Could it be the Bulls made their coaching change for defense?
It turned out Tuesday in the NBA season opener after all the preseason talk of a new, high powered, fancy offense that the Bulls relied on several big defensive plays down the stretch to defeat LeBron and the Vandellas (aka Cleveland Cavaliers) 97-95.
“Defense is always going to be there,” said Jimmy Butler, who made the game saving free safety play on an inbounds pass to James with 3.6 seconds left. It came after Pau Gasol came over in help to block a driving James layup attempt to tie the game.
“It’s the winning aspect of every game,” added Butler, who also made a 19 foot baseline jumper with 1:15 remaining on a pass from Derrick Rose for what was the winning margin. “We’ve got a lot of guys we can switch, play different coverages. Guys have confidence in one-on-one situations. When you have that and are scoring the ball like we were in the fourth, I think we are a really good team.”
They’ll discover that over the next 81. But it was an excellent start before a national TNT audience and President Barack Obama sitting courtside in new coach Fred Hoiberg’s first regular season NBA game as a coach.
“I was really happy with how we came out of the gate with a defensive mindset, holding them under 40 percent in the first half and right at 40 for the game, and that’s a high powered offensive team,” said Hoiberg. “They can score on the break. That’s a heck of an individual assignment for Jimmy Butler. LeBron got 25, 10 and five; unbelievable player. Jimmy, I thought, did a nice job. We missed a couple of times coming over for help, but overall I was very pleased with our defensive effort.”
Butler finished with 17 points in a balanced Bulls effort with five players in double figures. Nikola Mirotic led with 19 points and three of four three pointers. Rose added 18 points with 15 of his 22 shots in the paint, more driving attempts than just once last season. The Bulls were seven of 19 on threes, which helped open the court for drives. Only Butler played more than Rose’s 32 minutes with 10 players getting double figures in minutes played and the Bulls bench outscoring Cleveland’s 30-20 led by E’Twaun Moore with 11.
And so there was some new and some old that added up to a welcome victory over the Bulls’ relentless nemesis, James.
“It was a huge (win) for us, especially with the young team we have and everything we’ve been going through as far as (new) coaches and a young group,” said Rose. “We’re going to build off it. That is how we are going to win every game. It kind of feels good going into every game knowing you have the possibility of winning. You have a chance of winning every game because we are so good and so deep. It is a blessing. Everything is a positive to me; it’s a step in the right direction. I’m not worried about my stats or anything. I love that my teammates encourage me to shoot the ball or drive the ball the way I was driving the ball. I’m honored to be on this team because they allow me to play the same way I normally play. There are no fusses or any complaints.”
So it was a festive and enjoyable evening for basically everyone in the United Center, and certainly the president. He left with the Bulls ahead six with about 90 seconds remaining. He then left this official tweet:
“Good to be home for a night. Even better to see the @chicagobulls start the season off right! #SeeRed.”
Someone probably brought him as transistor radio to listen to the end of the game in the car.
Which almost went frightening like the infamous Game 4 of the second round playoffs last May when James saved the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit with a last second three pointer off an inbounds play. The Bulls were expecting it this time and much more in tune as Butler fought through two screens to remove any air space as James tried to push off and Tony Snell did a good job blocking Mo Williams’ vision (might have had someone taller than 5-11 inbounding) and Butler stole the pass.
“We all know they were trying to get the ball to LeBron,” said Butler. “To tell you the truth, I thought it was going to be the same play that he made in the playoffs last year; so stay on his body. They threw the ball over the top, (I) got a piece of it and slapped it into the backcourt. The ball was going to Lebron; that’s all you needed to know. Late game possession, you knew it, everybody knew it. The whole world knew the ball was going to LeBron in that situation.
“All I knew was try to stop No. 23 from getting the ball,” said Butler. “At the end of the day I think I did a decent job of it.”
And the Bulls sent the Cavs plummeting into last place in the Central Division.
OK, OK, perhaps better not get too excited too early.
But it surely was a relief as well for the Bulls to get that first victory over James and the Cavaliers. James’ teams in Miami and Cleveland have ended the Bulls’ seasons four of the last six years. In order to get past them, you have to start beating them and believe you can do it when it matters most in the playoffs. The Bulls are a long way from doing that, but small victories come first.
The Bulls now won’t see the Cavaliers again until Jan. 23. By then point guard Kyrie Irving should be back from his playoff knee cap injury. But the Cavs Tuesday had Kevin Love, who scored 18 points and made two three pointers in the last 1:02 to give the Cavs a chance to steal the win after trailing by eight points with 1:38 remaining.
Gasol, who had a poor offensive game with two points on one of seven shooting, made one of his six blocks as Love lost Mirotic on a baseline inbounds play. But Love recovered, was fouled and made two free throws to get within 95-89 with 1:28.
Butler came off a screen with James trailing and double teaming Rose. Butler slipped into the left corner and made the 19 footer to regain the eight-point lead with 75 seconds left. But Cleveland ran a nice screen to free Love for his three. Mirotic then missed an ill-advised runner and Love found open space again for a three to get the Cavs within 97-95 with 32.9 seconds left. The Bulls ran down the clock, leaving Rose an off balance 20 footer he missed with 10 seconds left and four on the shot clock.
Gasol with his block and Butler with his steal saved the evening for Chicago.
“Made myself very small in my finish,” lamented James. “Pau already had five (blocks) at that point and he made a hell of a play.”
It ended up as a heck of a night other than Joakim Noah suffering what Hoiberg said was a knee contusion early in the fourth quarter. Hoiberg said the trainers ordered Noah kept out, so Hoiberg went with Taj Gibson first and then got Gasol back in for the last 98 seconds. Noah said he hoped to play Wednesday in Brooklyn.
“It might not be your night offensively,” said Gasol, who was one of seven shooting. “You just have to find ways to help your team and that’s what I tried to do.”
This will be an offense that limits Gasol because the Bulls won’t be playing into the half court as much with called plays. Gasol prospered that way last season with his career high in double/doubles. Although the Cavaliers’ defense kept the Bulls from pushing the ball much by getting back quickly, the Bulls now will search out matchup advantages more often than set plays. There’s considerable dribble weave action with ball reversal that should produce more open shots as the ball moves. The Bulls did throw into the post a few times for Gasol. But it won’t be a regular occurrence.
There figures to be adjustments throughout the lineup. Butler prospered offensively as well last season with the majority of perimeter plays called for him. Players talked again about reacting to defensive movements with players like Mirotic and Doug McDermott getting more three-point opportunities.
Mirotic starting at power forward kept the Bulls close early with shooting when the Cavs went ahead 15-9. Then Noah and Gibson, the latter especially, entered and their defensive enthusiasm and movement spurred a Bulls 17-2 run to close the first quarter ahead 26-17. Gibson fouled out in 22 minutes of ambitious play with five points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Noah was scoreless and without a shot attempt in 17 minutes with nine rebounds.
“Niko was great,” said Hoiberg. “Not only hitting shots. I thought he battled. They went to Kevin Love the first play and he got a dunk on that. But after that I thought he battled on the defensive end. That is going to allow us to play him at the power forward spot, which is a very difficult matchup. You have to guard him. That’s what opens up the space and driving lanes for Derrick and Jimmy by him being out there and being able to knock down shots; He’s a guy our guys are always looking for him out on the perimeter. I liked the way Niko and Pau played out there together; there were times Niko and Taj played together. Jo and Pau had a short stint; all four of those guys will have opportunities. Bobby (Portis, who did not play) is going to play key minutes for us; hopefully Jo will be OK. If not Bobby will have to play minutes for us.”
The Bulls led throughout the second quarter with a Butler face up block on James the highlight as James tried to back him down. James gave Butler a little pat of appreciation for the play in a nice sporting moment. The Bulls led 46-40 at halftime with McDermott scoring seven straight late in the quarter. Though the Bulls didn’t do a good job finding him in his 16 minutes as he shot three of four.
Rose then was terrific to start the second half as even with continued blurry vision—he said he still closes his left eye to see clearer when he plays—he scored or assisted on the first 15 points of the quarter as the Bulls went ahead 61-48.
“Not to be cocky or anything,” said Rose when asked about his vision issues after orbital surgery. “I have been playing this game for a long time. While I’m out there, I think I am good enough to still be able to go out there and do positive things and help my teammates win. That is all I am trying to do. This offense, especially for me and Jimmy, coach lets us play, doesn’t run a lot of plays. It’s more a read type offense. Niko was huge for us; that’s why he is starting. No knock on any of my other teammates. It’s just Niko is playing well and confident. He hit a big shot to give us the momentum in the fourth quarter. We expect that of Niko, to tell you the truth.
“I think I’m all right,” said Rose. “A couple of layups I could have hit. I’m just trying to get back playing. I missed this game too much.”
The Bulls had a lull late in the third quarter when Rose and Butler went out. Even with James sitting, the Cavs cut a 10-point Bulls lead from when James went out to 71-68 entering the fourth quarter. The Bulls had some early fourth answers. But the Cavs got James going and took an 83-82 lead with 5:32 left and it looked like another close loss to James.
But Mirotic made two big scoring plays, first beating Tristin Thompson for a runner and three-point play and then dribbling out of the backcourt and being fouled by J.R. Smith, who drew a technical foul as well for overreacting and acting. Mirotic made two free throws and Butler the technical to give the Bulls some room and an 88-83 lead with 4:58 left and the Bulls has just enough plays in their pen to leave with an important win if it’s just one of 82.
“We knew for us it was a huge game, important to start well,” said Mirotic. We’ve been really motivated the last couple of days preparing for the game. I think we played a really solid game on both sides of the court, defense and offense.”
The president, also, understood in offering his own state of the Bulls observations.
“I think it’s very promising,” President Obama said of the Bulls in a TNT interview during the game. “You’ve got a new coach. He’s opening up the offense a little bit. The question is going to be can they hang on to the defense with the new offense? If you have Butler and Rose you want to make sure they can get into paint, do what they do creatively. It’ll be a little less clogged up and I’m feeling optimistic. I like how Derrick’s playing right now and Butler’s been a terrific young player.”
Wouldn’t he be great with Barkley and Shaq as someone who knows the game?