The Bulls pressured into the ball, forcing so many tough shots they were able to hold the Utah Jazz to 40 percent shooting and 30 percent on threes in Saturday’s 92-85 Bulls victory over the Jazz.
Yes, those Bulls.
The Bulls guards fought over screens and their big men flushed out to force the Jazz guards away from the lane in the screen/rolls. They sprinted back in transition.
Yes, your Bulls.
There was a fiery halftime speech, players called out for the defensive plays they missed and challenged not to slip up again.
Yes, Chicago’s Bulls.
The Bulls' much undersized inside men - Taj Gibson and Cristiano Felicio making his first career start - against the Jazz giants of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, won the rebounding battle with Gibson leading all players with six offensive rebounds.
Yes, the 2015-16 Bulls.
“It’s us understanding we need to shake off all the bull crap from earlier and pull out wins,” said Gibson, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in challenging more than 14 feet of the Jazz’ own Wasatch range. “We have to take care of business.”
The Bulls look like they finally might be able to with the end-to-end victory which moved them to 35-33 in this last, desperate search not only for the playoffs but the heart of a team.
The Bulls still remain tied for eighth with the Detroit Pistons, but now a half game behind the seventh place Indiana Pacers and three and a half games behind the fifth place Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets. Perhaps it’s not too late to wake up.
The Bulls may be doing so, and with the inspiration of an unlikely source, the battling Gibson, who increased the demands on his teammates at halftime with the Bulls leading 50-40. With Pau Gasol still out with knee swelling, E’Twaun Moore joining him with a hamstring injury and emotional leader Joakim Noah lost for the season, it’s been Gibson stepping into that gaping maw of Bulls disarray, recognizing ability and demanding it step forward.
Derrick Rose had 22 points, shooting 10 of 15 in one of his more confident efforts. Nikola Mirotic had 15 points and six rebounds and Jimmy Butler added 13 points and six assists. But it was Gibson to the boards, with what was effectively the clincher, a 16 footer with 1:44 left for a 91-83 lead after the Jazz cut a 14-point Bulls fourth quarter lead to six.
“Taj really battled,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “He jumped the locker room at halftime; he got on those guys. Somebody missed a defensive assignment at the rim and it was great to hear him in there jumping on those guys. He was pissed. I think Taj really has stepped up in that (leadership) area and it is really paying off.”
In many ways, this Bulls season has reflected the team, cut loose from its defensive moorings with especially injuries, but varying offensive philosophies and rotations. It’s led to the team sinking badly in the Eastern Conference, the last month something of a season life preserver to try to hang on until the playoffs come into view.
Though with these storms of defensive inefficiency and impotence, it’s a very real threat this team would sink.
The loss of Noah has been incalculable in his passion and leadership, and no one else really has the personality and universal respect to take over the listing locker room.
“I don’t look at who’s in charge, who’s the leader,” said Gibson. “I’m just a player who goes out there and does the right things for the team. I don’t have any hidden agenda. I want to see guys on my team succeed. I’m the biggest cheerleader on the court. If I play a lot of minutes or don’t play a lot of minutes. You have to just bring positive vibes. When we win everyone gets a big part of the pot. I was a part of teams like that early on in my career; as long as we win.
“I’m more of a doer,” says Gibson, who long has been content float along in Noah’s churning emotional wake. “I’m not a guy who mostly likes to talk. But now over the last two years minus Thibs last year, and then having Fred here I have to. Just being around and having the experience in tough games, I have to help the young guys out. I’m not really that young, crazy rookie anymore. I’m a seasoned veteran. So I can teach what guys taught me. I’ve been part of a great group of guys over the years and I’m having fun with this group here, even though it seems hectic at times. I’m really enjoying this year.”
Not that it’s a selfish group, but guys have had issues this season at times that seemed at odds with the greater good. They seem to enjoy playing with one another, but Rose has had to adjust to improving health; Butler has had to adjust to what he believes is his expanded role with a new, maximum money contract. Gasol has had to consider likely his final contract coming up as a free agent. And then there was Noah having to adjust to being a reserve for the first time in his career before being injured, Nikola Mirotic to starting, then not starting and then being in the hospital and Doug McDermott to regular playing time for the first time. Not necessarily agenda as an expletive but a new experience.
It was believed former coach Tom Thibodeau handled a lot of the leadership role, though as Gibson alluded that changed last season. In Thibodeau’s issues with management, he backed off much communication and interaction with team. And while Hoiberg is competent, popular and knowledgeable, he’s not a fiery personality.
So Gibson also made the salient point when he stepped up and shouted out at halftime.
It’s the players’ locker room, it’s the players’ season, it’s the players’ responsibility.
No one really has been taking it; so Taj is.
“We challenged each other,” said Gibson. “That’s the whole thing. Great teams and great players respond well. We held each other accountable. Some words were said and we responded. That’s part of basketball. We’re around each other 24/7; it kind of gets a little tight. We are family. Through ups and downs we are going to ride this thing out, play together and when things are being said guys have to respond and tonight it was a great feeling that guys took what I said and responded.
“I love everybody on my team,” said Gibson. “I want to see everybody do well, and it shows how much they didn’t take what I said too seriously, but they still gave me a hug afterward. It’s good to know when guys put pressure on you or guys say things it’s important guys take it and respond. It doesn’t mean anything bad. I want what’s best for my teammates. I see things most people don’t see. I want everyone to really succeed.
“We have enough to win,” insisted Gibson. “It’s all about encouragement; it’s all about confidence. It’s about having swag. These last two games have been great, we have another tough task Monday; have to keep challenging each other.”
And so it’s going to be one tough effort after the next if the Bulls want to keep that playoff streak going.
They’re not going to win them all; but they are starting to show with three wins in the last four, all with fast starts, that the work will yield the results.
It was that way Saturday against a Jazz team also in a battle for the last playoff spot.
They’d defeated the Bulls earlier this season in Utah, a game, by the way, Gibson let a rebound get away that could have ended the game in regulation. The Bulls lost in overtime in one of so many that could have turned around the season.
“I put that on me,” Gibson said afterward, the memory branded in his thoughts. “I felt if I would have got that rebound late we could have basically sealed the game. Derrick hit a big time three late to give us breathing room. I put that one on me for missing that rebound late. I beat myself up a lot about that. You have to embrace the bad and it makes you hungrier.”
The Gibson model is becoming one the Bulls can follow.
They came out flying, making their first seven shots and taking a 17-6 lead. Rose was unerring, fast and smooth with three of five with a three pointer and a pair of assists in seven minutes.
“Right from the beginning we did a great job getting into the ball,” said Hoiberg. “We were fighting over screens. The help was there, and Cris got us off to a really good start defensively. I thought he was terrific with his minutes tonight. Derrick was really good and engaged getting into the ball. That’s where it starts. We’ve jumped out to double digit leads in two straight games, three out of four; that’s got to be our constant. It’s got to be with the urgency. With what’s at stake right now, we have to come out with that mentality.
“I thought (Rose) played a really complete game,” said Hoiberg. “He took good shots, hit a big one for us late when our offense got slow and stagnant in the fourth quarter. I thought Derrick stepped up and made big plays. We tried to protect that lead instead of continuing to attack. Derrick did a good job of controlling the game.”
The Bulls led 25-19 after one quarter as Mirotic and McDermott combined to work off one another well, players now starting to look for McDermott instead of forcing up shots. The reserves behind Mirotic this time surged out to a 40-28 second quarter lead as Rose had 16 in the first half. The little things you hear so much about? The Bulls were leading 48-40 in the last seconds of the half. Mirotic had the ball on the left wing, saw an alley and began to drive. Derrick Favors, who led Utah with 24, was about to step in. Instead, Gibson seeing Mirotic, backed in to Favors, sealing him off and giving Mirotic an open layup for the score. Mirotic got the two points; there would have been no basket without Gibson.
Those are the kinds of things all these fancy statistics cannot chart and are the real difference between wins and losses.
The Jazz was making a late run to scare the home fans as happens so often with these Bulls.
The Bulls had held them off in the third quarter with Butler getting going and doing an excellent job with rugged play thwarting Jazz top scorer Gordon Hayward. And Gibson adding some impressive scoring moves inside. The Bulls led 79-67 after three. But here came that prevent offense: Lots of isolations, late jump shots, much less movement. The Jazz had moved within 87-78 with about four minutes left when Butler had to force one up at the 24-second clock. The Jazz ran down, but Gibson cut off Shelvin Mack and then stepped in front of Favors rolling to draw a charge.
Then on offense, Gibson laid a crushing screen on Chris Johnson defending Rose. That gave Rose room for a 16 footer and 89-78 lead with 3:33 left. And with Gibson’s jumper a few minutes later, the Bulls had enough to avoid anything too stressful.
It’s still eighth place, so no celebrations or occasion to relax. But maybe they finally have found something. Or someone.
“Our guards have been getting knocked around a lot,” said Gibson. “Like I said at halftime and before the game, you have to help the guards; we have to come out and really pick up the defensive edge on helping them out on the screen and rolls up top. It was a big difference the last couple of games the way we’ve been attacking the ball. Our guards have been responding. It’s a trickle down effect. Once we help one, everyone follows each other’s lead; it’s a great feeling.
“We can’t (scoreboard watch),” said Gibson. “Now we just have to focus on getting wins; you get a nice win streak here and there, you can end up in the sixth seed. You can’t focus on everybody else. You have to focus on yourself. The East is tight, but you never know. Anything can happen. It’s up to us to get a nice smooth winning streak and get guys in the right mode they are capable of being in and keep pushing. It’s all about the hot hand late going into the playoffs.”