CHICAGO -- When the final chapter of the Chicago Bulls' 2015-16 campaign is written, the span of four days between Dec. 19-23, will likely serve as the biggest turning point in one of the most up-and-down campaigns in recent memory.
The Bulls were a mess.
A night after losing to the Detroit Pistons in a four-overtime affair, a tired Bulls squad couldn't muster much energy in another loss to the New York Knicks. After the game, the Bulls' best player, Jimmy Butler, called out his new coach, Fred Hoiberg, saying he had to coach the group "harder," including Butler. The verbal missile sent shock waves throughout the organization. Butler and Hoiberg met, Butler and his teammates met, concerns and frustrations were aired out.
The Bulls were supposed to be back on track -- and then they promptly followed that up with another head-scratching loss to the lowly Brooklyn Nets two days later.
A team meeting with executive vice president John Paxson followed. The Bulls closed ranks, and they took Paxson's message to heart. They started heeding Hoiberg's advice. To the surprise of many, the Bulls found the efficient offense they were expecting when they hired Hoiberg. And they started winning.
The Bulls come into Thursday's game against the Boston Celtics with a 21-12 record, the second-best in the Eastern Conference, having won five games in a row and six of their past seven. So how did the group that was left for dead a few weeks ago and ranked among the worst offensive teams in the NBA suddenly become one of the league's hottest teams?
It starts with Butler. The 26-year-old All-Star swingman took heat for his comments from all over the league, including within his own organization. Several players and executives were disappointed he made his comments public.
But Butler never walked back his comments, and he backed it up with his own play. In the eight games since calling out his coach publicly, Butler is shooting 50 percent from the field, up from 44.5 percent in his first 25 games, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information, and his assists have gone up from 3.3 to 5.8 per game.
Like many of his teammates, including Derrick Rose, Butler has also been noticeably more aggressive going the rim over the past eight games. In his first 25 games, Butler took 41 percent of his shots from inside the paint and 37 percent of shots from midrange. In his past eight games, Butler has taken 51 percent of his shots from inside the paint and just 27 percent from midrange.
Butler's play coincides with one of the other biggest keys in the Bulls' turnaround -- they are playing much better together on the offensive end. Instead of looking for individual shots and turning many possessions into isolation sets, the Bulls have started moving the ball more and getting into the type of offense that Hoiberg and the Bulls' front office envisioned when he was hired away from Iowa State over the summer.
"When we look at tape from where we were earlier in the season to where we are now it's night-and-day difference from getting that ball swung," Hoiberg said Wednesday. "We had so many possessions where we got the ball on the same side. We didn't make the defense move, they were able to load on the ball. So that's where it started, if we can get that defense shifted, get two-man games with two or three of our best players out there, generally good things happen. It's pretty simple stuff. The big thing is not having the ball stick in our guys' hands."
The numbers back up that the glue, which had been clamping the offense down, has been washed away. After clearing the air in the wake of Butler's comments, the Bulls have scored at least 100 points in every game since. Hoiberg pointed to the insertion of Taj Gibson into the starting lineup as a catalyst, while the play of rookie Bobby Portis, who has earned a spot in the rotation, has been a key as well.
Before Butler's remarks, the Bulls had an offensive efficiency rating of 98.3, and over the past eight games it has surged to 110.3. Their field goal percentage has gone up as well -- from 42.3 percent to 47.8 percent. Like Butler, as a group, the Bulls have been more aggressive going to basket. They shot 52.1 percent from inside five feet before Dec. 19, compared to 60.7 percent since then.
"I think everything is just slowing down," Rose said of the offensive uptick. "Jimmy's playing with a lot of patience. Pau [Gasol] is playing with a lot of patience. And we're just taking whatever they're giving us. If you're going to give us certain shots -- for one we're getting out and running a little bit more. But Jimmy's been playing unreal right now."
Butler believes the game has gotten simpler for the Bulls. In the process, he also underscores what the numbers show -- the Bulls aren't playing nearly as much one-on-one basketball as they did early in the season.
"I think everybody just scores the ball well and we're passing the ball to the open man," Butler said. "It also helps that guys are making shots, but they're all taking the shots that they know that they can make, including myself."
The key for the Bulls is that Butler is setting a tone that the rest of his teammates are following, but he's doing it with his play instead of his words. What rubbed some within the organization the wrong way in the past year was the way Butler carried himself. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote last month, Butler's rise "engendered some minor hard feelings within the team" because, in part, he "relishes the trappings of stardom a bit too much."
Butler still believes he is the star of the group, but his demeanor, and his public words, have been noticeably different since his comments in New York. It's unclear what was said in those meetings with his teammates and coaches, but Butler has made it a point to let his play do more of the talking since. Surely that's why Hoiberg has repeatedly pointed to the group celebration after Butler's franchise-record 40-point second-half performance in Toronto on Sunday in which the Bulls jumped around and celebrated together.
"He's played at an incredibly high level, there's no question about it," Gasol said. "Being very aggressive and very sharp. It was great to see the last couple games, just outstanding. I'm happy for him, obviously when you have a guy that has it going that way, then the defense has to make adjustments and other guys get open shots and easier shots. So it's great also that he recognizes when to shoot and when to pass, which is one of the hardest decisions in this game."
As the Bulls try to continue to grow together, one of the most important lessons it appears Butler has learned is that actions speak louder than words. Trying to assert yourself as a leader with words isn't as important as putting in the results on the floor.
"I think we all got a lot of love for each other," Butler said. "Everybody wants to see everybody be successful. That's why we're winning games. We're buying into any given night. It could be anybody that's scoring. It could be anybody that's got it going. You get the ball to them and they'll take us where we need to go. But that's special just showing how much everybody wants everybody else to be successful."
The unity that has been missing for long stretches within this group has been on full display lately. The verbal sparring that would take place when a missed assignment occurred has, for the most part, been replaced by a few words of encouragement and a pat on the backside. When a player falls over, several teammates have come to pick him up, which wasn't the case earlier in the season.
"It's something obviously we've talked a lot about and it's believing in each other out there," Hoiberg said. "I've talked about this the last couple days, when those guys are out there celebrating together on the floor and the whole team was jumping around together [after the Toronto game], that's big time stuff. That's what great teams do. The locker rooms, it's been a little louder, the celebrations have been a little bit better as we've gone on a little bit of a streak here and it's keeping with that."
The Bulls have done that in recent weeks. Instead of falling apart, they've come together even stronger. But can they keep this consistency for the long haul?
"I don't think we're different people than we were three weeks ago, four weeks ago," Gasol said. "But I see a progression, I see a development, which I like. Again, now can we keep it this way for the entire year? For every single game from here on out? And if we're bringing energy, we're bringing the edge, we're bringing the focus that is required in this league, we have a chance because we have plenty of talent, as we all know."