Silva: What the Bulls showed in California

CHICAGO — I tried to not get caught up in all the hype surrounding the first week of the NBA season because, well, it’s the first week of a 66-game season. No matter how frantic the pace – four games in six nights for the Bulls – there’s still plenty of basketball to be played, and much more to be revealed.

The first four games for Chicago, and the rest of the league for that matter, were more like an exercise in shaking off the rust than a definitive barometer for what’s to come. Consider that the Bulls have had just over a week’s worth of practice with new starter Rip Hamilton and still managed to go 3-1 on their season opening road trip through California.

Think about it: They had a better week at the Staples Center than the Clippers!

I’d say the Bulls are right where they’re supposed to be at this early juncture in the season (though my sources tell me Sheridan is dropping them from No. 1 in the power rankings running later today). As forward Carlos Boozer told Bulls.com during the week, “We’re trying to get our swag back.”

Ask head coach Tom Thibodeau where he’d like to see improvements and he’ll surely tell you across the board. Of course, there were many things he liked in his team’s three wins – the defensive stops and transition game in Sacramento, the late-game execution the next night against the Clippers – but I find what’s most telling about a team is how it responds following losses and when faced with adversity.

It’s too early in the season for the Bulls to find themselves in adverse situations, but immediately following Monday’s loss at Golden State Thibodeau ripped into his team, calling them out for their deficient defense and sloppy play on the offensive end.

The Bulls players had a meeting of the minds to discuss what went wrong and have responded with consecutive wins heading into Sunday’s home opener against a gritty Memphis Grizzlies team. But it’s this one quote from Thibodeau after that Warriors’ loss that still sticks with me:

“You have to know who you are,” Thibodeau said. “Defend, rebound, inside-out, share the ball, no turnovers.”

Of course, what team wouldn’t like to have that team identity? But it’s completely realistic for the Bulls because it’s what they were last season – a defense-first team that played carefully and unselfishly on the offensive end. It’s what I’ve come to enjoy the most from watching this team.

Give me fundamentals, substance and team basketball any night of the week.

I can do without the flash, the sexy or the Lob City.

Yeah, it can be fun to watch, but does it really win championships? After the Bulls handled the Clippers on Friday night, it seemed like former Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro felt the same way.

“All the highlights, all the lobs and things people talk about, they’re great if they’re the right basketball play,” Del Negro said. “It’s about the fundamentals of the game at this level. It’s great to get the dunks and the lobs. Luckily we have a guy who can throw them and a couple of guys who can go and get them, but the fundamentals defensively, boxing out, setting screens, knowing the time and score, being able to execute out of timeouts and all the things teams need to go through, those are what we have to be able to do on a consistent basis.”

They’re all things the Bulls did on a consistent basis last season, and I have no reason to believe that, over time, they’ll be unable to do again consistently this season. Regaining that defensive identity is going to take some time although the last two games were steps forward. So for what it’s worth, here are three things that stuck out to me from the Bulls’ 3-1 start. Now, picking just three things was difficult, because there’s no denying how consistent Luol Deng has been, or how well Joakim Noah has played, or how good Carlos Boozer looked against Sacramento. But these three things are more from a big picture approach:

  1. Derrick Rose is returning to MVP form. And if he keeps turning in performances like Friday night, he’ll be in the debate with Kevin Durant and LeBron James with a chance for a second straight MVP trophy. Rose overwhelmed the Clippers, outplayed and overshadowed Chris Paul’s Clippers home debut with a 29-point, 16-assist and eight-rebound performance. The previous night, Rose stayed true to his word by being in attack mode from the opening tip in a win over the Kings. What gets me is how poised Rose is on the court no matter the situation. You never see him barking in exultation or pounding his chest after a clutch play. That’s just not his style, and I would imagine that his teammates respect that. Now with a veteran backcourt mate in Hamilton, Rose is still learning when to be an aggressor and when to be a facilitator. But I think this is common for fourth-year point guards. Take Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. The Thunder’s fourth-year lead guard is going through the same thing, albeit he’s also less mature than Rose. Rose is a leader.
  2. The Bulls can beat you in a number of ways. That might be my Captain Obvious statement of this column, but judging by just last season’s numbers the Bulls were not known for their transition game, averaging just 13.4 fast break points a game. They’re averaging 20.7 points in transition this season, which ranks third in the league, thanks in large part to Thursday’s 33 fast-break points against the Kings. But this is capable for two reasons: the more defensive stops and quicker outlet passes the Bulls get, the more they can run; and having a runner like Hamilton in the starting lineup gives Rose someone who can fill the lane on the break. It was nice to see C.J. Watson continue to push the pace with the second unit on Thursday, and Thibodeau has endorsed the transition game since the preseason so there’s clearly more of a concerted effort to do more running. Of course, you can’t fast break if you don’t get defensive stops, which goes back to Chicago’s defensive identity. So the transition game is an added wrinkle to the Bulls’ attack. So is, in some ways, a more motion offense. That again goes back to Hamilton, who is still one of the league’s best at moving without the ball. Last season, Chicago relied more on pick-and-rolls in half court sets. A transition game and a more fluid offense – add that to Rose’s ability to breakdown an opponent in 1-on-1 situations, something you can partially credit to Hamilton’s constant in-motion style, and the Bulls have a much more well-rounded offense this season.
  3. The Bulls have the most depth in the Eastern Conference. The Bench Mob is a proven bunch that only got better with Ronnie Brewer now coming off the bench, and for what it’s worth Brewer has been perfect from the field (7-for-7) over the last two games. The Bench Mob came through in Thursday’s win over Sacramento, as it continued to get stops and push the pace that the starters had set. On Friday, the unit turned a tied game into a six-point lead heading into the fourth quarter against the Clippers. The Bulls’ bench is a prideful bunch and their familiarity from last season bodes well. Now compare their bench to that of the Heat. Miami’s two best bench players, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem, would start for most teams. But James Jones is nothing more than a shooter, Juwan Howard is nothing more than a big body who gets spot minutes and guard Norris Cole has quickly shown he can contribute but is still a rookie. The Bulls’ reserves have the advantage there.

Chris Silva, former Pistons beat writer for the Detroit Free Press and Kevin Durant’s de facto biographer for thunder.nba.com, covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @silvawriter or email him at christopherbsilva@gmail.com.

 

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