Pau Gasol recorded his fourth double double in the first six games this season.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Bulls outlast 76ers for fourth straight win

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By Sam Smith | 11.08.2014 | 2:03 a.m. CT

The question often comes up, in a hopeful demand from fans, about whether this 2014-15 version is the best Bulls team since the champions of the 1990s.

That’s to be determined, but thus far it’s the most offensive.

Though not in an unpleasant way.

The Bulls Friday piled up another 118 points, which was just enough to hold on for a three-point win over the Philadelphia Tankers. The Bulls went to 5-1 and close their four games in five days set Saturday against Boston. Mike Dunleavy led with 27 points and five three pointers while Jimmy Butler added 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists and Pau Gasol had yet another double/double with 17 points and 12 rebounds.

It added up to the victory in which the Bulls almost blew an 18-point fourth quarter lead, and in watching the new high scoring Bulls these days it’s all about adding. Quickly.

The Bulls now are:

-- Tied for fifth in the league in scoring at 104.8 per game. That is the most the Bulls have averaged since the 1995-96 season when the Bulls were 72-10;

-- Fourth in the league in shooting at 48 percent; the Bulls haven’t shot that well in a season since 1992-93.

-- Sixth in the NBA in three-point shooting at 39.8 percent. That’s the best long distance mark for the franchise since 1995-96 as well.

“Offense is not a problem,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who in supportive post game remarks seemed to appreciate the team’s uncertainty regarding injuries with Derrick Rose out again with a sprained ankle and Joakim Noah just returning from a virus. “We’re getting to the line; we’re shooting the three well. I think we have a good balance inside/out. Turnovers, we’ve got to get down. I like us offensively a lot. The rebounding is still a concern. But I am pleased we found a way to win. At the end of the day, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

It’s probably the script for the Bulls for some time to come despite what will be somewhat regular and routine hand wringing about defensive play. Oh, my! Where is Thibs’ famed defense?

You want him to play more guys, which he is with his pretty regular 10-player rotation Friday even with Rose out. Rose likely is a game time decision again Saturday, though Boston rookie Marcus Smart likely is out after his own ankle sprain Friday. But when you use more players, two of whom are rookies and one a second year player who barely played last season and overall four of the 10 who were not with the team last season, you don’t develop the needed and required continuity on defense.

Thus the rugged we-know-they’ll-play-defense-if-they-do-anything Bulls are 12th in opponents points allowed, 16th in rebounding and last in opponent offensive rebounding. Friday the Bulls allowed the winless 76ers who are well chronicled not trying to win — at least the management as the players competed, which could result in some being released — to score 115 points, 25 above their season average.

“A game like tonight you fall into a trap scoring easily and the next thing you know it’s a shootout and tonight hopefully it’s an outlier for the defensive performance,” said Dunleavy.

The 76ers got 31 points from Tony Wroten, who is the point guard until Michael Carter-Williams returns from injury. Guys named Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims combined for 37 points as the 76ers shot 47 percent and outrebounded the Bulls despite being 28th in the league in rebounding entering the game.

The Bulls vaunted defense under Thibodeau hasn’t been very good, or at least not very consistent throughout games. There’ll be theories that plumb the depths of clichés, like focus and rhythm and energy. But Thibodeau understands, which is why to the surprise of many he’s not yelling at anyone.

He understands defense must be practiced more than offense because its movements and coordination are more studied than the offense, a ballet in brutality. One player can make a great offensive play; it generally takes several to polish a defensive gem.

So the Bulls saw the rookies, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic along with Tony Snell, failing to protect the backcourt when the guards penetrated, which Aaron Brooks and Jimmy Butler have done so well. So the 76ers had 22 fast break points and several wide open layups.

Though the front line with Gasol, Noah and Taj Gibson is improved, Noah has been returning slowly from his off season knee surgery and became ill earlier this week. Gibson missed a game with a sprained ankle and wasn’t moving so wonderfully thereafter, especially not boxing out. While Gasol is an excellent defensive rebounder and shot blocker, he tends to remain by the basket and doesn’t chase out regularly for long rebounds. Not that the Bulls miss Carlos Boozer’s defense. But a system of play develops with teamwork, and there just hasn’t been the time or opportunity with so many players, including Rose, in and out of the lineup. And while Butler continues to demonstrate offensive prowess, he often was cheating on defense looking for steals in the first half when the 76ers scored 57 points. It enabled Thompson to repeatedly get open as it appeared the Bulls thought they might put this one away early against a team much discussed as positioned to lose.

“You’re not going to knock them out in the first minutes,” said Thibodeau. “That’s what everyone thinks. You’ve got to play 48 minutes.”

It’s one of Thibodeau’s favorite adages, but this Bulls team has mostly been good enough to play 24, the best of it after halftime in producing its wins. Like they did against the Bucks Wednesday and with an overpowering 35-19 third quarter Friday that enabled the Bulls to withstand their ready to go home fourth quarter in which they yielded 39 points.

It’s early; Noah’s sick, Rose is out, Aaron Brooks tweaked his ankle and is probable for Saturday. It’s a journey.

“We’ve just got to keep scratching them out,” said Thibodeau.

Heck, he’s so jolly and understanding these days you’d think he’s auditioning for the Macy’s Santa job.

It was a wild 33-28 Bulls first quarter lead as Butler scored 13 points and the team shot 57 percent. Showtime, eat your heart out, Magic.

Dunleavy and McDermott made threes and Butler posted up and broke down and overpowered 76ers’ defenders. The ball swung around with six Bulls recording assists, though the 76ers were matching them with jumpers and run outs. Noah ended the game with five points and nine rebounds as he’s continued to have less role in the offense that goes more to Gasol while Noah also works to strengthen his knee.

“It’s good to have Jo back,” agreed Thibodeau. “He has to get his rhythm back. When you miss time like he did being sick, his wind it’s going to take a little while. But I thought as the game went on he moved better and better. He’ll be fine.”

The second group has stumbled more often of late and they gave back the lead in the second quarter as the 76ers spurted ahead 49-40 midway through the quarter, frequently beating the Bulls to rebounds, especially second chances. The 76ers got 17 offensive rebounds as the Bulls remained last in the league in giving up offensive rebounds. Mostly, they’ve been outhustled as teams shoot more threes and there are more long rebounds. Gasol doesn’t chase them as vigorously and Noah has been slowed by his injury and illness.

But the Bulls offense has had answers every game. This time it was Kirk Hinrich beating the defense to the basket with a team high 10 free throw attempts along with his seven assists, and Gasol and Dunleavy with late scores to tie the game at halftime.

The Bulls then took over as Dunleavy made three three pointers in the first part of the third quarter with Hinrich driving and finding him and Dunleavy repaying with his own pass off the dribble for a Hinrich three. It enabled the Bulls to bolt ahead 78-64, take a breath and allow the 76ers within six and then close strong again for a 92-76 lead after three quarters as Dunleavy had a dozen points in the third.

“I thought our third quarter was excellent on both ends, the offense and the defense,” said Thibodeau. (Dunleavy), excellent, excellent. I thought our guys did a good job recognizing he was going well. They were searching him out and making plays for him. That’s what I like about our team. I think it’s a very unselfish team. They recognized when someone is going good; they’ll screen for him, get him open, the ball will find him.

“One night Mike, (then) next night Jimmy. He started off the game well,” noted Thibodeau of the rapidly improving Butler. “Jimmy’s been terrific in all aspects of the game. We got great play from him; Kirk and Aaron filling in for Derrick have been great. We haven’t skipped a beat there. The big guys up front, good quality depth there. That’s what I like about our team. It’s whoever is in there, go out and get the job done and that’s what they are doing.”

They seemed to break it open and led 109-93 with six and a half minutes left. But credit the 76ers kids for not giving in, especially Wroten, who ran it at the Bulls repeatedly failing to get back and pick up the right man. That’s another element of defense that former Bulls assistant Johnny Bach always talked about: The good shot. It’s not just being open. It’s also when your teammates are in position to rebound and be back on defense. The Bulls defense with all the changing parts hasn’t adapted to the basic principles yet.

The Bulls still led by 10 points with less than three minutes left, but missed some free throws, gave up some threes and if the 76ers had one more timeout might even had a shot to tie the game. But they had to shoot a desperation heave at the buzzer after Hinrich made two free throws with 2.1 seconds left. No problem. The offense had it all along.

“Tonight we put up whatever, (118) without Derrick. We have some weapons for sure," said Dunleavy. "It's all part of the depth they've added. Even the young guys trying to find their way in the league are very unselfish. The veteran, older guys are completely focused on winning, willing to share the ball. It's what every player wants."