After four straight road victories over winning teams, the Bulls have reached .500 (21-21) for the first time since they were 6-6 back on November 21. And mind you, this was after starting their seven-game Western Conference road trip with losses against the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.
Said Derrick Rose: “I don’t think anybody in the league or anywhere else would have thought that we would be sitting here 4-0 after that.”
I sure didn’t. In fact, especially after their defeat in L.A., I was almost certain the Bulls were going to go 0-7 on this trip. I’ll admit. I left them for dead. But here they are, one of the hottest teams in the league. Suddenly. Out of nowhere. Or so it seems.
Said Joakim Noah: “It all starts with Derrick Rose. He’s just playing huge for us, making the right decisions, staying aggressive offensively. When your point guard is playing like that, it usually leads to good things.”
With all due respect to Rose, and to Noah’s assessment, that statement is only half-right. The Bulls’ success actually starts with their defense…which currently ranks 7th in the league in terms of Defensive Efficiency. With the exception of the Phoenix Suns, most good teams are built around a foundation of solid (if not spectacular) defense. Chicago’s offense was destined to struggle at the start of this season, what with the loss of leading scorer Ben Gordon and injuries to Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas. But by building a solid defensive unit, Vinny Del Negro set the Bulls up for success once the offense came around.
That’s where Noah’s comments about Rose come in. The coaches might not have voted him onto the All-Star team — we’ll find out tonight — but Rose has blossomed into a superstar right before our eyes. He has gotten better every single month this season, and Rose has averaged 26.3 points while shooting just under 60 percent from the field in these four road wins. He was unstoppable once again last night, finishing with a team-high 26 points on 13-for-23 shooting to go along with a co-game-high 7 assists.
Rose delivered the knockout punch by scoring 10 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls — whose defense held a pretty good Thunder team to 37 percent shooting on its home turf — pulled away for a double-digit win that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicates. And check out these sick fouth-quarter moves (Hat Tip to Docksquad Sports):
And did I mention Oklahoma City ranks 5th in Defensive Efficiency? Tell me Rose isn’t an All-Star. No, really. Just try it. But be warned: you’re going to look as silly as Thabo Sefolosha did when Derrick crossed him over.
Remember: The Bulls started the season 10-17. Since then, they’ve won 12 of the last 17 games, including six of the last eight. And this four-game road winning streak seems to be the counterpoint to Chicago’s epic failures against the Nets and Kings, the latter of which was the infamous game in which the Bulls choked up a 35-point lead at home.
Said Noah: “I remember last month, it was almost like a disaster. In just a matter of a month, I think that it’s all about confidence. Winning basketball games on the road builds confidence.”
It sure does.
Again, some credit really must be given to Del Negro for establishing solid defensive principles and making minor adjustments thoughout the season while enduring questions about his future (or lack thereof) in the Windy City. He settled on a starting lineup. The players now know and understand their roles. After using Hinrich against the likes of Steve Nash and Tony Parker during this current streak, Del Negro unleashed Captain Kirk on Russell Westbrook, which allowed Rose to concentrate on dishing to his teammates and setting the nets on fire. I don’t understand why Vinny hasn’t gotten a few more pats on the back lately. I guess it’s hard to fight perception.
While I’m handing out credit, I should give some to Luol Deng (17 points, 4 rebounds), who played excellent defense on Kevin Durant. Sure, Durant still finished with a game-high 28 points, but he was only 7-for-19, and 12 of his points came in the fourth quarter after his team had fallen behind by double-digits. At one point, Durant — the league’s third-leading scorer at 29.3 PPG — went ice code during a stretch in whcih his team missed 16 straight shots.
Credit should also go to Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas, who combined for 27 points and 9 boards off the bench. By contast, Oklahoma City’s reserves contributed only 14 points on 6-for-24 shooting. Then there was Taj Gibson with a game-high 15 rebounds, Noah with a double-double (13 points, 11 boards), and Hinrich with 8 boards, 6 assists and his defense on Westbrook (who finished with only 10 points and committed 4 turnovers). The Bulls are playing together. Everybody is contributing.
Isn’t this kind of how we expected the team to play all season?
Said Noah: “When you can’t win games because you’re not talented enough to win games, that’s one thing. But that’s what was frustrating about the whole thing was we were better than that, and we’re proving that.”
They certainly are.