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Is Pau Gasol’s Return Enough for Bulls to Force a Game 7?

Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

There’s something to be said for the offensive continuity of a player who led the league in double-doubles and recorded a new career high in the process.

Pau Gasol‘s absence was noticeable in the lack of offensive flow overall for the Chicago Bulls in the second half of Game 4 and the entirety of Game 5, leading to a do-or-die Game 6 against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center on Thursday night.

While he may not be as significant of a force defensively, it’s his consistency and durability that made Gasol a crucial component of this Bulls’ offense all season.

Cleveland got picked apart by the tandem of Gasol and Derrick Rose in Game 1, and a return to that and the classic low post game that Gasol has made a living dominating will be key if the Bulls intend on forcing a Game 7.

Much like Rose’s return toward the end of the regular season, Gasol being back in the lineup should take away pressure from Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy, both of whom have shouldered quite a bit of the scoring load in this second-round series.

And more importantly, it should mean less minutes for Joakim Noah, who has shot an abysmal 5-of-18 from the free throw line and blown routine layups throughout the series, negating his efforts on the glass (121 total rebounds and 13 blocks) and otherwise solid hustle stats.

Additionally, the ball tends to stagnate in Noah’s hands and can lead to shot clock violations, which don’t occur often with Rose running the point.

Because Noah’s not needed to run the pick-and-roll as a de facto “point center” as he had been with Rose out, whether or not the Bulls advance could come down to how much coach Tom Thibodeau is willing to bend his lineup in a way that maximizes Noah’s ability. It would be helpful if Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic found their shooting strokes, because those two along with Noah could anchor a strong second unit, while a frontcourt duo of Gasol and Taj Gibson could help provide a bit more balance at times.

It’s unclear at the moment just how severe Gasol’s strained hamstring is and how much it’ll affect his play, but it should be an upgrade over Noah regardless, offensively at least.

Also of great concern at the moment is figuring out how to neutralize Cleveland’s secondary scoring options.

Aside from a 15-point, nine-rebound outburst from Timofey Mozgov, the Russian giant has been relatively quiet. Mozgov has been held to single digits in every other game in the series, and his scoring production in Game 5 could be accounted for in one trip to the free throw line, which he split.

But combine Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith‘s output with the consistent production of LeBron James, and suddenly a Kevin Love-less team with a hampered Kyrie Irving looks much more menacing.

It may only be possible to slow down one of the two, but it would serve the Bulls well to devote energy into making sure Thompson doesn’t catch the ball inside the paint – something Chicago’s bigs should be more than capable of doing – and maintaining ideal post position to avoid giving up putback dunks and second chance points. Thompson has made a living on the offensive glass in this series, and the Bulls need to do a better job of putting a body on him.

Stopping Smith is a more complex problem – he’s within range after taking a few strides past half court. And as much as he has gained a reputation for launching up ill-advised jumpers, he’s hitting them just as frequently.

Additionally, now that he’s playing with competent teammates and not trying to untie opponents’ shoes during free throws, the Cavs can actually enable Smith to find wide open looks that make opposing defenses look downright foolish, rather than the other way around.

Smith went just 2-of-7 from downtown on Tuesday, though he shot 50 percent in the previous two games upon returning from his suspension. He played poorly in the first-round series against Boston (26.7 percent on three-point field goals), but he has managed to score at least 12 points in the last three games in the Chicago series.

If Dunleavy plays him tight and shoots well enough to force Smith to play hard defensively, it might be enough to temporarily throw him off his game.

In a series where games have ended twice on buzzer-beaters, a couple of solid defensive stops might be all it takes.

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