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That’s it? That’s what that vaunted West Coast offense looks like, the famed pace and space for three pointers? That’s what they’re all excited about, this new NBA of three pointers raining down like another damp day in Portland? Well, it was a stormy night for the Portland Trailblazers Tuesday as the Bulls with a deluge led by the lightning of Jimmy Butler and the thunderous board work and interior defense pummeled one of the league’s highest scoring and fastest teams, 113-88.
The Bulls opening their Western Conference “circus” road trip played one of their most effective, efficient, complete and dominating games, ahead by double digits the last 42 minutes, essentially never challenged in leading by 21 points after one quarter, by 19 at halftime, 20 after three—as much as 26—and by at least 20 for all but 15 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Butler, averaging 29 points in his previous four games, added 27 points along with team bests of 12 rebounds and five assists. Dwyane Wade had 19 points and Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson both had points/rebounds double/doubles. Jerian Grant as a last minute starter for Rajon Rondo, who suffered a sprained ankle in practice Monday, had 18 points after totaling 16 points combined in the five games he played this season, also one point below his career high. Grant also had five steals in perhaps a breakout game for him while also helping hold the dynamic Damien Lillard to 19 points on seven of 22 shooting. Lillard and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum lead the NBA in backcourt scoring, but McCollum added 17 points on seven of 17 shooting. They were six of 22 in the first half.
The Bulls are 7-4 with their third straight win and play the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City Thursday.
“I think it was our most complete game we’ve played,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Jerian was terrific guarding the ball. That’s one of the toughest covers in the league with Lillard as hot as he can get. He set the tone for our defense with his ball pressure. I don’t think we had a turnover in that first quarter and only three at halftime. This team thrives on that in this building by getting out and scoring on the fast break. You can argue Lillard is as good as we have in this league at that lead guard position. To play with the poise he (Grant) played with in his first meaningful minutes of the season and to guard one of the top players in this league, I thought he handled it great.”
It also was a terrific game plan from Hoiberg, carried out to near perfection by the players. On defense, which the Bulls always try to do—though as Wade pointed out you can get beaten by an exception–they pressured the top scorers in Lillard and McCollum, forcing them into tougher shots or having someone else make a play. Then they hedged off the pick and roll and collapsed into the lane, where former Trailblazer Lopez was a tall, wide leafed maple.
“Those two guys will come at you all game,” noted Wade of the Portland guards. “We did a good job of knowing where they are at all times, try to make their shots harder than normal. I thought Jerian did a great job knowing where he’s at and our bigs did a good job communicating; we had a game plan and we executed it. You try to make their night tougher. You want the ball to go in the other guys’ hands and try to have them make shots. Some nights you will get burned by it. Amir Johnson will make four three pointers in the third quarter. We did our game plan and tonight it worked for us.”
Then on offense, both Butler and Wade did considerable ball handling, taking turns having the offense run through each to keep the pressure off Grant to run the offense with little preparation. And thus also allowing Grant to pressure and harass Lillard.
“When you talk to people that have been in that position they just tell you to stay ready, your opportunity is going to come; 82 games in this league,” noted Grant. “Things happen.”
The Bulls, 7-4, happened.
The Bulls got off to a 10-0 start, led 24-7 and 30-9 with Lopez first flagellating Portland’s emaciated interior and then Butler powering into the lane with ‘Blazers defenders bouncing off him like, well, the 185-pound guards they are.
Butler is looking lately much more LeBron James like, and you can almost hear the MVP chants.
“Jimmy had another all around unbelievable game,” said Hoiberg. “The guys are doing a good job of getting Jimmy the ball. We are riding him; there’s not doubt about it. And we’ll continue to do that as long as he stays in this rhythm, which I think he will do.”
It all seems to be coming so naturally and easily to Butler lately, music to the ears of the Bulls.
“I’m just playing basketball,” Butler said. “As a team, we want to do well; we’re correcting ourselves. We’re buying into the process; everybody’s working on their games. We’re actually paying attention to the scouting reports and doing what we’re supposed to do on the defensive end. When you guard, the game looks really easy.”
It looked remarkably smooth for the Bulls, who established a league season high with 67 rebounds to 49 for Portland. It was the sixth time the Bulls have scored at least 110 points in a game despite making just seven three pointers. Sure, Tuesday’s domination was just one game and isn’t an indictment about the Trailblazers.
Their game is the fashionable space and shoot made spectacular by the Golden State Warriors. And the Trailblazers do have two guards to match them, though not the defenders, or least the defenders the Warriors had before this past summer’s shakeup. Though with Kevin Durant they have so much more offense than anyone.
Just a few weeks into the season is too soon to make much of a long term judgment. The conventional wisdom about the Bulls was they didn’t have enough three-point shooting, and Tuesday their best one was out again with Doug McDermott back home undergoing concussion testing. He’s questionable on this trip. Also, too much mid-range game and too much ball holding.
But the Bulls despite being 24th in the league in making three pointers are one of the league’s top 10 most efficient offensive teams. They’re 11th in scoring, a fraction behind the ‘Blazers at about 107 points per game. They’re sixth in free throw attempts, leading the league in rebounds and fourth in margin of victory, which is the best indicator of long term season success. They had just 16 assists on 41 baskets Tuesday, but worked inside for much easier shots and second chances with 19 offensive rebounds. What they’re showing in this positive start is there are many ways to score, many ways to win, many ways to have success in the NBA. That the old reliable rebounding, defense and good shot selection can both be successful and produce bountiful offense.
“I’m talking to D. Wade before the game and he’s telling me about how I have to approach the game, ‘Go out with the killer instinct, make them adjust to you. Go out with the full head of steam and show why you’re one of the best players on the floor.’ That’s what I try to do every single night,” said Butler. “If it’s coming from him there’s got to be some truth to it. I think year to year I’ve been in a different role. Now the role is a little bit bigger than it was last year, so I’m called to do a lot more on both ends of the floor.
“I just care about winning, that’s all I want to do,” said Butler. “I want us to be in a great place at the end of the season, win as many road games as possible, continue to play great basketball. As a team that’s what we want to do, play as perfect as possible.”
Doesn’t get much better than it did Tuesday.