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Same old Bulls - in a good way.
It was fun in the preseason to talk about opening up the team's offensive scheme. But it has proven much tougher to execute the change in real games, especially with a veteran core that has been awfully good at playing defense-first basketball for a long time now. And that was exactly the way the Bulls pulled out their 92-89 victory over the Spurs on Monday night.
The Bulls improved to 10-5 overall (the third-best record in the Eastern Conference) as they embarked on a four-game homestand that will include games against Denver on Wednesday, the surging Charlotte Hornets (10-7) on Saturday and Phoenix on Monday. They did so after surviving an abbreviated circus trip with a 2-2 mark.
It probably should have occurred to fans that this whole "speed up the offense" thing wasn't going to work with the sort of talent the Bulls have. A team with two better-than-average centers and two solid and taller-than-average power forwards wasn't going to be able to go small as frequently as, say, the Golden State Warriors do when they really crank up their offense. The Bulls also aren't terribly deep at the guard and small forward spots right now, especially with Mike Dunleavy still out with back issues and Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks also sidelined lately with injuries.
(By the way, have you noticed the Warriors are now 19-0 and the 76ers are 0-18? We could easily be looking at a season in which the records for most and fewest wins, 72 and 9, are both broken.)
Let's give a little credit to Fred Hoiberg for seemingly recognizing early on this season that his personnel didn't match his desired scheme - and not fighting it. But only a little credit - this is still Tom Thibodeau-developed guys playing Tom Thibodeau-style basketball.
Actually, that is a bit of a misconception. There were numerous times last year when Thibodeau realized his team wasn't playing its best defense and adjusted his substitution pattern to give his best scorers a chance to win faster-paced games. But we all know Thibodeau's favorite style of play.
The main thing Hoiberg has done differently than Thibodeau, other than raising his voice slightly less frequently, is hand out the playing time.
So far, Jimmy Butler is averaging 37 minutes, down a couple from last year. Derrick Rose is at 32, and no one else is over 30. Hoiberg deserves a lot of credit for guiding a team that is winning twice as often as it loses despite significant limits on minutes.
As for the Spurs game, the Bulls survived some odd substitutions, including removing a hot Joakim Noah with just over six minutes remaining in the game. Hoiberg seemed to realize his mistake shortly thereafter and put Noah back in just past the five-minute mark, but the momentum generated by Noah's energy and efficiency at both ends during the first half of the fourth quarter was gone.
Noah had his by-far best game of the season, piling up eight points, seven assists and 11 rebounds in just 23 minutes.
Sure enough, the offense dried up late. But the defense made the difference, with a usual suspect making a huge play late - Butler forcing Kawhi Leonard into an air ball with 10.6 seconds left - and others chipping in as well.
Both Pau Gasol (a team-high 18 points and 13 rebounds) and Nikola Mirotic stood strong in the low post late, foiling Spurs scoring chances in the final two minutes. And in the end, Rose used his extraordinary speed/quickness at the defensive end, racing out to get a finger or two on Tony Parker's last-second three-point attempt.
The offense may not be speedy, but at least some individual Bulls still are.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays, or Tuesdays as the case may be. He welcomes your comments.