DENVER — For a year he's taken the high road, staying above the mess that had become his Lakers career, refusing to indulge in the finger-pointing and pity that collected around his feet like piling garbage.
He was blamed for last year's playoff loss, yet he didn't blame back. He was traded, then the trade was nullified, yet a smile, however forced, remained. He never whined. He never moped. He began this postseason as a third option in an offense that he once helped dominate, but he still had not griped, refusing to reveal anything that would let us know exactly how he was feeling.
Until Sunday night, when the Lakers, the Denver Nuggets, and one dazed Danilo Gallinari found out.
FOR THE RECORD:
Plaschke Lakers-Nuggets: In Bill Plaschke's column in the May 7 sports section, the game statistics for Lakers forward Pau Gasol were incorrect. Gasol finished Game 4 with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists. —
As if unleashing a dozen months of frustration, Pau Gasol set a Pikes Peak-sized pick on Gallinari in the final minute of a tie score here, knocking him flat with his left elbow. While Gallinari was writhing on the floor in either pain or dramatics, Gasol was calmly throwing a pass to Ramon Sessions, who sank the eventual game-winning three-pointer in the Lakers' 92-88 victory.
FOR THE RECORD:
Lakers-Nuggets: In the May 7 sports section, the game statistics for Lakers forward Pau Gasol were incorrect. Gasol finished the game with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Yeah, he knocked the Nuggets out of the guy, and probably the Nuggets out of the playoffs.
The Pepsi Center fans booed and began a profane chant. Gallinari rose to his feet holding his throat while staggering to the bench. Gasol did what Gasol always does after a big play, which is sort of pump his fist, then sort of shrug, but the point was clear.
You can call him soft, you can call him invisible, you can call him a Houston Rocket ... but as long as he's still dressed in a Lakers uniform, he will still do anything it takes for the Lakers to win. He's not doing cartwheels about his situation, but he's not giving up on it. He not thrilled, but he's not Lamar Odom.
"I get as much satisfaction out of setting the pick and making the pass to the man hitting the winning shot as I would if I made that shot myself," said Gasol afterward. "I'm OK with my changed role here, less touches, more sacrifices, so be it."
These kinds of sacrifices — how many 7-footers lead their team in assists this postseason? — has helped the Lakers take a probably insurmountable three-games-to-one lead with this opening series going back to Staples Center on Tuesday.
When Gasol shows up there, Lakers fans won't notice him as much as they once did, but he is worth being cheered louder than ever.
In a game with 18 lead changes and momentum consistently walking a tightrope, one big hit could change everything, and it was Gasol who delivered the blow.
Just ask Gallinari.
"It was a tough pick, it was just a tough, tough pick," said Gallinari. "You've got to expect that in the playoffs. ... I've got to be more ready in those situations to get those hits and still be able to play defense."
Despite the crowd's pleadings, Gasol said he thought it was a legal hit, replays confirmed it, and Gallinari didn't contest it.
"It was a good pick, right?" Gasol said. "I was surprised he went down like that."
Kobe Bryant was more than surprised, as he thought Gallinari was flopping on the play, which proceeded with Bryant throwing the ball to Gasol at the top of the key, then Gasol finding a wide-open Sessions on the wing.
"He's a big guy, you can't flop like that," said Bryant.
Gallinari said he wasn't flopping, that the elbow hit him in the throat and took his breath away. He also admitted that by taking him out of the play, the Lakers were able to have an easier time scoring with a five-on-four advantage.
"Unfortunately, they got a big shot out of that play," said Gallinari. "It was a tough one. ... It was a tough one."
Gasol is a tough one. While he is working hard at his new third-wheel role, sometimes he struggles in space, and he was even outrebounded by Sessions on Friday, leading to a pep talk from Coach Mike Brown.
"One thing we emphasized after the game was, 'Pau, you have to play big. ... Pau, you have to play big. ... Pau, you have to play big,'" said Brown. "We told him, 'You have to set big picks, you have to roll, you have to get down in the bunker and work very hard down there."
Gasol understood, scoring the first points of Sunday's game by dunking a loose-ball rebound, and finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
No, he's not the Pau Gasol of two postseasons ago. But on nights like this, he can be just as effective.
"Pau sometimes, it's quiet, everybody only looks at his points and they don't realize," said Brown. "Pau's night can go unnoticed."
Not this time, and there's a giant sweat stain on a gym floor here to prove it, the Lakers' forgotten man felt and remembered.