By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — After his Bulls rolled to a 121-108 win against the 76ers at the United Center, Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg was asked Sunday night if he had a way to sum up the past five days. What followed was finally a lighter moment, if only for a second.
“No,” Hoiberg said with a smile.
Moments earlier, Hoiberg had offered a line that summed up the emotional aspect of his line of work.
“Winning is relief in this business,” Hoiberg said. “Losing is misery. Winning is relief.”
Sunday brought that relief for the Bulls, who welcomed a return to normalcy after five days of chaos that was marked by stars Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out their young teammates’ dedication to their craft after the Bulls collapsed late in a loss to the Hawks on Wednesday. A day later, veteran Rajon Rondo fired back by questioning the leadership of Butler and Wade, their accountability and their influence over the coaching staff, leaving the Bulls in a fragile state Friday in an ugly loss to the Heat.
Against the 76ers, it was some of the maligned younger Bulls who led the charge. Chicago’s bench outscored Philadelphia’s, 49-15, with Doug McDermott scoring 14 points and Paul Zipser and Nikola Mirotic adding 13 points apiece. It was the latter two whom Butler and Wade had called out for their shot selection in the loss to the Hawks.
Mirotic, particularly, has been in the spotlight for a lack of consistent play. He viewed the team meeting Friday as vital after all the drama.
“We kind of took off something from our backs,” Mirotic said. “We’ve been honest with each other. We told what’s been bothering me, Doug, everybody. So it’s like older and younger brother. We fight sometimes. Sometimes we aren’t thinking the same thing, but we love each other and we respect each other. At the end of the day, we’re all here on the same page trying to move in the same direction. We have great guys here. Everybody is a great guy here. I think honestly, we all respect each other. It’s just sometimes it’s going to be imperfect.”
Mirotic specifically believed the meeting helped clear his mind.
“Stay together,” Mirotic said of his message to teammates. “We need to be a family, respect each other. It’s something that happened. Try to keep it in here. That was the message.
“The leaders accepted it very well. Sometimes it’s necessary to talk, you know, especially when you’re in hard times. When you’re losing and you don’t play comfortable, you don’t feel comfortable playing, especially when you hear some comments, you need to talk. You need to figure out what’s going on, how to fix the problems. I think we’re trying to fix it. We’ll do fine in the future.”
Predictably, the Bulls have maintained the drama of the past week can bring them closer. On Sunday, they looked more the part of a cohesive team, compiling 29 assists, their most since Dec. 19. Butler led the charge with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while Robin Lopez added 21 points and 10 rebounds against a 76ers team that rested talented big man Joel Embiid.
Residing in a soft East, the Bulls (24-25) have found a way to stay in the playoff picture, with Sunday’s win lifting them into sole possession of seventh place. Now comes a tough six-game road trip for Chicago that begins Wednesday at Oklahoma City.
“It’s always great to win, especially after what’s been going on,” Butler said. “But we’re still battling together. We’re still in this thing together. We always say ‘we’re all we have.’ Everybody said what they had to say, move on, move forward, win some games.
“It’s either going to go two ways anyways. It’s going to be a good thing or it’s a bad thing. You’re going to win games or lose games. Hopefully it’s the winning part, and everybody says it’s a good thing that happened.”
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.