Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg after Saturday’s 108-100 victory over the Houston Rockets was considering the team’s effective play in a near end to end victory. Jimmy Butler made a magnificent return with 24 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, Pau Gasol continued his savvy efficiency with 28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists and Derrick Rose darted and dashed for 17 points and nine assists.
The Bulls recorded a superb 28 assists on 36 field goals, and Hoiberg agreed it was consolation to see despite the Bulls sweating out an 18-point fourth quarter lead with five minutes left reduced to four with those, gulp, 26 turnovers.
“Got a little stagnant there in the fourth,” Hoiberg agreed. “Tried to protect that lead and their pressure bothered us, but yeah, for the most part I did like how we were sharing the ball.”
Hoiberg paused, a slight smile edging from the corners of his lips. Not something, by the way, we’ve seen all that much lately.
“Sharing the ball with our team,” he quipped, “not the other team.”
Yes, happy days are here again for the Bulls, at least for one night.
We’re No. 8!
Yes, that’s your Chicago Bulls, 31-30 and moving into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
OK, it’s not what this season was supposed to be about, but neither was it supposed to be until March 5 and Game No. 61 before the presumed starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol played its first game together.
“Yeah, I noticed,” Dunleavy said with a laugh. “Brought back some memories.”
Memories of having visions of challenging in the Eastern Conference.
Those are gone for now as the goal is merely to make the playoffs, still hardly assured with the Bulls on the losing side of the tiebreakers with most of the teams they are competing with at the rear of the Eastern Conference playoff race, Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit and Miami.
“We understand the stakes,” said Gibson. “We understand where we want to be at; we want to make the playoffs, we’re fighting for home court advantage. It’s going to take all of us to put more into it, everyone do their job. Tonight was one win, but an important win because everyone in the East is junked up now from almost three to 12. Every game is important right now.”
In a perverse way, it’s a bonus season for fans even if they may not see it that way.
Suddenly, because of their inconsistent play earlier in the season and then the injuries that sent Joakim Noah out for the season, Butler out for 11 games, Nikola Mirotic out for 16 and Dunleavy returning after missing 49 games and Rose in and out at times, the Bulls were missing a potpourri of their best defenders and shooters. It left them in a stew.
And so Saturday with Butler back and Mirotic a surprise to join him after his appendix surgery complications, the Bulls played one of their best games in weeks. They led 29-23 after one quarter, a rare quick start with Rose’s speed out of the backcourt and brilliant passing, Gasol’s shooting and a welcome back lob to Butler for a smashing one-handed dunk. Suddenly, the ball was also changing hands several times on the same possession, which eventually would lead to a pair of threes each from Mirotic and Dunleavy.
“I liked the way we came out of the gate,” said Hoiberg. “I thought we had a good defensive mindset; we jumped out and got a nice lead, maybe nine or 10 in the first quarter. That’s very important when you can come out and throw the first punch and get out to a lead as opposed to digging out of a hole, which we’ve done the last couple of games and have not had enough to get over the hump. (Mirotic) was great. Hit a couple of huge shots for us in that corner. Really helped us with the floor spacing. He gives you that floor spacing four who makes it hard to help out.”
Though Mirotic was a starter early in the season, Hoiberg came to see the need for Gibson’s defense with the starters and Mirotic will settle into a role off the bench in his return. Gibson, though quiet offensively, did a nice job fighting off Dwight Howard, who had just eight points and 12 rebounds. Gibson was so exhausted afterward he could barely sit up. Though it’s the kind of effort they know it’s going to take now with the currency of the early season lead lost with the injuries and neglectful play.
“We have 21 games to play, a quarter of the season,” noted Gasol. “It’s a lot of games to play, but now our margin of error is gone. We’ve just got to play with a little more consistency that we did tonight with the same type of energy and competitiveness and go after every single win.”
The presence of the Bulls Big Three is vital, and though Rose said he was good to go Monday against Milwaukee, he took a terrible fall in the first quarter drawing a charge on James Harden. It was on his tail bone, and through Rose played just under 30 minutes and returned late after Butler fouled out, Rose stayed away from the ball down the stretch as Houston closed. The way he and Butler played, it’s clear the team cannot survive one being out.
“Huge (difference Butler makes),” said Rose “Whenever he got the ball you have to stick both of us. It’s hard to pay attention to both of us when we are on the court. And we get to catch the ball with a live dribble, which helps the team.”
As well as Butler’s defense, and though Harden scored 36 points to lead the Rockets, Butler made him work for it and got him ignoring his teammates in 10 of 26 shooting. When Butler got into foul trouble, Harden took over and brought the Rockets back from a 14-point third quarter deficit. Initially, Hoiberg tried Justin Holiday on Harden. He had no impact, though E’Twaun Moore was then able to slow Harden some.
“Obviously, you see the impact Jimmy has because of his ability to make life difficult for the elite wing players in this league,” said Hoiberg. “When he got in foul trouble, you saw James Harden go off a little bit. We had to change our pick and roll coverage. He gives you that great physical presence out there and stays in front of guys and bodies up. Offensively, he’s a guy who can flat out get you a basket and get you to the free throw line and get you some points.”
Butler did all of that with 11 of 12 free throws and Gasol making 10 of 14. Gasol also continued at 35 to prove ageless as he became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1973 to have multiple 25-15-5 games after age 35. Also the first player in the league this season with those totals in more than one game,
“Jimmy makes a huge impact on both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive end,” noted Gasol. “His physicality and his activity and energy make a big difference because it kind of picks everybody up as well and sets the tone for the rest of the guys. We need everyone to make a push.”
And it looks like Hoiberg understands as well as he seems to be trimming his rotation for the stretch run. Tony Snell and Aaron Brooks didn’t play and Bobby Portis played four minutes. Hoiberg basically stuck with eight players with Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Moore the bulk of the bench. Assuming there are no more injuries, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hoiberg manage the last quarter of the season that way. The Bulls had lost four straight and nine of 13.
And why not with Butler and Mirotic just coming off long rests, Dunleavy only in his 12th game and no one really being extended all season. It’s time.
The Bulls showed that Saturday for a national ABC audience with an urgency from the start that has been missing.
Again, no excuses and the players don’t like to make any, either, as it also reflects on the players who were in the games.
“No excuses for the guys we had previous to this game,” said Rose. “They came in and everybody still has to do their job. Tonight was a good win, got into the open court. But it all started with defense; when we stop people we’re very dangerous. With the shooters we have and the way me and Jimmy put the pressure on the defense. We’re taking it one game at a time now; we play Monday and we’re going to try to get another win. Can’t look ahead or look back.”
It sort of makes it 21 extra playoff games, or just 21 if they don’t get to that top eight as any loss now can set the Bulls back out of the top eight with Detroit just a half game back.
The Bulls came out pushing the ball, passing it around so much that they even made too many passes at times, McDermott or Dunleavy swinging the ball to Rose for the three instead of taking it. Though Rose was two of four on threes as the Bulls were nine of 21. Houston with their goofy shooting game was nine of 35 and Harden four of 12 on threes.
Rose was blowing out of the backcourt to start and making some remarkable interior passes and Dunleavy was getting the outlet and helping put that thrust into the offense as well.
Though perhaps caught up in the exhilaration and the Rockets actively swiping at the ball, Butler had five turnovers, Rose six and Gasol eight. But it’s such a luxury to have a big man like Gasol who can make free throws. With his size and the Rockets scrambling late, the Bulls just threw the ball up to Gasol, who was fouled and converted all his free throws down the stretch to avoid what would have been a devastating collapse.
“Their hand pressure bothered us; way too many deflections,” noted Hoiberg. “That kept them in the game. On the other end, I thought we did a good job with our hands. We forced them into 19 turnovers, which is a lot for us and led to 24 fast break points and we needed every one of them.”
The Rockets pulled ahead 39-36 in the second quarter against the bench as Butler took a scary shot to the face when he returned colliding with Harden. But the Bulls recovered, got Houston shooting jump shots and moved ahead 55-43 at halftime. Though that 100 points statistic keeps being thrown in their face—and the Bulls did allow it for the 16th straight game—it was because they coasted in Saturday and mostly played winning defense with the shorter rotation.
No offense, but you don’t replace Butler, Mirotic, Gibson and Dunleavy with Snell, Brooks, Cameron Bairstow, Cristiano Felicio and Holiday and have the same results. It’s not just the uniforms.
“That’s what my teammates need me to do. Got to get back to guarding,” said Butler. “But definitely being aggressive and attacking the basket and I got a few calls. We’ve talked about it all year long; we’re going to be really good whenever we guard.
“I don’t ever think we are going to lose,” said Butler “As long as we’re confident in each other we’ll be fine. It helped me a lot having Mike to space the floor and Doug as confident as he is now I think it helps everybody. Offense is always there, but we need the defense and rebounding (53-40 edge Saturday). We won. That’s all I’m worried about. Made a three and that doesn’t happen very often, so I’m happy about that.”
Rose got a rare double technical foul bantering with Patrick Beverley in the second quarter. Beverley stripped Rose for a score and then Butler repaid the debt. It was in fun as the two are old friends and remain close.
“Not like we were cursing or yelling at each other,” said Rose. “Pat, he lived in my house a little in the summer. I’ve been playing against him ever since he was at Marshall; that rivalry goes back to high school. It’s fun when we are out there and I guess the refs didn’t know that. Just talking, it’s basketball. The league is not used to that anymore, I guess.”
So the Bulls hope the league gets used to a contending Bulls team.
The Bulls led 83-75 after three when Harden got going late with Butler out. Though Harden had five fouls before the end of the third quarter, as well, and the Bulls surprisingly never attacked him to try and draw a sixth. But it wasn’t necessary in the end.
Mirotic made his second corner three early in the fourth quarter for a 92-75 lead and happily ran back to the bench pumping his fist. Butler and Moore added threes to put the Bulls out 100-82 and they had enough to withstand the Rockets dropping late threes on them.
“Every game for us is a playoff game (now),” said Rose. “If we want to make the playoffs, and guys do, we just have to come out and keep giving this effort.”