Bulls-Cavs Game 5: If Pau Gasol Can’t Go, is There a Frontcourt Solution?


Pau Gasol’s absence was an issue for the Bulls (on the offensive end) in Game 4. Gasol tested the hamstring during Wednesday’s shootaround, but if he can’t go, what’s a solution for the Bulls up front?

Pau Gasol wasn’t brought to Chicago to be a certified rim protector.

The two-time NBA Champion was brought in to help the Bulls build their frontcourt depth and become one of the better offenses in the NBA.

Despite shooting just 6-for-15 in Games 2 and 3, Gasol was a primary reason the Bulls stole Game 1 in Cleveland with a 13-point third quarter to stretch the Bulls lead out to 15 points at one point.

With Gasol out on Sunday, the Bulls struggled to find a go-to pairing in the frontcourt when the game got tight.

Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes posted each of the six frontcourt pairing from the regular season for the Bulls, and the numbers are extremely telling:

(Photo Credit: Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes, with stats provided by NBA.com/Stats)

Here’s a couple takeaways from the numbers:

  • The starting duo in Game 4 (Gibson-Noah), is statistically the worst duo of the six pairs. Despite being a +2 on Sunday and pulling down 23 combined rebounds, the Taj GibsonJoakim Noah duo shot 6-for-19 from the floor, including 5-for-16 around the rim.
  • The Gibson-Nikola Mirotic duo has the best net rating of any pairing in their 666 regular season minutes. If you remember, this duo was on the floor for the final stretch of Game 3, when Gibson set the screen for Derrick Rose to hit the game-winning three-pointer.
  • When a pairing including Mirotic, it’s pretty good. Sure, Mirotic is only shooting 6-for-21 (28.6 percent) from the floor in the Cleveland series, but teams have been frightened by his ability to shoot the outside shot. His shooting ability helps the Bulls create driving lanes in the half-court with good spacing.

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A reason why the Bulls are searching for an answer up front is because of the bulk minutes Gasol has played this season. Gasol’s ability to play with Gibson, Mirotic and Noah, and be efficient, has been such an asset to the Bulls this season.

The Gasol-Noah duo kills offensive spacing, but it still has a net rating of +2.8, thanks to the two playing with the other three Bulls starters, who have all been great in the playoffs.

Here’s an example of spacing is so important for the Bulls.

(Notice the Gibson/Noah pairing on the floor here.)

Derrick Rose has to settle for a pull-up jumper instead of getting to the basket in this half-court set because Noah doesn’t have the shooting ability to pull Cavs center Timofey Mozgov away from the basket. (Photo Credit: Ximo Pierto’s YouTube channel)

Rose does hit this jumper from the nail off a Noah screen, but notice Timofey Mozgov in the lane here. He can sag off and play the drive because of Noah being on the floor, instead of Gasol.

Tristan Thompson is just hanging on the left side of the lane with his eye on Rose too, which also leads to Rose pulling up for the jumper.

If Gasol was on the floor, J.R. Smith would probably try to scramble over to contest a potential Rose jumper and Mozgov would most likely be late getting over to contest Gasol pulling up for an elbow jumper.

Here’s an offensive set from the second quarter with the Mirotic-Noah pairing on the floor, better known as the co-leader in net rating for the six Bulls frontcourt pairings.

Aaron Brooks takes a high screen from Joakim Noah, which frees him up to take James Jones all the way to the rim for an easy deuce. (Photo Credit: Ximo Pierto’s YouTube channel)

The Cavaliers went small with LeBron James at the five, guarding Nikola Mirotic. With no rim protector due to the Bulls’ ability to shoot with this lineup, Brooks gets right to the lane for an easy layup.

Noah set the pick, which puts Brooks in an easy one-on-one with James Jones (who isn’t exactly known for his defense), while Iman Shumpert has to keep his eye on Kirk Hinrich in the corner and James watching Mirotic. If J.R. Smith tried to rotate over to help on Brooks’ drive, Jimmy Butler would have an easy dunk off a Brooks dish.

So, to answer the question of what should the Bulls do in the frontcourt for Game 5 (if Gasol doesn’t play), the focus should be on spreading the Cavaliers out and open the driving lanes to attack the basket.

The way to do that is for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to trust his role guys and give players like Mirotic especially, opportunities to free up lanes for Derrick Rose, who can take advantage of a hurting Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler.

Gasol injury update: Gasol is being considered a “game-time decision” for Game 5 on Tuesday night. Although it sounds unlikely he’ll give it a go, Turner Sports’ Rachel Nichols posted this short video of Gasol working out before Tuesday’s shootaround.

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