Given the panic level among Chicago's professional basketball fans over the past couple days, Thursday night's game between the Bulls and Sacramento Kings seemed to carry much more intrigue than a 62-win team vs. a 24-win team, from a season ago, normally would.
Coming off a disappointing 99-91 road loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday, the Bulls again showed some troubling signs to coach Tom Thibodeau, but escaped Power Balance Pavilion, formerly known as ARCO Arena, with a 108-98 victory over the Kings. A win is a win, and the Bulls will certainly take one to improve to 2-1 in this compressed 66-game schedule, which calls for them to return to Staples Center for a contest against former Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro's Los Angeles Clippers.
During the two days in between games to prepare, the Bulls had talked about running more in transition and finding a way to get Derrick Rose to play like the reigning NBA MVP who averaged 25 points and about eight assists a season ago. They found some success early in the game, taking their largest lead of the night, 30-15, almost 10 minutes in, thanks largely to capitalizing on strong defensive plays that led to fast-break points -- which the Bulls scored 33 of for the game.
Vowing to play much more aggressive in the first quarter, Rose -- who had attempted just four first-quarter shots through two games -- went 3-for-7 from the field in the opening stanza and to the free throw line less than three minutes into the game. The reigning NBA MVP finished with 19 points and eight assists in 32 minutes, although dealt with foul trouble in the second half and turned the ball over a season-high six times.
“He was in attack mode right from the start,” Thibodeau told reporters afterwards. “That’s usually who he is. He set the tone at both ends. He’s got to drive with more force I guess. Sometimes I think him being such a nice guy goes against him too. ... He’s getting hit sometimes. We have to force them to make the call. Because right now he’s not getting the call.”
Obviously, Rose wasn't as dominant as he has been in the past, but the 6-foot-3 guard was able to find a solid balance between finding his own offense and searching for his teammates.
“I told you I was going to be more aggressive attacking the hole,” Rose said.
The Bulls also got 16 points a piece from Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer, who added 15 rebounds. Luol Deng keeps giving Thibodeau a consistent effort on both ends of the court and posted 12 points, six rebounds and four assists
Bulls fans could tell it was going to be their night in the first quarter when Joakim Noah -- who finished with nine points and four rebounds in 24 foul-plagued minutes -- grabbed a rebound and went coast-to-coast for a layup, in four seconds no less. But the Kings finished the first frame with a 9-0 run as the Bulls led 30-24 through one quarter of play.
Still, Thibodeau felt the Bulls' early lead allowed the team to play comfortably as the game wore on, rather than continuing to have to mount comebacks, which they had to do during the fourth quarter of Sunday's 88-87 win over the Lakers and throughout Monday's loss to the Warriors.
“I thought the difference between tonight’s game and the Golden State game was the start of the game," he said. "I thought we tried to do the right things at Golden State, but we turned the ball over and put them in the open floor, so we got in a hole right away. In this game, we came out, and we were attacking and we got the lead and we played from ahead."
The Bulls' "Bench Mob" played a major role in that. The reserve corps dropped 36 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, picking up the slack for the starters at the precise moments and often extending the team's lead. Ronnie Brewer scored 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting, including 2-of-2 from beyond the arc and C.J. Watson dropped eight points, nine assists and five assists -- with no turnovers -- in 16 minutes. Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver had six points a piece.
The Bulls took a 60-53 lead into halftime as Rose hit the rim on a 72-foot heave at the buzzer -- a shot he has taken plenty of times over the past few seasons, and it's only a matter of time before he gets one to fall. They saw an eight-point third-quarter lead -- capped off by consecutive baskets in transition, a layup and pull-up jumper, by Hamilton -- dwindle to 72-71 once both Noah and Rose found themselves watching from the sideline with four fouls a piece. But Watson and Boozer picked up the slack, scoring all but two points during the Bulls' 11-2 run to give them an 85-75 lead at the end of three quarters.
“I thought our bench was terrific," Thibodeau told the assembled media. "… Everyone off the bench. C.J. played wonderful -- nine assists, ran the team. [When] Derrick sat out with foul trouble, C.J. did a great job of running the team. Ronnie was very effective in short minutes. Kyle the same. Omer the same. [And] Taj. They were great; bench was great.”
When asked about Boozer's performance, which included 8-for-16 shooting from the field, Thibodeau said: “I thought Carlos played a great game for us. … Carlos stepped up big. I loved the way Carlos rebounded the ball; I thought that triggered our break. And then he got into a rhythm offensively right there at the end of the third, so that’s a good sign for us.”
Despite the fact that Rose picked up his fifth foul with over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls were able to close the game out. As Thibodeau pointed out, the starting unit's strong effort played a major role to allow the Bulls to maintain their cushion -- which was needed because the Kings, who had four players in double figures, featuring Marcus Thornton's 20 points, constantly made short-lived rallies.
“I thought our starters played with a lot more energy," said Thibodeau, who picked up a tehcnical foul near the end of the first half. "And I thought they competed on the defensive end and that’s what really got them going. So, I think when we do that, we have the chance to be a good team.”
“We got out and got some easy baskets but it was triggered off of our defense. And so that’s the first priority is to get the defense established and the rebounding and that gets us in the open floor, and then makes the game a lot easier.”
Even so, the Bulls had 18 turnovers and gave up a whopping 18 offensive rebounds. They know that they have lots of work to do.
“Yeah, we got to clean it up. We got to get them down," Thibodeau said. "We’d like to be below 13 every game, so we have a lot of work in that area. A lot of it is bobbles, some of it is timing and spacing, so have to continue to work on that. And then just make simple plays instead of trying to thread the needle. But I like the way we ran the floor, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”
"Again, in every game there’s some good things and some bad things, and we still have a long way to go. But I like the way we approached things. I thought ... our guys practiced well. And usually when you practice well, you play well.”