Bulls prey on Pelicans for sixth straight victory
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 | 12.28.2014 | 2:37 a.m. CT
You can be walking down the street pretty much any day in Chicago, and if a man comes up to you and asks you what time it is on your watch, well, there’s an easy answer.
“There’s no lying anymore,” Joakim Noah was saying late Saturday night after the Bulls sure handed 107-100 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans and nascent prodigy Anthony Davis. “Everybody knows what time it is.”
And only the opponents have the time to cry.
Because it’s Jimmy Butler time again.
The Bulls fourth year sensation came up with another huge game: 33 points, including nine in the fourth quarter with Derrick Rose adding seven of his 19 as the Bulls’ star guard duo dominated the Pelicans late with a relentless pick and roll. It repeatedly enabled Butler or Rose to get to the basket and combine to score the Bulls’ last 16 points after they returned to the game with 6:42 remaining.
“Our fourth quarter is a 1-3 pick and roll,” said Noah of the play the Bulls continued to run now that they finally have two guards who can make plays with the ball and score. “It's tough to stop. I don't know what teams are going to do because we've got two guys who are really, really confident with the ball down the stretch.”
But it’s much more than that for a Bulls team that has won six straight games and nine of 10 to raise its record to 21-9.
The Bulls got another impressive contribution from, without question, the most talented group of subs they’ve have under coach Tom Thibodeau.
With three players in double figures the bench outscored the Pelicans’ 37-22. They were led by Aaron Brooks with 13 points and once again a turning point basket, his three pointer midway through the third quarter after the Pelicans took a 62-61 lead behind the mostly jump shooting of Davis, who finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks.
That’s how good Davis is. His guards play a lot of isolation and don’t look for him that much, so he either has to retrieve the ball for his shots or isolate and do something. Plus, the Bulls plan against him worked. They pretty much denied him the paint all game with their four bigs, Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, who combined for 34 rebounds while the Pelicans as a team had 37.
So Davis playing his first game back in Chicago as an NBA player just dropped jumper after jumper from all angles, somewhat reminiscent of Patrick Ewing the way he played pretty much only defense in college and then comes to the NBA making jumpers.
“He is better than advertised, and that says a lot,” said Thibodeau. “It’s amazing what he does. The game is easy for him. I shouldn’t say easy because I know how hard he works to prepare himself to play well. When you look at their team, and how he lifted the team, they are a very nice team that is going to get better and better. He is a great leader. That is a team that has a very bright future.”
And so, it seems, does this Bulls team the way it suddenly is chopping down some of the league’s sturdiest.
In this current 10-game run, the Bulls have defeated four teams all at least 13 games over .500 and this developing Pelicans team with a player, Davis, being mentioned as a possible league Most Valuable Player.
Butler got some of his own support for MVP from the United Center fans as he was closing his third game of at least 30 points in this six game winning streak. In this stretch, Butler is averaging 26.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals while shooting 51.4 percent and 46 for 50 from the free throw line.
But he had plenty of help from his friends, as the self-effacing Butler is always quick to note.
“We rebounded the ball and we got out into the open court and we got a lot of layups,” said Butler as the Bulls did have a 14-11 fast break edge. “When we're playing like that, I think we're really hard to beat."
But a team has to have the talent, and it appears the Bulls do with this group. Certainly the starters, who have been exceptional. Noah was excellent against Davis, keeping him on the outside and getting seven offensive rebounds, which equaled the total of the five New Orleans starters. And, yes, Davis still got 29, though many against others as he played 41 minutes and Noah 28.
But it was a timely addition, again, from the reserves, who really aren’t a bench the way Thibodeau is using them now. For example, with Kirk Hinrich missing his third game with a hamstring injury, E’Twaun Moore played the entire fourth quarter and pretty much closed the game with Noah, Gibson, Rose and Butler as Thibodeau has lately liked using Butler at small forward with a closing lineup of three guards.
Thibodeau is a bit sensitive about the rotation because the Bulls simply have too many good and healthy players now.
How’s that for a change?
Both Mirotic with 10 points and six rebounds and Brooks have emerged to the extent Thibodeau trusts them on the floor in big moments. Mirotic adds that so called stretch four component the team never has had while being an excellent defensive rebounder with his size. Brooks is an uncanny scorer and maybe the team’s best pressure three-point shooter. Moore has come on as a confident handy man type doing a bit of everything. Thibodeau said he kept the late additions in down the stretch given the 6-4 Moore’s ability to switch on the perimeter and pick up bigger guards.
“We’ve asked everyone to sacrifice for the team first,” reiterated Thibodeau. “Whatever is going to give us our chance at winning that is what we are going to do. Tonight it was one way, the next game it could be another; that is the beauty of our team. I think we have a very unselfish team. The guys who are not in are always cheering on the guys that are in. Sometimes the game dictates what we you to do. If we have a lead, we were trying to protect the lead. They run a lot of pick and roll; we wanted to go to more switching. We tried to match up with guys we could do that with. In the end it worked out. We have a lot of guys contributing in a big way. Everything helps. Pau got us going early in the game through his post up. He played very well when we were playing through him; we got easy shots off that. If everyone is playing to their strength and covering up their weakness, we are going to give ourselves our best chance of winning. There’s going to be sacrifice involved.”
Again, it’s a better problem to have. When everyone gets to play with a tight rotation, perhaps there are more individual honors with more impressive statistics. But with Thibodeau able to give nine players significant minutes, the team benefits and no one plays all that much.
Rose, for example, had his 19 points in 27 minutes and Gibson led all rebounders with 10 in 22 minutes. Gasol added eight points, nine rebounds, six assists and three blocks.
But it was that group of reserves with a little bit of Jimmy that turned around the game for the Bulls late in the third and into the fourth quarter after the Bulls held a 49-45 halftime lead.
“Jimmy was terrific throughout and I thought our bench gave us a great lift,” said Thibodeau. “And (then) down the stretch it was Jimmy and Derrick and Jimmy made one big play after the next. It was huge.”
Back to the turning point, that Brooks three with 5:18 left in the third to give the Bulls a 64-62 lead.
Noah then stripped Jrue Holiday and fast balled a pass ahead for a Butler score. Tyreke Evans, who used his power to bulldoze through the Bulls defensive mounds for 26 points, made a jumper. Noah kept alive a Brooks miss and then tipped in another miss for a 68-64 Bulls lead. Davis missed against Noah and Butler took a Noah pass for a layup and 70-64 lead.
Butler then made a 20 footer as the shot clock ran out after a Gasol pass. Gibson made a strong hook over Davis after a Ryan Anderson score, and then Brooks drove and put in an arcing bank shot over Davis. That made it 76-67 Bulls. Yes, go at him!
“We play the same way no matter what,” Butler said about Davis. “Just because you have shot blockers on the other team doesn't change anything. You go in there and you make them do their job."
Anderson made an awkward driving scoop shot. But Brooks stole the inbounds pass after a Gibson miss and scored for an 80-71 lead after three and some room. And then it was more.
Brooks made a reverse layup to open the fourth quarter for the first double digit lead of the game. New Orleans got one back, but then Moore saw John Salmons heading downstream and made a steal. Moore threw to Mirotic for a dunk and followed that with his own floater for an 86-73 Bulls lead with 10:19 left.
Holiday scored after an offensive rebound, but Gibson matched that, fouled on a roll to the rim for two free throws. And then after a few shaky sequences for both teams, the Bulls got a Mirotic three for a 91-75 lead with 7:42 left.
“Niko's a stud,” said Noah. “He brings just a whole new dimension. Pau's a beast as well. We're loaded up front. Every night, I think it's going to be different. Everybody has to be ready. Everybody has to play for the team. I think if we have that mentality, it's on. E’Twaun has been great, somebody who has been working really hard from the beginning. Sometimes things don’t go your way in this league, but you have to be ready when your name is called. He’s a perfect example of that. And Jimmy’s looking real comfortable out there and that's huge for us. Jimmy's a stud. Not only is he a great scorer, but he's a top defender, like defensive player of the year type defender and it’s huge.”
It was a huge finish for Butler and Rose, who returned after that run shrunk briefly to 91-80 with 6:42 remaining.
Their pick and roll was beautiful to watch and, as Noah noted, difficult to contain given the speed and power of both Rose and Butler. When you have one player like that, as the Bulls have had at times with Rose before his injuries, defenses can isolate, load up and stymie your offense. But with two players who can make a shot and get to the basket like Rose and Butler do, their pick and roll is a tremendous advantage.
You basically need two big, all-league defenders to have a switching option. Most teams don’t have that, and New Orleans certainly didn’t as Butler repeatedly got switches onto Holiday and rode him into the post and paint and scored. Then when Holiday would try to avoid the switch and try to cheat across the screen, Rose would make a fake and then take the lane to the basket. He did that for a 99-88 lead on a driving layup and then dunking so quickly Davis could not get there to help, a rare slam dunk for Rose. He doesn’t play in the air nearly as much any more to appropriately save himself from unnecessary contact. That fan favorite move, though gave the Bulls a 101-92 lead with 2:39 left.
Evans then scored on a drive, though it was also a move symptomatic of the issues with the Pelicans, who are just 15-15. With a scramble on defense, Butler had to defend Davis at the rim. Evans never looked at Davis and drove, though he did score.
Butler got the switch again onto Holiday. This time Davis got there to help, but Butler took the hit and scored for a three point play and 104-93 lead. Butler then hit a baseline fade for a 106-94 lead with 1:19 left and too big a lead to overcome.
Though the Bulls weren’t exactly defensive gurus down the stretch. After one Evans drive as Rose was having trouble with the physical Evans and there wasn’t enough help, Thibodeau reinserted Gibson for Gasol after a similar switch the other way in previous games. True, the Bulls defense hasn’t been as sharp and predictable as in previous years. The offense has been excellent, which has masked the deficiencies. Though the Bulls have added several players not as accomplished on defense and the evolving rotations have not allowed for a stable defensive unit as the Bulls generally have had under Thibodeau in previous years with tighter rotations.
The price of depth, if there is one, is that defensive string can begin to fray over so many trying to find their place.
“I think our bench is great,” said Noah. “Offensively, this is definitely the best team I've ever been a part of. Now because we're so good offensively, this is not the best defensive team I've been on. I think it has the potential. Just because we’re better offensively than we were in the past, we have to get better defensively and we all have to have that belief.”
Does anybody really know the time it will all come together? The good thing is you can see they really care. That’s Chicago.