Two nights after managing just 90 points in a lackluster home loss to the Lakers, the Bulls entered Friday night’s tilt against the defending-champion Cavaliers with a specific offensive game plan.
Attack, head coach Fred Hoiberg told his team, the interior of the Cleveland defense early to establish a presence in the paint. Knowing the Cavs, for all their strengths that made them NBA champions five months earlier, lacked a true rim protector, the Bulls made it a point to get Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez going.
The Bulls managed to do exactly that, tallying a season-high 78 points in the paint in their 111-105 victory over the Cavaliers. And while Lopez was again his usual efficient self and Gibson turned in his best performance of the season – the two scored 33 points on 15-for-23 shooting – it was point guard Rajon Rondo who proved to be the kick-starter for a Bulls offense that needed to be at its best to match Cleveland’s star power.
Rondo logged his first triple-double with the Bulls in the victory, tallying 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. But looking past the raw numbers, it was the shots Rondo took, and the passes he made, that allowed the Bulls to play so efficiently on offense and ultimately come away with their most impressive victory of the year.
Of Rondo’s 12 assists, all but two of the made shots off those passes came from a distance farther than 7 feet. Ten of Rondo’s assists resulted in baskets in the paint, of which the Bulls had 39 as a team. Squaring off against a subpar defender in Kyrie Irving, Rondo was active in knifing into the paint and finding open bigs inside. Rondo had six assists in the first quarter, and all but one resulted in baskets within 3 feet of the hoop.
All four of his made field goals in the first half were layups, as was his only bucket in the third quarter. His putback midway through the fourth quarter was also at the rim, and gave him his tenth rebound to secure the triple-double. Two possessions later he connected on a 3-pointer that gave the Bulls an eight-point lead; Cleveland never got closer than four the rest of the way. Rondo only took three shots outside of the paint. Friday marked the first time in a month Rondo had shot better than 50 percent from the field in back-to-back games.
Past Rondo’s own numbers, Gibson said that the Bulls’ point guard was instrumental in leading the Bulls’ offense to match up against a Cavaliers offense that entered the night second in the league in efficiency.
“He’s like a quarterback. Even though he never really played any contact football the way he always gathers the huddle, he always sees what’s going on in the game,” Gibson said. “He’s always encouraging. He’s pushing it. He’s a great teammate and I know he got a lot of criticism before the year, a lot of people talk about the negative that’s in it, but he’s been showing me nothing but great stuff on and off the court.”
In a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere to it simply because of the matchup between Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, as well as the defending champs coming to town, the veteran Rondo took it upon himself to lead the Bulls offense. Though the Bulls wanted to avoid getting into a track meet against the fast-paced Cavs, Rondo didn’t allow the offense to become stagnant when it was apparent they could get into the paint at will.
“I thought Rondo was great all night long,” Fred Hoiberg said, “getting guys out and running, pushing them. You can hear him yelling “run with me” to get the guys down the floor. Rajon was a huge factor.”
His defense will continue to be a liability – Irving had an off-night shooting more than anything – and he won’t score 15 points each night, but his leadership and ability to run an offense with precision has the Bulls behind their floor general as they head into the season’s second month.
“He’s always inspiring. He’s one of those guys you want to go to war with. He’s one of those guys that’s in the huddle, you know that every time down the court if it’s a wrong call, a foul, a scuffle, if you not feeling right he’s always going to have your back no matter what.”
The Washington Huskies are the Pac-12 champions, and that's something that will have wide-ranging effects on the College Football Playoff picture and the chances of several Big Ten teams to make the final four.
Washington entered this championship weekend ranked fourth in the latest Playoff rankings, one spot ahead of Michigan, two ahead of Wisconsin and three ahead of Penn State. And after the Huskies convincingly dispatched of the eighth-ranked Colorado Buffaloes in Friday night's Pac-12 title game, it sure looks like Chris Petersen's team will get a chance to play for a national championship.
The selection committee hasn't seemed too high on Washington this season, a reflection, perhaps, of their thoughts on the Pac-12 as a conference and the Huskies' lack of high-quality wins despite their one-loss record. But after securing a signature victory over a top-10 team on Friday night, Washington's resume is bolstered. And with a conference championship in hand, the committee might decide that the so-stated very small gap between Washington and Michigan is suddenly insurmountable, the Wolverines unable to catch up with no game to play this weekend.
Certainly any objective observer would conclude that Michigan's resume is better than Washington's, even after the Huskies won the Pac-12 championship. The Wolverines have wins over three top-eight teams — Wisconsin, Penn State and Colorado — and took second-ranked Ohio State to two overtime periods in last weekend's epic edition of The Game.
But if Washington was good enough to get a higher ranking this week, there's nothing that happened or could happen to suddenly make the Huskies look worse than the Wolverines. Washington beat Colorado by a 41-10 score, winning by a significantly higher margin than Michigan did in its early season matchup with the Buffaloes, a 17-point win for Jim Harbaugh's team. And with no way for the Wolverines to impress the committee following their second loss of the season, the Huskies figure to remain ranked ahead.
It also slams a potential door for the winner of Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game. Sixth-ranked Wisconsin takes on seventh-ranked Penn State, and it now looks unlikely that the winner would jump both Michigan and Washington. The victor between the Badgers and Nittany Lions could certainly still jump the Wolverines, though that wouldn't be without controversy as Michigan beat both teams playing in Indy. But if the selection committee suddenly decides to value a conference championship — despite the fact that Ohio State, which won't own a league title, is looking like a Playoff lock — Saturday's winner could leap Michigan.
But would the winner between Wisconsin and Penn State leap Washington? That doesn't seem like too much of a possibility after the way the Huskies beat up on the Buffs, scoring some massive style points in addition to a signature win. The Badgers or Lions would have to pull off some kind of performance like the Buckeyes did back in 2014, when a 59-0 win in the Big Ten title game proved impressive enough to get them into the four-team field. Something like that might get this year's Big Ten title game winner into the Playoff, but that's a mighty tough ask.
Right now it seems that Wisconsin and Penn State's hopes lie not only in their own game but in the ACC title game, where they'd be praying for a Virginia Tech win over third-ranked Clemson. Certainly that would eliminate the Tigers, but there'd still be the question of whether the Big Ten title game winner would belong in the Playoff over Michigan.
Washington's win Friday was a big deal for the Huskies, but it was also a pretty big deal — and a pretty big blow — for those who hoped to see multiple Big Ten teams in the Playoff field.