CHICAGO — What a difference a week can make.
Heading into Christmas, the Bulls couldn’t have been in a worse position. They had lost four games in a row, and during that stretch Jimmy Butler called out head coach Fred Hoiberg in the media. They were losing at home to teams like the Brooklyn Nets. No one seemed to be on the same page.
Despite all the talent on this roster, which led many to call them the most formidable Eastern Conference challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers before the start of the season, they appeared to be coming apart at the seams.
As 2015 turns into 2016, the trend has reversed. Starting with their Christmas Day win over the Thunder in Oklahoma City, the Bulls have rattled off a stretch in which they’ve won three of four games, including two against Eastern Conference rivals (Monday’s win over the Toronto Raptors and Wednesday’s overtime win against the Indiana Pacers).
Even the Dec. 26 loss to the Dallas Mavericks had some positives—namely, an efficient 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting from Derrick Rose.
The Bulls are beginning the new calendar year more locked-in, playing with more consistent energy, not looking lost.
"We have put together four games in a row where we competed from beginning to end,” Pau Gasol said on Wednesday. "And that's a very good sign."
Most importantly, the issues that cropped up between Butler and Hoiberg appear to have faded, at least for now. The two talked it out privately in Hoiberg’s office after Butler told reporters two weeks ago that the team needed to be “coached harder.” Things still aren’t perfect between star and coach, but both sides are making an effort to close the gap.
"We're both learning a lot about each other,” Butler said. “He's probably learning how moody I am on a daily basis, to tell you the truth. It's hard. But he lets me be who I am. He handles everything that I do very well. I'm not a big communicator, but he's always talking to me, always asking, 'Hey, how you doing? What can we do?' He's always asking my opinion on a lot of things. So, yeah, it helped a lot.”
Player-coach conflicts can go two ways. One or both parties can dig in harder, or they can use it as a catalyst for change. As passionate as Butler is, and as much as that can rub people the wrong way, his willingness to hold himself accountable, and to be held accountable, is helping the relationship progress when otherwise it could fall apart.
"I've still got respect for him," Butler said of Hoiberg. "Nothing I do is to disrespect anybody. He realizes I'm going to be here. I realize he's going to be here. So we have to deal with each other anyways.”
Butler was passive in the win over the Raptors, scoring just five points in 35 minutes. But he followed that up with 28 against the Pacers, including both the game-tying three in the final minute of regulation and the go-ahead basket at the end of overtime.
"He's holding me accountable for everything,” Butler said of Hoiberg. “He talked to me when I was low-energy [Monday], and I fixed it. That's the type of guy he is. He has the utmost confidence in me because he continued to put the ball in my hand when he didn't have to.”
That the Bulls won that game against a good Pacers team without Derrick Rose, who has improved his play greatly in recent weeks, says a lot about the team’s newfound togetherness. They’ve been finding production in unlikely places: Aaron Brooks scored 29 points off the bench in Rose’s absence, and rookie big man Bobby Portis has firmly established himself as a productive rotation player since a shoulder injury sidelined Joakim Noah last week.
The month of January will be a crucial one for the Bulls. After a December heavy on home games and easy opponents, they play nine of their 16 January games on the road and nine of those 16 games against teams currently in playoff position. The stretch before the All-Star break includes a seven-game road trip and matchups with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
If there’s ever a time for the Bulls to prove that their recent success is real and sustainable, this is it. Their performance since Christmas is encouraging. Just like in previous years, when they are dealt a bad hand of injuries, drama and adversity, they’re coming out the other side stronger.
“There’s been a lot of talk,” said Taj Gibson. “Everything’s been coming at us. We’ve stayed together as a group. I’m happy we’ve kept the wins coming and just kept pushing through.”