Sam Smith looks ahead to the Bulls upcoming road trip

Bulls on the road for 6 straight games against Western Conference teams

By Sam Smith

So, Fred, first it’s the team led by the guy who is on pace to break one of the most iconic records in sports. Then the guy who is close to doing so. Then the team led by the guy who may be more talented than even those two players, and then a game against the U.S. Olympic team, or what surely looks like it and could break the Bulls alltime record for wins over two NBA seasons.

There may be some sun, but it doesn’t sound like fun.

“I’m just looking right now at (Russell) Westbrook,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said just before the Bulls Tuesday left for the Wednesday game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Then you end the trip with Minnesota with their three stars, a team playing very well now with three guys averaging (close to and more than) 20 points and guys capable of putting up 40 in any given night. And Phoenix has a young, talented team, as well. So all six of these, you are playing against super star type talent and it starts (Wednesday) with (Russell) Westbrook. We’re obviously going to have to do a much better job of finding them in transition. They killed us in the paint the last game. A guy having an historic NBA season averaging a triple double; we are going to have our hands full.”

And we thought things were going so well after Sunday’s 121-108 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

OK, better.

Getting hit by a car might have been better with the Bulls coming off the excruciating week of the blown double digit lead against Atlanta, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out the team, Rajon Rondo responding, all three fined, a long team meeting that was direct and raw, a letdown loss to Miami and then, finally, the semblance of team play, success, relief and joy against the undermanned 76ers.

Still, with all this the Bulls sit seventh in the Eastern Conference at 24-25 and hardly out of things. So no matter what occurs in the next few weeks, there’s still time.

This trip is as difficult as they get in the NBA with the quality of opponent and length of time out, and that’s even for a harmonious team. The Bulls are a reasonable 9-14 on the road, and back in November went 3-2 on their other long Western Conference trip with a last second loss in Denver. But much has obviously changed since then.

“Yeah, it's always a good goal. Any time you can come back half and half, it's always good. So that will be what we shoot for.

Wade, when asked about a 3-3 trip"

"We had a couple of men down on that (November) trip.", Wade continued, "Guys stepped up. Jerian (Grant) had the two starts in Portland and Utah, and things like that. It was a good trip. We could have played better. We let games slide that we could have won on that trip. But, overall, some of our best basketball as a team (was played on that trip), and we were really confident coming off that trip. Now, we didn't continue that. But coming off that trip, we were confident we can play anywhere, that we can beat any team.”

That belief and that game is what the Bulls need to recover, and so there’s the cliché about it being a good time to be on the road, all that camaraderie and bonding and singing songs around the campfire at night toasting marshmallows.

So what did you think NBA players do?

“Every team says a road trip comes at a good time, so I don't like to be cliche,” said Wade. “So we'll see. It's always a good time when you're winning, it's always a bad time when you're losing. So our goal is to go out there and ... we're going to have a lot of time together, from a team building and team bonding standpoint, it's always good. But from a basketball standpoint, it's only good if you win. It's only bad if you're losing.”

Some pretty good clichés in there, though.

This Bulls group is pretty talked out after last week’s painful and caustic days and words.

Wade apparently heard enough and he’s clearly done talking about it.

“Nothing needs to be repaired,” he responded to an inquiry. “Yeah, we're fine. We come in to play basketball and compete, and we've done a good job of that the last few days, with the exception of the Heat game when we laid a dud. But the last few days have been great competition, so we move on from there.”

What’s emerged, ironically, from all the dismay is the second Bulls coming of Rajon Rondo, who again was working with his group of young guys/reserves in practice and, said Hoiberg, has become not only a vital element for that group but a team role model for the changing rotations.

“We are a much better team when that ball is moving,” said Hoiberg, noting the 29 assists against the 76ers. “Give Rondo a lot of credit for being the quarterback of that second group. He really got out there with pace and found guys for wide open shots. And not only the ones we made, but we missed a couple as well. Really started with him when he got in the game with that second unit. I thought we were great; our pace was outstanding all night. I thought Jimmy made simple plays, Dwayne made simple plays. We got Robin (Lopez) little 15 foot jumpers, which he’s very good at. It’s about making the simple play, the right play, trusting that your teammates will do the same.

“The thing about the way Rajon has accepted everything that has been thrown at him is something our young guys can watch and see the importance the role he’s been playing right now,”

Fred Hoiberg

“We have had guys in and out of the rotation, and when their name is called again, especially guys that are not in the rotation right now, you can point to Rajon and point to the success he’s having now with that second unit. We’ve found a formula with him with the right guys on the floor that is pretty good and we’re going to keep looking at it, see how the rotation plays out and, obviously, it is a big trip for us in a lot of ways to see how things continue with our group, but he’s been terrific.”

Houdini didn’t appear to resurrect himself after being buried alive like Rondo has done. David Copperfield, too.

Now it’s also to get that starting group moving and sharing the ball.

Hoiberg said he expects Taj Gibson to be back in the starting lineup after a sore ankle. If not, Bobby Portis will start again. Denzel Valentine joined the Windy City Bulls for their current three-game road trip to New York, but Hoiberg said if any guards are hurt Valentine will fly out to join the team. Grant is scheduled to continue starting.

“He’s (Valentine) going to go play three games in four days and we’ll reevaluate from there,” said Hoiberg. “See how things are going with our team, see if we want to get him back. Obviously, if something happens to anyone in our backcourt, we’ll get him on the first plane out there.”

And with the competition ahead, the Bulls may just need some reinforcements.

“It gets no tougher than that when you talk about the headliners (on this trip),” said Wade. “These are good Western Conference teams. I’m sure we won’t be favored in many of them, so from that standpoint it’s easy for us. We have no pressure. Our goal is to continue to grow as a team as we go into this All-Star break. We know in the last 10 games, we’re 5-5. We’re not awful and we’re not great. You look at the Eastern Conference and there are about four teams better than us in the last 10 games. We need to continue to try to do better and stronger going into the break. We have some tough matchups. I like this team in tough matchups. We just have to play basketball and have fun.”

Here’s a look at the upcoming road trip:

Wednesday, Feb. 1. At Oklahoma City Thunder.

Russell Westbrook really might become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple double over an entire season. He is leading the league in scoring at 30.8 per game along with 10.6 rebounds and 10.2 assists while taking 24 shots per game. He’s their offense and the Bulls get a bit of a break with Enes Kanter out after breaking his arm beating up a chair last week. See, other teams have guys going nuts, too. Kanter beat up the Bulls pretty good Jan. 9 in the 15-point Thunder win in the United Center with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Steven Adams had 22 points in that game. The Thunder is hanging onto sixth in the Western Conference thanks to Westbrook at 16-6 at home and a losing road record.

Friday, Feb. 3. At Houston Rockets

It’s Super Bowl week in Houston, so the hope is James Harden is partying, also. Harden is third in the league in scoring at 28.8 per game and we’d all be talking about his chances to be the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple double if Westbrook weren’t. Harden also is averaging 11.5 assists to lead the league and 8.2 rebounds. The Rockets are the surprise team in the Western Conference in third, 19 games over .500 under Mike D’Antoni’s quick shoot, long shoot system that works with players who can do that. The Rockets are in the top five in the league in scoring and shooting and average a staggering 40 three-point attempts per game and almost 115 points. The Bulls by comparison have scored that many points five times this season. The Super Bowl should have as many long passes as the Rockets throw in a quarter.

Monday, Feb. 6. At Sacramento Kings.

Now DeMarcus Cousins really is going to be mad. I know, how can you tell? The Bulls got away with a 102-99 win over the Kings in the United Center Jan. 21 when Wade got a last minute foul call against Cousins that the NBA said probably was not. Cousins scored 42 points, but Wade picked him clean to decide the game in the end. Cousins may be more talented than Westbrook and Harden, but the Kings are usually a mess hanging around 10 games under .500 with Cousins’ constant bursts of anger and isolation play. A sidebar to this game is this is the last season from the Luol Deng trade the Bulls get the Kings draft pick if it isn’t in the top 10. The Kings now are tied for the eighth poorest record. Rudy Gay is out for the season and Cousins shoots all the time. They’re in a new arena this season, which may be good as the Bulls lost three of the last four in the old one.

Wednesday, Feb. 8. At Golden State Warriors

And now the easy part? It’s the amazing Warriors, who are blowing through the NBA again after winning 73 games last season. They lead the league in scoring and point differential, again at a record pace, though they have slumped to 21-3 at home. With Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green they have four potential all-NBA players and the league’s most beautiful passing game. They’re top two in scoring, shooting, three-point shooting, defensive rebounding, assists and steals and first in defensive field goal percentage and defending the three. They have the most socially aware coach, good weather, great views and if the fan voting counted, ZaZa Pachulia would have been an All-Star. If no one gets hurt, it seems impossible that anyone has a chance to deny them the title.

Friday, Feb. 10. At Phoenix Suns.

They’re last in the Western Conference, but still have two guards averaging more than 20 points per game and former Bull Tyson Chandler seventh in the league at almost 12 rebounds per game. Another place to be ready to run. The Bulls get a break with no back to backs on this trip, but this will be the 11th day on the road and all that bonding and room service begins to get old.

Sunday, Feb. 12. At Minnesota Timberwolves.

It’s former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in the closing game with Minnesota in the middle of a six-game home stand and with its previous game Friday. The young Timberwolves started the Bulls December slide with a comeback win from 21 points behind. Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins all average at least 19 points. The Timberwolves are one of the poorer defensive teams even with Thibodeau, but they play hard and it’s easy to begin looking toward home after two weeks away. The Bulls then have Toronto and Boston at home before the All-Star break.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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