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By Sam Smith | 3.21.2015 | 1:45 a.m. CT
You witness a game like the Bulls’ Friday 108-92 dismantling of the Toronto Raptors and you begin to fantasize again, after all the injuries and the infighting and the rotations and lineups and losing streaks that maybe, just maybe.
“It’s not about one person,” said Joakim Noah, who directed the Bulls offense wonderfully with a career best equaling 14 assists, plus 10 rebounds and eight points.
It perhaps stated most eloquently about Noah and why there still may be so many possibilities for this Bulls team seeing Noah with the ball with 2:20 left. He was standing essentially unguarded near the three-point line, the final outcome no longer in doubt, the fans and his teammates screaming for Noah to take the shot to try to get the triple double.
Noah looked, but then he saw Nikola Mirotic, who led the Bulls in scoring for the third straight game, this time matching a career high 29 points even coming off the bench. Mirotic had a mismatch inside. So even with the 18-point lead, Noah made the right play, the unselfish play, passing to Mirotic, who was fouled. Not about the triple double or any individual glory in a game the Bulls had 32 assists on 42 baskets.
“We have too much talent,” said Noah. “We have too many good players. The strength of this team is how deep we are and we have to use that to our advantage.”
The Bulls did that in the victory over the Raptors to raise their record to 42-28 and move ahead of Toronto into third in the Eastern Conference, just two and a half games behind Cleveland. It also gave the Bulls a 3-0 mark against Toronto.
In addition to Noah’s near triple double, the Bulls also got 11 rebounds and four blocks to go with Mirotic’s 29 points in 31 minutes. The rookie big man from Montenegro is averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in March, among the best in the NBA as Mirotic may be considered for Player of the Month as much as Rookie of the Month. The Bulls also got the second consecutive 21-point game from Mike Dunleavy, an aggressive 10 points from Tony Snell and a smooth 11 points, nine rebounds and six assists from Pau Gasol, the Bulls two centers combining for 20 assists.
Though perhaps even more encouraging was the return to health and the game of the first of the Bulls injured trio, Taj Gibson with six points and three rebounds in about 10 minutes after missing the last 10 games with an ankle injury.
“I didn’t really have any wind,” admitted Gibson, who had a pair of dunks when he first entered to a nice reception late in the first quarter. “I was just excited to be back out there, see the fans, and even more to be out there with my teammates again. The whole time, in my head, I just didn’t want to mess anything up. I just wanted to do what I can do, just try to play the right way.The first couple of minutes I was excited and then that high kind of leaves you. But I’m encouraged. I had a great time; we got a win.”
Jimmy Butler could be back any day now from his elbow injury and Derrick Rose likely will return in early April.
And suddenly it could again be that starting group that’s been 15-4 when playing together along with a practiced and even experienced group of young players who have been able to gain confidence and realistic roles with the team by playing when so many were hurt. It resulted in a lot of losses and probably will preclude a 50-win season, though not for certrain.
But with the offensive possibilities of Mirotic off the bench, the developing aggression of Snell who was slashing and finishing with dunks, even the shooting of Doug McDermott, who added a three albeit in limited playing time, Gibson back and Kirk Hinrich able to fit into a more appropriate role with Aaron Brooks, this could be the Bulls team that looked so promising to begin the season.
“A lot of guys are playing good basketball right now,” said Noah. “We just have to keep grinding, everyone keep working hard. Everybody has a role to play. It’s good to have Tajy back; that’s huge. We’re one of the deepest teams in the league and we have to use that to our advantage.”
The Bulls haven’t been able to, obviously. But with Mirotic playing some small forward as well as stretch power forward, Noah at his high post point center position and suddenly all sorts of three point, floor spacing shooting from Mirotic, Dunleavy, McDermott, Snell and Brooks, the Bulls showed the kind of offense that can compete against any team in the NBA. And even still without their two leading scorers, Rose and Butler.
“They pulled us out on the floor with their speed and quickness,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
Yes, the Bulls.
“They punched us and we never recovered,” said Casey. “They had Mirotic at the four, Taj Gibson and Noah out on the floor. It was a tough match up for all of our big guys. Really, Noah is their quarterback. He is the point guard, basically. He gets out on the floor and does a great job of picking you apart. They came out and kicked our butt and dominated us every which way.”
It was the first day of Spring Friday. You know, rejuvenation, rebirth, everything’s blooming; all that crap.
Maybe it isn’t crap for the Bulls, and it is time for a transformation, to finally begin heating up and blossoming.
It certainly seemed so with crisp cuts, many of which resulted in layups from Noah’s passing, firm screens which opened up three-point shooting and expeditious play which saw the Bulls reach 100 points midway through the fourth quarter. The Raptors were without Kyle Lowry, but few outdo the Bulls with injuries. No sympathy there. Perhaps more significantly, the Bulls were able to play the sort of game that often flummoxes them with the court spread, more threes shot and big men out of position. The Raptors got 27 points from DeMar DeRozan. But with Noah’s passing and Mirotic’s outside play, the Bulls basically ran the Raptors big men out of the game. And nobody beats you all game with jump shots.
“I don’t know how many assists we had, but it was fun; it was fun tonight,” said Gibson.
It was pretty much from the start once again like in Wednesday’s win over Indiana as the Bulls have won two straight, three of five and four of their last five at home. They fell behind 19-12 on some hot Raptors shooting to start. But the Bulls then scored 14 straight points with those two Gibson dunks sandwiching a pair of Mirotic threes, Mirotic closing a 32-24 Bulls first quarter with 10 points in four minutes.
“A continuation of what he has been doing,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “It has been a great run for him, and it is effortless. He is scoring the ball so easily, at the three, the four. He is doing it so many different ways. It opens up the floor for everyone else. His defense is great; he had four blocks. He is doing a great job.”
Gibson showed the energy and enthusiasm of someone who’d gotten a month off. It’s a struggle to piece together wins with so many players out. But they should return with bounce in their step and zest in their game.
“Nikola, Tony Snell, all these guys are playing with so much confidence,” noted Gibson. “The court is so wide open right now. We were able to get a lot of easy buckets and were able to control the tempo. Between Tony, Aaron, Nikola, those guys are really playing great and it’s showing in our chemistry. Those guys are playing the way we thought they should play early in the year.”
In the second quarter, it was first Snell with those long arms stretching out and finishing impressively, Hinrich shooting the ball well and Mirotic again. This time as the defenders chased out to him, Mirotic drove and finished with spin moves, going back door and sealing and taking passes over the top from Noah. That gave the Bulls a 60-48 halftime lead. Mirotic even blocked a shot and got the rebound for himself to start a break Bill Russell style and finished a beautiful Gibson to Hinrich to Mirotic fast break with the ball never touching the floor to end the third quarter with an 86-68 Bulls lead.
Mirotic’s play as a rookie in crucial games is becoming one of the better stories of the season as he builds his Rookie of the Year case.
“I have a lot of confidence, especially on the offense,” said Mirotic. “But right now I am doing a good job on defense, too, especially on rebound. Today was really important game; we made great job both sides, especially sharing the ball and controlling the rebound.
“I’m not really shooting great percent three point line,” added Mirotic, though his threat from three is vital. “(So I’m) putting ball on the floor (to) make some easy baskets, rebound, sometimes in low post, high/low Joakim will find me. I’m trying to play a little different. Not just catch and shoot.”
Mirotic also noted that time and experience are making a difference.
“Being here six months, I understand little bit better how (we) are playing,” said Mirotic. “I need to communicate better on defense, need to trust my teammates and working hard, especially to improve on defense. I know offense is no problem. If I want to be on the floor, it’s playing good defense. I am working on that, rebounding and trying to help my teammates.
“(I am) a little bit tired because I never played like this before, lot of games, playing plus 30 minutes,” Mirotic admitted. “It’s great feeling, (but I am) working hard to be ready, especially mentally. Because I know if I am mentally good I know I can push myself and play good basketball and improve.”
And he says it’s been a delight to play with someone as unselfish as Noah.
“The best big guy passing the ball I see ever,” said Mirotic. “When I am playing with Jo I am looking all the time, ‘Joakim, what is he going to do?’ Sometimes he made a difficult pass. Dangerous; (they could) steal the ball. It’s (instead a) layup for us. It’s special to play with him. He’s the spirit of our team.”
The Raptors did make a little push back in the fourth quarter, actually grabbing six offensive rebounds in one possession before scoring and cutting the Bulls lead to 88-77 with about 10 minutes left.
But this time Dunleavy rebounded a Mirotic miss and made a slick pass to Noah for a score and Mirotic hustled after a loose ball Dunleavy kept alive and Mirortic finished for the three-point play. That put the Bulls back ahead 92-77. Hinrich complied a perfect three of three game. And then Mirotic took a sweet bounce pass from Noah on a back cut for a score. When Dunleavy made it 100-81 with a three with 5:51 left, the Raptors called time and Noah raised his arms in triumph to the delirious crowd.
You can still dream of more celebrations. Who knows when they play like that.