The Bulls start the unofficial second half/stretch run of the NBA season Thursday in Cleveland without Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah, three of their top six players from their opening night win over the Cavaliers.
Now, three and a half months later, the Bulls at 27-25 trail the first place Cavaliers by 11 games and are barely holding onto a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of ninth place Detroit.
Yet, the Bulls remain the Cavaliers’ nightmare.
That’s because likely the last thing the Cavs want as favorites to go to the NBA Finals is a first round playoff series with a Bulls team with Butler and Mirotic back, a healthy Derrick Rose, which he basically has been this season, and Pau Gasol, assuming he is still with the team following the 2 p.m. Thursday NBA trading deadline.
Because then suddenly what usually is an eighth place walkover becomes a grind and challenge for the likely conference leaders, whom the Bulls are 2-0 against this season.
Of course, there are a lot of ifs and hopes and maybes in that scenario, all of which depends on the Bulls actually making the playoffs. Which is uncertain now with all the absences. And Thursday, hello LeBron. Looks like instead of being defended by defensive ace Butler it could be Mike Dunleavy as the LeBron stopper.
“Most likely (Dunleavy starts on LeBron),” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg after practice Wednesday. “We’re still evaluating it and figuring it out if we want to do something with the lineup. But if we had to make that decision today, then yes.”
This is when the definition of help defense changes to, “Help!”
Tony Snell has had some success defending James, especially in a Bulls win last season. But Snell has been in mostly a season long slump and Hoiberg has grown more reluctant to use him. But with Butler and Mirotic now out likely at least for this month, players like Snell, Doug McDermott, E’Twaun Moore and Bobby Portis will be relied upon for more significant contributions.
“We’ve tried a lot of different players especially in that starting spot (at small forward),” said Hoiberg. “We started Tony, we started Doug, we started E’Twaun here this last stretch, and all of them have had opportunities to get in and perform. Some of them have had very good stretches; some of them have helped us win basketball games and close games out. It’s finding that consistency. The opportunities are there for those guys to play minutes and hopefully take advantage of them.”
It’s a difficult stretch for the Bulls these next few weeks with so many rotation players out. Five of the six games this month are against playoff teams from last season, and then the Bulls next month have road games the first two weeks in Miami, Orlando and San Antonio perhaps before anyone returns.
Though the defense has slipped, the Bulls still rank second in opponent field goal percentage, fifth in three-point opponent shooting and 10th in defensive efficiency. But the offensive efficiency numbers are near the bottom of the league. Two of the statistics that hold true toward final placing are point differential and road wins vs home losses. In differential, the Bulls are 15th at slightly below even, which is ninth in the East. It equates to a .500 season. In the home/road measure, the Bulls are seventh in the East. So they project at this time as a .500 team that could barely make or miss the playoffs. Though that could change with a healthy Butler and Mirotic.
So the Bulls will try to scrape out enough wins to remain in the race.
“If we can get back in transition we give ourselves a chance to defend,” Hoiberg said about playing the Cavs Thursday. “If we take care of the ball like we did the last time we played them, we’ll give ourselves a chance. If we turn it over, this is a team that takes advantage and turns them into points. It could get ugly fast.
“Niko’s been awesome (against the Cavs),” noted Hoiberg of his 11 for 20 shooting and six of nine on threes against Cleveland. “He led us in scoring the first time we played them and last time he really spread the floor and knocked down shots. That’s been a big part of the success (against them). We’ve been able to play Niko small and spread them out a little bit and take advantage of that. We’ve got a guy in Jimmy that can guard LeBron about as well as he can be defended. He still had big games, but Jimmy makes him take contested shots. So we’ve got two key pieces out of our lineup that have really helped in those first couple wins. We’ve got to have guys step up. Everybody’s got to contribute who steps on that floor if we want to have a chance to win this game against a team that’s playing very good basketball right now.
“We need to get confident,” Hoiberg reminded. “That’s something we’ve lacked, especially on the road trip when we couldn’t close out games that we had great chances at winning. So it’s giving ourselves a chance and closing games out and getting that confidence that’s so important if you’re going to go on a run in this league. The thing about our conference, the thing about the East, is if you do go on a run you can make a jump in a hurry. That’s what we’ve got to focus on. The past is the past, and we’ve got to go out in a hurry and hopefully give ourselves a chance to win every game.”