Gasol may be surprising defensive obstacle for Howard in NBA Finals
Dwight Howard dominated Andrew Bynum in two previous games
Pau Gasol will likely spend a lot of time defending Howard in the Finals
Gasol's offensive skills will not allow Howard to rest on defensive end
The Lakers have a problem. A 6-foot-11, 265-pound problem, to be exact. His name is Dwight Howard and he is the one Magic player for whom the Lakers aren't sure they have an answer.
"We are a long team," coach Phil Jackson told reporters after a pre-Finals practice. "We have lengthy defenders to deal with [Hedo] Turkoglu and [Rashard] Lewis. But I don't know who can guard this big kid if he's as physical as he is. Howard's just a real, real powerhouse in there inside."
The reason for Jackson's pessimism is twofold. First, the Lakers would seem to have the perfect foil for Howard in Andrew Bynum. The 7-foot-, 285-pound center possesses many of the same strengths as Boston center Kendrick Perkins, who has been the most effective roadblock on Howard's path to the rim this postseason. Like Perkins, Bynum is long, physically strong and agile.
But Bynum was ineffective against Orlando in the regular season, averaging 8.5 points and only two rebounds in 22.5 minutes in two Lakers losses. In fact, Howard exploited him, averaging 21.5 points to go with 16.5 rebounds. And that was when Bynum was healthy. The four-year veteran has been slow to recover from a January knee injury, and Jackson has said Bynum is only effective in four- or five-minute stretches before he needs to come out.
Second, after watching Cleveland's Anderson Varejao awkwardly chase Lewis around the perimeter during the Eastern Conference finals, Jackson likely won't commit too many minutes to Pau Gasol at power forward, not when the rangy Lamar Odom is available to man the position. The Lakers' best frontcourt, both offensively and defensively, is with Odom and Gasol paired together.
That leaves Gasol to guard Howard. And that sound you hear echoing from Memphis to L.A. is "yikes."
"He's a unique kind of player," Gasol said of Howard. "I don't think there have been many players like him because of his physical gifts and attributes."
Gasol is not regarded as a strong defender. Western Conference big men routinely feasted on him during his final three seasons with the Grizzlies, with Amar'e Stoudemire (30.3 points and 10 rebounds, 69 percent shooting), Dirk Nowitzki (26.6, 9.7, 48.2 percent) and Tim Duncan (19.6, 12.1, 56 percent) leading the way.
But freed from the pressures of being the franchise player in Memphis, Gasol has shown some improvement on defense. After averaging 16 points against Dallas in the second round, Nuggets center Nenę was limited to 9.8 points in the conference finals. Some of that credit belongs to Gasol, who shifted to center whenever Bynum came out of the game.
Based on the numbers, center actually is Gasol's most effective position. In 48 games as a power forward this season, Gasol averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds; as a center, those numbers spiked to 20.8 points and 10.3 boards.
And in Gasol's case, offense may help his defense. In the Magic's march to the Finals, Howard hasn't had to be much of a one-on-one defender. Perkins and Philadelphia's Samuel Dalembert are limited offensively, and Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas was strictly a perimeter player in the East finals. As a result, Howard has been free to roam on the defensive end, conserving valuable energy to remain active on offense.
He won't have that option against Gasol. One of the most skilled post players in the league, Gasol will force Howard to defend him on every possession. While Gasol is a finesse player, he has a knack for drawing fouls around the rim and is a terrific offensive rebounder (3.2 per game in the postseason).
"What Cleveland didn't have, I think, is an inside presence that could put them in jeopardy and give [the Cavs] that balance," Gasol said. "They didn't have that balance of an inside and outside game. We do have that, and I think we will be a tougher matchup."
If Gasol is right, that doesn't bode well for a Magic team that hopes the center matchup is one it can dominate.
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