Pau Gasol: The one Bulls piece Cavaliers can’t counter

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Gasol was money all night from mid-range in the Bulls Game 1 victory over the Cavs. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — We already know the story lines that are going to drive this Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Bulls and the Cavaliers.

Everybody wants to watch point guards Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving battle head-to-head, and for mighty good reason. These are two of the most electric ball-handlers and penetrators in the league, and in Game 1 they were often spectacular — Rose seemingly with a momentum-stealing shot to answer every Irving-fueled Cavs run.

And Jimmy Butler’s matchup with LeBron James is riveting theater. James was an assist shy of a triple-double, yet Butler more than passed his first test against the best player in the world.

You have old hands Rose and Joakim Noah trying to finally get the better of James in an overall sense, and that’s a big deal, too.

But then there’s Pau Gasol. Mr. Excitement, he is not. You won’t find any of his highlights being used in promos for Game 2. Yet the 34-year-old seven-footer is the key to this beat-LeBron-or-bust series for the Bulls.

Irving is every bit as dazzling as Rose, and perhaps more so. Butler, as terrific as he is, simply is not on James’ level. But then — again — there’s Gasol. He’s the one Bulls piece the Cavs can’t counter. He’s the most skilled big man in this Kevin Love-less series by a million miles.

It just may end up that Gasol, who hit 10 of 16 shots and was deadly with the mid-range jumper in a 99-92 victory, is the reason Cleveland sports fans are destined to cry in their pirogies once again.

“He can shoot that 16-footer,” said Joakim Noah. “If he’s open, it’s going down. He had it all night.”

Did we mention Gasol had 10 more rebounds in Game 1 for his sixth double-double in seven games this postseason? Here he is, playing every bit as well as he did while winning championshipswith the Lakers in his late-20s.

“He’s very experienced,” Rose said. “A free-throw-line jump shot is like a layup to him.”

With Noah continuing to struggle on offense at never-before-see levels — he was scoreless Monday — and with Butler and Rose each up against it defensively, Gasol could repeatedly find himself in position to save the day.

He’s the Bulls player who’ll keep Cavs coach Dave Blatt up at night. Blatt sent James to cover Gasol on a couple of times in Game 1, with successful results. So maybe he’ll want to do it more, right? Imagine what that could do for the Bulls’ perimeter scorers.

“Obviously Pau’s a great mid-range shooter, as we found out tonight,” James said. “He made us pay. We’ll go back to the drawing board.”

It’s must-win time for Cleveland — already. If the Bulls take a 2-0 series lead here on Wednesday, it’ll be hard for them to screw this thing up.

“We’re in great position now,” Gasol said. “We have a good opportunity in front of us. So let’s not waste it.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg


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