Sometimes these Bulls can be magical.
Like Monday in the United Center when after a casual start, the Bulls made the Orlando Magic disappear in a welter of fast breaks, free throws, aggression and sustained activity on both ends of the floor.
The result was a massive 112-80 victory in which the Bulls led by double digits for most of the last three quarters, had a 23-11 fast break margin, 31-6 on free throws, 56-39 on the boards and with just nine turnovers and 26 assists. Jimmy Butler led with 20 points, seven assists and four steals and Taj Gibson and Dwyane Wade each had 16 points, Gibson also with 11 rebounds.
The Bulls moved to 4-3 to end a three-game losing streak and now play eight of the next nine games on the road starting with Wednesday in Atlanta and Thursday with Wade back home in Miami. The Magic is 3-4.
“Just be aggressive, attack the rim, get to the free throw line, do it early, early and often,” said Butler, who challenged himself to come out stronger after the apathetic loss in Indianapolis Saturday. “My teammates, especially D. Wade and (Rajon) Rondo stayed on me about that, being a force from start to finish.”
Butler was, but it was an early wakeup demand from coach Fred Hoiberg that rang the alarm for a Bulls team suddenly looking at perhaps a long losing streak as the Magic took a 20-16 lead and made 11 of their first 13 shots.
“It was kind of like both teams were sparring with each other,” said Wade. “We weren’t aggressive defensively (to start). They came out hitting jumpers. They knew what we wanted to do (defensively). We played into their hands and we went to the timeout (with 6:40 left in the first quarter) and said forget that and let’s be more aggressive on the ball and the big as well. We were dropping Robin (Lopez) and they flared (Nikola) Vucevic and then we got aggressive on the ball and made them go to other options and we were able to get stops and get in transition.”
It was a 15-0 Bulls run to close the first quarter with a 37-24 lead, the Magic easing back within 61-52 at halftime and to 63-58 early in the third quarter before the Bulls broke it open for good with a 13-0 spurt that led to a 23-3 deluge that gave the Bulls an 88-63 lead after three quarters and reserves in the fourth.
“Energy,” Wade emphasized. “(Isaiah) Canaan and (Bobby) Portis came in and mixed it up. They brought the energy and effort; we were able to take the lead up with that unit.”
That timeout midway through the first quarter was crucial and a message.
The Magic came out pushing the ball in transition and trying to take advantage of Lopez backing into the lane against Vucevic and Elfrid Payton in pick and roll. The Bulls scored, but there was little resistance. So Hoiberg took out Rondo and sent the message to be more physical. The Bulls thereafter didn’t switch as much, fighting over screens. It’s much easier to switch, but this was no time for short cuts. Canaan was crucial in picking up Payton full court and making the Magic work into their offense.
Orlando has an imbalanced roster with modest perimeter shooting, but really no one to create for himself off the dribble. They want to rely on playing fast and their big men like Vucevic and Serge Ibaka shooting mid range jumpers. But the Bulls played more aggressively, and it also turned into transition baskets. Plus Butler after attempting a season low seven shots Saturday began to look for the basket and closed with 10 of 10 free throws. The Bulls overall were 25 of 31 from the line to five of six for Orlando. “I have no comment,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said about the free throw disparity. “We will discuss that through proper channels.”
But it was the Bulls and Butler attacking the citadel, as Johnny Bach liked to say about the fortified interior of the defense.
“Jimmy was phenomenal early,” said Hoiberg. “You could see the energy he was out there playing with. We put the ball in his hands when we took Rajon out and put Isaiah Canaan in there and let Jimmy handle. Jimmy made some good plays; we cleared things out and let him make plays. When we attack the basket like we are doing, draw contact and get to the free throw line, we feel Jimmy is as good as anyone in the league at doing that.
“The message,” Hoiberg said of that pivotal early timeout and substitution, “was to pick it up, start guarding, make it uncomfortable. They were zipping that thing around wherever they wanted to and when we got some of the subs in (Portis was better able to thwart the mobile Vucevic) we picked up; we were getting up into them. We denied some passes. It’s all about getting up and trying to make them uncomfortable. We did a much better job as the game went on.”
It also was the right message from Hoiberg: Don’t defend and you’re coming out. Even if you are one of the stars.
Orlando shot 23.3 percent in the second half, 10 for 43 with nine turnovers and a 30-10 deficit on inside points. The Bulls weren’t an offensive juggernaut after halftime. They shot just 40 percent and one of 10 on threes in the second half. But they dominated the boards, made every Orlando shot attempt difficult, didn’t allow the Magic space coming out of the backcourt and had just five turnovers.
Rondo came back in and was robust and tenacious, finishing with nine points and six assists. Portis had nine points and six rebounds in 17 minutes, Canaan had 10 points as first player off the bench and Doug McDermott added 11 points mostly on drives.
Canaan’s three-pointer with 4:06 left in the first quarter on a fast break and cross court pass from Butler gave the Bulls the lead they wouldn’t lose at 25-24. Gibson was special again with the sort of brilliant footwork with drop step and spin moves that were reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon. He even showed off a wing bank shot. Butler was all over the court saving balls rolling out of bounds, driving and drawing contact as he thumped to the floor. The Bulls starters were zero for four on threes and the team overall three of 19. But that movement, the fast breaks and the steady mid-range play of players like Gibson shooting seven of 13 and Wade seven of 12 showed again the Bulls have no trouble reaching 110 points without the three. It’s a matter of pace and defensive aggression.
But how far can that take a team?
The Bulls haven’t talked about projections much this season, but Wade gave a hint of the thinking about how to get to 50 wins.
“I’d only say there was one game this year we haven’t had the intensity. That was against Indiana,” acknowledged Wade. “Of course we want to win them all. But we got right back into it tonight. We have to come out with the right mindset and then let the game decide it from there. It takes a while to get consistent. On the road you want to figure a way to be at least .500. Then you want to take care of home to be a good team. That’s what we are preaching.
“I don’t know what we are capable of (wins) number wise,” said Wade. “But I was on a team last year we went 20-21 on the road and won 28 home games. That’s solid. If you can play that .500 ball on the road. You have to win the majority of the games at home if you want to be a playoff contending team. So you never know what the number will break out to. It’s the mindset I’ve always had, play .500 ball on the road and take care of business at home then we can win close to 50 games every year.”
So the test begins, the Bulls 1-2 on the road thus far, the only win over rebuilding Brooklyn.
“We need to have a toughness, an us-against-the-world mindset in this stretch we have coming up,” said Hoiberg. “Back to back in two tough places; will be very emotional for Dwyane going back to Miami and then we go west after one home game. It’s a tough stretch but an important stretch.”