Monday night's victory against the San Antonio Spurs looked like vintage Bulls. On both ends of the United Center floor.
On one hand, Fred Hoiberg's group continued its stellar defensive play in the early season. The Bulls limited San Antonio to 89 points, one off the Spurs' season-low, including just 16 in the decisive fourth quarter. The Spurs shot 41 percent from the field and made two 3-pointers, uncharacteristic of a Gregg Popovich team ranked third in field goal percentage entering the game.
The Spurs made three field goals in the final 5:30 and Pau Gasol blocked three shots, including a LaMarcus Aldridge layup attempt in the final minute of a tie game. Three Bulls free throws later Jimmy Butler stifled a Kawhi Leonard jumper in the closing seconds before Derrick Rose tipped a Tony Parker desperation 3 at the buzzer.
It was a classic Bulls performance on the defensive end, one that would have made Tom Thibodeau proud. And yet, despite the gritty effort it was only just enough to skate by because of ongoing offensive struggles that don't seem to be going away.
Granted, the 92-89 victory came against a Spurs team leading the league in defensive efficiency and opponent points per game, and third in field goal percentage defense. Though the Bulls would have preferred an up-tempo pace they're transitioning into under Hoiberg, Popovich's staple has been to never react to an opposition's style. Monday night was just that, as the two teams combined for 14 fast-break points and battled much of the night in halfcourt sets.
And again, the Bulls struggled. They shot 43 percent from the field, helped largely by a second-quarter burst in which they scored 32 points on 50 percent shooting. In the other three quarters they shot 24-for-60 and committed 10 turnovers. They earned a victory - their fifth in six tries at home - despite not making a field goal in the game's final 6:30, when Taj Gibson's putback dunk gave the Bulls a five-point lead.
"We kept defending, and that’s the big thing. If your offense isn’t going, if you’re not making shots – we had a couple good looks, had a couple at the rim there that just didn’t fall," Hoiberg said after the game, "but we kept it going on the defensive end and that’s what won the game for us."
In a vacuum Monday night was a classic case of a team doing what it needed to earn a victory. The Bulls have now won games in which they've scored as few as 92 points and as many as 115. The veteran core, even under a first-year head coach, played within the game, understanding points were going to be difficult to come by against San Antonio's stingy defense, and matched the Spurs with one more defensive stop.
Added Gasol, who went 6-for-18: "You get to the line and you defend and you figure it out, you find a way to win. That’s the most important part of what happened tonight."
It was enough Monday night, but may not be moving forward.
Entering Monday's contest the Bulls ranked 26th in offensive efficiency, better than only the Pistons, Nets, Lakers and 76ers. Those four teams are a combined 15-54, with Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Philadelphia touting the three worst records in the NBA. For all the gripes about Tom Thibodeau's shortcomings to maximize the Bulls' offensive potential, Chicago ranked 10th in the same category a season ago.
As they've become more familiar with Hoiberg's offense, the Bulls have significantly cut down on their turnovers. After averaging 15.1 giveaways in the first seven games of the year, they've cut that number down to 13.2 in their last eight. Committing only 11 against a Spurs team averaging 14.6 takeaways per game was yet another step in the right direction, and the Bulls handed out 25 assists on their 37 made baskets, including a season-high seven from Joakim Noah.
But the offense still isn't clicking, and Fred Hoiberg's decision to utilize Nikola Mirotic (eight points in 24 minutes) in a starter and using Doug McDermott (12 points in 30 minutes) in a larger role has put an obvious emphasis on shooting and scoring. Results have varied. Jimmy Butler is playing at an All-Star pace again, McDermott and Tony Snell have filled the void in place of the injured Mike Dunleavy, and E'Twaun Moore has provided unexpected production, especially as Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich have dealt with injuries. And yet the product as a whole is still questionable.
Derrick Rose was the ignitor in the second quarter Monday night, scoring on three consecutive trips and handing out four assists to help the Bulls to a one-point halftime lead. But he finished the night 5-for-17 and didn't log an assist in the second half. It's been an ongoing struggle for the point guard, who said after the game that while his vision is still blurred it's no longer affecting him. He's shot just 16-for-53 (30.1 percent) in three games since returning from a two-game absence (ankle), and his field goal percentage sits at 35.6 percent, which would be the lowest mark of his career - excluding his 10-game season in 2013.
The Bulls' offensive rating with Rose on the floor is 98.0, and jumps to 103.4 with him off the floor. That on/off difference of -5.4 points ranks third worst among starting point guards, ahead of only Houston's Ty Lawson (-7.5), who was benched last week, and Orlando's 21-year-old Elfrid Payton (-9.0).
Thanks in large part to the second unit performing well, the Bulls again were more efficient with Rose off the floor. McDermott, Tony Snell and E'Twaun Moore combined to go 12-for-23, scoring 29 points. With Rose off the floor the Bulls' offensive rating was 107.8. In Rose's 34 minutes, the Bulls had a rating of 97.3.
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Rose is hoping the Bulls' busy upcoming schedule will help him continue to shake off the rust and become more acclimated to Hoiberg's system. Whereas the team played four games in a two-week span on the road, the Bulls now have a three-game week followed by back-to-back four-game weeks.
"(I'm) getting there, man. I’m happy we play back-to-back-to-back now. Will give me a chance to get a couple of games under my belt, give me a chance to catch a rhythm," he said. "I love playing these games like this where it’s one day off then a game. I love that."
It's hard to argue with the Bulls' results. Before the calendar flipped to December the Bulls already tout home victories over Cleveland, Indiana, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, four teams that are expected to play deep into May. They're 10-5 and will play nine of their next 11 games at home, with eight of those opponents currently sitting in the bottom half of defensive efficiency. The Bulls are 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, as the core group known for their prowess on that side of the ball clearly still takes pride in shutting teams down.
Monday night was an impressive victory in which the Bulls went back to their old ways of defending down the stretch. But they'll need to take a new-school approach in righting the ship on offense to give themselves a chance in the long run.