LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18: Pau Gasol #16 and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate after a play in the fourth quarter during the game against the Orlando Magic on January 18, 2010 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Kobe will be Kobe, but Gasol has the key roles at both ends.
For the Lakers, it's one of two things that win them the playoff series: The other team can't match up with Kobe Bryant, or they can't match up with the big Lakers front line.
In the case of Utah, they couldn't match up with either.
The Suns are a different animal, though -- they don't care about matchups; they dare you to match up with them. They are going to run; they are going to score. They dare you to keep up. It's not the same seven-seconds-or-less Suns of three years ago (when they were knocking the Lakers out of the playoffs). They are more 12-seconds-or-less, a slightly slower but no less effective version of the same thing.
Three years ago, the Lakers didn't have the tools to beat them. Now they do -- Pau Gasol. With an assist from Lamar Odom.
Like Utah, Phoenix has nobody who can match up with Gasol on the offensive end. The very athletic but still shorter Amare Stoudemire will draw the assignment. And the Lakers need to use Gasol and Odom to attack him on offense for two reasons. One, he can't be beating everybody down the floor on the fast break if he has to stay under the basket to fight for rebounds. Second, he'll pick up fouls and have to sit down.
But where Gasol will have the most impact is on defense.
The Suns still run the single deadliest play in the NBA -- the Steve Nash, Stoudemire pick-and-roll. It's more a force of nature than a play. Nash can drive and score, shoot the jumper or make any pass you can imagine. Amare rolls to the basket better than any player in the league, but he can also stop and pop and nail the jumper. Simply, there are so many variables the play is nearly impossible to defend.
Gasol is the Lakers best pick-and-roll defender. He's one of the best big men in the league at it. He has the length to step out and slow Nash's drive, then recover on to Stoudemire. His long arms take away passing lanes. His basketball IQ almost always tells him the right play to make. Against him, Stoudemire takes more jump shots, and while he can make those, he doesn't make them as often as dunks.
Odom will be put to the same tests, and has many of the same physical attributes. He can and has made the same plays, not as consistently as Gasol but he makes them. In a back-up role, his ability to come in off the bench and make plays will disrupt the Suns bench (which has played brilliantly in the playoffs).
It's the key to the Lakers winning -- the Lakers are bigger and longer. Get their points inside, attack going for offensive rebounds, control the tempo of the game that way and slow the Suns.
The Lakers can do it. Gasol has done it before.