Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls bounce back with big win against Thunder

Rose and Butler combine for 55 to lead Bulls to 104-98 win

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By Sam Smith | 11.6.2015 | 8:40 a.m.

Well, that crisis is over.

At least until the next loss.

This once promising Bulls season that seemed over a few days ago after the loss in Charlotte amidst speculation Derrick Rose would be released or traded for a low second round draft pick lives again.

The Bulls, with Thursday’s 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder behind 12 of Rose’s 29 points in the fourth quarter and 26 points from Jimmy Butler, now have the two best wins in the NBA this season, the only team with victories over two of the three favored teams, the Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Rose and Butler outplayed the Thunder stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And the Bulls depth with energized play from Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson off the bench carried the Bulls to a lead in rebounding along with just six turnovers in a game the Bulls blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead but then got 10 straight points from Rose down the stretch when the Thunder tied the game.

“Derrick was phenomenal, obviously,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I’m really, really happy for him; he had a couple of tough shooting nights (three straight games scoring in single figures). He’s working his tail off, getting in the gym extra. He got here early tonight, got up a lot of shots. He was in a full lather before the game. And then to go out and have that type of performance was huge for him, huge for our team.

“Seven assists only two turnovers (plus five rebounds) was great for Derrick,” Hoiberg added. “For him to have a game like this again is a huge confidence builder. I know the (players) couldn’t be happier for him because they know how hard he worked in the off season and how much time he has put in to get back after the eye injury to start the season. Hats off the Derrick for sticking with it and coming out and having a great game.”

Rose’s finish in the TNT national game was terrific, but just a part of an impressive team effort to raise the Bulls record to 4-2, and, more importantly, provide a signature win over a championship contender after the lackluster loss in Charlotte Tuesday. That had raised premature and frantic concern about the health of the team, if not also the state of Rose’s future with an ESPN report the network still was playing along with the Bulls post game highlights Thursday night that the organization was preparing to cut ties with Rose.

Rose laughed postgame when it was raised to him by TNT’s Craig Sager, back expertly working the sidelines again after his bout with cancer.

“No one game is going to define who I am as a player,” said Rose. “I’m so numb to it (hysterical criticism). I try to stay away from it. I know who I am as a person and a player. I know hard I work. I know how hard I dedicate my whole life to this sport. Everybody has their opinion; it’s just their opinion. I’m OK with that; I’m just here to play.”

And Rose sure did play Thursday with a magnificent sequence to hold off arguably two of the top three players in the game.

“Derrick Rose hit four tough twos,” noted Durant, who was brilliant with 33 points. “We wanted him to take those tough shots. He hit them tonight, a few backboard shots. That’s why he’s Derrick Rose; he’s a great player.”

The situation was classic showdown.

Butler had carried the Bulls with an excellent first half with 21 points as the Bulls led 57-50. It was 76-73 Bulls after three, and then the Bulls hit the 3-3 Thunder with a 9-0 run early in the fourth quarter with Rose again losing Westbrook for a left wing bank shot with 8:51 left. That sent Oklahoma City into a timeout with 8:51 left and the Bulls leading 87-77. The United Center crowd was delirious with joy, giving the Bulls a standing ovation.

“Tonight’s game shows those guys care,” said Hoiberg. “It’s a bunch of competitors. They are all a group of competitive guys in that locker room that were a little embarrassed about the way that last game went. We really did a good job against as tough a team to defend as you’ll find in this league, them and Golden State with the superstars they have and (Serge) Ibaka knocking down shots like he can. The way our guys defended and battled and stuck with the game even as they hit some shots early on was huge.”

You never run away from a team like the Thunder, who came in averaging 114.2 points per game and leading the NBA in shooting at 48.2 percent. The Bulls would hold them under 100 points and to their lowest shooting percentage of the season at 45.5 percent. But here came Durant, stroking jump shots like he was exercising his wrist. It was a 13-3 run with Butler holding the Thunder off with a three as Oklahoma City tied it at 90 with 5:07 left.

But then here came Rose with a fabulous close showing all the elements of his skill even as he still recovers from eye surgery with double vision. Rose has said repeatedly this last week he’s played tentatively because he didn’t want to interfere with his teammates’ abilities to take over games by shooting too much with his hazy eye. But it was time to focus with the Thunder roaring into Chicago.

“Pooh’s going to be fine, regardless,” Noah said about Rose, using his nickname. “I know he really wants to win. I know he put in a lot of work this summer. I know he doesn’t care at all (about critics). It bothers me especially for him because I know people don’t realize how hard it is to go out there, play, especially when you’ve gone through things he has gone through, the injuries. Sometimes, he says crazy (stuff), gets him in trouble. But at the end of the day I know what type of competitor he is.”

The type of competitor who can do this kind of stuff:

  • 4:24: Rose drives, draws a double team and passes back to Pau Gasol with 11 points and 10 rebounds for a 16 footer. 92-90 Bulls.
  • 3:36: Rose playing pick and roll with Gasol again as Hoiberg repeatedly outmaneuvered Thunder coach Billy Donovan by having the poor defender Enes Kanter in pick and roll. Rose got the screen and went over Kanter for a floater that missed. But Rose went over the seven foot Kanter for the rebound. 94-92 Bulls.
  • 2:48: Rose with a 15 foot bank shot out of the Tim Duncan arsenal after getting the switch again and Kanter unable to stop Rose. 96-94 Bulls.
  • 2:10: After a big Butler defensive rebound, Rose gets the switch again and is fouled by Kanter, making two free throws. 98-94 Bulls.
  • 1:40: Donovan finally gets Ibaka on Gasol, but Rose pulls up for a baseline 17 footer over Ibaka on an inbounds pass. 100-96 Bulls.
  • 1:07: Rose gets Kanter yet again on the switch, settles and knocks in a 16 footer. 102-96 Bulls.
  • 38.4: Rose gets the switch again with Ibaka out high on him. So Rose finds Gasol deep in the post against Westbrook and Gasol puts in an easy lefthanded hook over Westbrook. 104-98 Bulls.
    Game.

“I missed two weeks after I got hit (needing orbital surgery),” Rose said afterward. “I had two weeks not to do anything. You have to just sit in the house all day. You can’t argue, you can’t do anything. You just have to chill. I couldn’t work out. So you come from there. It’s all about rhythm, getting my timing back. I’m just blessed that I have the teammates that I have that allow me to play the way I normally play.

“I knew things were getting out of hand in the Charlotte game after they went up eight or 10 points. But with my eye like this, I don’t want to affect the game in a way where I’m messing up the game,” explained Rose. “So this time around I was just trying to be aggressive. I’m still catching my rhythm and it’s slowly coming to me. I was shooting midrange twos. Just getting reps up. I know it’s a process. It’s going to be ups and downs. Just because it’s a high right now, it’s not a relief. I still have to work, get the most out of every day. I know I dedicate my whole life to this sport. I can’t get all high because of this game. I’m going to have some more ups and downs and I’m going to find my way around them.”

It’s a good sign for the Bulls, though, as they got Noah’s most enthusiastic game of the season as some began to wonder about Noah’s demeanor. But he was back to being the leader he’s been, he and Gibson coming in to revive the team after a slow start trailing 17-8, leading the bench as he and Gibson had the best plus/minus ratings of the game and greeting teammates with enthusiasm from the bench.

“Jo’s a huge energy guy; he does all the little things for us, making all the right plays,” noted Butler. “He doesn’t get enough credit for what he brings to this team. Without Jo we wouldn’t be the team we are; he’s an incredible leader. He played extremely hard and he’s always bringing his teammates up and without that we couldn’t do what we did tonight.”

And certainly not without Butler, who had that big scoring first half and made Durant work for those points, needing 29 shots for those 33 points.

“Jimmy is going to be tough,” said Rose. “I love the way that he’s playing. He’s picking and choosing his spots. I want him to shoot more, but that will come. We’re going to get him a couple more isolations. I think that we have a great team. The sky’s the limit for us. Our biggest thing is defense: Defense, defense, defense. The way the league is going; it’s a lot of transition basketball now and we can easily beat teams if we get the lead and play smart basketball.”

And they all know that defense is led by the likes of Butler, Noah and Gibson, who showed their stuff again. As well as Rose’s ability to close the opponent.

“It’s all reads (in the offense),” said Butler. “(Derrick’s) a really outstanding basketball player, really high IQ. So he’s reading if he’s in the paint he’s looking for the open guy and I happen to be the open guy (on a terrific Rose drive and pass to Butler for a second quarter slam dunk). We’re confident in him taking all the shots that he takes because he is also looking to pass to the open guy. When he is rolling like that it just makes everybody’s job easier.

“He had it going in the second half; I had it going in the first,” noted Butler. “When I was hot he continued to give me the ball; he was, ‘Do your thing brother.’ I’m glad to see him out there doing what he’s normally doing.

“We competed in practice (Wednesday) and it rolls over,” said Butler. “We competed in the game tonight. Every game is important; not because it is the Thunder and the players they have. No matter who we are playing against it’s what we have to do every night.”

That will be the challenge for a Bulls team that in many respects only will be judged on the playoffs. It has stars in Butler and Rose, depth and front line size. But it’s also a learning process with a new coach, a different style of play and high expectations.

Coming off the disappointing 25-point loss in Charlotte Tuesday, Hoiberg didn’t blink. And Gibson said Hoiberg’s cool in practice and the huddles as the Thunder came back was encouraging.

“Coach Fred was calming guys down,” said Gibson, who was four of five shooting. “A great example was tonight when the game was real tight and we were real aggressive in the huddle. He said, ‘Calm down, relax, it’s OK; let’s get this win.’ It’s good to have that. We had the good two days of practice. I was cursing guys out, Jo was cursing guys out, Derrick was cursing guys out; Bobby’s (Portis) in there yelling; it’s fun, fun. It was good to have guys challenging each other like that.”

It led to the team’s most spirited effort of the season on the court and on the sidelines, where it had been unusually calm, even seemingly indifferent. Though Noah again changed that Thursday.

Hoiberg adjusted the starting lineup as he said he may do from time to time, trying Doug McDermott starting for Tony Snell. The Bulls had that slow start, but McDermott hit some big shots later and had nine points on three of five shooting.

Hoiberg did a nice job rotating and trusting his players and even closed with Rose, Butler, Gibson, Gasol and E’Twaun Moore for a bit more defense and versatility after Noah set the tone before enabling Rose to use that pick and roll with Gasol so effectively.

Noah’s aggression was obvious early with a block and offensive rebound on consecutive first quarter possessions after he and Gibson came in. Rose after his recent offensive slump began to bust out in the second quarter after a slow start that led to him making 11 of his last 16 shots. Rose had a pair of beautiful lefty scoops around some big time Butler scores.

“Jimmy carried us offensively for a lot of that game,” said Hoiberg. “But it was great to see Derrick go off the down the stretch like he did.”

There still was a bit more standing around than Hoiberg wants, but it was time to breathe again, at least in the community, after the recent loss.

“What happened in Charlotte was alarming,” acknowledged Noah. “We competed really hard. It was definitely an important win just because of the way we played the other night. We showed good character. To come out with the right spirit was very important. We’re all learning and to get to where we want to get to, we have a lot of work to do. We have to be patient with the process. There are things that Derrick can do better to make this team better. There are things I can do better. That goes for everybody in this locker room. For us to be special, we have a ways to go.”

It was a good restart.