OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls' most impressive and important win of the season, a 105-96 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the most noticeable thing about the happy visitors locker room were the smiles. After a week in which the Bulls lost three games in a row and had Jimmy Butler, the team's best player, call out first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, the fact that there was a little laughter among this group was the best Christmas present the Bulls' front office could have gotten. The relief and joy were palpable.
So how could a team that seemed so lifeless and splintered in the past six days suddenly come into one of the toughest places in the league against one of the hottest teams in the NBA and find a way to come together with the intensity that has been missing for stretches?
"Probably because it got heated for a moment there with whatever went on," Butler said. "I think when you go back and look at it, everybody knew that whatever happened, whatever was said was right. And we started playing harder, we started playing for one another. And if we guard the opposing team the way we guard each other in practice, man, that's what it looks like."
Though it might have taken a game longer than expected after a disheartening loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night, Butler wore the look of a man who felt vindicated for his comments after last Saturday's loss to the New York Knicks in which he said Hoiberg needed to coach his group harder while players, including himself, needed to play harder.
To understand how the Bulls finally bridged the gap on Friday from a team that talked about doing things the right way to one that backed up those actions with their play, it's important to understand what occurred between the end of the Nets game and the beginning of the Thunder game. Players noted that they had three good days of practice, which included an edge that has been missing during games. But several players noted that it was a speech from executive vice president John Paxson that helped get their minds right after the roughest stretch of the young season.
"He was just talking to us about how we got to play with a lot more aggressiveness, play like we want it more," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Play like how we used to play. Play with a lot more toughness and heart. Too much buddy-buddy. Just got to go out there and just attack. There's no time to be friends with anybody right now. We got enough friends in here we can reach out to 24/7. I can't go out there and look to be nice to everybody. It's for my teammates. We got to turn things around, we understand that, and whatever it takes to help us turn it around, we'll do."
Gibson said the tenor of Paxson's comments wasn't mired in anger, but more so in a frustration that this group wasn't playing up to it's potential. The Bulls came into this season believing they could end the year with a championship, but their play of late has sparked trade rumors and reports of dissension within the locker room.
"He wasn't pissed at all," Gibson said. "He was just talking to us. He was just telling us how it was a different era. He just said nowadays guys are more pampered, things are just much more easygoing. It kind of makes you think how appreciative it is to be in the NBA, and then we all looked at each other. But he was just preaching go out there and just play hard for each other. All we got is each other in this locker room, in this organization. It's up to us to turn it around and go out there and play with some heart. Lay it on the line."
From start to finish on Friday, that's what the Bulls tried to do. Without Joakim Noah, who is sidelined with a shoulder injury, the Bulls did something they haven't done much all season: They set an aggressive tone early and played with the type of pace that Hoiberg has been asking for all season. For all the ups and downs the Bulls have gone through, Friday marked arguably this team's most consistent effort of the season.
"I loved our mentality coming out of the gate," Hoiberg said. "Kept our foot on the gas, which was great to see. Withstood their run, which I think everybody knew they were going to go on in the fourth quarter. And then made big plays down the stretch."
So did Hoiberg heed Butler's words and coach this group differently than he did earlier in the season?
"Coach differently?" Butler said. "No. He did what he was supposed to do. But when somebody didn't do something right he was like, 'Hey, this is how it's got to be done.' That's what we need. I think it's a learning curve for everybody. Him, myself, everybody in this locker room. Everybody's new to this, so we'll get better."
Clearly, that was part of Paxson's message. Internally, the Bulls are still confident this group is better than what it has shown recently. The feeling is that there is enough talent on this roster to make a push deep into the playoffs if this group stays healthy and jells. But the players, coaches and executives all understand that this group has hit a major fork in the road already this season. Either they come together in the wake of all the scrutiny in the past week, or they fall apart and the front office decides to dismantle some of this group's pieces in the coming weeks.
"[Paxson] didn't have to [speak], but he cares about this organization, about this team, just like everybody else," Butler said. "We knew what we were capable of. We know that we can play like this on a nightly basis. He just voiced his opinion and told us how he felt. I think that's what everybody in this organization, on this team, has to do."
Given the way this Bulls season has unfolded, the surprise shouldn't be that they found a way to win against the Thunder. The real surprise would be if they went to Dallas on Saturday night, the second night of a back-to-back, and found a way to beat the Mavericks. There was a quiet confidence within the locker room that the Bulls could do just that and build off the momentum this win provides.
"I hope so," Hoiberg said, almost pleading to the basketball gods, when asked if this game could serve as catalyst for change within his team. "That's the thing you want. We've had a couple big wins, tough wins, we beat this team twice, which isn't easy to do. Win against Cleveland, win against San Antonio, win against the Clippers. You just hope that this will lead to confidence growing, belief. You hope it leads to your guys understanding how good we can be if we go out and play with that type of effort and intensity, and that's what we got to build on."