“Force” and “intent” should’ve been the words written on the whiteboard in the Bulls locker room before Sunday evening’s game against the youthful, athletic Orlando Magic.
On the immediate heels of the disappointing loss to Detroit, two things were clear: When cutting down on silly plays and allowing old bugaboos to haunt them, they held a double-digit lead for most of the night.
But the lesson they’re learning very early is opposing teams have no problem challenging the notion of this new Bulls identity that relies more on skill than will.
And the Magic proved to be a worthy but not-quite-yet-ready adversary, making them sweat before the Bulls compose themselves for a 92-87 win at the United Center.
“The last five years they’ve been taught very well on the defensive end,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, referencing the man he replaced, Tom Thibodeau.
A 14-0 run that rendered the Bulls scoreless for nearly four minutes in the fourth quarter is giving more credence to the team’s lack of comfort level running whatever they need to in crunch time.
Derrick Rose found Pau Gasol for a free-throw line jumper shortly thereafter to break the ice, but the play with 2:50 remaining, one that gave the Bulls an 86-82 lead was their last basket of the night.
“He had a really nice pass to Pau, I thought he played really well,” Hoiberg said. “It was good to see him bounce back with a good one.”
From there, a little defensive muscle memory kept the Magic at bay, as Jimmy Butler did his best defensive back imitation, intercepting a pass from Andrew Nicholson at three-quarter court after a Bulls’ miss where a Magic player got behind the defense and would’ve had an easy dunk.
“Jimmy made a fantastic read,” Hoiberg said. “He got a deflection and we got the ball back.”
Butler, donning a Denver Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas jersey, described the play in football jargon.
“Me being a Denver Broncos cornerback, I backpedaled and saw Aaron Rodgers try to throw it over the top. I was Chris Harris on the play and I smacked it to Derrick, who was Von Miller.”
“I was just watching the guy to tell you the truth. I knew he was gonna throw it.”
Luckily for them, the Magic couldn’t do much offensively with the opportunities the Bulls gave them, until Victor Oladipo’s triple with 17.1 seconds left cut the lead to three—meaning free throws had to be made to seal the game, and the Bulls were perfect in their last six attempts.
“It’s a concern but we gotta learn from it,” Hoiberg said. “Thankfully we hit those free throws down the stretch. If you get them down by 15, you have to build it up to 20. We let teams back in.”
The Bulls corralled an early Magic surge when Joakim Noah and Doug McDermott came off the bench to provide a much-needed spark, with McDermott providing the shooting and Noah bringing everything else, illustrated by a two-handed dunk from Rose, a rare finish.
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Noah finished with eight points, nine rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes, splitting the time with Gasol at the center positon.
“It was real good,” Hoiberg said. “Pau got us off to a good start and he had a good rhythm. Joakim’s energy off the bench was terrific.”
Rose was in facilitator mode again, with eight assists in 32 minutes, as he failed to crack double figures in scoring as he still battles double-vision.
“Right now there’s no point in shooting if I can’t see,” said Rose, who took just eight shots, making two. “I’m just paying attention to the way they play me and I need to either drive, shoot a floater or get the ball out to my teammates.”
Had the Bulls made a few more shots, it could’ve been an easier finish but they again struggled from the field, shooting 38 percent and missing 21 of their 28 3-pointers. Nikola Mirotic, Gasol and McDermott were the consistent scorers, with Gasol and Mirotic putting up 16 each and McDermott scoring 10.
McDermott hit a buzzer-beating triple and another wing three from penetration to give the Bulls a 12-point lead before halftime, one they seemed to hold dear until turning the ball over opened the door.
But they again played solid enough defense for the fourth straight game, keeping the Magic under 40 percent and not allowing them to creep on the glass too much, at least not in the way the Pistons did Friday.
Only committing 15 turnovers, it certainly wasn’t a game featuring pristine effectiveness but they appeared to learn a quick lesson from a smarting loss in Detroit.