Bulls

The hour-long meeting between Butler, Wade and Rondo that led to Bulls' Game 2 victory

The hour-long meeting between Butler, Wade and Rondo that led to Bulls' Game 2 victory

BOSTON—Halfway to history, leaving nothing to chance.

The TD Garden was the Bulls' personal playpen on Tuesday night in their decisive 111-97 win, as the veteran leaders sensed before the game an opportunity was upon them and weren't going to leave anything to chance.

They wanted to make the Celtics quit, and Rajon Rondo wasn't shy about letting everybody know exactly what his intentions were.

Jimmy Butler is intent on showing the front office that he's a No. 1 guy you build around, not one you dangle to jumpstart a rebuild.

Dwyane Wade, seemingly the one with nothing to prove, wants to show he's still living for May and June.

The three were actually greeted by Celtics GM Danny Ainge after they left their press conference, exchanging pleasantries.

Wade has put Ainge out, Ainge wants Butler in, and Ainge knows exactly what "Playoff Rondo" is all about.

Three individual agendas, one common goal.

Rondo near triple-doubles with 11 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists.

Wade fourth-quarter daggers, scoring 11 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter.

Butler doing it all with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Their elevator goes higher than the Celtics on talent and experience, with veterans who are aroused by the pressure of the playoffs compared to the often-mundane regular season.

Butler, Wade and Rondo met together for an hour after the team's morning shootaround, they revealed to CSNChicago.com. 

No coaches, no teammates, because they knew the burden of advancing fell on they and they alone.

They were going over everything, from strategy to philosophy to even some impromptu play calls they made on the fly.

Considering everything the team has been through this season—and more specifically, the Three Alphas have been through—the meeting of the minds was of grown men who were all on the same page, finally.

Wade said he, LeBron James and Chris Bosh would have similar meetings after morning shootarounds during their days in Miami, leading to four straight trips to the NBA Finals and two titles.

"It was great, spending time with those guys," Wade said to CSNChicago.com after he, Butler and Rondo left the podium on Tuesday night. "Listening to their basketball minds, all of us listening to each other's mind and on the same page. People forget, we just got together. It doesn't just happen. You gotta go through something for it to happen. The best thing is, we went through the adverse situation."

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bulls playoff tickets right here!]

Wade chuckled because he knew what came to mind, considering the three were in the eye of a storm three months ago after a frustrating loss to the Hawks. Wade and Butler were beyond incensed after blowing a 10-point lead in the last 3 minutes, making subtle and pointed comments about teammates not being focused enough on winning.

The next day, Rondo took to Instagram to call out Wade and Butler. From that point, imagining those three together on a playoff podium seemed as unlikely as an eighth seed beating a one seed in the NBA Playoffs.

Improbable, but not impossible.

"We didn't even have to talk about it," Wade said to CSNChicago.com "Every team I've been on, we've hit adversity at some point. Some, in the playoffs. You wanna hit it before the playoffs and I think we hit it before the playoffs. It made us better, communicate better. Lead better."

While on the podium a few minutes earlier, Wade joked that he "hated" Rondo competitively due to their playoff battles of years' past.

"That hate is that respect," Wade said to the media. "When we played against Boston back in the day, he knew all the plays. He messes up your first option. And then he knows the second option. We were just good enough to have a third option. He was that good."

Now that respect has turned into trust after all three have gone through individual turmoil this season, with Rondo being benched, Wade going through his elbow injury and Butler enduring another season of trade rumors and questions about his leadership.

Now, they're leaning on each other on the floor and figuring out how to make the best of a high-pressure playoff run. When Rondo launches an 80-foot pass to a 6-foot-7 wide receiver that would make Fred Hoiberg cuss under his breath, that's trust. When Butler passes up a lane to feed a cutting Wade for a dunk on the break, that's a team growing to believe in itself.

"I know what Rondo brings," Wade said to CSNChicago.com. "As somebody who played against him. Now I get to experience it up close and personal, I f------ love it. Because he's gonna make sure he's prepared, the last guy on the bench is prepared. Coach is prepared, he's gonna challenge everyone to be as prepared as he is. And when your point guard, your leader is prepared, we're all prepared."

Calling Rondo "our point guard" wasn't a slip of the tongue, as Wade told Rondo after the game, "Way to lead your team tonight."

When Wade signed with the Bulls, he openly stated it was Butler's team and he was there to aid the growing star. Now, he's taking even more of a backseat, ceding space on the floor for Rondo to dominate and be the maestro who gets everyone involved.

"I played on so many teams, man. At the end of the day, I'm all about winning," Wade said to CSNChicago.com. "You know what the easy thing is? It's easy to tell somebody else to play a role, you know what I'm saying? 

"To be a successful team, everybody's got a role. Jimmy's got a role. His role is to be a No. 1 option. I got a role. If you wanna be able to tell people to play their role, you gotta be able to play their role. I had a time where I had the ball every damn play. 35 years old, I don't need that role. My job is to support Jimmy and if they need me to lead, I'll do my job."

Part of his job has been to warn teammates about the perils of relaxing upon coming home, even though Wade himself has never stolen two games on the road to start a playoff series.

But even he admits he doesn't know how this wild, winding ride will end. All he knows is it's exciting and exhilarating.

"This is the only reason I play. Eighty-two games is great but I'm built for this moment," Wade said. "The reason I signed here, I talked to Jimmy, was about this. Talked to Rondo, was about this. We didn't just wanna get in. We had to learn each other. We had to learn how to play together. At the end of the day, this is what we're built for. And we're getting better. We're getting better, still as the season went on. That's the crazy thing. Hopefully there's more season to go on."

Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

bulls_tune_in.jpg

Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. Pace and Space

The Bulls offense had a distinctly different feel to it this preseason than in years past. Yes, the lack of Jimmy Butler certainly had something to do with that. But it’s evident that Fred Hoiberg is getting closer to coaching the brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with. The proof is primarily in the 3-point shooting. To put it lightly, the Bulls have been chucking from deep.

Here are some of the raw numbers. The Bulls averaged 32.8 3-pointers per game in the preseason, which ranked fifth in the NBA. And it wasn’t just one or two players taking outside looks. The Bulls had seven players attempt 3.4 triples or more per game. They ranged from point guard (Grant) to shooting guard (Valentine) to small forward (Zipser and Holiday) to power forward (Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen). These long-distance shots are coming from all over.

That could be a reason that the Bulls’ pace was way up from last year’s regular season. Now, pace (how many possessions a team averages per game) doesn’t necessarily mean a team is running fast breaks and hoisting shots at the earliest opportunity. But what it does mean for the Bulls is they’re getting quick open looks from beyond the arc. Their pace in the preseason ranked 12th in the NBA, but at 105.2 possessions it was much quicker than a year ago (97.72). It’s still preseason, so all paces are up around the league, but you can tell this Bulls offense looks different.

2. The Holiday Season

You’ll probably be sick of “holiday” puns by the end of the month, but it’s Opening Night so let us slide by just this time. There was optimism when the Bulls signed Justin Holiday that the 28-year-old could be a rotation player and a fill-in while Zach LaVine recovered from ACL surgery. Never an efficient offensive player, the Knicks were much better defensively with him on the floor last season, and on a Bulls team losing Butler there was a need for a wing defender.

And if the preseason proved anything it’s that Holiday is going to be more than a rotation player. That’s not saying all that much on a Bulls roster void of premier talent, but Holiday is likely the Bulls’ best healthy player at this point. He was stellar in the preseason, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot 57 percent from beyond the arc and averaged a team-high 29.3 minutes. Holiday simply looked the part.

Expect Holiday to lead the Bulls in field goal attempts most nights, and expect him to defend the opposition’s best player (DeMar DeRozan tonight). Again, this isn’t to say he’s necessarily a building block for the future or is going to make fans forget about Jimmy G. Buckets. But it’s nice to know the Bulls seemed to have hit on a free agent this offseason. Holiday enters the regular season with plenty of confidence.

3. Looking for progress

Unless he explodes in a good way, it’ll be too early to tell this year whether Lauri Markkanen is a piece of the future. He’s 20 years old and needs to put on muscle and learn the NBA before we decide what he’ll be. The same can’t be said for the other Bulls’ first-round picks.

Valentine is just in his second season, but he’ll also be 24 years old in less than a month. Drafting a college senior in the first round means he needs to be ready to play right away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Valentine had an up-and-down preseason: He made 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but he only took 16 2-pointers in 112 minutes, showing a lack of diversity to his game. The speed just isn’t there. Perhaps Kris Dunn’s injury will allow him to facilitate some. Defensively, he still needs to show improvement. This will be a big year for the second-year guard. Now is his time to show he can be part of the rebuild.

Lastly, Jerian Grant wasn’t a Bulls first-round pick but when you deal Derrick Rose (albeit the non-MVP version) you need to have something to show for it. Grant looked the part in preseason and probably would have won the job over Dunn even if Dunn didn’t dislocate his finger. But Grant, as a combo guard, could be part of the team’s future as a reserve that gives Hoiberg options in the backcourt going forward. He was good in the preseason and will get his chance to shine in a starting role. What he does with it will be something to watch for, and he gets a big test tonight against Kyle Lowry.

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

It was supposed to be an uneventful and culture-resetting season for the Chicago Bulls, but that ended the moment Bobby Portis’ hand connected with the sweet spot on Nikola Mirotic’s face.

Now a light is shining on an unwilling franchise and rightful questions are again being asked about what led to the event, rather than the result.

Mirotic will be out four-to-six weeks with facial fractures and a concussion to boot and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season, leaving rookie Lauri Markkanen to man the power forward spot against the likes of Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge his first two games.

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

It’s likely he received his wake-up call when he saw his teammates exchange friendly fire, though, considering the witnesses said Mirotic and Portis had been at it for awhile before Portis took one swing to conclude matters.

“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself but only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable,” Bulls Vice-President John Paxson said. “It’s not who we are.”

But when there is no discernable identity, and there’s a coaching staff who’ve witnessed these two go at it for well over two years you have to ask if this is who the Bulls are.

Not in the way of fighting but a team that collectively stands by idly while a situation builds and builds before it explodes, then is forced to clean up the carnage while having to explain and react to an unnecessary event.

Jimmy Butler, gone. Ditto for Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau? Dumped too before he picked up what the Bulls didn’t want in Butler on draft night, jump starting this process of the Bulls headed to Parts Unknown.

All have been blamed at some point for the state of affairs. Rose’s knees, Butler’s mouth, Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend.

Butler took a tongue-in-cheek shot directly across the bow of his former franchise when asked about the incident involving his former teammates, saying “All I know is I’m not to blame for this one”, a nod to the narrative surrounding his trade to Minnesota.

Now who’s left to blame and what happens from here is anybody’s guess.

“When’s the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on, where you had that competitive spirit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to have it to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don’t know.”

Both Paxson and Hoiberg expressed the rightful disappointment in Portis while also saying Mirotic had a hand in what occurred. Portis will ultimately bear the responsibility, with his eight-game suspension coming at the worst possible time as his option for next season hasn’t been picked up yet, as it’s hard to see he and Mirotic sharing the same space in a locker room whenever Mirotic returns.

And if he is still around, it’ll be on the players to keep a team from splintering — as if the expected losing won’t be depressing enough.

“As teammates, we're certainly supporting Bobby and supporting Niko,” said Robin Lopez, a de-facto leader on a young roster. “We're going to let them know that what they did, the way they messed up, wasn't right, but we're definitely supporting them.”

Lopez, along with many others, said the confrontation has been brewing for some time, that the pushing and shoving wasn’t anything new. From a human standpoint it’s understandable to sense tension as Portis has been itching for playing time for two years after playing behind veterans, anxious to cement himself on a team that drafted a player at his position four months ago.

Mirotic came in as a golden boy of sorts, handed a starting spot by Hoiberg two years ago and given every chance to snag a starting spot last year before Taj Gibson aggressively stepped in.

His up-and-down performances were rewarded with a $12-plus million deal this offseason and although players usually don’t count each other’s money, they take note of who’s favored and who isn’t.

Mix in competition and ego days before the season began and it’s not surprising something was on the horizon.

But it’s up to a coaching staff to step in, as assistant coach Randy Brown did before the parties were separated in the hope things would settle down.

They didn’t, and now Hoiberg will start yet another season having his aptitude to coach a professional team questioned before he can call an official play or lay out a rotation — because Portis laid Mirotic out on the Advocate Center floor.

Hoiberg desperately wants to change the narrative surrounding his first two years, eager to prove his system can work and that he’s capable of commanding a team that plays hard and organized on a nightly basis.

Whether this is an omen or a random event, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hoiberg to his detractors.

He stood to the side while Paxson addressed the media, appearing both bewildered and shocked he was having to address such a rare situation a little more than 24 hours before his season-opening cleanse was to occur.

“I’m very disappointed in what happened,” Hoiberg said. “Now, my job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. They’ve shown that going all the way back into late August.

“I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other, and we’re going to go into Toronto tomorrow as a group. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”

It’s clear the Bulls want to extricate themselves from the past couple years and now recent events, but when things are swept under the rug they have a funny way of reappearing at the weirdest times.