Bulls 1st Preseason Game Observations

We all know the adage… “It’s only preseason.” So I know my observations from the Bulls first preseason game last night may seem too excited and may ultimately look overblown as early as tonight when the Bulls play again at Detroit, but whatever… basketball is back! I knew it was a great last-minute decision to head to the UC in person when longtime foe Paul Pierce and Joakim Noah almost came to blows within the first 4 minutes of the game. After all, the near-fight invalidates the adage just a little bit, right?

As you continue reading… listen to the new Bulls Show as Nillz & Ricky discuss last night’s game too.

Derrick Rose looked great. And controlled.

The big asterisk before any Rose pre-season thoughts was how unstoppable Rose looked in last year’s preseason. Seriously, the stats were other worldly. Once the regular season started, however, Derrick Rose looked like Derrick Rust as he ended up with 15.9 PPG and 35% shooting in the 10 games before his season-ending knee injury. With 2013 still fresh in mind, I have no expectations about Rose’s stats or efficiency for the first one or two months of the season. I think I speak for many Bulls fans when I say that I’d take a healthy, explosive Rose that plays every game in that stretch and improves as he goes along, even if he’s not filling up the box score at 2011 MVP levels.

In last night’s game, so far, so good. Rose scored 11 points on 4-7 shooting in 14 minutes, looking agile and never once having to press the NoS button. Not even while navigating to the hoop on his one fast-break drive that finished with a breathtaking layup after his signature running back cradle.

So, a nice first game from Rose, which further instilled confidence from his teammates, per Bulls ESPN beat writer Nick Friedell. There is not too much else to dwell on after the first game for Rose. Let’s just huff on our collective magnifying glass for the rest of the preseason to see how he continues. After all, the former MVP’s health and performance is more key than anything to these new-look Bulls, even given all of the exciting new additions…

The “2014 Plan” looked impressive.

Much was speculated about the famed “2014 Plan” in Bulls Nation since 2012, when our season came to an abrupt halt after Derrick Rose’s torn ACL. Two full years of predicting what the roster would look like for the future when the Bulls would reach maximum financial flexibility after marginal contracts expired and the Boozer amnesty levied. It felt like a 24/7 discussion during the season after Luol Deng was traded in, essentially, a salary dump, and of course again during the first 10 days of July when the city was on pins and needles about Carmelo Anthony fulfilling photoshopped dreams at the United Center.

Plan B ended up being the signing of former all-star and NBA Champion Pau Gasol, bringing over 2011 draftee and “best player not in the NBA” Nikola Mirotic, trading multiple draft picks for record-setting college scorer, rookie Doug McDermott, and fulfilling the small shoes of undersized Bulls point guards of Thibs Era past (John Lucas III, Nate Robinson, and D.J. Augustin) with the addition of Aaron Brooks.

All four of these players started off the preseason strong. I first had to rub my eyes to make sure that was indeed a 7 foot post-up threat with a Bulls uniform on, trying jump hooks over Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Though Gasol was largely unsuccessful at post-ups last night, the mere motion of it was exciting. One thing to look out for this season is if Gasol’s low-post game will be an effective, go-to option for an offense that desperately needs another one. Sure, it wasn’t last night, but the weapon could add a nice dynamic to our half-court offense, especially come playoff time. At the very least, Gasol showed again he can sink the face-up jumper with range, knocking his last basket of the night from a couple feet in front of the 3-point arc.

Defensively, though Gasol may lack the foot speed to stay with quick guards on a pick-and-roll, you can’t teach length. Gasol’s long frame will naturally yield a few blocks now and then, as it did last night with 3, and those few blocks are more than the zero that his incumbent Carlos Boozer ever really attained. Perhaps a sign that Gasol has already embraced Coach Thibs’ defense-first mentality was the way he was fired up when he forced Marcin Gortat off the dribble and into a 24 second shot clock violation. I’m just as fired up, in general, and we weren’t even treated to a Gasol-to-Noah high-post pinball pass sequence just yet. That’s surely remained to be seen too.

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The star of the game for the Bulls was, surprisingly, rookie Nikola Mirotic. I say surprisingly because for most Bulls fans, this was our first experience to see Mirotic in a live game, let alone in person. We’ve heard all the reports and comparisons from everything to Toni Kukoc and Dirk-lite and after one game seeing him in person… these at least can’t be immediately dismissed.

Here’s what Mirotic did last night… led the team with 17 points (all in the second half, all off the dribble or at the foul line), hit 3 3s including a pull-up like he was a point guard, attempt a Dirk-style pump fake/jump into the defender 3-pointer (photographed above), and nail 2 intense post-3 celebrations towards the Bulls bench. I’m a fan. See: The texts I sent to a fellow Bulls fan.

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Smooth start for Nikola as we continue to watch him grow and hopefully earn some playing time during the season. I was surprised at how spry and skilled Mirotic moved for a big guy, especially off the dribble and with his first step. One aspect of his game to watch going forward: his rebounding. A few attainable boards didn’t go his way last night and this, plus the learning curve of NBA team defense, may keep Mirotic on the pine.

As for our other rookie, Doug McDermott, the first game revealed he has the Kyle Korver playbook on offense. This surely brought back warm memories to the time our second-string offense was stagnated around Korver juking on the baseline and eventually up towards the arc after a down screen. Dougie got his fair share of down screens and though he missed or passed up a shot or two off a curl, he also hit a couple of jumpers with a hand over his eyes. I’m just happy we can have the feeling again that a shot is going in every time a player releases it, and Dougie and his quick trigger ignites that joyous emotion for these 2014-15 Bulls (I honestly tried a few times to reword this, but gave up. I know how this sounds, but you know what I mean.) Now let’s see how Dougie & Mirotic mesh with some of the starting 5, namely Rose. I’m sure we’ll get more glimpses than last night as October progresses.

And finally, Aaron Brooks. An NBA die-hard already knows his game over his last handful of years in the league, but it was also great to see a contested, irrational confidence 3 hit nothing but the bottom of the net from our small point guard. He had no minutes alongside Rose last night as that’s a combo I also hope to see this preseason.

Jimmy Butler was Jimmy Butler last night — do we extend him?

Another storyline of October is the eligible extension starting 2 guard Jimmy Butler can receive by October 31st. Last night’s effort embodied Jimmy Butler’s season last year. He only shot 1-7 from the field but compounded it with 8 attempts at the free throw line. His low marksmanship was contrasted by his superb on-ball defense, exemplified with the defensive play of the night — a block on Bradley Beal that got me out of my seat like I was Joakim Noah on the bench here.

Butler’s energy on the defensive end was a 100 emoji last night as the 2nd-team All Defensive Team swingman showed why he earned that title last season. I predict a better year from Jimmy both offensively and, why not, defensively too. With another full-time starter year upcoming, and an increasing rep around the league as an elite perimeter defender, why couldn’t Jimmy make All-Defensive 1st team? The Bulls will have plenty of national stages this year for Butler to lock down and limit a superstar *side-eyes LeBron* and above all, this standout skill warrants a contract extension.

Offensively, I can’t imagine his shooting being as bad as last year with a healthy Rose and better offensive balance creating him more looks (and less shot-clock dwindling forced shots that Zach Lowe pointed out last month). Hopefully somewhere between the 40%/28 3P% of last season and the 46%/38 3P% of the season prior. I’d bet on a young, hard-working Butler to keep improving and given the latest NBA TV deal, his contract, even if it’s north of $11 million a year, won’t harp on the salary cap in later years as relative to next year.

TL;DR: Extend him, we need someone to guard LeBron!

If you made it this far…

You can see how excited I am as a Bulls fan for this upcoming season and experiencing last night’s game at the UC showed some on-court examples why and hinted at the overall potential of the team come spring, 2015. This lengthy read should also hint at future long-form NBA articles to come, but for now, I must say being back at the United Center with the NBA (pre)season underway is an exciting feeling in and of itself. Seeing the beautiful new LED screens on the United Center exterior, and the newly completed Advocate Practice Facility across the street, only adds to these new-look Bulls. It’s only remained to be seen how far the Bulls can travel on the road to June, and as I always get excited about the idea, I just as much remind myself to do as the team does: take it one game at a time.

In conclusion, last night was only 1 of 90 before the Playoffs, I know, but isn’t it a good sign that I won the season’s first Dunkin Donuts race?! Who’s with me for midday bagels?? Let me know if you’re down (um, seriously?) or drop a comment with any of your Bulls ’15 thoughts here.

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