With the regular season seven days away, it appears Fred Hoiberg is beginning to give a glimpse into the decisions he’ll make before the Bulls host Cleveland for the NBA’s season opener.
He started playing his starters heavier minutes against the Indiana Pacers and strategically made substitutions that displayed who he likes on the floor together—like Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic on the frontline—which put veteran center Joakim Noah on the bench.
Whether its more tinkering or his true feelings—or even out of respect for what Noah has meant to this franchise since being drafted in 2007—there certainly appears to be the possibility of a paradigm shift at the position.
Noah played 15 minutes, some due to foul trouble and also because Hoiberg didn’t play the duo together, subbing each other in every quarter in the Bulls’ 103-94 win at the United Center Tuesday night.
“I may keep them together. I thought Noah played great tonight,” Hoiberg said. “I was thinking either Jo or Niko to finish things off. Since Niko didn’t get the minutes last night, we wanted him in there for the last five.”
Hoiberg bemoaned the lack of pace offensively in their loss to the Charlotte Hornets 24 hours prior, so while the players provided the quick pace, Hoiberg’s frontcourt of Gasol and Nikola Mirotic gave the Bulls enough space to operate.
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Mirotic hit four triples, including three in the first quarter when he played off Gasol and Jimmy Butler for easy looks, illustrating the new dimension of this offense.
The first was off a double-team from Gasol where he fed the post, leaving defenses to wonder to leave Gasol alone for single coverage or double down as a perfect pick-your-poison option.
The next was off a baseline drive from Butler where he drew multiple defenders and Mirotic just floated to an open spot where Butler could spot him.
Mirotic didn’t play the crunch-time defensive minutes as Hoiberg, as Taj Gibson played those minutes after seeing plenty of time off the bench playing with Noah, playing past his target minute mark of 15 for the second straight night.
“I thought they played very well together,” said Hoiberg of Gibson and Noah together. “I thought Jo gave him some high-low passes. That’s the good thing about this roster, we have the versatility to play a lot of different ways. Hopefully we find the rotation or at least the five to help us finish games.”
The Bulls’ defense improved in the second quarter, holding the Pacers to 11 points and looking quite reminiscent of a different era, while both sets of bigs were on the floor due to deft substitutions which gave them plenty of time in each quarter.
Holding the Pacers, a team that wants to get out to early offense just the same as the Bulls, to under 40 percent shooting is no minor feat.
They had to survive the Paul George early onslaught, where the All-Star who’s a little over a year away from a gruesome injury in Las Vegas decided to show up in regular season form.
He scored 15 of his game-high 26 in the first quarter while grabbing 13 rebounds in 35 minutes, outplaying his counterpart Butler.
Butler scored 12 with six assists and five rebounds while the bench guards, Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore, two players who want to stay in the rotation when Derrick Rose makes his return, made his own case.
“I thought they were better after that first stretch where we dug ourselves a hole,” said Hoiberg of the bench. “Our bench really got it turned around for us and got us going.”
Brooks hit four 3-pointers on his way to 22 points, six assists and five rebounds while Moore hit 5 of 7 from the field for 13 points and seven rebounds. He guarded George for a stretch in the fourth and did more than held his own.
But whether its experimenting or a sign of things to come, another layer of this Bulls season was revealed, with more questions yet to be answered.