’ lead to five points with 4:28 remaining, Gasol stared into the distance.


Plenty of images defined Gasol’s frustration on a night the Lakers exuded positive energy in their 111-99 victory Friday night over the Suns. Bryant’s 36 points on 14-of-25 shooting came after a seven-game slump during which he shot only 37% from the field. Andrew Bynum’s 17 points on seven-of-13 shooting showcased his continual growth in passing and re-posting out of double teams. The reserve unit’s 34 points suggested it might finally lose the distinction as one of the NBA’s least effective benches.

As for Gasol, his 10 points on only four-of-13 shooting conveyed something to Bryant beyond the 7-footer having a bad game. Bryant attributed Gasol’s effort to “an emotional couple of days for him” as reports circulated this week the Lakers might trade him before the March 15 deadline. An online report mentioned that the Minnesota Timberwolves offered rookie Derrick Williams and draft picks for Gasol.

“Personally I don’t understand that crap,” Bryant said of trade rumors. “But it is what it is. It’s important for him to know we support him. I support him especially. I just want him to go out there and play hard and do what he does best for us.”

Gasol hardly offered that against Phoenix.

Suns center Marcin Gortat swatted away Gasol’s hook shot in the third quarter. In the same quarter, Suns forward Channing Frye blocked Gasol’s layup. Though he compensated for his shooting struggles with 13 rebounds, Gasol missed three put-backs.

Gasol has acknowledged in recent days that he remains uncertain the Lakers will keep him. He admitted feeling frustrated over what he described as an “erratic night.” Yet Gasol maintained that his poor play had nothing to do with his standing with the Lakers.

“At times it crosses your mind, but not exactly when you’re playing,” Gasol said. “Obviously when you’re playing, you’re focused and you try to do the best that you can. It’s something you have to shake off regardless at any time.”

Lakers Coach Mike Brown said he emphasized that point in a pregame meeting, telling the players “we need to see if we’re tough enough mentally to withstand noise that’s outside our locker room.”

Gasol has heard plenty of it.

The Lakers originally tried trading him before training camp in a three-team deal that would’ve sent Gasol to the Houston Rockets, Lamar Odom to the New Orleans Hornets and brought Chris Paul to the Lakers. Once NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the trade for “basketball reasons,” Gasol repeatedly stressed his desire to remain a Laker.

Although he still wears a purple and golf uniform, Gasol’s role has fluctuated. Bryant’s high-scoring rate and Bynum’s increased aggressiveness moved Gasol into a facilitating role. His 16.1 scoring average on 50.2% shooting and 9.8 rebounds in January reflected a dropoff compared to his 18.8 points, 52.9% shooting and 10.2 rebounds he averaged last season. Still, Gasol improved those numbers in February, posting 18.6 points on 46.8% shooting and 14 rebounds.

“He’s going to be there when we need him,” Bynum said. “I don’t worry at all about him. He’s a top class player in the world.”

But Gasol sure didn’t look like one against Phoenix.

“Obviously I’m not too glad I was missing some looks and not capitalizing on some opportunities that I had,” he said. “When you’re going through it, you’re going through it. There’s not much you can do about it. Just continue to play and make plays.”

Gasol will find out in a little less than a month whether he will still make those plays with the Lakers.