The indispensable man

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By Sam Smith | 3.08.2015 | 8:43 a.m. CT

You knew the Bulls were onto something last summer when they were pursuing Pau Gasol. It’s one thing the Knicks and Rockets wanted Carmelo Anthony. The Spurs and Thunder wanted Gasol, and those are two organizations that understand basketball talent.

“It was a close call, tough call for me, a tough decision to make,” said Gasol about last summer as the Bulls Sunday come into San Antonio for the noon (feels like 6 a.m. given it’s Daylight Savings) Sunday national ABC game. “I had great options as you guys know. But I made up my mind. I felt this (Bulls) was going to be the best scenario, the best situation for me for the next couple of years. That’s what I chose. It was Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Chicago the front runners.”

And the Bulls winning that race keeps them in serious contention for the big race that matters this spring.

It’s more of a holding pattern now for the Bulls with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson all out injured, though all are expected to return before the end of the regular season. It would not be a surprise the way they have been progressing in rehab that Gibson and Butler will return before the end of March.

The Bulls are in a tough stretch, their final four games in five days set with the Spurs Sunday and the Memphis Grizzlies at home Monday. The Bulls then are back on the road for three games before returning to play Eastern rivals Indiana and Toronto. The Bulls are 39-24, effectively tied with Cleveland for second place in the Eastern Conference and a half game ahead of Toronto. It’s really a remarkable position considering the injuries and lineup changes, 20 different starting lineups and no consistent rotation all season.

The one constant in all this has been Gasol, the likely future Hall of Fame center with two NBA championships with the Lakers. He was considered at 34 by most in serious decline after two rocky, injury plagued seasons with the Lakers. The Spurs and Thunder knew better, and so did Bulls management.

Though the Bulls were spurned by Anthony, who is now out for the season with knee surgery, Gasol, despite offers from more successful teams and more money from the Lakers, chose Chicago. It’s not something free agents often do, as we know. And in many respects because of Chicago. Hey, we’re No. 1?

Gasol liked the Bulls and the players, but he also loved Chicago.

As Kevin Durant said last summer, seemingly with some disdain, of Gasol, “He’s into orchestras and plays.”

Hoorey for Chicago culture. It won one, and it could lead to winning the big one.

Gasol is probably the most talented all around center in franchise history and is having one of the best seasons of his career.

He is in the top 25 in scoring at 18.3 per game and in the top five in both rebounding and blocks. He’s first by a wide margin in double/doubles with 41. Call him team MVP, at least. Gasol is even among the league leaders in minutes played, tied for 20th at 34.7 per game. Not being quite sure what it means, but Gasol is doing something of the equivalent of the rarity of shooting your age in golf. He’s playing the same minutes as his age while more than 30 years old. He’s even only about 100 total minutes behind teammate Butler, who leads the NBA in average minutes per game.

And while the statistics are impressive along with one of the best mid range jumpers in the game, Gasol has been a team leader, not only urging the players through tough times but as another coach on the floor with his perceptive view of the game.

The E’Twaun Moore game winner against the Thunder Thursday, one of the highlights of the season, was special not just because of the way Gasol read the defense and made the instant pass for the winning shot. But how it all came about as Gasol has virtually a photographic memory for plays and statistics and basketball geometry.

The Bulls had run that set from coach Tom Thibodeau’s encyclopedia of basketball plays perhaps a month before. It hadn’t worked as the second defender had sagged into Gasol. So afterward as they were discussing the play, Gasol told teammates if they see that play and that formation again, he’ll make the quick touch pass and they’d get an open shot. Fortunately, Moore also is a good listener.

In that formation for the play, both he and Gasol saw Russell Westbrook getting ready to smother Gasol. The Bulls reacted immediately and Moore came through with the shot. It was another clever play from Thibodeau, who is adept with out of bounds sets. And it was excellent leadership from Gasol, who is constantly breaking down the game to help give the team an edge.

It’s far from the image many had of Gasol, supposedly an unaggressive big man who’d been slowed by the years. But not only does Gasol remain an excellent scorer, he’s one of the best passing big men the league has seen and combines with Joakim Noah to give the Bulls unusual free flow ability through their big men.

It’s also the sort of excellence that could be invaluable come playoff time.

It was no secret the Thunder was going to Westbrook with about two seconds left after Moore’s three pointer. The Bulls were able to trap and force a turnover. Obviously, were Durant healthy it would have opened things up for them. The Bulls often go to Rose in similar situations. But with a player like Gasol, who can score and make plays down the stretch given his presence and success in such big games, it helps spread out the defense against the Bulls because of myriad options.

Though not noted for the aggressive defense of someone like Noah—though, who is—Gasol more than makes up for it with his defensive rebounding, shot blocking and offense. His pick and pop ability has been a major factor in drawing big men away from the basket to provide driving lanes and more opportunities for players like Butler to draw fouls on mismatches.

It’s the kind of things savvy organizations like the Spurs and Thunder, excellent in personnel evaluation, saw in Gasol. The Bulls as well, and they were the more persuasive.

The Bulls Sunday also will be seeing an improving Spurs team on a four game win streak coming off their Rodeo (Drive) road trip. Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard are healthier, and Tim Duncan has become Dorian Gray. The Spurs currently are seventh in the conference, but coming up fast on fading Dallas and with just one more loss than the Clippers. The defending champion Spurs, with Portland losing Wesley Matthews and Dwight Howard out, still could make a run at a home court advantage in the first round.

“Every game is a different story,” said Gasol as the Bulls move on from the loss to the Pacers. “They (Spurs) are playing at home, trying to move up. They seem to play better now that they are done with that rodeo trip or whatever that is called. They have a lot of weapons and are pretty healthy now and we are not. So it’s going to be a tough one, but we’ll battle, come out and compete and give ourselves a chance.

“It (the Bulls injuries) puts guys in position where they have to step up,” Gasol added. “Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, right? So I guess those guys who usually don’t get those minutes and opportunities, so far I think it’s been going well. We have a tough schedule, four games in five nights against pretty good teams. So the schedule is not going to make things easier, but as long as we fight and compete the way we have we have a chance to win.”

So as Gasol was wrapping up with reporters, he was reminded that fourth game Monday is against the Grizzlies and “that extraordinary center.”

“You mean Koufus,” Gasol said with a laugh.

He is becoming the indispensable man. Thank goodness for the Lyric Opera.