Pau Gasol has played under Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. He’s won championships playing alongside Kobe Bryant, made six All-Star appearances and will likely became the 42nd player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 career points. Now in San Antonio, the future Hall-of-Famer is getting to be a part of the incomparable Spurs culture that has seen the franchise win at least 50 games in each of the last 17 seasons.
That model of consistency doesn’t come easy, and it’s the reason Gasol, Popovich and the rest of the Spurs speak openly about still working and improving each day, despite their 18-5 record. And though they had won 13 consecutive road games to begin the year – the second-longest streak in NBA history – and entered the United Center on Thursday having won 13 of their last 14, the tone in the locker room was one of disappointment following their 95-91 loss to the Bulls.
Gasol posted 13 points and 10 rebounds in his return to Chicago after two All-Star campaigns with the Bulls, and he added three assists and a block in 31 minutes. But the Spurs put themselves in an early hole, scoring just 32 points before halftime, and a late rally that cut the Bulls’ lead to just four with 3 minutes to play was still too much to overcome. The loss will merely be a blip on the Spurs’ record by the end of the season – they’ve now lost three straight games in Chicago – as San Antonio is on pace to win 64 games.
Despite the loss, Gasol has noticed a stark difference within the Spurs organization that he couldn’t find in his two seasons with the Bulls.
“It’s all about winning here. It’s all about whatever it takes to win. It’s all about excellence. It’s all about the long run but being consistent and bringing it every single night, and not settling. So, all the right ingredients for a winning formula.”
Gasol alluded to the inconsistencies in Chicago that, without him this season, have crept up again. The Bulls entered Thursday night having lost three straight, and five of six. With their win over the Spurs, their last two victories have come against San Antonio and the defending-champion Cavaliers. Their fives losses in that span? All against teams with records at or below .500 (DEN, LAL, DAL, POR, DET).
Even last year, the Bulls touted a 3-3 record against the Finals participants in Cleveland and Golden State – one of two teams to do that – and were 9-3 against the four teams in the conference finals, which included the Thunder and Raptors. And yet, they were also 9-3 against the teams with the five worst records.
It’s why Gasol wasn’t surprised that the Bulls came to play against the Spurs despite being home underdogs and reeling with three straight losses.
“The Bulls usually get up against good teams. The challenge is getting up against the not-so-good teams and winning those games, and that has also been an issue,” he said. “But we knew that tonight they were going to bring it and they were going to be sharp, and unfortunately we weren’t for the first 24 minutes and that finally cost us a (road) game.”
Fred Hoiberg said as much in his postgame press conference, that "it's about having that collective effort each and every time you take the floor. It can't just be against the top teams in this league. You've got to bring it every night."
Those inconsistencies in Gasol’s final year with the Bulls – not beating teams they should have – resulted in the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. And in the offseason the Bulls moved on from both Gasol and Joakim Noah, and traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks.
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Gasol spoke about why the culture in Chicago was a difficult one to adapt to in Hoiberg’s first season with the team.
“There was a coaching change. That was a big change for the team and we did have quite a bit of injuries once again,” he said. We didn’t have much continuity, and it was kind of an adjustment season for the team, trying to understand what the coaching staff wanted the team to do and the coaching staff trying to understand the personnel and the players. So it was a difficult year in that regard. It was hard to get the continuity and the consistency that the team needed to be successful.
Gasol said it was “special” to be back in Chicago, a city he cherished for two years. Upon entering the United Center 90 minutes before tipoff he said hello to Bulls reporters waiting to speak with Popovich before accidentally heading toward the Bulls locker room he had walked into each of the last two seasons.
The Bulls showed a brief highlight reel early in the first quarter welcoming him back, and he was able to compete against a few former teammates he still keeps in touch with, notably Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and fellow Spaniard Nikola Mirotic.
Hoiberg spoke highly of his time with Gasol and the year he’s had in San Antonio, adding that “he’s always a guy for me that I’ll cheer for. Just based on what he did for us last year.”
Gasol’s time in Chicago will be remembered more for what the Bulls didn’t accomplish – Gasol missed two games in their second round series against the Cavaliers in 2014 with a hamstring injury – despite Gasol putting up elite numbers for a well-traveled player in his late 30s. Now in San Antonio he’s averaging career-low numbers – 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds – but has immersed himself in the Spurs’ culture that has led to their annual winning ways.
“He’s a good teammate and he’s caught on pretty quickly to the notion of what we’re doing,” Popvich said of Gasol. “It’s just basketball, so it’s not very difficult for him.”