If basketball gods exist, they scripted the Chicago Bulls' last two games. What other explanation could there be for such a perfect contrast, artistically framed through three quarters of dominance, concluded by sharply different endings?
One ending entailed exhausted starters falling to an energetic bench. The other, an energetic bench dominating the opponent's starters.
In some ways the only difference is nothing more than a win and a loss. That difference could signal a paradigm shift from Tom Thibodeau in how he plays his team, both now and forever. That is, if he was paying attention to what the hard-court deities were teaching.
In the first game, the Chicago Bulls started off playing splendidly, blowing out the Central Division-leading Milwaukee Bucks. They were executing on offense well, moving the ball, getting to the rim and hitting their shots.
Defensively they were rotating. They were sealing off the perimeter and keeping the Bucks from hitting threes.
The Bulls built a massive, 76-51 lead, and Bulls fans were starting to count this one in the win bank. One Bulls writer for Bleacher Report (cough cough) tweeted this in the third quarter,
Best the Bulls have looked all season. Sure, it's against Milwaukee, but just from the aspect of what they're doing, they look great.— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) November 27, 2012
Almost immediately, things started to change. The Bucks put in their reserves. The Bulls didn't. The Bucks had energy, the Bulls didn't.
In just over two and a half minutes, Chicago's lead was down to 15.
The quarter changed, and during the break no new Bulls came in. The Bucks bench started to wear down eventually, but the Bulls starters were even more worn down.
Gradually the lead shrank away entirely, until Milwaukee took the lead at the 7:06 mark. In fewer than eight minutes the Bulls lost a 27-point lead and were outscored by 28 points. The Bulls fell in heartbreaking fashion by a single point, 93-92.
In their very next game, the Bulls again amassed a large lead through three quarters, this time against the Dallas Mavericks. Only this time, as time wound down in the third quarter, Thibodeau had mercy on his starters and used his bench.
The clouds parted. A bright shaft of sunlight broke through, illuminating the United Center. Angels sang. Fans fell on the ground and wept.
An epiphany was had.
The bench began to pull away. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson all started making contributions. Robinson hit a layup. Then he hit a jump shot. Gibson hit a pair of free throws. Butler got to the line and made both shots.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with a lineup composed entirely of the Bulls bench on the floor, the Bulls opened up the lead to 25, with the score 91-66.
The bench stayed in the game ended, with the final score Bulls 101, Mavs 78 was reached. The Bulls starters scored 51, the bench 50, making for a beautiful symmetry in the one game. The vivid contrast of the previous game seemed to prove that there must be some higher powers at work.
In one game, the bench was left alone, scored 10 points and the Bulls lost. In the next, the bench scores one point shy of the starters and the Bulls win going away.
It's as though the moral taught was that the bench is almost, but not quite, as crucial as the starters.
The Bulls had three bench players, Jimmy Butler, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli hit double-digits in scoring. Butler had a career-high 13 points on nine-of-10 from the stripe.
The bench was validated and that had a side effect.
Because of the bench's performance, a corresponding number was perhaps the most important of all—35. That's the number of minutes both Joakim Noah and Luol Deng played. Combined, that's 9.3 minutes fewer than the two have been playing so far this season.
Deng and Noah are first and fifth in minutes per game in the NBA. Logging those kinds of minutes doesn't just drain a player over a game, it drains him over the season. A game saved by leaving the stars in now can mean two games lost due to exhaustion in the playoffs.
The sudden boost in confidence in the bench, and it's corresponding effect on the reduction in minutes from the team's two most important players not named Derrick Rose, is crucial.
The reality is that while the Bulls are 7-7, they are better than a .500 team, even without Rose. Games were lost that could have been won if the bench had more time playing together. They will improve over time, but only if they can play.
Does Tom Thibodeau need to learn to trust his new bench players more?
Their bench has been overhauled with the exceptions of Gibson and Butler. As they've played together they've grown together and that's what they need in order to continue to improve.
There's no substitute for game-time playing. Winning is important, but sometimes winning now means losing later.
The one flaw that Thibodeau has is that sometimes he struggles to see the forest through the trees. He loses sight of the season through the individual games. It's important not to look ahead in some aspects because you don't want to look past an opponent. However one shouldn't practice that to the point of becoming myopic.
Has the little froggy climbed out of the well?
After the game Thibodeau made a proclamation that indicated he might have heard what the hoops divinity was trying to show him.
"The bench was great," Thibodeau said. "The starters got us out to a good start. We needed everybody."
We need everybody. Sweet words to the ears. Let's hope he remembers that.