By Philip Rossman-Reich
The Bulls had a set identity for a long time under coach Tom Thibodeau. It was about playing defense and being committed to getting stops. It was about sharing the ball, filling in and picking each other up.
The key players that made up that identity were Derrick Rose as the point guard extraordinaire, Joakim Noah as the defensive backstop and Luol Deng as the Mr. Consistent everything stopgap, a living embodiment of doing whatever the team needed.
For the Bulls this year, two of those three foundational pieces are gone. Sure, Rose is still with the team, but now in street clothes and unable to contribute. Deng became a salary cap casualty and was shipped off to Cleveland.
That leaves Chicago still adjusting on the fly and trying to stick to their principals as the team grows and adjusts together. The Bulls are still winning and still finding ways to grind out wins as ever.
But Chicago’s 128-125 triple overtime win over Orlando showed a few more cracks that need some refining, particularly on the defensive end.
“I think we’ve shown we’re capable of being a terrific defensive team. Obviously, we didn’t play very well defensively. To me, the challenge is to correct that before it costs us. We had good fortune. Right now, we’re not playing 48 minutes of defense. Especially on the road, that’s tough. We have to come out at the start of the game and set the tone with our defense.”
Orlando shot 51 percent from the floor, finding a healthy diet of drives into the lane from guards Jameer Nelson and Victor Oladipo. Orlando made 13 of its first 16 shots in the quarter. Oladipo scored 12 of his career-high 35 points in the third quarter, attacking the basket and scoring with surprising efficiency as the Magic built their lead to as much as 15 points. Nelson carved up the Bulls defense with pick and rolls going right down the middle of the lane on his way to 31 points and 10 assists.
Throw in 21 uncharacteristic fast break points, including a few free run outs, and the Magic found themselves in the lead and gaining an offensive rhythm that is so rare against this Bulls defense.
Even rarer was the 29 points Chicago conceded in the second quarter to give up that early advantage and the 31 the team gave up coming out of the locker room.
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In overtime though? It still came down to defense, keeping the Magic out of the paint and whether the Bulls could execute on offense without turning the ball over.
“We just kept fighting,” Augustin said. “We never gave up. We knew that we could win this game, we knew that we had to win this game. With that mindset, we fought on both ends of the floor and we just fought until the buzzer.”
They did that enough to get the win tonight.
And that is what the Bulls are trying to be all about again as they transition to life without Deng.