By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Bulls big man Pau Gasol pulled the long arms of his 7-foot frame into a maroon blazer, turned to face a throng of media members and took a deep breath Tuesday night.READ MORE: Man Seriously Wounded In Shootout With University Of Chicago Police Officer In Hyde Park
Before the cameras started rolling, he was asked if he was tired.
“A little,” Gasol said, 40 minutes and 59 seconds of playing time in the rearview mirror after Chicago’s 98-90 win against Orlando at the United Center.
Not since Game 1 of a first-round playoff series in April 2013 had Gasol logged so many minutes. Back then, the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers had needed every last ounce from Gasol to even put up a fight against the mighty Spurs.
On Tuesday, the 34-year-old Gasol was again called to such action by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. With center Joakim Noah missing the game with an illness, guard Derrick Rose out with two sprained ankles and forward Taj Gibson saddled much of the night with foul trouble, there was one clear path to victory for Chicago against a winless foe. That meant playing Gasol big minutes, so as to run the offense through him and have a defender with the size to match up with Orlando’s best player, big man Nikola Vucevic.
In another city, under another coach, a big man playing 41 minutes in a time of need might not turn a head. It did here, in this city in which every personnel move of Thibodeau’s is under a microscope. The Bulls have worn down in each of the past two postseasons, spent after a season of grinding. The front office’s offseason pursuit of depth admitted as much.
Tuesday seemed like an opportune time for Nazr Mohammed, Chicago’s fifth big man, to make his season debut after Gibson picked up his third foul with 10:36 left in the second quarter and Orlando leading 34-29. Remember that Mohammed routinely played five-minute stretches last season in the second quarter, and while completely devoid of flash, he managed to not set the sport of basketball back.
Instead, Gasol had been on the bench for all of 84 seconds when Thibodeau called him back to the court. He played the rest of the first half, the entire third quarter and the final 6:23 of the fourth quarter. Gasol even played more minutes than the indomitable Jimmy Butler, who logged a breezy 35 on Tuesday, and Thibodeau never had a second thought.
“When I was watching the (Spanish national team) play, I knew he was in great shape,” Thibodeau said in reference to Gasol playing for Spain in the FIBA World Cup in the offseason. “When he got here for our training camp, I saw him running and doing things. I think when you’re in great shape, it aids you greatly. So you’re talking about a guy who’s started, he’s played in big games, he’s played big minutes. That’s what great players do.”READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Arctic Blast Coming Late Tuesday Night
Make no mistake: Without Gasol’s steady night and big minutes, the Bulls would’ve lost Tuesday. He finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, while helping hold Vucevic to 9-of-22 shooting. Gasol also assisted on an Aaron Brooks 3-pointer that was a dagger with 2:48 left.
“That’s winning basketball,” Thibodeau said in praise of Gasol.
Also make no mistake: Gasol was laboring by game’s end. With about eight minutes left in the third quarter, Gasol slowly loped up the floor, barely crossing half-court on a Bulls possession. With just under two minutes left, he forced a miss by Magic guard Elfrid Payton at the rim with a quality challenge, then stayed out of a hot potato battle for the rebound that resulted in a jump ball.
He didn’t have the lift, and there’s little time to recover. Wednesday night, the second of a back-to-back awaits in Milwaukee, with Noah’s status still unclear.
“You got to push through it,” Gasol said. “It’s what you need to do in order to perform well and help your team win.”
A 14th-year veteran and deep thinker, Gasol is as sharp as they come in the NBA. In the big picture, he knows one extra stretch of six minutes won’t make or break the season for himself or the Bulls.
Gasol’s also smart enough to know that he battled health issues in each of the past two seasons with the Lakers, years in which he averaged 33.8 minutes and 31.4 minutes. Tuesday must be the rare exception, as good as it felt to carry the burden.
“My body’s holding up well,” Gasol said. “We’re winning. So far, so good.”MORE NEWS: AT&T And Verizon Delay Rollout Of New 5G Service Near O'Hare, Midway, Other Airports After Airlines Warn Of Delays
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.