BROOKLYN — It was all coming together for the Bulls, the timing, cohesiveness and muscle memory that comes when a group plays together for a long time during a season.
Except they hadn’t played together except for a few tantalizing stretches and even on this evening against the desperate Brooklyn Nets, they were without Joakim Noah who sat out with tendinitis.
But portions of what makes this team potentially great were on full display in their 113-86 win at the Barclays Center, if you could follow the zipping ball that moved around the floor all night on the way to the Bulls clinching home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which start Saturday.
Leaping touch passes from Jimmy Butler to Nikola Mirotic, when Butler cut to the middle of the floor but had his eyes on the sweet-shooting rookie in the corner the entire time, who obliged the unselfish play with a swish.
Or Derrick Rose looking ahead to find a streaking Pau Gasol ahead of the defense—while returning the favor to Butler for a layup when his backcourt mate galloped downcourt as Rose blazed his way through transition defense that looked like driving cones.
The piece that brings it all together lifts everyone and it appears the Bulls are nearing peak efficiency.
“Getting Derrick back is the big thing,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at what Pau has brought to our team, it's an entirely different dimension, then add it Jimmy and what’s he’s doing, then all the other parts fit well.”
Rose had more moments where he looked like himself from an explosive standpoint, getting to the basket with ease, but his control of the game from the point guard spot was probably just as encouraging, as he had another efficient night with seven assists and just two turnovers to go with his 13 points in 23 minutes.
“I think the real function of the point guard is how the team plays,” Thibodeau said. “I thought he had a good pace, good tempo. He got the ball movement for us. I thought he gave us rhythm into our threes.”
Rose’s vision was again a valuable part of his game, as his “point guard IQ” has risen in his various absences.
“I’m seeing the floor better,” Rose admitted. “They’re playing me different almost every game. Tonight they’re forcing me into the big. So Pau was open almost the majority of the pick and rolls.”
It was like that all night for the Bulls, who shot 50 percent from the field and took the life out of a road building yet again—like they did so casually in Miami. Mirotic, who was somewhat a favorite to the crowd that had a lot of red in the seats, nailed three straight triples to end the third quarter, to give the Bulls a 22-point lead.
The rookie scored 26 on six triples in just 24 minutes, while Gasol scored 22 with 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Butler scored 17 and Taj Gibson, starting in Noah’s place, scored 15 with nine rebounds and four blocks.
“You miss people because of injuries,” Rose said. “People getting sick, missing games here and there so we need everybody to be healthy to make this run. Jo sat out tonight getting his knee together. We’re gonna need everybody to make this huge push.”
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Mirotic was the beneficiary of great ball movement, as were most of the Bulls who registered field goals, with an impressive 26-8 assist to turnover ratio on the evening.
As their offense got crisper, the defense got tightened up, even with Noah. The Nets came into the game looking to make amends for a puzzling road loss in Milwaukee Sunday night, attempting to regain the magic that brought them to the thick of playoff contention, but needing some help in the final games to earn a berth.
The Bulls had nothing to offer but advice, taking a 25-point lead after back-to-back feeds from Aaron Brooks to Gasol for dunks a few minutes into the fourth quarter, as Gasol passed the 18,000 point mark for his Hall-of-Fame bound career.
After trading baskets for the second quarter, the Bulls had enough of that, holding the Nets to 15 points in the third, running away with the ballgame and heading into the season finale playing with the type of rhythm that could make springtime in Chicago a long one.