Credit Howard for trying to mix it up in Game 2. He turned and fired a face-up jumper. (Bad idea; it clanked off the back of the rim.) He passed out and reposted. (Better idea, but he still missed a contested jump hook.) And he held the ball, seeking open shooters to feed. (Great idea; he had four assists and helped free up forward Rashard Lewis for 34 points.) Still, if the Magic is to have a chance in this series, he'll have to be more prolific as a scorer, and he knows it, vowing after Game 2 to "do his homework."
As Howard deals with a defense geared to stop him, Gasol has the luxury of exploiting the cracks in a defense geared to stop his teammate. (And no, we speak not of Sasha Vujacic.) Gasol's game is quiet—it's always a mild surprise to look at the stat sheet and see he had 24 points and 10 rebounds, as he did in Game 2—but as refined as that of any big man. He can shoot hooks and runners with either hand, is widely considered the best-passing big man in the league, and as Odom says, "His hand-eye coordination is remarkable for someone that size. He never drops the ball."
If Gasol appears to at times play like an oversized point guard, it's because he was one until he was 13. Upon arriving in the NBA from his native Spain eight years ago, however, Gasol was promptly shuttled into the post, where American coaches believe 7-footers belong. Still, he has retained his playmaking touch. This provides a dilemma for Orlando; if it double-teams Bryant and he gets the ball to Gasol, he can essentially direct a four-on-three. "And nine times out of 10 he's going to make the right play in that situation," says Malone.
The accepted best strategy against Gasol, then, is to play off him on the perimeter and concede the jump shot, as the Rockets did in the Western Conference semifinals. (Houston's stats gurus determined that the most inefficient aspect of the Lakers' offense was a Gasol jumper, and indeed for the season he shot 40.6% from 17 feet out to the three-point line, according to Synergy Sports Technology.) The Magic followed suit, and so, time and again in Games 1 and 2, Gasol had open 17-footers. And time and again he knocked them down, an improvement he credits to his exaggerated follow-through, in which his right arm resembles a swan's neck after each release. "I'm anticipating that I'm going to have five looks to make that shot every game, and it's in my hands to do it," he says. "When I fall back instead of following through, that's when I tend to miss."
Along with upgrading his jump shot, Gasol is also slowly shedding a reputation for being soft. (Although it would be a stretch to call him hard now; less pliable is about right.) Thanks to his improved regimen with weights this season—which is to say, he now lifts them—Gasol has been more physical, especially during the playoffs. In the conference finals he traded body blows with Nuggets center Nenê and through two games had done a commendable job of guarding Howard one-on-one in the Finals. Shaw notes how Gasol is now "absorbing that lowered shoulder from Dwight, which is crucial." Bryant has noticed too, saying, "He's able to take more contact on defense. He's able to hold his position a lot more."
In the event that Gasol doesn't hold position, no doubt Bryant will be sure to let him know—in Spanish, if he prefers, as Bryant often switches to Gasol's native tongue—for the star guard has been as vocal as ever in these Finals, whether it is encouraging, leading or berating. Much has been made of Bryant's seriousness of purpose this postseason, of how he has "the smell," as coach Phil Jackson puts it. And indeed it has been fascinating to watch him, whether he is doing something sublime (like banking in a hanging and-one over Howard in Game 1) or inexcusable (like going one-on-four at the end of regulation in Game 2 while Ariza stood all alone on the three-point line, waving his arms as if trying to flag down a rescue plane).
So watch Kobe at all times if you must, and granted it's hard not to, but also keep an eye out for the big lugs in the middle. After all, they'll only decide the NBA championship.
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Get grades on both teams after each game from Arash Markazi at SI.com/bonus