All day the Chicago Bulls heard about rebuilding, financial flexibility, amnesty clauses, draft picks and the future. So come Tuesday night at the United Center, Tom Thibodeau’s group did what they always do: win when everyone least expects it.
Playing without Luol Deng, who was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the day, the Bulls – all nine active players (Carlos Boozer rested a sore right knee) – played suffocating second-half defense, hit timely shots and buckled down late in a 92-87 win over the Phoenix Suns.
“I feel like that’s the Chicago Bulls way, and that’s what the city loves about us,” said Jimmy Butler, who scored 13 points and grabbed five rebounds. “We’re going to fight and we’re still expected to win games, so we’re going out there to compete. Nobody can overlook us, that’s for sure.”
Whether the Suns overlooked the Bulls is up for debate, but all afternoon vice president of basketball operations John Paxson answered questions about the Bulls’ future and current state in lieu of trading Deng, a 28-year-old two-time All-Star entering the prime of his career.
The Bulls didn’t deny that the news fazed and upset them – Joakim Noah, for instance, did not speak with reporters at the team’s shootaround or after the game – but as they have done after every injury that has attempted to slow them down the last three seasons, they come out with fight, aggressiveness and energy that Thibodeau instills in them.
Noah led the charge with 14 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, bullying his way inside against Miles Plumlee, finding open cutters that led to layups and playing his usual brand of defense. It’s hard not to assume that he was playing with an extra edge on this night in the wake of Deng’s departure. Tom Thibodeau assumed as much, and noted these times are usually when Noah is at his best.
“Jo is an emotional guy, and it’s good. I think it’s also what drives him, so you don’t want to take that away from him. And he was fine. He is close to Luol,” Thibodeau said. “Any time you play with someone for an extended period of time and all the trials and tribulations you go through, there’s a closeness there. But I think he responded tonight (and) he got himself together and ready to go.”
Kirk Hinrich, who scored nine points and knocked down a huge 3-pointer with 2 minutes to play, said losing both a player and teammate of Deng’s caliber shook the Bulls when they came in this morning, but that “It was a big deal because ‘Lu’ had been here for so long and had such great relationships with everyone on this team, the organization and community,” Hinrich said. “So he’ll be sorely missed, but what can you do? You have to move forward and we feel like we’re playing good basketball and we have to keep it going.”
The Bulls are playing well, having reeled off wins in six of their last eight, and three straight. They’re now 15-18 and are three wins away from becoming just the fourth team in the East with a record .500 or better.
It won’t all be fixed in one night, and Deng’s departure likely means all their problems won’t be fixed in even one season. But just as the front office said this afternoon that they are making the best decisions possible to help the Bulls win games, Jimmy Butler said the current players must hold up their end of the bargain, too.
“That’s their job, so to speak: just like ours is to go out and compete and win games, (the front office’s) is to put a team together to help win games,” he said.
The media contingent at the United Center could have been a distraction, and the news and questions asked about what losing their leading scorer could have been a distraction for the Bulls.
But like Thibodeau told his team before and after the game, their biggest challenge will be taking those should-be-distractions and turning them into positives by continuing to step up, doing their respective jobs and playing hard.
“That’s the nature and challenge of this league all the time,” Thibodeau said. “Whatever your circumstances are, make the best of those circumstances. There’s constant changes, whether it’s injury or trade or free agency. The challenge for the team is, ‘OK, do not distracted with all that other stuff. Get locked in to what you have to do for your team to be successful.’ So that’s what I like about our team. This team has been hit a lot of different ways. But they always get up.”