By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Bulls center Pau Gasol displayed a thoughtful awareness of the tough decision coach Tom Thibodeau faces in choosing who will close games for him, then also made this much clear.
“I like to be on the floor when the game is on the line,” Gasol said after Saturday’s practice. “That’s what I’ve been getting paid for my entire career.”
As talk emerges of whether rookie Doug McDermott could eventually work his way into the starting lineup, the more pressing question for the Bulls is who to use in crunch time. Last season, Thibodeau almost exclusively used Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson as his big men to close games, but the addition of Gasol gives him more options and more personalities to manage.
As it sits, Thibodeau is still trying to get a read on all of it and hasn’t committed to a closing group. On Thursday, Noah and Gasol played together for the final 6:07 as the Bulls rallied for a last-second win against a Hawks team that was using its third-stringers late, but Thibodeau still wants to see more minutes with various combinations (in the backcourt, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler will surely close games, with the other wing spot still up for grabs late too).
Thibodeau would ideally like to have a set closing unit, but because of the unique skills each big man brings, the coach understands he may have to play the situation by ear.
“You want to see them together,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the big thing, to see what works best, how they can be utilized. That’s still a work in progress.”
The Gasol-Noah pairing would provide the best rim protection for the Bulls, and when healthy, Noah’s nimble enough to guard most four-men in the league. Gibson’s quickness allows him to better apply on-ball pressure outside the paint, and he’s a capable mid-range shooter who also runs the floor well. And as Thibodeau has pointed out on multiple occasions, Gibson was often the Bulls’ best fourth-quarter player last year.
“It’s whatever you have to do, whatever makes the most sense for your team,” Thibodeau said when asked if he’s OK with mixing and matching as the season goes along.
“Maybe it is game by game. You don’t know.”
For his part, Gasol has always been part of his teams’ closing units when healthy, be it with the Grizzlies, the Lakers or Spain’s national team. His goal is to play well enough that the only option is for that trend to continue.
“You always like to be in the last minutes of the game when the game’s on the line,” Gasol said. “It’s good to be put in that position. It makes you feel like your coach trusts you to do the best thing out there on both ends of the floor. So it’s a good thing to be on the floor in those minutes, but you also have to understand there might be nights when it’s not going your way and there’s another guy who’s playing extremely well. So as long as you win the game, you should be OK with it.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.