The Bulls kind of look the same these days.
Derrick Rose, who Tuesday returned from missing three games with a sore hamstring, has ditched the mask from his face fracture and trimmed the high hair, though he has the mustache and goatee. Jimmy Butler still has a mound of that hair. Pau’s still got that little beard working, though not quite Mirotician.
But there is something different about these guys, the Bulls guys who Tuesday won their fifth consecutive game, 117-106 over the Milwaukee Bucks, never trailing from a 10-0 start, their eighth straight game scoring at least 100 points as they moved to 21-12.
“I don’t think we are different people than we were four weeks ago,” said Pau Gasol, who supported Butler’s 32 points and 10 assists with 26 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. “But I see a progression, a development which I like, and now can we keep it this way for the entire year, for every single game? Bring the energy, bring the edge, bring the focus that is required in this league. We have a chance because we have plenty of talent, as we know.”
And all of a sudden this is looking like the Bulls team much discussed before the season but not much seen until lately.
Butler is playing like a league superstar and with Rose is looking like a devastating backcourt combination.
“The way Jimmy is playing, the patience he is playing with, you can tell the game is slowing down for him,” said Rose, who had 16 points and six assists and led the team in plus/minus at plus 15. “It’s fun to see, exciting; I’m happy for him. For a player like him to come into the league and for him to improve the way he is improving and for him being on my team it’s good. I don’t really have to do too much when I am out there because he’s taking great shots and he’s making the right plays.
“The second group is coming in doing what they are supposed to do,” Rose added. “As far as the first group, we are putting a lot of pressure on teams. Jimmy’s been playing unreal right now. He’s ballin’. So keep going to him until he doesn’t want the ball anymore. Me and Jimmy, I think we are very dangerous out in the open court. Throw in Niko, a three-point shooter, Doug (McDermott), Tony (Snell). How are you going to stop us when you have three-point shooters around us?”
Indeed, they’re not being stopped much of late with a pair of wins over Toronto in this stretch and one over Indiana, both considered playoff threats. Going back the eight games, the Bulls are averaging 108 points per game, an average which would have them in the top three in the league in scoring.
The ball is moving more quickly up court; there are shots sooner and before the defense sets and thus more possessions. The ball is moving around with higher assist totals, 27 on 46 field goals against the Bucks. The Bulls were in double figures again in fast break points and rarely close to shooting with the clock running down.
The defense isn’t quite superb, but it doesn’t have to be with this offensive efficiency of late.
“The big thing is we are playing unselfish basketball,” said coach Fred Hoiberg. “(The ball) is not sticking as much as it was early in the year. The ball is going side to side, which is very important for our team. Our guys are recognizing mismatches on the floor, which they evolved into. Earlier in the year, they might have been unable to recognize those things. The big thing is when we swing that ball from side to side and attack after the defense shifts and we are so much more effective. That is the key to our numbers going up.”
The Bulls Tuesday got off to another fast start, one of the key elements for success they have sought all season, leading 10-0 and 16-4. The Bucks got within 36-28 after one quarter and within two points a few times in the second quarter with the second unit stumbling some this time. But the Bulls never lost the lead and pulled away in the fourth quarter.
And that start came with the Bulls quickly taking advantages of those mismatches and perhaps Bucks coach Jason Kidd away after surgery. Interim Joe Prunty had Jabari Parker defending Butler and so shooting guard Khris Middleton was on Taj Gibson. Gibson powered in for eight of the Bulls first 10 points. Gibson was again powerful with 11 points, 14 rebounds and a career best six blocks.
The Bucks called timeout and tried Middleton, their best offensive player with 26 points, on Mirotic. But then Butler got going against the slower Parker for 12 points in the first quarter and he and the Bulls were again on the way to a win.
“We obviously knew it was going to take time,” said the formerly beleaguered Hoiberg. “I have been really happy with the way our guys have stayed together. The best part of the season for me was how all those guys were out there together after that Toronto win (in a group hug with Butler after his 40-point second half). That was huge. It showed the camaraderie and togetherness of our team. If we have that, everyone out there worried about one thing, winning, we could have a pretty good year.”
No one’s about to make too many predictions about this Bulls team with its domination mostly of inconsistency.
But the signs lately have been positive, especially with Rose back and firing to the basket and past the defense for several impressive finishes.
“Derrick played really well,” agreed Gasol. “Attacking the lane, making plays and it was a great plus for us to have him out there playing at a high level, measuring the game. And he got me a lot of great looks.”
So what happened?
There was the famed Butler Declaration of Coaching Dependence when he seemed to question Hoiberg’s ferocity after the Dec. 19 loss in New York. The Bulls are 6-2 since and have scored at least 100 points in every game.
“It wasn’t what I said or what anybody else said. It was what we said together as a team in that locker room that nobody knows,” said Butler. “We have a really good team on paper; we don’t play for one another and don’t stick together we’re not a good team. I think everybody has the team’s best interests at heart. We get lost in ourselves at times, but I think everyone has put that aside and everybody is playing for one another; everyone is smiling and having fun out there. That’s the most important thing.”
There’s been the slimming of the rotation from natural consequences.
Mike Dunleavy remains out from his preseason back surgery and Joakim Noah went out with a shoulder injury two weeks ago. He won’t need surgery, but isn’t close to a return.
So Gasol settled in to a longer, regular rotation and since Noah has been out is averaging 19.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in about 35 minutes after averaging fewer than 30 minutes previously.
Bobby Portis also entered the regular rotation with a big man out. He’s averaged about 10 points and seven rebounds since then in about 21 minutes per game. It’s also seemed to light a fire under Mirotic, averaging 16 points and eight of 16 on threes the last three games after a scoreless 20 minutes against Indiana. Even Snell has been more aggressive, averaging about nine points the last five games and looking to go the basket.
This also coincides with the team in Oklahoma City for Christmas eve together and then their impressive win over the Thunder on Christmas Day. That started the run of six wins in their last seven after the world-is-ending three game losing streak and Butler’s peroration.
“I like the way we are playing right now,” said Hoiberg.
So he’ll take that as things can change quickly in the NBA. Plus starting Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulls play 13 of the following 17 on the road with a two-week trip that bounces to California, to Utah, back to California then to Denver, Minnesota and Charlotte, a cross country and double back basically up to the All-Star break.
So they’ll try to get as many wins as they can for now, and that good start Tuesday helped against a Bucks team now 14-23 that doesn’t appear the threat they were in last year’s playoffs. With the departure of several emotional role players from last year’s team and the return of Parker, who looks slow returning from his ACL injury, the Bucks have fallen back in the East. Middleton shot well, but they obviously kept trying to hide him on defense. Michael Carter-Williams showed better touch with 20 points, but Gasol did an excellent defensive job on Greg Monroe, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Almost all of Monroe’s points were to start the second quarter when Monroe put Portis on a merry-go-round chasing his moves and Monroe scored four straight times to get the Bucks within 38-36. Hoiberg rushed Gasol back in, and while Gasol gets criticized for pick and roll defense, his size presence at the basket can be intimidating. Monroe didn’t score again in the second quarter despite playing another six minutes and was one of eight the second half, his only score late in the game after the Bulls went ahead 113-101 on a Gasol three that Monroe was busy watching from afar.
“We’ve moving the ball well,” said Gasol. “Obviously, we have a lot of weapons out there who can score the ball in a variety of ways. There’s ball movement, unselfishness, balance. We can’t rely on it too much because we understand some nights the shots are not going to fall, the legs might not be there; defensively is where the wins will come consistently. Our challenge is to keep it this way for as long as we can, keep the wins coming. Keep ourselves in a position where we want to be.”
That also came thanks to the return of Rose, who admitted being a little nervous watching the team win three straight without him. But Rose picked up where he left off from a couple of 20-point games with several spectacular drives with crossovers and breaks out of the backcourt.
“I felt good,” said Rose. “It was (made) a big deal, but I was able to work out the last three days. They cut my time on the court (which he said caused the problem in practice). Coming in tonight it was a lot of pressure, coming in and the team was 4-0 without out you so you’re just trying to feel the game. I know it’s (the explosiveness) there; it just takes me going out and playing consistent games. I can’t be frustrated or mad because of just life. Something was bothering me. It was a reality. I had to sit out a little bit because I was overworking myself, but I’d rather have that (happen) than anything (worse).”
And then there was Butler, on the greatest run of his career, powering to the basket, getting to the free throw line for another eight for eight, 32 points Tuesday on 21 shots with a career high equaling 10 assists after his 42 points Sunday in Toronto. No letdown.
It helped lead to a season best 55.4 percent shooting for the game. Butler’s 10 assists were a team best this season and with 20 of 20 from the line it was the first time in more than 30 years a Bulls team with at least 20 free throws in a game made them all.
“I was a little disappointed with Jimmy tonight coming out of the gate (in the first half) and only going for 20,” joked Hoiberg.
“Jimmy is playing at an incredibly high level,” added Gasol. “He’s been very aggressive and sharp. When you have a guy who has it going that way then the defense has to make adjustments and the other guys get open shots and easier shots. It’s great he recognizes when to shoot and when to pass, which is always one of the hardest decisions in this game.
“Jimmy is carrying quite a bit of weight, but he’s doing a great job,” said Gasol. “Having two 40-plus games in a season is remarkable; the second half he had Sunday was incredible. And coming here and not relaxing and being content with a good game and putting up this effort again is something that speaks for itself.”
Whoever they are, the Bulls like the look these days.