CHICAGO — It’s among the most inspiring three words a Chicago sports fan can read, bested only perhaps by "Cubs win Series" and "Jay Cutler traded."
"Pau Gasol, probable."
Who knew? Expectations were high when the Bulls signed Gasol, 34, to a three-year, $22 million contract last summer. He was the most formidable post presence Joakim Noah had ever played alongside, the best second scorer Derrick Rose had ever played with.
Now, Gasol is being asked to save Chicago’s season.
The Bulls are in a 3-2 hole, at home, facing a Cavaliers team with LeBron James coming off his most complete game of the season and a figured-out-how-to-play-on-one-leg Kyrie Irving. Joakim Noah is backboarding layups and Nikola Mirotic is playing like a rookie. Rose, as healthy as he has been since 2011, is looking around wondering if his team has as many other options as it did that year.
The sabermetricians will say Gasol’s value is overrated. They will point to pedestrian on/off court numbers during the regular season—the Bulls offensive rating with Gasol on the floor was nearly identical to what it was with him off, per NBA.com—and cite dozens of examples of Gasol’s defensive deficiencies. Gasol can be slow to react (Tom Thibodeau hates that), occasionally indifferent (Thibodeau really hates that) and more interested in offensive touches than defensive slides.
But come on: Have you watched the last two games?
The Bulls scored 84 points in Game 4, a woefully inept effort even for Thibs' troops. They put up 101 in Game 5, but anyone that watched Rose heave up brick after brick—the ex-MVP missed his last 11 shots—understood that Rose needed help.
Help, thy name is Gasol.
Say what you want about Gasol, but this is undeniable: He’s a presence. For 78 games during the regular season—most of any Bulls starter—Gasol was producing. He averaged 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. He was an All-Star. He shot 49.4% from the floor and 80.3% from the free throw line. He blocked nearly two shots per game and used his 7-foot frame to alter countless more.
Gasol won’t be Gasol when he comes back; he’s declared his health around 40%, hoping to get to 50% or 60% by Thursday night. On Wednesday, Gasol said he felt no residual pain in his left hamstring. He said he was making good progress. After a light walkthrough and an extended post practice workout, Gasol vowed to do “everything I can to help the team.”
“I mean right now it’s win or go home,” Gasol said. “There’s nothing left but tomorrow’s game. What percentage I’ll be able to play? I don’t know, but whatever percentage I will be that’s what I’ll give. As much as I can, to the point that I'm helpful on the floor. If I can't be helpful and I'm hurting the team, then I'll make a decision. But hopefully, that won't happen.”
If the Bulls hope to send this series back to Cleveland, it can’t.