Just about every game the Bulls play this season, especially now without Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are going to be the second most talented team on the floor.
It was especially so Tuesday in the exhibition opener against a New Orleans Pelicans team with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, all of whom played at least 30 minutes. Unlike several Pelicans players, if any Bulls players are going to the All-Star game they better buy tickets.
But if the Bulls don’t have that star player anymore, they may have the makings of a team.
The Bulls with a wide open display of hustle, three-point shooting, resilience, unselfish play and eight players scoring in double figures came back from an early 17-point deficit to defeat the Pelicans 113-109.
Cristiano Felicio led with 15 points. Justin Holiday and Nikola Mirotic each had 14 while Jerian Grant and Kris Dunn each had had 11 points, Grant with nine assists as the Bulls were 16 of 35 on threes.
Davis had 24 points and 10 rebounds and Cousins 20 points and 10 rebounds. Former Bull E’Twaun Moore had 16 off the bench. Rondo had five points and eight assists, one fewer than Grant in 12 more minutes played.
“The thing I was most pleased with, they kept fighting and that’s something we talked a lot about, going out and playing through the adversity, playing through runs,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We got down 17 in that first half and cut it to 11 at halftime and came out with great energy to start the second half and really all the way through. Our ball movement (30 assists on 44 baskets) was, I thought, the best thing we could take out of this game, doing it together. That’s big, the big emphasis since the guys have been here, doing it together, playing with movement, unselfishness and playing with pace; our guys have bought into that in a big way.”
Sure, we’ll be reminded it’s preseason, and sure the Bulls still are going to lose a lot of games. Talent does transcend, especially in the NBA. But the early signs were positive even with a brutal 46-point New Orleans first quarter with the Bulls trailing by 13. Perhaps because of that.
It would have been a convenient time to give in, trailing quickly by double digits, Cousins and Davis taking turns bowling over guys and dunking, key players missing and a starting lineup with Grant a surprise at point guard and Paul Zipser at small forward.
But that group, especially coming out after halftime and turning an 11-point halftime deficit into a Bulls lead seven minutes into the third quarter, demonstrated many of the qualities Hoiberg has talked about with this young team.
In essentially Hoiberg’s first chance to mold a team after teams led by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and then Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rondo, Hoiberg’s first lesson worked well: You win playing time on the floor; not by your reputation or salary.
So Grant drew the start over Dunn and played with authority and confidence, nine assists and one turnover in about 20 minutes and four of five shooting with a pair of threes.
“It was great for me, to go back to what I do best, create, get guys open shots, to be able to have the ball in my hand and get guys open looks and everyone touching the ball; that’s the way I like to play,” said Grant. “I finally get to play with a team moving the ball. I get to run the show as the point guard; it’s exciting. I talk to coach a lot more now. He sees me as the coach on the floor and I’m excited about that challenge.
“Guys are having fun, everyone getting to touch the ball, the ball moving,” said the third-year guard from Notre Dame. “Other teams don’t know where the shots are coming from, so it’s exciting for us. As long as we play unselfishly and play hard like that, we can definitely win a lot of games.”
No one’s challenging the Las Vegas over/under quite yet, but it was an encouraging tutorial in basketball 101 for the beginning Bulls.
They stayed true to the principles of their game even as the winds of a blowout seemed to be howling all around them.
It looked cloudy and stormy early; the Pelicans with Davis and Cousins were parading to the free throw line, 17 attempts in that first quarter. The no look passes the Bulls were throwing involved the receiver not looking. But Grant was steady in his start, back to back threes keeping the Bulls competitive early and then Dunn coming in showing the ability to finish and get on the break.
“I was happy with the way both guys (point guards) played,” said Hoiberg. “We got a little careless in short stretches there, but once we made simple plays good things happened. I did think Jerian got us off to a good start tonight, did a great job getting in the paint, spraying it out to shooters, hit a couple of shots himself. Kris hit a couple of big ones for us late.”
Dunn made a three and shot well, going inside once for a nice post fadeaway jumper. Denzel Valentine stayed on the perimeter shooting along with Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez showed his usual accurate mid range shot, one to close the first half.
And even though the Bulls trailed at halftime, a curious thing was presenting itself. The Bulls actually had athletes on the floor, Dunn, Grant, Holiday and later Antonio Blakeley and David Nwaba.
Bulls dunking, beating teams down the floor; how about that?
The highlight was a Dunn steal of a cross court pass, a bounce pass ahead to Valentine and then his bounce pass to Blakeney streaking in for a slam dunk.
“I told you these young kids play hard,” said Holiday, who outplayed his more famous brother and is emerging as a leader for the young Bulls. “That’s what we did, played hard, stuck together and gave ourselves a chance to win the game. There’s a big emphasis on moving the ball. That’s why we had so many open threes and we have guys who can shoot the three. There are a few things that are going to give us a chance to win, playing hard, playing defense and moving the ball.”
Bobby Portis finally made a three pointer late in the third with the Bulls, surprisingly, taking the lead, Portis with three points, but nine rebounds. Then the Bulls got Dunn with another pullup score, Blakeney with an explosive running basket, Nwaba with a drive and free agent shooter Jarell Eddie with a three as the shot clock ran out with eight seconds left in the game to give the Bulls a four-point lead and the eventual victory.
And so they might just finally be developing an identity. They’re not going to see much in the way of sneakers or jerseys sales. But they will play hard and fast; yes loose sometimes, but not willing to give in or give up and getting up there as well. To leave no loose ball untouched.
“We might not have that consistent 25-point guy,” said Grant. “But if we can have everybody step up now and then, everybody contribute together, we can get the points that we need, the points we lost from the guys we lost. As long as we continue to move the ball and play unselfishly we can do a lot of things.”
Might just bear watching.