Long after the Bulls blew a 20-point lead Monday and lost 123-115 to the New Orleans Pelicans, long after Bobby Portis had come in for a foul plagued Nikola Mirotic and provoked a turnaround with 11 first quarter points, long after Portis led the Bulls in the game with 20 points and 11 rebounds while playing a team high 31 minutes, Portis was keeping media waiting near his locker as he lifted weights.
Though the weight may soon be on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
After all, how ya gonna keep ‘em on the bench after you’ve seen what he can do?
“Bobby was awesome, especially that first half,” agreed Hoiberg of the Bulls sprinting to a 65-45 lead late in the second quarter and 66-54 at halftime. “Came off the bench, gave us such a great lift. Hitting shots, banging around, getting offensive rebounds. I thought he battled defensively. Had a tough matchup out there at times with Anthony Davis (26 points in 27 minutes). But great learning experience for him. Really happy with Bobby and the overall energy he’s given us every time he steps on the floor.
“(We) still haven’t had one of our key guys in Taj (Gibson),” noted Hoiberg. “Hopefully he will play a little bit next game (Wednesday against Detroit). Jo (Noah resting after a knee bruise last week) has missed a few games; we’ll see how it plays out. We have four games to get it (rotation) figured. With games and practices we’ll get the rotation figured out. But it may be an evolving thing and may not be the final rotation at the beginning of the season. Everyone has to be ready to play; everybody is going to have to be ready to sacrifice for us to get where we want to be.”
It’s considered a pleasant problem to have: Too many players who deserve playing time.
But it’s also a challenge for a freshman NBA coach and veteran players to adapt to the greater needs. The Bulls are strong on the front line with Pau Gasol, generally starting now alongside Mirotic, Noah and Gibson. Portis doesn’t look like the sort of spare tire one leaves in reserve just for emergencies.
Portis is averaging 12.5 points and 12.3 rebounds in the 2-2 preseason, the only Bulls player averaging a double/double. The rookie is leading the team in blocks and rebounds with three blocks Monday and had 19 offensive rebounds in four games. Noah is next with eight in two games.
“I’ve always learned if you are not going to get the ball, get it off the offensive glass,” said Portis, who had several putback scores Monday. “My mom (Tina) always told me to be a garbage man; she told me as a kid to go get the ball off the offensive glass and put it back in. That’s a way to touch the ball, rebounding. That’s a knack I learned from my mom. She played (community college basketball); she was, I guess, a hell of a rebounder.”
And Portis is looking like he’s going to be a hell of a rookie.
Rookies in recent years were basically not counted or counted upon to play for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler got 40 DNPs as a rookie. Hoiberg said he’ll play who deserves to play no matter the reputation or status, and Portis already is building a strong case with his relentless rebounding and a nice shooting touch.
The 6-11 Portis made a pair of threes Monday and is 3-7 on threes. He’s only shooting 39 percent overall, but at 11 of 13 at the free throw line has shown he has a reliable shooting stroke to go with depth to his shot, if also his game.
“If the game says shoot, shoot; if the game says drive, drive; if the game says go help, then go help,” Portis said in explaining his view of basketball. “It’s basically playing with instincts. What I’ve always had since I was a kid was, one thing I developed was the jump shot. My first couple of games in the NBA I haven’t made it. I kind of worked hard the last couple of days and it was falling and hopefully I can keep it up; the NBA is more about consistency.”
The Bulls haven’t had that consistency in an up and down, in and out (with shooting) preseason. Of course, it’s halting with Gibson, Derrick Rose and Mike Dunleavy out and Pau Gasol and Noah having played in two of the four games. Gibson and Noah could play Wednesday, Hoiberg said. Dunleavy, of course, is out at least another month after back surgery. Rose returned to be with the team Monday, though his vision remains blurry from the orbital surgery. He said he’ll be fitted for a mask and may begin practicing with the team later this week.
So it’s hardly the team the Bulls expect to mostly see once the regular season commences.
Still, it’s shown in the new style of play the complications of moving from a deliberate, defensive-oriented, walk-it-up game under former coach Tom Thibodeau to Hoiberg’s passing, reacting and shooting philosophy.
It looks very good when the shots go in, like they did in the first half Monday. But when the Bulls were three of 14 on threes in the second half, the Pelicans shooting nine of 16 on threes caught and passed the Bulls, turning a 19-point third quarter deficit into a one point lead entering the fourth quarter and stretching that out to 11 midway through the fourth quarter.
“I thought we stopped doing what got us our lead,” said Hoiberg. “We were getting out, running, getting open shots. Then our pace went bad and we obviously didn’t stop anybody in that second half. We seemed to quit playing. You’ve got to develop a killer mentality, get that lead up to 20, push it up to 30. You’ve got to somehow take a stand, stay in front of your man. You can say all you want about the offense, but defensively we couldn’t guard them, couldn’t stay in front, put them on the free throw line 37 times.”
It’s certainly too soon to make judgments with so many regulars still not playing. But playing this way with speed and shooting, while more aesthetically pleasing, requires discipline to work to defend. A team without that can end up in a lot of wild shootouts that turn into losses when the will to defend wanes.
“I think we rely too much on our offense rather than our defense,” said Butler, who struggled through another poor shooting game with two of 13. ‘That can’t happen. Everyone is learning, obviously. It’s all very new to us. I think when we’re scoring the ball well like we did in the first half, we think we are going to continue to make shots. Then we don’t have to guard. We take our foot off that pedal; then we are not making shots and still not guarding. They’re making shots and before you know it they got the lead.”
Butler has mostly tried to facilitate in the preseason and is 12 of 40 shooting. He said it’s just a blip and he’s unconcerned, that his work will overcome his current misfortune shooting. Also counseling not to worry was Tony Snell, who had his best game of the preseason with 15 points on seven of 11 shooting with strong finishes at the basket and hustling defense that included a one-on-one block while back peddling. Snell sprained an ankle late in the game and was walking with one crutch after the game. But he said the sprain was minor and he’d return “in no time, sooner than expected.”
Doug McDermott, leading the team in preseason scoring, had 17 points and eight rebounds. He shot three of nine on threes, missing four of five in the second half. But then he was playing primarily with Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore, both of whom tended to find McDermott too late after he’d been open and then was facing contested shots. Playing with a more conditioned point guard, McDermott should get better shots while his confidence in his shot continued to look good.
Mirotic was chased out of the game early on fouls trying to contain the electric Davis as New Orleans had an early 18-12 lead. But no one really has figured out how to control Davis.
Gasol was good again with 14 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, though he did counsel that the Bulls cannot become too enamored with their three-point shooting after firing up another 32.
“We are also going to have to know when to slow down a little and get more shots in the paint,” said Gasol. “Now it’s just about getting a feel; it’s very early to see how or reflect how we are going to play the rest of the year. You can’t rely on your outside shooting all the time; it’s inconsistent, lower percentage shots, especially when you have the ability to score down low and create not just for yourself but for others.”
Moore and Brooks were effective offensively while Cameron Bairstow hustled a bit too much this time, twice fouling three-point shooters. And then there was Portis doing his best to help lift the Bulls.
“Just be Bobby Portis,” said Portis. “Rebounded the ball, bring some positive energy off the bench, show the coach I can be a versatile player who can play different positions and be who I am, which is a dog on the court.”
(My translation: I believe that is a positive dog)
“Protect the rim,” Portis said about goals. “I can block more shots. Scoring on the inside, backing players down. But here, lately, people have just been flopping. This is kind of different in the NBA, flopping to get a charge. It’s something I have to adjust to. I banged one time, got a charge; kind of crazy.”
He’s learning fast and clearly is not going to be a flop.