By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Amid the chaos Tuesday night at the United Center, it was worth stopping for a moment and reflecting on the mayhem for what it was producing: regular-season NBA basketball at its finest.
Of everyone involved in the Mavericks’ wild 132-129 double-overtime victory against the Bulls (11-7), big man Pau Gasol could separate the tough result and his appreciation for this beauty. He’d come to Chicago for nights like this – to play in games that mattered, in front of people who cared, with teammates who depended upon him.
“That’s why I came – to rejuvenate myself, re-energize myself, to be motivated again,” Gasol said Tuesday of signing with Chicago last July after 6 1/2 seasons in Los Angeles that produced two titles with the Lakers and a close friendship with star Kobe Bryant. “I did want a new challenge. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be in a winning situation where I could contribute and be the best player I could be.”
And so Gasol dug deeper Tuesday, challenged in a way he hadn’t been yet in his new home, the Bulls offense running through him to the tune of a team-high 29 points while he added 14 rebounds and played on and played on, hands on knees a few times, the brisk jaunts downcourt turning into more leisurely lopes. Gasol logged a game-high – and remarkable, given that the second night of a back-to-back awaits Wednesday in Charlotte – 50 minutes of playing time, only the sixth time in his career he’d achieved that mark.
To which he essentially shrugged.
“I did what I had to do, just like everybody on the team, to fight to give ourselves a chance,” Gasol said.
Gasol was the Bulls’ best player on this night, as he’s been so often this season. While Jimmy Butler’s transformation into All-Star form and a 20-point scorer has stolen the headlines, Gasol’s story may just be even more important, especially considering Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have been hobbled by injuries. Gasol’s now averaging 20.0 points (tied for 16th in the NBA, before Tuesday’s league-wide stats were updated) and 11.2 rebounds (eighth) on 49 percent shooting while logging nearly 36 minutes per game.
It’s simply remarkable for a 34-year-old, and as point guard Derrick Rose finds his full form while dealing with nagging injuries, Gasol’s become the focal point of the offense and a rock to play through, all the while his passing skills keep the ball moving.
“Huge,” Rose said of what Gasol’s meant to the Bulls. “Pau’s made great contributions, especially with the way he’s playing and how skilled he is.”
It was a connection between Rose and Gasol that may prove to be the Tuesday’s biggest takeaway moving forward. Quite frequently down the stretch in regulation and the two overtimes, the Bulls utilized the pick-and-roll with Rose and Gasol. It gave Dallas fits, with Chicago time and again getting open looks but just not hitting enough to grab the win.
Several times, Gasol knocked down mid-range jumpers after Rose drew two defenders. Another time, the threat of a Gasol mid-range shot kept his defender close and gave Rose the space he needed to find Noah for an easy bucket.
“It was kind of unstoppable,” Rose said of the pick-and-roll. “It was just, we got to do it more and not wait until the end.”
Rose wasn’t aggressive in attacking the defense so much as he was comfortable in probing it, finishing with 18 points and 10 assists.
“My role is to get the feel for the game and try to dicate that how I’m feeling and how the game is going,” said Rose, who also hit a circus one-handed, banked-in last-second 3-pointer to force the second overtime.
After several subpar offensive seasons in years past, the Bulls had the look of making the game so simple for long stretches Tuesday. They created a mismatch or found the inherent one, then exploited it to get good looks.
While the Bulls defense still hasn’t found its true form and must improve for Chicago to achieve any ultimate goal, there was no shame in this loss against the NBA’s most efficient and highest-scoring offense.
It was suspenseful, high-level basketball between two teams that are true contenders, and it made for a heckuva December evening.
“It was just fun playing against them,” Rose said. “They’re a great team. We both got fight. They just got the best of us tonight.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.