I was taking my girlfriend's stepdad to his first NBA basketball game. His first American sporting event of any kind actually, as he resides in Greece 51 weeks a year. That the Bulls happened to be opening the 2014-15 season at Madison Square Garden during his visit was more than enough of an excuse to drop far too much money (seriously, whoa) on a pair of tickets to Chicago's opening night shellacking of a, at least for one game, super not good New York Knicks team.
I have a lot of thoughts on the way the Bulls played. On the way Derrick Rose looked on his first regular season action in almost a year. On the way Joakim Noah, the best Bulls player from a year ago, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate was a disconcerting non-factor on the night.
But let's get this out of the way: the Knicks are bad, hurt and incomplete. It's only the first game of the regular season and all that really matters is the W and health. But watching your team in person is a chance to focus your eye where it cares to go and thus let us go to the observations as quickly as possible.
- DRose. Let's discuss DRose. He was reason 1 through 18 why I had to be at this game, and merely to watch him take the floor and dribble a basketball in team warmups was enough to make me sound off like a crowd fart (more on this later). I watched without the tightened sphincter of a year ago, and instead just took joy in the idea that he actually played in an NBA basketball game again. If you're reading this and you're not a Bulls fan, this may be hard to understand, but Derrick Rose could have 72 turnovers in a game this year and I would be just fine with it. I watched an F-5 tornado with a #1 jersey on its back demolish the league for nearly four seasons. That conditions are right for it to form again, even intermittently, is all that I ask.
And intermittent he was, getting stripped on a drive, picked on an outlet pass, and missing the finish on a gorgeous drive (stop doing that!) between getting to the line early and finding his mid-range game in the third quarter. But he also, stop me if you've heard this before, showed flashes of had been and it was nipple-tweaking fantastic. Honest to god, just call him Rusty Flashes until further notice. Much like last season prior to his meniscus tear, he seems like he's searching for his game much like I would try to stay asleep when dreaming about Kelly Kapowski, by trying as hard as fucking possible. Overall, he seems transformed in a way that isn't totally complete yet. He's chippier. Darker. He got demonstrably upset about a handful of foul calls in a way I hadn't seen before.
For four years he happily sprinted up and down the court without knowing he had a pair of scissors in each hand. Now he knows what everybody else knows, which is that that can be fucking dangerous, and he won't be himself entirely until he gets past the fear. Happy as I was to see him play, watching him turn down a one-on-one fast break against Larkin to drop to Mike Dunleavy Jr. for a blown lay-up was a bit deflating.
- Some people mark the passage of time by the seasons, some by watching their kids grow up via notches on the doorway. I do it by watching Kirk Hinrich play basketball. You must understand that I like Kirk very much. He has unquestionable value for this Bulls team and - especially in light of Jimmy Butler's 2-4 week thumb injury - is an indispensable part of Tom Thibodeau's rotation. Now then. Watching Kirk drive in circles and brick 3-pointers like he's being controlled on offense by a seven year-old with an Xbox controller, these are the things that make me feel ancient. He is indispensable on defense and is an unquestioned leader (suburban power dad!). I just want one of his shooting highlight reels to not feel like a Batman fight scene.
- Taj has gone from "Oh man why not Dejuan Blair?!" to "hey not a bad pick!" to "well I'll be goddamned" to "honest question: is Taj the best?" Yes, Taj is the best. His post game was downright technical, his shot was wet and whatever he may have lost in bounce after five seasons of ThibsGrind™ he's made up for and then some with his now expansive game. He was the best player in the building Wednesday night and it wasn't especially close.
- Pau Gasol plays like angry rubber well-versed in the art of playing basketball. I looked up rubber in Spanish on Google translate just now and discovered my nickname for Pau forevermore: El Caucho. That El Caucho finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds in a tidy 29 minutes speaks well enough to his effectiveness, but I'm more excited about the fact that he's simply entertaining to watch. With no comparison to make between the two players besides the fact that one replaced the other in the Bulls starting lineup, simply not being Carlos Boozer is enough to make Pau a new fan favorite. But that cheats the weird pleasure of Pau's loosey goosey game and watching him bounce towards, off of, and occasionally over other players on his way to the hoop. Sometimes you think, "good hell the Bulls employ a drunk giraffe", but mostly you come away thinking Chicago now has a safety outlet that can find a high percentage look with the shot clock running down. That is a new and wonderful development.
- The most exciting overall development though was that of the new Bulls bench unit, which would give the 2011 Bulls bench a run for their money. Aaron Brooks and Doug McDermott may lack for defense but whooeeee was it fun to see a PG who could break his man down and a legitimate perimeter weapon in McD to stretch defenses. Mirotic made his debut and looked like the kind of player that will see more and more minutes as the season goes along, although his defensive positioning in the post needs work. The NBA is a much more physical league, and he'll need a minute to adjust. While Noah heals (he looked way out of sorts in limited minutes) and Rose learns to kill again, the Bulls will need their bench to maintain and even extend leads to keep pace with the rest of the conference elite. With Taj leading a very talented group, that's a pretty safe bet. Yep, it's tasting like Kool-Aid in here. Have some.
- Counterpoint: After a pretty uneducated defense of his talent on my part before the game, Tony Snell came out and looked mostly lost in 17 minutes. It's worth wondering, and this would be a real bummer, if Tony's the type of player that needs to be ball-dominant in order to play effectively. That's more about him needing others to react off of him than anything else, and on a team where he's the role-iest role player out there, that's-a no good. Among the myriad storylines to follow on this Bulls team this season, one I'll be watching closely is whether Snell can figure out how to translate his game to that of a fourth option and learn how to play off the ball. At one point the Bulls ran a play for him and while his shot went hopelessly begging, it was the only time I can remember him looking remotely competent.
- My girlfriend's stepfather, with no prior knowledge of Carmelo Anthony, his history, status, anything at all, said out loud and unprompted "That guy is a lazy player." GOOD NO-SIGN, GAR!
- Cost aside, you really have to hand it to the folks at Madison Square Garden for putting on a hell of a show, even if the main attraction went down like a turd in a port-o-potty. The festivities began with the Blue Man group beating the hell out of some Blue Man drums while synchronized light bracelets lit up on every patron's wrist in the stadium. Then, Joan Jett sang the national anthem. Not well, per se, but Joan Jett! Then Taylor Swift debuted an auto-tuned hunk of pop-crap at halftime that excited exactly no one. The in-game guest DJ was freaking Questlove. But nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever compare to the entertainment at the end of the first quarter:
Between Chihuahua acrobatics, a super fantastic jumbotron that actually works (yfbb would swoon) and a lack of dopey CGI coffee races, the Knicks have in-game entertainment on freaking lock. They'll even have an employee unexpectedly show up in the aisle next to you and scream in your ear to GET LOUD so they can give you a T-SHIRT that you really DON'T WANT. A surefire way to pick out a regular NBA game attendee is that they openly detest the inevitable t-shirt giveaway.
The crowd never had a shot to get in the game beyond the first few minutes of action but that didn't stop a true Knicks fan nearby from bellowing for the better part of three quarters in a voice made hoarse from years of catcalling and Miller Lite. This person is what I refer to as a crowd fart. It's loud, offensive, nobody wants it near them, and unless it's a remarkably funny one, it's almost certainly in poor taste. It is the guy who thinks it's funny to yell "your wife tastes like Cheerios!" in 2014, to say nothing of, you know, ever. (You deserved that high five snub buddy, even if we both cheer for the Bulls.) Last year at a Heat-Nets playoff game, I was surrounded by crowd farts. One shrieked "LEBRON... YEEEEUHHHH!!!!" after every single Lebron point. He had 49 that night. As for the hoarse one near me on this evening, in the fourth quarter it suddenly got very quiet and I looked over to see how he was doing.
The night was as good as any of us had any right to hope for. Nighty night.