If the Bulls salvage this curious, unpredictable and mostly confusing season—and they are a long way from doing so still in ninth place and facing the Cavaliers Thursday—they’ll likely look back to that Sunday two weeks ago that was perhaps charitably considered a massacre in Boston.
The Bulls lost 100-80, which was perhaps the most positive aspect of the day. You may remember that three for 22 first quarter, 26 points at halftime. They were disorganized and disjointed, the weight of a season of transition and experimentation seeming to crush their spirit and resolve.
How it occurred probably never will be quite clear. The team’s stars, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, caucused with coach Fred Hoiberg, who was considering his own remedies. Management was attempting to brook some of the communications issues with the staff.
However it occurred, Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic returned to the lineup, Rondo as an immediate starter and Mirotic a few games later. The rotation was tightened, the urgency realized.
It’s not like the NBA noticed.
The Bulls split their next games and there still were some mystifying back steps, a huge blown lead against Toronto, a home loss to the undermanned 76ers.
But Rondo and Mirotic emerged suddenly as two of the best players on the team. Yes, Wade went out for the season, which was a setback. Still, the ball movement and pace improved, bringing with that the shooting. There was less hesitation, though massive defensive breakdowns against the 76ers. Still, it seemed like perhaps the Bulls finally had found something.
They get to test it later this week against the Cavs and Hawks before the last—though not if they make the playoffs—road trip of the season.
“The last times we played these guys they embarrassed us,” Rondo said after Sunday’s win in Milwaukee. “So come out with some fight, don’t worry about how they’ve been and our bad loss against Philly. We had to stand our ground and put up a better fight than the last time we played these guys. It’s been an up and down season; for the most part we still are in it.”
And a large part of that, surprisingly given the circumstances, is the play of Rondo and Mirotic, who resumed regular roles after that loss in Boston. Both had episodes during the season of being out of the rotation and benched for several games. Neither sulked or lost confidence, and both have returned to play their best ball of the season.
Which is vital for the team, but also raising some more intriguing questions about the post season.
In the last eight games, Rondo is averaging 12.4 points, 7.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds. He is shooting 50 percent on threes while averaging a healthy three attempts per game, and 50 percent overall shooting. He was six of eight shooting in Milwaukee with several tough scoring drives.
“Taking what the defense gives,” said Rondo. “We had good ball movement. Obviously, assists all depend on if you make the basket. Last game (against the 76ers) we didn’t make a lot of shots and it made it look like we were holding the ball a lot, but we passed the ball pretty well. We’ve been passing the ball pretty well of late.”
Mirotic has been a beneficiary, though he also isn’t hesitating any more. He’s locked into his shot. There’s none of the pump faking and flailing to draw fouls. It’s a quick shot or a hard drive.
Mirotic is averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds the last eight games. He is shooting 51 percent, 44 percent on threes while making almost four per game. He is averaging 29 minutes per game starting and Rondo 31.
“Trying to play my game,” said Mirotic. “Once I step to the floor, enjoying the game. I’ve been spending a lot of hours the last couple of weeks shooting extra shots after practice. I know I have support from teammates, coach; it’s a little easier in that way. So I‘m just trying to play my best game.
“I believe in myself,” said Mirotic. “It’s more to prove to my team, the people in the front office I’m still here and I want to play well and what I am capable of doing. Some players, they need more time to get consistency, to get adjusted to the NBA, to those kinds of games. When the season is going up and down for the team it’s not easy, a very tough stretch. I had some very tough stretches during the year, but always trying to stay positive, trying to find a way to have some impact with the team and I think I am finding my way to play well and enjoy the basketball.
That last part was no small admission from Mirotic.
We tend to diminish athletes—and basically everybody-- when they appear to retreat from the moment. But it’s human. Mirotic was enduring a lot this season, facing free agency, losing his starting job, judged per shot. Perhaps it’s not fair, but that’s life. Butler and Wade could miss all they took; they were staying in. Not Mirotic. Also, competing with Doug McDermott, and the team desperate for what he could give.
Remember, this is a kid from overseas yet to play a full NBA season. He sat the first half of his rookie year, had a big March averaging 20 points and then was inexplicably benched for the playoffs by former coach Tom Thibodeau. He was coming on last season when hit with appendicitis. He then needed a second surgery. And then this season he was dropped from the rotation a month into the season, and then again.
But then when Wade and Butler appealed for Mirotic to play after that Boston game, it was a boost of unexpected proportions. Yes, they wanted him, they trusted him, the guys. It likely meant the world to Mirotic. He’s been a different player since.
Not that Butler and Wade were out to get Rondo, but their games were having difficulty melding. Alphas don’t necessary form partnerships. So Hoiberg tinkered with combinations. Rondo never lost his determination or competitiveness; never felt sorry for himself. Didn’t need a pat on the back; just a chance. Some need the support more than others. Everyone gets to a destination in a different way. It isn’t necessarily wrong.
The presumption and rumors during the season were that Rondo and Mirotic were temporary. Heck, heading toward oblivion perhaps everyone was. But now, especially if the Bulls do get on a run these last few weeks and make the playoffs and perhaps do more, then there are more questions.
The Bulls hold the team option on Rondo, and it’s not like other point guards have emerged. Or any. Mirotic is shooting threes better than anyone on the roster. That’s an important skill; you can look it up.
So perhaps now we’ll finally get some sense of what this Bulls team has and who they are. It looks like they’ll play it out, limiting the experiments and tryouts, going with the guys who have been the best, relying more on the starters in crucial situations, which saved the Bulls Sunday.
“He’s going to play the starters,” Rondo agreed when told Hoiberg said he’d go more with that group. “That’s who’s going to get the bulk of the blame win or lose, so put it on the starters and it’s up to us to get off to great starts, start the second half great and finish the well. That’s our job.”
We’ll see what they have.