It’s easy to conclude it was just the woebegone Lakers whom the Bulls defeated impressively Sunday, a 126-115 victory mostly overshadowed by Kobe Bryant’s final game in Chicago. The Lakers are 11-46 and just trying to get all of this over.
So perhaps the Bulls shooting 55.7 percent and 13 of 19 on threes with 30 assists is merely the product of inferior opposition. But then the Bulls did pretty much the same Friday, and in the second night of a back to back in winning against a rested Toronto team, 52 percent shooting, 44 percent on threes and 32 assists. The pace has quickened, the shots are better and the enthusiasm has returned. Perhaps their defense isn’t challenging the 1990s Bulls, but a spark seems to flickering again with these Bulls.
Could it again become a team on fire?
“I’m seeing things, a competitive spirit that has been better than it has been,” said Pau Gasol, one of three Bulls scoring more than 20 points. “I see a certain confidence being built up and we need to continue and not lose sight of the importance of having that edge every single night, competing and protecting home against every team.”
The Bulls moved to 29-26 with their second straight win, nothing to celebrate quite yet.
But they got 24 points each from E’Twaun Moore, equaling a career high, and Derrick Rose, who is averaging 26 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists since the All-Star break.
“The biggest thing is Derrick, his consistency, ability to attack,” said Mike Dunleavy. “He’s doing a good job with that. Let him keep rolling.”
Gasol had an across the board game of 21 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five blocks, Dunleavy added 17 points and two of three three pointers. Bobby Portis made three three pointers for 17 points and Doug McDermott continued his hot shooting with 16 points and three of four threes and 73 percent shooting the last two games.
The Bulls were a knockout 13 of 19 on threes, which is hardly common. Moore was four of four.
But the shooters were getting better shots because the offense was operating faster as coach Fred Hoiberg often has envisioned. The goal has long been to get up court faster before the defense could set up, and thus have more space for the shots. They are easier when not so much forced in a slower, half court game.
The Bulls had 20 fast break points, sometimes simply firing passes ahead even after made baskets. The Bulls still are missing plenty of offense with Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic out. But they are making up for it now with better ball and player movement and another renaissance from Rose.
“The shots are going down,” said Rose. “Floaters, midrange, shots I shot earlier in the year, even my three-point shot; just I’m getting in better condition and my legs are getting under me a little bit. Our effort (is better). The way we’re playing, moving the ball; on the defensive end we can always improve, communicate a little better when players go isolation on us, that and rebounding. I think we are playing all right.
“I’m just out there playing,” said Rose. “Whatever I can do to help give my team a victory, that’s what I’m going to try to do. They’re giving me mid range, drives to the lane; just mixing up my game, just trying to play a solid game when I’m out there.
“I think I’m a little more efficient as far as shooting the ball, at least these last couple of weeks,” said Rose. “I feel like I’m getting to my spots I want to get to on the floor instead of settling. I (also) love the way I’m pushing the ball; those three things. There always is room for improvement. I’m just trying to win. I just have to go out there in clutch times and make shots and try to get my team together.”
Rose has done it well down the stretch in the last two games, three big baskets when Toronto closed strong late in Friday’s victory and again Sunday when the Lakers reduced a 19-point fourth quarter lead to 108-105 with 5:26 left.
But Rose went left for that pull up bank shot that has been so effective this season to provide some breathing room. Then Moore starting with Rose in the backcourt and playing well off one another intercepted a Julius Randle pass and turned it into a fast break dunk and followed that up with his fourth three pointer on a pass from Rose for a 117-110 lead, which was enough to assure the victory.
Rose said casually he picked up the bank shot that has become a go to shot after his fractured orbital bone injury in training camp because he couldn’t gauge the depth with the rim to shoot. So he began practicing with the backboard that he could see better. It’s been lost on many how much that set back Rose to start the season, but now it’s added another element to his game that even Bryant said had him thinking of the Rose he’s seen five years ago.
That Derrick Rose changes the way the Bulls can play.
“I am encouraged with what we are doing offensively right now,” said Hoiberg. “The ball is moving so much better than it was earlier in the season. Our assist numbers and shooting percentages are up. We are making more simple plays. When we get the ball swung good things happen. The other end of the floor we didn’t have the toughness, grittiness that we need to pull away in a game like that, especially in the fourth quarter. They got the momentum and made it a game. We had to make big plays down the stretch to hold them off. I was encouraged by our play on the one side. But we need to get that grittiness, nastiness, whatever you want to call it, back on the other end of the floor.”
So, no, the Cavs and Warriors aren’t in fear quite yet. The defense is going to leave much to be desired with Butler out and Joakim Noah out for the season.
But the Bulls are again showing the spirit of an enthused team with a goal.
“It’s been a wacky year,” noted Dunleavy, who had his first double digit scoring game of the season. “New coaching staff, lot of injuries, lot of things in and outs, lot of ups and downs. But we are running out of time to be patient. It’s coming down the home stretch; we have to get our act together, win some games and get in the playoffs. Got some guys down, so guys are stepping up. Work the ball around, let Derrick attack, let Pau work from his spots and complement those guys.”
It’s the formula for now until the reinforcements return, and for another night it looked promising.
It was a fast paced start after a video tribute to Bryant with former teammate Gasol doing a heartwarming introduction on the video board. It was a rocking United Center to witness Bryant’s last Chicago appearance.
“He is a legend. He’s meant so much to the league,” said Rose. “He’s our Michael Jordan. The way he’s been playing, the way he dedicated his whole life to a sport. I kind of envy that. His whole career paid off well, five championships; his resume speaks for itself. He deserves everything that has come his way.”
Rose was the fan as well as he and Bryant chatted before the game and Rose brought his son to meet and have a picture with Bryant.
“He’s a blessed little kid, man,” Rose said. “I’m kind of jealous he got an opportunity to meet [Kobe] at (age) three. And for this big stage and the way that Kobe’s leaving. For him to come in and have that, that’s a memory that we’re always going to cherish. Surreal. Of course, he doesn’t know how big the moment is but for him to have that in the archives is pretty cool. That’s something we are going to blow up, have it in his room; we’ve got to make the most of that. It’s Kobe, the last game.”
And there was Rose at the free throw line as Kobe exited late in the fourth quarter, Bryant waving reciprocal appreciation to the crowd. Rose was applauding as he waited to shoot his free throws as were other Bulls players.
“This was special; people wanted to see him on the floor,” noted Gasol about former teammate Bryant. “It’s a huge honor (to make the pregame welcome); proud I was able to have the honor to contribute to his legacy. The things we went through as teammates; the championships. He always had my back and always tried to motivate me to be better and push me when I needed to be pushed and I appreciate that as well. I admire his aggressiveness, the way he approaches the game. He continues to be himself regardless of everything in his 20th season; not many players have done that and the way he has gone at it so hard.”
After the Bulls lead 31-30 after one quarter, they surged on back to back long Portis threes. The Lakers came back and Rose streaked down the lane to choruses of oohs and aaahs like the old days. Rose’s isn’t flying like he used to, though he went up for a speculator block late in the game that was called a foul and probably should not have been, and his playing time is reasonable, finally, at about 31 minutes Sunday. But he’s flashing through the defense and igniting the Bulls offense again.
The Bulls led 62-58 at halftime, and then it looked like they’d broken open the game with a 15-3 run to close the third quarter for a 97-81 lead. It was a tour de force of offense with Gasol leading the break on one possession and passing ahead to Moore, who went back to Gasol for the score. Portis drove hard from the wing for a slam dunk. Moore made back to back threes, noting he’s finally feeling right after a previous hamstring injury.
“Had to get my legs under me after the hamstring injury,” said Moore. “I’ve always been confident and know I’m capable of playing well; it’s not a surprise. Derrick’s been real aggressive, definitely being our leader.”
The Bulls routinely came out of timeouts looking for McDermott, who delivered at six of nine and probably needs more shots as pure as his stroke looked.
“It is about his confidence and knocking down shots and taking the right shots,” Rose said of McDermott. “We are passing to him more and he’s not thinking about it. He has been catching the ball and shooting it. It helps the team and helps move the ball. E’Twaun, he’s catching and shooting now. I’ve always loved players like that who can catch and shoot. The way they are playing me, they are sagging in the lane and when someone can knock down those shots it’s big.”
The Bulls got caught again to start the fourth, though the Lakers knocked in several long threes. But unlike on the Western trip, the Bulls fought back and held off the runs and pulled away for the victory. It’s only a few games over .500, so they’ve got a long way to go to even be assured of being in the playoffs. But it’s looking better than it did a week ago.
“Take one game at a time,” said Rose. “We can’t look past anyone; all these games are important.”