The Chicago Bulls season might hinge on the strained left hamstring of power forward Pau Gasol.
The 34-year-old Spaniard sat out the last two games, both Bulls’ losses, but he’s set to return for Thursday night’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers with Chicago down 3-2.
Gasol, whose averaging 15.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists in nine playoff games this year, could receive a lift from the home United Center crowd and he credited the team’s resiliency throughout the season as a sign it could bounce back to force a decisive Game 7.
"It's been a very up-and-down year," Gasol told the Chicago Tribune. "We had great stretches and we had terrible stretches. We've been very inconsistent. When we've lost a couple in a row, we always reacted well and always played our best."
Chicago’s hoping to avoid a second exit in the conference semis in the last three years, while LeBron James could bring Cleveland back to the conference finals for the first time since 2009.
With Gasol out, the Bulls haven’t exactly struggled against Cleveland’s powerful and dynamic duo of small forward James and point guard Kyrie Irving, with the last two matchups have going down to the wire.
The Cavs needed a turnaround baseline jumper from the corner from James in the final seconds of Game 4 to pull out an 86-84 victory to even the series, and Chicago actually outscored Cleveland 57-52 in the second half of Game 5 but couldn’t withstand James’s incredible play of 38 points, 12 rebounds and six assists along with 25 points and five dishes from Irving.
All of Chicago’s starters notched double figures in Game 5, with center Joakim Noah snapping his shooting slump with 10 points and nine boards. Though Taj Gibson, filling in for Gasol, chipped in 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
But with Gasol in the lineup Chicago will be a much tougher out for the Cavs. Combining the regular season and playoffs, the Bulls have gone 48-30 with Gasol down low and defensively he can alter James and Irving’s relentless drives to the basket.
Gasol also gives Cleveland another scorer to fret over on top of the backcourt of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Rose struggled from the field in Game 5, going 7-for-24 from the field for 16 points, but he contributed a game-high seven assists and helped out the Gasol-less frontcourt with nine rebounds. Butler recovered from a poor 8-for-21 shooting night in Game 4, to pour in 29 points and nine rebounds in Game 5 on 9-for-18 shooting.
The Bulls are down, but they do hold a significant experience advantage compared to the younger Cavs. Two years ago this same group, without Rose, withstood two straight losses in the first round to the Brooklyn Nets and moved on with a Game 7 victory. The Bulls also reached the conference finals four years ago when Rose was in MVP form.
James, however, doesn’t believe his squad will fold to the battled-tested Bulls, referencing Cleveland’s quick work of the Boston Celtics earlier this postseason.
"I don't think it's a concern because we didn't do that in Game 4 of our first-round series," James told The Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "We went out with the mindset of let's just play this game. We play as hard as we can, we execute as best as we can and we live with the results.
"Obviously we have a young team, the youngest team in the postseason as far as experience, but guys understand what tonight entails. You only can focus on the present. You can't put everything in the future. You don't know what the future holds."
Tipoff Time: 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Online Stream: Watch ESPN
Betting Odds: Chicago -2.5; o/v 193 points
Prediction: Cleveland over Chicago, 97-93