In perhaps their best chance to win an NBA title since the Phil Jackson-Michael Jordan era, the Chicago Bulls missed a golden opportunity to take a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even more importantly, they had the chance to do that without key component Pau Gasol.
On Sunday afternoon, LeBron James was trying to avoid falling in a 3-1 hole as he and the Cavs looked to even the series at 2-2 before heading back to Cleveland.
On the strength of a game-winning stepback jumpshot over Jimmy Butler, King James did just that and all of a sudden, the momentum has shifted. It was the third playoff buzzer beater of his career, and it crushed the fans in the United Center.
What a huge win this would have been, especially without the services of Gasol, who has been an integral part of the Bulls’ success this season. With him missing Game 4 due to a mild hamstring strain, all eyes were on the other members of their frontcourt to step up and provide some much-needed production.
Gasol had one of his best statistical seasons in recent memory, averaging 18.5 points on 49 percent shooting and 80 percent from the charity stripe. His ability to thrive in pick-and-pop situations was one of the many aspects of his game that attracted the Bulls. Along with his scoring, he corralled a career-high 11.8 rebounds per game for the second-best rebounding team in the NBA and averaged 1.9 blocks, which was the highest since his 2006-07 season with Memphis.
In the past, Chicago made its name on the defensive end, as they were typically amongst the top of the league in all the categories. This season, they were a bit inconsistent, and much of this can be attributed to new personnel and a plethora of injuries. They still managed to be tied for ninth in team defense and Gasol provided a positive contribution to this outcome with his career-low 101 defensive rating. Although he was never known as a lockdown defender, he brought some solid rim protection to the table this season.
The Bulls knew just what they were getting when they convinced Gasol to sign with them during the offseason. His championship pedigree and leadership would serve them well during their title run. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant will reap most of the credit for the back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, but Gasol’s production can never be understated.
In 2009, he averaged 18.3 points on 58 percent shooting to go along with his 10.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per contest in the playoffs. Then in 2010, he tallied 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds. The dynamic duo Bryant and Gasol was a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, one that required you to extensively prepare for. This is what Bulls management envisioned when they brought him to the Windy City.
So far during the postseason this year, he’s their third-leading scorer (15.1) on an efficient 49.5 percent shooting and is their second leading rebounder (9.9), just shy of a double-double. They certainly missed his services last game in their heartbreaking two-point loss.
How in the world did the Bulls manage to lose this game at home with no Kevin Love, an injured Kyrie Irving and a gimpy James? Look no further than the Bulls’ impromptu scoring droughts they had in this game. The starting frontcourt of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy combined for just 18 points. Nikola Mirotic, who was looked upon for an increased role in Pau’s absence, shot a dreadful 1-of-9 and had just three points.
With everyone expecting the winner of this series to breeze through the next round and eventually represent the conference in the Finals, Chicago had a chance to make a loud statement in front of its home crowd in Game 4, but failed to deliver the goods. A victory without Gasol would have bought him more time and possibly presented head coach Tom Thibodeau with the option of resting him for Game 5.
No one would surmise that conceding this game would have been plausible, but hamstring injuries are tough to manage and any extra time would have served him well. Now it seems like the Bulls have no margin for error and can’t afford to make such decisions. If he can’t play, Chicago will need a much better effort from their other role players.
After two game-winners told the story of this past weekend, we’re all set for Game 5 to take place on Tuesday night. Whether we see more heroics or not, the Bulls will desperately need Gasol back in the lineup. He didn’t practice and isn’t expected to play, but fans, of course, are hoping for better news prior to the game.