The Chicago Bulls are 17-12, stuck in the mud with about eight other teams in the Eastern middle class. New coach Fred Hoiberg has been shaky at best, leading star guard Jimmy Butler to call him out publicly last week. We can debate whether or not Jimmy should’ve kept those thoughts behind closed doors, but you can feel his frustration. Looking at the Bulls roster, they should not be sixth in the East and fighting for position with the likes of Orlando, Boston and Charlotte.
Since Butler’s outburst, the Bulls have shown signs of life offensively against quality opponents. Interestingly, the offensive outbursts have come from players other than Butler, who has struggled to score at his normal rate lately. Hoiberg responded to the “need to be coached harder” comments by calling three practices Christmas week prior to the OKC game on Christmas day. Be careful what you wish for Jimmy. The Bulls came out firing against the Thunder, winning on the road against one of the top teams in the league. A season ago Chicago was one of only three teams to beat every other team in the league, and they’re on a similar track this year with wins over San Antonio, Cleveland and two over OKC. However, they then tend to lose games to inferior opponents like the Knicks, Nets, even the Sixers last year.
The Bulls followed up the big win in Oklahoma with a tough loss on the road against the Mavs, a game I happened to have good seats for. Which means I witnessed many Nikola Mirotic head fakes like this…Jealous?
Against Dallas, the Bulls’ offense was humming. Derrick Rose was slashing to the rim and finishing, while pushing the pace often. Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson couldn’t miss from mid-range and Mirotic found his three point stroke in the first half. All five starters scored in double-figures, in a high scoring game. But this time the Bulls’ defense betrayed them. You’ve got to hand it to Rick Carlisle, who always plays to his personnel’s strengths. Without Deron Williams, the Mavs relied on high pick and rolls, secondary pick and rolls and the ball moved like a hot potato until a three point shooter was open. At halftime, half of the Mavs’ made baskets came from three. The Bulls and Hoiberg played right into Carlisle’s hands here unfortunately. Gasol and Mirotic refuse to step up to stop the ball handler on the pick and roll, while Gibson flat out didn’t switch onto JJ Barea, leaving him wide open for one of his seven threes just before the half. Barea killed the Bulls from the outside and by the time Hoiberg decided to stick Butler on him, the damage had already been done. The Bulls got crushed in the last two minutes of each and every quarter. Hoiberg was playing checkers on Carlisle’s chessboard.
My dad and I were discussing the merits of putting your wing stopper (Butler) on the tiny guard with the hot hand (Barea) as early as the second quarter. The Bulls didn’t make this adjustment until late in the fourth, and it worked to perfection. Butler’s great defense on Barea helped get the Bulls a desperately needed stop down three with less than a minute left. But now it was the offense’s turn to sabotage the Bulls. For some reason, Hoiberg had Rose throwing the ball in with no timeouts left, when Rose is the one guy you can count on to get open if an inbounds play turns desperate. The play that was drawn up got sniffed out by the Mavs, as Doug McDermott ran into a defender, and with no safety valve the Bulls got whistled for a five second violation. Game over. In confounding fashion.
The rollercoaster Bulls then went home for a Monday night tilt with the Toronto Raptors, the “second best team in the East” du jour, who were getting DeMarre Carroll back from injury. After a back and forth first half, the Bulls dominated the last 20 minutes, mostly on the backs of the bench. Gasol and Rose got to sit most of the fourth quarter as Bobby Portis, Aaron Brooks, Tony Snell and Gibson put the hammer down on Toronto. The bench-heavy lineup, with Butler in the game, played lockdown defense as well. Without Mirotic and Gasol in the game, suddenly teams can’t pick and roll to the Bulls’ D to death.
On a side note, Joakim Noah’s shoulder injury is a blessing in disguise. With Noah out the rotation is less cluttered, the floor spacing has improved and most importantly, Portis has gotten a chance to play. Outside of the Dallas game where he looked a bit hesitant and the refs did the rookie no favors, Portis has been a revelation. He hustles, mixes it up for rebounds in traffic and has shown outside range. His continued development may lead to a “big man for a wing” trade sooner than later, and gives the Bulls offense a dimension it’s sorely lacked. The foundations of a real contender are starting to take shape here, as Chicago’s talent is showing signs of jelling. If the supporting cast plays to its potential, with Rose improving and Gasol and Butler providing consistent offense, this team should claw out of the East muck and challenge Cleveland.
A lack of consistent effort and shooting, mixed with more curious coaching is what can hold them back. For now, they’re a confounding 17-12. To be continued.