Bulls have Cavs number again for third time this season

LeBron, no LeBron. Big deal. That’s all you’ve got as defending NBA champions?

Yeah, it’s media trash talking now as the Bulls Saturday defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third time this season, this time a 117-99 blowout win without the ill James in which the only real question was whether Dwyane Wade would join Jimmy Butler with a triple double.

Wade didn’t as Cristiano Felicio grabbed a last shot Cavs miss over the head of Wade as time ran out with Wade finishing with 20 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Butler had 18 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds as the new look Bulls had seven players score in double figures, recorded a season high 15 made three pointers (in 30 attempts) and counted up 34 assists on 46 baskets after 31 in Friday’s win over Phoenix.

Later in the locker room with Felicio at the next locker looking like he wanted to dig a hole and hide, Wade said when asked if he now hated Felicio, “Not hate. Strong dislike, though. Last time I had a triple double? It’s been a long time. I told him I’m not going to act like I am mad at him, but I am very mad at him.

“All good,” Wade laughed. “He said he didn’t see me down there; took a shot at my height. It’s cool; Jimmy got one. It would been nice to have two guys with a triple double.”

But it was nice to see the Bulls having fun on the basketball court again in what seemed like months of despair and disruption. But fresh from the All-Star break and with the trading deadline past and a new, lively spirit and some more relaxed players, the Bulls won a fourth consecutive game for the second time this season and first since mid-November.

They moved to 30-29 and tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference with Indiana, and absolutely dominated the Cavs in the second of a back to back even with Kyrie Irving scoring 34 points. Sure, James was out, and the Cavs now are 0-4 without him this season and 4-19 all-time. He may well deserve MVP. J.R. Smith and Kevin Love remained out with injuries, but it still was more than the remnants of the defending NBA champions.

But the Bulls were vastly the better team on both offense and defense, bursting out from a 56-55 halftime deficit with an 11-0 third quarter run that turned into 23-6 and basically ended the game on the Cavs’ home floor. Butler’s 13 third quarter points carried the team after he had three points in the first half. The Bulls led 89-76 after three. The reserves scored 20 of the team’s 28 fourth quarter points as the Cavs trailed by double digits the entire fourth quarter to the point ABC broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy speculated Wade purposely committed a turnover late in an effort to get that triple double. It would have been only the second time (yes, Jordan and Pippen, of course) that Bulls teammates had triple doubles in the same game.

“I think we just found our groove,” said Wade. “We were playing good basketball. Unfortunately, Jimmy had the heel problem. Golden State game I got sick, but we’ve been playing good basketball. That’s what we focus on; we’re not focusing on what happened weeks ago. We’re focusing on the way we’ve been playing. And I thought we’ve been playing good, but we haven’t had our full team. But when we have, we’ve playing very good.”

Certainly lately, and no small part due to the circumstances with the lineup changes and trade deadline.

The Bulls bench has been dynamic with 53 points against Phoenix and 56 points against the Cavs.

“That’s how we are going to be good, how we are going to be the team we envisioned being if we continue to have everyone collectively,” said Wade. “In games whether it’s overtime or fourth quarter where you need myself or Jimmy to do it and take us the extra level, then it’s for us to do that. We love the pace guys are playing with, confidence and everyone is feeling involved; then that’s what you pay us the big bucks for, to come through at the end; as long as we have that more times than not we’ll be successful.”

The Bulls didn’t need the last minute specialists this time with a 62-43 second half.

What the Bulls got was special performances from Nikola Mirotic with 14 points and 10 rebounds after 20 points and eight rebounds Friday.

“I think there is (something to players relaxing after the trade deadline),”said Wade. “It’s a calm factor; you’re not going nowhere this year and you can just go out and play. I think Niko put a lot of pressure on himself to make every shot he shoots; he just looked like since the deadline passed calm out there. He’s taking shots that we want him to and he’s doing a great job at the other end of the floor, rebounding, doing what he does. So yes, I’ve seen it for many years a lot of guys get into a more calm vibe and they play better when the trade deadline passed.”

And when given a chance, like for Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis with the trades of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Wade put it well that they were being given an opportunity rather than some form of team development for young players, that whether 18 or 26 you were in the NBA and you were there to produce with your opportunity. Portis had seven points and three rebounds in 19 minutes, but his activity and screening, which doesn’t show up in the box score, was vital in enhancing the ball movement and court spacing. Also, Valentine has proven a reliable three-point threat, now eight of 13 the last two games from three with 11 points Saturday.

“It’s kind of weird because I’ve never been (the three point shooter specialist),” said Valentine.  “It’s kind of new because I’m used to making plays, being in ball screens, pushing it. But it’s something I’ve been able to do throughout my basketball career, adjust to what team I play for, however we are playing. I’m here not to hesitate. I’m very confident in my abilities when I’ m out there on the court. I feel I can pretty much do anything; my teammates have confidence in me so I am going to go out and take those shots.

“I think roles are defined more than they were before,” Valentine added about the smoother play. “Guys know what they are doing on the court and we are playing together; guys are competing, playing defense. I think the roles defined is the biggest thing.”

Newly acquired Cameron Payne did get in for the entire second quarter, though playing primarily off the ball and making two of three on threes. Rajon Rondo was excellent with the second group as he had 15 points and five assists and a late first quarter offensive run when the Bulls fell behind 20-14 early in the game. It seems like he’s falling into a point guard rotation with Jerian Grant and Payne, though Rondo again played the fourth quarter with Butler and Wade. Yes, the Alphas are back! Happy times are here again, like November. Michael Carter-Williams was out with tendinitis. Paul Zipser also remained out with an ankle injury.

Felicio, who had double barreled quips from Wade and Butler on the other side post game, continued also to be a vital presence. His pick and roll defense kept him on the floor double the amount of time as Robin Lopez in the second half with a nice ability to roll to the basket on offense from Wade and Butler. Felicio was able to cut off the deceptive Irving on pick and rolls with his ability to switch or hedge and recover. It helped send the Cavs to a 37 percent shooting second half.

It does seem with this closing stretch and no more personnel changes, coach Fred Hoiberg is settling more into a regular rotation—though he said he reserved the right to change as players excelled—and the Bulls are seeing more signs of the pace and space sort of offense they’ve talked about. It never completely will be that way with Butler and Wade as much as they dominate the ball. But with the shooting from Mirotic, Grant and Valentine and perhaps Payne, and the hustle from Portis and Valentine, as well, the Bulls may be putting some of their winter blues behind them and stepping lightly into March.

“Everybody is shooting the ball when they are open,” said Butler. “I tell everybody, ‘Shoot it; at least we won’t get a turnover.’ Everybody is playing with a lot of confidence and sticking to the game they know. That’s easy basketball; that’s winning basketball. We don’t want to settle. As well as we’ve been playing now, it can all be taken away from us if we get away from what we’ve been doing; have to continue to get stops, rebound, not turn the ball over and that’s the type of basketball we like to play.

“That’s what the season is, what the game is all about, ups and downs,” said Butler. “Like a game; runs, you score, they score. Now it’s time to build, get going in the right direction so we can end up where we want to end up.”