Thank goodness Utah came to town.
Friday night’s 97-73 Bulls victory over the winless Jazz at the United Center certainly wasn’t perfect, but as the beginning of the regular season has shown (cough, Philadelphia, cough), no win can be taken for granted. That statement might sound like a result of one too many sips of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s Kool-Aid, but for the time being, his squad should be regarded as more like last season’s overachieving bunch than the dominant teams he coached during the first two years of his tenure in Chicago.
While the Bulls shot 52.8 percent from the floor, had 26 assists on 38 baskets and placed five players in double figures, the talent of their opponent should be taken into consideration, but of more significance were their 21 turnovers on the evening and on the positive side of the ledger, holding the Jazz to 29.4-percent shooting from the field.
Offensively, until Derrick Rose returns to an elite level as a scorer and playmaker, the Bulls will remain a scoring-challenged group and like last season, have to beat teams on the strength of upper-echelon defense, discipline and toughness, things they’ve only demonstrated in flashes.
It’s still a competent team, but it will take efforts like All-Star small forward Luol Deng’s stellar all-around performance Friday, Carlos Boozer occasionally carrying the scoring burden, Jimmy Butler adjusting to becoming a marked man on the opposing scouting report, All-Star center Joakim Noah getting up to speed in order to impact games in his unique fashion and of course, bludgeoning the opposition with smothering defense for the Bulls to not become an afterthought in observers’ minds when discussions about title contenders arise. Surprisingly, on-court chemistry — whether banding together to play the brand of defense the Bulls have been known for in recent years, finding a flow on offense or simply imposing their will in a familiar manner — has been inconsistent, as if with so many holdovers back, it would just simply come together.
Side note: Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson are gone, they aren’t coming back and to pine for their services now is like crying over spilled milk. Clearly, letting them walk made sense for an organization expecting Rose to return to his former league MVP form at some point, even with some growing pains. Mike Dunleavy Jr. isn’t off to the quickest start, but at this point last season, Belinelli was even more disappointing and Robinson’s erratic play was a major source of frustration.
Dunleavy’s track record and his spot-up shooting ability theoretically meshes well with a healthy Rose and while at this early juncture of the season, additional backcourt scoring off the bench seems like a Bulls’ team need, if and when Butler finds his niche alongside Rose and Dunleavy begins making shots, it should be less of a concern. After all, no roster, even those of championship teams, is completely flawless — Miami, with perceived weaknesses at both point and center, has won back-to-back NBA titles — and although Belinelli and Robinson potentially could have helped alleviate the offensive issues the Bulls are currently dealing with, having the guard duo back in Chicago didn’t seem like such a pressing issue during the undefeated preseason, especially with their superstar playing like one.
Ah, the preseason. The Bulls’ 8-0 record in exhibition and Rose’s seemingly effortless, high-percentage scoring probably seems like a mirage to a lot of people now, especially that increasingly growing faction of so-called fans grumbling about his early-season struggles.
Still holding a grudge against Rose for not playing last season? Now that he’s playing again, it’s time to get over it, whether he’s shooting a league-worst field-goal percentage or hits a game-winning shot to win the Bulls’ home opener. What’s done is done and unless you believe the explosiveness and long-range accuracy the point guard displayed in the preseason was some type of mirage, it’s only a matter of time before he starts playing more representative of his ability.
Maybe if he didn’t continually insist that he’d eventually snap out of his funk, it would be less frustrating — then again, the alternative, publicly questioning himself, would only pour fuel on the fire for the cynics who think not playing a year ago was a sign of weakness and not sensible caution — but it’s not as if Rose is delusional and believes he’s playing well individually.
“Oh, hell no,” Rose said recently, when asked if he envisioned playing so poorly at the outset of the campaign. “I thought I was going to come in and pick right back up.
“I know this is just the beginning stage. Trust me, I could care less about it,” he added. “I’m not going to change the way that I play or just think about my shots. I know that I put too much work into my game and I know that it’s going to come to me.”
Rose has been pretty pedestrian, even awful, but criticizing his play and turning on him are two different things, especially when talking about a hometown product that the Windy City has been watching since his teenage years. Thibodeau made it clear where he stood on the matter.
“Hey look, I’m with him. There’s no other guy I would rather be with. I’ve seen what this guy has done over and over and over again. Great players always figure it out. Some shots aren’t dropping for him right now, that doesn’t mean they won’t drop,” the coach explained. “When he’s not shooting well, he’s got to find other ways to help us, which he’ll do. We have great faith in him. No doubt he will come around. Some of it is just being out there and playing in games.”
Thibodeau, Rose’s teammates and the organization as a whole have no other choice but to bank on the Chicago native, and honestly, neither does the city itself. Sure, abandoning him during this rough stretch, as many did last season, is an option, since nobody will truly take account of who has jumped on and off the bandwagon.
As long as the Bulls can get through their current malaise by winning games based on the blue-collar mentality that’s defined them since Thibodeau arrived in town, they’ll able to endure a slump by their best player. But if and when the hometown product gets back to his old ways, and the Bulls subsequently appear to have as good of a chance at preventing a Heat three-peat as anyone, won’t it feel a little bit more rewarding to have kept the faith the whole time?
Five games into the regular season, it’s not unreasonable to exercise a little bit of patience.