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West wins, Kobe leaves, Pau wonders about the Bulls

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By Sam Smith | 2.15.2016 | 10:00 a.m.

So if you think the Bulls defense has been bad….

Consider that the best defender on the floor Sunday night in the annual NBA All Star game probably was the Bulls’ Pau Gasol, shooting four of the seven total free throws taken in the game and second in rebounds per minute in the abomination 196-173 Western Conference victory.

The total points surpassed by 48 the previous record; there were 139 three pointers attempted, 17 by MVP Russell Westbrook and 19 of his 26 shots by Paul George, who had 41 points, one short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star game record. Five West players scored at least 23 points.

It’s fairly likely Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson sitting courtside has to retrain their projectile vomiting.

Can you get a three for that?

“You don’t anticipate (a score like that),” agreed Gasol, who had nine points and seven rebounds in about 15 minutes and was tied for third best plus/minus on the losing East team. “You know this game they are not known for their defense, but today it was a little more absent; let’s put it that way.”

You might say competition took a long leave of absence in this game headlined as the All-Star farewell for Kobe Bryant.

Though for Gasol and his Bulls teammates, including Jimmy Butler sidelined as an East All-Star and sitting on the bench in a sport coat, the competition becomes intense pretty quickly.

And with the fate of a season perhaps at hand.

The Bulls without injured Butler and Nikola Mirotic, Joakim Noah out for the season and Taj Gibson suffering foot and ankle complications in the last game, open the unofficial second half/stretch run of the season in Cleveland Thursday for a national TNT game and then back home Friday to face second-in-the-East Toronto.

Then Sunday it’s Kobe in his farewell in Chicago and the Bulls back at it next week against East contenders Washington and in Atlanta before a tough back-to-back road trip to Florida.

It’s a difficult stretch with the Bulls badly shorthanded and perhaps the fate of their season resting in the next few weeks with two starters and the sixth man out.

Though Gasol reveled in Sunday’s Kobe finale, including a late game faceoff which they had discussed pregame, Gasol also knows it’s a critical time for his Bulls team with the spotlight brightest on he and Derrick Rose with Butler and Mirotic out.

“Everyone’s responsibility goes up when big players are out,” Gasol acknowledged. “It starts with the main players on the team; it starts with Derrick, starts with me. So we have to make sure we are set up to play, set the tone for the rest of the guys to follow.

“All the guys available have to approach the situation knowing that they are going to have an opportunity,” said Gasol. “They are going to have significant minutes and they have to produce. Everyone can do certain things; at least do them as well as you can. See if we can develop some rhythm, better chemistry with everyone on the floor; utilize the next two days we have practice before the Cleveland game to build how we want to play the next few games; and when we get guys back we will welcome them with big arms.”

That didn’t sound like anytime soon with Mirotic’s appendix surgery complications and Butler saying this weekend he had to listen to his body and be careful he doesn’t suffer another injury. Which couldn’t come at a tougher time with the Bulls having lost 13 of 18 games, four straight and five in a row at home.

“Emotionally it has been tough,” admitted Gasol. “We’ve taken some hits the last couple of weeks. It’s been a challenge, but I think this break should help us (with) a refreshment emotionally and help us in the next stretch fully energized and see what we can do.

“I think everybody will be eager to go back to work, to lock into the last 30 games of the season starting with the first one on Thursday,” said Gasol. “Play as hard as we can, play as together as we can and find some rhythm with confidence and understand everyone on the floor has to contribute and help the team do what it needs to do to win games.”

It’s going to take some inspired basketball, little of which anyone saw in an All-Star game shockingly devoid of competition. Sometimes these things drag for a half with lob dunk highlight type plays. But this one never threatened the least bit of competition with it being much closer to a game of HORSE competition than a contest with little effort to prevent anyone from scoring and the offense essentially limited to unimpeded lob dunks and three pointers.

Before the game, the NBA featured a dubbed in video of founder James Naismith talking about the essence of the game of trying to score and the other team trying to stop them from scoring.

Hey, that’s not my game, he may have thought if he were watching from somewhere.

Though it mostly became a testament to the career of Bryant, going through a season long farewell tour and in his 18th and final All-Star game with four All-Star MVPs.

Bryant didn’t attempt to go for the expected fifth as he had 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds and engaged in a few personal faceoffs, like the jump ball to start the game against LeBron James, later a little one-on-one with James—James stopped him—and one-on-one in the only other defense with former teammate Gasol.

“I had a blast playing with those guys, laughing and joking with them on the bench,” said Bryant afterward. “And I got a chance to stop Pau in the post, redeem myself from what he did to me when Chicago came to town (21 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in Bulls blowout win). All those things are fun. I had a great time, a great, great time.”

Michael Jordan even was there, post game, anyway, to accept the All-Star host torch for the game going to Charlotte next year.

Bryant received multiple ovations throughout the game with video tributes as all the players commented on his influence on the game and their careers.

Gasol perhaps understood that best in teaming with Bryant for three straight Finals appearances and two titles after the Bryant breakup with Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant so angry about his circumstances there even were rumors he wanted to be traded to the Bulls. But the Lakers didn’t blink, and they came up with Gasol to present to Bryant. The rest became a continuation of Lakers’ history and Bryant evolving happily to the end of his career with grace and dignity.

“It was fun, nice to be there to be able to live this moment and share this moment with all the guys, and especially with Kobe and being his last game, really cool experience, different from different All Star (games); blessed and happy to be there,” said Gasol. “I like to compete and play the right way even though these games are sometimes difficult to do that, but I managed to try to get myself going and get a little conditioning in there. Play the game the way I know how to play.

“We talked about (going head-to-head) before the game, to say if we were out there the same time to guard each other and kind of post each other up and see who would be successful and who would score on the other,” said Gasol with a laugh. “We both got a shot at it and none of us scored. So it was fun, a cool moment from us.

“I said I was so happy for him, that he deserved everything he was getting and just happy, happy to see him get this type of love and recognition, proud of him for his career, all he’s accomplished, all he’s given to the game,” said Gasol. “Thankful to see him honored. I was able to share a part of my career with his career together, a great experience. It was nice to be out there and celebrate the moment with him, the tributes he received from the NBA, the league, from the fans was emotional and special.

“At this point of his life and career he understands that the older you get the bigger the gap is with the younger players,” noted Gasol. “And when he was talking about playing his first All-Star game some of these players were in preschool or kindergarten, which is pretty unbelievable. Here he is playing his last All-Star game with these kids who were three or four years old when he started.

“We had an incredible run together,” said Gasol. “We had three years you wish and dream of when you come into this league, have a chance of winning titles and togetherness as a team with that specialness that allows you to do that. Winning two titles during those years were one of the highlights of my career.”

Gasol had been hoping for more of those highlights with the Bulls when, despite Bryant’s pleas and a larger salary, Gasol left Bryant and the Lakers after the 2013-14 season. Gasol still has a chance, but it starts Thursday with a lot of pressure against the greatest of odds and against the greatest of talents in Cleveland against LeBron James.

Probably going to need some better defense for that.

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