The Bulls Sunday changed coaches, and they still couldn't get it right, at least according to some. Yes, the Bulls kept winning, this time impressively 113-94 over the Washington Wizards for the team's first winning streak since mid-January and largest margin in almost four months.
The Bulls raised their record to 26-51 and broke a tie with the Brooklyn Nets for the seventh poorest record in the NBA in what some have viewed as the opposite race for draft lottery odds.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg had to leave with illness just before the game, so assistant Jim Boylen took charge. And coming off Friday's win in Orlando in a wide open game with 30 assists, 18 of 34 on three pointers, 52 percent overall shooting and with six players scoring in double figures led by Lauri Markkanen with 23 points, the Bulls defeated a winning team for the first time since before the All-Star break.
The Bulls defense was rugged, holding Washington to eight of 30 on threes and running an appealing inside/outside game with a 46-38 margin on inside points. Boylen, a longtime NBA assistant who worked under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio—his only previous interim role when Popovich was ejected from a game—and with the Pacers, Warriors, Bucks and with the Rockets during two championship seasons, also apparently drew on a little theater inspiration. In doing a little of his own Normal Dale, Boylen emphasized at least four passes on each possession before a shot: Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit, team, team, team. No one more important that the other.
The players responded with snappy and determined ball movement that had Wizards players chasing vainly out for threes, and then driving lanes opening.
Bobby Portis added 18 points, Sean Kilpatrick had 14, Justin Holiday 12, Jerian Grant 11 and David Nwaba with 10 points and his typical floor fury that included six rebounds, five assists, a pair of steals harassing Bradley Beal into five of 17 shooting and a ghastly third quarter fall flat on his back after trying to score over Wizards center Marcin Gortat.
Nwaba lay on the floor after smashing his back, elbow and wrist. He then got up after an officials' review about intent to make both free throws and then beat Wizards players to a loose ball in their next possession. It was the sort of contagious spirit the Bulls played with on a day Bulls great Norm Van Lier would have been 71. That's right, 48 minutes of intensity!
"First of all, I feel bad for Fred," said Boylen. "I've never seen him this sick before. Before the game, John Paxson grabbed me and said ‘Have fun with it.' And that's what we did. Our guys played hard. We've got a lot of guys that are growing and getting better. I thank Fred for the opportunity. And the Bulls.
"I thought our guys really competed," Boylen added. "We talked about playing hard, playing for each other. When you get into the game defensively, good things happen for you at the other end. I thought we did that. We talked about a first quarter edge. I thought we had it. We've got great kids, a great group of guys. We talked about four passes per possession in our pregame and I thought we did that, four passes, five passes; we put a number on it and I thought our guys responded to it. It's fun when the ball moves. When the ball changes sides in the NBA, something good usually happens."
Like Markkanen's shot returning again, looking sweet and pure with five of eight threes, like those eight first quarter three pointers as the Bulls blew out to a 15-point lead and led 36-27 after one quarter. And then it was all Bulls, a rarity this season even when they had big leads. The defense was active with Cristiano Felicio blitzing on the pick and roll and multiple traps with the guards. Players repeatedly passed up good shots for better ones and layups, the Bulls taking a hulking 68-59 halftime lead.
Then the Wizards couldn't shake Nwaba with that potentially crushing fall.
"Stung at the time," said the taciturn Nwaba. "Everything is good now. I don't remember what happened. Could have been worse; got back up, didn't hurt too bad, able to keep playing, just played hard. Just doing what I do, drive to the basket and get guys open, make the right play."
The Bulls survived a sloppy third quarter in which each team committed seven turnovers, and then never let the Wizards threaten with Wizards players beginning to lose control. The Wizards drew the rare delay of game technical for players kicking the ball in frustration. And then Markieff Morris was assessed a technical foul for cursing an official, accusing of Felicio pushing him. Yes, the Wizards were frustrated by Felicio, also.
C'mon, the playoffs can't be that far away.
"Just shows the capabilities of our team, the potential of our team," said Denzel Valentine. "We have great players. We just have to learn how to bring that same type of focus and mentality every night."
Plenty good was happening for the Bulls against the Wizards, at least for those, like the players and coaches, who are both competing and trying to earn and continue their futures in the NBA.
You know, like every worker who takes his or her job seriously.
It doesn't matter how famous or infamous you might be, it's about taking pride in your assignment.
From the person stocking shelves to the players taking stock of themselves.
"We don't really care about that (lottery)," said Portis. "Everybody probably gets tweeted at about tanking and things like that. We don't really care about none of that. We work hard on a day to day basis. This is our job, to go out and perform at the highest level. Guys can't go out there and just throw the ball up and try to miss every shot just so you can lose. If a guy works at Walgreens and he has to put the cookies in the cookies section, then he has to do that. We have to go out there and try to make baskets."
It was like sugar cookies for the Bulls Sunday; very sweet.
Some will suggest the Wizards may be doing a little maneuvering of their own as they fell to 42-35 and half game ahead of seventh place Milwaukee.
While the view around the Bulls now is often the record of the poorest teams for lottery odds, the eyes of the bottom four playoff qualifiers in the Eastern Conference appear concerned about sixth place. That's because, at least for now, the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James are third. They are generally regarded as the first round matchup to ignore while the matchup to pursue is with second place Boston. That's because the Celtics have so many important players hurt.
But with the season over in 10 days, there can be changes.
Toronto is two games ahead of Boston for first and recently lost to Boston. The 76ers even without injured Joel Embiid are winning and a half game behind third place Cleveland. Washington, Milwaukee and Miami are close in the positioning for sixth, seventh and eighth. Everyone wants Boston; no one wants Cleveland. Which made Wizards look, at times, as lively as lizards.
Perhaps next season the Bulls will get into that playoff seeding discussion.
The Bulls again played without injured Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, both of whom are likely out for the rest of the season considering they haven't practiced lately as they recover.
Robin Lopez and Holiday started, but neither played in the second half. The Bulls starters all played fewer than 25 minutes with three playing fewer than 20. John Wall, who returned from surgery Friday, was out. But the Wizards starters who extended their record with Wall out all played. All but Gortat played more than every Bulls starter and three played at least 30 minutes. Beal played more than every Bulls player. The Wizards did appear serious.
Kilpatrick gave the Bulls another energetic game with also six rebounds. Grant had seven assists, Noah Vonleh made two of three shots, Felicio had four offensive rebounds and nine Bulls players had multiple assists.
"We're trying to develop a young group of guys," said Boylen. "We're trying to instill habits and a culture and just do the best we can with it. That's our job; we just try to do that every day. I thought we played hard today. And that was fun."