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LA 108, Chicago 93: Recapping Lakers-Bulls, Pau Gasol Style

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Welcome back, Pau Gasol.

Thanks for stopping by, Pau Gasol.

So glad you're back, Pau Gasol.

It's true; sometimes, this Lakers team can be so ridiculously talented that when a guy like Gasol sits out the first eleven games of the season, you can almost forget just how much you miss him. Almost.

When things don't quite seem to fit, you think to yourself that this team is far, far too talented not to be destroying everybody they meet. But things look awkward, not quite right. Something is wrong; what's the problem?

And then he comes back, and life is easy and grand and beautiful, with everything in its right place, and you remember. Not that he's good — you were never that forgetful. But you remember just how good he is, and everything he does for this team.

Thank you, Pau Gasol.

Remember the part about how Gasol hasn't played in several weeks, and therefore could be kinda rusty? You know how sometimes, when coming back from injury, big men like Bynum need some time to find their timing again? Not an issue for Pau Gasol.

Gasol played nine minutes in first quarter, shooting 4-5 in the period for 10 points, along with four rebounds, two of them offensive. The Lakers jumped out to a quick 25-19 lead, and the rest of the game followed suit, with the Lakers winning the first three quarters by a steady average of six points, and playing the Bulls evenly in a final period that was nothing more than a formality. Just like that, Pau Gasol was back.

Rusty, he was not. He scored 24 points while taking only 15 shots, connecting on almost two thirds of them (nine). Talk about efficiency. At the same time, his timing was good enough for 13 rebounds, including seven offensive.

Fatigue may have been a factor—he said he was "looking forward to the first timeout," and was glad for the longer timeouts of nationally televised games—but if so, it didn't show in the amount or quality of the minutes he played. Phil Jackson had said prior to the game that he would be happy with 25 minutes from Gasol; instead, Gasol gave him a full 35. And if he was tired, he fooled me. He ran the floor, was often one of the first down on offense, and got back quickly back on defense. He challenged shots, fought hard for rebounds, played solid defense. Sure, he may have been thoroughly winded when it was all over, but he certainly didn't play like a guy who couldn't catch his breath.

Meanwhile, Gasol's presence had a positive ripple effect throughout the entire Lakers roster. As Kenny "The Jet" Smith pointed out in the TNT postgame show, Gasol's return put everyone back in their natural positions. It also bolstered the bench, allowing Lamar Odom to return to his role as sixth man and bench leader and anchor. Gasol's presence also enabled Jackson to use more mixed lineups — two bench players with three starters, or three bench players with two starters, instead of simply swapping out entire five-man starting and replacement units.

Andrew Bynum had a quiet night, with "only" 11 points and eight rebounds, but don't be fooled. J.A. Adande is wrong when he says that Gasol's return negatively affected Bynum's production. In reality, it was poor shooting and a minor injury that resulted in a lower point total for our budding young center. A sprained ankle caused him to play only 24:16; meanwhile, he took 12 shots, which is only two fewer than his average for the year, and pretty consistent with his average over the last three games (12.6).

I don't know about you, but the fact that he got off 12 shots and pulled down eight rebounds while playing 13.5 fewer minutes than usual because of that ankle doesn't say to me that Gasol's presence is hindering Bynum's production. If anything, it was a simple off night that resulted in a lower point total for Bynum, as he missed several shots he usually makes. In his previous nine games, Bynum has shot the ball at a rate of 59.1%. Had he shot that well on his 12 shots tonight, he'd have had 15 points. Then, if we compensate for his shortened minutes, we find that, had he played his usual minutes, he would have scored 23 points on the night.

While Andrew's minutes may go down a bit overall, even when he's not tweaking his ankle, I think it's safe to say that Gasol's presence on the court had nothing at all to do with Bynum's lessened production. Assuming he still plays 32-35 minutes, I see no reason why Bynum can't continue to be a 20/10 guy, or something close to it.

Kobe Bryant struggled with his shot, but I got the impression (as did several others) that he's simply adjusting to the changes in dynamics with Gasol back on the court. He's spent 11 games working out of the post and in the paint, and now he's back to spending a bit more time on the perimeter. He'll probably still get a few more inside touches than he did last year, and obviously it shouldn't take long for him to adjust back to a balance of perimeter and post play, but last night, it seemed a simple case of readjustment. His shots were good ones, for the most part, and several of them barely rimmed out.

On the other hand, the rest of his game was quite good. In addition to 21 points, he had nine rebounds, eight assists, and only one turnover. While I could care less about the assists—it's an incomplete and misleading statistic—I did like his passing and his approach to the game overall. It's not necessarily that he had more of a passing mentality, and less of a shooting one; it's simply that in the past 11 games, this team has needed him to score first and foremost. With Gasol back and not missing a beat, that need was immediately less pronounced, freeing Kobe up to play a more rounded game, and he did just that.

I have to talk about Ron Artest. I can't be excited enough about this guy. First, let's talk overall. How fortunate are the Lakers to have a guy like Ron Artest, who has been the top dog on his team for most of his career, to essentially play the role of defensive specialist? I'll answer that for you: very. Loul Deng came into the game averaging 17.4 points per game on 46.1% shooting from the field. Ron Artest simply shut him down, and it didn't even seem like a big deal. 3-11 shooting for Deng, for a grand total of six whopping points. He was a non-factor for the game, and that was Artest's doing.

But it's more than that. This is a guy whose actions (and just plain craziness), for most of his career, have demanded attention. It was impossible not to notice Artest. With the Lakers, so far, you could almost miss him if you weren't paying attention. And understand me here; this is a very good thing. You're not noticing him disrupting the offense. You're not noticing him jacking up bad shots (well, aside from not one, but two straight backwards, over-the-head layup attempts, last night). You're not noticing him shooting poor percentages and taking the Lakers out of their game offensively. You're not noticing him being a disruption off the court, or picking up technical fouls and threatening to fly off the handle on it.

And if you're busy watching Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Andrew Bynum, you might not be noticing him making plays, passing, setting up teammates, defending, rebounding, deferring, and making virtually all of the right decisions. You might not be noticing him putting in constant effort, never relaxing or playing lazy. And you might not notice him making life in general easier for Kobe Bryant and everyone else around him.

Oh, and by the way, lost in Pau Gasol's return and Kobe Bryant's rebounding and distributing against the Bulls were Artest's 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, and only one turnover. He made half of his three-point attempts (2-4) and his only free throw (woo!). And while he took 13 shots to score 15 points, that line is deceptive, since he had four offensive rebounds. As you may recall from Dex's intro lesson on advanced statistics, possessions with one or more offensive rebounds still only count as a single possession for the Lakers. And since three of those four offensive rebounds were on his own misses, it turns out that he actually scored 15 points on only 10 offensive possessions, or 1.5 points per possession. And that is very efficient basketball.

Shoutouts to Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom, both of whom shot well from the field (Fish 5-5, Odom 4-7) and from long distance (Fish 2-2, Odom 2-4), adding a couple assists each. Odom also chipped in with 8 rebounds, one of four Lakers to collect at least 8 boards. Jordan Farmar also played fairly well overall, making good decisions even while the rim wasn't kind to him, and adding a couple assists and three steals to his eight points in 20 minutes.

Overall, the stats confirm what our eyes told us, that the Lakers dominated the Bulls on both ends of the court. They scored 1.09 points per possession while holding the Bulls to 0.96 points per possession. They controlled the offensive and defensive boards, rebounding 28% of their misses while allowing the Bulls to rebound only 21.7% of theirs. The Lakers had nine turnovers in the first half, but brought things under control with only three in the second, committing 12 turnovers overall to the Bulls' 15.

My favorite things from a team perspective, however, were the points in the paint and the game flow chart. In the former, the Lakers held a 60-40 advantage, scoring 55.6% of their points in the paint. Borat say, very nice! The game flow chart, meanwhile, shows a consistent effort from start to finish from the Lakers, and that's something I like. Rather than coming out flat and then building up to take back control, or starting strong and then letting the Bulls back in before gritting out the win, the Lakers steadily outperformed the Bulls from beginning to end. Hell, even a garbage time lineup featuring Adam Morrison, DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell (who is solid, but not when he shares the court with Mbenga), and Sasha "The Broken Beyond Repair Machine" Vujabric managed to more or less keep pace with the Bulls.

Not everything was perfect for the Lakers, but the signs were very promising. The passing was well-intended, but at times sloppy and imprecise. This will improve as the Lakers grow more comfortable with their current lineup, and as Ron Artest becomes more comfortable in the triangle and playing with Gasol. Things were sloppy at times, but don't underestimate the balancing and spacing effect Gasol has on the entire offense. As these guys get more comfortable with each other, and with Gasol in the mix, I expect the passing to become crisp and precise, a true thing of beauty, and the offense overall to begin running at a level we have not yet seen this year.

And that's what tonight's game was: A thoroughly enjoyable display, a strong reminder of the countless things Gasol does for this team, and a promise of how good these Lakers—already one of the best teams in the league even without Gasol—can be now that he's back. As Timbo said in last night's game thread, what the Lakers with Gasol aren't additively better than they were without him, they are exponentially better. Expect the various power rankings to start changing in the Lakers favor.

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