Last night's 99-93 win over the Magic was kind of strange, as it seemed like the Bulls played fairly well, and yet, they trailed for a good portion of it before a big fourth quarter propelled them to victory.
Some of the biggest takeaways:
Matt highlighted this in his recap, but I wanted to look at it a bit closer. Tom Thibodeau did a few things different with his rotation, and the most noticeable was going with a closing lineup of Robinson/Butler/Deng/Gibson/Noah. Thibs initially had Nazr Mohammed in at center to steal some minutes at the start of the fourth quarter, but almost immediately went back to Joakim Noah once it was painfully obvious that Mohammed was ineffective.
Seeing Robinson, Deng, Gibson and Noah out there in the fourth was no surprise, but the Jimmy Butler insertion into the crunch-time lineup was. Apparently Thibs reads Blog a Bull, because numerous BaBers have been calling for Butler at the 2 for quite some time. Jokes aside, Thibs made the move because both Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli couldn't guard a chair, and he wanted somebody that had an interest in defense chasing J.J. Redick around the three-point line.
Even with the undersized Robinson out there, the lineup was absolutely hellish defensively. Butler, Deng, Gibson and Noah are all plus defenders with tons of length, so they were able help cover Nate's deficiencies. The Magic scored just two points in the first 5:40 of the quarter, as the Bulls turned a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead. The Bulls took the Magic out of their comfort zone on offense, forcing a ton of isos and tough shots. There was one hilarious sequence where Glen Davis tried to go one-on-one against Taj on the perimeter. Wasn't tough to predict how that would turn out. Davis also got packed at the rim by either Noah or Gibson at least five times on the night.
I was worried about this lineup offensively, and even when Rose comes back, I'm not sure how consistently successful it would be against elite defenses if Thibs turned to it. All but three of the shots came from outside the paint, so there would be nights like Saturday when the jumpers aren't falling, especially against those tough defenses when the shots are more contested. But last night, it worked out. Robinson was able to run the show effectively, hitting a few big shots himself while also setting up Deng for several open jumpers off screens. Even Gibson and Noah hit a few face-up jumpers. Again, not sure how sustainable this is, but I'll take it when I can get it.
As for Butler, he only hit a couple of free throws in the fourth quarter, but he hassled Redick into 1-of-5 shooting. Butler really can't offer that much on offense right now, but the spark he brings with his energy and defense should earn him more playing time going forward.
One other little thing about the rotation. Instead of playing Deng entire second half and 42-43 minutes total like he did against the Hornets, Thibs took Lu out with about three minutes to go in the third quarter for a little breather. I'm convinced that littler breathers like that will help keep Deng more fresh down the stretch of games, when the Bulls will really need him. And last night, Lu hit three huge jumpers to build the Bulls' lead. For the game, he was a solid 9-of-16.
I said before the season that I thought Jo would be the MVP of this team before Rose came back. I'd say that prediction is looking pretty good after these first few games. Noah's rebounds are down, but that could be a product of some of the matchups and him being forced away from the basket on defense. He's still grabbing offensive rebounds at a similar rate to his career numbers.
But it's Noah's offensive game that has been so impressive so far, as it looks like that work with Kareem has really paid off. Noah is being more aggressive than ever, making things happen from almost everywhere on the floor. He was 7-of-13 last night and 6-of-8 from the line, including several clutch buckets. He tallied seven points and three assists in the fourth quarter. One of those baskets was a physical post move that put the Bulls up six after the Magic had threatened.
Thibs said in his postgame presser that this Noah looks like the Noah from the beginning of the 2010-11 season, and it's hard to argue. Jo is taking more shots and getting more free throw attempts than ever, which the Bulls desperately need with Rose on the shelf.
Some other thoughts:
- Carlos Boozer was just 6-of-18 on the night and his butt was once again planted firmly to the bench in the fourth, but I didn't think he was THAT bad. Boozer showed some aggressiveness at times, getting some good looks from right around the basket. Of course, he botched several of those looks, so...yeah.
- Kirk Hinrich hit a three! But wait, there's more! Hinrich hit two threes! These were the first two threes of Hinrich's season, and he actually did make another nice jumper. He also dished out five assists, pulled down four boards and had two more steals. Not a bad night for Kirk, but again, he spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench. And this is beginning to look like a trend, as Robinson provides shot creation while Hinrich spends half the time not actually looking at the basket. Let me remind you, if we haven't enough already, that the Bulls hard-capped their roster for a guy who might not even play the majority of fourth quarters this year.
- The Bulls only took six three-point shots and took 36 from 16-23 feet. Luckily, they made 18 of those 36 shots. 50 percent on long twos is not all that sustainable, so as I've harped the past week, more threes please. The Magic were able to keep the game close despite shooting 41.2 percent overall because they made 8-of-19 threes.
- The Magic ran some pretty interesting lineups out there, switching back and forth between going smaller and going big. There were times where they ran a three-guard lineup with three of Moore/Smith/Redick/Afflalo. Other times, they went big with Josh McRoberts at the 3 with two of Davis/Vucevic/Ayon/Nicholson in the frontcourt. The Magic had some success with the bigger lineup at the start of the game, and in fact, they did match the Bulls in rebounding.
- Boy, it should would be nice to have E'Twaun Moore or Arron Afflalo. Bulls probably could have nabbed Moore, but, you know, hard cap.
- Top notch trolling by Kirk on those missed free throws. Just hilarious. It is really sad though when the crowd's loudest cheers of the night are for Big Macs and they boo a team that just won a somewhat exciting game because they didn't have the opportunity to fatten up on McDonalds (and I love McDonalds).
- Bulls will get their first taste of elite competition against the Thunder on Thursday. I'm inclined to say it won't be pretty, but you never know with these guys.