Bulls bench, stingy defense hold off Raptors


Bulls bench, stingy defense hold off Raptors

Updated: Saturday, Jan. 14 at 10:53 p.m.

The mantra has been frequently repeated and served the Bulls (12-2) well Saturday night: when the team struggles with its shooting it can count on defense to bail them out.

That was certainly the case against the Raptors (4-9), as a lackluster offensive showing for most of the evening not to mention another big effort from the bench, a regular occurrence bailed out Chicago as they beat their Canadian foes, 77-64.

Were not concerned with the aesthetics. We just want the wins, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said in his matter-of-fact manner. I think our defense and our rebounding are huge and then of course, the turnovers, keeping those down. When we do those three things, we know were going to be in position to win, regardless of how we shoot the ball, and particularly with this schedule, where youre playing so many games in a short amount of time.

It minimizes your practices. Weve only had one practice since Christmas. The rest is your shootarounds, your walkthroughs, your film sessions, so I think our guys are doing a good job with it, theyre working at it and were still not where we want to be. Theres a lot of room for improvement.

For the second consecutive night, balanced scoring in the opening period paced the Bulls, as four of five starters got on the board. Derrick Rose (18 points, 11 assists), who claimed prior to the contest that his injured toe had improved, proved that his health was nothing to worry about, as he was aggressive as both a scorer and playmaker.

Meanwhile, the Bulls highly-scrutinized starting post players again showed concerns about its cohesiveness were overblown, as center Joakim Noah (12 rebounds) and power forward Carlos Boozer (17 points, 13 rebounds) were both productive and efficient in the early going, while ever-consistent small forward Luol Deng (14 points) got off to one of his usual quick starts.

Although Toronto swingman DeMar DeRozan (15 points) provided the Raptors with a scoring threat, the Bulls were still able to build a comfortable cushion and were up, 23-14, after a quarter of play.

Observed Thibodeau: I thought Carlos was terrific and I thought Joakim was great. His reaction to the ball was tremendous. His defense was excellent. His energy was high. So, I was very pleased with our bigs.

At the outset of the second quarter, however, the visitors closed the gap, led by a familiar face, ex-Bulls forward James Johnson (12 points), whose energy on both ends of the court and apparently either improved scoring ability or motivation to prove the team that drafted him wrong for trading him helped the Raptors cut what was once a double-digit deficit to a mere two points. But Dengs scoring managed to help stem the tide until Thibodeau inserted the rest of his regulars.

Surprisingly, the Bulls starting lineup was unable to create any separation from a young, inexperienced Toronto squad, which played a zone defense that seemed to occasionally flummox the home team, with Chicago often settling for contested jumpers. Despite strong play from Boozer and Rose persisting, the teams were tied at 37 at halftime, complete with identical 18-for-43 shooting numbers.

It remained a close-knit affair after the intermission, as the Bulls continued to struggle shooting the ball and seemed less than supremely motivated against a clearly inferior opponent. Rose and Boozer were the protagonists, but the teams overall offensive flow appeared to be out of whack, as the Bulls routinely forced perimeter shots or mishandled passes and rebounds alike.

Defensively, however, the hosts continued to limit the Raptors to similarly poor shot selection and although instant-offense reserve guard Leandro Barbosa (15 points) came off the bench to spark the visitors, the Bulls held onto a slim edge. At the end of three periods, the home team led their guests, 56-52.

Thibodeau went small at the start of the final stanza, plugging in third-string point guard John Lucas III (10 points) next to Rose (in lieu of the still-sidelined C.J. Watson), and using reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver next to the backup big-man tandem of Taj Gibson (11 points, 12 rebounds) and Omer Asik. Chicago responded with increased energy and a faster pace, as Gibsons relentless interior play and Lucas quickness freed up Rose and helped the Bulls gain momentum and take a double-digit advantage.

Whatever I have to do to help my team, Im willing to lay it on the line because I dont want to disappoint Thibs. I want to go out there and do the best job I can. Hes a good coach, Gibson explained. Thats one thing about our team. You never know whos going to provide the spark. Our starting five always does a great job. Theres always somebody whos going to come in and play lights out. Who knows whos going to step up the next game?

Added Thibodeau: I really liked it because Gibson didnt have a great first half, but he stayed with it and in the second half, he was great, so I liked how he persevered through things not going his way early on.

I thought our team played great in the fourth quarter, in all areas," Thibodeau continued. "Offensively and defensively. I thought John hit some open shots, I thought Derrick made some good plays, I thought the ball moved, I thought the defense was very good.

With Gibsons remarkable effort on the boards and the streak-shooting Lucas catching fire a monster follow-up dunk from Gibson, followed by a Lucas crossover move and finish at the rim energized the United Center crowd and caused the short-handed Raptors to start to unravel, as the Bulls lead ballooned.

In the end, the home team cruised to an easy victory, with a day off in advance of a Monday afternoon matinee in Memphis for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Its still not over. They keep coming, deadpanned Thibodeau. Were not looking back. Were just looking at the next one.

Chimed in Rose: Weve still got a long way to go. Thats the scary thing about it. Were still learning each other.

Were trying to get as many wins as possible. We know that we have a good team, he added. Winning definitely feels good, but while were winning, were still going over all of our mistakes, so that all of us are on the same page.

Taj Gibson starting for Bulls on Opening Night puts spotlight on shooting

Taj Gibson starting for Bulls on Opening Night puts spotlight on shooting

The Bulls’ starting five is set and healthy before Thursday’s season opener against the Boston Celtics, with Fred Hoiberg announcing that Taj Gibson will start at power forward after his strong preseason.

Or, if one chooses to be a little more realistic, Gibson won the competition in large part due to Nikola Mirotic’s underwhelming showing, as Mirotic came into camp as the favorite with his outside shooting making him a more natural fit offensively.

With Gibson’s insertion, the Bulls will be one of the worst 3-point shooting starting fives in the league, although Mirotic and Doug McDermott can balance things out when they’re on the floor.

“We feel like he has played excellent basketball throughout the preseason,” said Hoiberg of Gibson. “He’s been good in practices. We’ve talked to our guys about that. Niko has had a couple good practices in a row now. You try to get him in a good rhythm coming out of the gate. But that’s the way we’re going to start.”

Hoiberg has touted Mirotic’s practices as being stellar, but he struggled though most of the preseason. It seemed like Hoiberg was attempting to give Mirotic the benefit of the doubt before announcing what should’ve been obvious to those who’ve watched the Bulls in the preseason, that Gibson was the better performer.

“Taj is a fighter,” said Jimmy Butler, who wasn’t surprised with the outcome. “That’s one thing you know you’re going to get from him. He’s one of the toughest guys that we have, somebody that’s always working.”

One of Butler’s main concerns last season was that the Bulls lost their defensive identity, that their toughness left the building when Tom Thibodeau was fired and the offensive-minded Hoiberg was ushered in.

Presumably, Gibson’s nod can be taken as a return to the Bulls’ roots—although anyone in their right mind wouldn’t be wrong to think if Mirotic had been the least bit consistent, he would be a starter and Gibson would be a reserve.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“I think everybody is trying, man,” Butler said. “I’m not going to say that we’ve got the best defenders, that’s for sure, but as long as you’re putting in the effort. Sometimes good defense is just getting in the damn way. I’m telling you.”

The Bulls finished as a middle of the pack team in terms of defensive efficiency last season, but experienced a steep decline after the All-Star break, leading to their first lottery appearance since 2008.

“As long as guys are out there competing, we’ll take it if someone hits a tough shot over you or whatever,” Butler said. “When we think about the offensive end entirely too much that’s when we get down a lot.”

With Dwyane Wade, Butler and Rajon Rondo needing Mirotic to provide the necessary floor spacing to keep defenses honest, it means there’s more pressure on Hoiberg to stagger minutes and alter his rotations early in games.

Wade has shot the ball well in the preseason, but is a career 28-percent shooter from deep. Rondo shot 36.5 percent last season but like Wade, is at 28 percent for his career.

Butler is the best of the bunch, having shot 37.8 percent in 2014-15 but dipped to 31 percent last year, and is a 32.8 percent shooter for his career.

“We just have to step up, take them, shoot them with confidence like we do every day in practice,” Butler said. “I think we’ll be fine. As long as we’re guarding, the offense will take care of itself. We’re constantly in attack mode. There’s more than just shooting 3s.”

Which means a tough task just became all the more complicated. Hoiberg typically replaced Wade with McDermott midway through the first quarter and then brings Wade back to finish up in place of Butler.

More tinkering and some downright wizardry will have to be worked for things to go smoothly—but then again, it doesn’t have to be smooth to be effective.

“if we can things staggered it the right way---and we’ll continue to look at things---what you see on Thursday might not be what you see in the middle of the season,” Hoiberg said. “We have to start somewhere. We’re comfortable with the lineup and the rotation plan we have.”

CSN's Top 25 players in the NBA

CSN's Top 25 players in the NBA

No matter how much you rely on analytics and logarithms in determining who are the best players, ultimately it becomes about judgment.

Should win shares have a greater value than a player’s winning percentage in the playoffs? Is defensive rating a better barometer about a defender’s ability than say, defensive field goal percentage differential? And how much do you weigh how they fare versus playoff teams and non-playoff teams? A legitimate case can be made for all those numbers and many, many more, being used to rank the top 25 players.

Realizing such an endeavor should not be a one-person job, I enlisted the help of my fellow CSN Insiders, compiled our rankings and voila! We made a beautiful, bouncing list of more than two dozen players.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

The scoring for this is pretty simple: Each Insider picked 25 players, ranking them from No. 1 through 25. Their number one pick received 25 points, No. 2 got 24, No. 3 got 23 and … you get the picture.

Without any further delay, here is the first annual CSN Top 25 NBA Players list in addition to our "others receiving votes" group.