These aren't your 2013-2014 Chicago Bulls.
The team that had such difficulty scoring points against the Wizards defense now have a few more weapons on the offensive end. Jimmy Butler has been the best shooting guard in the east this season, and this year, it's not all about his defense. Pau Gasol has joined the team and given them a skilled, proven big whose versatility is an asset as witnessed by his corner three to end the first quarter. And of course there is Derrick Rose. Make all the injury jokes you'd like, but he looked every bit the MVP he was at times against the Wizards in the Bulls 99-91 victory at the Verizon Center.
"You know it just didn't feel like we got in any kind of rhythm offensively all game," Randy Wittman said after the game. That lack of rhythm was evidenced by the shots that the Wizards took too frequently on offense. While Chicago's defense this year hasn't been the force it was in prior years, Tom Thibodeau's squad showed that they could still clamp down when they need to, particularly against Washington's frontline.
Paul Pierce faulted Washington's failure to attack the Bulls defense as part of the reason for their struggles. "I thought we should've been a little more aggressive," Pierce said postgame. "Sometimes we settled for jump shots when for the most part, when you look at free throw disparity in the first half, I think we got like three free throws. Against a team like Chicago you have to be the aggressor." The numbers bear this out, as the Wizards failed to get to the foul line, and couldn't get open looks from beyond the arc. The offense too frequently devolved into throwing up a contested midrange shot late in the shot clock.
Washington's bigs (Nene, Gortat, Humphries and Seraphin) were emblematic of these struggles, as they combined to shoot just 13-37 on the night, as Chicago's defense didn't allow them to get easy looks at the basket. The Wizards team that held their on own on the glass in their playoff series against the Bulls was thoroughly dominated on the boards in this game, 52-41. Chicago took away the things that Washington wanted to do, and converted when they needed to on the other end of the floor. This continued a troubling recent trend that saw Washington's starting frontline being physically outmatched by opponents.
For Marcin Gortat, the big difference between this Chicago team and the one that they beat last year isn't the one you may think. "I think their biggest change was getting Pau Gasol," he said following the game. "Obviously having Derrick Rose is huge. But, the biggest change to me was getting Pau Gasol. He is a great rebounder, leader, post up player and shooter. He is an all-around great player."
Gasol showed why the Bulls chased him this offseason, scoring from all over the court and providing a dangerous partner for Derrick Rose in the pick and roll. "It was the wing one (pick and roll) that they threw back to Gasol, that's what bothered us." This allowed Rose the chance to drive the to the basket, or, if this wasn't available, to kick it back to Gasol for a 16 foot jumper. Gasol's ability to make that shot, and the height and length he has to shoot over his opponents, gives Chicago an offensive element that they didn't have last year.
Nevertheless, it was the former MVP Rose that Chicago needed to save them when they found themselves in trouble. When Washington made it's 4th quarter run to take the lead behind superlative play by Wall,the Bulls closed out with a run of their own behind the stellar play of Derrick Rose. Though his absences may have taken him out of the best point guards discussions for some, he showed that he can still play with the best of them when he's healthy.
Much has changed since Wall and Rose have faced off. The last time John Wall and Derrick Rose played head to head in January 2012, JaVale McGee and Nick Young were among the Wizards leading scorers in a starting lineup that also featured Jan Vesely and Rashard Lewis. The Bulls still had Kyle Korver and Omer Asik, and the team easily handled Washington to give them their 17th loss in 21 outings. Almost 3 years and one Wizards playoff series victory later, the Bulls started out this chapter with a bit of revenge in front of the Washington faithful.
As Washington and Chicago jockey for position near the top of the Eastern Conference, these games will continue to rise in importance as the series. The re-engineered Bulls got the first round. The Wizards will need to find a way to adjust for Round 2.