The Bulls officially lost Sunday’s Game 4 tilt in Chicago when LeBron James’s incredible last-second fade-away jumper in the corner was good, capping a back-and-forth 86–84 win by Cleveland.
Unofficially, the game was lost when Pau Gasol went down with a hamstring injury in Game 3 Friday night.
Sure, Chicago conceivably could have won had Game 4 Cleveland head coach David Blatt been slapped with a “T” late in the game (had the referees seen him call a timeout with none left), but they were struggling down the stretch without their difference-maker in the post. Now with two of the three remaining games to take place in Cleveland, there’s little hope for a Gasol-less Bulls team to advance.
On the surface the injury would seem to even out the series—given that the Cavs are without fellow All-Star forward Kevin Love. Yet Gasol’s impact is more crucial to a team that has no other presence in the post and has to rely on whatever the talented, but oft-injured Derrick Rose has left in the tank.
This isn’t to say that Gasol is necessarily better than Love, it’s just that Love is really the team’s third option on offense behind James and point guard Kyrie Irving. Chicago relies much more heavily on Gasol than Cleveland does Love.
The Bulls still have former Defensive-Player-of-the-Year Joakim Noah at center, though he’s not the offensive player Gasol is.
Noah, had trouble finishing down low over Cleveland center Timofey Mozgov in Game 4, hitting just 4 of 12 shots on the day. Worse, because Mozgov doesn’t respect Noah’s jumper, he can sit back in the lane and force Chicago to shoot jump shots all day—much like they did in their dreadful 16-point fourth quarter Sunday.
Gasol’s presence, and his tremendous scoring touch, changes everything for Chicago—that’s why the defensive-minded Bulls were so aggressive last summer to land him. Not only can he score in the paint, he’s also a good passer, a good shot-blocker, and can nail down the open jumper—something he did at will in Chicago’s Game 1 win.
Interestingly, Gasol has been down this path before—though on the other side.
In 2008, with the Lakers, the 7-foot Spaniard had to hold down the fort while the team was without center Andrew Bynum for the entire postseason run with a dislocated kneecap. The Lakers, who had traded for Gasol just a few weeks after Bynum went down in mid-January, still made it all the way to the NBA finals where they lost to Boston and their front-court duo of Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett.
This year’s Cleveland squad doesn’t have the formidable front-line that Boston had in 2008, but they don’t have to to beat the the Gasol-less Bulls—so long as their coach remembers his timeouts.