Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
As preseason ends, let 'em play
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Baseball generally doesn’t have much to teach us. Unless, of course, you’re tired and need a nice nap, which you can get between the half dozen or so late inning pitches changes and ersatz brawls when someone doesn’t run soon enough after he hits a home run. The playoffs have been going on lately, though they’ve mostly been cleverly hidden by a variety of TV networks.
If, however, you managed to locate one of these games, you’d find something interesting occurring, which just about all sports, including the NBA and the Bulls, could copy. Yes, from baseball. Predictably, it’s often mocked by many in baseball.
It’s the surprise American League champion Kansas City Royals and their manager, Ned Yost, the latter often dismissed by baseball’s intellectuals—there’s an oxymoron—because he eshews the holy analytics and actually lets his players play the game with speed. They bunt, they steal, run, make their own decisions, don’t peer into the dugout for every pitch and signal. We hear all the time it’s a players’ game.
So let ‘em play.
This comes to mind as the Bulls prepare for their final preseason game, Friday in St. Louis against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. The Bulls’ regular season opens Wednesday in New York against the Knicks.
The Bulls seem mostly ready, though Jimmy Butler remained mostly out of practice Thursday with his sprained thumb. He won’t play Friday with Kirk Hinrich likely to take his place again. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau remained uncertain and comfortable with obfuscation about whether Butler would be ready for the opening game or week of play.
Otherwise, the Bulls appear ready with Derrick Rose Monday coming off arguably his best game since his 2012 ACL injury. There has been uncertainty with Joakim Noah, who likely will be so all season after knee surgery and now playing with a brace. But he went through an extra long workout after the rest of his teammates Thursday. Noah said he was pain free, which he proved by meeting with reporters a second consecutive practice day, rare for a Bulls player, and again being asked whether he thinks the Bulls will play the Spurs in the Finals.
“I feel good,” said Noah. “I feel better every day. I’m working hard and I’m excited.’’
Everyone will be making judgments about that as the season progresses as Noah is averaging a humble 5.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game. With the addition of Pau Gasol and the return of Rose, Noah’s role in the offense has diminished rapidly. Though always the team guy, Noah said he saw no issues in that.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Noah agreed. “But it is what it is. I’ve got to make the best out of my opportunities when I get the ball and just keep working, keep getting better, keep figuring out where my spots are going to be, and just try and affect the game even when I don’t have the ball.
“Probably some of that,” Noah said when asked about often coming off the weak side for follows.” Setting a lot of screens and going to get it off the glass, things like that.’’
Like the old Jo? He was asked.
“Like the good old days,” Noah said with a smile of his coming-to-the-Bulls reputation as a hustle player without skills. “Whatever we got to do that day, whatever your job is, you got to do your job, and I’m going to try and do it to the best of my ability, and that’s it.’’
Making Thibs proud.
You like doing that? Noah was asked.
“Does it matter?’’
Probably not for this is the season of one-for-all, all-for-one, check your ego at the door.
It’s difficult to judge where this Bulls team is with the injury to Butler and obvious minutes limitations on some players with the cautious return of Rose. But the Bulls are averaging a modest 96.4 points per game with Butler the leading scorer at 15.4 points per game. Rose is at 15 and shooting 44 percent on threes, second to Mike Dunleavy at 47 percent. Gasol actually is two of three, but that’s not likely to be his main job.
Though it raises the point—OK, that’s me doing it—about the team’s offense. And, frankly, most offenses in pro sports: The quarterback getting every play by radio receiver or tin foul in the helmet, the baseball catcher getting every pitch from the manager, the coach calling every play.
It’s become something of a given in the NBA, though you have to wonder just how you can have a free flowing game and take advantage of opportunities before the defense sets up if you are waiting for every play. NBA scoring averages have risen slightly in recent years, but remain nowhere near where they were when the Bulls were winning titles.
There’s no doubt the coaches work hard for an edge, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau probably outworks them all. His system of play has enabled the Bulls with their dedicated players to basically exceed expectations in every one of Thibodeau’s seasons.
But with Rose back and looking fast and explosive again, shouldn’t this be a team that pushes the ball more and faster, the Kansas City Royals small ball version of the NBA? Turn ‘em loose; let ‘em run and make the decisions once they leave the practice floor?
It will be interesting to watch the Cavs this season as new coach David Blatt from Europe appears to be a disciple of that more open play. Of course, he’ll hear as we all do about winning with defense. Sure, it’s easier to play defense out of a slow, set offense. But if you’ve got all league defenders like Noah, Butler and the much improved Rose, won’t the defense be good enough?
Asked about offense, Noah said, “It’s alright. I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s alright right now. We’re workers and the mindset is good on this team. I think everyone wants it. We just have to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.’’
“I think the defense is pretty good and I think it has the potential to be great,” said Noah. “But I still think we have a ways to go in that department, too.’’
That is because of a lack of dominance thus far in rebounding, in part from the rotating front line. The Bulls are basically even in rebounding through seven games at 4-3. They typically have been among the league’s best rebounding teams.
“It will get better,’’ promised Noah.
No, they’re not quite ready.
“Probably neither area right now,” Thibodeau said when asked whether offense or defense is ahead. “I think we’re capable of doing a lot better in both areas. That’s the challenge of getting everybody on the same page and having a good understanding of what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are. You always ask yourself: Are we doing it hard enough and are we executing it properly? You measure everything from that standpoint.
“We have to finish our defense better,” Thibodeau added about the rebounding issues. “I think we’re still a plus-one in the preseason. Obviously, you’re always concerned about that. Your defense and rebounding and keeping your turnovers down are three things you have to do to put yourself in position to win. You eliminate the ways you beat yourself first. Those are areas we locked into. The turnovers have gone way down. The challenge of the shot has been there. The contact has been there. But then the fight for the ball hasn’t been there (to get the rebound). You have to do all those things. That’s all part of establishing a multiple effort mentality. Part of that is your toughness and conditioning and discipline. Those are things we still have to work on.
And it’s a loss to be without Butler, who has been one of the team’s best rebounders in the preseason. To say nothing of if the Bulls have to start the season facing Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James without their best perimeter defender.
Hinrich likely will start for Butler as long as Butler is out. And though Hinrich is shooting 41 percent, his shot has looked better as he comes off 11 of 14 shooting last week against Charlotte.
“I think we’ve got a talented team,” said Hinrich. “We’ve got a good mix of veterans and young guys. Right now, at this point I feel we’re talented enough to be very good. We’re not sure how good; that will be determined by how we come together, how we mesh, and how we approach it.
“I just worked on it, kind of relaxed with it in the offseason,” Hinrich said of his shooting. “I really enjoyed my court time. I did some different things, took kind of a different approach. I hope it pays off. I feel good. I feel I shot really good here in training camp and I hope to continue it. I just think it was more relaxed, like how I used to work out when I was a kid growing up. Not as serious. I just enjoyed it a lot more for whatever reason. I want to realize the window may be closing for me and I want to keep it open as long as I can. I want to give all I’ve got, but at the same time enjoy it.
“I think as a group we feel good about our team and when you enjoy playing with your teammates, respect your teammates and realize the effort they put forward, you look forward to the year and realize it’s going to be a fun year,” said Hinrich. “So we’re just going to go out and approach it like that, do our best and see what happens.”
One more dress rehearsal before the curtain goes up on basketball’s greatest show for 2014-15. It will go by faster than you think, and it would be intriguing to see if the Bulls can race ahead of the opposition. In the standings and in their style of play.