It’s not long before the game and Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler are talking, analyzing mismatches, rehearsing the proper mindset to approach the game. Rajon Rondo is explaining where guys need to be, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez visualizing their movements and the defensive responses, the tai chi of the game. It’s all business, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun when the business is basketball and it’s being played so well.
“Me and D. Wade were talking about how this locker room camaraderie really shows out there on the floor,” Jimmy Butler was saying Monday night after the Bulls third consecutive victory to open the NBA season, yet another rout, a 118-88 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. “We know where everyone is going to be on the floor because we are talking about it before the game; when you see a mismatch you want it utilized. It can be anyone on any given night.
“We hold ourselves accountable,” explained Butler, who led the Bulls with 22 points in 27 minutes as most of the starters sat out the fourth quarter again. “We get together before the game, the starting five, and say how we have to come out; we have to share the ball. You want to be out there because you know the ball is coming to you; you don’t know when, but you know when you are open you are going to have the ball in a position where you can score. That’s fun for everybody. But more important guard, get out in transition, take care of the ball; we had a stretch where we didn’t do it but we got back to that.”
The pause didn’t last for long as once again the Bulls pounced on an opponent early, this time with a massive 38-20 first quarter, never trailed, built as much as a 33-point lead and had the Brooklyn crowd by the fourth quarter booing Dwyane Wade when he passed the ball after a pair of spectacular between the legs driving crossover moves, one for a three-point play before coach Fred Hoiberg again emptied the bench for the close of the game.
“I had a great crossover,” joked Hoiberg, who had worked with Wade on his three-point shooting. “I’m trying to teach him all that stuff.”
They’re all smiling, and not only because of a 3-0 start, the Bulls best first week since the 1996-97 season.
It was another well rounded, all around effort as Gibson had a double/double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, Wade had 12 points and off the bench Nikola Mirotic had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Isaiah Canaan 15 points with three of four three pointers. The Bulls again had a double digit rebounding margin, 58-45, shot 50.6 percent overall and 41 percent on threes and had 26 assists and 18 fast break points.
“You saw last game with Doug (McDermott) coming off the bench leading the team in scoring,” noted Wade. “It can vary with guys having double digits on a nightly basis; Isaiah coming off the bench giving us a big lift; that’s the kind of team we are going to need to be all year.”
Canaan was called on for the only real negative of the night as Michael Carter-Williams went out early in the second quarter with what was described as a sprained knee. He walked off on his own, but was limping some. He will have an MRI Tuesday in Boston before the team plays the Celtics Wednesday. The Bulls were leading 43-23 at the time, and Canaan, six of 12 on threes so far, hit three triples in a stretch of four Bulls possessions late in the second quarter to help the Bulls to a 65-44 halftime lead. They had an erratic—for the first three games—third quarter with six of their 20 turnovers. But they still led 93-66 entering the fourth quarter.
“Only three games, but what will test us is those games we don’t have that big lead,” warned Wade, who knows what just three games can mean, albeit amazing ones. “Can we still continue to communicate together? Can we stay together? Those are the moments I look forward to, seeing how we respond and grow. It’s easy to be high when you are winning, but I feel this team will do well in those moments because for one everyone is playing for one another; everybody likes each other in this locker room and we just enjoy playing together. We’re having fun on the basketball court together and that makes the game easier.
“We’re doing a great job of moving the ball, guys playing to their strengths,” said Wade. “Even guys not known as quote unquote shooters, we are getting our shooters shots and getting other guys opportunities to get open looks and get their feet set and knock the shot down.”
Yes, how ‘bout those three-point shooters!
The much maligned marksmen made 11 of 27 threes Monday and now are an impressive 42.5 percent on threes, 31-73. Butler, Wade, McDermott and Canaan all are shooting at least 50 percent on threes. Mirotic made four Monday and blocked three shots in another good all around game.
Though what most stands out with this group that came together so recently and seems just so together is the impressive passing, the unusually unselfish play, Rondo with just four assists because of the multiple passes on each possession—“It’s about the hockey assists,” Rondo said—and the almost instant affection for one another that is so casually obvious.
What it’s produced is beautiful basketball, the sort every team talks about and strives for, but which is so elusive. Yet, in such a short time this group has married esprit de corps with artistry. It’s the elusive alchemy that takes the raw talents and blends it into the gold of synergy and success.
It wasn’t so much a game for drama as much as for the purist:
Like when Gibson rebounded a miss, tossed to Rondo near halfcourt on the right side. Rondo lasered the ball across court on a diagonal to Wade, who passed to a streaking Butler, who dunked, the ball never touching the floor.
“I just keep running the floor because I know I’m going to get the ball,” said Butler. “When you are open you are going to get the ball whether it’s from D. Wade, whether from Rondo, Taj. If they miss you they know they probably missed you and it’s, ‘I’m not going to do that again.’
“A lot of togetherness,” Butler pointed out.
“The game’s easy when you are out there having fun. I think everybody is smiling, everybody wants that next guy to get a bucket. That’s what you see. We’re always laughing and joking around in (the locker room), but we handle business out there.”
Hoiberg sees it as well. It’s something you can’t teach; you can only hope it occurs. It seems to be for the Bulls in such a short time.
“The great thing about those three guys is they’ve really developed a great chemistry,” said Hoiberg. “They talk a lot, hang out together at home, on the road; when you like each other you are going to go out and play for each other. That’s been a great thing about these guys. They hold each other accountable. They hold the whole team accountable and you have to have that if you want to be successful.”
There was Wade early in the game lobbing to Gibson, the two with a special on court bond and motivating Gibson to his most aggressive play as a pro.
“We only played a little bit together in the preseason, so we are still learning each other,” insisted Wade. “Only three games in, but you see it looking good at times. We feel very comfortable in everyone on the defensive end of the floor, trusting each other. And that’s rare early in the season for a team that hasn’t played together. But everyone is vocal, everyone is talking and communicating and that goes a long way.”
There was Canaan finishing a fast break pass from McDermott, Butler driving and kicking out for a Canaan three.
There was Gibson with an offensive rebound late in the second quarter, flashing the ball out on top to Rondo who in one motion had it going to the corner to Canaan for another three, Mirotic spotting Gibson underneath for a reverse layup with the Bulls piling it on late in the third quarter.
“I think (sharing the ball) is contagious,” said Rondo. “It’s the trickle down effect. It starts with the first unit. I think we are doing a great job continuing to share the ball, playing unselfishly, playing for one another; then the second unit has come in and is doing the same thing. It’s fun. I love passing and when you see guys making the extra pass it’s fun to watch.
“We’re finding the next man, the open man, and when you get uncontested looks in this game night in and night out you are going to make some and right now we are making some,” Rondo added. “But we don’t rely on it; we do get the paint and then the extra pass gets guys are open.”
It’s been a winning formula thus far, though the guys who set the agenda aren’t being fooled. They know much lies ahead.
“We haven’t done anything other than win games we are supposed to win,” warned Rondo. “We played two teams on back to backs and a Brooklyn team (being rebuilt). We knew if we can match their intensity and how hard they played we would (be there).”
Which suggests they don’t see these as laurels to rest on. Just an encouraging pattern and perhaps pouring the foundation for a towering season.
“We’re not always going to come out and have a 10 or 20-point lead early, but as long as our activity is there and we are doing the things we need to do,” said Wade. “Sometimes you come out and a team is going to score anyway, but you set the tone for the game and I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve been doing in these first three.”
And then Wade had a little fun in the fourth quarter with those crossovers, the between the legs, the Brooklyn fans urging him on.
“Just trying to get some air space and having a little fun out there,” Wade said with a smile. “I always get great support when I come here to Brooklyn. Most important our team got the win. A lot of people say it’s weird seeing me in a Bulls jersey, but it’s not weird for me. I don’t look at my jersey when I’m playing. I’m playing the game of basketball and I’m loving the teammates I have now and I love the organization I am part of now. It’s basketball to me and continuing to focus on doing things people say we don’t have a chance to do.”
They haven’t said it quite as loudly this week.