Chicago Bulls look to buck current league trends with old-school approach

Dwyane Wade labels Bulls as not a 'new traditional' team with Taj Gibson providing example with bruising play in opener

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – When you reach down into the time capsule to pull out the sort of performance Dwyane Wade had in his debut with his hometown Chicago Bulls, it’s not much of a stretch to start tripping down memory lane.

“Last night we was all talkin’, just how the game is changing,” Wade said after scoring 22 points with six rebounds, five assists and a plus-15 in Chicago’s 105-99 victory over the Boston Celtics. “When I first came in, it was all about [point guards] and [centers]. If you had a one and a five, you were solid. Then it changed with T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] and LeBron [James], the wing guys. If you had a great wing, you were all right.

“Now it’s all about the fours. You want to get a great four man [who is] a stretch shooter.”

Unless, that is, you’re the Bulls, who are about as untrendy and defiantly old school in composition and style as exists in the NBA. Now that Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol has taken his game out of the paint and teammate Zach Randolph is coming off the bench, with the New York Knicks throwing overboard more pieces of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense each day, Chicago arguably ranks as the league’s biggest throwback team.

The Bulls are ripping and burning long after everyone else has moved onto downloading.

“But the game is still the same from putting the ball in the basket more than the other team,” Wade said. “Getting more stops, that hasn’t changed. Everyone can’t put together a team like Golden State has – it’s impossible. Like Cleveland has. Where people go wrong, everyone tries to play that game.

“If you don’t have the personnel to play that game, then why try to play that game? We’re going to play to our personnel. Guys are going to make shots. That’s what it’s all about, you’ve got to make shots.”

No one in the Bulls’ starting lineup is an accomplished 3-point shooter – not Wade, not Rajon Rondo, not Jimmy Butler, certainly not Taj Gibson or Robin Lopez. With the first three assured by both reputation and talent of starting and with Lopez the best available replacement for Joakim Noah, Gibson was the one whose role figured to hinge more on the team’s needs than on his specific play.

Yet when the preseason schedule ended, coach Fred Hoiberg had to acknowledge the obvious: Gibson had outplayed Nikola Mirotic, who is one of those trendy stretch-power forward with legit 3-point range.

So Gibson started against the Celtics at United Center Thursday and will stay in that spot, good health and happy results willing. So what if the Bulls need to tint their uniforms in sepia tones and broadcast in black & white? They beat Boston with aggressiveness on the boards – a 55-33 edge, including 18-3 in offensive rebounds – that drove their 18-5 advantage in second-chance points. And of course they hit 11 of their 25 3-point attempts.

[Insert the sound of a turntable needle scratching vinyl.]

That’s how jarring it was to see Chicago’s success from distance. Their 44 percent accuracy from the arc made their 37.3 percent rate on two-pointers look puny. And the way it broke individually was as upside-down as it was inside-out.

The guys who are expected to make threes for the Bulls (Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Isaiah Canaan) were a combined 1-for-10. The guys who historically don’t make them did. Butler and Wade each were 4-of-6. Rondo was 1-of-2. Even recently acquired backup Michael Carter-Williams, another non-shooter, hit his only 3-point attempt.

Meanwhile, Gibson was staying old-school, attacking Boston inside and looking for his shot in ways he rarely did in his first seven seasons. Long a valuable reserve who stats rose or fell along with his minutes, Gibson scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 28 minutes, especially hitting key shots early and late.

So while some of his teammates went trendy for a night, Gibson kept on grinding. He didn’t get in the way of Mirotic, who had 15 points, nine rebounds and more than a few teachable moments in 29 minutes off the bench, but he made it clear the starting job was his. No stretching necessary.

“Now my role is kind of changed,” said Gibson, whose name probably will get bandied about – from the outside, anyway – right up to the February trade deadline. “I still do the same things. But now when I have open looks, he wants me to take shots. Then I have D-Wade and Rondo and Jimmy who are pushing me to take those shots.

“I take my normal looks. You look at how I played in the preseason, I had the same kind of rhythm. My post-up game. My 15-footer, I’ve been working on a lot in the summer. … I know I have to take those shots to relax the defense on Jimmy and the rest of the guys.”

Gibson, 31, also drew Al Horford as his man to cover. The former Atlanta Hawks big man was one of the offseason’s splashiest signings when he joined Boston. But he labored against Gibson, settling for 11 points, seven boards and five assists in a foul-plagued outing.

“Taj did [the] most to hurt us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Not just on the glass but his screens and drives.”

He’s not Draymond Green, he’s not Chris Bosh, he’s not Ryan Anderson. But Gibson is what he is.

“First of all he’s tough, he’s hard-nosed,” Wade said. “You have a guy out there who loves physical contact. And he’s versatile. He may not be popping to the three, but what he shoots – his area, 17-, 18-feet – that’s what he’s good at. And he’s good at rolling to the basket, finishing. He’s a guy we can post up.”

How quaint, eh? Rolling to the basket. Posting up. Sounds like stuff out of the last millennium.

“This is not the ‘new traditional’ team,” Wade said. “This is not the new-age group that we’ve put together. We’ve got to be good at what we’re good at. You can’t play another team’s game if that’s not the roster that you have. We have to play to our strengths. Taj in the lineup is good for this team, and it’s a part of our strength.”

Except on rare, quick-somebody-bottle-it nights such as Thursday, the Bulls aren’t likely to be the darlings of the analytics crowd who’ve embraced the mathematics of scoring by three.

“We won’t be that,” said Wade, whose fourth 3-pointer with 26.3 seconds left broke Boston’s back. This from a guy who made just seven in 44 tries across 74 appearances in 2015-16, before a little 12-of-23 run in 14 playoff games.

“But we want to be the darlings of the win column. Analytics does nothing for us. I don’t get paid off analytics, so aw, sorry, I don’t really care about it.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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