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.