Skip to main content

Main content

Print

When it matters most, defense carries offensive-minded Bulls

After trailing by 18, Chicago recaptures identity in victory

POSTED: Apr 24, 2015 1:37 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

AD

The Butler Did It

Jimmy Butler gets the late steal and takes it coast to coast for the dunk.

— This has been the season of big offense for the Chicago Bulls, a departure from what they've known and from how they'd come to be known over the previous four seasons under head coach Tom Thibodeau.

The players have had a lot of fun. There's no denying the appeal to Bulls fans. And it would be silly to stock the roster with skilled players and long-distance shooters, and then not use them.

But there was a discipline to how Chicago played defense in ranking first, first, fifth and second in defensive rating from 2010-11 through 2013-14. A structure that, grueling as it was to adhere to, could also provide comfort and offer shelter in trying times. Not having their security blanket at the ready nearly as often as they did in prior years, you'd get the feeling at points throughout this season that -- on nights when shots weren't dropping -- the Bulls weren't quite sure where to turn.

They had one of those nights Thursday in Milwaukee, playing with pace, hoisting up 3-point shots and hoping the Bucks wouldn't run away from them, particularly when they found themselves down 18 midway through the second quarter. Only this time, the Bulls turned to their defense twice -- to claw back out of that hole and to finally shut down the Bucks at the end -- and it was there for them, helping to seal a double-overtime thrill ride of game, 113-106.

There was plenty of chatter afterward about the 58 points Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler combined to score. And about the Bulls' 14-of-33 success from 3-point range. But Butler didn't hesitate when asked about the pivot point on which the game turned once the Bulls fell behind 49-31 about five minutes before halftime.

"Guarding," the Bulls' shooting guard said. "I think that is what got us in the hole, was that we weren't playing defense. When we get back to guarding and get stops, we're going to score. That's the thing that we get lost in sometimes, is how well we can score the ball."

The Bulls' fall from tenacity at the defensive end was expected to some degree, given the arrival of offense-focused Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks. But Thibodeau has managed to cobble together dubious defenders before -- Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic and others -- and wind up with top-rated units. As a result, Chicago has gone through most of the season happy to be scoring more but wondering when, and even if, its defense was going to stingy up.

It was the same story Thursday.

"Our defense was sporadic," Thibodeau said. "I didn't like the way we started off. We were back on our heels a little bit, then I thought our reaction to the ball, we didn't finish our defense.

"I though in the second quarter, we started to turn it around. The ball pressure got better, body position on cuts were better, challenging shots, and that got us into the open floor."

The Bulls had owned the boards through the series' first two games; Milwaukee grabbed control of errant shots through the first half. The Bucks were scoring on fast breaks and second chances, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the gifted but raw 20-year-old wing, had broken loose for 17 points by halftime.

Chicago looked as if it was going to win on the strength of its 3-point shooting. Then it looked as if it would lose thanks to a couple from out there by the Bucks' Khris Middleton, his team going on a 9-0 spurt in about 70 seconds late in the fourth.

The first overtime? Unremarkable. But the second? Unmistakable.

Even allowing for some rubbery legs and dwindling poise for the young Bucks squad, the Bulls pounced and flexed defensively as they rarely have this season. Milwaukee's first two possessions got pilfered by Butler first, then Rose, and turned into points at the other end. Middleton missed a shot soon after, and Gasol was throwing down a dunk from Noah. Next trip, Michael Carter-Williams had the ball slapped away by Noah and that too was converted into a runner into the paint by Rose.

"Yeah, yeah. We were communicating," said forward Taj Gibson, who eased the absence of Mirotic (knee) with six points and 10 rebounds off the bench. "Guys are really manning up on their iso (isolation) coverages. We were talking. We really followed what Thibs wanted us to do. Even the guys on the bench -- I can't hear our bench usually calling out defensive coverages for us.

"We were really locked in. We understand how hard it was. We understand they were going to give us their best shot, and we just stepped to the occasion out there."

Even a Bucks timeout didn't stop the bleeding. Antetokounmpo was within a stride and sleeve length of the rim when he coiled to go up, only to have Noah grab the ball away to set up a Rose layup. In a span of less than three minutes, the Bulls had turned the 101-101 tie through one overtime into a 111-101 cruise.

And they did it defensively, showing a swagger in this throwback-Thursday glimpse of their old identity one that -- if it can be summoned more reliably going forward -- could lead to better things as these playoffs unfold.

"We wish we could have did that in regulation," Rose said. "But in overtime, we just made sure we talked to each other. Communication is so big for our defense, because we help so much and we force people to shoot the ball.

"We're happy that we won the game, but defensively we've got to key in on their shooters whenever they run a 'floppy,' and make sure the big guys step up a little bit more so they don't have a clean shot coming down."

That's about as much Xs and Os jargon you're ever going to get from Rose, and it was focused on the defensive end of the court. Which might be bigger, by the end, than however many points, however many minutes and whatever number of highlight plays the Bulls rack up at the other end.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.