Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

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Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

It's still a bit premature to anoint any team as a prohibitive favorite this early in the season, but based on early returns, the Bulls could, at the least, make a case.

Dogged by injuries all season, the Bulls' depth has been on full display, While nothing as extreme as third-string point guard John Lucas III scoring 25 points and nearly notching a triple-double in the absence of Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson--let alone the fact that another member of the backcourt, Rip Hamilton, was also out and Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and fill-in starter Ronnie Brewer were virtual non-factors Wednesday evening--Tom Thibodeau's repeated message that the team "has more than enough to win," even with key players sidelined, has often fulfilled its prophecy.

Defense has been the key for the Bulls and except for a few hiccups--most notably, the loss to Golden State in the second game of the season and a blowout defeat to Atlanta last weekend--Thibodeau's defense has looked to be in midseason form.

Additionally, an emphasis on pushing the ball in transition and the ability of players other than Derrick Rose to contribute scoring on a nightly basis, something that should be even more potent when shooting guard Rip Hamilton returns to health and gets completely comfortable with his new squad, have also been significant in the team's success.

Various teams that were expected to be league powerhouses this season have got off to slower, more uneven starts, as the likes of the Mavericks, Lakers, Knicks, Grizzlies and Celtics have looked disjointed at times, mostly due to having to incorporate multiple new pieces and injuries.

Cohesiveness, with Hamilton being the only new rotation player, is another area where the Bulls have an advantage, along with squads like the Heat, Thunder and surprising 76ers, coached by former Bulls head coach Doug Collins.

While Oklahoma City, despite dealing with the fallout of the on-court argument between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Miami were supposed to be the cream of the crop, Philadelphia has shocked many observers.

Collins' Sixers are young, athletic, versatile and while they don't offer much in the way of star power, their defensive mindset, unselfishness and a strong bench enable them to compete on a nightly basis and potentially ride their strong start to an Atlantic Division title.

But the team the Bulls have their eye on in the East is the Heat, who dropped their second consecutive overtime contest Wednesday night to the Clippers. While it wouldn't be fair to compare Chicago's decisive victory over former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro's bunch to the Heat's loss, which took place after "Lob City" had more time to jell, it's worth remembering for the future.

Speaking of L.A., Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant's back-to-back scoring outbursts--48 points to lead the charge against the Suns, followed by 40 points last night in a win over the Jazz--seem like statement games, showing that despite his advancing age and the Lakers being written off by many, the veteran shooting guard doesn't intend to go down without a fight.

It isn't like he hasn't had to carry a team before, but center Andrew Bynum is a lot more experienced this time around and surprisingly, new Lakers head coach Mike Brown's offense hasn't inhibited Bryant's scoring prowess thus far, while still keeping big men Bynum and Pau Gasol involved.

Rose's eye-popping scoring numbers from last season are down early in the campaign--though his assists are up and the Bulls point guard couldn't be happier about it--and if that trend continues, no matter how successful his team is, a repeat MVP season is probably unlikely.

But how many people thought, before the season started, that Bryant would be the early-season favorite to take home those honors?

Morning Update: Bulls win first meeting with Cavs; LeBron pays off Cubs-Indians bet

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls win first meeting with Cavs; LeBron pays off Cubs-Indians bet

Here are some of Friday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

Dwyane Wade, Bulls take first blood with LeBron James, Cavs

Bears-49ers: And the winner is?

Jonathan Toews practices but won’t play vs. Flyers

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

White Sox reportedly asking for No. 1 prospect plus more in trade return for Chris Sale

'Quarterback' Rajon Rondo executes Bulls' game plan, logs first triple-double of the year

White Sox agree to one-year deals with Brett Lawrie, Avisail Garcia

LeBron James pays off bet, rocks Cubs uniform to the United Center

High School Lites basketball roundup: Week 1

'Quarterback' Rajon Rondo executes Bulls' game plan, logs first triple-double of the year

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USA TODAY

'Quarterback' Rajon Rondo executes Bulls' game plan, logs first triple-double of the year

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.”