One of the expected benefits of dealing Derrick Rose this offseason was that it would help free up a Bulls offense that stagnated too often on their way to missing the playoffs last season for the first time in eight years. Rose returned to the United Center on Friday night for the first time in a visiting uniform, but it was his Knicks that looked like the sharper, crisper offense, while the Bulls stumbled to their second consecutive loss.
The final box score numbers don’t tell the entire story. The Bulls – in the 117-104 loss – still topped the century mark for the fifth straight time to begin the year. Dwyane Wade scored a season-high 35 points on 12-for-20 shooting, and Jimmy Butler also managed a season-high with 26 points – he made all 11 of his free throw attempts. Even Nikola Mirotic was impressive again, tallying 14 points – though just two after halftime – while Taj Gibson grabbed four offensive rebounds that helped the Bulls to 20 second-chance points.
Those positives masked the main issue that plagued the Bulls against a below-average Knicks team. The Bulls, which entered Friday’s action with the third most efficient offense, handed out a season-low 15 assists, and just two in the decisive fourth quarter; the Bulls’ second-to-last assist came at the 8:48 mark. It was the second consecutive night the Bulls had a season-low in helpers, as Wednesday night’s 21 assists against the Celtics also resulted in a loss.
“It wasn’t nearly as good," coach Fred Hoiberg said. "You look at the assists, 15 (assists) and 13 turnovers. They have 32 assists and five turnovers. That tells you all you need to know.”
Rajon Rondo continued his slide after two brilliant performances to open the season. The Bulls’ point guard missed nine of his first 10 shots as the Knicks defense sagged in and dared him to shoot outside shots in the opening period. When he didn’t, New York’s 26th-ranked defense was waiting for him in the lane. Rondo tallied just five assists, marking the third straight game he’s tallied five or fewer. Last year he led the NBA with 11.7 helpers per game, but has only reached double-digits once this year.
Michael Carter-Williams’ absence hasn’t helped matters, as Isaiah Canaan and Jerian Grant combined for two assists in 19 combined minutes.
Butler was aggressive, driving to the basket at will, and his 11 trips to the line admittedly lowered what that assist total could have been. Wade, the brightest spot on the Bulls offense Friday night, tallied just one assist. He did his damage in the scoring department, topping the 30-point threshold for the first time with the Bulls. When he and Mirotic were at their best, scoring 20 of the Bulls’ 34 points in the second quarter, the offense was moving the ball its best. The Bulls tallied six assists, 40 percent of their total for the game, in the only quarter they won (34-24).
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But it stalled again in the second half. The Bulls managed to get into the paint early in the third quarter, and were helped out by five offense rebounds that turned into eight points. But in the fourth quarter a 10-0 Knicks run sent the Bulls into an iso panic, with Wade and Butler perhaps forcing the issue in an attempt to slow down their opponent. Butler and Wade made nine field goals in the second half, and only one was assisted.
The Bulls entered Friday’s action averaging 329.5 passes per game, which ranked fourth in the NBA. Their 26.5 assists per game were fifth in the NBA, and despite the season being just four games old it was clear from watching them that the ball was moving well thanks to Wade, Rondo and Butler. That wasn’t the case against the Knicks and Rose, a player who caught criticism in Chicago for looking too often to score as well as careless turnovers.
Instead, Rose and the Knicks tallied a season-high 32 assists. Rose had 11 of those, the first time he had reached double-figures this season. Playing with a chip on his shoulder in his return to his hometown, he was a step quicker than the Bulls defense, and though he committed three turnovers, his corner pass to Carmelo Anthony for 3 with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter put the game away.
Even Joakim Noah, who twice led the Bulls in assists per game before leaving this summer via free agency, was sharp on his passes. He finished with four assists, while adding 16 points and nine rebounds.
The Bulls offense doesn’t appear to be bending. But the ball isn’t moving as well as it had the first week of the season. Wade said after the game he’d have to look at the film to determine exactly what went wrong with moving the ball, but that not matching the Knicks’ intensity in the opening 12 minutes was a factor in them playing from behind much of the night.
The good news, as Gibson said after the game, is that the Bulls will get a chance to turn around and right their wrongs. They’ll square off Saturday on the road against the Pacers, a team that they handed out a season-best 34 assists on in a 118-101 win last week.
But for one night, the Bulls’ new additions who had made them one of the best passing teams in the early season, struggled to find open passing lanes and shooters against a defense that two days earlier had allowed 25 assists to the Rockets.
“It’s been very strong,” Hoiberg said of his team’s ball movement. “Again, we were looking to come into this game, third in the league in passes per game and assists per game. It wasn’t moving like it needed to, obviously.”