Don't look now, but the Bulls are improving defensively, turning the ball over less and catching a spark in the win-loss column.
Knock on wood.
"I don't want to jinx us," head coach Billy Donovan quipped of the turnover and defensive trends before Monday's 120-100 win over the Houston Rockets.
For one night, at least, Donovan is safe. The Bulls committed just 12 cough-ups against the Rockets, well below their 29th-ranked average of 15.9 per game. They allowed 100 points, the second-lowest scoring output of the season for a Bulls opponent. And the victory moved the Bulls to 14-16 on the season -- 7-5 in the month of February, 6-3 since Lauri Markkanen was sidelined with a shoulder sprain and 4-1 since Wendell Carter Jr. returned five games ago.
Through 12 February contests, the Bulls' numbers tell the story of a team making strides from the beginning of the year, when leaky defense and offensive lapses reigned:
Bulls in February
- Offensive Rating: 113.2, 15th in NBA (entered month: 115.3, 15th)
- Defensive Rating: 109.2, 8th (entered month: 113.6, 27th)
- Net Rating: 4.0, 6th (entered month: -3.4, 22nd)
- Turnover Rate: 13%, 9th (entered month: 17.1%, 29th)
- Opp. Points Off Turnovers: 15.3, 6th (entered month: 21.9, 29th)
- Record: 7-5, 10th (entered month: 7-11, t-24th)
That has the Bulls hanging around a league average offense, sniffing the top 20 in defense and approaching a neutral point-differential. Plus, playoff positioning, as they entered Tuesday holders of the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed.
Donovan buys what the stats are selling, particularly on the defensive end.
"I think we've gotten better. I believe that," he said. "Some of our difficulties have been, one, size at times. Teams playing over the top of us. We've done a really good job rebounding.
"I think we've done a better job in pick-and-roll, in particular, of getting the ball under control. I think one of our biggest issues was, there was not a lot of physicality to the ball. There wasn't really a lot of control of the ball and it kind of went where it wanted to go. And I think when you're dealing with good players with the ball in their hands, having that kind of space and freedom, it makes it really difficult. So I do agree, we've made some strides, we've gotten better."
Oh, and not for nothing: "We haven't turned the ball over as much," Donovan added, "which has led to a lot of run-outs and leak-outs. So there's a lot of things that go into that. But I think in the half court when our defense is set, I feel like our guys have gotten better."
In typical fashion for the Bulls' first-year coach, there were nits to pick, which he has done in times of victory and defeat to continue pushing his young group.
"We got off to such a poor start defensively that, how much more we can continue to climb I don't know," Donovan said. "We foul entirely too much... We have got to be able to be physical without fouling, and silly fouls."
Donovan specifically called out the fourth quarter of a recent loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in which the Bulls allowed the 76ers 14 free-throw tries (eight of those coming from Joel Embiid). On the season, the Bulls rank 25th in opponent free-throw rate (.28) -- a figure which hasn't much improved this month (.275, 26th).
He also said the Bulls' 12 turnovers against the Rockets could have been a lot lower if not for first-half foibles by Carter and Tomáš Satoranský, who combined for five cough-ups on the evening.
"That’s got to be a really important piece for us. We have to keep getting better at that," Donovan said.
Still, the going is good for the Bulls right now. The second half in Houston was a firing-on-all-cylinders affair in which the offense exploded for 46 third-quarter points to turn a six-point game into a blowout. The scoring was again well-balanced, the defense held the Rockets to sub-40 percent shooting and the Bulls took advantage of an overmatched opponent to secure an easy victory, continuing to build momentum in the process.
It's all a far cry from the utterly demoralizing defeats at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers that opened the campaign, and, as Thad Young said, "light years" from where the Bulls were this time last season.
"Overall this team is in a great space. We believe we can win every single game we go out there and play," Young said. "We know it starts with the defensive side of the basketball. So we try to get it started from there and let that trickle down into us playing and executing really good offense and I think we’ve done that for the most part.
"But there is still room for growth and we are continuing to grow and each and every day, and we are doing a really good job of just buying into what coach is instilling in us and what we are coming into the gym working on every day."