Lakers’ Pau Gasol is steady as he goes ... away?
Staples Center held Pau Gasol in a warm embrace late in the fourth quarter Sunday, as fans stood to applaud when he left a game that had long been lost.
Kobe Bryant then rose from his seat behind the Lakers’ bench to tenderly place two hands on his teammate’s shoulders.
It was gracias, Gasol.
It also felt very much like adios.
The power forward who prompted Lamar Odom to exclaim, “The Beatles are back, baby!” on the day the Lakers acquired Gasol in February 2008 probably has played his last game as part of a not-so-Fab-Four.
He stayed classy throughout the Lakers’ season-ending 103-82 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of their Western Conference first-round series, remaining on the court to congratulate conquerors who had swept him out of the playoffs.
The Spurs are moving on. Gasol could be too.
The franchise that reveled in the two titles the 7-foot Spaniard helped win must decide whether to discard him like year-old confetti, most likely via the amnesty clause.
Shedding Gasol and the luxury taxes associated with the $19.3 million he is owed over the final season of his contract could save the Lakers about $50 million, depending on how much the team spends on replacing him.
If Dwight Howard signs a five-year contract as expected and stays, Gasol probably goes in a sad testament to the realities of the new collective-bargaining agreement. The Lakers also could trade Gasol in an attempt to get younger and cheaper.
“We have plenty of pieces,” said Gasol, who had 16 points and eight rebounds Sunday, “but it’s up to management and ownership to decide what pieces to keep, what pieces to change. I would like to be a part of another championship team here, but it’s not totally up to me. There’s definitely potential for this team.”
Gasol only got a chance to show that potential late in a season that was marred by injuries and a seven-game detour to the Lakers’ bench.
He averaged career lows in points (13.7) and field-goal percentage (.466) while averaging his fewest rebounds (8.6) since his first Lakers season. He was limited to 49 games, the lowest total of his career, because of a torn plantar fascia, knee tendinitis and a concussion.
Gasol offered a strong counterpunch over the final seven regular-season games, averaging 18 points and 12.4 rebounds. He had three triple-doubles over a six-game span, including Game 3 against the Spurs.
“He’s in a different system, he’s asked to do different things, he’s as skilled as there are big men out there,” San Antonio forward Tim Duncan said. “He can do just about everything. … I don’t see why he doesn’t have many years left in him.”
Gasol was the only Lakers big man of note left standing Sunday after Howard received his second technical foul and was ejected with 9:51 left in the third quarter for complaining about being constantly clobbered by the Spurs.
Already missing Bryant, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, the Lakers were so adrift at that point they should have put on the “Los Lakers” jerseys and added a “t” to the first word.
Yet Gasol remained reasonable as always, walking over to official Rodney Mott and telling him Howard deserved a warning before his ejection.
It was a steadying voice the Lakers wish they had heard more of this season. Gasol conceded he had largely placed himself on mute until he became more comfortable and assertive in the final weeks.
“It’s been difficult this season for me to be more vocal,” he said, “because my role on the team has been third, fourth option, fifth option, a lot of the time and even coming off the bench for a while. So it was hard for me to be that vocal leader and have that sense of responsibility on the team.”
The Lakers’ 28-12 finish to the regular season gives some hope that this team could win a title if it returns mostly intact.
The certainty of what another $100-million payroll would do to the Lakers’ bottom line virtually ensures it won’t.
“I think we can definitely get it done,” Gasol said, “but I would be pretty surprised if there were no changes whatsoever. I would be surprised if that happens. So we’ll see.”
What the Lakers were watching Sunday was most likely a farewell.
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