The Bulls Friday made very merry in Oklahoma City with a thunderous present for themselves and their fans, a 105-96 victory that not only represented a season sweep of the powerful Thunder, but the most dominant victory for any team over 20-10 Oklahoma City this season.
“We knew what we were capable of,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 23 points and verbal points that pretty much occupied the team the past week. “We know we can play like this on a nightly basis. We’ve got a great group of guys; play hard, play together and we can win.
“That’s how the Chicago Bulls,” said Butler, “are supposed to play basketball.”
So there was Pau Gasol with 21 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocks and Derrick Rose with 19 points and defense that led Russell Westbrook to nine of 23 shooting. Contract extensions for them? Taj Gibson with 13 points and 10 rebounds and the physical play that led to a pair of skirmishes and technical fouls. Rescind those suggested trades? The team’s campaign for Butler’s league MVP award and Republican presidential nomination starts next week?
Happy days are here again?
At least for a day, and what better day to find the gift of good cheer, if not peace on the basketball court, with one of the Bulls’ best and toughest games of the season, on the road in one of the most difficult places in the NBA to play while coming off a three-game losing streak. That amidst comments by Butler suggesting coach Fred Hoiberg might be lacking in some areas and a general debate about where this team was going and where perhaps it should go.
But from those depths, or actually more that detour, as the Bulls remained in top contention in the Eastern Conference came the first wire-to-wire victory by any team over the Thunder this season. It was a rugged and physical game on the boards, an energized Bulls offense that started the game 11-0 and then 8-0 after halftime and essentially controlled the entire game against arguably two of the league’s top players, Kevin Durant with 29 points and Westbrook with 26.
“Obviously, it was a tough week after a really good week,” agreed Hoiberg, who found himself under media and public siege for perhaps the first time in his life. “So we needed something like this to show our guys how good we really can be. If you go out and play with that effort and togetherness we’re a pretty good basketball team. The big thing was the confidence.
“One thing we’ve been struggling with is to keep our foot on the gas,” Hoiberg noted about a Bulls habit to lose leads. And they did watch an 18-point lead after three quarters shrink to six with 3:42 left.
But then it was Butler backing up his words with a drive, picking up a pair of free throws. Then it was Gasol with a big time put back of a Rose miss for a 103-93 lead with 1:54 left that pretty much took the lightning out of the Thunder. Rose added a pair of free throws on a drive with 37.6 seconds left.
“Once (we) get a team down double digits, keep the foot on the gas and keep the pressure on,” said Hoiberg. “They did go on a couple of runs. They are going to do that. I love the toughness the guys showed to withstand that and turn the momentum back in our favor.”
It was a good day for Chicago, and especially welcome on national TV in one of the two ABC-TV featured games, the Cavs losing to the Warriors after the Bulls’ victory. The media landscape in this era judges each moment more severely and harshly, plays broken down in minute elements to suggest a season long pattern or feature. So Rose’s three jump shots become a refusal to go to the basket, Gasol zoning up the middle becomes an indictment on serious play. Three straight losses, even if one was in overtime and the second back to back on the road after four overtimes, becomes a judgment to break up the team for spare parts and future draft picks.
Instead of perhaps taking a breath and remembering Rose’s vision still isn’t quite right, Mike Dunleavy remains out and there have been a half dozen different starting lineups, and now Joakim Noah is out a month or so. And Gibson is starting for the first time in years. And that four of these Bulls have been All-Stars, two last season, and the Bulls now are 5-1 against the top four teams in each conference.
So what was going on these last few days as the national basketball media began to recite louder the Bulls obituary?
One thing, Gibson related, is basketball operations vice president and three-time champion John Paxson decided to talk with the players, not something Paxson does regularly.
“Paxson was talking to us (that) we have to play with more aggressiveness,” said Gibson, who took the message from the jump with the Bulls first two scores, a pair of rebounds and a dunk after a Nikola Mirotic steal.
Gibson doesn’t get much notice. But he’s quietly been a catalyst since going into the starting lineup for Mirotic with his physical play. He’s a bit undersized, but perhaps as relentless as anyone on the team and a vital element in the starting lineup next to Gasol
“Play like we want it more, play the way we used to play, more toughness and heart,” Gibson related about Paxson’s message. “Too much buddy, buddy; got to go out and attack. No time to be friends with anybody. Can’t go out looking to be nice to everybody; we’ve got to turn things around and we understand that.
“He said we’ve got a lot of talent, we’ve got to be consistent,” Gibson added. “He said the aggressiveness, toughness, the small things help a team bond more.
I try to do my part, play tough, physical; it’s a man’s game. It was big today, especially after the slide we had, giving up games we should have won. Any time we get a chance to play against talented teams we step up to the occasion, but like coach said, everybody has to do their job.
“He (Paxson) wasn’t pissed at all,” said Gibson of the session at practice in the three-day break. “Just talking to us, like it’s a different era. Things are more easy going; preaching to go out there and play hard for each other. It’s up to us to turn it around, play with some heart, lay it on the line. He’s always there for you. The potential in the locker room he feels at times is disappointing; it’s up to nobody but us to turn it around. He wants guys to play with more effort.”
It wasn’t exactly Churchill in World War II fighting them on the seas and beaches or Kennedy’s inaugural with what you can do for your country.
But there are things you can do for your team. Sure, it’s been tenuous with this Bulls group. But these sorts of games and the victories over the Cavaliers, Clippers and Spurs show there’s some there there.
It’s obviously about showing it more often. But it’s certainly there and much too soon to send it and look for it elsewhere. These guys work hard—maybe coach hard as well—and now it’s as Roosevelt said to give support in these critical days. Can they, to paraphrase Churchill, make it their finest hour? Or month of May? Only they can prove that. The talent, they insist, is there.
After all, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
“This is the start to something good, hopefully,” said Butler. “When we play like that it gives us a good chance to win. Knowing our capability to come here on the road, why not go and get another one in Dallas? Playing hard, guarding and rebounding.
“It got heated a moment there (this week) with everyone,” agreed Butler of his now infamous comments after the Saturday Knicks loss about Hoiberg’s coaching. “I think that when (you) go back and look at it whatever happened, whatever was said was right. We started playing hard, playing for one another. We guard the opposing team like the way we guard eachother in practice; that’s what it looks like. It’s a learning curve for everyone, him, myself, every one in this locker room. We’ll get there.”
They can only hope. Actually, it’s more than hope, The message was they’d been hoping more than doing.
It was the best game of the first three in the Christmas Day NBA extravaganza, both teams urgent and energized instead of the slogs in Miami and Golden State.
The Bulls took that 11-0 lead, Hoiberg saying the Bulls researched and discovered teams that led early in the Christmas Day games generally won. He wasn’t sure why, but teams that win the first quarter do win most NBA games.
There was that 11-0 start behind Gibson and a big Gasol effort that included lob dunk passes to Gibson and Butler. Gasol’s game can be unappreciated even with the consistent scoring and shooting for Noah’s hustle and enthusiasm. But Gasol remains among the league leaders in double/doubles with his 15th. They still add up the points scored to determine the winner.
Butler was doing a heck of a job against Durant, playing him pugnaciously, bumping and following him everywhere. Durant still had a dozen points in the first quarter and 29 for the game. But he had just five in the fourth quarter as the Thunder’s comeback stalled, and Butler’s play had to affect his legs and stamina. Butler also made a high arcing 35 footer for a three to close the first quarter with the Bulls ahead 32-26.
The Bulls with Rose pushing the ball out of the backcourt and almost getting his first dunk of the season after a Butler steal took a 51-37 second quarter lead. Rose was ahead of the defense, went up and sort of dropped the ball in over the rim.
“It’s not a dunk, it was just a high, high layup, a very high layup,” Rose laughed. “But I’m getting close. Just playing every day means a lot to me. I played in a lot of (consecutive) games. Of course, winning and jelling as a team (is important), but as far as individual goals I just need to play, playing (consecutive) games and getting my minutes up. The way I work and how hard, I think that’s going to pay off one day. I just need to be on the floor as much as possible.”
The Thunder put a 15-3 run on the Bulls to close the first half and trail just 54-52, which was looking like a Bulls here-we-go-again as the offense reverted to isolation play and poor passing. But Rose gave the Bulls a boost with three scoring drives in an 8-0 second half start that gave the Bulls the sort of momentum that was enough to carry them. It’s those sequences which make the difference as much or more than those last shots.
And Rose for the first time this season opened a window toward how he has been thinking and planning to help himself and the team. It’s about playing; if he can’t play he can’t help. So he’s got to be out there. Which is why he hasn’t been as concerned about the conventional wisdom and his low shooting numbers. It’s not purposeful, but there is a method and not madness.
“I’m shooting a lot of floaters. They’re off target now, but I’m around the rim, just putting pressure on the defense and in the paint,” explained Rose. “When I first came back it was all about testing out everything. I came back from an ACL. I wanted to see how I was going to play if I did this certain move, that certain move, how many games (I’d) play on the road. The right knee (meniscus injury), had to just go out and just play; the right knee again (last spring); just had to go out and play. I’m happy to just be playing, happy I’m playing (consecutive) games and we got this win and it’s big.”
The Bulls with the big 32-16 third behind Gasol, Butler and Rose took that 18-point lead as Butler had four steals in the game. He continued his league best streak of 35 straight games with a steal. The Bulls still fall into one pass and shot sequences when they don’t get quick movement out of the backcourt. But they took advantage of a generally lax retreating Thunder defense and got aggressive fronting defense from Butler, Rose and Gibson. They lost Thunder reserve Anthony Morrow for three fourth quarter threes to get a little scare when they kicked the ball around several times as Rose went out with foul trouble. But Hoiberg had to hustle him back in and Rose did foul out late.
They didn’t get much from the bench. Rookie Bobby Portis hustled as promised. He had seven points and five rebounds in 20 minutes, but was lost on help defense given he’s hardly played and heard Butler on him several times.
But maybe it was something for the team.
“We’ve had a couple of big wins, tough wins,” noted Hoiberg. “Beat this team twice, which isn’t an easy thing to do, win against San Antonio, win against Cleveland, win against the Clippers. You just hope this will lead to confidence growing, belief; you hope it leads to your guys understanding how good we can be if you go out and play with this kind of effort, intensity.”