It’s fascinating to see the Chicago Bulls make their way through this NBA season (with most of the journey still ahead).
Though Fred Hoiberg is dramatically different in style and outlook from his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls are so strikingly similar to their 2014-2015 incarnation.
First of all, the Bulls still depend on defense more than offense. This is still an elbow-grease team which needs to win the hustle-play categories in order to succeed.
Second — and in line with this particular piece — the Bulls still possess the capacity to elevate their game against elite teams… making their drifting periods that much more puzzling.
The NBA was reminded of this reality on Christmas Day afternoon in Oklahoma City.
On a list of the most exasperating teams in the league, the Bulls are very possibly the No. 1 seed… not just in the sense that they exasperate more, but because they win more spotlight games than other teams on the short list.
The Los Angeles Clippers are supremely frustrating to their fans, but they have failed to close down the Golden State Warriors on multiple occasions. The Milwaukee Bucks know how to fight the Golden State Warriors, but they haven’t scored a lot of higher-end wins this season. They beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in double overtime, and that’s it. They got clobbered by San Antonio and Indiana and have generally played poorly over the course of their first 30 games.
The Houston Rockets also deserve inclusion on the NBA’s “Most Exasperating” list, especially after they once again bothered the San Antonio Spurs on Christmas Night… and bothered to play defense. The Rockets who put forth so little effort and exertion in November showed that when they commit to playing defense, their length and strength can be bothersome.
Yet, among the most exasperating teams in the league, the Bulls set the standard. Their 105-96 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder offers powerful reaffirmation of this contention.
Where in the wide, wide world of sports was THIS Pau Gasol?
The Spaniard dropped 21, 13 and 6 (points, rebounds and assists) in the Thunder’s stockings on Friday. A sustained performance — forceful in the paint and on the glass — has been elusive for the Bulls this season. When Chicago gets this version of Gasol, the Bulls become a lot more Pau-erful.
Beyond Gasol’s resurgence, Derrick Rose — who scored only eight points in a Monday loss to Brooklyn — posted 19 points. The Pau-Rose-Jimmy Butler trio averaged 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per player against OKC. That’s the kind of balanced star-based production which will make Chicago formidable.
Yes, after losing three straight and dropping that awful home-court decision to the Nets, the Bulls badly needed to win this game against the surging Thunder, which had established themselves as a top-three team in the West and a top-four team in the NBA. If the loss to the Nets put Chicago on the precipice of a crisis, this win (it wouldn’t have mattered how ugly or pretty it was) restores a lot of order and belief to a team which had to make a loud statement sooner rather than later. Those points definitely deserve to be reaffirmed on this feast of Stephen.
… this Christmas result underscores the extent to which the Bulls own more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde than any other team in the NBA.
The team which ran roughshod over the Thunder in a 32-16 third quarter on Friday is the same team which lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home.
The team which has now swept the Thunder in the season series is the same team which lost to the Phoenix Suns at home.
The team which has beaten San Antonio and Cleveland in addition to sweeping the Thunder is the same team which has lost to the Brooklyn Nets at home; lost to the New York Knicks in a blowout; and lost twice apiece to both the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets, losing once to the Hornets by 25.
The Bulls are clearly a team that knows how to “gear up” for big moments in the midst of the vast sea of 82 games on the season schedule. As was the case under Thibs, is any of this sustainable (enough) against one similarly credentialed opponent over the course of two weeks in springtime?
The challenge for the Bulls, as the calendar shifts to 2016, is to cultivate the consistency which not only leads to a No. 2 seed in the East, but to the established habit of taking care of business against lesser lights, not just the big boys. If the Bulls can fit the pieces together against Boston and Atlanta the same way they manage to do against top-five teams in the Association, they can make something of their season after all.
Yes, this aspiration is realistic, just four days after I sat here writing about how the season was on the verge of turning into a complete disaster.
Chicago basketball, thy name is exasperation.
At least after Christmas, it’s a happier version of it.