LOS ANGELES — For at least one night, they looked like one of the more formidable backcourt combinations in the NBA.
Thursday night in Los Angeles Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler looked comfortable together — they played 19 minutes together and the Bulls were +18. Early in the game Butler pushed the pace in transition and found Rose for a bucket, in the third quarter Rose returned the favor.
After years of rumored tension (which they deny), are Rose and Butler starting to figure out how to play together?
“We were talking about that before the game, actually,” Butler said. “We were laughing about it, saying the more games we got under our belt, the more comfortable each other’s going to be. It’s crazy because I love playing with him. He’s super aggressive. He’s taking some great shots, and that’s what we need. So, as long as I follow his lead on that style of play, we’re going to be really good.”
“You can tell by the way they’re talking to each other, they’re communicating when they’re on the bench together,” Bulls’ coach Fred Holberg said, agreeing with the idea they are figuring things out. “They got a couple lobs in transition tonight. I thought they screened for each other well and played off each other beautifully. When those guys are out there playing with that attack mentality, we’re a pretty good team.”
The tandem did look good running a 1-2 pick-and-roll Thursday. Of course, doing it against the Lakers is one thing, the numbers suggest that Rose and Butler still have a long way to go to find that kind of success against better defenses.
In the Bulls last 10 games, Butler and Rose were on the court together 216 minutes, and the Bulls were outscored 12.8 points per 100 possessions in that time. That’s a step back from December, when over the course of 14 games together the Bulls were +3.1 per 100 possessions when they were paired. They are still not consistent together.
They are still not consistent together. Things just look better against the Lakers “defense.” How will they look in their next game against the Clippers in the same building?
The challenge is balance — Rose is used to having the ball in his hands, but Butler needs more time as a playmaker.
“He did everything for us tonight,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of Butler as a playmaker. “In that first quarter he got three steals in a row, which led to three baskets, that was huge for us. We’re putting the ball in his hands a lot, not just in isolation situations, but we’re also putting him in a lot of ball screens, he’s just making the right play and the right read, and he’s continuing to get better in that role.”
The Bulls still have time to figure out how these two fit within Hoiberg’s system. If so, they become far more dangerous. If not, at the end of the day Butler is the guy with the just-signed max contract and the guy who is the future of the franchise. Rose may need to prove he can work with Butler, or the Bulls may have decisions to make.