Time to start over now, Derrick Rose was saying after the Bulls Friday completed an 8-0 preseason with a 94-89 come from behind victory over the Denver Nuggets.
“If anything, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, which was to go out there and try to win every game,” said Rose, who added 15 points and eight assists to finish the preseason leading the team at 20.7 points per game. “And that’s what we did. The season is coming up. We know we have important games coming up. We’re just trying to get prepared for that.”
And though there was some nit picking and moaning about perhaps some players were playing too much and others playing too little, namely Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich, who remained out Friday with injuries, and that maybe there was no need to win all those games, it’s perhaps the strongest and most confident Bulls team heading into a season since the late 1990’s just because of how they played.
Friday it was a little different as the starters came out uncharacteristically languorous and stumbled into a 48-29 deficit late in the second quarter.
“You can’t come out like we did tonight,” warned Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Not have the energy, intensity, or the edge, just going through the motions, not thinking. They started big and we did not think about what we have to do to take advantage, how are we going to attack and match up with them. The movement and the pace was not good. And defense was non-existent.”
But the Bulls with defense began to show some life late in the second quarter as Rose stole the ball twice leading to scores and Jimmy Butler had a block. And then the Bulls opened the second half bullish, pressuring in the backcourt, denying entry passes, being the aggressor they and their coach know they are.
“I was really shocked (at halftime),” said Taj Gibson, who had another spirited game with 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench. “He (Thibodeau) really didn’t curse us out. He came in at halftime, kind of tied his tie up a little bit, looked at us and said, ‘C’mon, you’re better than that. Let’s switch it up and get into them.’
“Guys responded,” said Gibson. “Guys came out and played better. We understand shots are not always going to fall, but our defense picked up in the second half.”
Which was no surprise to Nuggets coach Brian Shaw watching the Bulls play in this preseason.
“We told our guys at halftime that Thibs would probably be up into them at halftime and they were going to come out and do everything harder and better than what they did in the first half,” said Shaw. “I think for them they wanted to finish the preseason undefeated. They really wanted to finish on a positive note. They did that.”
Winning really is a good thing, and it’s good habits for the Bulls as Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer were again impressive, Deng with 23 points and 12 rebounds and Boozer continuing his aggressive play of the preseason in attacking the rim instead of fading for jump shots with 24 points and 10 rebounds, including eight of 12 free throws.
This even with the Bulls shooting one of 18 on three pointers and 37.8 percent overall. But they caught and passed the Nuggets with a 36-18 third quarter and were carried home by a vibrant Boozer finish.
It’s the third time in a full preseason the Bulls have been undefeated in the preseason, and it can be a carry over. The only two other times were before the 1992-93 title season and in 1989-90 when they went to a seventh game in the conference finals before losing for the last time to the Pistons.
“It feels like the year we went to the Eastern Conference finals (2011),” said Gibson. “The way guys have been working. We talk a lot. The guys are always in the gym. We are sacrificing the small things for a big reward, and we hope one day that big reward is a championship.
“We did not think (of a perfect preseason),” Gibson added. “Our work just took care of itself. We play hard and practice hard, we’re a physical team. We got Derrick back, we got Carlos in a good rhythm. Guys have a lot of confidence, including myself. We’re working really hard and it shows in the way we’ve been playing.”
Which is part of the point. Some laugh at Thibodeau’s demands for good habits, for preparation. But there was a good reason for this Bulls team to take this part of the schedule seriously. It was, in part, because of Rose. They hadn’t played together for 18 months. In many respects, really, for two years given how many games Rose missed in that 2011-12 season. There was a need to meld and bond together, to rediscover habits and tendencies, to regain confidence in what works and face obstacles, like falling behind and fighting your way back, like finishing games strong, this time Friday with Rose being more facilitator after the Nuggets tied the game at 85 with two minutes remaining.
First it was Rose finding Boozer out of a timeout for a score, then after forcing a Nuggets miss, Rose with a double crossover against former Bull Nate Robinson and being fouled, Rose making one of two for an 88-85 lead with 1:19 left.
Robinson in his return had a tough night scoreless in 25 minutes as the Nuggets were led by Anthony Randolph and JaVale McGee with 15 each.
Randolph then made a short jumper to get the Nuggets within 88-87 with 1:04 left. Rose missed a three. But Boozer was all over the miss and the Bulls lined up Rose for the close. But this time as Rose penetrated and drew the defense, Rose dropped off a classic no look pass to Boozer for the emphatic slam and 90-87 Bulls lead with 22.1 seconds left. Robinson then missed a three and Boozer put it out of range with yet another late rebound and free throws.
It was the second consecutive 20/10 type game for Boozer as the starters mostly played between 32 and 37 minutes in a fairly regular rotation and Tony Snell and Marquis Teague got some rotation time. The Bulls also pounded a big Nuggets front line even without Noah 21-10 on second chance points and 54-47 on the boards. It meant something, and it was especially important because of the return of Rose. Having watched him for a month now, it seems almost like he never left and there never was anything wrong with him. But playing in these games with him this way was perhaps the best and most important way to for the team to truly prepare for an important season with grand hopes. Though exhibition games don’t count, some do matter. Like these.
“Preseason was important,” said Rose. “I’m happy we played so many games. It gave me time to shake some of the rust off, just playing with teammates, playing with them, knowing where they’d be on the floor, talking to them and their help made me a better player.
“Driving, being able to play through contact, I think I’m finishing easier than in previous years,” said Rose. “Getting to the line. I think I was all right. I think I’m back to myself. I think I’m more explosive. I think I’m picking the right times to take over games, picking the right times to pass the ball to guys so they can get their shot. I think I’m becoming a better leader
“I think I’m shooting less shots, getting to the line, being smarter and more efficient” said Rose. “I think before I was coming down and jacking shots sometimes. This year I think it’s going to change.
“I bet I surprised a lot of people,” Rose added quietly. “But I know how hard I worked to try to get back on the court. My hard work is paying off where I’m still not in my groove yet and I’m still able to go out there and control the game a little bit. I guess when I get back to my groove it’s really going to be scary.
“Every day we push ourselves to a championship caliber level,” said Rose. “Even tonight the first five came out sluggish. But we found a way to come back and win the game. It was a preseason game, but little stuff like this will help us at the end.
“I’m pumped,” continued Rose. “I’m a guy who doesn’t show that much emotion. I don’t know if you want me to yell or anything. I know it’s going to be a great year and we started off the season right.”
Earlier, Thibodeau said, “The moment of truth is coming.” It begins in Miami Tuesday.
Meaning the regular season that sets up the playoffs.
The Bulls believe they have a pretty good jump on it.