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No longer a soft touch

Gasol proves he learned lessons

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Any haunting memories of the 2008 Finals may begin to fade for Pau Gasol.

Two years after a “soft’’ tag was attached to Gasol’s play during the series loss to the Celtics, Gasol showed up to the Staples Center last night and pushed for rebounds, worked for shots, and boosted the Lakers to a 102-89 victory in Game 1 of this year’s Finals.

Gasol scored 11 of his 23 points in the first half, helping the Lakers move out to a 50-41 lead at the break. He grabbed 14 rebounds, but eight of those were on the offensive end — matching the Celtics’ total by himself.

“He was more aggressive,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He attacked us. I thought he was the best player on the floor. I thought he made terrific plays, terrific passes, shot when he should shoot . . .

“If you heard for two years what you couldn’t do, you’re probably going to come in and try to prove that, and I thought Gasol proved a lot [last night].’’

Gasol’s matchup with Kevin Garnett in the paint intrigued Lakers coach Phil Jackson. With Garnett’s defensive skills and physical approach, Gasol would be challenged. But last night, Gasol didn’t have much trouble under the basket. Instead, it was Garnett who struggled as he didn’t get his first field goal until there was 4:54 left in the half.

The Gasol that the Celtics saw last night is not the player the Celtics faced in 2008. In that time, the Lakers have won an NBA championship and Gasol has remained an integral part of the game plan.

“What I see from him is just the little actions that represent not-backing-down type of things,’’ said Jackson. “Getting hit, taking the blow, absorbing it, not reacting to it one way or the other with the mentality to look at the referee or wonder about the blow and the legitimacy of it.’’

Gasol, 29, established himself early and continued to be stubborn in the opportunities he allowed. In the third quarter, Gasol’s contributions helped the Lakers keep their distance.

With 5:19 left in the quarter, the Celtics whittled the deficit to single digits (65-56). But on the next possession, Gasol took a pass from Kobe Bryant and worked against Garnett to get the field goal and return the lead to 11.

Everything seemed to be working for the Lakers. They owned the rebounding advantage (42-31) and outscored the Celtics in the paint (48-30). The Lakers also didn’t allow the Celtics any second-chance points while managing 16 themselves.

One of the biggest changes for Gasol was the presence of Andrew Bynum, who was injured in 2008. Bynum has been hampered by a knee injury this year but still played 28 minutes last night, getting six rebounds and 10 points.

“It was great to have Andrew,’’ Gasol said. “He was a big factor and really contributed in different ways. We want to see him as much as possible out there.’’

Although much of the postgame talk was aimed toward his success, Gasol said he was not focused on proving anything to the Celtics.

“For me it was more to play hard, be aggressive, help as much as possible out there, and win the first game. That was my mind-set,’’ Gasol said.

“Our goal is to win the championship, not just the first game.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at the mwalker@globe.com.

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