CHICAGO — Lately you’d be hard-pressed to believe it, but things were calm here on Monday night, the frustration far from palpable. And that felt important, after what looked like a week-long nervous sideshow to anyone on the outside looking in. With a boost from the bench and some welcome offensive rhythm, the Bulls put together a focused 48 minutes against another Eastern Conference hopeful and got a much-needed win on their home floor, topping the Raptors 104–97.
This could simply be a lull in the drama, or it could point toward better days ahead. Ever since Jimmy Butler called out Fred Hoiberg nine days ago in the middle of what became three straight losses, the firestorm has spawned trade rumors, the turbulence has been well-documented and one quality win in Oklahoma City on Christmas was somewhat glossed over by poor late-game execution in Dallas the day after. Bad juju seemed to be following the Bulls, with the start time of that loss delayed by literal tornadoes.
If you care about such things, an entire day of sleet in Chicago boded poorly, particularly with the Raptors—and the East’s highest-scoring backcourt—coming to town. But any potential Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-Derrick Rose-Butler showdown took a backseat to an unlikely Bulls bench unit—Tony Snell, Bobby Portis and Aaron Brooks—that out-toughed their opponents, got in transition and shot some life into a team prone to extended offensive stagnancy. They combined for 51 points, the rookie Portis in particular commanding postgame dialogue, bailing out Jimmy Butler’s worst performance of the season (five points on two of seven shots) from the next-day headlines.
The overall quiet is welcome for the Bulls, with things mostly light after the game and reporters loving the whole Portis storyline, but the tumultuous patch will persist only until the team decides it won’t. Rose, quietly in midst of his best three-game stretch of the season, was asked if the Bulls had found themselves. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “We’re still far away from it. We still have to clean up some things.” His candor was clipped but sensible, harping on “effort and energy” as the keys to figuring everything out.
Chicago has searched for that type of identity all season, but things began to appear off 10 days ago, heading into the final game of a then-undefeated five-game homestand, against Detroit. They’d pulled out those wins with varying levels of offensive zest, but won them nonetheless, continuing to hover around the top of the East standings while engendering highly-mixed discourse. The new head coach, still-changing star-filled rotations and at-times greatly uninspired play cast a shadow. And a frantic, quadruple-overtime 147–144 loss set things in motion.
That game had missed opportunities galore, a career-high 43 points from a zoned-in Butler and some coaching mistakes. Hoiberg admitted he should have called timeout at the end of the second overtime for a better look. An exhausted 35-year-old Pau Gasol was predictably pick-and-rolled to death in the final two overtimes by perhaps the most pick-and-roll happy team in the league. And things bubbled over a day later, with a lethargic 16-point loss to the Knicks at the Garden on tired legs. Afterwards, Butler sounded the alarms publicly and with some intent.
“I believe in the guys in this locker room but I also believe we probably have to be coached a lot harder at times,” Butler told reporters. “…I know Fred is a laid-back guy and I really respect him for that, but when guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, you have to get on guys—myself included.”
Butler continued that everyone had to be held accountable, clarified that blame didn’t fall solely on the coach and reiterated that everyone had to do their job. That was Tom Thibodeau’s famous mantra not seven months ago, when the Bulls let slip a 2–1 series lead against LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the rumors of the coach’s departure—and Holberg’s impending installation—grew loudest. And so began the strange soap opera, with a frustrating loss in Brooklyn two days later, what should have been seen as a statement win on Christmas save for what happened in Dallas the next day.
No coaching transition is perfect, particularly moving from a no-nonsense taskmaster to a relaxed former college coach in Hoiberg, and nobody should have expected that. One surprise? Defensively, the Bulls have mostly been just fine, top-five in defensive rating despite losing one of the sport’s hardest workers and strongest defensive minds. But a change that was perceived as if it would inject life and freedom into the offense has to some extent drained it, with the Bulls currently bottom-five in offensive rating and holding onto a slim but positive point differential through 29 games.
Monday night’s showing offered one positive vision for the future, in part due to the success of the second unit and the way everyone appeared to feed off of it. When the energy isn’t there—thinking back on the loss to Brooklyn a week ago in particular—Chicago’s offense tends to sputter and turn iso–heavy, with the ball sticking a few seconds too long in the hands of its stars, who take turns while others observe. Gasol still gets it done on the block and Rose and Butler are most comfortable scoring off the dribble, but as they pound the ball, possessions can be stilted and high-percentage looks are hard to come by. It’s one thing to empower your best players, but with this group, the downside of that has been visible at times.
There was far less of that against the Raptors as the Bulls controlled the glass, pushed the ball (mostly with the plodding Gasol off the floor) and generally moved it better in halfcourt sets. That stemmed from the reserves. Snell was largely responsible for putting away the game, scoring 16 fourth-quarter points, and the pairing of Portis and Taj Gibson down low abused Toronto on the glass. On competitive nights like this, things feel especially correctable.
As they host another high-quality opponent in the Pacers on Wednesday, the Bulls will again be under the microscope, and it won’t go away anytime soon. Rose, Butler and Gasol have to maximize their minutes together. There’s still the issue of what to do with Portis when Joakim Noah eventually returns from a sprained shoulder. Hoiberg will have to figure out the Snell/Doug McDermott/Nikola Mirotic situation at small forward. Odds are they won’t walk into a playoff spot this season, given the rest of the conference. But after all the commotion, Chicago will make it into the New Year mostly intact and with four months to play. Keeping some perspective might be a sensible resolution.