Cover sports far and wide enough, for long enough—say, from amateur roller hockey to world-class prizefights—and you soon figure out that less is said, either publicly or privately, the higher up the food chain you climb. A high school freshman tennis star would happily offer up mom and dad’s AmEx number for a picture in the local paper, whereas an NFL quarterback guards the identity of his favorite color as he would the nuclear codes.
So Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg pretty much falls in line with the rest. He’s offered up a lot of sweeping platitudes and gentle, non-targeted criticisms in the little bit of time I’ve spent around the team the past few days, never offending, inciting or revealing anything of much import. It makes perfect sense, and I don’t blame guys like him one iota for soft-shoeing or clamming up entirely. Every sound bite is seized upon, every comment read into, every move second-guessed. Why risk stirring up shit?
Read between Hoiberg’s lines, though, and linger on the points he’s hammered on early this season, and you can start to make out a trend. Maybe even a coded language of sorts. Here’s my attempt at a rough translation:
“Look, we can’t shoot. I know it, you know it. Our best 3-point shooters are dudes who can’t stay in front of their man or are in some other way flawed, and our best perimeter players fire up cement blocks. Yeah, they’re splashing right now, but it ain’t gonna last. Our best chance over the long haul is to get after it on D, turn opponents over and cash in with transition buckets. Here’s the thing: That stuff is hard. It takes maximum effort. On the nights that we don’t play balls-out, we’re screwed. It’s a tough deal, but there it is. Hoiberg out.”
(OK, that last part was a bit of paraphrasing on my part. But I like to imagine the Bulls’ coach saying it. Let’s all start rooting for this.)
Thing is, the Bulls are handling their business—playing Hoi-Ball—on more nights than they aren’t. Last night, after schlepping out to Portland to try to rein in the beast-moding Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, they could have been forgiven for hitting a sour note. In Dwyane Wade’s return to Miami last week—also the second game of a back-to-back—Chicago expended a lot of energy and emotional capital to grind out a win. Two nights later, they appeared ready to pack it in after going down 21-9 in the first quarter at Washington, then roared back. Wade and Rajon Rondo are non-shooting, 30-something guards who have been through the wars, and Jimmy Butler played roughly 457,000 minutes of basketball under Tom Thibodeau. Even if these guys aren’t technically old, they should be tired.
Instead, with Rondo out (sprained ankle) against the Blazers, Wade and Butler fronted Lillard and McCollum, overplayed the passing lanes and fought to body them up coming off screens. They jumped passes like a bunch of half-rabid AAU ballers, and Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson helped, harassed and patrolled the lane to deny anything easy. Chicago also got great use out of Jerian Grant (five steals) and more quality energy from Isaiah Canaan—an important boost with Doug McDermott out (concussion). We should get an idea whether this is remotely sustainable over the next nine days, when the Bulls face three likely playoff teams in a row, then hit Denver (thin air, young legs) and, finally, jet out to Philadelphia.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an NBA squad turn it up to 11 most every night and still have anything left at the end of the season to constitute a threat in the playoffs. I’d bet the farm that it’s never been done by a team with this makeup. But there’s a first time for everything, I suppose. Maybe this is that team. Maybe Hoiberg knows something we don’t. And if he does, he isn’t letting on.