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Slowly but surely, Bulls get a grip on Hoiberg's system

Consistency remains an issue for Chicago as 2016 begins

POSTED: Jan 7, 2016 11:09 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose are looking better and better of late in coach Fred Hoiberg's gameplan.

— The vision that coach Fred Hoiberg had for the Chicago Bulls is coming into focus.

Most New Year's resolutions still are valid.

One, both or neither of those statements will be true tomorrow.

Not to lapse into pessimism so early in 2016, but the Bulls spent most of the season's first 10 weeks fluctuating between half-full and half-empty. So what they've been doing and what fans have been seeing lately -- winning seven of their last eight, stringing together nine nights of 100 points or more (the Bulls' longest streak since 1995), flexing the offense that everyone expected when Hoiberg was hired to replace grinder Tom Thibodeau -- still feels a little tenuous.

Which of course it is, in a league in which injuries, roles, confidence, hot streaks and everything else are all day-to-day.

"I don't think there's ever relief in this league," said Hoiberg on Thursday before his team's 101-92 win over the Celtics.

I don't think we are different people than we were four weeks ago.But I see a progression, a development which I like ...

– Chicago Bulls star Pau Gasol

Hoiberg added: "We'll hit adversity again this year. ... It's how you handle that and you battle through it that determines who you can be. When things are going well, it's easy to pull for each other. When those tough times hit, that's the true sign of a good team when you can band together."

There were some in the coaching community who thought Hoiberg's response to Jimmy Butler's much-publicized comments about the new coach's demeanor should have been: "You want 'harder' coaching? Fine. You're sitting out against Brooklyn." From the outside, at least, there seemed a legit chance Hoiberg might lose the team unless he delivered a quick rebuttal to Butler that grumbles of that sort stay in-house.

Bulls pace & efficiency, 2015-16
Timeframe W L Pace Rank OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
Before Christmas 15 11 99.5 8 98.4 27 97.8 3 +0.6 14
Since Christmas 6 1 96.5 16 111.3 4 103.6 16 +7.8 4
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Instead, Butler played 38 minutes, scored 24 points, was a minus-7 and the Bulls lost at home to the Nets.

Two weeks later, though, Butler scored 40 points in the second half at Toronto and hit a cold-blooded 3-pointer in the final minute of a 115-113 victory. He was mobbed on the court afterward by teammates and coaches, a moment Hoiberg still refers to as a sign of Bulls bonding.

Butler Scores 42 Points vs. Raptors

Jimmy Butler scores 42 points, grabs four rebounds and records five assists versus Toronto on Sunday.

In between and largely unseen, Bulls VP John Paxson came down from on high to lend his much-respected voice to the fragile, post-Butler-criticism mix. Other chinwags of various durations and participation have ensued.

"What people don't see," Hoiberg said, "are the meetings that you have behind closed doors or the team meetings you have in a film room. Sometimes you might have a five-minute meeting planned and you're in there for half an hour just talking things out. When you can do that and when guys don't take things personal, that's the growth. And then that in turn will carry over to the floor."

Growth has shown itself in various ways, through multiple players:

• Butler: He has shouldered the responsibility as the Bulls' best player and one of the NBA's best two-way performers. He also clumsily grabbed at team leadership, eager to fill a void in a room lacking it.

Harden or Butler: Best Shooting Guard?

Jimmy Butler just had a 40-point second half, but is he the NBA's best shooting guard?

His play will send him back to Toronto for the All-Star Game next month. And he has been putting the lie to analytics such as "net rating," toting around a minus-5.7 per 100 possessions that says way more about the Bulls' bench advantage in the 10 minutes or so Butler sits each night.

"The way Jimmy is playing, the patience he is playing with, you can tell the game is slowing down for him," said backcourt mate Derrick Rose. "It's fun to see. Exciting. I'm happy for him. ... I don't really have to do too much when I am out there because he's taking great shots and he's making the right plays."

• Rose: Besides lauding the guy who has stepped into a spotlight that once belonged to him, Rose was smiling about it after Tuesday's home win against Milwaukee. He admitted that he felt pressure, given the Bulls' 3-0 mark while he sat out with a sore right hamstring. And after years of ramping up his play and scraping off rust, Rose picked up right where he'd left off.

Rose scored 16 points against the Bucks, had six assists and was a team-high plus-15. His jump shots were consistently short, owing to his legs and the court time he'd lost. But he attacked, eviscerating the defense with at least three highlight-worthy drives. Hoiberg challenged the point guard last month to get the Bulls into their offense more quickly -- get the ball into the frontcourt with 21 seconds left on the shot clock -- and he has been doing it. Next step: Get to the foul line by taking, rather than avoiding, contact.

When those tough times hit, that's the true sign of a good team when you can band together.

– Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg

"I know [my explosiveness is] there," Rose said. "It just takes me going out and playing consistent games. I can't be frustrated or mad because of just life."

Another key: Rose seemed comfortable after the game with Butler's continued ascendancy. He spoke of the talent he played alongside with Team USA and didn't appear to be insecure.

Rose Reverse

Jimmy Butler dishes to Derrick Rose for a beautiful baseline reverse.

"It's whatever they're giving us as a team," Rose said. "My job is to push the ball. Me and Jimmy, I think we're very dangerous out in the open court. You throw in Niko [Mirotic], a 3-point shooter, or Tony [Snell] or Doug [McDermott] out there, it's like, 'How you going to stick us if you have two playmakers and you have shooters around you?' "

Pau Gasol: He gets criticized via GIFs and for defensive lapses, and the veteran big man brought some heat on himself by talking earlier in the season about his free-agency options this summer. But Gasol went for 26 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks against the Bucks for his 18th double-double. He ranks seventh in rebounds (10.7) and fifth in blocks (2.3) and his grasp of Hoiberg's system have been a huge plus.

Butler Throws it Down

Pau Gasol tosses it up to Jimmy Butler for the alley-oop dunk.

"Pau is as smart as any player in this league," Hoiberg said. "He does such a good job of reading, and has a balance of when to roll to the rim and when to pop. And then he's such a good passer. If our guys move and cut, they're going to get shots at the rim."

Taj Gibson: A reserve in 333 of his first 452 NBA games, Gibson has started the past 15 for Chicago, with the Bulls going 10-5. He has helped sort out Hoiberg's frontcourt puzzle that had him mixing and matching Gasol, Gibson, Mirotic and Joakim Noah without reliable results. Gibson has been shooting less, rebounding more and pushing pace, with the biggest ORtg/DRtg spread (114/101) of his seven NBA seasons.

Gibson Rocks The Rim

Tony Snell and Taj Gibson work the pick and roll for the Gibson monster jam.

"Taj is getting out [and] running to the rim," Hoiberg said. "He's flattening out the defense. If we can get that initial thrust and initial push, good things happen. Our wings are doing a much better job of getting out and running to the corners. That helps with our overall attack."

Noah: This one currently is addition by subtraction. Noah has missed the past seven games with a left shoulder sprain and the Bulls' offense, frankly, has flowed more freely. As good and willing a passer as Noah is, his decisions often aren't quick. That amount to the "ball sticking" that Hoiberg disdains.

"We had so many possessions earlier this season when we got the ball on the same side and didn't make the defense move," Hoiberg said generally, not singling out Noah or any other player. "They were able to load on the ball. ... The big thing is not having the ball stick in our guys' hands."

The bench: Aaron Brooks, Bobby Portis and Tony Snell carried the Bulls offensively through a couple recent games. That had some suggesting the second unit was a quicker study of Hoiberg's style, lacking the stars of the starting lineup and the isolation tendencies that come with them.

Brooks is scoring near his per-minute high (19.2 per 36) in his eighth NBA season. Snell has shown flashes at both ends to make up for a miserable early season. Doug McDermott saw his minutes climb (and accuracy drop) in December. And the intense Portis has been a fan favorite at United Center since before he cracked the rotation. Chicago is 14-1 when its bench outscores the other guys'. Veteran Mike Dunleavy, out since preseason back surgery, might be back after the All-Star break.

All in all, the Bulls are getting the positive feedback that will move them along their learning curve. Now, rather than the ball sticking, they want to make sure the new habits do.

"I don't think we are different people than we were four weeks ago," Gasol said. "But I see a progression, a development which I like, and now can we keep it this way for the entire year, for every single game? Bring the energy, bring the edge, bring the focus that is required in this league."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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