- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - One more victory in the NBA finals and maybe Pau Gasol can finally shed the ‘soft’ label.

He’s already won over a former critic: his coach.

Phil Jackson wasn’t sure Gasol was the kind of player who could help him win a championship, and he couldn’t have been convinced after the way the Spaniard played in last year’s finals.

Gasol and fellow forward Lamar Odom have rebounded from their uneven performances in that series, a major reason the Los Angeles Lakers have a 3-1 lead over the Orlando Magic and a chance to wrap up a 15th championship Sunday.

Looking for an inside presence to complement Kobe Bryant’s scoring, Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak began considering Gasol, who was frustrated by the losing in Memphis and wanted a trade. Jackson said they discussed a trade during the 2006-07 season, but he wasn’t sold on Gasol.

“I was dubious, although I really admired Pau’s capabilities and ability,” Jackson said Saturday. “I thought maybe he didn’t have the physical strength and stamina to play against the kind of players that here he is playing against, the (Kevin) Garnetts, obviously (Dwight) Howards, and he’s shown me to be wrong.”

Not at first.

Gasol averaged 14.7 points and 10.2 rebounds, and Odom chipped in 13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in last year’s finals, all decent numbers. But the Lakers’ frontcourt appeared overwhelmed by Garnett and the more physical Boston frontline in the six-game loss.

“Pau and Lamar had a difficult time last year against Boston because they had not ever experienced that type of intensity and it was something they were still learning, but I’m sure they’ve learned their lessons well,” Lakers special assistant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “If you look at it now this year, they understand what’s happening and how to cope with various situations.”

Gasol has increased his scoring to 19.8 points per game against Orlando, and showed a toughness he’s been accused of lacking. He got right in Mickael Pietrus’ face after the Magic guard shoved him in the back late in Game 4, and he’s often had to defend the much stronger Howard because of center Andrew Bynum’s frequent foul trouble.

Odom rejects the notion that Gasol is simply a finesse player, and doesn’t believe either of them played poorly against the Celtics.

“It’s funny too, especially with Pau that was the whole thing, he wasn’t tough enough,” Odom said. “You watch the tape possession by possession, he was kicking (butt).”

It certainly didn’t seem that way, especially being matched against the demonstrative and intimidating Garnett, who can look like a bully. Gasol appears placid, sometimes even passive, and that, along with the stigma often attributed to European players, is where he gets the finesse tag.

“I think I played pretty tough throughout the playoffs,” Gasol said earlier in this series. “We had a couple games that we just couldn’t or didn’t compete as hard as Boston did, and we got labeled as being soft, a soft team. Oh well, right?”

Gasol has played his best in the most crucial moments of this series. He scored seven points in overtime of the Lakers’ Game 2 victory, then had five in the extra 5 minutes of their 99-91 win Thursday night.

Odom’s stats are down slightly from the 2008 finals, but he said his numbers aren’t as important to the Lakers, who have more options this season with Bynum, who missed the 2008 postseason, and Trevor Ariza, who was sidelined for most of it.

Los Angeles did need stronger interior play and is getting it. Gasol and Odom are both shooting better than 58 percent in the series, and they have helped the Lakers outrebound the Magic by one through four games.

“Kobe can’t do it all every night and they understand that,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “and they’ve understood and reacted the way they need to to be successful.”

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