Sometimes an NBA game is like an opera, florid, intricate, classic.
Sometimes, like Thursday in the United Center when the Bulls outlasted the Boston Celtics 101-92 for their sixth consecutive victory, it is baroque.
Though in the end, the Bulls fixed it.
After an uncertain opening during which they trailed by 10 points in the first half, the Bulls produced a sweet sounding aria of ball movement, accuracy and ferocity for that sixth audience pleasing performance.
“The last eight games we’ve shown that (we can be successful),” said Pau Gasol, who had 17 points, 18 rebounds and four assists with six Bulls in double figures led by Jimmy Butler’s 19 points. “Can we show that for the next 40 some games we have left in the regular season and into the playoffs? We have a tough stretch coming up now, on the road (Saturday in Atlanta), four in five nights (next week). You are going to be tested all the way along and you have to prove that mindset, that approach to the game. So far we’re right where we want to be. But let’s see if we can do that consistently every night.
“We’re in a good place,” added Gasol. “But we have a long ways to go.”
This Bulls season closing in on the halfway mark now at 22-12 has been like a great opera at times, dramatic, mournful, comedic and lately pleasing. The audiences in Chicago have been welcoming of late with this run since Christmas Day of seven victories in eight games. But this season remains more than a Faustian bargain. It’s not about selling their souls for success, but playing their hearts out.
And these days these Bulls have been.
“It’s a team,” said Butler, who had 14 second half points after a faltering start. “Nobody can do it by themselves. We’re all having fun, cheering each other on, and when you’re having fun good things happen. He (coach Fred Hoiberg) puts us in great positions on offense, and with the defensive schemes. But the players are going to make the plays and we’ve got really great players on this roster.”
They’re slowly starting to show signs with Derrick Rose adding 18 points on nine of 16 shooting, Nikola Mirotic with 11 points, a pair of threes and a game best plus-22, Taj Gibson with another fierce game with 10 points and five rebounds and Tony Snell off the bench with 10 points and a pair of three pointers.
It’s become a pleasing ensemble cast in many respects.
There’s Rose and Butler performing a beautiful duet on the court.
“You can see those guys sharing the ball with one another,” said Hoiberg. “Jimmy was doing a good job making sure Derrick had the ball in his hands (after Butler’s one of seven first half shooting). The last couple of games Derrick was doing a good job getting the ball to Jimmy. Those guys have a nice little chemistry going now.”
And some nice shared moments.
Late in the third quarter with the Bulls pulling away from a 48-47 halftime lead, Butler went sprinting to pick up a fallen Rose after Rose went down hard on a defensive play. Rose took several hard falls on drives to the basket with curiously again not even one trip to the free throw line. The solemn looking Rose even exploded once to get a rare technical foul as the officials seemed to treat him almost like some aged, infirm Don Pasquale.
“That’s the story of my career (with fouls),” said Rose. “Since my MVP year I always felt like I didn’t go to the line the way I was supposed to, but that’s not my call. It’s up to the referees to make the call. So my job is to keep pushing and being aggressive.”
Rose was in speeding dashes to the rim that had the national TNT broadcast crew imagining images of that MVP Rose.
And then there was Rose repaying the effort as he rushed to help up a downed Butler late in the fourth quarter after a Butler drive that led to a pair of free throws an 88-81 lead with 5:22 left.
“I’ve been in a good place,” said Rose. “Even when I wasn’t playing well I’ve always been in a good place; it’s a process. Of course you want to see some results right away, but it takes time, takes time to feel a game, what you are working on and what you put into a game. Every night we are just trying to focus on that one game; we are giving it our all. And it’s coming together.
“We’re good, but we always can get better,” said Rose. “I kept telling him (Butler) tonight to keep shooting even though his shots weren’t falling the way he wanted them to. Keep being aggressive because him being aggressive opens it up for everyone else and he continued to do that and he made some big baskets.”
There have been several acts to this Bulls show of late, including the play of Butler and Rose, Gibson’s addition to the starting lineup, the reserve play of Bobby Portis who had four points and eight rebounds Thursday, and the pleasing melodies coming from the lyrical game of Gasol, the Bulls resident opera aficionado.
Gasol’s friend, famed tenor Placido Domingo of the three tenors with Pavarotti and the other guy was in the audience for another bravura Gasol performance and post game dinner with Gasol.
“He’s a basketball fan, a sports fan,” said Gasol. “He’s here for a performance. He’s a guy I really admire. He’s an incredible human being.”
And like a basketball Figaro of sorts, Gasol is helping good things come together for this Bulls team.
His play with Gibson has energized the starting lineup as the Bulls took over the game to start the third quarter with a 13-2 run. Gibson with six points and Gasol with four were crucial in that stretch. The closest Boston got after that was six points as the Bulls didn’t, as they had done earlier in the season, lose a late lead or have to barely survive against a team with a lesser record.
Butler barreled to the basket as the Bulls led 74-63 after three quarters. Boston made an early fourth quarter run with their Pagliacci, the often angry local native Evan Turner who turns fierce against the Bulls and old rival Rose. But Doug McDermott cashed in a three, Rose pushed and found Butler cutting and fouled, Rose drove for a score, found Butler for another and then Gasol spotted Rose underneath for an easy layup and the Bulls weren’t much threatened and there was no Don Jose-like violent finish from the Celtics.
There only was brilliance from the light footed Bulls. They did slog through the early part of the show, but a Mirotic rebound, outlet pass to Rose and laser ahead to a streaking Gibson for a slam dunk early in the third quarter was a portent of things that could be for this Bulls ensemble.
“When our main players play at their highest level we’re a really good team,” said Gasol “Not just offensively. We have a lot of talent, skill, depth; but to us the main thing is bringing that competitive edge, the urgency to come out and be aggressive, be the team that dominates, sets the tone. Those are the things–that physical team–that make a difference in this league. I think so far of late we are doing pretty well, but now we go (on the road).”
Where it helps to have Gasol, who quietly is having another All-Star season even at age 35. Gasol had his 19th double/double, tied for fifth in the NBA as the Bulls scored at least 100 points for the ninth straight game, the first time they’d done that since the 72-10 1995-96 season. And while Butler and Rose get the most reviews, Portis gets the enthusiasm and others see their flaws pointed out, Gasol moves along like a helpful, caring Rodolfo.
“Pau’s been unbelievable,” said Hoiberg. “I talk about Pau’s basketball IQ all the time. I truly think he is one of the smartest players in the league. He is always giving suggestions on what we can do. I think he is underrated at the rim defensively; he’s really good at changing shots. Getting 18 rebounds, four assists, is a pretty good line for a big guy.”
“Pau means the most the way he scores the ball, especially the way he passes it,” added Butler. “The way he rebounds, challenging shots at the rim. He doesn’t get enough credit for it, which he deserves. But he’s definitely a huge key. Right now and moving forward, because without him I don’t know if we’d have these six games in a row.”
And so this basketball libretto continues in search of a happy ending.