PORTLAND—The buy-in from the Bulls is evident in the early stages of this season, with the remnants of the players buying into each other on display the last five games.
Whether it’s fighting over the top of screens on Portland’s Damian Lillard or keeping Atlanta’s Dwght Howard from unleashing holy terror on the interior by keeping him moving on defense, the Bulls are following their gameplans to the letter.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg employs a different defensive system than his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, and it was one that took major adjustments last season.
Going away from Thibodeau’s overloading style, where the Bulls would exhaust themselves bringing help to the strong side of the floor, took time to accept, let alone embrace.
“Big time,” said Bulls forward Taj Gibson on the notion there was resistance last season. “It was crazy, because at the same time, you've got guys who spent almost seven years with one style of defense, and then just changed it a little bit for different play calls, whatever you want to name it.
“But the main thing is, when you win games and it shows on film that what he's telling you to do actually works, you can't really question it. So right now, we can't question it.”
And it starts in film session, a daily ritual Hoiberg seems to swear by with this group. He bemoans not having ample practice time during the season to reinforce habits, and the difference is easy to see when the players are locked in.
Gibson said it starts with the veterans, or more specifically, Dwyane Wade.
“We pay attention to detail. D-Wade is a serious guy, he comes in with a serious mentality,” Gibson said following the Bulls' team practice at the University of Portland Wednesday. “He's always critiquing and giving his opinion on things. And I think guys tune in to that, the coaches, how we want to run certain plays. But we've got a great group of guys that want to win.”
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Gibson compared it favorably to Thibodeau’s days in one way: He said the vibe is like it was in 2010-11, Thibodeau’s first season with the Bulls. The Bulls won over 60 games, advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and Derrick Rose won Most Valuable Player.
“Guys are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and they don't complain and understand that you've got to listen to the coaching staff and buy in,” Gibson said.
Hoiberg believes it’s about a mindset on a nightly basis. In the last four wins, the Bulls have just surrendered an average of 89.5 points per game, and Hoiberg is impressed with the commitment.
“I think the big thing with what our guys is the energy they put in the game,” Hoiberg said. “You can say all you want how you’re gonna play certain actions but it’s the energy, more than you do with your schemes, and the effort. Our guys have been really good with that. The last three games, Miami was really good as far as how we wanted to play. Washington, I thought we were a little tired but we executed.”
They executed supremely against the Blazers, jumping on them early and never looking back. It was clear attention was paid, something that wasn’t always the case last year.
“As a team, we want to do well, we're correcting ourselves,” Butler said. “We're buying into the process, everybody's working on their games. We're actually paying attention to the scouting reports and doing what we're supposed to do on the defensive end. When you guard, the game looks really easy.”
As for the first game of a long road trip being a tone setter and Wade’s assertion that the Bulls need to finish 3-3 on the six-game trip to make it a successful one, Hoiberg wouldn’t bite.
“To get better every game,” said Hoiberg about any benchmarks. “I know what he (Wade) said but for me it’s about the process, growing as a basketball team win or lose. And we took a big step in the right direction in the Portland game.”