CLEVELAND -- After watching his team pull off an impressive 96-83 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Fred Hoiberg answered the question on the minds of basketball people all over the league with a question of his own.
Why is it that the Chicago Bulls can beat some of the best teams in the league and find ways to lose against some of the worst?
"You got any ideas?" Hoiberg responded.
It was an honest answer.
If Hoiberg and his players knew why they rise and fall so easily to the competition, they would have already fixed the problem. Instead, the first-year head coach was left to shake his head after another quality win over a team that had just changed its coach and appeared to have emotion on its side. Given the way the Bulls have performed this year, the fact that they pulled off this win after having lost six of their past eight games shouldn't come as a surprise.
"I wish I could put a finger on it but I can't, man," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said of the inconsistency. "That's something I've been thinking about a long time. I really can't put a finger on it."
The usual stalwarts rose to the challenge in this game for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler scored 20 points and did a nice job staying in front of LeBron James, holding him to 11-for-27 from the field. Pau Gasol almost went off for a triple-double with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, providing the Bulls with his stabilizing offensive presence. Derrick Rose was just 5-for-21 from the field, but he was aggressive in going to the rim and was solid defensively against Kyrie Irving. Taj Gibson, playing with a left corneal abrasion, racked up 15 points and played with the type of lunch pail mentality that has defined his career. But the big difference in this game was the man whom Hoiberg has given countless opportunities throughout the year to turn things around: Nikola Mirotic.
Mirotic has struggled all season to find a rhythm and came into this game shooting 6-for-36 over his past five games. On Saturday, he made his first two shots and it appeared to give him the confidence he needed for the night. As has been the case all season, when Mirotic plays well, he gives the Bulls' offense another dimension, another way to beat some of the league's elite.
"That's what we need from Niko," Butler said, echoing sentiments from all over the organization. "Just to be aggressive, be confident in taking and making shots. Hopefully he gets back in that gym and continues to work on his game so we can get that from him every night."
Aside from Mirotic's emergence, Hoiberg pointed to the defensive intensity that he saw early from his team, which made the difference. As a group, the Bulls like the stage that comes against the league's best. They always get up to play James-led teams, and Saturday was no different.
"It's a mindset with our guys," Hoiberg said. "You take away Golden State, we're 8-0 against the other 2-through-6 in the league. I told our guys, we say this all the time -- this is one you can build off of. And if you can go out and play with that type of intensity, you're going to give yourself a chance night in and night out."
But that has been the Bulls' problem all year. Why can't they play with the same hunger and drive against everybody? Hoiberg's players sounded hopeful that they would be able to turn a corner after such a big win, but they've said the same thing repeatedly throughout the season.
"This is my first time really experiencing it with a great team," Rose said of all the ups and downs. "I think that, no knock against my teammates in the past, but we didn't have the talent like we have on this team. We were just happy to win games -- but coming into tonight's game, I think every game that we play in, we're the target. Guys are really coming in hard to beat us, and we just got to make sure we come out and compete with that edge and give that to win that game."
The surprise wasn't that the Bulls won on Saturday night, the surprise would be if they could use this win as a springboard to play more consistent basketball, especially with a seven-game West Coast swing looming next week. For the time being, as emotional of a win as Saturday's game was for this group of proud players, it didn't change their perspective. This team has lost to James too many times in the playoffs to think one regular-season game in January would change the course of a season that much.
"We've been 2-0 many times against the Cavs," Gibson said. "It's all about when it's time to knuckle up and it's playoff time and they're back against the wall, that's when it all matters. I'd rather be 2-0 on the Cavs in the playoffs."