Fred Hoiberg was excited. Can’t say we see this too often. We see positive, we see funny, we see bright, we see studious. Not much foam finger waving. But the Bulls coach had watched Derrick Rose at the team’s morning pregame workout, and he liked what he saw, Rose bouncing around like a pin ball. Hey, it was 70s night in the United Center Wednesday. Look it up.
“I sent him a message at about 1 o’clock and told him how much I loved his energy at shoot around,” related Hoiberg, “Loved his pop.”
Rose responded: “I’m going to have a great game tonight.”
Rose came through on his promise, and so the Bulls did with a comfortable 98-85 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Bulls fourth straight to move to 15-8. Memphis is 14-13.
“It was fun to see him,” said Hoiberg of Rose coming out of the chute to start the game with 10 points on all variety of breathtaking drives in the first nine minutes to ignite a Bulls offense that took a 30-26 lead after one quarter. “You could see the explosiveness. He was getting into the paint, he was finishing, had a couple of others he would love to have finished and I’m sure he’ll finish later. But he set the tone for our team with his aggressive drives to the basket.”
Rose had 19 points and five assists. Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 24 points and Doug McDermott added 17 points with four of eight three pointers, including two in the fourth quarter that kept Memphis from getting closer than seven as the Bulls pulled away this time.
“Jimmy and Derrick were playing off each other, taking turns on the ball screen,” noted Hoiberg. “Those two guys were phenomenal.”
It’s the kind of two-pronged backcourt production, Rose’s pace and elusiveness and Butler’s power and defense that has held promise for this Bulls team. It mostly hasn’t been realized thus far with Rose’s early season facial fracture and experiment wearing a face mask.
ut with the threats from Rose and Butler in the fourth quarter, McDermott finally starting to play with that duo this season was able to find more open space for his much improved play and shot. Joakim Noah also closed, this time with Pau Gasol, Noah keeping the ball moving and Gasol on the defensive boards. Outplaying his brother, Pau had 10 points and 14 rebounds while Noah added six rebounds and five assists and set up McDermott frequently. Overall, the Bulls coming back from poor rebounding numbers earlier this season, outrebounded the physical Grizzlies 45-41 and, more importantly, held a 14-7 edge in second chance points. That had been a recent weakness.
But there weren’t many weaknesses for the Bulls Wednesday in falling behind 53-50 at halftime, and then basically dominating the second half behind Butler and Rose. In one pivotal third quarter sequence in an 11-0 Bulls run that broke open the game, Butler ran out after a Taj Gibson steal for a dunk, Rose drove full court after a Memphis score for a layup, the sort of thrust after even made baskets Hoiberg has called for. Rose then went all the way for a layup after he picked off a Marc Gasol pass, and then Butler stripped Marc Gasol and ran out for a fast break score and then a few possessions later took a lob pass from Noah for a dunk.
“It just adds another dimension to our team when those guys are pushing,” said Noah. “Today was definitely the best I’ve seen. It was probably one of our best wins of the year in terms of our energy, our enthusiasm.”
That series gave the Bulls a 74-66 lead after three quarters; the Bulls opened the fourth quarter with pressuring defense that forced three Memphis turnovers. McDermott’s threes held off Memphis, and then Pau Gasol effectively closed it with 2:44 left to get an 11-point lead when Rose shot a pass into Noah at the mid post. Marc Gasol inched toward Noah and in one motion Noah fired the ball along the baseline to the rolling Pau Gasol for the score and foul. The Bulls took the 92-81 lead in a rare easy close against a top team.
“We’ve been running better with that first group,” said Hoiberg. “We scored 30 in that first quarter just by pushing the ball. Derrick was attacking and probing and getting himself to the basket; if he gets into the paint generally good things happen. Tonight was the aggressiveness I know he wants to play with and our team wants him to play with. It’s a great confidence builder for Derrick to play like he did tonight. Hopefully, he’s off and running now. It was fun to see Derrick getting in there with that explosiveness.”
It’s also what the Bulls hoped for and imagined along with Butler as two guards who might match up against any in the NBA. Of course, with the Golden State 24-0 start everyone but Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson was forgotten. But the Bulls were set back more than anyone can imagine by Rose’s orbital fracture and subsequent ease into the season, wearing a mask, probing, trying to be there for his teammates yet finding himself condemned for not doing more.
It’s almost become Rose’s legacy in Chicago, and though he doesn’t overreact—or much react–to criticism, he’s no doubt aware. Even after a solid game like Wednesday’s he’ll get leading questions wryly set up seemingly to elicit an awkward response. No one gets as many queries questioning what he could have or should have done.
But Rose also seems to know the truth is in the clichés, staying the course, not changing, knowing the game and what it presents. Letting the game come to you? Perhaps not, but also not trying to do too much in a team concept. He knows what he is capable of. He also knows he’s a point guard, and a point guard with an improved offensive team isn’t the Derrick Rose of 2011. It will eventually make the team better, if not Rose’s personal resume. So he probes the defense, eyes his teammates, strikes on offense when appropriate, though not outside the team dynamic. It doesn’t always please everyone, though it also remains clear these Bulls players and Hoiberg still are adjusting to one another.
This time Nikola Mirotic played less and Tony Snell was quiet again with two points. But Noah played more with Pau Gasol, and McDermott is being featured more even if not in the starting lineup.
“People want me to shoot 25, 30 times,” noted Rose of some community demands he return to MVP-level play. “You have to wait, especially when you are a point guard you have to see who’s hot; you have to read guys, find out our identity as a team and we are trying to figure that all out. We are happy we are winning games, but we have a long way to go.
“My game is mid range; I shoot a lot of floaters,” Rose noted. “I’m going to play my game; my game is whatever they give me. I’m going the way that I know how to play; not the way people want me to play.
“That comes with finding our identity, figuring out situations during the game, up eight, down, the substitutions coach is making,” said Rose. “We’re all trying to figure that out and we’re able to win some games along the way. Jimmy’s been playing consistent, playing great basketball. It’s just I have to come along and with me coming along it will ignite from that, but it comes with finding our identity.”
McDermott seems to be finding his as that big time shot maker. He’s seventh in the NBA in three-point shooting and has scored in double figures in each of the last three games while averaging about 25 minutes. It’s a long way from the hospital having surgery a year ago and then basically being red shirted. But now McDermott is wearing that Bulls red jersey with confidence.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into the league as a rookie,” McDermott admitted. “Now with a year under my belt I feel like a completely different player out there. I feel so much more confident. Last year I was even kind of scared; I didn’t know what I was doing. It starts on defense and I’m starting to understand things more. I don’t think about stuff as much. I really want the ball and feel I can make the (shot) the majority of the time.
“I didn’t know what was coming,” McDermott admitted about last season. “Guys are so much more athletic. I got my shot blocked a lot. This year I’ve gotten a few as well, but being new against guys 10 years older than you, being star struck a little bit because those were guys you grew up idolizing. I finally put that behind me and it feels normal out there.”
And that new normal was Rose and Butler getting into the heart of the defense, McDermott finding his spot and shooting. It seems so simple.
“I haven’t really had a chance to be out there too much with Derrick and Jimmy,” McDermott pointed out of their fourth quarter rotation. “It was really fun. In the fourth quarter my shoe broke. So I had to get a new pair. It was on a defensive possession, so just to let you (media) guys know.”
Yes, Doug McDermott was literally coming out of his shoes on defense. Just to let you critics know. There was a wink in his voice.
“Those guys draw so much attention so I was getting some really open threes,” McDermott said of Rose and Butler. “I really hadn’t gotten too many open ones lately, so it really felt good to finally have my feet set and kind of tee it up a little. Those guys both had it going, so it’s fun to see. I think tonight was the best we’ve done all year (regarding pace and movement) against a really good team in Memphis; that was a good sign for us. It’s cool to have it going in the fourth quarter with Derrick and Jimmy on the floor because lately our bench has gotten it going. But when those guys are in there it’s awesome playing with both of them. We’re playing good basketball right now.”