PORTLAND—“ We’re still finding our way,” Tom Thibodeau said. “We have enough.”
The Bulls head coach was talking about the present state of his team’s rotation, following Thursday night’s 97-87 loss in Denver. It’s currently in flux, as the Bulls are without injured swingman Jimmy Butler.
Butler is just one player and certainly not the most prominent on the Bulls, but his combination of defensive prowess, versatility and most importantly, athleticism, was sorely missed against the Nuggets and could be a factor in Friday evening’s contest against the Trail Blazers, as well as Sunday afternoon’s game against the Clippers, two athletic squads. Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw, familiar with Butler’s skill set from his days as a Pacers assistant coach, spoke about the third-year wing’s value, comparing him to a more high-profile young small forward, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard.
“Well, I think Kawhi Leonard’s a good name. I think he’s right there with somebody like him and actually, I think for a coach, I think any coach in the league would like to have a player like Jimmy Butler because I don’t think any opposing coaches game plan to stop him, but he impacts the game in so many different ways,” Shaw explained. “It’s almost more dangerous to play against somebody like him because just his defense and his effort, and then when you pay too much attention to [Derrick] Rose or [Carlos] Boozer or some of the other guys, he kills you, stepping out to hit the timely jump shot, a strong drive to the basket, getting an offensive rebound, starting the break. So he’s a good, solid player. He’s young, up and coming, he’s very confident right now and I think he’s going to be in the league for a long time.”
While Mike Dunleavy Jr., who filled Butler’s starting shooting-guard role in Denver and veteran guard Kirk Hinrich bring their own talents to the table in trying to make up for Butler’s absence, neither has the dynamic explosiveness of the younger player. It remains to be seen whether Thibodeau and the Bulls can make the adjustment while the Marquette product recuperates from his turf-toe injury in Chicago during the team’s “Circus Trip,” but in the meantime, the coach remains confident in his second unit.
“The big thing was trying to keep the second unit together as much as we could and we’ll see how it unfolds. The one thing I do like about our bench is I think all of the guys who are on the bench have worked extremely hard to prepare themselves for the opportunity,” he said. “I thought Marquis [Teague] did some good things. But I have a lot of confidence in all the guys who are on that bench.”
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Blazers off to a hot start
With a 10-2 record, Portland is one of the surprises of the regular season early on. Led by All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and versatile small forward Nicolas Batum, the Terry Stotts-coached Trail Blazers also have a much-improved bench, led by veteran instant-offense scorer Mo Williams.
“They’re playing great basketball. They have a lot of offensive weapons, in many ways, similar to what we faced [Thursday]. There’s going to be five guys on the floor that can score,” Thibodeau said. “You have to be tied together, you’ve got to challenge shots, you’ve got to finish your defense, you’ve got to have multiple effort. I don’t think our multiple effort was as good as it could have been and so, when you’re playing great offensive teams, it takes more than a singular effort and so, that’s something that we have to improve upon.”
Of Aldridge, originally a Bulls 2006 draft pick who has been a rumored candidate to be traded to Chicago, big man Taj Gibson, who could see time defending him, said, “Try to slow him down.
“We’ve just got to try to go in there head up, move on to the next one, hit first, ask questions later. But games like that against a tough opponent like Portland coming up, we’ve just got to hit them first, set the tone right away and get back to playing normal-style defense that we know we’re capable of, and get back into the swing of things. The main thing is just defense and try to slow their top players,” he continued, talking about the matchup in general after a tough loss in Denver. “You’ve got to get mentally focused. We’ve just got to push forward, nobody’s head down. We’re a real good, real together kind of team. We understand ups and downs, been around for a while now. We’ve just got to keep pushing.”
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Rose concurred: “They’re the same team [as Denver] almost. Shooting shots, could really put points up on the board and we’ve just got to make sure that we communicate. Playing against this team [Thursday], I think is going to help us prepare for [Portland]. We’ve got to jump on them, let them know it’s going to be a grind game. Defensively, we’re always going to be there, be in them, contest all their shots and make it hard on them.
“They’re rolling right now. We had a streak going. We lost [Thursday], but we can redeem ourselves with [Friday’s] game.”
Respect between former top rookies
Lillard, Rose’s fellow point guard and adidas endorser, has spoken of looking up to his Bulls’ counterpart. When informed that Lillard admired his game, Rose was flattered.
“He’s a great young player, really coming into his own, playing with a lot of confidence right now and it should be a fun matchup with both teams,” said Rose, also a Rookie of the Year award winner. “It’s big. For me, that’s what I try to do as a player. I just try to play hard, and just try go out there and win games, and I’m happy that people pick up on that, even see it and for a player like him, for what he’s done in the league and what he’s doing now. Like I said it’s an honor that he even looks at my game, so that’s huge.”
Rose then reflected upon Lillard’s statement. “I’m old. I’m 25 now,” he quipped. “Damn, I’m old.”
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Gibson brushes off ejection
After picking up a technical foul for taunting following his dunk on Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov earlier in the game, Gibson was ejected from Thursday’s contest with 1:16 remaining by referee Sean Corbin.
“I was just talking to Nate [Robinson, his former teammate]. The ref just bugged out. Me and Nate were talking the whole game, back and forth, but it was fun. Good to see him, just joking around,” Gibson explained. “[Corbin] thought I was talking to him. I wasn’t even talking to him. I was just mumbling, talking about Nate. It is what it is. I didn’t argue, I just went out. But he got the whole thing misconstrued.”