Gasol with career high 46 leads win over Bucks


Jan 11

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It was the first game for Pau Gasol after he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2008. Gasol took a pass, spun and put the ball in smoothly. Kobe Bryant lit up. As he ran back on defense, he yelled to coach Phil Jackson, “We’ve got a big man.”

And so do the Bulls, who got one of the biggest big man games ever in franchise history from their new big man, a career high 46 points and 18 rebounds from Gasol Saturday in the Bulls 95-87 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.

“He wasn’t going to let us lose tonight,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “You are talking about a guy who is as highly skilled a big guy as there is in the NBA; he’s been that for a long time. He willed it.”

It was an important win for the Bulls as much as those things can be in January following two consecutive double digit losses and with Derrick Rose out with a sore knee, though not considered serious or worrisome, and Mike Dunleavy remaining out with an ankle issue, though also not considered a major problem. Still, it left the Bulls using their 11th different starting lineup of the season with Tony Snell getting his first start of the year and the Bulls still shooting poorly, the 39.8 percent Saturday the sixth time in the last eight games the team shot below 40 percent.

Jimmy Butler was two of nine for nine points and now is nine of 34 his last three games, though Butler did set a career high with 10 assists. Snell and Aaron Brooks were each one of seven and Taj Gibson was three of 12. Only Kirk Hinrich with 16 points joined Gasol in double figures scoring.

It was left to the Bulls summer free agent prize to step forward—as well as drop step and step out and shoot–with questions suddenly looming after a pair of poor performances, including being overwhelmed by contending Washington.

Rose was in a shooting slump, Joakim Noah’s knees were bothering him, Butler was leading the league in minutes played, rookie Nikola Mirotic was losing his shot at small forward, championship rallies were being talked about again only for auto races.

So to the starting line came Gasol, and his engine drove the Bulls throughout the game against a hazardous Bucks team that had won five straight on the road.

“It was definitely a critical, crucial game for us to bounce back from the two game skid we had,” said Gasol. “It’s important to win at home. It’s important to snap out of losing and regain confidence and rhythm.”

It was just important to have Gasol, who also happened to have about the quietest, least spectacular 46 points you’ll ever see.

Which perhaps matches the personality and demeanor of one of the more polished and gracious men to run the NBA hardwood. It’s led to misconceptions about Gasol, which Bryant admits he harbored as well. Until Gasol became his teammate and he saw the package of skills with quiet leadership qualities that helped make Bryant an NBA champion again.

We too often equate outsized behavior, like pounding your breast or announcing your intentions, with physical presence and superiority. So it’s happened that Gasol would often draw the basketball epithet of being “soft,” not a competitor. But those who stood beside him knew you don’t become one of two featured players on consecutive title teams without physical and mental tenacity and remarkable skills.

Gasol doesn’t announce them with soaring dunks to famously become posters or measure competitors with taunts and boorishness. His abridged medical goals are mentioned along with his appreciation for opera. No blind back picks there.

But this is a truly unique player with a cerebral appreciation for the game, a remarkable set of skills for a big man the likes of which we see maybe once a decade. With an appreciation for engagement with sportsmanship, though no less the competitor.

“One thing about Pau I notice,” said Gibson, “when he gets it going early it’s a wide open game for him. He started with the low post and then was taking the mid range jumpers. He’s a legit 7-0, 7-1 guy with a long wingspan. And when he gets fouled can knock down his foul shots. One of those nights when you have to throw everyone at him and they didn’t do that. He can do it all, dribble too, put it between his legs, sees the defense, everything.”

It was from the start as the Bulls after being thwarted by Washington’s big men Wednesday, went strong to Gasol inside and he responded immediately. He would finish with the first Bills game with that level of points and rebounds since Michael Jordan in 1990. Only Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber and Kevin Durant have rivaled those numbers in a game the last 15 years.

“I was able to get a good base; that’s always a good sign for me,” said Gasol. “When I get a good base in the post and I finish my shot and I’m able to finish the first couple of shots, when the jumper was falling, you know you’re on. It was a good overall night.”

Pau’s very good with understatement as well.

He had 20 points and six rebounds…in the first quarter.

That would enable the Bulls, 26-12 and 12-7 at home, to lead 29-19 after one quarter. And though the Bucks kept nipping, the Bulls basically led the entire game comfortably except for a Bucks run to open the second half that gave them a lead for 26 seconds. The Bulls then scored 10 straight points with stout defense all game to keep the Bucks from making it too frightening.

The Bucks, of course, were without the injured Jabari Parker out for the year after an ACL tear and were so bereft of size with Larry Sanders out again for personal issues they brought in retired veteran Kenyon Martin.

The Bucks opened with physical Zaza Pachulia defending Gasol. And the start was a preview of a terrific show as Pau scored first in the post, stepped outside for a jumper and then a hook for a three-point play in a 7-0 Pau start.

“Pau was rolling early and we fed off that,” said Hinrich, who made the big shots in that 10-0 third quarter run after the Bucks took the brief lead and also drew crucial charges. “He’s been big time for us all year. Everyone talks about on the court he’s a double/double machine. Tonight just a monster game. I don’t know if I’ve seen someone rolling like that in a long time. He’s always talking; guys listen to him. He’s been there, been on great teams, won championships; to have a guy like that is huge.

“It’s impressive, the longevity of it,” added Hinrich. “Fourteenth year to still be going like that.”

After Gasol blitzed Pachulia early, the Bucks went with some intriguing strategies. Though Jason Kidd was mocked for some of his antics as Nets coach last season, he seems to be imaginative and creative, certainly for an NBA coach. The Bucks had some success after halftime having 6-6 Jared Dudley defend Gasol, settling into a matchup zone and getting a double team from the perimeter off the Bulls guards. The strategy gave the Bulls their only scare of the game as Gasol appropriately passed out of the doubles. No one but Hinrich could make shots. The word is getting around and the Bulls will see these sorts of defenses until they make those shots.

The Bucks are now 20-19, and that has to be one of the better stories in the NBA. They are annoying on defense, quick to close out while unselfish on offense as 10 different players had assists. That’s with talent seemingly no better than the 76ers.

It likely would have been enough if not for Gasol.

But what also stands out with Gasol is that propriety and concern for others than can be mistaken for weakness.

The routine after an NBA game is fairly consistent.

There is a 10-minute so called cooling off period. After that, the coach comes out to speak with reporters. About that time or shortly thereafter, the locker room is opened for reporters to speak with players. If you spend too much time with the coach, who’ll speak from five to eight minutes, you’ll miss the players who dress and shower quickly and leave.

Most of the Bulls players, given the preponderance of injuries, are slow to leave after games. Gasol is among that group, though he’s been healthy. But after his career game, NBA-TV asked him to speak with them. So he did his interviews as Thibodeau answered questions down the hall. By the time Thibodeau’s session was over, Gasol was leaving for the NBA-TV session.

But several reporters had missed him, and you can’t miss Gasol after he scores a career high 46.

So the reporters waited. The routine would be for the player to shower and then dress and before leaving briefly speak with that second wave of media. Though many players, while generally cooperative, limit their media sessions to one. Plus, even assuming Gasol would do another session, it might be a half hour with reporting deadlines looming. Gasol was heading into the shower after his TV report and saw some reporters standing by his locker. They said they’d wait. No, he said, they had work to do. He’d do the interviews now. It seems like a small thing. But the point was Gasol recognized the reporters needed to speak with him at that time to make their jobs easier. Not his. He’d delay his shower.

His comments revealed a man of unusual depth and a player of special understanding.

Here’s a transcript:

Q: Can you discuss your outlook toward this game?

Gasol: “You try to establish yourself always early in the games and get a feel for how things are playing out. I was able to score early, get in good rhythm, knock down some outside shots, which always opens things up for you and opens things up for later penetration, which it did. My teammates did a good job of finding me and looking for me and coach made a lot of play calls for me as well; just play the game, be aggressive, try to stay at it. It was a great game.

Q: Did you go into the game feeling the team needed something special? What was your reaction to the output?

Gasol: “Obviously satisfying and happy I played at this level tonight. And I was able to help the team get a win. Because a lot of times when you have these types games (his teams lost in his other two 40-plus games with a previous high of 44) you take away the rhythm and the flow of the game from your teammates and it’s not something that I like. I’m all about balance and the team game. I always like a nice balanced game with the weapons we have around. I was glad I was able to get going, but at the same time be able to win this game.”

Q: Did you think at this stage of your career you’d have a game like this?

Gasol: “You don’t really think of having this type of game. I just try to play the game the right way. Make things happen out there, make the right decisions, contribute as much as I can. But you don’t think about having 40-plus games. You just play the game; that’s what I like to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever score 40 again; probably not. It’s very unlikely. I’m glad I was able to do it tonight. Just got to keep going.”

Q: Was this your most dominant performance in recent years:

“I’m not a guy who expects things; you make things happen. I don’t expect the best, I don’t expect the worst. You just put yourself in the best position possible to see what you can do. Just trying to work hard and continue to take care of myself so I can play at a high level at this point in my career. That’s what I try to do.”

Q: Did you feel you needed to do more with Rose out?

Gasol: “When key offensive players are out you usually have to assume more responsibility. Tonight it was me; it could gave been Jimmy, it could have been other players stepping up. I had it going. They were taking away a few missed touches with double teams (of Butler). They were making a conscious effort to take the ball away from his hands. So it was me tonight. I had better looks and more opportunities.”

Q: Has it been it a bigger boost for you coming here or the Bulls?

“This team definitely has boosted me. Have I boosted the team? I hope so. The best relationships are always win/win. In this case, I think it’s great for both.

Q: Have you exceeded what you expected with the Bulls:

“It’s been great (here) so far. But we’re not even halfway into the season. There’s so much ahead of us. Our goals are beyond individual games. So I’ll continue to go and take care of myself and do what I have to do to stay productive and stay dominant.”

Q: Have you considered how long you’ve been playing?

“I’ve played a lot of years. Once you have played over 10 years in this league you can feel extremely lucky. I feel extremely fortunate to be around for that long. And when you are able to sustain performance….I take pride in being consistent. Consistency to me is what separates you from other players. If you look at my career every single year I’ve been pretty consistent. It’s great I’m still able to do it at this point.”

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