Since the Bulls traded Luol Deng to Cleveland earlier this week, there’s been talk in Chicago of tanking. Of the lottery and rebuilding. Of Derrick Rose’s future and losing an identity.
For these Bulls, they have their identity, and they know only one way to play: with hard-nosed defense and playing every game to win.
After the Bulls’ 81-72 win over the Bucks on Friday night at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, coach Tom Thibodeau said he thought his team’s defensive effort down the stretch was very good. For the final five minutes of the game, the Bulls didn’t allow a basket. They forced Milwaukee to miss its last 11 shots, a defensive stand that allowed them to win their fourth straight game.
During the four-game winning streak, Chicago hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 87 points, and Milwaukee was never close. It’s an indication that Thibodeau’s defensive-minded approach hasn’t changed amid a tumultuous season of injuries, trades and setbacks.
“I thought that (the Bucks) had some decent looks that they could make, but I thought our guys made a good effort,” Thibodeau said of the final minutes. “Our rebounding was poor, and that’s what I thought hurt us. The initial part of our defense was very good.”
Thibodeau’s glass-half-empty perspective notwithstanding, the Bulls owe their eighth straight win in Milwaukee to their stalwart defensive play late in the fourth quarter. The Bucks began the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run, but after Brandon Knight made a basket with 5:09 remaining, the Bulls clamped down completely.
“Come the fourth quarter, the last five, six minutes, we bear down and we get into it on defense,” guard Mike Dunleavy said after the game. “I thought we were pretty good. We made them take tough shots, do what they don’t want to do — sometimes you make them, sometimes you don’t.
“Tonight we were fortunate the last 11 didn’t go in.”
The usual suspects performed as expected, with center Joakim Noah and forward Taj Gibson recording two blocks apiece. But the lockdown mindset and tenacious effort did not show up in individual stat lines. It was evidenced by the Bucks’ atrocious shooting numbers — 31.8 percent on field goals and 33.3 percent from 3-point range.
And never was the Bulls’ fundamental bread-and-butter more on display than in those last critical minutes. Forward Jimmy Butler, who hurt his thigh in the third quarter but came back in the fourth quarter to marshal his teammates, said Chicago still hangs its hat on its defense.
“I think that is what we pride ourselves on, guarding and letting that lead to offense,” Butler said. “More than anything, we’re on a little win streak and we have to keep that going.”