The Bulls’ huge come-from-behind victory over the Raptors was the most fun game of the season, made even better given the truly absurd 10-game winning streak over Toronto. The thrilling win capped off an impressive 3-0 week that featured wins over quality teams in the Hornets, Cavaliers (yes, without Kyrie and K-Love) and Raptors.
All three of these wins followed a similar formula, with Jimmy Butler taking over down the stretch while leading a closing unit featuring Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic as floor spacers. Some of the other characters were different, with Dwyane Wade and Cristiano Felicio filling out the lineup against the Raptors, but that general alignment with Butler, Doug/Niko, another ball handler (Wade or MCW) and an active big (Felicio or Taj Gibson) makes sense given this roster construction.
Letting Butler run the show with shooters should’ve been the plan all along, and now with the benching of Rajon Rondo it appears Fred Hoiberg has figured that out. And it’s been working! The Jimmy/Doug/Niko trio has played 222 minutes together this season, and they’ve smoked opponents to the tune of 113.5 points per 100 possessions and a net rating of 17.4, per NBA.com. The fourth-quarter sample is a rather small 54-minute one, but that offensive rating is 114.2 and the net rating spikes to 26.1. It’s no surprise that the Bulls’ offense has excelled with this grouping, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see that the defense has also been superb.
We saw this on display against the Raptors, although it did help that Toronto fell victim to their Bulls Curse by seemingly forgetting how to play basketball at numerous times throughout the collapse. The DeMarre Carroll wide-open air-balled three was especially awful. Sad!
But back to the Bulls’ offense. Jimmy was obviously the star of the night, and it was awesome to see the Bulls run a steady diet of Jimmy/Doug pick-and-rolls. Using McDermott and Mirotic as floor spacers is fine, but it’s also good to get them involved and on the move.
It was a Jimmy/Doug PnR that resulted in my current favorite play of the year:
With Jimmy such a force, the Raptors committed three guys to him on this play, and Cory Joseph found himself in no man’s land between McDermott spaced out past the three-point line and Wade, who expertly took advantage of all the attention on Butler by cutting hard to the rim. Jimmy did a great job finding Wade, and golf clap to Felicio for sneakily taking DeMar DeRozan out of the play. Also notice that Niko was open in the opposite corner, so a pass to him would’ve been a good decision as well.
Here’s another superb Jimmy/Doug PnR that had the Raptors all out of sorts:
Again, tons of attention to Butler, and Carroll wasn’t sure whether to help back on Butler, who was against the smaller Kyle Lowry, or switch onto McDermott. With Carroll lost and Jonas Valanciunas stepping up to help on Butler, McDermott beat the Raptors with a great cut and Jimmy notched another dime.
And here’s one last play that didn’t feature a good result, but the process was excellent:
Another Jimmy/Doug PnR, and again the Raptors went to double Butler. Joseph rotated over to cover McDermott, but then Wade smartly took a few hard steps toward the lane, spooking Joseph into flashing over toward him. That left Doug all alone at the top of the key, but unfortunately he missed that attempt (he made up for it later).
After struggling in the fourth quarter for much of the year, the Bulls have found more success in recent games. (Best in the league in January!) Some of this is simply Butler’s own brilliance, like his absurd step-back three in isolation to seal the game:
He’s been one of the most clutch players in the league of late.
But we can also attribute some of his success to Hoiberg optimizing the lineup. When Butler has more room to operate, he and the Bulls are more effective. There will certainly be more fourth-quarter failures on nights when Butler is off, but he’s been outstanding more often than not, and these lineups help take advantage of both his skill set and the other players on the team.