Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls backcourt bruising in win over Toronto

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.

By Sam Smith | 12.23.2014 | 2:31 a.m. CT

No offense, but Splash Brothers? Best backcourt in the NBA? Sounds a bit comfortable, like a soft landing in a pond. Boisterous Brothers? Brawny Brothers? Burly Brothers? Give that Bulls backcourt of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler a name after they combined Monday for 56 points and 16 of 17 from the free throw line in an exciting, lively and impressive 129-120 victory over the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors.

Rose finished with 29 points, including 15 points in the last seven minutes after he returned to the game with the score tied at 95. Butler had 27 points with 11 of 11 from the free throw line as the Bulls were a whopping 43 for 47 on free throws. Butler with his second straight double/double and averaging 22.1 on the season added 11 rebounds, five blocks and four assists. They were tough and they were accurate, and the Bulls beat the conference leaders for the second time this season.

“Terrific, especially in the second half,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said about Rose, whose fourth quarter run broke open a playoff intensity game with 10 ties and eight lead changes. “He was real aggressive, got easy shots for everyone. He started making shots and made the game easy. I thought Jimmy was terrific as well in all areas. You look at his rebounding, blocked shots, scoring, playmaking. That’s a pretty dynamic backcourt.”

Pretty special stuff as the Bulls won for the sixth time in the last seven to go to 18-9. Toronto is 22-7.

But we knew it depends on health as Rose has started with Butler just 15 games this season. The Bulls are 11-4 in those games. With the emergence of Butler, his physical offensive game and ranking as already an all-defensive player, and Rose returning to form as a former MVP capable of taking over games down the stretch, the Bulls feature a backcourt that would stand up to any in the NBA. And this in an era of great guards.

With the consistency of Pau Gasol, who had 14 points and nine rebounds as Toronto swarmed him after he hit them for 27 points in Toronto last month, the passion of Joakim Noah with 14 points, the artistry of Aaron Brooks with 17 points and the development of Nikola Mirotic, who added 12 points off the bench and played the majority of the fourth quarter, the Bulls believe their potential continues to come into focus.

“Derrick didn’t miss too many shots and when he gets in a zone like that it’s tough to stop us,” said Noah. “You see what Jimmy is doing; now you get Derrick back doing his thing, the sky’s the limit. They’re (Butler and Rose) really good and I’m happy they are Chicago Bulls. I think we’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of guys who can score the ball in different ways. The one thing we need to keep improving on is our collective defense as a team. We scored a lot of points, tonight, though, so that’s a plus.”

It is a different kind of Bulls team with Rose back, one that set a franchise record with 49 fourth quarter points, breaking the record of 47 from 1975. The Bulls relentlessly attacked the smaller Raptors with Gasol and Butler both with double figure free throw attempts and shot 54.1 percent overall and six of 12 on threes.

“It’s a different team,” said Rose. “Different way he’s (Thibodeau) letting us play. It’s kind of a free offense. If we get it, we are gone. Let us run pick and roll, drags in the open court, a lot of freedom.”

They can score like few Bulls teams in the last 20 years, averaging more points per game, now 103.2, than any Bulls team since 1995-96. But they can defend as well, even if it didn’t seem so in a frantic first half when the Raptors led 66-60.

And though Noah was pretty much overshadowed in the box score and had just four rebounds and attempted four shots, Noah’s second half defense was a game changer for the Bulls.

The Raptors had a nice plan for the game, if also a determined attitude. Even though these things often don’t get into the media, players talk and hear what each other has to say. The north-of-the-border Raptors often feel like NBA step children, rarely on national TV, though mostly because the ratings don’t measure in Canada and it’s costly for the networks. Still, they lament not being taken seriously despite their record. So they wanted this one, and the Bulls players had heard.

“We’ve been hearing about it all week,” said Rose. “The last couple of days; they wanted to play us (after) we beat them there and they wanted to come here and get revenge. Tonight was a big game for us.”

That was Nov. 13 when Gasol dominated in a 100-93 Bulls win.

So the Raptors went right for Gasol, challenging him with center Jonas Valanciunas, who often isn’t a major part of the Raptors offense but should be. Valanciunas helped Toronto off to a 23-14 start with 11 first quarter points, though the Bulls battled back to tie it at 33 after one with Butler scoring 11. The Toronto goal was clear, to go at and wear out Gasol. Plus, on defense, not only was Valanciunas banging Gasol, but the Raptors dropped guards in double teams as soon as Gasol went to make a move. It limited him and enabled the Raptors with former Bull James Johnson barging to the rim and Terrence Ross dropping threes to take a 55-44 second quarter lead and 66-60 at the half. The high scoring Raptors, second in the NBA in points per game, seemed not only in control. But they had the Bulls playing their open style game, which it was questionable whether the Bulls could sustain.

But then came the key adjustment, if also the changed effort.

It showed early in the third quarter when Noah dived on the floor for a loose ball—the Bulls were being beaten to most offensive boards early with an 8-6 Toronto edge in the first half—tipped it to Mike Dunleavy, who then shoved it to Butler, who was fouled making a three for a four point play.

Less noticeable but more vital was Noah’s switch onto Valanciunas after Gasol was playing him in the first half. Noah fronted, he pushed the burly Valanciunas off his spot to the outside, he bumped and banged, and the Raptors’ guards became disinterested in being patient.

Kyle Lowry was terrific with 34 points, though nine came in the last minute after the Bulls had taken a 118-105 lead with 1:17 left on a Rose jumper. But unable to find Valanciunas, the Raptors guards began shooting jumpers, and they weren’t going down as easily as they had earlier. It’s a flaw you can exploit with inexperienced, developing teams like the Raptors. Their guards are explosive, but they won’t make a point to seek out those inside points and prefer the three-guard attacking game. Valanciunas had 14 first half shots and just four in the second thanks to Noah’s aggressive play.

“We were more aggressive,” Noah said with a shrug.

That aggression was crucial in slowing down the Raptors, who scored just 17 points in the third quarter as the Bulls began to regain control of the game and then had Rose to be the smooth butter for Butler’s bread basket of offensive options.

“Derrick, he definitely makes a lot of things easier,” said Butler. “Whenever he’s out there and facilitating, scoring, you saw it. And I’m pretty sure you all were, ‘He’s back.’ We know we can always count on (Rose) and go to him. That’s the kind of guy he is; he wants that pressure on him, he produces and we’ll keep going back to him and he’ll do the same every night. I think we are hard to beat (healthy). We have so many guys who can do so many things well. As long as everyone is healthy and we’re playing hard and playing together we’re a really good team.”

Those other guys included Brooks, who played the entire fourth quarter with Kirk Hinrich sustaining a hamstring strain and questionable for Tuesday in Washington, Taj Gibson back from his ankle injury with 10 points in 18 minutes and Mirotic with that dozen points on two field goal attempts with seven of eight from the free throw line. Mirotic was so effective and made a big fourth quarter three for a 94-93 Bulls lead with 7:26 remaining that Thibodeau played him basically the entire fourth quarter instead of Gasol (neither Gasol nor Dunleavy played in the fourth).

“I’m not locked into it,” said Thibodeau of closing with Mirotic. “I was planning on coming back with Pau. It was Taj’s first game back. We’re still trying to work our way through things. That group had a good thing going. So I wanted to ride it as far as we could. Then we got past the point where I thought Pau had sat too long. Then at the end, we were going offense/defense with Niko and Taj. But it’s not set in stone. Pau, obviously, I don’t want to take anything away from the great year he’s having. He’s a clutch player and he’s come through big-time for us.”

It’s a good issue to have, though it will test the framework of team.

“We have a really deep front court.” agreed Noah. “Every game is going to be different, so we just have to play for the team. It’s a lot easier said than done. As a competitor, you want to be out there. But at the end of the day whoever has the favorable matchup it’s going to be their time and I understand that.”

And down the stretch, like old times, it was Rose’s time.

Working on a minutes limitation of about 32, Rose came back with about seven minutes remaining. Though he looked fast and strong all game. Down the stretch and with Mirotic even playing nice position defense, Rose made a pull up 20 footer as soon as he came in. Noah then made a terrific pass to Mirotic, who was fouled and made both for a 100-95 Bulls lead with 6:07 left in a fun game.

The Raptors, tough on the offensive boards with 18, got a put back. Rose then froze the defense with a hesitation move going right for a bank shot. He was fouled, but missed for a 102-97 lead with 5:50 left.

“They were giving me shots, shots I normally take,” said Rose. “Tonight they were just going down. My teammates gave me the ball. I’m fortunate to have the teammates I have; they really believe in me. I’m grateful and I don’t take it for granted.”

Lowry was fouled after two more offensive rebounds and made one of two. Rose answered with a 20 footer over a Noah screen for a 104-98 lead. Lowry drove and scored, but back came Rose with a 22 footer as this Rose/Lowry duel set the stage in a sense for Rose and John Wall Tuesday.

“For us it’s all about winning games, getting better individually, pushing the team,” said Rose. “We just have to keep pushing. A lot of smalls had to box out big men tonight because we did a lot of switching and that’s why they were getting (offensive) rebounds at the end because of the size.

“I felt good,” added Rose. “I was kind of surprised I wasn’t as fatigued as I thought I’d be missing a couple of games (ill). My confidence helped out. I play 100 percent, to the max every time I step on the floor. Every performance is not going to be like this; the ones like this just continue to boost my confidence.”

It was getting really good as Noah forced Patrick Patterson into a miss with strong defense and Mirotic in good position was fouled.

“(Mirotic) puts a lot of pressure on himself,” said Rose. “He wants to show everyone he can do everything on the floor. He hates to be labeled as just a shooter; he wants to be labeled as a great basketball player. I can respect that. The bench was huge for us. We have weapons on the bench that can score the ball with ease. You saw Aaron; he can change the whole dynamic of the game. You are so focused on him you forget you have Jimmy or Pau or Jo hustling, playing hard, getting tipins; so we know we have an overall dangerous team.”

Lowry made a nice spinning drive for a score to get Toronto within 107-102 with about three minutes left. Butler then posted up on a switch and hit a tough jumper over Lowry. Mirotic then nicely boxed out Valanciunas and was fouled, pumping his fist with the call. Mirotic made both for a 111-102 lead. Patrick Patterson made one of two free throws and then Rose drove right and made a nifty drop off pass for a Noah slam dunk as the defense closed on Rose: 113-103 Bulls.

“To be honest,” Rose said, “I don’t think there’s any way you can take me off my game. No matter what you do.That’s just how confident I am.”

Valanciunas was fouled and made two. But Rose answered with a drive down the middle and left handed layup and foul for a three-point play for a 116-105 Bulls lead with 1:43 left. It was MVP chants from the appreciative home crowd.

Mirotic rebounded a Lou Williams miss and Rose pulled up on the left side for that 21 footer for the 13-point lead with 1:17 left. The Raptors added several late baskets in vain.

“We’re going to try to keep this going,” said Rose. “Make sure everyone else gets healthy and see how far this team can go.”