The Backcourt Connection

Usually it’s not clear when there is a major turning point, whether in a life, history, or a season for a sports team. The Union didn’t know it was the 1863 battle of Chattanooga that led to Sherman being able to cleave the Deep South. Washington didn’t know it actually was his retreat in the Battle of Brooklyn, the miraculous night crossing of the East River that saved his army to fight on and wear down the British.

And maybe for the Bulls it was with 5:18 left in the third quarter of Thursday’s 114-91 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s when Pau Gasol fired an outlet pass to Derrick Rose at half court. Rose darted into the frontcourt and seeing Jimmy Butler streaking down the left wing lobbed up a pass that Butler dunked.

The 78-58 lead wasn’t perhaps as significant as the swiftness in the score and the affinity in their play.

“You can tell the way they’re talking to each other, communicating while on the bench together,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said about the Rose/Butler combination. “They’re talking to each other. They had a couple of lobs in transition. I thought they screened well for each other well and played off each other beautifully. When those two are out there playing with that type of attack mentality, we’re a pretty good team.”

That’s the team the Bulls hope to be again Sunday as they play the Los Angeles Clippers, and more so for the remainder of this long road trip and the season. Because with Rose and Butler performing at a high level and in concert, it’s the Bulls who can be making some beautiful and harmonious music on the basketball court and in the Eastern Conference.

“We were talking about that, laughing about it before the game, saying how the more games we get under our belt the more comfortable each other is going to be,” Butler said after the game about he and Rose. “It’s crazy because I love playing with him; he’s super aggressive and taking some great shots. That’s what we need. As long as I follow his lead on that style of play we are going to be really good.”

One of the sub plots of this Bulls season of quiet drama has been this supposed rivalry between Butler and Rose, about whose team it is and was, who is the leader, who is ‘the Man.’

We know these sorts of media inspired dramas have broken up teams, like the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe. So it was a simple talking point to latch onto with Butler’s big contract signing and All-Star status while Rose worked to return to previous form from three knee surgeries.

The truth is neither one is the team leader type because of their personalities. Rose is quiet, more the follow by his actions type. Butler is louder, but moody and often remote, less likely to socialize with teammates than Rose. Both are well liked by teammates, though hardly a source of oral inspiration. But both are respected for their work ethic and commitments to excellence.

The notion became, inspired and sometimes fabricated by media speculation, that they cannot work together given the rivalry for No. 1. Which, of course, misses the point of how success mostly works. The Toronto Raptors have moved up to the primary challenging spot in the Eastern Conference behind DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Whose team is it? No one seems to care.

But Canadians don’t do war like we do, after all.

Sure there are pecking orders with high scoring teammates, like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But in many respects, Rose is playing now like the player he was supposed to be coming out of college, averaging 15.3 points and running the team. It’s just been until the emergence of Butler as a scorer, Rose wasn’t playing with anyone else who could average 20 points. Is he jealous and resentful? It hardly seems so given his constant refrain that Butler doesn’t shoot enough.

“This is new for me as it’s new for him, playing with an elite guard,” said Rose after Thursday’s win. “We’re young. The way he’s been playing has been great. I want him to shoot more. But I love his shot selection, the way he’s driving into the lane, getting fouls; it helps our team all the way around.”

Rose is averaging 15.3 points and 4.5 assists for the season while Butler, being named to his second consecutive All-Star team Thursday by the vote of the coaches, is averaging 22.4 points and 4.3 assists. Neither shoots the three pointer that well, but with both averaging more than four assists it suggests the opportunity for better ball movement and brisker play. It’s been a goal of the team all season.

And you can also see it coming.

Rose is averaging 17.4 points per game in January along with 46 percent shooting. Butler is averaging 25 points and 5.8 assists.

Curry and Thompson lead in the month at about 51 points per game with DeRozan and Lowry at about 45. Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum also combine for about 45 per game, though there are essentially no other serious scorers on that team. Butler and Rose are barely behind in January at almost 43 points per game combined, making them one of the elite offensive backcourts in the NBA, and with Butler one of the better two-way backcourts.

With Rose and Butler pushing the ball like in the Lakers game, with both passing and attacking the basket and scoring, it gives the Bulls options that few teams have.

“Lot of assists (against the Lakers) like (29), that’s huge,” said Rose. “It’s all about effort and conditioning, playing this uptempo type pace. That’s when we are most dangerous, in the open court. I didn’t see this (Butler’s playmaking) early in his career, but I’m starting to see it and I love it because whenever he brings the ball up it’s a swing, swing and I’m catching the ball with a live dribble and that’s kind of hard for some teams to stay with, two players on both sides of the floor. One of us is going to get good looks at the rim or open up something for the offense. And me and Jimmy do a good job of crashing in and getting boards (combining for more than nine per game, high among top backcourts).”

And then added to that is the canny half court play of Pau Gasol, averaging 17.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists in January and 56 percent on threes.

“Jimmy’s pretty consistent,” said Gasol. “When Derrick is effective (and) I’m effective, then it frees things up for the rest of the guys, gives them easier shots and when three of us have good games like we did (Thursday) then it’s a pretty good chance we’ll win the game.”

And maybe they’ll look back to January in Los Angeles when Pau, Derrick and Jimmy connected, the Lakers sagged, the Bulls pulled away and a connection was made.