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Like a fine wine

At age 35, Bulls forward Pau Gasol is still at the top of his game

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By Sam Smith | 10.5.2015 | 9:40 a.m.

What a terrific commercial it would be, Mars Blackmon saying, “Tiene que ser el vino.”

You know, it’s gotta be the wine.

“I'm from Spain, so there's a lot of great wine,” Pau Gasol joked last week after practice about his remarkable NBA longevity. “Really, just my mindset, my approach, what I do. I understand how hard I have to work and how disciplined I have to be as far as every little detail of how my performance is conditioned. Being meticulous, being ambitious, wanting to extend my career at the highest level; that's really my goal. I enjoy playing the game, but I enjoy playing the game well and being one of the best. It's hard when you're used to being one of the top players, fading a little bit. It's tough. So I'm doing whatever I can to prolong my career at the highest level. That's how I have the most fun.”

As the Bulls prepare for the 2015-16 NBA season and open their preseason at home Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the most remarkable stories around the team has been the continued and somewhat unexpected excellence of Gasol.

The 35-year-old seven footer who was supposed to be nearing the end of his career three years ago, missing almost half the season with knee and plantar fascia problems and averaging a career low in points, somehow in his 15th season seems to be aging like a vintage Viña El Pison, improving with time.

Gasol set a career best with 54 double/doubles last season while also establishing a career high rebounding average and leading the team in total minutes played. Gasol was the oldest player to lead the league in double/doubles since Patrick Ewing in 1997. Gasol averaged 18.5 points, his most since 2011, and was in the league’s top 20 in scoring and top 10 in rebounding and blocks. He started the All-Star game for the Eastern Conference, his fifth All-Star game and first in four years. Gasol also set a career best for three-point shooting, even leading the Bulls at 46.2 percent, though with just 26 attempts.

Then Gasol met the world this summer and it was his.

Gasol dominated the competitive Eurobasket championship, played in France, averaging 25.6 points to lead Spain to the championship. Gasol led in scoring and blocks and was fourth in rebounding and overall shooting while leading in three-point shooting with 10 of 15. This despite being 16th in minutes played in the tournament. Gasol led Spain into the finals and guaranteed a place in the 2016 Olympics with 40 points to defeat home team France and exact revenge for a French win over Spain in the 2014 World Cup of Basketball.

“I never (saw) something like that before,” said teammate Nikola Mirotic, who also played for Spain. “I saw him last year score 46 points against Milwaukee (a career high). To score 40 points against France in the semifinal….Every single day he played great; defensively, too. He was the leader and I really feel lucky to play with him on the national team.”

And though the Bulls point to so many missed opportunities in losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring, perhaps the biggest setback was losing Gasol to a hamstring injury after he led the Bulls to the Game 1 upset in Cleveland with 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.

This season isn’t likely to be as exceptional statistically for Gasol with—at least for now—the health and depth in the front court. Joakim Noah back from a summer of spirited workouts isn’t surrendering his claim to starting at center easily, and the Bulls have Mirotic, Taj Gibson and rookie Bobby Portis aiming for front court playing time. Plus, the team seems committed to equalizing playing time more often early in the season to build to the playoffs.

“We'll see how the season goes,” said Gasol, who also revealed he had minor sinus surgery early in the summer. “Ideally, I'll play less than I did last year. But we'll see what happens. I've just got to be ready. Seasons are long, are tough, are demanding and as a professional, you have to stay ready. It's not going to be ideal all the time. It's never ideal. You just have to work through it and do the best you can.”

Gasol is a walking, living example of that, an overlooked No. 3 draft pick in 2001 after Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler, the latter whom the Bulls acquired for Elton Brand. Gasol became an All-Star in Memphis. But he never led his team to a playoff victory in 12 playoff games over three seasons and eventually was traded to the Lakers. There he filled the big man role to complement Kobe Bryant, going to three Finals and being part of two championship teams. Long reviled in whispering campaigns for not being tough enough—a xenophobic invective often hurled at non-American born players in the NBA—Gasol proved his mettle and mental acuity with enduring playoff performances.

But a coaching change to Mike D’Antoni, who eschewed inside/outside play, and injuries started what appeared for Gasol an inevitable decline. But before last season, Gasol signed a franchise-friendly contract with the Bulls and exceeded the expectations of almost everyone around the NBA. Amidst another season of injuries around the team, Gasol played 78 games and even more minutes than Jimmy Butler, who led the league in average minutes played.

And then while most everyone else engaged in rest and rehabilitation, Gasol went hard for Spain to assure the vital qualifying for the 2016 Olympics and regain the pride lost from the defeat to France last year.

So will that slow him this season? It seems not as despite being told he can limit training camp work, Gasol has been active in the drills and scrimmages.

“I feel great,” Gasol said as camp opened. “I played some of the best basketball of my career (this summer). So I feel happy. I feel like I’ve done something really special.

“It gives me good rhythm, good confidence, gets me in good shape,” Gasol said about playing in the summer. “Those are the pluses. Definitely it’s more basketball playing, more miles on my wheels. But it’s something I take pride in, and it’s worked out well for myself and our team. I hope the momentum I’ve built this summer, it carries over into training camp and the season. Obviously, I’m in pretty good shape. So far I've been doing pretty much everything. Trying to get the plays, the system down. I don't want to be left behind too much as far as what we're trying to do. Now I just have to make sure I don’t start off the season burned out or with a high level of fatigue. I’m excited to start off with the team and the guys and build something special and important. Last year, I played a high amount of minutes due also to circumstance with injuries that we had. Hopefully this season we will all stay healthy and our minutes will be more shared. I’ll play as many minutes as I have to. I’ve always said that. Whatever it takes to help the team win.”

The signing of Gasol was something of a last minute move after the Bulls recruitment of Carmelo Anthony went availing. But it’s proven one of the franchise’s best ever free agent acquisitions as Gasol not only has proven to be one of the most efficient offensive centers in franchise history, but also a versatile big man whom coach Fred Hoiberg said he envisions even shooting more three pointers.

“I'll get a feel for it as we play games and see where I find myself and who I play more minutes with on the floor,” said Gasol, always the student of the game. “If I play with Niko more minutes, I won't be outside as much. If I play with Jo, I'll have a chance more to pick-and-pop and open up the floor a little more. Personally, I like to mix it up. Whether I shoot more threes or less threes, it's not too meaningful to me. It's wherever I can be more effective for the team.

“I adjusted to the needs of our team,” Gasol said about his summer experience and scoring more than he ever has. “Our team was not as talented and offensively gifted (without brother Marc Gasol) as other years. So I knew I had to step up my offense and score more for us to have a better chance to win. I think our situation here with the Bulls is different. We have a lot of talent offensively. So you don't need a guy who's going to score in the mid-20s or shoot more than 20 shots a game. That's going to happen sometimes, but it's not going to be the common theme. So you adjust to that and find what the team needs you to do the most and that's what I'll do. I'm not coming in here trying to shoot as many shots or score as much as I did with the national team because each team and each situation is a little different.

“We have the potential to score more points because of our talent,” Gasol added. “But it should be pretty balanced, especially with offense, the motion that we're going to play with. Jimmy's (Butler) a great scorer and he's in great shape; he came in with great form. Derrick (Rose), obviously, is a guy that scores the ball and is an offensive threat at all times. So those guys are going to score a little more, but other guys will be ready to step in and score points and make things happen for us. It’s a big challenge we have ahead of us. We have all the tools we need. Now it’s just putting our minds and hearts into it 100 percent, and I look forward to it."

Crisp, elegant, earthy, laser-like, refined and with a hint of mischief. It’s gotta be the wine? No, Miles. It’s Pau.