You wonder if Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg Wednesday night knew how James Marshall felt in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill. That was when Marshall discovered gold and California’s future brightened.
Perhaps the Bulls’ future will now as well with the new starting lineup Hoiberg unveiled in the Bulls 104-89 victory over the Indiana Pacers. It featured Bobby Portis at power forward and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. at center and it produced the Bulls’ best all around offensive and defensive effort of the 2-2 preseason, the first game in which the Bulls didn’t fall lethargically behind to start and a defense that finally seemed invigorated.
Could that be gold, Fred, gold!
“I loved our energy coming out of the gate,” said Hoiberg. “I thought that group was really locked in to the game plan and came out and executed at a high level; that is what it is all about. If you come out and give the effort on the defensive end like we did, you are going to have a chance. We scored 29 points off turnovers. We only sent them to the free throw line eight times. We’re going continue to look at it; I like the way it looked tonight on the first night we did it.”
The Bulls were led by Zach LaVine and Justin Holiday, each with 22 points. Portis had 20 with Parker off the bench with 11 and Antonio Blakeney 10. Carter had just two points and was in foul trouble. But his quickness and defensive instincts were crucial to the fast start. Kris Dunn had nine points and seven assists, making four of five shots. Hoiberg said Dunn, “may have been the player of the game because he set the tone for us on the defensive end.”
The Bulls finally broke out of their three-point shooting slump, making 13 of 30 with Holiday four of seven and Portis three of five. The Bulls also had 18 fast break points and competed effectively with the taller Pacers, getting 51 rebounds to 54 for Indiana
“Preseason we’re going to try different lineups,” said LaVine, who continued his exceptional play. “Happy Bobby got his chance to start; he deserved it. With Lauri (Markkanen) gone, he fills that four spot. Just try different roles regardless. The last couple of games we didn’t have the energy. It’s what we need to do every game. Without that we are not going to look very good out there and you can see that from the other games.”
The contrast was startling with the Bulls future seemingly becoming clearer.
Which likely makes for the difficult decision for Hoiberg to rearrange the lineup with the veteran Lopez and free agent Parker moving to more supporting roles.
Both figure to get plenty of playing time both with Carter likely to have foul issues as a rookie and Markkanen out at least another month with his elbow injury.
“It’s a matter of who is doing what,” Lopez said before the game. “We are all trying to help the team. We’re trying to get everybody going. Bobby, BP, that’s somebody that plays with a lot of energy; ‘dell, he makes a lot of things happen out there on the floor. I think it’s going to be a good change for us. You know, you’ve got to roll with what happens in this league, so I’m going to do what I can with the second unit.”
Parker didn’t seem quite as understanding. He declined to meet with media pregame, telling Bulls staff he’d comment after the game. But then after the game Parker brushed by media, hurrying out of the locker room. When a reporter asked him a question, he said he wasn’t talking.
But the team’s play spoke volumes.
Dunn and Portis made early threes with good, open shots as the ball movement was crisp. LaVine added his own three on a step back and then continued to challenge the defense with drives and dunks as the Bulls rushed out to a double digit lead midway through the first quarter and 34-17 after one.
“I feel good,” said LaVine. “Just preseason, still trying to figure out my spots, play off everybody and share. We played good out there today. ACLs take awhile. Glad I put the work in. I feel good, athletic, quick. That’s how I used to feel. I feel stronger than I was. It’s a long injury. You still have up and down days from it, but on the court I feel right back to top shape.”
In the second quarter, it was Portis with 10 points as the Bulls took a 59-41 halftime lead. In one stretch after the Pacers reduced the Bulls lead to 43-31, Portis scored on four consecutive possessions. To his credit, on the next possession Parker was overhead telling a teammate to get the ball to Portis because he was hot.
The verbal contributions also seemed a factor as there seemed not only more communication, but more enthusiasm, a dose of that joy of the game that mostly had been lacking the last few games.
Portis has been an aggressor every game. So much so that, ironically, he may have worked and talked himself out of the job he thought he had as second unit leader. At least for now with Markkanen out.
“I feel like we went out there and played together and hopefully we can continue to do that,” said Portis. “Everyone was talking; that’s how we have to be, play together and unselfishly and play to win. It was playing with Rajon Rondo. He instilled into me to talk. He wanted big men to be the point guards’ eyes. They really can’t see pressuring the ball a lot. I have to take care of my team. He taught me to talk, to let defenses know I have their back. I think I’m more comfortable than ever. I feel like I’m back to being myself, who I used to be.”
The Bulls never let a good Pacers team back into the game. And what was particularly evident in the lineup change was the way teammates influence one another. Playing with better defenders in Carter, Portis and Dunn, LaVine played his best defensive game. He was mostly matched up with All-Star Victor Oladipo. Oladipo was held to four of 15 shooting with seven turnovers. The Bulls led 91-69 after three quarters.
Also, by playing Carter, though smaller and being out rebounded some, and Portis, the Bulls had a better lineup for the switching they want to play on defense. It’s more difficult to do with slower defenders like Lopez and Parker. The result also was players helping one another more, closing quickly from the weak side and harassing the opponent instead of the passive chasing of the last few games.
Hoiberg tabbed Dunn as an inspiration for that, though Portis’ enthusiasm was contagious along with the stone faced determination of Carter.
“The energy, got stops,” said Dunn. “Felt like this game we played defense first, went out and competed and played hard; the other end took care of itself.
“Right now, I’m just trying to figure out where guys like the ball at,” Dunn explained about limited field goal attempts. “I don’t have to shoot the ball now because it’s preseason. I know my spots. I know were I can get my shots. When the season comes there are going to be games I have to do that. What I do is be a dawg, bring that energy, set the tone and I feel like I did that today.
“I feel like when you have other dawgs around you it’s easier,” Dunn added. “When you have Bobby, Wendell who is defensive minded, Justin who is fundamentally sound; Zach played good defense today. Put Zach around dawgs, he becomes a dawg; we were out there competing. Vocally be a leader. They look for my energy. Bring that energy and dawg.”
It was at that point that Dunn was asked to explain his doggedness, as it were.
“Dawg is a pit bull off the leash,” said Dunn. “When you see one, how do you feel? You get scared, right? Nobody wants to see a pit bull off the leash; where the owner at? That’s what it is, somebody who tries to put fear in another player, somebody who gets up, who is hounding, on your back constantly; that’s what I try to do.”
Dunn then went on to explain the linguistics of it in that you spell it “dog” when it’s on the court and outside it’s being a “dawg.” I’ve decided now for simplicity it should be “dawg” all the time. And in case there is an update for Strunk’s Elements of Style. Though I intend to consult Snoop Dogg for a further clarification. I knew I’d figure out a way to get back to California.
Perhaps the Bulls have found their way as well.