Bulls look to refocus, rebound ahead of west coast road trip

Following a tumultuous week, the Bulls look to turn the page

By Sam Smith

Now they’re ready. But can the Bulls handle the Philadelphia 76ers?

Yes, this season gets weirder and weirder.

The Bulls Sunday in the wake of their verbal outbursts, fines, social media navigations, benchings, team meeting and gruesome losses try to regain some balance against the team that has been the joke of the NBA for the last three years and now has won 10 of its last 14 games. Suddenly, the 76ers are as close to catching the Bulls as the Bulls are to catching the fourth place Atlanta Hawks.

And then the Bulls go west for their most challenging road trip of the season, six games against three of the top six teams in the Western Conference and closing Feb. 12 against the developing, young Timberwolves.

So the Bulls Saturday took out their “This is The First Day of the Rest of your Life” coffee mugs and decided with a spirited practice, OK, it starts now.

“Look, we’re fortunate to be in the East,” Taj Gibson admitted after practice with the Bulls—despite all this—still tied for seventh place in the Eastern Conference at 23-25. “We’re fortunate to have everybody going through the same problems we are going through, but I also explained to the guys we are fortunate. This is a blessing (playing in the NBA), an opportunity to make a great living for ourselves. So go out and enjoy it while we still can. I told the guys in the locker room it was just bad timing; the game (Friday losing to Miami), we just weren’t prepared for a team like that coming in on a real hot win streak. That morning took a lot out of us.”

That morning, as perhaps it may always be referenced with this group, was apparently an intense, confrontational, passionate, soul searching session among players, coaches and team management.

It came in the wake of the blown lead against Atlanta Wednesday, searing comments from Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, an aggrieved response from Rajon Rondo and then fines for the three, early benchings for Wade and Butler, and then a team desperate for victory but with little energy left after the draining, long morning session Friday. Butler and Wade had two of their poorest games of the season, and it was another loss.

But the sun did come up Saturday, though being it was Chicago in January that was mostly rumor and hearsay. We did see it elsewhere on TV, and Gibson, the most standup guy the Bulls have, came to stand up before the media after practice when everyone else probably was mostly talked out.

And worn out from what by all accounts was a fiery and frenzied practice session that included Wade. That actually was somewhat unusual as Gibson conceded one of the issues during the meeting voiced by the young players accused by Wade was his lack of practice. Though that has been by agreement with the coaching staff and management because of Wade’s age and experience.

Still, Gibson said Wade was out there in full perspire, an encouraging symbol of a new day.

“Everybody was focused today in practice,” Gibson said. “There was less talking, a lot of competitiveness. There wasn't really any bad vibes.

“Probably about a four, four or five (out of ten), maybe,” Gibson said when asked about the magnitude of this particular Bulls misadventure. “I've seen worse. I’ve been in some chaotic yelling matches with Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) and everybody just going crazy and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Don’t call my name, please.’ I was shocked how we came out of it and made us a better team. We talked it out, got everybody going, got some things off guys' chests. I didn't take anything negative from it.

“It was intense,” Gibson said. “Guys and coaches were able to really speak what they want from guys. Guys challenged each other and it was good to hear from all members of the team, especially our young guys, what they need, what they want. I think it was a positive. Our whole team is a young bunch; but you’ve got to have a great group of guys wiling to adapt. I’m a guy going to adapt, Rolo (Robin Lopez) is going to adapt, Jimmy is going to adapt; we’ve got guys trying to fix it and get wins. D-Wade practiced great today; we are not trying to have any negativity. That's one of the things in the meeting: Young guys just want a little bit more from him. And he brung it today. He pushed the young guys. And that's a sign that that meeting did a little something.”

Of course, all that will be measured in the standings. But if there have been issues festering that could not be addressed, perhaps it does become a positive turning point. Wade’s message was that sometimes you have to be the villain and unpopular to get your point across, that success in this business transcends popularity. And that Wade was willing to put his Mr. Good Guy image in danger to sacrifice for the team.

He’ll also have to back it up on the court, and it seemed like he started on the practice floor.

“I do think (meetings) make a big difference,” said Gibson. “Sometimes people don't really mean what they say. The next day after reading it in the papers or reading it from the media or the TVs, you kind of look at yourself and you kind of come in like, 'I didn't really mean it in that kind of way.' And then people will be able to speak freely at what they really mean and other guys get to chime in. It was good for the team. I felt like that morning just sucked so much energy out of the game, a lot of words being said, a lot of tempers. By the end of it, it was all positive.”

The questions, issues and concerns, as they often do, led back to the coach, and Gibson had his back.

“Yeah, I think he's got control of the locker room,” Gibson said of Fred Hoiberg. “He gives guys a lot of freedom. When he first came here, people said our team needed a much easier kind of guy. We had Thibs, like a drill sergeant. He told you that you can play even when you're extremely hurt. We went out there and we played hard. Was it a good thing for us sometimes? No. But that was just a different kind of coaching staff. Fred is coming from college, this is his second year being around a whole different bunch of guys who have been in the NBA a long time, guys on their way to the hall of fame, guys that have won championships. Fred is just trying to deal with all these different perspectives and then trying to put guys in the right positions. You've got guys constantly complaining; guys want to play. It's tough being an NBA coach. People don't understand that.


“Fred was real vocal in that meeting and I felt it was good for us,” Gibson added. “He understands what he does well, what he does wrong. But he’s still a young coach. He said, ‘I’m going to hold you guys more accountable. I give you guys a lot of leeway because I care about you and understand how hard it is to be an NBA player and how hard it is to go home every night with so much on your back; I’ve been there, but now I have to do a better job.’ I can respect that when somebody comes forth and understands they need to do a better job. That means they are still riding with you and they are going to push you and you’ve got to do the same thing, help him and yourself and help the team.”

The talking’s done. So now it’s time for action. The Bulls perhaps get a break, if not the fans anxious to see the latest star, with the 76ers Joel Embiid not scheduled to play on his relaxed, post injury playing schedule. For the Bulls, we’ll see who got the message.

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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