My favorite moment Thursday with the Bulls 94-87 victory over the previously unbeaten Golden State Warriors—OK, so it just seemed like it the way they strut around sometimes—was in the locker room long afterwards. Well, actually one of my favorites because there was that amazing Steph Curry falling down shot after a Nikola Mirotic block, Jerian Grant crossing over Curry and making him almost fall down and making JaVale McGee laugh and Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser grabbing the game back for the Bulls in the second quarter when it appeared the Warriors were on the way to a blowout.
Actually, it was Zipser again, patiently, which seems to describe most everything he does, chatting with reporters after scoring nine points, his three pointer late in the fourth quarter the game breaker to silence the Warriors.
Zipser hadn’t played for the last three weeks with an ankle injury. The first nearly three months of the season he’d played more in the D-league than the NBA. He was a second round pick about whom I’ll admit I asked at the press conference last June after the draft why was he even coming to the NBA to sit on the bench or spend the winter in Hoffman Estates, as lovely as it can be at times in February.
So one of the regular reporters asked Zipser if he’s surprised about what he is doing, playing the entire fourth quarter his first game back, taking the big shot, defending Klay Thompson and Draymond Green down the stretch.
“You ask me that question all the time,” Zipser said with a slight smile.
He’s not a very wide smile guy.
Actually, we’ve all been asking that question: Who is this guy?
It’s turning out that this little regarded kid from Germany is becoming something of a supporting defensive anchor for the coaching staff, a two-way player who can make a shot, handle the ball and is as adept with the intricacies of the Bulls switching defensive patterns.
“You just have to practice every day and do what you do,” the 6-8 Zipser says evenly. “If it works, it works. If not, you just keep working. I don’t know why I am confident.”
It’s a trait, however, that has been working well for the Bulls as they host the slumping Los Angeles Clippers Saturday in the United Center on national ABC-TV. The Bulls have won five of six since the end of the Western Conference road trip last month. They’re now 31-30 and tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference with Indiana, three games out of fifth with 21 games remaining.
It’s a rush to the finish line and potentially the playoffs, and it appears to be yet another new look for the Bulls, and seemingly the final one as Bobby Portis has moved in for Taj Gibson at power forward and Zipser appears to be assuming the sixth man role. Also, Cristiano Felicio has been closing the games as he did Thursday along with Portis, Zipser, and then regulars Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.
Hey, it’s a rotation.
It’s also what last month’s Bulls/Oklahoma City trade was about. Trades are not always only about who you give up and who you receive. It’s also about who gets to play. Gibson’s departure opened a place for Portis for basically the first time in his two-season Bulls career. He’s responded. Portis is averaging a capable 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds since he began playing regularly seven games ago. He had 17 points and 13 rebounds and a team high plus/minus against the Warriors.
“Being myself,” said Portis about maintaining an edge despite rarely playing. “Taj was having a heck of a year and Niko (Mirotic) was his backup. So I had to go in there every day with the right mindset, just to work hard. That’s one thing I always relied on, my work; never tried to get too low, too high. I credit my mom a lot; talk to her each and every day about the ups and downs and she said always to keep the same. I feel like I’ve always been a confident guy. I don’t feel I’m a guy who got down on myself.
“I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don’t play and they can say some (critical) things,” said Portis. “I don’t really care about anybody judging me. Just be hungry; humble and hungry. It’s kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, some you might not play. It’s about waiting your turn. At the same time, you have to keep working.’’
Portis, though, will have some work to do defensively. His hustle and activity have enabled him to step in and help the lineup in the recent positive stretch. Though he’s not quite as adept with the team’s switching schemes as Zipser.
Which should be no surprise on some level since Zipser is 23, played professional ball in Europe and was on the German National team with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki. Portis came through the malignant AAU system into a one-and-done NCAA where the only thing they know about defense is the signs with the big D and picket fence.
It’s paradoxical in that European players, once maligned for a lack of defense, now come to the NBA, if less athletic, often more skilled in at least playing position and help defense and adapting to systems more quickly because they’ve been trained that way. Though Portis now that he’s playing should catch up.
In any case, their presence has given the Bulls a new look, and it’s been appealing thus far.
Coach Fred Hoiberg is trying to work in point guard Cameron Payne, who played more point guard and less off the ball than in his first few games. But with Jerian Grant shooting well—48 percent on threes since Feb 1—and Rajon Rondo playing his most inspired team ball of the season, it might be difficult for Payne to deserve much more playing time than the 10 to 12 minutes he’s been getting. With Michael Carter-Williams due back from injury, the Bulls will have a full 15-player roster ready to go. Though with the last 20-game sprint upon the team starting Monday in Detroit, Hoiberg figures to zip up the rotation.
And why not with the play the team has been getting from Portis and Zipser.
And like at work, once you are producing no one cares anymore where you went to college. Or where you were drafted. It’s about the results.
“A lot of players were picked top 10 or first round and didn’t make anything,” Zipser pointed out. “(Isaiah) Thomas was like the 60th pick; we just played against one (Draymond Green, a second rounder). You have to practice every day and do what you do; if it works, it works. If not you just keep working.”
You know, KISS, keep it simple, stupid. I guess we all were a bit hearing Germany, but not appreciating the man.