Pau Gasol is a paradox. Right down to his name, the onomatopoeia you don’t get. It’s not Pow! It’s more silky and elastic from the seven footer, like the feathery touch on his jump shot and the strategic placement to thwart the opponent. There’s more guile than fury, more artistry than ferocity.
Sometimes it’s not as easy to appreciate, but effective and vital to success.
As it was Wednesday in the United Center as Gasol with season highs of 26 points and 19 rebounds along with four blocks, including 12 points and 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter, led the Bulls’ comeback to a 99-90 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
The Bulls seventh win in the last nine games improved their record to 11-5 with seven of the next eight games at home. The Bulls got 19 points from Jimmy Butler, 12 points and a season high nine assists from Derrick Rose and 11 points from Doug McDermott. Joakim Noah had nine points and 11 rebounds playing extended minutes for Nikola Mirotic, who suffered a concussion early in the game and played about five minutes. Aaron Brooks returned from a hamstring injury in limited play.
But it was a brilliant Gasol effort, typically understated without the theatrics but with rhythm and versatility of, say, a great operatic performance.
“That play he tipped out to Doug (with 7:40 left and the game tied at 79), I think was probably the biggest play of the game when Doug hit the three,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg of Gasol’s balletic grace on the tip rebound. “He did everything for us tonight. I know his teammates don’t underestimate him and that’s the important thing with Pau. It was great to see him hitting his mid range shot; he got us off to a great start scoring on the block for us. And finished the game with a couple of free throws. Tonight it was Pau. He had it going.”
It was what we’ve become accustomed to with this Bulls team already this season, a terrific game against a top team, like the win over the Spurs Monday. And then a lost lead and loss, or near one, to a lesser team, this time the Nuggets who came in losers of seven straight and fell to 6-13.
But the Nuggets turned around an 11-point first half deficit after a brutal Bulls stretch of six turnovers in eight possessions into the first few minutes of the fourth quarter. That gave Denver a 74-70 lead on a Will Barton jumper as he led them with 16 points. I know: Who?
But then it was Gasol with the how, the soft touch that delivered some hard blows to the willing young Nuggets. Gasol first made nice eye contact with Taj Gibson and looped Gibson a lob for a dunk, tipped the missed Rose 17 footer out to McDermott for the three and an 82-79 Bulls lead. And then after a Butler driving score and three-point play, Gasol made an elbow 20 footer and a tough baseline fadeaway 10 footer for an 89-81 Bulls lead with about four minutes remaining.
“We started the quarter down four and we needed to turn it around quickly if we didn’t want to put ourselves in position to lose the game,” said Gasol. “So start making plays at both ends of the floor. Got control of the game and finally pushed it out a little bit and got a nice win. Glad I finished the game shooting over 50 percent because the last few games I was a little off shooting. My teammates definitely looked for me early on and I was able to knock down some good plays.
“This is the type of game, a team that has lost seven in a row and you think you will probably win the game and it’s not going to require a maximum effort and sometimes teams fall into that trap,” Gasol noted. “For the most part of the game we were in that place. But I think we snapped out of it with enough time on the clock to make a run and win the game.”
The Bulls would, but not before Gasol also came up big on the defensive end, thwarting the Nuggets inside where they had been effective earlier and led in points in the paint. The rangy Gasol forced Joffrey Lauvergne into awkward shots on three consecutive occasions. And Rose continued to frustrate Nuggets rookie guard Emmanuel Mudiay (two of 13 shooting) on defense with pressure.
Gasol then screened to open a 17 footer for Butler with 3:01 left for a 91-83 Bulls lead. After a Rose drive and foul for a pair of free throws, Gasol effectively closed the Nuggets out with a 16 footer on yet another pick and pop pass from Rose for a 95-87 lead with 1:39 left.
“Pau he had the hot hand,” said Rose. “He wanted the ball so we had to make sure we found him. It’s hard to stick us (on the pick and roll) with the way they stick me. They don’t blitz me. It’s kind of like a contain: Don’t let me get to the rim. So just drive and the majority of the time I have the ball in the pick and roll he’s going to get the shot.
“He’s a smart player,” Rose said admiringly. “He reads the plays well. A couple of times tonight he (fended off) the screen and I was able to get to the lane. That comes off just playing and his IQ. He’s a big who is very smart, who can pass the ball and read the play. I don’t have to tell him anything.”
Though Hoiberg had some things to say.
You can tell he is getting somewhat frustrated with his inability to get the team to play at a faster pace consistently, though it is exceedingly difficult to do with a veteran team so accustomed to a deliberate pace of play. And, after all, the Bulls are winning and with the fifth best record in the league. Plus, they are 7-1 at home after last season losing five of their first seven at home.
“It wasn’t our best energy game of the season, but we kept at it and finally got a spurt there at the end to pull away a little bit,” noted Hoiberg. “We’ve got to find a way to be better. Even after they made the shot, we’d have four guys just kind of look at the ball and take two or three steps, kind of mosey down the floor. You have to keep playing. You have to play through those tough stretches, Good times or bad times, everything in between, you have to keep playing. In this league, sometimes you have to win ugly. I thought that is what we did. Tonight we found a way. Pau carried the load for a lot of that. Doug was really good. We found a way and that is the encouraging thing on a night where we did not play that great we found a way to win the game.”
And so continues the box of chocolates season as you never quite know what you are going to get among this assortment of veterans and youngsters mixing and matching as they never have before. It can be an appealing mix of ingredients, though sometimes simmering too slowly and then bubbling over.
“We know how good we are as a team,” insisted Rose. “We know that we have the belief and that is to win it all; it’s always going to be kind of hard to get used to one another. Championship teams always have the experience and that’s what we are building now. We went up (11), let them back in the game, went up again and at the end it was a fight. It’s all about learning. Guys came in and made some big plays.”
Despite the inconsistency and the flaws, the Bulls have been doing the winning, more often with defense down the stretch as they held the Spurs to 16 points in the fourth quarter Monday and the Nuggets to 18 in the fourth. The Nuggets shot 25 percent in the fourth quarter after shooting 44 percent through the first three.
“We gave up 30 points on offensive boards to them,” lamented Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “Noah had five offensive rebounds being very active. With Mirotic they lost a shooter, but then they had another big guy out there with size and length (Noah). I feel like the guy where I have a leak and go to plug it. Then another once pops up. And I plug that one, and then comes another and another. You only have so many fingers and toes. We defended the three-point line, but gave up offensive rebounds.”
It suggests the depth and versatility of this Bulls team, though one still springing leaks here and there.
Another came early in the game when Mirotic, who came out sprightly, leaned in on a Mudiay drive and took an inadvertent elbow to the face. Mirotic was stunned and fell to the floor, leaving with blood dripping and a concussion. He’ll be evaluated under league protocols for such injuries.
But it’s nice to have a former All-Star center in Noah to come in when your starter goes down like that. And it didn’t slow Gasol’s momentum as he made his first six shots and had a dozen first quarter points with the Bulls taking a 28-21 lead.
“We had 10 assists in the first quarter and I think we had 12 the rest of the game,” noted Hoiberg. “I thought our ball movement was fine and everything was going great. The third quarter most of it was not good at all and the fourth quarter we started playing again.”
The Bulls went ahead 51-40 late in the second quarter with McDermott again adding a good offensive burst. The second year forward is getting more time and shots now, and Hoiberg said it was due to improving defense. Though McDermott’s presence alone spaces the floor and he probably has been the team’s most effective player with floaters and runners despite his reputation as just a shooter. He had an amazing one in the second quarter taking a tough pass from Rose and going up left handed with a scoop.
“Doug is playing more extended minutes because of his defense,” said Hoiberg. “I thought he did a really nice job on (Manu) Ginobili and I thought he really battled in this game as well; really important to have a guy like Doug because of his ability to shoot and stretch the floor. They have to guard him and that opens up driving lanes.”
But the Bulls fall into spells of isolation and standing around, again late in the second quarter as the Nuggets got within 51-46 at halftime. And then in a brutal stretch spanning the end of the third and start of the fourth quarter with turnovers from Butler, Gibson, E’Twaun Moore, Gasol and McDermott in a stretch of just over two minutes.
“You had a tough stretch and then Pau turned things around,” agreed Hoiberg.
There was plenty good, though, with another aggressive game from Gibson with 11 rebounds in 19 minutes, that activity and enthusiasm for Noah over 35 minutes in relief and McDermott, who had the second highest plus/minus to Gasol and playing the entire fourth quarter.
Rose’s pick and roll/pop with Gasol was perhaps the best offensive option, though Rose again shot poorly, three of 17 to fall to 34 percent on the season. But Hoiberg said he was fine with Rose’s shots as the large majority were in the paint and it was more Rose’s bank shot, which had been accurate, that went awry.
“The shots I was missing were a lot of short shots and bank shots,” said Rose. “My shot will come. I know how much work I put into my game and I know once I catch that rhythm it’s going to be scary with the opportunities I have at the rim and the open shots I have. So it’s all about working out, taking it one day at a time. The shots I took, they were there; it just I was off a little bit. But my teammates encourage me to take the shots I take. I’m just missing these shots because I am just missing them; it doesn’t have anything to do with the eye. I’m getting good looks. Just missing them.
“It’s exciting to see we are winning games and I still haven’t reached my full potential yet or even scratch the surface of the player I can become,” added Rose.
So there is that. The offense remains a work in progress and the big guys all are adjusting to refined roles.
“Just try to play as well as I can in the position I am in now,” said Gasol, who now has double/doubles in seven of the last 11 games and missed by one point or rebound in two others. “Understand things are a little different. As long as we win and are a better team we all sacrifice in order to do the things the coaching staff wants us to do.
“I feel pretty good conditioning wise and physically,” said Gasol. “I had to take it easier in the preseason. So I maybe started a little slower this season than I would have liked. But because of what I played this summer (in Europe) I had no choice. I had to refuel so I’d have enough gas to get through the entire season and still get to the end with enough so I could play well in the playoffs.”
Which, after all, is what it is about.
“We’re winning games,” Rose said with a laugh when the questions kept coming with those buts about unimpressive wins. “We’re 11-5. C’mon, if it was the other way around we’d be hanging our heads and there would be something to talk about. As long as we are winning games no matter how we win them, as long as we have one more point at the end of the games, we’re fine with it. You can hear the locker room now, people talking, enjoying themselves. We have the day off tomorrow so I think guys are going to enjoy themselves tonight.”