Pau Gasol’s return to Barcelona may have been a marriage of convenience but he showed against Olimpia Milano that he didn’t sign just to get in shape. He is home to win. Emmet Ryan on how Pau showed he’d shed his rust when Barcelona really needed it
Let’s not pretend Pau Gasol plans to play beyond this summer. He was without a team in the NBA, had been dealing with a long break since he last played serious basketball, and is old by basketball standards. Dude is 41 this summer, he’s one of the few ballers still going literally older than me. Pau however has a goal in Tokyo. To be able to deliver for Spain in the Olympics and potentially guide them to a first gold, having won silver twice and bronze once, he needed to be in shape. In Cologne, when Barcelona needed a fit and healthy Pau, they got more than a man looking towards the summer.
Gasol’s run with Barcelona through the tail end of Euroleague’s regular season and the playoff series against Zenit St Petersburg didn’t exactly scream of explosiveness. He looked like what he was, a middle aged man who hadn’t played a serious minute in a long time. Those minutes however got him up to speed and, once the series with Zenit was over, he had two weeks to take on board what he’d seen an let his body recover.
In his opening spell against Milano on Friday, we saw the impact. Economical, explosive, excellence. 7 points from three shots, plus the one board and hardly another touch in 4 minutes on the floor. This was an up tempo game but Pau was fine with that. He came in middle of the frame and was a different player to the one who had been a step or three off where he needed to be. The basketball mind was always there, it never left, but he needed to process where he is now. To drain every drop of basketball left in him, he needed to make the calculations. In Cologne, the answers were coming.
Pau has been playing old for a long time. His MVP display in Eurobasket 2015 was that of a man trying to get every remaining drop out of him. His display in those semi-finals against France remains one of the most courageous displays I’ve ever seen. Everything about that performance screamed of it being a tee up to his last hurrah with Spain being in Rio a year later and maybe a year or two more in total.
Yet here we are, almost six years from those extraordinary displays in Lille. Pau is still playing old but it’s refinement rather than guts firing him here. This was only Gasol’s second trip to the Final Four, albeit with a hell of a NBA career in between, and to win this with his boyhood club means everything to him.
Defensively, it wasn’t entirely there. Both Kyle Hines and Kevin Punter outwitted him a little too easily. The odd debate between European and American eyes on Pau has been his work defensively. He wasn’t seen as a turnstile in the NBA but certainly wasn’t highly rated in that regard either. Over here, more with FIBA ball in his prime, he defended well although that aspect to the debate is as much a symptom of the subtle stylistic differences in the game.
It wasn’t perfect but Barcelona rarely have been this year, despite holding the best record in the regular season. A complete 40 minutes from them was rare. This time, the dip was ugly at a bad but salvagable time. Milano made a 17 point turnaround from the half to lead by 8 late in the third while both Alex Abrines and Cory Higgins were forced to sit on 4 fouls. The Blaugrana had narrowed to 4 by the end of the frame and were back in front early in the fourth. Pau had turned cheerleader, his burgundy t-shirt on over his jersey roaring on as a turnover was forced.
Pau stayed sat as it turned into an extraordinarily dramatic game. Had Milan won, the key moment would arguably have been when Ettore Messina slapped Kevin Punter’s ass to fire up his side. Punter had a chance for a three to essentially win it. That rimmed out and seconds later, Higgins made a cold blooded long two to put Barcelona in their first championship game since 2010. It’s also the first championship game ever for Gasol. He gets a chance to add to his legacy on Sunday.