CHICAGO—After over a month of searching for it, the Bulls finally have their statement win, and right before the All-Star break. They’ve had more impressive individual games, but given the stakes here—coming off a rough month, with Jimmy Butler out against a Kevin Love-less Cleveland Cavaliers team—Thursday night’s 113-98 victory over the Cavs was their most important win of the season.
Derrick Rose was the headliner, and he was spectacular: 30 points and seven assists with just two turnovers. But it was more than Rose. Tony Snell continued a career week, tying his career high with 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting and playing LeBron James tough defensively. Pau Gasol was excellent again, with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Joakim Noah is starting to round into shape, looking more like his healthy self.
Going into the All-Star break, the Bulls are 34-20. They’ve won four in a row and after a month that’s seen everything from an extended Mike Dunleavy injury to Tom Thibodeau hot-seat chatter, this stretch has been a welcome change of pace. The Cavs had won 14 of their last 15 games, and the Bulls flat-out outplayed them for 48 minutes.
“We played from behind a lot,” said James. “We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds. We turned the ball over, most of which was my fault. And they played a good game.”
Most encouraging for the Bulls was their defensive effort. The Cavs have the sixth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions, and the Bulls held them to 98, forcing eight turnovers from James and 16 overall from the Cavs.
“We can be really good. Everybody knows that. It just takes everybody being on the same page as far as defense goes.”
The Bulls and the Cavs are both still chasing the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But for the first time on Thursday, it started to feel like a rivalry. The Cavs won their first two meetings convincingly, and after some December and January drama, had generally been playing like a serious contender while the Bulls were still up and down. But Chicago finally got the response they had been looking for, and looked impressive doing it.
Before the season, the Bulls and Cavs were seen as the prohibitive favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, they’re both starting to look the part. Even after the loss, Cavs coach David Blatt is feeling good about where his team is.
“The front office has been great and put together a good group,” Blatt said after the game. “They put together a competitive team and I’m just happy with this group. We will be good with what we have if we can stay healthy. We won 14 of our last 16. We got a really good floor rhythm and approach going. We should feel good going into the break.”
The Bulls have had a never-ending parade of injuries. They finally got Dunleavy back on Tuesday, but were without Butler on Thursday. They’ve only played 16 games with their full starting lineup intact, but they’re 13-3 in those games, and after the All-Star break, Thibodeau hopes that everybody will finally be healthy at the same time.
“We want to keep going, that is the important thing,” said the coach. “Our reality has been guys out all the time. Whoever is in there is getting the job done.”