Bulls bounce back with 121-108 win over 76ers

The Bulls get a much-needed win ahead of six-game road trip

By Sam Smith

Dwyane Wade has done some amazing things in his fabulous NBA career. His 2006 Finals when he averaged 39.2 points the last four games to sweep the Mavericks was one of the great Finals performances in NBA history. He’s been a Finals and All-Star MVP, three-time NBA champion, 10-time all-NBA, four-time all-defense, a league scoring champion.

But nothing may match what Wade has done over the last week. He may have turned the bristly Rajon Rondo into the irreplaceable, unifying force and inspiration for the Bulls, and especially the reserves whose 49 points Sunday was vital in the Bulls 121-108 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

“We really shared the ball,” noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We played together for the entire game. To have 29 assists, it’s been a while. Our pace was really good. The biggest thing was we played the right way; we played with great effort and that’s what it’s about. If you go out and give honest effort every single night you are going to give yourselves a chance. Not to say we are going to win (every game), but we’re going to be there and that’s what this group has to do.

“I think he’s (Rondo) done a great job of really accepting the role. I think he’s taken pride in that role, being the leader of that second group. He’s done a great job of getting guys shots, getting Cris (Felicio) shots at the rim. Niko (Mirotic), Doug (McDermott) and Paul (Zipser) have all benefited greatly from playing with him and our pace just picks up when Rajon is in the game. I thought he was terrific. He hit a couple of big shots for us in the fourth quarter when we needed them. And again, he’s been a really positive influence on this group. They knew Rondo is going to get them shots if they space the floor, if they run with him. When we get those guys out there knocking down shots like they were tonight, it obviously makes us a much more dangerous team."

Hoiberg about Rondo leading the oft-maligned second unit

This is why it’s important to get up every day with a purpose and the right attitude. You never know what the next day brings.

Basically banned and benched a month ago, going from starting to not playing, Rondo had eight points and 10 assists and was lauded around the locker room for his motivation and encouragement.

“I think Rajon is being the key for the second unit,” said Mirotic, who had 13 points with a solid six of 10 shooting. “He said to us ‘Guys, let’s run, let’s (pass to) each other, let’s play simple basketball, make some easy baskets in transition.’ Sometimes, even difficult looks, he wants us to make a basket. I think for Doug (with 14 points) it’s been great, for Paul (with 13 points), for me it’s big time. It’s playing more free. Paul is stepping up, Doug is making more shots. I had some good games and I think from now everything that happened here we have to be positive moving forward and try to win the next game."

The next one is in Oklahoma City Wednesday to begin a difficult six-game Western Conference road trip. But it was a most welcome victory Sunday after the melodrama of the last week of Dwyane Wade and, to an extent, Jimmy Butler questioning teammates. Then Rondo standing up for the beleaguered bench on social media with some sharp observations apparently aimed toward Wade, a team meeting in which players suggested they’d like to see more effort from Wade, fines for the three, Wade and Butler benched to start Friday’s loss against Miami, another practice and one of the team’s better games in weeks.

Wade clearly has moved on. Asked about reports players wanted him to practice regularly, Wade said, “I’m not talking about anything that is in house; that’s an in house thing; we‘ll keep it in house.”

Sure, the 76ers were missing star rookie Joel Embiid. But they’ve played .500 ball without him lately even as they fell to 17-29 overall. The Bulls are 24-25 and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference.

Butler was vital to the ultimate success, as usual, with 28 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals. His shot still is a bit broken, but with his amazing power and drive, he got himself to the free throw line for 12 of 15. But this time even after the Bulls lost a 20-point second quarter lead and were tied at 81 late in the third quarter, it was a fourth quarter team effort that assured the win. The reserves had 15 fourth quarter points and the starters 10 as Rondo and Zipser led the fourth quarter scoring.

“It was huge. Rondo is the leader of that unit. He did a good job quarterbacking those guys. They played with a swagger. They brought it to another level. It is a good sign for the team. Philly came back to tie, and we did not get flustered, like in the last couple of games. If we can bottle that (bench margin) and go on this road trip we’ll be pretty good. If we can get to that game more times than not, it will give us a good chance and make us even a tougher team."

Dwyane Wade on Rondo

It’s going to be difficult in this upcoming stretch, the toughest of the season given the caliber of opposition. But the way Zipser, McDermott and Mirotic combined to shoot 16 for 27 and six for 11 on threes, there are possibilities. The reserves were seven of 13 on threes. The starters were a combined one of one, the lone three by Jerian Grant.

It’s also what Rondo brings even though he isn’t regarded as a good shooter: He pushes the ball and looks for shooters. It’s what Hoiberg has been begging for all season, the last two actually, but the pieces have had trouble fitting together. Butler doesn’t play that way, but the Bulls vitally need his individual game for the force it brings and the threat and production.

So Hoiberg has had to experiment more than most coaches. Wade, who had 14 points, had been playing the early part of the season with the second unit. But Wade, especially now at 35, isn’t one to run the court much, and so the group was often playing slowly, Wade able to run a nice pick and roll but without enough pace.

With Michael Carter-Williams returning from injury, Hoiberg apparently thought with his defensive ability and size he might be a factor. But he’s gone back to the bench, and seemingly the combination of Rondo’s defense of the reserves after the Wade comments and Rondo’s insistence they play faster and he’d get them the ball has the potential for freeing the long sluggish second group.

It’s just one game, and hardly against a contender, but this is the sort of group play the Bulls have been seeking. On the game plus/minus, Zipser, Mirotic and Rondo were three of the top four along with Robin Lopez, who was huge with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.

“For me, passing the ball gives my teammates energy,” said Rondo. “I’m a big believer in having everyone touch the ball. Guys played with effort; obviously, you have to make shots to score. But it started with those guys. They made plays for eachother. They made plays for the rest of the team. They filled up stats sheets; it’s fun to watch. I try to communicate all the time, dead balls, free throw line, talk to my young guys and get us on the same page and know what you have to take care of coming out of timeouts.

“They run the floor they are going to get the ball,” said Rondo. “Not just one or two shots. If they are going to get open multiple times, they are going to get the ball; you play like that you play confident, play free and good things will happen. When you win everybody is in a better place. Sharing the ball tonight, everyone was contributing; it’s fun to be a part of.”

And so we’ll see how that goes.

The Bulls say they are past last week’s discord, and they probably are. It’s a pretty good group of people, and the young guys now seem to feel they have support and need not fear the verbal vituperation. It’s about their talent, so we’ll see if it’s enough.

“I think this team it will be great for us,” Mirotic said about the recent passion play. “We take off something from our backs; we were honest to eachother. We told what has been bothering me, Doug, everybody. Like older and young brother, we fight sometimes. Sometimes we are not thinking the same thing, but we love eachother and respect eachother and at the end of the day we are here on the same page trying to move in the same direction. They have great guys here; everybody is a great guy here. I think honestly we all respect eachother; sometimes it is not perfect.”

It looked like it might be in a rare Sunday night game, the Bulls off to a frolicking 37-23 first quarter with Mirotic big at the close with a three and then a steal and driving dunk, Zipser with a three and Rondo with a full court inbounds pass with a second left to Mirotic for what became a goaltend. It was 13-0 to close the quarter and 20-2 that put the Bulls ahead 45-25 after McDermott came out converting Rondo’s passer to start the second quarter.

“I saw a lot of confidence (with the bench). Going out there playing hard, you play like that everything takes care of itself. You find yourself open. The ball may just fall in your lap for a rebound. As long as you are playing hard you are going to make shots, guard, you are going to do all the right things. We’re still battling together. Everybody said what they had to say, get it off their chest, move on, move forward and win some games. When adversity strikes, this is when you have to be the best at your craft, at what you do. I think we are capable of that, but we have to go out and show that."

Jimmy Butler on Sunday's win

Hey, maybe the tough love was part of the answer.

This 76ers team freed from dumping games by general manager Bryan Colangelo, who hired some veterans, is a feisty and frisky group. Ersan Ilyasova gave the Bulls trouble all game, scoring 31 points. Likewise slippery point guard T.J. McConnell. Butt with the injuries their bench could supply just 15 points with Jahlil Okafor benched by coach decision.

The 76ers are among the league leaders in attempting threes, and they started making them, getting within 67-57 at halftime as Robert Covington took advantage of the Bulls switching defense to shed Butler and make three three pointers and 14 second quarter points. The 76ers tied the game late in the third quarter with McConnell driving and then moving the ball quickly. It was looking like another disastrous result for the Bulls.

But the Bulls challenged the shooters more intensely and got big shots from Bobby Portis, who started for Taj Gibson. Gibson has ankle soreness, but should be ready the next game. Also, Zipser with a big three and a nice finish off a Butler pass, Lopez with yet another pop out jumper as the 76ers doubled Butler and a tip in. And then Butler barging through the defense for a score. The Bulls hit the 76ers with an 11-2 run after Philadelphia got within 104-99 with 5:21 left.

And now the Bulls leave, and it’s back to basketball.

“I think it is a great time to be going on the road,” said Rondo. “That is where you get your camaraderie. You go through ups and downs, but for the most part you stick together and figure out how to get some road wins. The Eastern Conference is so close you have a bad week you’re out of the playoffs; you have a good week you’re in the third seed. So stay even keel. We had a rough week on and off the court, but we know we have one goal in mind and that’s to make some runs and make noise in the playoffs.

“Play cards, you eat, talk the game, watch games with the young guys or different players,” Rondo said about the road schedule. “But we are talking basketball 24/7 to get them to understand the game, especially the way I think the game. That is important for us to be on the same page. That’s big.”

Rondo, who would have figured.

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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