Here's the observations from the Bulls' 112-94 win over the Orlando Magic, Wednesday at the United Center.
Grand opening, grand closing: This one was over before it started as the Bulls jumped on a disinterested Magic team from the beginning with a 12-0 start and had Magic coach Frank Vogel disgusted early.
With Cleveland ahead on Thursday and coming off Monday’s thrilling win over the 76ers, Wednesday’s game was a trap game of sorts but the Bulls took matters seriously early.
“The start was key. We wanted to get out the gates,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s not the easiest thing to do is put that (Philadelphia) behind you, move onto the next. I was really pleased.”
Now, it helped the Magic looked as if they had one night too many on Rush Street in their three-day stay in Chicago, but the Bulls’ ball movement was crisp and it led to a season-high 31 assists as the Bulls got a combined 28 points and 13 assists from Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant.
It looked like the actual manifestation of Hoiberg’s offensive vision, even if the Bulls hit just 11 of 33 3-pointers. It was the spirit in which they moved the ball, leading to them taking a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter. As opposed to going through the motions, as they appeared to do to start the season, they now have purpose with ball movement.
They actually know where they’re going and what they want to do.
As much of a punching bag as he’s been through his time in Chicago, Hoiberg deserves credit for that.
For the way this team has stuck together through adversity of all kinds, they’ve seemed to take on Hoiberg’s demeanor through this phase.
He’s stressed the importance of ball movement and with six players in double figures, there’s no talk or worry about him losing this team.
“Justin (Holiday) had a great pass, we spread it to the corner and we had a ‘good to great play’ as we call it, where Justin had a good shot but he gave Denzel a great shot in an open corner three,” Hoiberg said.
For once, he can sleep easy in December.
Dunn and Valentine: In the way of player development, two of Hoiberg’s biggest successes have to come in the form of Dunn and Denzel Valentine.
Dunn has continued his torrid play with another stat-filling performance, scoring 15 with seven assists, six rebounds and three steals in 24 minutes. As for Dunn, he was averaging 16.8 points, 7.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals during the streak headed into Wednesday’s game.
He didn’t make the highlight plays, instead he took advantage of a lax defense, often finding Robin Lopez inside for easy, simple opportunities.
“The chemistry is good, positive energy,” Dunn said. “Executing well. Offensively, we’re starting to get more together.”
The Bulls have given him a mix of freedom and structure, and he’s responded in waves. He doesn’t hold onto the ball long before making some kind of movement and isn’t afraid to kick it out ahead to Holiday or Valentine to allow them to make plays.
“They’re making better reads in the offense, doing a much better job,” Hoiberg said. “So when you cut, and move, and understand where guys are going to be, that’s a big part of it and we’re getting a lot better shots.”
Valentine had arguably his most complete game of the year with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, along with a game-high plus-minus of +24.
When Zach LaVine comes back, one wonders where Valentine will fit in the starting unit or in the rotation completely. But placing Valentine at small forward in the meantime, both have made the best of things.
Valentine is seeing the floor better and shooting 38 percent from 3-point range. He made three of four Wednesday. And when given a chance to make plays, those passes finally hit the mark, none prettier than his no-look pass on the break to Nikola Mirotic for a lefty layup.
Of course, Valentine is a confident kid and offered up this gem about where this team sits with its winning streak.
“I just think, with our whole team back now, I think we’re one of the best teams in the East because of our matchups,” Valentine said. “We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. I know we started off bad, but I think we’re one of the better teams in the East.”
Markkanen not all the way back yet: Lauri Markkanen didn’t look like his usual self in his second game back from back spasms. On one hand, he was just three of 10 and missed all four of his 3-point shots in 19 minutes.
On the other, he and the Bulls recognized the natural mismatch of the Magic putting 6-foot-8 Mario Hezonja on Markkanen, and he hit two mid-range shots by positioning himself near the basket and shooting over the top of the smaller defender.
“We are being careful with Lauri right now,” Hoiberg said. “But he feels great, felt better today than he did against Philadelphia. He just looks a little off balance, so we’ll get back to work on that and fix a little with his mechanics. He’ll get it back, I have no concern with that.”
Luckily, power forward is his deepest position so Mirotic and Bobby Portis again did their work off the bench. Mirotic had 15 and 10 rebounds while Portis scored 14 with five rebounds in just 14 minutes of run.
Honesty: The Magic are terrible and the Bulls took advantage of a struggling team the way they were supposed to.
And LeBron James and the Cavaliers are waiting, along with the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
It’s likely the streak will end and another one of a different kind will begin, an expected streak against the conference leaders of the East.
But it doesn’t mean Hoiberg hasn’t relished the experience or recognized the change in the tone surrounding his team—especially in their own building.
“Our fans have been unbelievable,” Hoiberg said. “That game against Philly, it was absolutely rocking in here. It was a lot of fun, great experience for a lot of our guys to play in that type of environment. Following it up with a great crowd tonight. We really appreciate everything our fans have brought to us, they’ve been awesome this year.”