So it was mostly against DeAndre Liggins, Cory Jefferson, Jonathan Holmes, Jordan McRae and Kay Felder, who of course also scored 63 first half points and led by nine. But the Bulls Friday in riding Rajon Rondo’s strong third quarter play, the playmaking of Dwyane Wade and the force of Taj Gibson drove ahead and defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, or some form of them, 118-108.
Rondo had 20 points, half in a third quarter when the Bulls got the lead for the first time and pulled away. He also had six rebounds, six assists and six turnovers. Gibson, again the most consistent player in the 2-2 preseason, added 18 points and 11 rebounds and Wade had another flashy all around game with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists. Rookie Paul Zipser added 18 points, 11 in the fourth quarter.
“I had a lot of turnovers in the first half,” agreed Rondo about his six, though none after that. “It starts with the point guard, so I have to do a better job taking care of the ball; other than that we were still down (only) nine at half and it’s a long game. We have to look at the positives. We outrebounded them the entire game (60-26). We kept chugging at it and found a way. We took care of the ball (in the third). You don’t give a team the opportunity to get those open fast break points and threes in transition, you have a better chance to get back in the game. That’s what we did.
“I think we were trying to make the home run play or the extra pass that wasn’t there,” said Rondo. “But we figured it out in the second half and that’s what the preseason is for and we got the win. I feel pretty good; gave it my best to go out and get a win.”
And so a preseason of experimentation continues for the Bulls, Friday an odd first of three in four nights. So Rondo, Wade, Jimmy Butler, the latter who sat out Friday with stiffness, and Gibson will not play Saturday in Milwaukee. The Bulls close the preseason with a home game Monday and in Nebraska late next week. The Cavs, meanwhile, took the preseason excuse of pacing some players to perhaps unprecedented extremes. Their top nine players in their rotation, including all the starters, not only didn’t play, but they didn’t even accompany the team to Chicago. That left a lineup of players hopeful to just make the roster or get a D-league chance playing for the Cavs.
It was probably inappropriate, but the NBA lately has allowed teams to make judgments about preseason games, and many have been using mostly reserves and non-NBA players. Though Wade said the Bulls haven’t been able to do that as much and shouldn’t as they try to weave together a coordinated unit with eight new players.
“There’s been a lot thrown at us in training camp,” said Wade. “There are moments you see the continuity is not there; just trying to put everything together. So when you have a veteran team you hate that you have to play so much preseason. When you have a team trying to come together you actually like to have these freebie kinds of games you can learn from. If we didn’t make any mistakes that could be a bad thing. The mistakes you make you can learn from and build on the positives.”
So then it was a success of sorts in the first half as the Bulls bumbled their way to an early 14-point deficit with 11 first quarter turnovers for 16 Cavs points, or whoever those guys were. The Bulls had 17 first half turnovers for 24 Cavs points. But they had just five second half turnovers while continuing to dominate the backboards against the smaller Cavs extras.
Much of that was by Gibson, who led the Bulls 33-6 edge in second chance points and has been an exemplar through the four games. Coach Fred Hoiberg said he’s still considering who will start at power forward, though Gibson has been by far the best front court player on the team in the preseason.
“Taj has been great,” Hoiberg agreed. “He’s played great basketball; not just in games, he’s had really good practices. We’ll keep looking at different things and will make the decision we feel is best for us opening night.”
But Wade also singled out Gibson for praise and the way he has been able to work with the guards.
“I love playing with Taj and we’re learning each other,” said Wade. “Taj has been playing great. He hasn’t been playing outside his game. He’s been picking and popping, shooting his jumper when it’s there, knocking it down when it’s there. When he gets his post up opportunities he’s one of the better post up guys in the league. He’s doing a great job running the pick and roll with Rondo, having his hands ready. If he does that he’s going to have a very successful year.”
Hoiberg has apparently been hoping for someone to emerge with a three-point shot to perhaps play power forward, though Rondo and Zipser were the best three-point shooters Friday, Rondo two of three and Zipser two of four.
“They’re going to continue to play me as a driver; that’s what they better do,” said Rondo. “But I’m working (on my shot). I’m pretty confident in my shot now and I’m just going to let it go.”
Zipser, the second round pick from Germany, been the surprise of the roster with continued mature, controlled play and aggressiveness.
Zipser will get that chance Saturday in Milwaukee with the makeshift lineup as a starter, Hoiberg said. The regulars are expected to start together the last two games. Jerian Grant also had his best quarter of the preseason with 10 in the fourth mostly playing off the ball with Isaiah Canaan, but showing more aggressiveness going to the basket.
After that lackluster, ineffective first half, the Bulls led by Rondo attacked in third with Rondo driving and making those threes and Wade coming off the bench to orchestrate. Hoiberg has been taking Wade out early in quarters and then bringing him back to finish, a strategy that seems to work well in providing his calming presence to close quarters, which is where veteran teams take advantage.
“I finish quarters pretty well, finish games pretty well,” said Wade. “I’m not my best self in the first couple of minutes of the game, for sure; takes a while to get these old bones moving. But I love coming back in after getting a break, after seeing everything, seeing how the defense is playing me, the way they are playing our team. I come back in and feel I am better. I’m able to read the game, a better quarterback and have me in there at the end as a closer and be a point guard, a big point guard in there with certain guys. You want to keep a veteran out there with younger guys; I like it.”
It also suggests the Bulls may not have as much difficulty on offense this season as many suggest with defense more of a priority.
Zipser and Grant with some clever play from Cristiano Felicio carried the Bulls in the fourth quarter to those 118 points and nearly 52 percent shooting. They’ll take a look at the kids Saturday and then begin the serious rehearsals next week. Denzel Valentine and Tony Snell remained out with ankle sprains.
“Tomorrow is a rest day for me,” said Wade. “Sunday get back at it and hopefully get all the bodies ready Monday. We are trying to put everything together.”