Of all the shuffling to find the right mix and energy for the starting five, the Bulls have seemingly stumbled upon an identity and consistency with their bench.
Perhaps unknowingly, moving Nikola Mirotic to the bench in favor of Taj Gibson to play with Doug McDermott and Joakim Noah has turned the second unit into a ball moving, sharpshooting group that can raise holy hell on opponents.
And suddenly it seems both groups are finding a comfort level with each other, though one can say the bench is a few steps ahead of forming an identity than the starters.
Noah starts as a hub offensively, with cutters and movers all around. It’s led to decisive actions from McDermott and Mirotic either to the basket or on the perimeter. Being quick, yet not in a hurry or out of control has paid plenty of dividends for the group.
McDermott hit four triples in the Bulls’ 98-85 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, most of them coming in the fourth quarter when Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler were resting and the Bulls were fighting their season-long trend of giving up decent-sized leads.
Mirotic nailed five triples in the Bulls’ 115-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday, a game that saw the Bulls trailing at halftime before waking up.
Noah, perhaps still the emotional leader of this entire bunch, had a tangible impact in Saturday’s 98-94 win over the New Orleans Pelicans with 10 points, nine rebounds, two assists and four blocks.
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If one thinks about it, all likely believed they’d be starters going into the season, with big minutes and even bigger effects. But they've seemed to settle into their roles now, which can be easily accepted under the guise of winning.
“You know what, it is a very unselfish team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When guys are accepting of change and roles, they may not always like it but they're accepting of it, they don't complain about it and it's important. If you change something based on what you see, it's easier on the coach when guys accept it.”
Noah can cover McDermott and Mirotic’s deficiencies on defense, so long as they put forth effort to provide some resistance to offensive players, and the Bulls are a top-three rebounding team whenever Noah is on the floor, so they can close possessions better.
Mirotic and McDermott’s presence makes it easier for him to be a playmaker on offense without clogging up the driving lanes, because at the least, he’s active and not just an afterthought.
“Yeah, that and I think offensively it just gives us another spacer out there with you,” Hoiberg said. “Jo and Taj had pretty good chemistry as far as the high-low stuff, but this opens up the paint a little bit, it gets Doug more dribble-handoff type actions. You've got a true floor spacer out there with Niko. With the way the two five-man groups are playing, I think it's a little bit better fit.”
Mirotic didn’t take his demotion as one and has been more decisive in shooting — perhaps by the osmosis of watching McDermott launch whenever he’s open.
“He was great,” said Hoiberg of the conversation he had with Mirotic. “He said whatever feels best for the team, I talked to him about the different role that he was going to have.”
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McDermott has benefitted from Hoiberg’s system more than anyone, knowing he has the freedom to launch triples at virtually any time so long as it’s a good shot, and playing with Butler and Rose leaves defenses stressed out and stretched thin, when he’s on.
Aside from a scoreless game against the Clippers, McDermott has been consistent in recent memory, scoring in double figures in six of the last eight games and for the season, he’s shooting 44 percent from 3, good for eighth in the league.
Safe to say, it’s necessary.
“I just feel so much more confident. Last year I was kind of scared out there,” McDermott said. “It starts with the defensive end, I’m starting to understand things more. And I don’t think about stuff on offense much either. I really want the ball. I feel like I can make it the majority of time.”
And they need this group to play with continuity while the starters catches up.