It’s games like this when the Bulls show how overly reliant they are on Jimmy Butler. Butler played one of his worst games of the season, scoring eight points on 3/13 shooting. And unlike typical games when he is cold from the field, Butler was not able to get to the free throw line, attempting just two foul shots all night. While it was surprising that Butler was unable to have a big performance against Denver’s 30th ranked defense, even All-Stars have off nights. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the rest of the team was not able to pick up the slack and hold off the upstart Nuggets.
Bad defense lead to bad offense
The Bulls carried a three point lead into halftime and hung around for most of the third quarter before the Nuggets caught fire and pulled away. Denver shot 56% in this game and made 13 of their 30 three point attempts against lackadaisical Bulls defenders.
The impact that Nikola Jokic had on this game while only taking ten shots was remarkable. Jokic, who made six of those ten field goals, dished ten assists and grabbed 16 rebounds in his third triple double of the season.
Jokic is so methodical in his approach to offense and exploited every Chicago defensive lapse. Jokic, who was 3/3 from three, demanded defensive attention the moment he crossed half court. With Robin Lopez was forced to come out 18 feet from the hoop to pressure the Serbian sensation, there were no Bulls able to provide ample rim protection to deter Denver’s cutters in the lane. Jokic made sure to always take his time and find his teammates for easy scoring opportunities.
When the Bulls tried putting a smaller man on Jokic, either intentionally or after a switch, Jokic simply went to work backing down his man, recognized the help defense and flung passes to open shooters.
The Bulls were able to keep pace with the Nuggets by using crisp passing and movement. Denver’s defense often collapsed and left either Lopez or Cristiano Felicio unblocked on the glass. The Bulls grabbed 11 offensive rebounds (ten in the first half) that led to easy second chance scoring chances.
But in the fourth quarter, when Denver caught fire from three, the Bulls completely abandoned their offensive principles. They lost any sort of rhythm they had created early in the game in an attempt to match the Nuggets from the three point line.
The Good, the Bad, and the Bobby
Three games in to the post-Taj era, and it looks like the Bulls are committed to giving Bobby Portis every opportunity to develop on the court. Portis got the start, played 28 minutes, and was just -1 during his time on the court.
Portis scored 12 points on 50% shooting, making 2/5 of his three point attempts. Portis is making 37.5% of his shots from three point range this season and looks especially comfortable firing away from the corners. Bobby becoming a reliable shooter further marginalizes Nikola Mirotic’s value on this team (Niko was -18 in his 20 minutes on the floor).
But whatever good Portis provided the offense was completely neutralized by his poor defensive play. Portis spent much of this game matched up against Wilson Chandler, who put on a clinic for how to attack the second year forward.
Early in the game, Chandler faced up in the post and blew by Portis. He missed the layup, but laid the foundation for a night of torture for poor Bobby. Chandler would go on to curl around screens for open jump shots Portis was too slow to get around, and score inside on shots Portis was not long or athletic enough to bother.
This was not a game where Portis made repeated mental errors on defense, although there were a handful. Rather, it was a game Bobby found himself physically unable to challenge his opponent.
Rondo’s aggression kept offense afloat
Rajon Rondo scored a season high 19 points on a season high 15 field goal attempts in his most aggressive offensive performance in a Bulls uniform. Rondo was relentless driving to the hoop and attempted an astonishing nine shots in the paint. He even attempted a dunk at one point and drew a shooting foul.
Once it was established that Rondo was willing to take shots in traffic, Rajon took advantage of the defense’s attention to find cutters and shooters around the floor. Rondo finished the game with five assists, including a beautiful feed to a cutting Dwyane Wade for a dunk in the second quarter.
Perhaps going against a team with no legitimate shot blocking threat emboldened the veteran point guard. Maybe he’s just trying to do anything to ensure he holds on to a rotation spot in the crowded Bulls back court.
Denzel has (old man) game
Denzel Valentine melted down in the second half, making a few bad mistakes that will hopefully be smoothed out with more playing experience.
But before firing some ill-advised three pointers in the final quarter, Valentine had some flashes on offense that are worth noting.
For his first bucket of the game, Denzel caught a pass on the baseline and proceeded to slowly drive towards the hoop. He used a crafty hesitation dribble move that froze his defender and gave him the space to launch an awkward looking floater that swished through the rim. Later in the second quarter, Valentine snaked around a screen and again kept the defense off balance with a herky-jerky drive to the hoop and scooped in a layup.
Then in the third quarter, off of the same high pick and roll action that led to the earlier basket, Valentine read the help defense that was ready to prevent another easy layup opportunity and flung a pass to a wide open Rajon Rondo in the corner, who connected on a three.
GarPax did not draft an exceptional athlete with the 14th pick last June, but they certainly grabbed a guy who understands the nuances of the game.