Bulls get league high 10th road win in Charlotte


Dec 4

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This Bulls team that rebounded Wednesday with a tough 102-95 victory over the Charlotte Hornets is much decorated and accomplished. Derrick Rose is a former league Most Valuable Player; Joakim Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and first team all-NBA center; Jimmy Butler is an all-league defender and Wednesday was named the league’s first Player of the Month for the 2014-15 season. Taj Gibson was the runnerup for Sixth Man of the Year.

But the Bulls still lacked something vital to success in the NBA, a champion.

Now they have one in Pau Gasol, who showed Wednesday not only with his fifth consecutive double/double with 19 points and 15 rebounds, but with his skill, toughness, resiliency and especially verbal and physical leadership that he could be that elusive missing ingredient to complete the Bulls’ recipe for ultimate success.

It was crucial in the Bulls going to 12-7 on the season with a league high 10th road victory as six Bulls scored in double figures in the team’s fifth straight game scoring at least 100 points and averaging 110 in that stretch. But it was more than the points than a veteran leader coming to the point.

“I always talk to the team, but this was a big game, important game,” Gasol told reporters afterward. “These games make a big difference at the end of the season on your record. You can come here with low energy and cruise through it and get a loss after the tough one last night. This type of game really builds a team’s character and shows what you’re made of. I think the team was able to do a good job here and get a positive win; now we’re able to go home and get some rest.”

Gasol recognized the importance of Wednesday’s game even though it was December and even with the Bulls still off to a good start. It was a depressing double overtime home loss Tuesday, and then back on the road to Charlotte Wednesday. This group of Bulls players knows hardship and triumph, though in relative doses. They’ve never been where Gasol has been with his Lakers, three Finals, two championships. He understands that little bit extra and how a team builds through a season. So after the disappointing loss Tuesday with Kirk Hinrich‘s unfortunate late foul, Gasol decided to address his new teammates. And then again Wednesday as the Bulls prepared for the hard luck Hornets who had lost nine straight.

Don’t allow this losing to get started; understand no one play makes any game, never let down and always be ready.

It was a symphony for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a message he regularly relates. But it sometimes loses its spirit when it comes so often from the coach. Gasol’s been there, seen that and triumphed. When he speaks about what chasing the ultimate prize requires, everyone knows it’s from experience.

“I love Pau and you can’t say enough about him,” said Thibodeau. “He makes big play after big play. He’s been knocked in the past….Pau has great toughness and that is what I love about him. The mental toughness is what’s huge for our team. After last night’s comments he made (to the media) he said the same thing to the team, ‘Hey, you have to be ready every night in this league. Playing through fatigue and soreness is a part of it.’ That is what a championship player does in this league and you have to have the metal toughness to get through things; it’s not easy. The other point he made was a good one: ‘You are not losing a game on a single play; there are a lot of plays in a game.’ A lot goes into winning and understanding the mental, physical, emotional part of this game. It’s critical for your team. It’s not easy. You are going to need a lot of toughness in the end; the only way you get toughness is to do those things.”

Though Hinrich has been through a lot of disappointments in his career and understands the vagaries of sports competition, it also was a welcome voice after his frustrating foul that enabled the Mavericks to go to overtime. Hinrich would then Wednesday, perhaps fittingly, make maybe the two biggest shots of the game, three pointers in the fourth quarter with the Bulls hanging onto a 92-87 lead with 3:17 left and then the closer with the Bulls leading 95-89 with 2:17 remaining.

It was a sort of ideal symmetry that Hinrich would be the one to stand back up after being knocked down at home Tuesday.

“I think this is the identity of our team,” said Joakim Noah, who played through spraining his ankle again with 14 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. “When we hit adversity and when things are tough, I feel like we bring it and it makes us closer as a group. Today was for Sioux City (Iowa, Hinrich’s home town). We all knew that coming in it was for the Sioux. It was for his ‘hood.”

It’s the bond and chemistry that has branded this Bulls group. But Hinrich said it was ideal to hear the message from someone like Gasol.

“You realize in this league you have to move on,” said Hinrich. “Things are going to happen; you make mistakes. You try not to. When you lose like we did last night, you feel like you let your teammates down. That’s the hardest thing about it and getting past that, but I have great teammates and everyone trying to pick me up. It’s nice to know that everyone in this locker room has each other’s back. We’re in this together; it’s a good feeling.

“It was a big win for us, gut check the way we lost last night and proud of the guys for hanging in and getting one tonight,”added Hinrich. “Pau’s been huge for us. Everybody knows what kind of experience he has, teams he’s been on, championship teams. When he speaks, guys listen; it’s invaluable to have him in that regard. He’s always talking to us. It seems like every time he talks, you think, ‘Yeah, he hit the nail on the head.’ It’s great to have a guy like that. He’s a competitor, competes every night, plays on both ends. I never viewed him being anything other than that; he’s been huge for us this year and we’re lucky to have him.”

Which raised the befuddling issue about Gasol that often has been whispered around the NBA: “Soft, doesn’t like the contact, won’t challenge you.”

It certainly cannot be after playing for two championship teams; it’s a label that often was placed in European players, including Dirk Nowitzki. Both have demonstrated achievement trumps rumor. But like in life, first impressions stay too long, often because they are easier to accept and repeat than working to find the true answer.

Like Nowitzki, Gasol is infinitely skilled, able to shoot and pass with aplomb. Sometimes when it looks so easy, as players like Gasol can make it, the assumption is they don’t work hard enough. It’s a canard that often was hung on Gasol like an anchor and which gained credence again the last few seasons as Gasol waded into the background amidst the dysfunction of the Lakers.

Though the teams that are the best understood, which is why the Spurs, Thunder and Phil Jackson tried so hard to recruit Gasol last summer, why Kobe Bryant begged him to stay. But it was time for a change.

“The resiliency of this team definitely attracted me,” Gasol said after Wednesday’s game. “A lot of these guys have fought through adversity in different situations, injuries and stuff and still been able to perform at a pretty high level, all things considered. I thought with my addition things could be even better.”

Gasol is unusually cultured. He frequents the opera, speaks multiple languages. These are not always admired traits in many sports locker rooms, where towel slapping is high art. The defense mechanism can be to challenge someone’s physical nature. But you don’t succeed in the cauldron of the Finals without the heat burning inside you. Gasol’s opponents understand.

“I don’t know what reputation that is,” Gasol says a bit defensively as he was often rhetorically beaten over the head by media in Los Angeles. “I like to think my reputation is about being a professional, about being a great addition to any team I am a part of and being a champion. If that’s the reputation people talk about, it’s pretty accurate; if it’s other things..the last couple of years in L.A. were difficult. For many aspects. But I think I still was able to put myself above that and still do my job and gave everything I had every time I put that jersey on.

“It was emotionally draining,” Gasol admitted about the close of his Los Angeles chapter. “It was hard on me, especially after all the great times and teams we had. Different factors affected my persona, myself, and I just needed to be in a different position. To be refreshed, to be motivated again and put myself in the best position possible and I think this is it.”

But this is no uncertain competitor. Gasol isn’t bombastic like Noah or particularly outspoken. He seems to measure his words and reactions. But he also decided it was time for a message to his team after Tuesday’s loss. They are the sort of messages a team requires when it is not accepting of less than the best.

“By my experience every game matters,” explained Gasol. “Certain games are easier to relax and not bring the energy. Especially today, physically was a difficult day. Because we had to fight through the fatigue and emotion, last night taking that hit. But once you put that on the side and give everything you have and compete and get the job done and find a way to win, this is what you need to do to be on top in this league.”

Gasol helped do that Wednesday with first his words and then his play.

The Bulls started well in what seemed like an uncertain game given the double overtime disappointment, injuries with Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott out, arrival in Charlotte around 3 a.m. and heavy playing time Tuesday with 50 minutes for Gasol.

“We had every excuse pretty much but we came out and we took care of business,” said Gasol.

It started with Mike Dunleavy making threes as the Bulls would go on to make 12 of 28 while the Hornets were two of 15 from three as the Bulls help defense and close outs were much improved. Plus, Thibodeau said Derrick Rose with 15 points and five assists got the team going with his passing.

“I’ll tell you what I did like about the way (Rose) played today,” said Thibodeau. “The way he passed the ball he made a lot of good plays early on. I thought that got Mike going. We were high assist, low turnovers; we had good rhythm, we shot a high percentage on the threes. That was big for us.”

Though Rose wasn’t attacking the basket early, he did after halftime in a crucial third quarter run when he had 10 points.

Also early in the game, Gasol and Noah combined on some impressive high/low plays with Gasol taking advantage of his size and scoring easily on the Hornets’ smaller front line. Gasol with his long arms also did an excellent job on Hornets all-NBA Al Jefferson, who finished with just 13 points and seven rebounds.

The Bulls thus led 26-24 after one and then took a 45-40 halftime lead as Gasol continued to go over Jefferson inside for 12 points in the half. Though Gasol did get himself hung up on a Cody Zeller two handed slam poster. Rose led that early third quarter Bulls surge with a three and then a driving score and an off balance floater in the lane. It’s clear Rose isn’t fully back to his explosive self, though Thibodeau notes just Rose’s presence remains vital for the team and sees Rose making steady progress.

Noah also, though he rolled his ankle for the second straight game in what initially looked serious. But Noah only went back to the locker room to have it taped again and returned to play well in the second half.

“It’s felt better,” said Noah. “It’s also felt worse. I just wanted to play. I felt like playing. Only you as player know how much you can withstand.”

Thibodeau said he left it up to Noah and the medical staff.

“Jo’s a tough guy and I like to say he’s coming around,” said Thibodeau. “He’s playing great basketball right now. His timing is back; he’s making a lot of great plays out there. Can’t say enough about him, either. We called a timeout (when he was hurt). We asked him where he was, we talked to the trainer. I’ve got great faith in (trainer) Jeff Tanaka. I think he’s one of the best out there. If he says he can go, he goes; if he says he can’t go, he can’t go.”

Noah went a little upset in the third quarter along with Rose and both were assessed technical fouls in what was becoming a physically contentious game, which is generally to the Bulls’ advantage. Butler would rebound from a quiet first half with nine third quarter points and a driving baseline reverse slam dunk. Though he seems to be on the scouting reports now as the Hornets like the Mavs Tuesday played him tough. The Hornets got a late third run from Kemba Walker, who led them with 23 points, to pull within 72-71 after three. The run included a Walker crossover that had Nikola Mirotic down like a boxer with a weak chin.

But then in the fourth quarter, the Bulls got continued timely play from rookie Mirotic with a pair of threes as he finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds, a tough step back jumper from Butler after the Hornets went ahead and then Hinrich’s closing act for the Bulls’ league most 10th road victory.

“You are going to have tough losses; you are going to be tired. The schedule is not going to be easy, but you still have to bring your mental effort, your physical effort and get it done,” said Gasol, who is averaging 19.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. ”It’s important for team leaders and guys who have the experience to get everybody on the same page and focused.”

The Bulls are fortunate. They have a champion like Pau Gasol to help with that vital task.

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