Right outside the United Center media room, Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw spoke to reporters about how frustrated he was that so many of his players had decided to take the night off. His team had just limped to a 117-89 loss to the Bulls, and he wondered what it would take to find the right group of five players who wanted to play, even noting that he wished players were paid on their game-by-game performance.
That somber mood in the Nuggets locker room couldn’t have been more different in the Bulls’ locker room, where laughs, high-fives, smiles and hugs filled the room after a fifth straight victory in which they led by as many as 37 points.
The Bulls are playing great basketball, and they’re having fun, too.
“The other team knows we’re here to play, let them know that it’s going to be a long night,” said Taj Gibson, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. “That’s the style of basketball we’re accustomed to playing. We’ve been playing like that the last couple of years, and we kind of got away from that earlier in the year. I think we’re in a good rhythm. Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s having fun.”
But before the smiles and fun, the Bulls had to take care of business. As they’ve done in every one of their contests during this five game winning streak, they came out and smacked their opponent in the mouth, leading Denver by as many as 20 in the first quarter, ultimately taking a 32-19 lead into the second quarter.
And when the Nuggets and their high-octane offense made a run early in the second stanza, the Bulls’ second unit reminded them that they’re listening to Tom Thibodeau when he preaches being a well-balanced team.
Playing in place of the injured Jimmy Butler, rookie Tony Snell scored 10 points as part of a 24-5 run that gave the Bulls a 28-point lead right before halftime. That brand of basketball also comes with an understanding from everyone on the team — from Joakim Noah down to Toko Shengelia — on what individual responsibilities must happen for them to be successful. And when done correctly like it was Friday, the results are fun to watch.
“I think everybody’s comfortable with their roles, everybody knows what to expect from each other,” said Noah, who double-doubled with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “I think our defense is getting better. The ball movement was really, really good tonight and I think it’s going to keep getting better. It starts with our mindset as a team. We’re gaining confidence and it’s all positive.”
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls 117, Nuggets 89]
Even the players who weren’t around at the start of the season are on board. D.J. Augustin, who continued his tear with a team-high 22 points and eight assists, said the Bulls aren’t looking forward or backward at any opponent and that every game in the second half will hold value, regardless of opponent.
“(We’re) just trying to finish strong. It’s the second half of the season, so we’re building for the playoffs,” he said, “and (I’m) just trying to get myself going and hopefully keep helping the team as much as I can.”
But for Thibodeau, solid starts to games don’t begin at tip-off. They don’t begin in pregame warmups or even shootaround that day. The Bulls are winning, according to him, because they’re preparing for what’s ahead days in advance.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s not something you can turn on and off, and I think people that are serious in this league, they do that and they build those habits and they know their opponent well. They’re ready to execute, and the only way you can do that is through your study, your preparation, your concentration and then your ability to give maximum effort. That’s what we’re trying to build towards.”
Friday night they took another step in that building process.