Bulls set the pace against Indiana, 103-94

Call the Bulls Spurs East?

Well, not quite yet. But the Bulls Tuesday in defeating the Indiana Pacers 103-94 rode to victory with a very Spurs like formula of piling on with strong production from the reserves.

“The bench came in and really pushed us,” agreed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Jo [Noah] was terrific, Taj [Gibson] was really good and Aaron Brooks (with a team high 22 points) came in and gave us a big lift on the offensive end. I was really happy with the way the bench came out and fought. Our bench really turned it around for us and got us going. Then when our starters got back in they continued to fight for us. I think our bench is very strong.”

The reserves led by Brooks scored 49 of the Bulls 103 points while combining to play 95 minutes compared to 145 minutes for the starters. Noah coming off the bench in what Hoiberg hinted appeared to be his role had five points and five rebounds. But Noah finished strong on a drive to the basket and led a defensive stand after the Bulls gave up 34 first quarter points. Gibson had nine points and five rebounds in his longest stretch of the preseason with 21 minutes. E’Twaun Moore had yet another impressive offensive showing in the preseason with 13 points and two of two three pointers.

Paul George was impressive for the Pacers with 26 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and a block in 35 minutes after missing all last season with a broken leg.

The difference in the game was the Bulls long distance shooting as the Bulls were 12 of 26 on threes with Brooks and Nikola Mirotic each making four of six. Mirotic added 15 points and Jimmy Butler 12, though Butler continued to slump with his shooting. He and Brooks did lead with six assists each. Butler was four of 14 and zero for three on three pointers. Butler is now shooting 33.7 percent overall and 13 percent on threes despite averaging almost 30 minutes per game, a team high.

The Bulls did get the first encouraging game of the preseason from Tony Snell with 11 points and six rebounds. Though Snell still finished passively too often early in the game, he looked more aggressively for his shot and defended ambitiously.

“I thought Tony had a great night,” said Hoiberg. “We started him guarding George Hill and that seemed to be a great matchup. He really had him locked in. I thought we played really hard; we were out there battling. Maybe our best effort this season.”

Hoiberg also seemed to answer, though without conviction or certainty, the mystery hanging over the team coming into the season of who would start. After all, the Bulls have the starring centers for the Eastern Conference All-Star team the last two seasons, Pau Gasol and Noah.

Hoiberg said he liked the pairings of Gasol with Mirotic, which Hoiberg has been using more often to start games, and Noah with old pal Gibson.

“I thought Noah played great tonight,” reiterated Hoiberg. “He picked up that fifth foul, so we got Taj over that 20 minute mark. I was thinking of Jo or Niko to go and finish for us tonight since we didn’t give Niko the stretch minutes last night. Bobby [Portis] got those. Tonight we wanted (Gasol) in there for the last five minutes. Pau is a great guy to start, especially when you add our three perimeter guys. That’s a great lineup. Then you have Aaron coming off the bench with a great mix of guys. Niko and Pau have great chemistry playing together. I think a lot of that has to do with starting for Spain this summer. I also think Taj and Jo played well together.”

Changes, obviously, can be made any time, and Hoiberg has repeatedly emphasized he regards those finishing the game as important or more so than who starts.

It’s been a successful formula for the Spurs in recent years, especially with older players. And though the Bulls are trying to work in young players, they are closer to the end of their current run than the beginning. Noah, Gibson, Gasol, Brooks, Hinrich and currently injured Mike Dunleavy, all rotation players, are more than 30 years old. That’s more than half the regular rotation even when Derrick Rose returns from orbital fracture surgery.

Hoiberg said before the game Rose went through a vigorous session with coaches, though Rose still has some vision issues. He won’t play in the final preseason game Friday in Lincoln, Neb. and his status for the Oct. 27 opener remains unclear.

Hoiberg said he wanted to begin shaping a rotation by the last few preseason games and seemed to do so Tuesday. He used 10 players and rookie Portis, despite averaging a double/double in preseason, did not play.

“It’s just the way we decided to go,” Hoiberg said.

Though the Spurs have been known for their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and recently also Kawhi Leonard, a strength of the team the last few seasons has been as much their bench. Especially during the regular season as coach Gregg Popovich, perhaps to exceptional lengths, rests his main players. But the Spurs don’t seem to miss much in the regular season with liberal use of reserve players with almost two separate units. The Bulls appear to have that luxury with a roster than features perhaps three potential reserve players in Noah, Gibson and Brooks who could start for most NBA teams. And that’s with Rose and Dunleavy still out.

It’s not the final exam yet, but class becomes serious next week and there is some cramming going on for the new coach and his staff.

The Bulls once again started uneasily on defense, yielding easy trips to the basket and breakdowns on the perimeter as the Pacers led 34-24 after one quarter. George was spectacular while Mirotic kept the Bulls competitive with three of four on threes, some close to 30 feet.

The Bulls then held the Pacers to three of 24 shooting in the second quarter to climb ahead 48-45 at half. Gibson and Noah set the pace to start the quarter with Gibson posting up and Noah diving on pick and rolls and finishing a nice three-point play. Brooks had his unlikely shots going and Snell came over to help Butler and deny George with a block. There was still a lot of ball holding on offense for the Bulls with few of the outlet passes and breaks outs from the backcourt that Hoiberg has emphasized.

Rose should help in that area.

The second half was all Bulls. Hoiberg, who started the game calling plays for Gasol in the post to give the Bulls a presence there, opened the second half trying to get Butler going with a post up play. It was Brooks’ shooting and Gibson pounding inside that gave the Bulls a 77-69 lead after three. Brooks then had a huge fourth quarter with assists from Moore and Snell to take a 16-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.

“Regardless of who is on the floor we look pretty good offensively,” said Gasol. “Tonight we did start off a little slow. But our second unit came in and really did a good job picking the pace up and the intensity level and getting things done. I still believe it’s important to have the best players on the floor to finish the game because that is when the game is on the line. We have a lot of great players and lot of depth. We all want to play, we all like to play, and we all want to be on the floor. So it will be interesting to see what we end up with.”