There haven’t been many feel-good moments lately for the Bulls or their fans.
With the way the team has been playing lately, it’s hard to remember (and even a little difficult to believe) that the Bulls finished the month of January with a 28-17 record and a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Then came a dismal February during which they went 5-8. They were bullied by the Pacers (111-101), Nuggets (128-96), Spurs (103-89), Heat (86-67) and Thunder (102-72). They even lost at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers…who were without Kyrie Irving.
Until this weekend, March hadn’t been much kinder to the Bulls. A promising home win over the Nets (96-85) was followed by a disappointing road loss to the Pacers (97-92). Marco Belinelli’s three helped pull out an 89-88 home win over the Jazz, but Chicago followed that up by getting overpowered by the Lakers (90-81) and absolutely slaughtered by the Kings (121-79). The Bulls saved a little face with a road win over the Warriors (113-95) before coming home for that demoralizing overtime loss to the Nuggets (119-118) and the depressing defeat by the Trail Blazers (99-89).
When I found out Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) was going to miss Chicago’s home game against the Pacers on Saturday night, I was expecting the worse.
Then the Bulls surprised me. They made Indy’s offense look bad (38 percent shooting and an Offensive Rating of 98.4), won the rebounding battle (46-43 with a 26% to 21% edge in Offensive Rebounding Percentage), and pulled out the kind of gut-check game this squad had become known for during the last two and a half seasons.
Although Luol Deng (20 points, 7-for-14, 7 rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (18 points, 8-for-15, 10 rebounds) had big games, the Player of the Game may have been Daequan Cook, who came off the bench and contributed 9 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 17 minutes off the bench. Cook knocked down shots from 20, 22 and 23 feet, and I’ve got to tell you, it was downright strange to see a Bulls player hitting outside shots. It just hasn’t been happening much lately. Unfortunately — and this is just the way Chicago’s season has been going — Cook got injured while diving out of bounds to save a loose ball and had to be helped off the court.
Fortunately, the Bulls managed to hold on without him. If only just barely.
Said Taj Gibson: “It took heart. Guys were doing what they do best. Guys were putting forth effort on defense, we were getting stops, we got a lot of big minutes out of Daequan [Cook] and Nazr Mohammed. Guys just filling the role. Nobody complained. We just kept running the right plays. Guys were just playing basketball, but we kept running the right plays with the right people, at the right time, and it worked.”
Added Bulls coach-slash-whip-cracker Tom Thibodeau: “This is the way we have to play. We have to do it collectively. A lot of guys stepped up. I thought Luol was terrific, he set the tone. Carlos [Boozer] got going and then got in foul trouble. He played tough. Nazr Mohammed gave us a lift. Taj played great. We needed everybody.”
Having Gibson and Kirk Hinrich back for a few games definitely helped. Although losing Noah and still missing Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton still hurt.
The next night’s odds seemed rather grim too. Hamilton, Noah and Rose remained MIA, and then Marco Belinelli was scratched due to an abdominal strain (his status is, not surprisingly, day to day). The Timberwolves (22-44) aren’t exactly scaring anybody, but they had a day of rest, the game was in Minnesota, and the Bulls were playing the second night of back-to-backs after a brutal fight against a bitter division rival. The Bulls were so light on depth I half-wondered if they shouldn’t sign Brian Urlacher to a 10-day contract…considering he’s not doing much these days.
Believe it or not, the T-Wolves aren’t a terrible defensive team, ranking 14th in the league while giving up 102.9 points per 100 possessions (for the sake of comparison, Chicago ranks sixth and gives up 99.7 points per 100 possessions). Meanwhile, the Bulls pretty much stink on offense, ranking 24th by scoring 100.0 points per 100 possessions…even worse than teams like Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans.
Given the lack of warm bodies and presumably tired state of being, I didn’t see an offensive explosion coming, but that’s what happened. By Bulls standards anyway. According to Basketball-Reference, Chicago scored at a rate of 115.9 points per 100 possessions. Nate Robinson (22 points, 9-for-16, 10 assists), Jimmy Butler (20 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals), Carlos Boozer (19 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists) and Taj Gibson (12 points, 5-for-7, 11 rebounds) all had strong offensive games. That combined with a dominant rebounding effort — the Bulls had a 52-32 edge on the glass and a walloping 43% to 15.8% edge in Offensive Rebounding Percentage — was too much for Minny.
And suddenly the Bulls had their first winning weekend since December. And it was only the second time they’ve managed to string two wins together since the end of January.
So, for one wonderful throwback weekend at least, Thibodeau’s “we’ve got more than enough to win” refrain rang true.
Said Butler: “I feel like if you hear the same things every day you start to buy into it. Thibs is constantly telling us that we have enough to win on any given night so I feel like as long as we go out and we play hard and guard and play for one another we can win with however many men we’re down with.”
Added Robinson: “We all made it to the NBA for a reason. We’re all professionals so one guy goes down another guy steps up and be ready to play.”
It’s a popular idea around these parts and for most of Thibodeau’s tenure, it’s worked. After all, there have been scads of injury problems in each of his three seasons. Lately, things hadn’t been working. They did this past weekend.
Will it continue?
Chicago’s next game is against the seemingly unstoppable Miami Heat, who at the time of this writing are clobbering the Magic. Then it’s off to Dallas, back home for Detroit, then back on the road for games in Washington and Brooklyn. There are some winnable games there…but the Bulls have lost their fair share of winnable games this season.
But I’d rather see this particular glass as half full. After a rather ugly slump, the Bulls are playing like the Bulls we’ve come to know and love the past few seasons. Here’s hoping a nice little roll is coming.