ORLANDO, Fla. - One more victory in the NBA Finals and maybe Pau Gasol can finally shed the "soft" label.
He's already won over a former critic: his coach.
Phil Jackson wasn't sure Gasol was the kind of player who could help him win a championship, and he couldn't have been convinced after the way the Spaniard played in last year's Finals.
Gasol and fellow forward Lamar Odom have rebounded from their uneven performances in that series, a major reason the Los Angeles Lakers have a three-games-to-one lead over the Orlando Magic and a chance to wrap up a 15th championship tonight.
Looking for an inside presence to complement Kobe Bryant's scoring, Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak began considering Gasol, who was frustrated by the losing in Memphis and wanted a trade. Jackson said they discussed a trade during the 2006-07 season, but he wasn't sold on Gasol.
"I was dubious, although I really admired Pau's capabilities and ability," Jackson said Saturday. "I thought maybe he didn't have the physical strength and stamina to play against the kind of players that here he is playing against, the [Kevin] Garnetts, obviously [Dwight] Howards, and he's shown me to be wrong."
Not at first.
Gasol averaged 14.7 points and 10.2 rebounds, and Odom chipped in 13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in last year's Finals, all decent numbers. But the Lakers' frontcourt appeared overwhelmed by Garnett and the more physical Boston frontline in the six-game loss.
"Pau and Lamar had a difficult time last year against Boston because they had not ever experienced that type of intensity and it was something they were still learning, but I'm sure they've learned their lessons well," Lakers special assistant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.
Gasol has increased his scoring to 19.8 points per game against Orlando, and showed a toughness he's been accused of lacking. He got right in Mickael Pietrus' face after the Magic guard shoved him in the back late in Game 4, and he's often had to defend the much stronger Howard because of center Andrew Bynum's frequent foul trouble.