They said they were going to do this, push the ball, run, space the floor, shoot threes, defend aggressively, play with joy and passion.
Sure, sure, said the critics. Let’s see.
The Bulls are showing them – and all of us – a second brilliant effort Saturday, this time a dominating and perhaps ascendant 118-101 victory over the Indiana Pacers to give the Bulls a 2-0 record.
They’re one of the league’s highest scoring teams, averaging 111.5 points and 43 percent on threes, averaging 10 makes per game. They’ve outrebounded two top teams by an average of 16.5 rebounds per game. They’re averaging a staggering 30 assists on 41 field goals.
And this time they didn’t need a savior, like Dwyane Wade’s three in the opener. They led by double digits most of the game, by as many as 29, and then sat all the starters in the fourth quarter. Doug McDermott off the bench led with 23 points, making five of six three pointers. Rajon Rondo had 13 assists while Jimmy Butler had 16 points and Dwyane Wade 14. Taj Gibson added 12 points and eight rebounds and is shooting almost 60 percent. And Saturday, the Bulls had an amazing 30 fast break points, a 23-4 fast break margin in the first half when they led 62-41. It was the team’s largest halftime lead in three years
“We’ve given ourselves the blueprint of what we need to do,” said Wade. “Now the most important thing is how many times we can get to that game. There are going to be games the ball doesn’t move as much. So we have to make sure to get back to that, especially on the road. Most important was the way we came out and defended. That’s what takes the longest, to get on the same page when you have guys coming from different systems and I think we’ve been doing a good job.”
Sure, it’s just two games, both at home and playing teams in their second of back to backs. You are supposed to win those games if you consider yourself a competitive team and a contender on some level. But these also were two teams in Boston and Indiana most experts picked to be among the top four in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls pounded both on the boards, outhustled both for the loose balls, kept turnovers down against two athletic teams with players regarded as some of the top stars in the Eastern Conference. And those were the kinds of games the Bulls were losing the last few seasons, or splitting, a great performance followed by a flop.
But the Bulls sustained and built after the emotional home opening win, taking a 24-20 first quarter lead and then primarily with the reserves led by Wade ripping off a 23-4 run that broke open the game for a 43-24 Bulls lead. The Pacers basically never recovered. The Bulls play them again next Saturday in Indianapolis, the third road game in the next four with four games in six days starting Monday. The only home game is Friday’s return of Derrick Rose with the Knicks.
So there are plenty of quick tests. But the Bulls are acing the first ones when it was supposed to be one of those processes with nine new players and a mixed bag of a preseason.
But Wade, Rondo and Butler have melded seamlessly, Gibson and Robin Lopez have been a force inside while McDermott and Nikola Mirotic have been lively off the bench. Plus, coach Fred Hoiberg continues to make all the right moves with a steely resolve that belies his gracious nature.
“It’s how Fred wants guys to play,” said Gibson.
It was a small thing, but instructive. The Bulls led 92-67 after three quarters, and Hoiberg in the fourth quarter gave first time playing opportunities to Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser. Playing against the Pacers regular subs, that irregular Bulls group allowed the lead to shrink down to 11 points with more than two minutes left. But Hoiberg didn’t panic as some coaches would, stayed with his group and got a jumper from Michael Carter-Williams to keep Indiana from making anyone nervous. Hoiberg also has juggled the rotation deftly, playing Wade as a leader with the second unit to provide the most stability and having Wade or Rondo and Butler always playing with the young players. Isaiah Canaan has been a shooter off the ball, and Saturday he was three of five on threes. And Carter-Williams has taken over running the offense effectively when Rondo is out by sharing with Wade.
“We’re in sync,” said Gibson. “We’ve got some good leaders; everyone is buying in and we have a point guard who is real unselfish and he’s getting everybody in the right position. D. Wade is unselfish, Jimmy. It’s all working out. Everyone is moving the ball, encouraging everyone to take tough shots. The main thing is defense, the way we are flying at the ball, getting the rebound and pushing the ball.
Yes, yes, only 80 to go.
But this has been the team with so much doubt, uncertainty and mystery: Who’s making a three? How will they score? A team that perhaps as much as any team needed to see some positive results, a method, as Wade said, a blueprint. That it came against quality opponents only has the wins carrying more credibility. We know things can change quickly in the NBA. Or maybe they won’t.
It was a truly masterful game, orchestrated by a crucial leader of this band, Rondo, who has 22 assists in the two wins. And it’s not just that side of the ball as Pacers point guard Jeff Teague was zero for seven in 28 minutes and scoreless.
“Rondo when he has the ball you always have to be aware because he’s such a great playmaker, penetrator,” said Wade. “If you move your body he’s going to find you; he pushes the ball up the floor, makes you run. He’s just a smart player. I love how he’s been playing defensively on the ball. Isaiah Thomas and Teague, that’s two All-Star players, and he did an amazing job, understanding they were on a back to back and put the pressure on, smart point guard who anchors our defense from the top of the key.”
The Bulls have made fast starts a point of emphasis, and they did take a double digit lead in the first quarter of the opener. The Pacers were a different style team with their quick shooting, fast paced athletic game. Could the old guys deal with it?
The teams bobbed to a 20-20 late in the first quarter before a Gibson dunk on a Rondo pass and Rondo lob to Butler for a dunk gave the Bulls a 24-20 lead after one quarter. Though it was close, the Bulls fought off the Indiana aggression.
And then the Bulls exploded on the stunned Pacers: Mirotic with a three and finishing a 94 foot break with Cristiano Felicio and McDermott with the ball barely hitting the floor. McDermott took in a defensive rebound and went full court for a score. Wade did likewise, basically orchestrating with Rondo resting. It was a breakout for McDermott running the floor and banging in threes.
“I came in trying to be aggressive,” said McDermott. “I think our bench unit had more energy and we fed off what the starters did. I needed a game like this with a good shooting game at home; making five (three pointers) was huge for my confidence. But a lot of that was our guards finding me; they got me going tonight.”
Conventional wisdom is nice, but often not astute. With the Bulls it was that Wade, Rondo and Butler were ball holders, doomed to a stagnant game. Good theory; lousy observation.
There were highlight plays all over the court with Rondo constantly looking up and firing the ball ahead; Wade has gotten Gibson involved in pick and roll like never before.
“D. Wade and Rondo are incredible passers and set the tone for all of us,” said McDermott. “We’re a very unselfish group. I feel we have been, but having these guys has helped us out.”
The Bulls never let up. Gibson dunked in the face of Paul George, who led Indiana with 20 but had little impact. Butler ran out late in the second quarter and Rondo fired a 70-foot pass for a layup as the Bulls constantly whizzed past the Pacers defense. Lopez beat athletic young Myles Turner down court for a layup. Early in the third quarter with the Bulls leading 66-46, Wade stole a Monta Ellis pass and raced ahead of everyone for a score. Teague caught him for a foul and a pair of free throws.
As Wade walked back to the free throw line, he passed reporters, smiled and said, “Not as fast as I used to be, eh?”
There’s a lot of smiling going on around the Bulls at least these few days.
“A start like this is good with two home games, a confidence builder,” agreed Wade. “The way we played is what we envisioned. We’re not like other teams. This team was built differently than teams are normally built, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be successful. I think we’ve bought into what our game needs to be and these first two games we’ve shown what it can look like. So we‘ve got to take a picture of that and understand and remember that.”
It’s a masterpiece so far.