NEW YORK — Ever since he won the MVP award back in 2011, the fortunes of the Chicago Bulls have hinged completely on the effectiveness (and availability) of Derrick Rose.
Now, he may finally have some help, thanks to the addition of Pau Gasol.
As one of the game’s most electrifying point guards continues to shake the rust off following two seasons where injuries limited him to just 10 total appearances, the Bulls saw their major free agent acquisition turn in a resurgent opening night performance, and one that should have fans in Chicago all kinds of excited about this season’s possibilities.
The Bulls crushed the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and on a night where Rose took just seven shots, Gasol was dominant, finishing with 21 points, 11 rebounds, and played the game in an aggressive way that brought back memories of his days as an All-Star four seasons ago.
It’s early in the relationship, but Gasol is drawing rave reviews from his teammates, and appears to be a perfect fit for what this Bulls team has been so sorely lacking in recent seasons.
“Pau has just been a leader,” said Taj Gibson, who was equally dominant on opening night coming off the bench. “One thing about Pau, once you push him and try to go at him, after a while, he gets mad. And you saw he got mad late in that third quarter, and we just kept giving him the ball. We’re going to need a lot from him, our guys on the bench learn a lot from him, and it’s showing in how well we’ve been playing.”
Gasol scored 11 of his points in the third, and had everything working to perfection. He hit a 20-ft jumper from the top of the key while trailing a play and receiving a pass from Rose on a drive-and-kick. He made a sweeping hook through the lane after backing down Samuel Dalembert following a post-up on the low block. Another play saw him elude the defense in a half court set to get loose for an uncontested dunk inside, and then he took it right at Cole Aldrich to score in the restricted area, which was followed by a stare-down as he backpedaled down the floor.
It was the type of performance that we used to see regularly during those championship seasons in Los Angeles, before the Lakers marginalized him with constant trade rumors and poor head coaching hires that didn’t come close to properly utilizing his talents.
The Bulls have made their way with defense, but were near the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency last season. They’re third there now after just one game — the smallest of sample sizes — and Rose, obviously, is thrilled to have the help.
“We’re forcing it to him,” Rose said. “Just making sure he gets touches, making sure that you have to play him when he’s on the floor. And he’s a guy who can consistently hit that midrange jumpshot. So if you want to double me, or if you want to go under (the screen) and contain, making sure I don’t get into the lane, I’m going to try to go at the big and make sure that it’s a long closeout whenever you do close back out to Pau. Normally, Pau will shoot that shot, so it’s going to be an easy game for us.”
In addition to what he brings to the game, Gasol has brought a level of professionalism and experience that his teammates have welcomed with open arms. It begins on the practice floor, where he’s constantly pushing after seemingly every single play.
“We had a lot of different guys that were stepping up, but we didn’t really have any older or veteran leadership that had really been there and won a championship,” Gibson said of last season’s squad.
It was something Gasol himself noticed when considering his free agent decision.
“I just thought that I could be a great fit for them,” Gasol said. “As far as my experience, what I bring to the table, the type of game that I have. I think I can really add to what they have going on here. It’s a pretty young group, so they’re hungry. They really haven’t achieved greatness yet, and I thought it was going to be a great opportunity for me to try to contribute, and hopefully take them to that next level.”
“It was probably the most difficult decision that I’ve made in my career, in my life probably,” he said.
It’s one game, of course, and it came against a New York team that’s expected to finish the year as one of the league’s bottom-feeders. But the fit is evident, and it appears as though Gasol couldn’t possibly have made made a better choice than to sign on with these Bulls.