At one time it would have been the NBA’s story of the day, a very big day, Martin Luther King Day, the Bulls and Pistons, a day to avenge perhaps the Bulls toughest loss of the season, the four-overtime marathon defeat that sent the Bulls reeling a month ago. The highlight, at least for a few minutes early, was the Warriors/Cavaliers championship rematch later. But the Bulls Monday made a nice statement of their own against a troublesome Detroit Pistons team in a 111-101 victory.
“It was a good game,” said Pau Gasol, who had a very good game with 31 points, 12 assists and three blocks. “Glad we played the way we did; huge contributions from our bench. It was a big win because we needed it after the last stretch that we were in. To beat Detroit, who’s a team that we’ve lost to twice in overtime games, it feels good. They’re playing well. They just beat Golden State last game. So good job from my guys and we have to keep it going.”
Derrick Rose had 20 points and Jimmy Butler added 16 points and nine assists, though with five turnovers. It was an exhilarating reserve effort led by Doug McDermott with 11 points and three of four three pointers. Aaron Brooks had a season high 10 assists, Nikola Mirotic had 10 points and Taj Gibson contributed eight points and 10 rebounds with active, helping defense. The Bulls had a 33-18 edge off the bench.
The Pistons were led by Reggie Jackson and Ersan Ilyasova with 19 points each. The Bulls “held” Andre Drummond to 13 points and 16 rebounds. And though the Bulls were outrebounded 50-38, they shot 52 percent and were a strong nine of 21 on threes.
The Bulls increased their record to 24-16 after a tough stretch in which they probably lost Joakim Noah for the season with a shoulder injury and had lost four games in the last five, including three of four in the sequence with four games in five nights. Kirk Hinrich was out with a quad contusion. And then going on the road to play the Pistons, who already defeated them twice, both overtime games, and were coming off a win over the Warriors, whom the Bulls host Wednesday in the United Center.
And it was a troubling start as the Pistons hit the Bulls with an 11-0 run midway through the first quarter and led 26-13, punishing the Bulls with Drummond getting deep post position and following shots on the offensive boards, an issue for the Bulls much of the season. Plus, the Pistons were making some tough shots and shot almost 70 percent in leading 32-26 after one quarter.
But the Bulls made some nice adjustments in showing Drummond more double teams as he’s not a strong passer out of doubles. The Bulls also got some better spacing in their offense with reserves McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, their best three-point shooters.
Sometimes the Bulls starters with Rose, Butler and Gasol fall into slower, isolation play, as happened early. The reserves Monday added some thrust in the Bulls game, though they are not as reliable scorers and a weaker defensive unit.
Still, they got the ball moving more swiftly and with McDermott making a pair of jumpers in a 9-0 second quarter run, the Bulls fought all the way back to take a 39-38 lead with five minutes gone in the second quarter.
But a lot of that also was thanks to Gasol, whose perimeter shooting was precise and decisive. Gasol had a dozen first quarter points on six of seven shooting while playing all 12 minutes with Noah out and 15 points by halftime. His pop out jumpers on passes from Rose and Butler were poisonous to the Pistons.
“Pau was obviously unbelievable all night long and I thought our guys did a great job of finding him and setting screens on Drummond,” said Hoiberg. “Drummond’s a monster at that rim and it’s hard to get the ball there. But our guys did a good job depending on him and that did open up the lane. Derrick made a couple really nice takes to the basket late.
“We didn’t shoot a great percentage in that first quarter,” noted Hoiberg. “I thought our bench turned around the game for us and they got us back into it. One turnover in 20 minutes; that’s pretty good (for the bench). I did think our guys made the right plays; we made simple plays. Detroit does a good job of forcing turnovers and to have 28 assists and 10 turnovers was a good sign tonight.”
Of course, that is one of the weaknesses of the bench group.
They are primarily a catch-and-shoot team without many good ballhandlers and passers, thus leaving it to one or two players to make plays. That makes it easier to defend if they are not making shots. It’s unfair to compare to the Warriors—or even the Spurs—but what makes teams like that so good are so many players who can make plays as well as shoot.
It’s also why though the starters get caught up in isolation play sometimes because of the confidence in their personal skills, it’s those skills that the team needs in the long run.
It was apparent with the return of Rose in the second quarter as he zigged and zagged and darted and dashed for seven points and a drive and drop off pass to Gasol for another score as Drummond stayed back in the lane. That enabled the Bulls to lead 56-53 at halftime.
The Pistons still were shooting more than 50 percent at halftime. But the Bulls defensive stiffened against Drummond after halftime, and especially with Gibson helping on Jackson’s drives. Jackson had sliced the Bulls up in previous games off the high pick and roll. But this time thanks to Gibson the Bulls did a better job not allowing Jackson such easy penetration as Gibson kept forcing him away with help and then recovering.
It’s likely why rookie Bobby Portis played just three minutes, all early in the second quarter.
The Pistons in that early second quarter stretch started fast against the Bulls, and Hoiberg brought back Gibson after the Pistons took a 36-28 lead going at Portis and scoring twice.
“We kept at it,” said Gasol. “The bench came in and gave us a great boost. We were able to get back into the game and stayed at it. We kept moving the ball, attacking, did a good job getting into people and made it uncomfortable for them.”
The Bulls pulled ahead 72-63 midway through the third quarter as Rose scored on three drives and Gasol wide open howled at Tony Snell, who turned and found him for an easy jumper. The Pistons fought back one more time and took a 73-72 lead with 3:38 left in the third quarter as the Bulls offense began to slow again. But Butler, who still seems to be feeling the effects of that 53-point game and shot five of 13 and was loose with the ball, made a driving three-point play. The Pistons also began to unravel some as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was ejected after complaining and nearly hit a small child in anger walking off the court. He could be suspended.
The Bulls recouped enough to lead 83-79 starting the fourth quarter. Then they took over the game in holding the Pistons to 26 percent shooting in the fourth. Gasol carried it the rest of the way with 10 fourth quarter points on his meticulous shooting.
“It’s a shot I take,” said Gasol. “It puts the defense in a tough position because they have to make a decision with Jimmy and Derrick handling and attacking the paint and me popping back. They usually try to take away the paint and allow that shot and tonight it was falling.”
Gasol even added a driving dunk shot and three free throws when Drummond fouled him shooting a desperate shot about 35 feet from the basket.
“It’s reading the game,” said Rose. “We kept going to Jimmy and he was driving and passing the ball. I think he had nine assists. Every night it could be someone else. It’s just that you have to come in and give that effort. If everyone comes in and gives an effort every night we don’t care about the offensive side; defense is everything. On offense sometimes we slip on that side and it affects us on the defensive side even more. If we stay solid on the defensive end we could be a pretty good team.”
It certainly remains to be seen, and the loss of Noah is a blow even if the Bulls went to 9-2 without Noah.
“I’m not going to say we’re over him or we don’t need him,” said Rose. “We need him for sure. We’re professionals. We know that once someone goes out somebody has to step in and do their job. We believe in everybody on this team and we’re going to see how far this can go.”
Another of those was E’Twaun Moore with good defense and some timely baskets as Hoiberg began to go to a lineup he’ll likely use more with Noah out: Rose and Moore in the backcourt with Butler moving up to small forward. Hoiberg has leaned on Snell for defense, but Snell is often unaggressive on offense. He had three points on one three made in about 16 minutes. With so many teams using small lineups, playing Rose and Butler with Moore also gives the Bulls another ball handler to make plays and who can defend.
“I thought it was good,” said Hoiberg. “E’Twaun is going to make the right play offensively. So you don’t try and do too much. You make open shots and you always know he’s going to battle his butt off on that other end on defense. So you can put him on bigger guys and you can get away with that. Jimmy is obviously strong enough to defend bigger guys, so yeah, that’s certainly a lineup that we want to go to.”
So now come the Warriors after dominating the Cavaliers in a game that turned out now much worth watching. The Bulls will then learn more what works.