Offense clicks in 4th quarter to carry Bulls past Pelicans

So that’s what an offense is supposed to look like.

At least for the Bulls Saturday in overcoming a 10-point third quarter deficit with 34 fourth quarter points on the way to a 98-94 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Bring on the Warriors!

Still, it also took 15 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter from Aaron Brooks along with his driving scoop banked layup over forward Dante Cunningham with 40.3 seconds left for a 96-94 Bulls lead. And then after Eric Gordon missed a three, Derrick Rose without face mask and much of his season long hair growth attempted his first jump shot of the game, a step back 17 footer over Anthony Davis that essentially clinched the victory.

The Bulls moved to 13-8 with Pau Gasol leading with 18 points and 11 rebounds, Jimmy Butler with 15 points and Joakim Noah with 10 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and superb defense on Pelicans star Anthony Davis, who had 22 points. The Bulls reserves outscored the Pelicans’ 52-21 and their own starters 52-46.

“They were having fun out there,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg of the closing group that had the ball moving. “It was such a grind out, ugly slow motion type game coming out of the gate (28-20 New Orleans after one quarter). And finally we got a little energy injected out there and those guys were moving it. It was fun, fun to watch, to sit there and see it as opposed to going down and moseying into our offense. A lot of times we couldn’t get the ball reversed because we were coming down so slow. It’s one we hopefully can build on.”

It’s been something of a theme of the Bulls season, the disconnect between practices when everyone is emotional and shooting and passing fast and games when the Bulls walk into a deliberate, wearying game. But this time with substantial Hoiberg juggling that had Noah playing the entire fourth quarter, late in the game with Gasol; had Brooks, Rose and Butler as the closing perimeter lineup and Brooks with Kirk Hinrich, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Noah kick starting the offense. The Bulls for a glorious 12 minutes were the culmination of all their talk, hopes and dreams.

“The energy; that’s it, the pace,” remarked Hoiberg. “We’ll watch the first and fourth (quarters) with our team tomorrow; this is what happens when we play the right way, share the ball and when we move.”

But if it were just that, they would have done so already because this isn’t a recalcitrant group. But the duplications that suggest success because of depth have produced a difficult juggling act for the coach, trying to balance experience, verve, production and limitations.

“Joakim was phenomenal. I thought he guarded Anthony Davis as well as he can be guarded. Pau was, too,” added Hoiberg. “Pau was competing, he was getting on guys in the huddles. It was great. He was leading out there. It was awesome. I guess that’s the luxury/problem we have with the bigs; it’s not always going to be the same guy. Taj (Gibson) was the guy who finished the last game with Pau; Niko has finished a lot of games for us this year and it was Jo tonight. That’s what we have; we have the depth to play different lineups and go with the guy getting the job done.”

The hard part is knowing who is going to give you what when. Because it rarely has been apparent, consistent or predictable.

This time it was Noah with the sort of game we’d seen more in recent years than in the last two, emotional, active on defense, bringing the bench to its feet in the some of the team’s most impassioned moments of the season.

“The play (Noah) drove around Davis and dunked it, I thought he was going to run in the crowd and start chest bumping people,” Hoiberg laughed about Noah seemingly pulling his own parting of the Red Sea slam dunk to make it 75-70 Bulls three minutes into the fourth quarter. “That’s what you need when you are going through the type of game we had; you need a guy to pick up the overall energy of the team. He was coming over to the bench, yelling and screaming and foaming at the mouth. It was awesome. It was exactly what we needed at that time of the game.”

But it’s been occasional from Noah as well as he’s struggled with his game as well as his role coming off the bench. It was Noah’s first double digit scoring game of the season, and he still is averaging almost 22 minutes per game. Until making four of four free throws Saturday, Noah was shooting 41 percent on free throws. But Gasol averaging fewer than 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career still ranks among the league leaders in double/doubles and has been a vital scorer for the low scoring Bulls at crucial times this season and won games down the stretch.

Hoiberg went more with Noah in the second half this time, but the Bulls still needed those two scores in the last minute to escape with the victory. Gibson continued his energetic play starting even though he didn’t shoot much. But there could be another change coming as Tony Snell was scoreless for the third time in the last five games. That makes it five scoreless games this season starting and 20 total points this month in almost 120 minutes playing time.

This in contrast to the continuing improving play of McDermott, who had 12 points and a pair of threes. McDermott despite not being particularly fast, is one of the best on the team moving quickly in the offense. And he continues to score in a variety of ways with tough running bank shots and floaters.

“Doug has been playing amazing,” said Brooks. “From what he’s done from last year to this year has been amazing. That just shows how deep we are as a team. We’ve got a full team; everybody can play. Everybody wants to go out there and play, everybody wants to be in the rotation.”

And so the mixing and matching has to continue in some sense as the reserves have had brutal, spiritless games at times recently as well. One issue for the starters of late has been the shooting of Butler, who is eight for 30 the last two games on mostly long jump shots. Though Butler still does get to the free throw line regularly and effectively.

Rose had just nine points, but it was one of his more efficient games with three assists and one turnover, and that last shot the only jumper as his drives and floaters brought defense to him. On a few occasions his pick and pop passes to Gasol led to another pass and open perimeter shot. Though a lot the post game questions to Rose regarded his short haircut and long gone face mask.

“No mask,” Rose noted. “I’m just happy it’s off and I don’t have to worry about it and that we won. We played with a lot of energy; guys got into the ball and forced turnovers and guys hit tough shots. It was all about executing; we got the ball to the right people and we made plays.”

It took awhile, however, with that halting first quarter in which the Bulls had 13 points in the first 10 minutes and trailed by eight. But a Mirotic three closed the gap. Mirotic with 10 points and 10 rebounds had one of his better games, playing under control, basically taking his shots when the ball swung and avoiding bad shots and turnovers and getting on the boards. But the unfamiliarity of the players often shows as right after Mirotic’s second straight three, no one got him a shot the rest of the quarter he was out there and the Bulls fell behind 37-24 midway through the second quarter.

But the Bulls closed the half strong with a hint of what was to come as Rose blew out of the backcourt and found McDermott running ahead. Rose fired a long, diagonal pass for a McDermott three as the Bulls pulled within 45-42 at halftime. New Orleans was missing Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson.

“Seven turnovers (in the first quarter),” noted Hoiberg “We weren’t making good decisions. We were giving them layups; we gave them a lot of confidence at the beginning of the game. We had a burst the second quarter that got us back in the game. I felt fortunate to be down three at half. They came back and jumped up to double figures right away and then we finally started playing consistent basketball.”

That good part was late in the third quarter with Gasol fighting hard and getting to the free throw line for six attempts and McDermott with a three and a floater to get within one before the Pelicans pulled ahead 70-64 going into the fourth quarter.

“Doug was great out there,” said Hoiberg “When you have a guy like that who can space the floor it makes it easier for guys like Aaron to get to the rim, makes it easier for guys like Derrick to get in there and make plays and opens things up for Jimmy.”

Then it was Brooks, recently coming off three consecutive coach DNPs, opening the fourth quarter with a pair of threes.

“Aaron has been competing really hard; the last two I thought he was the difference maker,” said Noah.

And then Kirk Hinrich added another three for that 73-70 Bulls lead on his only shot with 9:43 left, the two reserve guards good at pushing the pace and moving the ball.

“Aaron was awesome,” enthused Hoiberg. “Wanted to get a guy who could get downhill and get in the paint. We are better when the ball touches the paint whether we can get a shot at the rim or spray it out for a three. That’s what Aaron provides and can space the floor. Our second unit really saved the day for us tonight when they went in there last four or five minutes of the third and all the way through the fourth. Just trying to find the right combinations.”

This time that late group included Noah who was forcing Davis into repeated long jump shots with physical play (Davis was two of seven in the fourth quarter) and finally facing the rim with the ball. And trying to fit the ball into the basket instead of deferring to someone else. Which is also why Hoiberg has not been able to decide to commit to Noah’s energy, or Mirotic’s shooting or Brooks’ speed. Because it’s not always there, and with some players the more you play them the less you begin to get with diminishing returns. And this Bulls season in many respects remains a test case of the San Antonio method of building toward April with playing time. It’s different when your players have done it for 10 years instead of 10 weeks.

But it looked like that for the Bulls in the fourth quarter, calling hot shooting by Evans and Gordon and raising them a Rose and a Brooks. Especially Brooks this time.

“I just made some shots,” shrugged Brooks. “Doug made a great pass and Derrick made some great passes. We played free and moved the ball and there were open lanes to attack.

“The zone?” the insouciant Brooks answered quizzically when asked about being there in the fourth quarter. “I just took open shots, had some layup attempts. Didn’t really realize it was a zone.”

It was for a Bulls team that too often this season has zoned out at vital times with lethargic and confused play. Not this time. Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Bulls?

It seems Hoiberg was even close to his own rendition of the who dat song afterward watching his picture come into focus.

“After the game he was excited, came in here clapping, all fired up,” McDermott said about Hoiberg apparently seeing the offense he’s so often imagined. “After Kirk hit that three in the corner you could tell he was fired up in the huddle with what a lot of us have not seen. So it was pretty cool. It’s one game. We have to continue to build, but it’s a good start.”