If it’s one thing this Bulls team should learn or will learn, it’s that good to great defense will cover and cure a lot of ills, as their worst offensive quarter of Monday’s 112-80 win over the Orlando Magic was obscured by a defensive masterpiece of sorts in the same 12 minutes.
They responded to their first big of adversity this season with a resounding “A”, holding the Magic to 19 percent shooting in the third quarter, allowing just 11 points and outscoring the Magic by 16.
Forcing turnovers has been the only hallmark of this team defensively, but for the first time they forced an offensively-awkward Magic team into misses—especially after the first few minutes looked like an instant replay of the last three games, where defense was optional.
They changed that narrative for a night, as the Magic shot just 39 percent while trailing by as many as 39 points.
“That’s where it’s going to start for us,” Jimmy Butler said. “We scored the ball decently. But whenever we’re guarding, it makes the game a lot easier. We want to continue to play like that.”
They harassed the young and new Magic team to 15 turnovers, leading to plenty of open court opportunities and overall crisp offensive play that was missing in Indiana Saturday night.
“A totally different mindset than we had starting the game and the entire game at Indiana,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “The big message at halftime was to be the aggressor going out and I thought our guys responded to that.”
Butler scored 20 with seven assists, five rebounds and four steals while Dwyane Wade and Taj Gibson each scored 16, as the Bulls shot 47 percent.
Gibson hasn’t spent any summers with Hakeem Olajuwon or Kevin McHale but his post work against new Magic addition Serge Ibaka probably led some to believe he acquired a new skill set over the summer.
He put Ibaka in the spin cycle for most of the night in the post, faking and wheeling around for easy layups and duck-ins while Ibaka, a pretty good defender, was left in the dust.
It signified a more definitive and aggressive Bulls team for most of the night. They went to the foul line far more (31 attempts to six) and outrebounded the Magic by a decent margin of 56-39.
“If you draw the defender and make the simple play, you take advantage of the numbers on the back end,” Hoiberg said. “When we attack the basket like we’re doing, trying to drive and close out and draw contact, you get yourself to the free throw line.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
That mindset was on both ends, as it’s clear the Bulls are playing in peaks and valleys early on.
“It takes awhile to get consistent. Some teams get it, some teams don’t,” Wade said. “You don’t have to win every game at home, but most at home and go .500 on the road. That will get you to 48-to-50 victories.”
He didn’t want to look too far ahead, being so early in the season but it’s clear if the defensive intensity can carry—especially on the road—then he believes a 50 win-season is possible.
In one sequence, Wade switched out and knocked it away from Evan Fournier, leading to a fast break and Butler layup.
Butler then stole the inbounds pass, saved it from going out of bounds and the hustle resulted in a Rondo short jumper.
In the end, the sequence didn’t mean much in the outcome, but with the Bulls only up by six, it turned things in the Bulls’ favor when past history suggests it was very possible.
“Be aggressive, attacking the rim,” Butler said. “We protected our home court, you don’t want to lose at the United Center.”
It was part of a 23-3 run that ended matters, as the Bulls took a 25-point lead headed into the fourth quarter.
Hoiberg made a shrewd move early in pulling Rajon Rondo after the Magic scored 20 points in the first five minutes, with Magic guard Elfrid Payton giving the Bulls fits with his penetration and feeding to Nikola Vucevic for easy jumpers.
“The message was to pick it up, start guarding, make it uncomfortable,” Hoiberg said. “We denied some passes, that threw off some timing. That’s what it was about, all about getting out and making them uncomfortable. We did a much better job.”
Isaiah Canaan was inserted after a Payton end-to-end layup and the fun ended for the Magic there. A 19-2 run ensued to finish the quarter, as Hoiberg also gave second-year forward Bobby Portis a look late in the first quarter to add more energy.
“We didn’t guard a soul in the first four or six minutes,” Butler said. “After that, we started doing our job.”
Wade scored 12 in the first half and Butler 11 as the Bulls still couldn’t fully put the Magic away, allowing them to stay within nine at the half by shooting 55 percent.
Then the third quarter began and the faucet was shut off, leading to the Bulls stopping the bleeding, dishing out some pain of their own.