Pau Gasol’s return to the lineup was a success, as he played 24 minutes and scored 14 points with 14 boards in the Bulls’ 109-102 win over the Sacramento Kings.
Gasol had to share duties of bumping and banging with Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, and Cousins certainly had his pound of flesh in Gasol’s first game back after his right knee swelled up.
“Felt good, energized. Moved pretty well,” Gasol said. “Not too much out of shape or out of rhythm. I was effective and helped the team win.”
Cousins left Gasol alone on an inbounds pass with 1:05 left for a corner 3 — well actually, Gasol’s right toe was on the line, but he nailed it either way, giving the Bulls a 107-99 lead, effectively closing the door on the Kings after the Kings took a surprising five-point lead in the middle of the fourth.
Gasol left his right hand in the air after his standstill shot swished, soaking in the approval from a grateful United Center crowd and showing no signs of a limp as he lumbered down the court to the Bulls’ huddle.
Personal and team-wide test, passed.
“Hard to say. We’ll see how the knee reacts, but so far so good,” Gasol said. “Felt pretty well out there. We just gotta monitor it. One game at a time.”
In the morning, Gasol was termed a game-time decision by Hoiberg, being officially listed as “questionable” on the Bulls’ injury report.
“Pau’s good to go,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got a plan to control his minutes, we’ll see how he responds to it. Everybody’s comfortable having him back out there.”
It flowed with what he said in the morning’s shootaround.
“He got a really good workout in yesterday, played some live two-on-two,” Hoiberg said. “And he responded well, didn’t have any swelling or pain in his knee. So we’ll make a decision on tonight and see how he responded to shootaround.”
For the first time this season, the Bulls had a somewhat-desired starting five on the floor together, as Hoiberg planned to have Nikola Mirotic as starting power forward, but Taj Gibson fits better in most combinations. With Mike Dunleavy missing time early in the season, then Jimmy Butler going out right before the All-Star break, it’s been a revolving door of starters — and in Game 69, the Bulls are somewhat close to full strength, as Joakim Noah is out for the season.
“It’s a good feeling to have your guys back and have options,” Hoiberg said. “We still have a couple of them with plans in place with their minutes. To have Pau back out there, he’s had a lot of energy the last few days, he’s chomping at the bit to get back on the floor. And obviously we flow better with him out there.”
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Gasol agreed, as the Bulls depended on him more statistically when Butler and Rose were in and out of the lineup. It slides him to a natural spot in the hierarchy, where he can likely be most effective.
“It’s good when we’re all out there and our best players are on the floor,” Gasol said.
Even with Gasol back, Cristiano Felicio will see more time in prime time. He made his first start Saturday night and was more than competent against Jazz center Rudy Gobert, being active enough on both ends to prevent Gobert from dominating early and helping set a tone as the Bulls led wire to wire for their second straight win.
“The big thing for Cris is just getting the experience,” Hoiberg said. “Getting out there in the starting lineup, and he showed no fear. He stepped out and hit a jump shot, he had a great drive to the rim in the second half. People see potential in Cris with the way he moves, his defensive abilities because of his feet. He has good instincts.”
“I think with Pau out the lineup, we needed somebody with size to give us good minutes, and Cris gave us critical time on the floor in the last two games.”