Last year it was the fall of Doug McDermott. This year the Bulls preseason has become the Fall of Doug McDermott.
The second year forward, who is emerging as one of the team’s most important players, Saturday continued his hot shooting to help lead the Bulls to a wire-to-wire 114-105 preseason win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Winnipeg, Canada.
The Bulls play New Orleans Monday in the United Center.
McDermott, playing off the bench again, scored 16 points and made four of seven three pointers, giving him 11 of 22 threes in the three preseason games. McDermott is the only Bulls player to score in double figures each of the three games in the 2-1 start and is averaging 18 points. E’Twaun Moore led the Bulls Saturday with 18 points and Kirk Hinrich added 13. The Bulls shot 16 of 36 overall on threes and moved the ball more adroitly with 30 assists on 42 baskets.
“Regaining confidence and shooting the ball well from the perimeter,” McDermott said afterward. “I just feel a lot more comfortable out there. My teammates have a lot of confidence in me. I just have to put two good halves together. I haven’t really done that so far. Part of it is conditioning, part of it, mentally, I have to have more focus going out there.”
But if that’s just half of McDermott, the Bulls are going to be full of relief.
Because in many respects McDermott is one of the most vital pieces for the Bulls jigsaw puzzle of success this season.
The obvious part is the absence of Mike Dunleavy, likely at least through Thanksgiving after off season back surgery. Dunleavy was the Bulls best three-point shooter last season, and coach Fred Hoiberg has emphasized making three-point shooting a priority in the Bulls offense. Thus far the Bulls are averaging 33 three pointers per game. Last season, the Bulls averaged 22 threes attempted per game, which ranked 16th in the NBA. Among the top eight teams in the NBA last season, only Memphis averaged fewer three pointers attempted than the Bulls.
Hoiberg is emphasizing speed, spacing the court, passing and three-point shooting in this season’s offense. Obviously, it’s too soon to make many judgments with Derrick Rose not having played after facial surgery. Taj Gibson also hasn’t played yet after his offseason ankle surgery. Plus, Pau Gasol played for the first time Saturday, and only in the first half. He had eight points and four rebounds in just under 16 minutes.
But even at full strength, the Bulls are not a great three-point shooting team. Both Rose and Jimmy Butler have career three-point shooting averages below 35 percent. Butler Saturday occupied himself with moving the ball and had five points and four rebounds. But he has shot three of 15 the last two games.
Nikola Mirotic, who is second to McDermott in scoring in the three games at 14.7, is just five of 16 on threes. Mirotic had eight points and eight rebounds Saturday. Tony Snell struggled badly shooting again, going two of 11. He is seven of 30 in the three games and three of 14 on threes.
With good ball movement Saturday that gave the Bulls a 34-16 first quarter lead they essentially maintained the rest of the game, the three-point shooting was spread around among Kirk Hinrich with 13 points in his best game of the preseason, Moore and even Cameron Bairstow, the latter with 11 points and a three in yet another solid effort. But the most reliable long distance shooter has been McDermott.
It’s what he was in college and was supposed to help with last season after a draft trade that enabled the Bulls to take him in the lottery with the 11th pick. But after minor knee surgery early in the season, former coach Tom Thibodeau dropped him from the rotation and McDermott basically watched the rest of the season. It obviously left him somewhat tentative as even though he played well in a second summer league, McDermott didn’t shoot well.
But McDermott getting support and encouragement from Hoiberg to keep shooting has given the Bulls a needed shot on the court for a team that lacks widespread three-point shooting.
It didn’t look like it Saturday, however, as the Bulls jumped on the young Timberwolves to start and basically never let up.
The Bulls led the entire game as they went ahead by 18 after one quarter, moved up 22 in the second before leading 65-55 at halftime and then kept a double digit lead through the third quarter. The Timberwolves came back late to cut the Bulls lead to 103-97 with about four minutes left. But Moore then worked himself in position for a pair of short jump shots to assure the victory.
It was yet another professional effort from Moore, who started the first two games and came off the bench Saturday with Hinrich starting. Moore played more shooting guard Saturday and embraced the role. He has been reliable in each of the three games and also deserves more playing time than he had last season.
Another surprise was Bairstow, who has been active in each of the three games and showing a nice shooting touch. He’s probably not a rotation regular, but he has shown he can be dependable if needed.
Bobby Portis again didn’t do anything special, but he ran himself into 12 points and eight rebounds while Aaron Brooks had his best preseason effort with some fancy moves, coming close to blocking shots by seven footers Karl Anthony-Towns and Gorgui Dieng and bouncing a pass to Gasol that flew over Gasol’s head right to Butler for a layup. If it was intended it may be one of the highlights of the season.
The change for the Bulls from the start was obvious with quick ball movement around the perimeter, lots of drive and kick motion and extra passes. Hoiberg expressed disappointment after the Thursday loss in Denver about too much isolation play.
“I thought we played very unselfishly (Saturday),” Hoiberg said. “I was pleased with how we guarded in that first quarter. Second quarter, I thought we got a little lazy; things were coming pretty easy to us. We allowed them to get back into it. The great thing was we kept the ball moving all night long. We had 30 assists; that’s a great number. The ball was moving onto the next guy. We had a good shot, we made it a better shot with the extra pass.”
For Minnesota, No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns was solid, if not spectacular, with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Rookie point guard Tyus Jones was most impressive with 18 points and nine assists in leading the Timberwolves back into the game in the fourth quarter.
Mirotic got the Bulls kick started early with back to back threes. Gasol added one and then McDermott started draining them with the net barely rippling. It was six of 12 threes for the Bulls in the first quarter and 50 percent overall shooting. Joakim Noah was rested after his scary fall Thursday, though more precautionary. Rose was not on the trip after facial surgery and Gibson isn’t ready to play yet after offseason ankle surgery.
The Bulls led by 10 at halftime on McDermott’s hot shooting as he made his first four threes. Hinrich then opened the third quarter with a pair of threes. McDermott closed the third quarter with a driving bank shot score for a three-point play and then led the fast break after a turnover and delivered a nifty pass to Brooks for a layup and 89-77 lead after three. Moore and Bairstow with his three made key shots in the fourth to hold off the late Minnesota run.
“We did a really good job of sharing the ball out there,” said McDermott. “Compared to the last game, the ball kind of stopped. The first half especially, we really got the ball moving. It allowed guys to get free and moving. It was really fun to be a part of.”
If McDermott can keep this up the Bulls will be the ones smiling.