Two up, Two down...and another small step on the Chicago Bulls' journey towards their 2013-2014 NBA Title. Like Saturday night against the Pacers, Exhibition Game #2 was UGLY for most of the first half, but talent, depth, and hustle prevailed as the Bulls easily pulled away in the second half for a 106-87 pasting of the Memphis Grizzlies.
While both teams sat their All Star Centers in Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol, once again we got a really good feel for the Bulls' core we'll see all year. Lets cover the BullsEyes!
1. Derrick Rose looked even more comfortable and explosive. He is dripping confidence, and I'm blown away by his explosive first step to the basket. You can literally blink and miss him get from half court to the bucket. If you watched the game you saw him do this a few times. All the moves are there, yet he is missing easy finishes at the rim along with free throws. The finishes, the free throws...that will be there come opening night. The great news is this truly is the Derrick Rose we knew so well...and it was easy to forget how mesmerizing he can be. Another thing...he is really taunting the passing lanes on defense. He's perfected playing safety, with three come-from-nowhere steals to show for it. He ended up with 13 points in 23 minutes but he missed a few EASY shots he will not miss come regular season. You have to love what you're seeing from him.
Not buying it? Check out this play from Derrick "The Blur" Rose last night:
2. Taj Gibson is in beast mode early on. I'm not sure if it's due to the absence of Joakim that gives him more opportunity to dominate down low, but he looks like an entirely different player than last year. He's off to a terrific start, SO aggressive and sporting some new and improved post moves. To me it looks like he really worked hard this summer on refining his game and getting stronger. He tallied 15 points and 6 boards(3 offensive) in 28 minutes of the bench for his second excellent game. He also led the team playing 28 minutes.
3. The Booze Cruise found his groove by being much more fluid on offense, finding a rhythm and hitting a mix of typical Boozer gimmes plus some high difficult fade aways. A nice 16 points in 26 minutes on 7 of 12 shooting for Carlos.
4. The Bulls, as a team, REALLY need to work on their free throws(31 for 43). I'm going to leave it at that. Actually I won't. If you're going to get to the line 43 times(remarkable) and shoot 14 more than your opponent...reap the benefits and make more than 72% of them. I didn't like the way they shot it much of last season and into the playoffs and I still don't. Now I'll leave it at that.
5. Erik Murphy is really impressing. He did a bit of everything. I don't know what the other rookies look like in their first few pre-season games, but you'd be hard pressed to find many who look more comfortable in an NBA game than Erik Murphy. The box score really doesn't tell the story, which is he just plays his game without getting overwhelmed. He's playing like a vet...keeping loose balls alive, grabbing timely boards, tapping back missed free throws, nailing long jumpers, showing a post game, taking a charge...he honestly did it all. That kid will earn minutes this way. 22 minutes for both him and Tony Snell on the night. Snell didn't do much to distinguish himself, but he was part of the unit that took this game over and then put it away.
6. The bench, as a whole, looked great again and won the game...again. You get a feeling this will be a recurring theme. Captain Kirk Hinrich had 15 points in 18 minutes and all I ask for is that he stays healthy. Please, please, please. What a luxury to have him backing up D. Rose. That's a phenomenal backup point guard to lead your second unit(and a few rookies mind you)...and best of all, Kirk looks happy and comfortable in this important leadership role. Murphy, Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Hinrich and Snell were the key players on the floor when the Bulls put it out of reach, all ranging from +12 to +17 in the +/- category. In the last 5 minutes even Dexter Pittman, Mike James and Marquis Teague got into action and they all made plays.
7. Speaking of Teague...he seems to be the odd man out in this rotation..or at least of the guys who have a shot at seeing the floor. Pittman and James, if they make the roster, will be in dress suits unless injuries strike, but it is Teague that seems to be the guy who could get minutes but wont...apparently behind Snell and Murphy. It makes sense when you think about it...he's simply the third point guard behind D. Rose and Hinrich and third point guards don't see the floor that often. Crazy that the Bulls are carrying a fourth point guard in Mike James when you can't even say they have a third center behind Mohammed. Teague has to be patient...his opportunity will arise when you know Rose and Hinrich are unlikely to play 82 games this year. Heck...the Bulls may be thrilled if they got 75 games out of Rose and 70 out of Hinrich. They have the depth to manage that.
8. For the second game in a row Jimmy Butler struggled to find his offense. It's not that he's missing shots...he's not taking shots. You can't focus on his stats...it's the way he's moving with and without the ball at the moment. He's thinking, not reacting, still finding his way as a starter and playing along side D. Rose. For that matter...I think the Bulls entire offense is still getting used to playing with Derrick. Don't discredit how difficult it is to adjust to a player of that speed. Any team would face the same challenge. My favorite comment after the game came from Mike Dunleavy who said, "I've played with Monta Ellis and he's pretty fast, but man, with Derrick, it's a whole different gear. The other night I was watching him in a game and he made a couple bursts, and I thought 'I don't remember him being that fast.' " Neither did we, Mike.
Back to the Bulls rusty offense, it also doesn't help that Noah isn't playing. Not only does it throw off the starting five chemistry, but Joakim has a knack for facilitating offense with his passing. Having Noah down low changes how the offense runs and how the defense responds. They will look a lot smoother when all five starters are together, but that doesn't dismiss the fact that Jimmy does have to look for his shot. In game one he was taking it to the hole to the tune of 12 free throw attempts. Last not as much...he ended with 9 points in 26 minutes on 3 of 7 from the floor. I will give him this...the Bull who I predicted to lead the team in steals and be one of the Steals leaders in the league had 3 more on the night. Him, Rose and Deng are going to cause havoc all year in the passing lanes.
9. Once again the Bulls won all the intangible categories. As already stated, they shot 14 more free throws and got to the line at will. They out-rebounded the Grizzlies 43-31, with five more offensive boards. They had two more steals, two less turnovers(much better job on turnovers this game with only 17), eight more points in the paint, five more blocks, and here is the whopper stat...they won the battle of fast break points 16-2. You're not going to lose a game when you can boast all of that...and this is what the Bulls do best. They out-clinic you in the areas that matter most.
10. Here's the best part...they really didn't look that good for much of the game! Actually the Bulls looked TERRIBLE during the first half, when my notes said "Defensive is sluggish...far less movement than the other night. Offense not finishing easy shots. Cant hit free throws. Jimmy not doing anything with ball.", etc. Why is this "the best part"? The theme you will see all season is this: THE BULLS CAN WIN UGLY and they'll do it often. Actually they'll be one of the few teams you see who not only win ugly, but will win ugly by 20 points! If you can win ugly, you can win most games. If you can play poorly and trounce a team, you're an awfully good team. I said it the other day...the allowance for an opponent's poor play is very low against the Bulls...for the Bulls will play poorly and still demolish you because they're that much better. Jordan's Bulls often did that. They'd look terribly lethargic the first half...and all it took was an 8 minute stretch in the third quarter to stretch a close game to a 20 point lead. Then after that they often sat out the fourth quarter. Just wait for your moment, seize it, then get on the bus.
This team is smart and patient...they will not be rattled by poor stretches or early deficits. They have too much confidence for that. The Bulls just have to keep winning in the lunch pail stats. They can beat most teams without shooting well. They can beat most teams while turning the ball over even(like in Indiana the other night). They'll win through their defense, out-hustling you, out-muscling you, and all in all out-hearting you. That's Tom Thibodeau's Bulls, that's this core. Style points count for nothing...W's count for everything. The Bulls are going to get a lot of them this year
Now on to Saturday in Rio De Janeiro where the Bulls will go 3-0 on the pre-season against the Washington Wizards. Yes that's right..I said it.