Kyle Kuzma: consider yourself validated.
“I wish we could get a little bit more time out there with Marc,” Kuzma said. “That’d be something that would be pretty good for us, for sure.”
Gasol started the first 35 games of the season for L.A. Since Andre Drummond debuted, Gasol has been inactive for eight and has largely been a third-stringer.
On Tuesday, Kuzma’s wish was granted — even if it took foul trouble to get there.
In Monday’s 93-89 win over MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic and the red-hot Denver Nuggets (43-22) at Staples Center, the reeling Lakers (37-28) momentarily got their swagger back — especially on defense.
Anthony Davis (25 points) looked like an explosive two-way All-Star for the first time since returning from injury. There were Wes Matthews arrows and raucous, nonstop cheerleading from the bench. In general, the energy was starkly different than the past few games, and for the first time in a while, the Lakers actually looked like they were having fun hooping.
“Tonight we played Laker basketball,” Davis said. “We did everything that Laker basketball consists of. … It was good to see us play our style of basketball tonight and we just got to feed off this win.”
The game MVP and undeniable spark plug for the Lakers? 24 hours after Kuzma’s words, it was the 36-year-old backup center.
Andre Drummond — who took Gasol’s spot in the rotation upon signing — picked up his fourth foul midway through the second quarter, causing Vogel to heed Kuzma’s advice and sub in the Big Spaniard.
Gasol immediately energized the Lakers group and sparked a run at the end of the first half. He played 13 straight minutes in the second half, punctuated by an 8-2 run from him and Matthews — another proud veteran who has been largely outside the rotation — helping the Lakers amass a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Then, Denver pounced as soon as Gasol was removed in favor of Drummond. The Nuggets embarked on a furious 14-2 run before Gasol was reinserted and the Lakers hung tight to win.
Drummond finished with four points and five fouls for a team-worst minus-11 in 22 minutes. His defense was abysmal and he failed to grab a rebound for the first time in a game since February 2013. It was his worst performance as a Laker.
Gasol led L.A. with a plus-17 in 17 minutes, posting 10 points and seven boards on 3-of-4 from deep. More importantly, he was the far better defender of Jokic, who needed 28 shots to score 32 points. Something to keep in mind for the playoffs.
“I think we all forgot who Marc Gasol is,” Jokic said postgame. “The guy who won two Defensive Players of the Year.” (Gasol has one DPOY, in 2012-13, but point taken).
Vogel said afterward that he had intended to use Gasol as the secondary option to check Jokic, while allowing Montrezl Harrell to feast on Joker-less second units. According to Vogel, a change to the Nuggets’ rotation created by Paul Millsap’s absence kept Gasol sidelined until Drummond’s fourth personal forced his hand. We’ll take his word for it, I guess.
Gasol’s impact shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Like a true pro, he has stayed more than ready since Drummond came aboard. In fact, he has played more aggressively than he did before and has offered a welcome change of pace when he’s subbed in relief.
He shot a blistering 64.7% from deep across eight appearances in April and has hit 3-of-4 in May. Plus, anyone with working eyeballs can see the uplift his friendly face and passing provide whenever he enters the game these days.
“Marc Gasol is a winner,” Vogel said postgame. “He understands what it takes to win at a high level.”
For business reasons, Drummond is going to remain the starter, unless he continues playing as poorly as he did on Monday. Simply put, it was part of the agreement when he was signed. To be fair, Drummond has been a net neutral in a Lakers uniform, though it’s hard to truly evaluate his fit without more reps alongside LeBron, AD, and Dennis Schröder — something that may not happen until the playoffs.
On paper, at least, Gasol is the more seamless fit. Drummond clogs the lane and forces Davis outside, while Gasol (who is even bigger than the Penguin) encourages better positioning, spacing, and activity. On the other hand, he can’t rebound or roll like Drummond.
“There’s some things that they do that’s impossible for me to do,” Gasol said about his fellow Lakers bigs. “And there’s things I do that are a little bit different.”
The Lakers may need Gasol for certain playoff matchups, including against Joker. Perhaps that has been the intention all along. But for now, as they search for cohesion, wins, and rapid solutions to a long list of issues, the Lakers need as much familiarity and sound, team-first basketball as they can get. As with Monday’s game, whatever plans Vogel may have had for Gasol going forward should be altered by the team’s suddenly dire circumstances.
For as much flak as Gasol took on #LakersTwitter throughout the first few months of the season, the Lakers thrived with him on the court (usually alongside LeBron), and he’s still fourth on the team in total plus/minus. Even though he’s a first-year Laker, Gasol represents a type of offensive flow and connectivity that Kuzma and the team have been longing for in recent weeks as players have been signed, injured, placed in health and safety protocols, and gone in and out of the rotation. Improbably, Gasol has rapidly become the hipster darling of the Lakers Twitterverse.
Gasol, who was openly displeased about his demotion, wasn’t looking for individual credit after his stellar performance Monday, especially compared with Drummond’s rough outing. Rather, he aimed to keep the focus on the team going forward.
Gasol said that while he didn’t hear Kuzma publicly advocate for him getting minutes, the forward expressed the same sentiments privately. Gasol said he told Kuzma that he’s “fine” doing whatever the team needs. In fact, he compared his newfound role with the Lakers to Harvey Keitel’s memorable fixer in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
“I told him, ‘I’m fine on that Mr. Wolf role,'” Gasol said. “You just come in whenever things don’t go great and kind of help everyone. I accepted it, I’ll try to do as best as possible for that role.”
The Lakers can continue starting Drummond, but Vogel should look for Mr. Wolf more as the team tries to clean up their act. It shouldn’t take foul trouble to get him on the court.