The stars come out in Los Angeles and the Lakers have played easy fodder for visiting teams, even during Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour.
It took some prodding but the Bulls played 30 minutes of cohesive ball and 90 seconds of devastating play after an extended lull that gave the Lakers hope, concluding matters with a 114-91 win at Staples Center.
Pau Gasol got more cheers than the Lakers’ starting center Roy Hibbert all night, and the crowd’s appreciation belied the fact he was better than any frontcourt player wearing gold, as he toyed with his former team for 21 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in 31 minutes.
Gasol caught his former teammate Bryant on the post on an opening possession and spun on him for a layup, much to the outward delight of both. Bryant had some bright spots but like he has all season, struggled from the field to score 10 points on four of 13 shooting.
The Bulls’ backcourt, who barely combine for half the playing experience of Bryant, played some of the most efficient basketball of the season and did it together, along with the last-second addition of E’Twaun Moore to the starting lineup in place of Tony Snell.
It led to more ball movement and easier shots all around—along with the Lakers’ lackadaisical defense.
“I thought it was important to get off to a good start in the first quarter,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We did that, we had nine deflections. Got some run outs, got some confidence. The ball was moving much better, 29 assists, 11 turnovers. That’s a great sign.”
Derrick Rose, who returned after missing most of Monday’s loss to Miami with hamstring soreness, made his first five shots of the game and scored 16 with seven rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes.
Butler, who was announced as an All-Star reserve earlier in the day, lived up to the billing with 26 points, 10 assists and five rebounds, hitting 11 of 17 shots in 31 minutes and was a game-high +31 while on the floor.
Wherever the Bulls are going to go, if anywhere, come April and May, Rose and Butler will be the driving forces.
One can wonder if the growing chemistry has more room to grow than previously thought.
“It’s always gonna improve. It’s new for me, it’s new for him,” Rose said. “Playing with an elite guard, we’re very young. The way he’s playing is great, I want him to shoot more but I love his shot selection. The way he’s driving and getting to the lane, it’s helping our team all along.”
It’s not a coincidence, it seems, that since Rose’s play and aggressiveness has picked up since Christmas, Butler has played more facilitator, tallying his best assist games in the last three weeks.
“We were talking about it before the game, laughing about it,” Butler said. “Saying the more games we get under our belt, the more comfortable we’re gonna be. I love playing with him, he’s super aggressive, he’s taking great shots. That’s what we need. As long as I follow his lead on that style of play we’ll be good.”
The Bulls lead by 22 late in the second quarter and held the lead for most of the night, even sitting Butler and Gasol as the game seemed secure and the Bulls were laughing it up on the bench in their first game without Nikola Mirotic, who’s out until the All-Star break with acute appendicitis.
“You can tell the way they’re talking to each other, communicating while on the bench,” said Hoiberg of Butler and Rose. “They had a couple lobs in transition, and played off each other beautifully. When those two are playing with that attack mentality, we’re pretty good.”
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But you couldn’t tell he was missing with the way the Bulls shared the ball better than they had all season, with 29 assists and before their extended lull, one could say they played their most serious ball of the year, given their tendency to play down to their opponent.
Then Nick Young, Jordan Clarkston and Julius Randle turned up the energy enough to cut the lead to 15 and leave Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg perplexed at his team not being able to effectively put the game away.
Then the Bulls couldn’t close out the Lakers and the Lakers couldn’t continue to close in, until Butler and Gasol re-entered the contest with six minutes left and the game stagnant on the scoreboard but the Lakers clearly carrying the pace with their energy.
Then order was restored, with Butler scoring on a backdoor dunk from Gasol followed by Rose going behind the back on a pass to E’Twaun Moore for a layup to push it back to 19 and send Bryant, who emerged to head to the scorer’s table, back to the bench.
“It’s coming to me,” said Rose, almost sheepishly. “The plays I made, I felt like they were necessary. I don’t know, just caught up in the moment.”
It was expected, and it was decisive but it was necessary given the state of affairs.