The newcomers have dominated the story-lines in the early part of the season, but Monday’s blowout win over the Orlando Magic was powered by the two longest tenured Chicago Bulls.
Jimmy Butler lead the team in scoring with 20 points in just 31 minutes. The huge cushion his scoring helped create allowed Butler to rest the entire fourth quarter. Jimmy struggled with his outside shot, making just 5/13 field goals and missing both of his three point attempts. Despite the poor shooting, Butler was able to remain efficient on offense by getting to the line ten times, and making all of his attempts.
Butler’s ten free throws are just a tick above his impressive average of 8.1 attempts per game this season, tenth in the NBA. Butler is currently averaging a career high in free throw attempts per game despite averaging significantly fewer minutes. He’s been able to do this with a sky-high .595 free throw rate.
Butler has not had to rely on his explosiveness in the paint to draw shooting fouls. While that’s definitely an effective method, and something he did often tonight, drawing a pair of fouls on made layups, Butler has become excellent in baiting defenders to foul his on jump shots. Butler has looked better shooting the ball thus far, and opponents cannot stop themselves from leaping to contest every Butler pump fake. Jimmy has been excellent at jumping straight up and into his airborne defender, careful not to over-exaggerate the angle at which he takes off, which forces the referees to call the foul.
It wasn’t just on offense that Butler set the tone for the Bulls. Orlando began this game on fire from the field as neither team gave any effort on the defensive end. Butler had began the game guarding the athletic but unskilled Aaron Gordon, leaving weaker defenders to slow down Orlando’s more versatile threats.
After a Fred Hoiberg timeout midway through the second quarter, the Bulls came out with a renewed sense of energy on defense and a slight change to their assignments. Butler was tasked with stopping Evan Fournier, Orlando’s best perimeter threat, and the rest of the roster was able to focus on slowing down Nikola Vucevic in the pick and pop game. Orlando would go on to score just four points in the final six minutes of the quarter.
Taj Gibson posted his third double-double and fourth game with ten or more rebounds. Gibson has been a beat on the glass this season, grabbing 19% of all missed shots when he’s on the court, the 12th highest rate in the NBA and best among power forwards (I’m counting Tristan Thompson as a center, hope you don’t mind).
Taj’s strong offensive rebounding has been a source of easy scoring thus far. Four of Gibson’s 16 points came on second chance opportunities after he secured an offensive rebound. But Gibson, who is making a career high 54% of his field goals, is doing far more than garbage duty to generate scoring.
While the sample size is still relatively small, Gibson has been very effective with his mid-range game. Taj has been attempting more shots in the 3-9 foot range than he ever has in his career, and he’s been able to convert those shots at a rate 10% better than his previous career high. Defenses are beginning to respect that jump shot from below the free throw line, and on Monday Taj took advantage with a beautiful pump fake and drive to the hoop for an easy score.
Gibson also impressed me with his improved footwork in the post. It felt like several times a game last season we would see the ball fall into a black hole anytime Taj received a pass with his back to the basket. Sloppy footwork and a loose handle lead to a slew of turnovers. So far this season, Gibson has kept defenders off balance with his great up and under moves in the paint. Tonight, he busted out a spin move that showcased his rare combination of speed and strength.
It was a relief to see the Bulls find their groove after three consecutive losses in mostly noncompetitive games. With so many new pieces this season, it’s been hard to evaluate their inconsistent play. Are the Bulls going to play with the pace and athleticism we saw on display in the four wins, or will they struggle to find a rhythm as they learn each other’s style? Against Orlando, we were reminded that the flashy additions of the summer will have off nights. It already seems Fred Hoiberg’s patience is running thin with Rajon Rondo.
To paraphrase Fred Hoiberg: He took Rajon Rondo out earlier than usual in first quarter because he wanted Bulls to "start guarding."— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) November 8, 2016
Those kinds of games can be expected from Rondo, and Wade will have his fair share of stinkers too. At least it’s nice to know that the two Bulls we’ve come to love and appreciate through the playoff battles of years past will give this team an edge every single night.