By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — In addition to a dose of embarrassment and three ugly losses they can’t take back, last week brought with it a truth serum of sorts for the Bulls. For the first time all season, coach Fred Hoiberg admitted they didn’t respond well to adversity. In the aftermath, veteran guard Dwyane Wade acknowledged the Bucks, who blew out the Bulls twice in 30 hours, were a “bad matchup.”
On Monday evening, Hoiberg addressed another trend that’s been evident since early in the season but so notable of late that even he couldn’t talk around it.
“Last few games, teams have really packed the paint and almost dared us to shoot,” Hoiberg said.
That’s a strategy that’s utilized because the Bulls rank dead last in the NBA with a 30.9 3-point percentage, and it’s marked most obviously by the sight of defenses ignoring — at times completely — Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo on the perimeter. At times, that’s turned the Bulls’ offense into a spacing-less mess of discontinuity.
The counter to this? That was showcased in Chicago’s 113-82 win against visiting Detroit on Monday night at the United Center. A big part of it involves Rondo setting the tone, as he did in recording 10 points, eight rebounds and a season-high 14 assists.
“When he’s aggressive,” Taj Gibson said of the key to Rondo playing at a high level. “Aggressive going toward the basket, aggressive with his play-calling, aggressive just on defense, rebounding the ball, pushing, when he’s in his fifth gear, it’s always good to see because he’s really in tune with the game.”
The dilemma for the Bulls regarding Rondo is that he’s a brilliant passer on a team that can’t space the floor well, a playmaker who needs the ball in his hands but can’t shoot well. On some nights, smart, disciplined defenses exploit this. On others, such as those when the Bulls can get respectable outside shooting — they were 8-of-16 on 3-pointers on Monday — their offense will hum at a high level.
“It gets everyone easy shots,” said Jimmy Butler, who led Chicago with 19 points. “Fourteen assists speaks for itself. He was finding everybody in rhythm, rebounding, getting out in transition, getting everybody easy shots. When he’s doing that and running and leading a team like that, we’re going to be hella hard to beat.”
The correlation between Rondo’s performances and the Bulls’ success or lack thereof is easy to see. Chicago is now 5-0 when he records 10 or more assists in a game and 2-6 when he has five assists or fewer.
It was on Sunday when Hoiberg preached to his Bulls to get back to having fun. When they’ve played a brand of fun, aesthetically pleasing basketball, it’s usually been spearheaded by Rondo playing well and making quality decisions. He is, in a way, symbolic of their ups and downs this year in amassing a 14-13 mark.
“His speed, his ability to get us into an offense, his tempo, his pace, he gets everybody running with him,” Hoiberg said. “He rewards guys.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.