Amid the celebration at the United Center after the Bulls' Game 3 win lies a sense of nervousness for the rest of the series concerning their rock, Pau Gasol.
Gasol didn’t feel a pop, but there was certainly tightness in his left hamstring from the first quarter on, and after a few minutes in the second half he grabbed his hamstring again and was on the bench for the rest of the night.
His MRI revealed a strain and he’s listed as questionable for Game 4.
“Hopefully I’ll wake up tomorrow with not too much soreness,” said Gasol Friday. “And I’ll go to the hospital and do whatever it is they have to do and we’ll go from there.”
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t reveal any gut feeling on the matter, other than saying Gasol didn’t do anything in the Bulls’ walkthrough Saturday.
“We’ll see how he feels tomorrow,” Thibodeau said. “He’s got some soreness.”
The bulk of Gasol’s minutes went to Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, as the Bulls had to adjust on the fly with Gasol playing just 21 minutes and scoring six points with four rebounds and four assists.
“First quarter, early in the first quarter,” Gasol said. “Thought it was gonna loosen up, thought I could push through it but the more I pushed through it the worse it got. It is what it is. I just gotta find out tomorrow what’s going on and go from there.”
Gibson could be the next man up if Gasol doesn’t play, but he’s certainly earned minutes based on his Game 3 performance alone. His activity under the basket was a key factor in the Bulls dominating the boards.
“My energy is going to be the same no matter what,” Gibson said. “Be ready to go out there and play however many minutes I play. Just go out there and go hard. Understand that every game is intense. Just have to bring it.’’
After a night of “bringing it" (nine points, nine rebounds), especially against a dump truck named Tristan Thompson, Gibson woke up feeling every bit of his battle with the man who grabbed 13 rebounds in 41 minutes. Despite being on the unfortunate end of Derrick Rose’s game-winner, Thompson is one of the bigger matchup problems the Bulls face because of his activity.
“He's a load, man. He's a load,” Gibson said. “Like I said, it's a man's game. He's real physical down there. I woke up this morning with so many aches I didn't even know I had. It's a real physical game. He's a talented player.”
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Throwing Mirotic and Gibson out there together didn’t prove to be as troublesome as Thibodeau may have expected, as he seemed reticent to do before circumstance forced his hand.
At the start of the fourth, they helped push the Bulls to a 82-77 lead with seven minutes left before Mirotic was subbed for Mike Dunleavy.
“Thibs, you never know what he's going to throw at you,” Gibson said. “You've just got to be ready. I think defense was the main key in that. He felt like our smaller unit could move with their unit. It was one of those quick decisions that coach made.”
Mirotic’s shooting and size gave the Cavs problems, much in the same way the Cavs’ smallish lineup dictated terms in Game 2 in Cleveland. Mirotic had his way with James Jones, who doesn’t have the height or footspeed to keep up, and registered a game-high +19 on the plus-minus side.
“My teammates, they really find me, first play when it goes in,” said Mirotic, who scored 12 while hitting his first shot. “Really trying to share the ball to get the advantage. When I was with Jones (on me), they tried to find me in the low post too. I think we are playing good basketball.”
And if the opportunity for more time comes up, Mirotic will take it. He wants more of that atmosphere and the pressure that comes with a playoff series like this.
“It’s a big difference,” Mirotic said. “I was playing in the second quarter, my legs were really tired. But you know, you need to push yourself mentally too. You need to be ready. But I’m really excited.”