No sports league does the holiday season like the NBA, matching the best and most exciting teams against each other. It’s the NBA’s Christmas present to all the hoop heads. And so it is once again. Delay your Christmas shopping. Here comes Cavaliers-Bulls and Celtics-Bulls.
The prime matchups of the season?
“They (Cavs) are good for a reason every year,” Denzel Valentine was saying late Wednesday night in the Bulls locker room after their conference best seventh consecutive victory, a 112-94 stroll over the Orlando Magic. “It’s going to be a hard game, but with the way we are playing now everyone is confident and we believe that we are one of the best teams in the East. With that being said, this would be a true challenge, a legitimate chance to see where we are at, two tough games on the road (Boston Saturday), hostile environment; so we’ll see what we are made of.
“With our whole team back now, I think we’re one of the best teams in the East because of our matchups,” Valentine added. “We have what we need, outside shooting, playmakers, drivers; we have defense. We’ve got all the key components. We were just, I think, we were missing that experience and that chemistry together, which happens over time. I think we’re one of the better teams in the East.”
You’d say Valentine is, well, hallucinating. But he did say much the same in training camp when media members questioned the credibility of league drug testing, and now Valentine with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against the Magic is also showing what we all questioned and doubted.
That this Bulls team could play like this. Ever.
But this really has been going on for almost a month now; sure, it’s “just” seven straight wins. But these Bulls, now still just 10-20, ever since that humiliating loss to the Warriors Thanksgiving weekend have been on the edge of a breakthrough until there was this one that is now the second longest active winning streak in the NBA.
The Bulls trailed by three points in the last minute against the Suns, lost at the buzzer to the Nuggets and in the last minute to the Kings and at the buzzer to the Pacers before winning these seven straight.
As we’ve all been saying, could we have been wrong? Are they better than we figured? Did we underestimate everyone? Was that a pig flying?
“We still had positive feelings about things, honestly,” Robin Lopez said about the 3-20 start. “We still were very positive; some of those games were very close losses for us, a mental mistake here and there. I thought everybody did a great job of keeping each other’s heads up.”
And now they can hold their heads high.
Nikola Mirotic added a second straight double/double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. New closer Kris Dunn was not needed late because of all he did early, finishing with 15 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals. Bobby Portis for the invigorated bench that totaled 54 points had 14 points in just over 14 minutes. Jerian Grant had 13 points on six of nine shooting and six assists and Lopez had 10 points, six Bulls in double figures in a wire to wire domination of the Magic.
The Bulls shot 50 percent, had a season high 31 assists, a 51-35 rebounding advantage and after a 12-0 start were barely challenged. The few times the Magic pulled close, like late in the first and second quarters, the Bulls went into another gear like a Porsche toying with an souped up Ford pickup.
“We wanted to get out of the gates,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg of yet another high scoring first quarter, this time with a 31-24 Bulls lead. “It helps that we’re making shots right now. That’s a big part of it. But the pace has been excellent. The last two games I think we’ve done as good a job of getting the ball out, throwing the ball ahead, and attacking and flattening out the defensive, and playing off it.
“When I look at those early games, we had a couple (of losses) early that were ugly,” Hoiberg acknowledged. “But through that 10-game stretch that we had consecutive losses, I really thought we battled. And we fought, and we played hard; we just came up short. Three of the four leading into the win streak, we lost by one, one and two. So, our guys were competing throughout that stretch. It just took us to get a win to gain some confidence. And that’s a huge thing in this league, to have the confidence that you know you can go out and finish games. And throughout that time, we identified a guy that could help us close games. And that was Kris. And also getting Niko back and David (Nwaba) back helped in a big way. Those two guys have been on the court for us down the stretch. And now Lauri (Markkanen) is healthy. So I love the balance of tonight’s game. I thought we had a lot of guys that were contributors.”
It was artistically, perhaps, the best game the Bulls have played this season, their confidence and excellence seemingly growing with their success.
They jumped on an undermanned and seemingly hapless Orlando team from the start, Valentine a catalyst with his shooting and passing. He had been perhaps the only starter playing unevenly in the streak. But he changed that in a big way Wednesday and also with a team best plus-24 rating.
“If I’m aggressive I think it makes us better. When we are sharing the ball, everyone being aggressive and playing for one another, we are a better team,” said Valentine.
Valentine made a pair of threes in that opening 12-0 haymaker, and then Dunn starting motoring at will around Elfrid Payton so fast that Payton’s hair stood on edge. He meant for it to be that way?
The Bulls pulled away from a bit of Orlando magic late in the first, getting within 25-24, with a Portis three and a 6-0 quarter close, Portis playing with a fury and rage that had him screaming at himself at times, stalking around after missed chances. Coming into the game with Nwaba has been like letting loose a stampede on the opposition.
Portis was hot. It was another Portis three early in the second quarter and then a Mirotic three as Portis turned down an open three to give Mirotic an even better look. Not talking, still; who cares! That made it 43-27 Bulls early in the quarter, Magic coach Frank Vogel calling timeouts barely two minutes into every quarter until everyone gave up early in the fourth.
“Offensively, we executed great,” said Mirotic, who was just terrific, which has been a step back for him in his 7-0 season thus far. “We had 31 assists, which is awesome. We played unselfishly, finding each other. It was really fun tonight to play.”
The Bulls led 59-48 at halftime after Orlando made its last run to get within 54-48. Then it was the Bulls off to an 11-4 start to the second half and 84-57 about midway through the third quarter and looking ahead to Cleveland.
Though it also was the way the Bulls kept coming, with signature third quarter plays that were symbolic of the potency and grandeur of their effort.
There was grace with pace, dominance with brilliance, fluidity with finality.
There was the defense closing off former Bull D.J. Augustin, whose baseline pass was picked off by Dunn. Dunn began racing up the floor, spun left to avoid a defender and then threw a pass 30 feet ahead turning over his shoulder and behind his back to Valentine, who looking away found Mirotic streaking in from the right wing for a layup. Cue the oooh and aaah: 82-57 Bulls.
There was Justin Holiday blocking a drive, picking up the ball and running out, throwing ahead to the breaking Markkanen, who dunked and was fouled. There was Nwaba as Magic players gawked skyward like they were looking for lighting flashing in for a followup of a Grant miss, that being rare for Grant in this game. There were more aaahs when Dunn passed behind his back, to a rolling Rolo Lopez, continuing the tricks for kids segment of the game. Lopez missed. But Dunn was there between three shrinking Magic for the rebound and short jumper.
It was elegant and artistic as much as impressive and effective for the Bulls.
“We just needed to grow up and I think we are making strides to being more experienced and a better team,” said Valentine. “If you think about it, go back and clean up one or two plays (in those losses) and we’re right in the playoffs.”
Who are we to question?