Jimmy with defense and Rondo with assists; the Pistons Monday seemingly dense and being dismissed; Niko with the three and Taj with the J; D Wade full of glee and the Bulls with a nah, nah, hey, hey. Detroit Pistons tied up in a 31-point loss like with strings. These are some of Fred Hoiberg’s favorite things.
“Fun to watch,” said Hoiberg of the Bulls 113-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons, arguably one of the Bulls’ best performances in years. “Thirty one assists through three quarters. Those guys were out there playing together. Kept the foot on the gas the entire 48 minutes. Give the guys a lot of credit for stepping up. I thought last week was an embarrassing week for everybody. To be able to snap out the way we did tonight; guys played for each other. That’s what we talked about most, having eachother’s backs and doing it together. I thought we played as complete a game as we have all season. We needed that in the worst way.”
Because, frankly, the Bulls were coming off some of the worst losses the worst way, back to back blowouts against the Milwaukee Bucks, losing a 21-point lead at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves, six losses in the last eight games, booed and seemingly on the precipice of losing control of the season.
But that the Bulls came back the way they did with an historic performance—the second largest halftime lead in franchise history, the 35 points the largest halftime lead in the NBA this season, the second time in franchise history with a shooting game of at least 55 percent from the floor, 50 percent on threes and perfect on free throws—not only is a relief from the depths of last week, but an indication once again that there is excellence in this Bulls team.
The Bulls in leading all game had their biggest lead of the season at 38 points, shot a season best 59.8 percent with a season high 34 assists, tied Golden State’s 15 for the most assists in a quarter this season and shot 81 percent in the first quarter for a 35-19 lead and 72.7 percent for the half for a 69-34 lead.
Seven Bulls scored in double figures led by Jimmy Butler with 19. Taj Gibson hit all eight of his shots for 16 points while Rajon Rondo had 10 points, a season high 14 assists and eight rebounds. Nikola Mirotic back from two games benched had 13 points with three of six threes and Doug McDermott also had 13 points for 41 bench points.
The victory over a Pistons team that defeated the Bulls easily earlier this month was so dominant that Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy benched his entire starting five midway through the third quarter trailing 84-46, promised lineup changes and blasted his team and its players only meeting after their Saturday loss.
“Team meeting, my (butt),” spat Van Gundy. “That stuff means nothing. It’s what you do on the court. Talking’s easy. It was a disgusting performance by all of us, me included. It was unprofessional, embarrassing, humiliating, whatever you want to say. It was terrible. It looked to me like a lack of effort and a lack of heart. We just caved. I guarantee you on Wednesday night we're not trotting that same five out there again."
Now that’s a post game rant, but it’s not unusual these days in the Eastern Conference. Sure, the Cavs and Raptors have begun to separate themselves at the top of the conference. But beyond that teams have gone through weeks like the Bulls did last week with regularity. It’s how you respond, and the Bulls made a good start of it Monday.
The pride of players like Wade, like Butler, Gibson, is the edge the Bulls have. They’ll have weeks like they did last week, as the young, athletic, speedy teams are not great matchups. But those teams are not unbeatable the way the Bulls played Monday, pushing the ball, pressuring on defense, denying passes, getting steals and throwing ahead. It’s the sort of thing the Bulls were doing well in a 10-6 start through the end of the November road trip. It’s not a flawless team.
Wade isn’t always going to sustain at the same level through a surfeit of games. Similarly with Rondo. Butler will search for his shot at times. So will much of the bench. But when they hit the boards, as they usually do, defend aggressively and get running with Rondo, the Bulls matchup favorably with almost anyone in the Eastern Conference.
“Winning is always fun,” added Butler. “When you are winning you are always going to be smiling. When you are making shots you are going to be smiling. Can’t feel sorry for ourselves; tonight we did have fun. We went out and did what we were supposed to do.”
The Bulls clearly were stung by the losses last week that culminated in a home loss to the Bucks by 26 and scoring 69 points.
“You can blame offense, defense, you can blame all sorts of stuff,” said Gibson. “The coaches don’t play the game for you. They give you orders of what to do. You have to go out there and follow it. You have to do your job, play with energy, effort. Nobody can point fingers. You have to ask yourself, ‘Are you giving your all? Are you putting everything you have into it?’ That’s what I have been trying to do the last couple of days, focus on what Taj can do to help the team, be a better leader, a better all around good teammate. It starts in practice and tomorrow go even harder.”
And then the Bulls had 69 points in the first half Monday.
“Thank god,” Wade said when it was mentioned the Bulls made 16 of their first 20 shots. “It’s a great feeling when the ball is going through the basket. That’s the thing about the game. You don’t do much different when it comes to shooting the ball. The one thing we did is we did move the ball around and move bodies around and it all came from our defense on the floor, and that’s how we won the games we won. We’ve had a disposition on the defensive end. When we don’t bring that and let teams hit 16 of 20 against us we’re not beating you. We have to understand that.”
The Bulls were aggressive and ambitious and accomplished to start; certainly pressuring and denying on defense with some nice wrinkles on offense. Especially when Mirotic and McDermott entered midway through the first quarter with the Bulls leading 25-13. Mirotic had fallen below 30 percent on threes and been benched for the first time in his Bulls career, sitting out two games. But Hoiberg commended him on working even harder the last week, at practice first every day.
Wade became a primary playmaker also, especially with the reserves. It was Rondo pushing the ball and, finally, active side to side movement with the ball that didn’t allow the Pistons to pack the lane and dare the Bulls to shoot like Milwaukee and Minnesota did. Wade often runs the offense with the reserves and the team made two nice adjustments that paid off.
First was trying to get Mirotic some easier shots, more short corner looks and mid range.
“D Wade said, ‘I will try to find you in the corner, easy three. You can shoot, get something simple,’” related Mirotic. “Most of the games I was trying to open the game maybe some long threes or tough threes; it was the play the coach was trying to run for me, but now I am trying to play a little different.”
Also, the Bulls ran for McDermott more of what the pros call floppy actions, baseline and down screens to free him for jump shots like they used to run for Kyle Korver. McDermott responded with six of 12 shooting.
“To come off those floppy sets was huge; to come in and establish myself by moving without the ball and put pressure on the defense,” explained McDermott. “Still trying to get my rhythm and legs from the injury and have come a long way. Our best games of the year are when we share the ball; our bench feeds off that. We are unselfish guys and when we get MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) back it will be huge; that’s the style everyone wants to play.”
It was a highlight reel of a night with Wade taking a full court pass from Rondo for a layin and 14-2 lead, McDermott dunking on a lob from Wade and Butler on a lob from Rondo, both in the second quarter. There were sequences with five or six passes in one possession, seemingly as many as the Bulls made all game against the Bucks. One was early in the third quarter, Gibson hitting a 17 footer on the fifth pass for a 71-38 lead, Van Gundy finally pulling his starters for the game after Rondo fired 60 feet to Butler again ahead of the entire Pistons team. Every Pistons starter was at least minus-27 in the plus/minus rating.
The Pistons fell to 14-16. The Bulls are back to 14-13 and tied with the Bucks and Knicks for fifth in the East, a game out of third. It seems like the East is going to be that way, and there will be bad days and bad weeks and some very good ones as well.
“You never know how it’s going to go,” said Wade. “Confidence is a big factor to the success of your team. Obviously, staying healthy. We’re 27 games into the season. We have to continue to find out the next 27 how good are we going to be. Are we going to be better? You hope your team makes the steps where as the next part of the season you are a little better and then a little better.”
The would be the sound of music to their ears.