"Noah had five points, six rebounds and four assists and working the weak side for putbacks keeps the defense from loading up on Gasol," writes Smith. "They’ve been an effective duo, which was a question coming into training camp."
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls come back from 21 behind to defeat Denver

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By Sam Smith | 10.14.2014 | 1:37 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

The Bulls Monday evened their preseason record at 2-2 with a 110-90 victory over the Denver Nuggets in which the Bulls overcame a 21-point first half deficit.

That led Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to remark afterward, predictably, of course, that the team had much work to do to be ready for the regular season.

“The regular season is going to be here before you know it,” Thibodeau noted. “We have a lot of guys who are not sharp right now. We need to get an edge, we don’t have an edge right now.”

The coach isn’t exactly sharp, either.

Well, not that Thibodeau doesn’t know what he is doing or that he isn’t prepared. We know he is one of the best coaches in the game and likely the most prepared.

But this was another awkward effort of spurts and stops, in part, because Thibodeau still is working on the right combinations with four new players in what seems a 10-player rotation now and not only how to use them but with whom.

“We started slowly and got in a big hole,” noted Thibodeau of the Bulls falling behind 30-19 after one quarter and then 50-29 midway through the second quarter. “We were fortunate to work our way out of it. We had energy, we got better ball pressure, we forced some misses and turnovers and got in the open floor. Doug McDermott hit a couple of threes and got us going. That was the first time we played any defense.”

Those McDermott threes came after the Bulls got behind by 21 and raised the issue once again of whether McDermott should play with the starters.

McDermott finished with 16 points off the bench while Jimmy Butler in a terrific game had 21 points and six assists and shot from outside better than he had all preseason.

“Jimmy is playing really well,” said Thibodeau. “He came into camp in great shape and has played extremely well. I am very pleased with him offensively. Defensively, he has been good. But we all know he is capable of being great. I expect him to set the tone for us defensively. He has to be one of our team leaders.”

That Bulls second quarter run came when Thibodeau went back to the starters and left McDermott on the floor to finish the second quarter with them. Mike Dunleavy returned to start after missing the Milwaukee win Saturday with a sore knee. But it was when Thibodeau went back to the starters with McDermott that the Bulls made that strong run to make it a 58-58 game at halftime.

Not that McDermott was the star. He did make that pair of threes, though he also drew Thibodeau’s wrath once when he went to help outside and let Wilson Chandler slip by him for a tip slam dunk.

Though one of the issues, especially early in the game when the Bulls fell behind, was timing and spacing.

With the addition of Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson having matured as a post player, Thibodeau appropriately has made a committed effort to get the ball into the post to start the offense. But the Bulls do not space the floor well.

Derrick Rose, who had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists with six-of-six from the line in 20 minutes, has not shot threes well. Butler shot the ball the best he has in the preseason, but he isn’t a range shooter and didn’t even attempt a three even though he is the shooting guard. Dunleavy can shoot the three, but his release is not that quick and he often can get run off the line.

As a result, the Bulls are finding the interior crowded when they try to get inside.

It is the proper strategy, especially for a half court playoff game. But with the cramped space with defenders making the postups difficult, the Bulls offense Monday tended to be stagnant, especially against Denver’s quicker defenders.

The result was that stumbling start that left the Bulls trailing 17-13 when Rose and Joakim Noah left with just over five minutes remaining in the first quarter. Obviously at this juncture in training camp, especially with so many new players, there’s a lot of trial and error and starters not playing quite as much.

But what Thibodeau has tried in playing with his rotations also has placed the second unit at a disadvantage, and they struggled again Monday.

One of the issues is Thibodeau has been replacing Gasol after Noah goes out with rookie Nikola Mirotic.

Mirotic had an active game with 12 points, making several nice moves to the basket and combining with McDermott late in the game for a nice spaced floor three. But Thibodeau in using the rookies together Monday seemed to pretty much yell himself hoarse with “Niko!” resounding on most possessions. The larger issue has been not being large enough. Thibodeau has used Taj Gibson, who had 15 points, as the “big man” with the second unit. But Mirotic and McDermott in addition to being rookies and not that adept quite yet in help defense, give the Bulls a very small second unit.

The result was the Nuggets running up that big lead when the reserves played through the late first into the mid second quarter and rookie Jusuf Nurkic having a strong game off the bench with 15 points. Kenneth Faried led Denver with 19 points and Nate Robinson hit the shot of the game, a 35 foot fadeaway with the shot clock expiring in the third quarter.

Nurkic, a big man with nice offensive moves, came to the Nuggets with one of the picks the Bulls exchanged to get McDermott. The Nuggets took Gary Harris with the other and he was scoreless in 20 minutes.

The Bulls are impressive with their two big men as Gasol had nine points and four more blocks. The way he is playing the Bulls could have the first ever back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year players and it being different guys. Noah had five points, six rebounds and four assists and working the weak side for putbacks keeps the defense from loading up on Gasol.

They’ve been an effective duo, which was a question coming into training camp.

But their pairing has left the reserve group small, and they’ve been beat up in several games this season.

Perhaps Dunleavy, who is 6-10, experienced and a smart defender, would help rather than having two rookies.

Thibodeau Monday went with 10 players, which looks like the early season rotation with Dunleavy, Noah, Gasol, Butler and Rose starting and Mirotic, McDermott, Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks off the bench. But it’s a small second group as Mirotic as a stretch four doesn’t play that big.

Also, as Gibson has become more assured about trying to score in the post, sometimes when his first move is blocked he’ll spin and spin back to the same spot, holding the ball too long. When that happens, the movement stops and it’s been difficult for three new players to break from those doldrums.

Though it is what preseason is about, to experiment, to see what works and with whom.

The teams traded baskets to begin as Rose had a beauty of an open court crossover blow by on Ty Lawson for a layup, though Rose had a couple of layup attempts blocked afterward. One, however, was when he got inside for the rebound. Rose again moved well and was quick to the basket and did hit a three.

“His timing is not there right now,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “He did it in the Milwaukee game and I thought he did it tonight as well. I like that he is doing the hard attack. The more we get that, the better it is. Plus, the advance to Jimmy (with outlet passing) has been very good and we would like to add Pau with the deep post up. I think we can get that as well. Offensively, I think we are fine. We are scoring a lot of points; defensively we have to be a lot better.”

Yes, he always says that.

The Bulls looked good in transition with a 23-11 fast break edge, though the half court offense was slow again. That second group as Rose, Noah and Gasol departed fell behind 30-19 after one and into that deep canyon early in the second quarter. That’s when rookie Nurkic pinned Gibson inside with his size and Thibodeau got into Mirotic pretty good for turning the wrong way on help in allowing a driver to get all the way to the basket.

When Rose and Noah returned in the second quarter, the Nuggets were ahead 42-27. Gasol subbed in a few seconds later and that group with McDermott and Butler gave the Bulls their first spirited and all around play of the game. Thibodeau got in on it as well with a technical foul as in his spirit of fair play toward officials he yelled at the lady official and the men equally as much. And then came the Bulls. There were those McDermott’s threes immediately afterward, the court spread well and Gasol getting a jumper, Rose crossing over on a drive to beat the defense and finding Butler for a score and Butler looking for his perimeter shot more and even pump faking a defender by and making the shot.

The Bulls were tied at 58 at halftime and then pulled into a lead as Rose glided in for a teardrop and Butler had a pair of terrific defensive plays with a faceup block on Arron Afflalo and score and then overplaying the passing lane for another steal. The run from the second quarter when Rose and Noah returned until they left in the third along with Butler was 44-25 to turn the game around.

“We can still get better in a lot different areas, but overall I think we are improving,” said Noah. “There are a lot of positive signs. We are still improving, getting better, getting better conditioning. I think the mindset is good. We took care of the ball a little better (after the first quarter when they committed seven of their 17 turnovers). That was definitely an emphasis. Overall, we did a good job. We were down early, but Derrick got us going a little bit. Jimmy is in a good place right now. He is playing really well. He is playing confident basketball and I expect a good season. Overall I think it was a pretty solid effort.”

The Bulls led 83-75 after three and pulled away in the fourth quarter as McDermott had 10 points, including dribbling all the way on a three quarter court runout, while all the starters rested. McDermott was three of four on threes while the rest of the team was a combined three of 15. The Bulls are home Thursday to face Atlanta and Sunday to play Charlotte.

There is no Next, a book by Sam Smith