The word soft is rarely associated with the rough and tumble Chicago Bulls, much less uttered by a player to describe the team’s performance. But it felt appropriate after the Bulls sleep walked into Charlotte and allowed a winless Hornets team to hang 130 points on the scoreboard for a feat no opponent ever accomplished during the Tom Thibodeau era.
So the Bulls found themselves in a soul-searching moment sooner than expected under new coach Fred Hoiberg. Defined by defense for so long, Chicago is now charged with a pushing pace and defending with the same fervor it has in the past.
“We ain’t been playing no defense,” Jimmy Butler told ESPN.com after the loss on Tuesday. “Other teams have just been missing shots to tell you the truth, to be honest. [Shoot] we score enough points, that’s not the problem. But when you don’t stop nobody, they put up 130 or whatever they did, we got to nip that in the bud now because that’s not winning basketball. It will never be winning basketball here and it never has been winning basketball here. We’ve always prided ourselves on playing hard and not being pretty. Tonight, we were pretty, we were soft. Got our asses whipped.”
That biting quote still wafted in the air when the Bulls took the court Thursday to face the Thunder in a primetime game on TNT. Butler and Derrick Rose would not let another opportunity bypass the Bulls, producing 55 points and netting a 104–98 win. Each player found a way to do what he does best on a night when Chicago found a way to hold off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who combined for 53 points of their own.
For Butler, that meant providing tough defense on Durant and adding scoring punch from midrange. He did both admirably, stifling Durant on possessions like few defenders can. And while Durant still scored 33 points, Butler did about as good a job as you can on one of the best pure scorers in basketball.
Butler finished the game with 26 points after he scored 21 in the first half. When his offense slowed, Butler zeroed in on Durant. One such example came when Butler missed an easy layup and then blew a midrange shot. Never one to give up, he simply came back to the defensive end and drew a charge against Durant. This was the type of play that defines the Bulls, the kind that was missing in their loss to the Hornets.
And while Butler was focused on defense, Rose reprised his role as the lead dog on offense. Prior to Thursday’s win, Rose had scored in single digits in three straight games for the first time in his career. Over that span he converted only six field goals and shot 30.7% from the field. Rose’s shot attempts were down in those three games, and he did a decent job of facilitating, but he wasn’t competing at the level expected from a former MVP.
There are moments when Rose completes a quick crossover and displays a glimmer of the burst that made him an elite point guard and one of the NBA’s foremost athletes. The new reality for Rose sets in soon afterward, when he meets length at the basket and no longer has the leaping ability to finish over size. That came into play at times Thursday, as Rose missed six attempts inside 15 feet.
Stripped of his physical gifts due to a long list of injuries, Rose has yet to make the adjustment needed to get over that final hurdle. He entered the season emphasizing the need for an improved floater, but his drives can still be an odyssey at times. Of course, the major issue Rose faces is defenses don’t have to honor his outside shot. Rose had hit only 17.6% of shots outside of 15 feet heading into Thursday night and still hasn’t made a three-pointer. With all of these facts mounting, Rose then had to deal with rumors he could soon be breaking up with his hometown team.
Rose still fought his way out of that funk against the Thunder, using 25 shots to produce 29 points. In this case, the percentages weren’t indicative of the type of game Rose played. He spent most of the night in the paint and scored 10 consecutive points for Chicago in the fourth quarter, single-handedly fending off the late offensive attack of Durant and Westbrook.
“Them games don’t define who I am as a player,” Rose told TNT’s Craig Sager after the game. “I work extremely hard. It’s all about timing and rhythm.”
Rose, who had struggled with blurred vision because of a broken orbital bone, certainly played with a calm and rhythm rarely seen in his early performances. He played with a hop in his step and showed trust in his midrange shot in critical moments. “It’s all coming, I put my work in everyday,” Rose told Sager. “It’s a process. I know that.”