Hush, hush not so sweet Charlotte.
The Bulls may not have finally quieted and solved the mystery of the Charlotte Hornets. But Friday in the United Center, the Bulls at least got a measure of justice for themselves in a hard earned 102-97 victory.
“This was a good one,” said Jimmy Butler. “At home, after what they did to us last time.”
That was the Bulls very low point of a fledgling season when the Hornets led by 35 points and settled for a 25-point victory over a seemingly lifeless Bulls team. They remembered.
Butler had 27 points, including 11 of 14 from the free throw line with a clinching 20 footer with 5.4 seconds left for the final margin. Pau Gasol had 19 points and 13 rebounds with sharp shooting, seven of 13 mostly on pick and pop jump shots. Taj Gibson had 12 points and E’Twaun Moore 11. And it was the Bulls energizer, Joakim Noah, who ignited the engine with 18 rebounds, seven offensive, and six assists in 24 minutes off the bench.
“Jo had great pop, great bounce,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “He was out there yelling and screaming at everybody; that’s always a good sign when Jo is doing that. First possession he got in there he tipped one in. It’s always nice to have that and he continued to play his tail off and that is who Joakim Noah is.”</p<
Noah was coming back from missing a game with a sore knee, and in the mad scientist rotations and lineups of Hoiberg, Noah was back playing with Gasol for much of the fourth quarter stretch when the Hornets got within 88-87 after the Bulls had earlier taken an 84-77 lead.
“Overall, those aren’t my decisions, who I am playing with,” said Noah of the much discussed pairing with Gasol from last season that led to Nikola Mirotic starting with Gasol this season. “I just want to go out there and compete and control the things I can control. Just wanted to bring some energy tonight. Knew it was an important game for us. Especially with the way we played last time we played this team.
“Everybody came with the right mindset, the right edge,” said Noah, who led that effort, often standing when he was on the bench, imploring teammates. “It was definitely a good one for us. I thought we played pretty well. I thought we got some good shots. To me, it’s more the intensity and energy. I thought it was there today, so that’s a positive.”
After Charlotte closed within one with just under six minutes remaining, Butler and Derrick Rose took over with Butler banking in a runner and getting a pair of free throws and Rose with 10 points and eight assists blowing by Kemba Walker for a layup. Nicolas Batum with 28 points and Kemba Walker hit back with threes as the Hornets made an impressive 15 of 33 three pointers.
But it almost was by design by the Bulls. In that disaster in Charlotte Nov. 3, the Hornets constantly beat the Bulls inside and shot 52 percent overall. Though Charlotte did make 14 threes. Still, the Bulls were committed Friday to making the Hornets beat them from outside. And while they almost did, the Hornets shot 37.9 percent overall this time with only 22 inside points.
It’s why sometimes those three point shots looked so wide open.
The Bulls were switching and double teaming, working primarily to close the middle to keep Charlotte out of the paint and away from easy scores. There were great tactics on display as the Hornets took advantage with multiple drives to draw the double and then kick out to shooters. It was producing the three as Charlotte had 45 points on threes to 12 for the Bulls. But the layups were denied. And down the stretch with Hoiberg using bigger lineups with Moore, Tony Snell and Butler on the perimeter at times along with Gibson, the Bulls finally forced a few threes awry after the Hornets got within 100-97 with 1:54 left. The Hornets missed their next four shots before Butler’s jumper hit the rim, bounced up off the backboard and back in to effectively clinch the win as the Bulls moved to 6-3.
“It hit the rim first so you don’t have to call glass,” Butler said with a laugh. “You’ve got to call glass if you shoot it on purpose; shooter’s touch was what that was, shooter’s touch.”
Butler didn’t have much of a touch for much of the game as the Bulls guards’ shooting is a bit out of touch. Butler and Rose were three of 11 combined at halftime and Butler finally broke out mostly clashing with the basket. He and Rose finished zero for six on threes, Butler missing four as Rose’s eye fracture is yet to heal.
“Still the same,” Rose said. “Just happy we are winning games; putting every game behind me and keep working out and it will catch up one day.”
But Rose was effective drawing the defense and passing, Gasol getting most of his open looks on Rose passes and Butler and Rose a virtual mutual admiration society. In fact, Butler credited Rose for being able to break out with a six for 10 shooting second half.
“That’s all to my point guard,” said Butler. “Derrick telling me to stay aggressive, keep shooting. I know how hard I work at this game; he knows how hard I work at this game. That’s huge, him being a brother to me, a leader of this team, telling me to stay aggressive, keep going, don’t stop shooting open shots and it will turn around.”
“I wanted him to shoot more,” acknowledged Rose. “He still didn’t shoot enough for me tonight. But it’s what, the eighth, (ninth) game, still working on it; he’ll get there.”
But will the Bulls and when?
Gasol was asked about the team’s identity and the cosmopolitan big man wryly responded:
“Identity: Good question. We’re a team that has a lot of talent. When we play well and play hard and play together we are tough to beat. We try to play up tempo, with pace, flow offensively. But I don’t know if we have an identity, per se, where you can label it. I don’t know if anyone has. I’d be interested in hearing it.”
“Just got to keep working,” said Noah, which is his answer to most questions. “The only way we are going to find a true identity is to give 100 percent effort and then we’ll see.”
It’s not so much a curiosity about this Bulls team but a reality. It has been and will be repeated about this season being defined by a new coach, a new style of play for players trying to break out of their old style, depth with a lot of players who seem more like specialists than two-way competitors, and the sometimes missing intangible of enthusiasm, which Noah brings.
It’s a mostly quiet group of people, solid professionals with good character, though not a lot of outward expression other than Noah. But Noah has been more subdued this season moving to the bench and fighting his knee issues. He was less so Friday, which is a vital sign for the Bulls.
“That’s Jo,” agreed Rose. “No matter what he does on the court he’s always going to bring energy and give us second chance shots like he did tonight. His picks were perfect. He made sure he was hitting everybody.”
Though LeBron James is criticized by some for his colorful and sometimes dramatic actions, I’ve always seen his enthusiasm with teammates as a big part of the success of his teams. You see it now with the Golden State Warriors and the joy they play with. It’s not essential to success. I can’t recall seeing many very happy Pistons players in the late 1980s. But it is akin to the energy the Bulls talk about that seems to come and go.
“I wouldn’t say it was revenge,” said Rose. “We just came out and played. I love the way the ball moved; everybody was aggressive. We didn’t have any effort when we played them in Charlotte. They smacked us.”
There’s this assumption that college players have passion and pros are merely mercenaries. It’s a much longer season, obviously, and the pros’ zeal shows in the playoffs. But the excitement can carry a team through the sometime drudgery of a long season, turn endless games into regular passion. The better ones do that and it’s a button the Bulls would like to push more often like they did Friday.
The Bulls also got a good return from injury for Kirk Hinrich with two of three shooting as he played nine first half minutes and gave the Bulls a defensive boost. He was the first guard off the bench to play for Rose as Aaron Brooks fell back this time. Hoiberg has been consistent in his ability to adjust. Doug McDermott started and was three of six, but played just seven second half minutes as Hoiberg went with defensive substitutions. Tony Snell had a tough game but came in late for a big defensive sequence. Moore was crucial in the backcourt, playing with Rose much of the fourth quarter and making some big shots, including getting the Bulls off fast in the fourth after the Hornets led 75-73 after three quarters.
“He could be the point, I can be the two; it can be vice versa,” said Rose. “I like playing with E’Twaun. We used to play against each other (in AAU) when we were younger because he lived in (Northwest) Indiana. We had a lot of battles going against each other. I know his competitive spirit. I know why he’s here. He deserves every second he’s out there. Fundamentally in the right place; he knows the game. He’s a great teammate, a great dude and you need guys like that on the team and I’m just glad he got the opportunity like he has now.”
It was Gasol with the pick and pop jumpers to start with seven points and eight rebounds in the first quarter as the teams were tied at 23 in a game with eight ties and nine lead changes. The Bulls led 50-46 at halftime with Moore scoring seven points in the second quarter and Hinrich answering a Batum three with one of his own. Butler had a great third quarter sequence with a driving score and block at the other end. Rose hit Gibson with a terrific pick and roll pass for a dunk and the same to Gasol as the Bulls had 27 assists on 37 baskets And Butler finished a lob on a pass from Noah. The Bulls threw ahead better for 13 fast break points, though still get caught standing and watching too much in the half court when movement would get them better three-point looks.
But with Noah clearing the boards and Butler challenging them on the other end, the Bulls had just enough this time to unravel the mystery of Charlotte. Oh, and Butler’s double bouncer on that last shot play called for him.
“Not good for my heart condition,” laughed Hoiberg.
Probably better get used to it with this team.