CHICAGO -- Pau Gasol scored a career-high 46 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in the Bulls' 95-87 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. The impressive part isn't in the sheer numbers the 14-year veteran was able to rack up on the second night of a back-to-back; it was that his teammates and coaches weren't surprised it happened. As the league starts paying even more attention to Gasol's rebirth in Chicago, the 34-year-old's solid play has become a nightly expectation for a Bulls team that has leaned on him throughout the season.
"He wasn't going to let us lose tonight," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Not only his offense, [but] his rebounding [and] his defense."
On a night when the Bulls played without Derrick Rose (left knee soreness), Gasol did what he has done all season, whether Rose was in the lineup or not: He produced at a high level. When his team needed a basket or rebound, Gasol was there with an answer. The proud veteran never doubted he could still play this well, but even he seemed impressed by what he accomplished Saturday.
"It's humbling," Gasol said. "It's very satisfying. I'm happy I was able to play well, and playing well at this point in my career -- not a lot of guys are able to do that, so I'm happy and fortunate that I can do it. So it's important to me. I take pride in it."
With Rose's health status forever lingering over this franchise, Gasol and Jimmy Butler have carried the Bulls' offense all season. At 34, many skeptics figured Gasol was past the point in his career where he could put up big stats on a nightly basis, but the Bulls never doubted it was still possible.
From the beginning of training camp, Thibodeau raved about Gasol's preparation in advance of the season. The big man trained well in advance of playing for Spain in the World Cup of Basketball and came in mentally focused for the championship expectations the Bulls had.
"It's very impressive," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said of Gasol's performance at an advanced NBA age. "We feed off him, we look for him, especially tonight. Derrick was out of the game. We knew we were going to go to him early, and he got rolling."
When Gasol signed in Chicago, he was viewed as more of a complementary piece to a championship puzzle. What he's become in the first three months of this season is an offensive stalwart who has carried his team in various stretches. Just as importantly, he's become a veteran presence the rest of his teammates continue to lean on -- both on the floor and off of it. They know how good he has been in his career, and they understand how much better they can be when he's playing this well. His play gives the rest of the group the type of confidence they need to get over the postseason hump, as evidenced again in Saturday's performance.
"You're talking about a guy who is as highly skilled a big guy as there is in the NBA," Thibodeau said. "He's been that for a long time."