The calming influence of Pau Gasol

It was early in the fourth quarter Saturday of the Bulls eventual 96-83 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and with a 17-point lead the Bulls went into their too frequent basketball version of the NFL prevent offense. We’ve seen it before: Run the clock down, shoot a forced jump shot, watch the lead dwindle, force some more shots.

So it was Jimmy Butler with a three, then a short jumper, then a medium range one, all misses. Then Derrick Rose tried one and then Taj Gibson, five consecutive Bulls misses and six of seven and the Cavaliers were within 10 points with about six minutes to go.

“They’re not going to blow this one, are they?” one of the media guys wondered.

Yes, we’ve seen it before.

Time for Pau Gasol.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg called time after LeBron James bulled his way in for a score and the anxious home fans took a break from booing new coach Tyronn Lue and the Cavs’ free throw shooting. LeBron gets back 10 points in two minutes. Yes, they could certainly blow this one.

Hoiberg subbed in Gasol for Nikola Mirotic, who was having one of his better games.

But the Bulls needed a score, they needed to regain control of the game and not panic.

They needed Pau.

Gasol inbounded to Butler, who dribbled into the front court. Doug McDermott set a down screen for Gasol, who came up to set a screen for Butler. Butler dribbled off Gasol going left, stopped and threw back to Gasol. Gasol took one dribble, handed off to McDermott cutting around from the right and settled as McDermott passed at the right elbow where with about seven seconds on the shot clock Gasol dropped in a 15 footer for an 81-69 Bulls lead.

The Cavs’ Matthew Dellavedova missed. Butler rebounded and handed to Rose, who dribbled into the front court. Gasol set a high screen on the left wing for Rose, who dribbled right, drawing two defenders. Rose threw back to Gasol at the left elbow. Tristan Thompson hustled back to Gasol, who then stepped left to avoid him and pulled up for a 17-footer to give the Bulls an 83-69 lead with 4:49 left.

No one asked anymore if the Bulls were going to blow this one.

It’s the kind of thing Gasol can do, a true rarity among NBA big men.

Gasol had one of the most unique games in NBA history Saturday. He scored 25 points, with 10 rebounds and six assists. The amazing Elias Sports Bureau reported that Gasol was the second player ever joining Karl Malone from 25 years ago to have at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against a team with a winning percentage of at least 70 percent.

And, no, not on a Saturday night in January.

Statistics can be somewhat esoteric in this data driven era, but the numbers speak not only to Gasol’s extraordinary value to the Bulls but his high echelon place in this NBA.

Gasol this season is arguably the most productive center in the NBA, and he deserves a place in this season’s All-Star game. It would be his sixth All-Star game in what is becoming a Hall of Fame career.

Gasol is averaging 16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds, one of 10 players averaging a double/double. Gasol is tied for fifth in the number of double/doubles, trailing in the Eastern Conference only Detroit’s Andre Drummond. But Gasol is the only Eastern Conference big man in the top 10 in double/doubles, rebounds (seventh) and blocks (fifth). Plus, Gasol is second among NBA centers in assists behind only brother Marc.

The Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, 11th in the NBA in scoring at 22.5, is considered a certainty to be selected for the Eastern Conference All-Star team when the coaches’ vote is announced Thursday. Drummond and Atlanta’s Paul Millsap are likely to be added along with another big man, presumed to be among Gasol, Atlanta’s Al Horford and Miami’s Chris Bosh. The coaches generally break ties in favor of players whose teams have winning records. The Heat, Bulls and Hawks all are close in the standings. But none of those players have the statistics across the board to rival those of Gasol, who quietly plays a crucial role on this Bulls team.

Like the run stopping jump shots he made against the Cavaliers.

“I got going,” noted Gasol about his 11 of 16 shooting against Cleveland. “The shots fell and I was able to knock them down with consistency. It doesn’t always happen. When most of your shots are 15, 20 feet from the basket, it’s not going to happen every night. But I was able to get myself going with a put back, a move on the post (early), and that’s what I need to do to be consistent.”

Butler and Rose remain the Bulls prime scoring options, and they generally have been the main producers in the fourth quarter. But there’s really no one else—and often nobody—who can get a good shot when needed like Gasol.

Gasol might be the best shooting seven footer in the NBA; perhaps one of the best ever.

Gasol’s is extending his shooting range some, making a three Saturday to give him nine for the season and 35 percent three-point shooting, better than both Butler and Rose. He’s on a pace to easily attempt the most threes in his career.

Though there’s few players on the Bulls roster with the accuracy and experience to be relied upon to take and make the big shot other than Gasol.

Though Gasol’s become a figure of some ambivalence among Bulls players.

He’s not going to be particularly adept in a fast game, like against the Warriors when he shot zero for eight. But few big men anywhere can play in their game. Plus, Gasol isn’t going to be confused with Alonzo Mourning on defense, hustling out to trap the pick and roll and darting back to catch up with his man and get on the offensive boards.

It’s easy to indict Gasol when teams identify him as a target in their pick and roll offense.

But Gasol more than makes up for any of those deficiencies with his valuable shooting, passing and shot blocking.

There’s a lazy shorthand about defense in the NBA.

Very few NBA players are good defenders. The players are too talented offensively. Butler is certainly the Bulls best individual defender, but he has been scorched by players like Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. They are too talented. It’s difficult to identify the league’s best individual defenders—you’ll notice most Defensive Player of the Year awards go to big men because you can chart rebounds and blocks—so critics often will make a simplistic initial analysis of defense and label players good or bad for life.

It happened, for example, with the Bulls Toni Kukoc in the championship years. Kukoc was adequate, but someone always has to be the target. Some of the greatest players in NBA history were poor defenders, like Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They easily made up for it.

So does Gasol, if not quite to that level.

Gasol’s perimeter shooting is amazingly accurate for someone his size and thus a matchup advantage for the Bulls. Big men don’t like to come out that far to defend, and Gasol can shoot over smaller players. He shoots 80 percent on free throws and only Butler has attempted more among Bulls players.

The Bulls at 25-18 remain in the middle of the playoff pack in the Eastern Conference and given their unpredictable play no one can forecast their fate. The Bulls Monday in the United Center host the Miami Heat before leaving for the season’s longest road trip, seven games in 12 days with the next home game not until Feb. 10. It’s a crucial stretch to weather for the Bulls heading into the All-Star break.

But it is certain without Gasol the forecast is highly unfavorable.