The Bulls with Sunday’s 92-87 victory over the Orlando Magic have won 75 percent of their games. That’s very good. Though the message in it may be, at least early in the season with this Bulls team attempting various forms of transition, is they haven’t played particularly well in 75 percent of their games.
“We had an 81-66 (fourth quarter) lead at one point,” noted coach Fred Hoiberg. “Then we let them right back in it and started walking the ball up the floor and then, thankfully, the last couple minutes we made a lot of good plays. Jimmy (Butler) made a tremendous read on a fast break. Looked like it was going to be a dunk (to get Orlando within two with 2:17 left), got the deflection, got the ball back and had a great steal underneath the basket (with 1:54 left and the Bulls still hanging on to that four-point lead). We did enough and we can learn from it. At this time it’s very important for us to learn what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong, and correct. Hopefully, we can play a complete game.”
That’s probably somewhere in the distance for a Bulls team unlike any we’ve seen in years.
Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic each with 16 points led the scoring. Butler added 14 and one of the great defensive plays of the year, more reminiscent of a safety in football in the open field knocking away a sure score. Derrick Rose had six points in his second consecutive game scoring in single digits. But Rose had eight assists and seven rebounds in constantly drawing two and three defenders in penetration that helped Doug McDermott add 12 points with a pair of threes and Mirotic with three more three pointers.
It’s a Bulls team now 3-1 and still savvy enough to win with defense — and it had a good chance to do so Friday in the only loss of the season with a last shot in regulation — while trying to break out of ingrained habits of deliberate play. It’s a team that is going to blow some big leads, as it’s done with some regularity thus far this season because of everything the critics have said about the Bulls: They use too much energy during the regular season by playing too few players and overvalue regular season wins at the expense of playoff success. So they’re trying something different and it will have its unpredictability.
In two of their three wins, the Bulls didn’t have a 20-point scorer. The only game they had multiple 20-point scorers was in the loss to the Pistons.
“There is no burden on one person on the team or one person to carry the load,” said Rose. “That is exciting; everybody is trying to invest in the team. I don’t think we have one selfish person on this team. Everybody is doing everything for the team. It should be an exciting year.”
Again, Hoiberg used 10 players all playing at least 15 minutes and still is trying to find time for rookie Bobby Portis, who has yet to play. Kirk Hinrich was inactive with a minor toe injury. Plus, there were players on the floor in key minutes in the fourth quarter Sunday who used to shower after halftime. Hoiberg played 11 players at least five minutes each in the fourth quarter. In the fourth, Rose didn’t attempt a shot and Butler didn’t make one.
But the Bulls got four big rebounds from Joakim Noah, alternating down the stretch with Gasol, those two steals from Butler, a Doug McDermott basket on a brilliant backdoor pass from Noah and clutch free throw shooting from Rose, Butler and Mirotic.
It’s more a basketball laboratory than a six-month sprint. This is a Bulls team with a freshman pro coach and perhaps the deepest roster in the league that intends to test both. There’ll be immediate failures from time to time. But they’ve had their 50 and 60-win seasons. The larger question is can there be more with more?
Not that the regular season is unimportant; anything but. It’s perhaps more important for this Bulls than almost any team in trying to retrain habits and prepare more players for more opportunities.
They’ll blow some big leads like they almost did with a 14-0 Orlando run to cut the Bulls lead to 83-82 with 3:36 left. But they also have the veterans who can make big plays, like Butler did.
“We know we can score the ball,” said Butler. “We had to man up and get stops on the defensive end. That’s where I have to come in and be the leader on that side of the court and get it started for us. Every night; not just tonight. I’ve got to kick us off on defense.”
Butler likes those football references, though he said he’s more a fan than wannabe. But he was wearing a Denver Broncos No. 88 jersey doing his post game media interviews and described in football terms his fabulous steal of what seemed like an Aaron Gordon touchdown pass for a Jason Smith spike.
Orlando, which is this season’s hard luck team with two overtime losses to start the season, had drawn within one. Coach Scott Skiles had finally ignited them with an athletic lineup of mostly reserves. But their shots then began to come up a bit short. The Bulls got one of two free throws from Mirotic and a Gasol jumper on a Rose pass for that 86-82 lead. Then with 2:21 left, Gordon rebounded a Mirotic miss and began dribbling up the left side. The Bulls were slow to get back, though Butler was watching Gordon from the right side where he was chasing his man and began to angle toward Gordon. Getting to the top of the key, Butler leaped about three feet in the air to deflect the Gordon pass to Rose.
“It’s me being a Denver Bronco cornerback,” said Butler with a laugh. “I backpedaled. I saw Aaron Rodgers try to throw the ball over the top. I was Chris Harris on that play, was just there to smack it to Derrick, who’s Von Miller. I was just watching his eyes, to tell you the truth, like defensive backs do against quarterbacks. I knew he was going to throw it.”
It was a big time defensive play, the sort you don’t see often in basketball. It didn’t lead to points. And neither did Butler with 1:54 left stripping a rebound away from Andrew Nicholson and drawing a foul when Nicholson reacted. But it was sort of a prevent strategy, the clock running out on the Magic.
Victor Oladipo finally made a three in transition with 17.8 seconds left to get Orlando within 88-85. But Butler and Rose made a pair of free throws each in intentional foul situations and the Bulls escaped a developing Orlando team. Evan Fournier had 19 for Orlando and Nikola Vucevic 15 points and 11 rebounds in a game in which neither team shot 40 percent.
But it was the veterans for the Bulls who endured, Rose as well with those two pressure free throws despite his continued double vision issues from his orbital fracture surgery.
“He’s out there with blurred vision making plays,” noted Butler. “When he gets back to where he can really see he’s going to be dangerous; we’re going to be dangerous.”
“Right now there is no point in shooting the ball if I can’t see,” added Rose. “I am just paying attention to the way they play me and I need to either drive, shoot a floater or get the ball to my teammates. I missed training camp, didn’t play in preseason but the last game. So all of this is new to me. My conditioning is everything. We’re happy we won, but at the same time we’re happy we got the experience of being in a situation like that, getting defensive stops when we need them and getting a lead like that. I love playing this way. This is how I normally play, a raw game where I can come down, run pick and roll anytime and the defense has to respect me and I can get the ball to my teammates where they can shoot or feed the post, do something good for our offense.”
There isn’t much of that offense yet as the Bulls are scoring 99.5 per game and in the bottom half of the league in scoring, almost 30 points per game fewer than the Oklahoma City Thunder, whom the Bulls host Thursday in a TNT national game. The offense for now appears more in segments, though with two new starters, a new coach, a new style of play and with so much scoring spread around, it’s difficult to expect the continuity to be there.
The Bulls did get off to a good start behind Gasol’s scoring for a 29-26 first quarter lead and some encouraging signs in the second quarter in taking a 54-40 halftime lead.
“I thought in the first half our pace was excellent,” said Hoiberg. “We were getting out and pushing; our wings were running. I thought Derrick had a really nice floor game tonight. He didn’t settle for jump shots. I thought he was in attack mode and did a good job of finding guys; his eye must be getting better. Then we came out and got stuck in the mud in the third.”
The Bulls also saw the best version of Noah thus far, taking a hard pass from Rose in that second quarter on the run and finishing. Plus, Noah made his free throws after missing all six before Sunday. And McDermott didn’t hesitate on his shot and finished some floaters as well.
“We put a couple of different sets in,” said McDermott. “More action where there’s a lot of different reads and I feel I’m at my best moving without the ball; they’re letting me do that more and I feel more comfortable doing that. I was brought here to score and shoot and I’m starting to realize that more. I’m having fun out there and feeling confident.”
The Bulls looked like they were confident in a late third quarter stretch with Noah catching another Rose bullet pass and scoring and Mirotic wide open with Rose getting good penetration and Mirotic going a fourth straight game with at least a trio of three pointers.
“I told Niko I don’t want you pump faking,” said Rose. “I think he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA for his position. So there’s no way he should be pump faking with the green light he has. The more we play the more he’ll get used to taking these shots.”
The Bulls still held a 75-63 lead after three quarters and ran it up to 83-68 with seven minutes left on a Taj Gibson fast break dunk. But three turnovers later and a pair of missed jumpers and the Magic was within one, the starters were coming back in—with defensive substitutions for Noah and Gibson at times—and the Bulls had to rely on their old friend, defense.
“Obviously, they have been taught extremely well on the defensive end these last five years, a lot of them,” said Hoiberg. “It’s trying to build habits on the other end. I thought tonight for a good portion of the game it was as good as it’s been all year. Then it stopped. So we just have to keep doing the things that get you successful and get you a lead and build on that. When you get them down by 15 in the fourth quarter, you have to build it up to 20. There are a couple of times now we’ve had double digit leads in the fourth and we have let teams back in. We have to continue the pace, continue putting pressure on the defense.”