Bulls bounce back in big way as bench sparks blowout win over Mavs

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Bulls bounce back in big way as bench sparks blowout win over Mavs

My, how things can change over the course of two days. After an early-season controversy about how Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau distributes his minutesin Monday nights stunning home loss to Milwaukee, the popular opinion was that the Bulls starters played too many minutesto a dominating performance by the teams bench on Wednesday, the tenor surrounding the Bulls (7-7) has dramatically changed, following a 101-76 victory over the Mavericks (7-9) at the United Center.

Ive been around forever, so Ive experienced everything you can experience in this league. Ive been part of expansion teams, Ive been a part of championship teams, Ive been part of teams that have dealt with injuries, so its all part of an NBA season and how you function, and to me, I dont want to change the process of what we have in place, Thibodeau said, foreshadowing his teams drastic improvement, after the teams morning shootaround Wednesday at the Berto Center.

I have the belief that we can get it done, I do, and when you go back and look at all the games this season, weve been in position game to win. With the exception of the Clipper game a blowout defeat on the road, every game was there to be had.

With both teams playing without an injured superstarin the case of the visitors, future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki is out indefinitely with knee issues, while point guard Darren Collison missed the contest with a finger injuryand below their usual standards, it was a close-knit affair at the outset, especially because each squad was coming off a gut-wrenching defeat in their previous outing.

Veteran forward Shawn Marion (18 points), a Chicago-area native, got off to quick start for the Mavericks, utilizing his unorthodox and active game, and was complemented by the low-post play of center Chris Kaman, as well as fill-in starter Dominque Jones, who played in place of Collison.

For the Bulls, the tandem of Luol Deng (22 points, six rebounds) and Joakim Noah (13 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots) were effective early, but as production from their teammates was virtually nonexistent and Dallas managed to manufacture quality looks on offense, the hosts fell behind.

However, the defensive effort picked up and Deng took it upon himself to carry more of the scoring load, leading the Bulls to go on a 13-4 to close the opening period and overtake their guests en route to a 24-23 score through the end of a quarter.

The Bulls much-maligned bench rose to the occasion as the second quarter began, starting with backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli (11 points), mired in a shooting slump all season, got the home crowd excited by knocking down his first shot.

The likes of holdover reserve Taj Gibson (eight points, eight rebounds), instant-offense scorer Nate Robinson (14 points, six assists) and second-year swingman Jimmy Butler (13 points) also got going, helping the hosts extend their lead to double digits.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau rode his second unit, giving him the added benefit of resting his starters after they played the vast majority of the teams last game, and it resulted in a comfortable winning margin. Defense also remained a constant for the Bulls and at the intermission, they held a 58-42 halftime advantage.

After the break, the Bulls dominance persisted, as the team continued to have an outstanding rhythm on offense, leading to quality shots and a gaudy field-goal percentage. Defensively, they put the clamps on the high-scoring and potentially explosive Mavericks, who couldnt manage much offense outside of Marions consistent point production.

As Dengs scoring and Noahs interior play propelled the starters, who were buoyed by Robinsons energy off the bench, the Bulls kept a steady grip on their ever-growing winning margin.

Solid play from Butler, Belinelli and Gibson ensured that they kept rolling and heading into the final stanza, the hosts were ahead, 77-58.

Unlike their last outing, the Bulls didnt let up as the contest waned on, maintaining both their focus and stranglehold on the contest as the fourth quarter opened. Thibodeau rode his productive second unit, led by Robinsonthe diminutive point guard was the catalyst with his electric blend of scoring and playmakingand Butler, who was effective in transition and as a slasher.

When Deng, the leagues minutes-per-game leader, finally exited the game, it became evident that the Bulls would coast, but upon the entrance of seldom-used backups like rookie Marquis Teague and veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovic, it was official.

If the Bulls loyalists were disgruntled prior to the contest, they certainly got their moneys worthand then someas backup center Nazr Mohammeds follow-up dunk in the final seconds put them over the century mark, giving them free Big Macs to go along with the win.

Its the NBA, so if you win by a lot or you lose by a lot, youve got to get ready for the next game. So, your approach cant change, Thibodeau said in the morning, before launching into a critique of the media that seems apt after the victory.

Well, you guys have got to pick your week. Last week, I wasnt playing the starters enough. Now, Im playing them too much. I just try to stay consistent. The important thing is to study the team, study each game, get ready for the next one, try to keep the team moving in the right direction and you dont want to get too high, you dont want to get too low. You just want to study, get better, improve.

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Pau Gasol has played under Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. He’s won championships playing alongside Kobe Bryant, made six All-Star appearances and will likely became the 42nd player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 career points. Now in San Antonio, the future Hall-of-Famer is getting to be a part of the incomparable Spurs culture that has seen the franchise win at least 50 games in each of the last 17 seasons.

That model of consistency doesn’t come easy, and it’s the reason Gasol, Popovich and the rest of the Spurs speak openly about still working and improving each day, despite their 18-5 record. And though they had won 13 consecutive road games to begin the year – the second-longest streak in NBA history – and entered the United Center on Thursday having won 13 of their last 14, the tone in the locker room was one of disappointment following their 95-91 loss to the Bulls.

Gasol posted 13 points and 10 rebounds in his return to Chicago after two All-Star campaigns with the Bulls, and he added three assists and a block in 31 minutes. But the Spurs put themselves in an early hole, scoring just 32 points before halftime, and a late rally that cut the Bulls’ lead to just four with 3 minutes to play was still too much to overcome. The loss will merely be a blip on the Spurs’ record by the end of the season – they’ve now lost three straight games in Chicago – as San Antonio is on pace to win 64 games.

Despite the loss, Gasol has noticed a stark difference within the Spurs organization that he couldn’t find in his two seasons with the Bulls.

“It’s all about winning here. It’s all about whatever it takes to win. It’s all about excellence. It’s all about the long run but being consistent and bringing it every single night, and not settling. So, all the right ingredients for a winning formula.”

Gasol alluded to the inconstancies in Chicago that, without him this season, have crept up again. The Bulls entered Thursday night having lost three straight, and five of six. With their win over the Spurs, their last two victories have come against San Antonio and the defending-champion Cavaliers. Their fives losses in that span? All against teams with records at or below .500 (DEN, LAL, DAL, POR, DET).

Even last year, the Bulls touted a 3-3 record against the Finals participants in Cleveland and Golden State – one of two teams to do that – and were 9-3 against the four teams in the conference finals, which included the Clippers and Raptors. And yet, they were also 9-3 against the teams with the five worst records.

It’s why Gasol wasn’t surprised that the Bulls came to play against the Spurs despite being home underdogs and reeling with three straight losses.

“The Bulls usually get up against good teams. The challenge is getting up against the not-so-good teams and winning those games, and that has also been an issue,” he said. “But we knew that tonight they were going to bring it and they were going to be sharp, and unfortunately we weren’t for the first 24 minutes and that finally cost us a (road) game.”

Those inconsistencies in Gasol’s final year with the Bulls – not beating teams they should have – resulted in the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. And in the offseason the Bulls moved on from both Gasol and Joakim Noah, and traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks.

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Gasol spoke about why the culture in Chicago was a difficult one to adapt to in Fred Hoiberg’s first season with the team.

“There was a coaching change. That was a big change for the team and we did have quite a bit of injuries once again,” he said. We didn’t have much continuity, and it was kind of an adjustment season for the team, trying to understand what the coaching staff wanted the team to do and the coaching staff trying to understand the personnel and the players. So it was a difficult year in that regard. It was hard to get the continuity and the consistency that the team needed to be successful.

Gasol said it was “special” to be back in Chicago, a city he cherished for two years. Upon entering the United Center 90 minutes before tipoff he said hello to Bulls reporters waiting to speak with Popovich before accidentally heading toward the Bulls locker room he had walked into each of the last two seasons.

The Bulls showed a brief highlight reel early in the first quarter welcoming him back, and he was able to compete against a few former teammates he still keeps in touch with, notably Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and fellow Spaniard Nikola Mirotic.

Hoiberg spoke highly of his time with Gasol and the year he’s had in San Antonio, adding that “he’s always a guy for me that I’ll cheer for. Just based on what he did for us last year.”

Gasol’s time in Chicago will be remembered more for what the Bulls didn’t accomplish – Gasol missed two games in their second round series against the Cavaliers in 2014 with a hamstring injury – despite Gasol putting up elite numbers for a well-traveled player in his late 30s. Now in San Antonio he’s averaging career-low numbers – 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds – but has immersed himself in the Spurs’ culture that has led to their annual winning ways.

“He’s a good teammate and he’s caught on pretty quickly to the notion of what we’re doing,” Popvich said of Gasol. “It’s just basketball, so it’s not very difficult for him.”