Gasol's Game 4 dispels 'soft' label

ORLANDO, Fla. -- These are and always will be Kobe Bryant's Finals. But there's a subplot here that's not getting nearly enough attention: the redemption of Pau Gasol.

In last year's Finals loss to Boston, Gasol (and to a lesser extent, Lamar Odom) became a magnet for criticism after the physical Celtics frontcourt overpowered him. In six games against Boston he averaged a modest 14.7 points per game while frequently finding himself pushed under the basket by the likes of Kendrick Perkins. He was also the main defensive protagonist in a particularly horrific Game 2 play in which Boston's Leon Powe dribbled the length of the court and dunked off an inbounds pass.

Because of the Lakers' Finals defeats, fans across the country questioned Gasol's mettle, labeling him with the dreaded "S" word -- soft. If you don't believe me, Google "Pau Gasol toughness" sometime. You won't find a lot of complimentary material.

Yet Thursday night, in the most important game of this season's Finals, there was Gasol doing all the little things. No, he didn't have a dominating game statistically, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds in 49 minutes. But at every key juncture, he was displaying a spine that was MIA a year ago.

Gasol overcame two early fouls to do yeoman's work defending Orlando's Dwight Howard, the type of physical beast who was supposed to overpower Mr. Softie. Using his quickness to front the post, Gasol has denied catches throughout the series. Using his footwork after the catch, he has repeatedly put himself in Howard's way. Yes, he had some double-team help; everybody does. But Gasol was a major factor in Howard's committing seven turnovers. Even the three-second violations were partly his doing, as he aggressively denied the initial entry pass.