Commentary

Stellar D will buoy the Bulls

Sunday's defense-powered rout of Memphis was a Thibodeau special

Updated: January 2, 2012, 1:13 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Brian Scalabrine chant started up especially early in the Chicago Bulls' home opener Sunday night, the defending Eastern Conference runner-ups ringing in the new year with the sort of lopsided smackaround that has a crowd looking for other forms of amusement.

[+] EnlargeOmer Asik
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty ImagesOmer Asik and the Bulls bench came up big in the team's home opener on Sunday.

Apparently, sound defense, lively ball movement and solid rebounding have come to be expected at the United Center, all of which were evident in spades in a 104-64 Bulls victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

"I think they got a little bit bored out there," Bulls guard Derrick Rose said of the 22,000-plus. "But hopefully they loved it."

Inspired either by finally playing their first game at home or perhaps by the Miami Heat's 40-point blowout earlier over the Charlotte Hornets, the Bulls put out the sort of effort that has become their trademark under coach Tom Thibodeau, but may be hard to maintain during this season's crazily condensed schedule.

Defense was not especially impressive during the first week of the season, though it should be noted that the Bulls did pull it out when needed in the latter stages of their last two games against the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Clippers.

The advantage the Bulls have is that their depth can make up for the occasional letdown in other areas; their bench Sunday night accounting for 35 points and 20 rebounds; Ronnie Brewer ably stepping in for Rip Hamilton, who was in street clothes with a groin injury, and scoring 17 points with seven rebounds and five assists.

Even John Lucas III contributed, scoring eight straight points in relief of C.J. Watson, who sprained his left elbow in the fourth quarter [and will undergo an MRI Monday].

The blowout allowed the Bulls to rest every starter but Brewer in the fourth quarter, perhaps the most important thing in a season when five games in eight days, the stretch they just completed, will be more common than not.

"It's huge," said Rose, who finished with 16 points, six assists in 26 minutes.

But more important than the rest, he said, was how they achieved it.

"In the past, we would take our foot off the gas and teams would come back and actually win …," Rose said. "Those are situations you don't want to put yourself in again."

When your starters shoot 6-for-41 for 21 points as the Grizzlies starters did (26-for-84 as a team for 31 percent), a certain amount of it can be blamed on poor shot selection and just plain bad shooting, a performance Memphis coach Lionel Hollins called "embarrassing and humiliating."

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesLike last season's version, the 2011-12 Bulls look as though they'll be powered by defense.

The defending Western Conference semifinalists were also without Mike Conley, and starter Zach Randolph left in the first quarter with a knee contusion after scoring just two points in 11 minutes, and did not return.

Still, the Bulls held the Grizzlies accountable for every turnover, self-inflicted and otherwise, by pushing the ball for 33 fast-break points. And more than the bench's contribution and Carlos Boozer's awakening (17 points, 11 rebounds), Hamilton's assimilation and anything else the Bulls do this season, it will be their defensive effort that will be most challenging and most important in the long run. Particularly when the only team as good or better than the Bulls defensively on a nightly basis happens to be the Heat.

"That's one thing that's going to have to stay the same the whole entire year," Brewer said. "You can't control how many shots you're going to make, but you can control your defensive intensity and the effort you put out on the defensive end night in and night out. Thibs is going to ask that of us and we have to go out there and be an extension of him on the court."

In a home opener, a certain amount of extra adrenaline is to be expected, and 12 blocked shots by the Bulls were but one possible extension of that as they opened up a 25-12 lead in the first quarter and doubled the lead to 26 in the second.

But what about their first back-to-back-to-back in another week, a stretch that will include seven games in nine nights? Is it even fair to expect the kind of consistent defensive effort Thibodeau expects?

Rose took the question as a personal challenge.

"For sure," he said. "I'm pushing myself as a player. And defensively, I know that's a huge thing. That's one of my goals, making some defensive team. I don't care which one it is, just put me on any team."

There is a reason they say defense wins championships. Maybe in a grueling season like this one should be, it will be that much truer. Either way, it doesn't seem to intimidate the Bulls.

"Defense," Rose said. "That's our biggest thing."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.