Coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are doing it again. They aren’t just surviving without Derrick Rose, for a second straight season they are thriving without him. Joakim Noah is playing at a near MVP level, Taj Gibson is garnering mention for sixth man of the year, D.J. Augustin is enjoying a serious career renaissance and Jimmy Butler is on the brink of becoming a star player. The team just throttled the Knicks on Sunday for their 9th win in 10 games and Joakim Noah just became the 3rd Bull ever to have 5 triple-doubles in a Chicago uniform (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are the others). The Bulls’ season is really picking up steam. Somehow, though, the topic picking up the most steam in Chicago is the rampant rumor that the Bulls will target Knicks’ superstar Carmelo Anthony in free agency this summer. The Knicks are a mess this season, sitting at 21-40 and in 11th in the miserable Eastern Conference. They don’t have a 1st round draft pick in the June draft and they don’t really have much cap space to add better players around Melo if he were to return to the team next year. It’s not hard to see why Carmelo would want out of New York. The question is: Should the Bulls want him here?
On paper, adding Carmelo seems like an obvious choice. He’s been an elite scorer for his entire career, averaging 25.3 points per game (28.0 this season) and won the league scoring title in 2012-13 with 28.7 points a game. He’s a 6-time All-Star and a guy who’s been the best player on winning teams his entire career. In fact, 2014 will be the first time he’s missed the playoffs in his entire 11-year career (assuming the Knicks don’t miraculously make the playoffs). He’s even improved his game in the past couple of seasons, becoming a better 3-point shooter and rebounder. In order to make room for Anthony under the salary cap, the Bulls would likely have to shed the salaries of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Most people are expecting the Bulls to use the amnesty clause to release Boozer this offseason regardless of what happens with Carmelo, so you’re basically talking about swapping Taj for Melo. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that Taj Gibson is a better basketball player than Carmelo Anthony. We’re talking about a 6-time All-Star versus a 6th man. Like I said, on paper this decision is an easy one, but the games aren’t played on paper.
It’s easy to look at the raw numbers and project Melo as the scorer who can complement Derrick Rose (assuming he returns healthy, of course) and take some of the defensive pressure off him, but the raw numbers won’t tell you how Carmelo will fit in with this Bulls’ team. The chemistry the Chicago Bulls have right now is something special. They pull for one another, they trust one another, and they have a ton of confidence. They have a great work ethic and they hang their hat on how hard they play, especially on defense. “For us, when you are short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” asserted Coach Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.” How much of that description of the Bulls sounds like it could also describe Carmelo? He has a ton of confidence. That’s about it. Rather than pull for his teammates, Anthony is more often questioning their effort. Bulls’ players Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson joked in the locker room after Sunday’s game that they overheard Melo during a 1st quarter timeout ask his teammates, “What’s wrong with y’all?,” and Boozer quipped, “Of course he’s not blaming himself. ‘Not me. What’s wrong with y’all?’” Melo claimed earlier this season that he accepts that fans are going to blame him for the team’s struggles, but it’s hard to believe that claim when he points fingers everywhere but at himself in team huddles and with the media.
“It’s getting harder to keep coming up with excuses about why this team’s struggling,” mentioned Carmelo Sunday. “At this point, I don’t have any answers towards it. As a team we have to have some sense of pride to go out there and compete. We’re just not getting it done. I’m sick of making excuses about this and about that. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing.” Carmelo isn’t the only Knick who’s fed up with the way things are going. J.R. Smith questioned the effort of some of his teammates last week, and when asked about Smith’s comments, Knicks’ forward Amare’ Stoudemire didn’t pull any punches. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror before we make statements,” retorted Amare’. “We’ve got to make sure that we are playing hard first. Take care of yourself, then others will follow suit. We’ve got to lead by example.” When was the last time you heard a Bulls’ player make excuses or point fingers at teammates? Even when the team was flailing to a 9-16 start, no one was blaming the struggles on Derrick’s injuries or anyone else in the locker room. They just kept working and striving to get it fixed. The Bulls’ locker room wasn’t exactly a happy place when they were dealing with their struggles early on, but there’s a difference between a downtrodden locker room and a dysfunctional one. The Knicks’ locker room is dysfunctional, and you can bet Carmelo Anthony isn’t exactly faultless in it getting that way. Granted, Carmelo might change his tune if he were on a winning team, but I’m not sure his style of play would be a great fit in the Bulls’ system.
Carmelo has developed a reputation over the years as a ball-stopper, meaning the ball stops with Melo. He’s only looking to shoot, not pass. His numbers back that up. Carmelo is averaging 2.9 assists per game this year and 3.1 for his career. When you draw as much defensive attention as Carmelo does, you almost have to be trying to not find open teammates to have such a low average. Of the league’s top ten scorers this season, only Melo and Blazers’ power forward LaMarcus Aldridge average fewer than 3 and a half assists per game. The Knicks as a team have a real problem with ball movement, and it’s something that’s frustrated Amare’ Stoudemire since he arrived in New York. “If you think about the top teams in this league, they all move the ball very well,” explained Amare’. “For us, we’re not quite there yet. Until we get there, it’s going to be a struggle. I’ve been saying that for years, so it seems like we’re not serious.” The Knicks are currently dead last in the NBA in the percentage of their field goals assisted on (52.7%), and they are a full 2 and a half percent behind the 2nd worst team. The Bulls on the other hand are 2nd in the league at 64.46%. Sharing the basketball is a big part of Chicago’s offense and it’s something Carmelo would have to improve on.
Melo hasn’t ever garnered much attention for his defensive game either, something that would have to change under Coach Thibs. Defense has to be a priority to play in Chicago. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson learned that last year, as have Tony Snell and D.J. Augustin this year. More importantly, we just haven’t seen much of an evolution to Carmelo’s game. He’s never shown the ability to make his teammates better, and he really hasn’t improved much since he entered the league except in his ability to score. All in all, Carmelo would have to remake his game in a lot of ways to really mesh with the Bulls and be a good fit in their system, and I’m just not sure it’s something he can do after 11 years in the league.
The Bulls’ have really found a great mix as the team is constituted right now. Every player has a well-defined role, and everybody contributes. 7 of the Bulls’ 8 regulars scored in double figures in the win over the Knicks. “The balance has been big,” explained Thibs. “They know what to expect from each other. They are playing to their strengths and covering their weaknesses. They are sharing the ball, making quick decisions and playing strong defense. If you do those things, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.” The players really sense how well the team is clicking too. “That’s the makeup of our team,” commented Boozer. “We just keep grinding, whatever’s in front of us, we just take on the challenge. The great thing about us is our attitude. We’re not reading your [the media] newspapers, we’re not reading all the good stuff about us, we’re staying hungry.” Joakim Noah echoed Boozer’s sentiment on Sunday: “We’re still not satisfied. We feel like we’re the hungriest team playing in the NBA.” I just don’t think adding a player and person like Carmelo Anthony into this mix would be beneficial.
In the end, it’s likely that Carmelo’s talent will win out. The Bulls are probably going to pull out all the stops to try and get Melo to Chicago. They vowed when they dealt Luol Deng that any money saved in that deal would be put back into the team, and Melo, at least on paper, is the logical way to do that. Who knows, maybe playing in a structured system like Thibodeau’s will be just what Carmelo needed to shed his ball-stopping reputation. Maybe Joakim Noah’s strong personality will help keep Melo in line in the locker room. Maybe Carmelo really can provide that second scorer the Bulls need alongside Derrick Rose to be able to get past the Heat. I tend to believe there’s a reason Carmelo Anthony is 23-43 in the playoffs and 3-10 in playoff series. The biggest problem isn’t Carmelo’s supporting cast. It’s his “me first” style of play. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Carmelo Anthony will ever win an NBA title, and for that reason, I don’t want him in Chicago. I’d rather have Taj Gibson, who unlike Carmelo, believes in his team: “There’s no ceiling to what we can do.” Doesn’t that sound like a guy you’d want on your team?
For a long while this season, it really wasn’t fun to be a Chicago Bulls fan. The season was spiraling out of control in the wake of yet another season-ending Derrick Rose injury, and to compound the problem, the front office decided to ship off franchise cornerstone Luol Deng for no immediate return. Things were really getting bleak as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games in November and December to fall to a dismal 9-16 mark. Other names surfaced in trade rumors; talk of tanking was rampant from local sports fans and pundits, and the team failed to score 80 points in 4 out of 5 games during one particularly ugly stretch. Out of the despair surrounding the franchise, however, the Bulls have reemerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 18-9 since coming out of their early season tailspin, and a shockingly strong 13-7 since they jettisoned Luol. How have they turned things around? They’ve done it by leaning on their bigs.
Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are playing at levels that we just haven’t seen from them in their careers, and it’s their improvement that has buoyed the Bulls’ season and has the team entering the All-Star break at 27-25, good for 4th in the East. That duo has been getting better as the season has progressed, and their impact was on full display this past week as the Bulls made mincemeat of Eastern Conference playoff contenders Atlanta and Brooklyn. Taj lead the team in scoring in both games (one that he didn’t even start), and Joakim had a ridiculous triple-double against Atlanta (19 pts., 16 reb., 11 assists), and nearly duplicated the feat against the Nets (14-13-7). It’s one thing to dominate the defensive end the way Joakim and Taj do, but this season it has been their impact on the offensive end that’s making the big difference. “When those guys get going down low, guys have to double-team,” explained point guard D.J. Augustin, “and it leaves me and Kirk wide open for threes, makes us able to penetrate, and opens things up for the whole team.”
There are plenty of Bulls’ fans who would say it was Augustin who was the catalyst for the Bulls’ turnaround, and there’s a case to be made for that. D.J.’s averaging 13.8 points per game, 5.7 assists, is shooting 42.4% from beyond the arc, and seems to knock down a big 3 down the stretch of every close win. He’s been a big piece of the resurgence to be sure, but it’s the balance provided by Noah and Taj that have made his strong play possible, not to mention the pressure Noah can take off the point guard as a ball-handler and playmaker. When asked why he and Noah play so well off one another, Carlos Boozer responded: “I just play off Joakim, our point-center, and go from there. He’s just a great passer. With Jo, when he gets the ball, if you can get to an open area he’ll find you. He has the mindset of a guard. He really does, and that’s why he’s always knocking on triple-doubles. He wants to be a playmaker and make plays for all of us. When we get the ball to Jo, our offense runs a lot smoother.” Joakim’s ability to play ‘point-center’ allows Augustin play off the ball more and find those open 3-point opportunities.
Statistically there’s no denying Joakim’s having his best season yet. He’s averaging career-highs of 11.9 points (tied with last year), 11.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. He had a career-long streak of 18 straight games with double-digit rebounds, and he also has 26 double-doubles thus far, just 7 behind his career best with another 30 games to play. I think he’ll set that mark as well. The reason Jo has taken it to another level this season: his health. “Last year, around this time, I was in a lot of pain,” mentioned Noah. “My feet were hurting. I felt like my body was breaking down. I’m healthy right now. I couldn’t be happier about that.” His coach couldn’t be happier about it either. He shared his center’s opinion as to why he’s playing his best basketball.
“He’s healthy, he’s gotten into rhythm,” asserted coach Thibs. “I think missing training camp set him back offensively. Defensively he’s been terrific all year, then offensively, I’d say the last 25 games or so, he’s been in a great rhythm. He’s doing a lot of great things for us and making plays. He’s comfortable on the perimeter; he’s comfortable in the post, dribble-handoffs, the pick-and-roll. [He has] the ability to make a quick decision, to read what the defense is doing-where’s the help coming from, where’s the open guy? So he’s making quick decisions and it forces the defense to run, and when you do that you’re going to get good shots. So, he’s running the floor and he’s playing great basketball right now. He and Taj have been terrific up front.”
The numbers support the coach’s assertion about Noah’s hot streak. Since the team hit rock bottom at 9-16, Noah has averaged a ridiculous 12.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists over 26 games. Those are All-NBA 1st team type numbers for a center. Handling Joakim is enough of a handful for most teams, but when you throw in the way Taj Gibson is playing this season, the Bulls’ frontcourt just becomes overwhelming. Taj has always been a nightmare to deal with on the glass and as a defender, but the quantum leap he’s made on the offensive end is astonishing. Gibson’s numbers have been excellent. He’s averaging 12.9 points per game, almost 4 points better than his previous career-high (and with just 8 starts in 52 games), and he’s shooting 72.5% from the foul line, easily the best mark of his career. The numbers don’t do him justice though. When you watch him play, it’s obvious just how far his offensive game has come.
“I’ve come a long way,” ceded Gibson after the win over the Hawks. “It’s tough when you come from college to the NBA; guys are really physical. I had to add a lot of weight to my body. I worked on my post game and my jump shot. There are things that you need to work on in the NBA, but the main thing is confidence. You can work out 100 hours a day, but without confidence it’s nothing.” Coach Thibodeau and the Bulls have helped build up Taj’s confidence, and it’s paying major dividends for the team. At this point, it’s hard to argue that Taj shouldn’t be starting ahead of Carlos Boozer. In his 8 games as a starter, Taj is averaging 19.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.8 bgp, and is shooting 49.6% from the field. Although Thibs isn’t ready to make Taj his starter, he couldn’t help but heap praise on Taj as he explained why Boozer will continue to start:
“For us to achieve the things we want to achieve, we need Carlos and we need Carlos to play well. He’s a huge part of our team. With our depth up front, we really have 3 starters, and they all have to sacrifice for the team. That’s one of our strengths. That’s also the value of Taj. I know Taj can play great as a starter and I know he can play great coming off the bench. It doesn’t take him 5 minutes to get going and get adjusted. As soon as you put him in his motor is running and he is ready to roll. Taj can play short minutes or he can play long consecutive minutes. He’s in great shape and has prepared himself well. You can’t say enough about all the things he’s doing for us. He’s hitting his jump shot; he’s posting with strength; he’s commanding the double-team; he’s hitting the open man; he’s guarding every position on the floor; he’s making great effort; he plays for the team. Did I leave anything out?”
I can’t say that I agree with Thibodeau’s decision to continue to start Boozer over Taj, but I do think he’s well aware of the impact Gibson has had on the team’s fortunes. There have been contributions from just about everyone on the roster, from D.J. to Hinrich to Butler to Dunleavy to Boozer, but it’s the play of Joakim and Taj that have made the difference. The inside presence they provide opens the game up for everyone else. It’s why the team has had such balanced scoring, and it’s why they’ve gotten back to their winning ways. The second half of the season won’t be easy. The team is still short-handed, and won’t be getting back Derrick Rose or Luol Deng any time this season, but just like the past couple Bulls’ teams under Thibodeau, this group doesn’t seem to want things to come easy.
“We’re enjoying the grind,” mentioned Noah. “I like our mindset going into every game. There’s a toughness about us and I’m proud to be a part of that.” If they can keep that mental edge, the Bulls will be just fine in the second half and should find themselves comfortably in the top 4 teams in the East. I’m not delusional enough to think that this team is going to beat Miami or Indiana in the playoffs, but I have no interest in writing off this iteration of the Chicago Bulls just yet. With the way these guys play for each other and battle through adversity, anything is possible in the postseason. That’s why they play the games. It’ll take everyone if the Bulls want to shock the world, but without the exploits of Jo and Taj, we’d still be talking tanking.
The Bulls 2013-14 campaign has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride thus far. There have been some pretty excruciating lows with the injury of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland, but Monday night’s game against the L.A. Lakers was certainly a high point. The teams battled back and forth all night and seemed destined for double-overtime, but Taj Gibson and the Bulls needed just 0.9 seconds to change that destiny. Coach Thibodeau drew up the perfect inbound play and Mike Dunleavy was able to find Taj Gibson headed straight to the basket for a game-winning layup that left his hand a tenth of a second before the horn sounded. “They drew up a great play,” commented Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni. “It was designed well and they executed it well.” After hitting the biggest shot of the night, Gibson was predictably all smiles. “Thibs just wanted me to attack the basket, try to dunk it or try to get fouled,” explained Taj. “He told me ‘use your left,’ and they [the team] always try to crack jokes on me in practice about trying to use my left and today I proved them wrong. It was my first buzzer beater and it feels good.”
The Bulls’ 102-100 victory was their was their 8th win in 10 games since the calendar turned to 2014, and it got them back to a .500 record (20-20) for the first time since November 27th. The Bulls’ season seemed to be spiraling out of control after D-Rose’s injury as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games after he was injured (counting the game he was hurt in). Luckily, they managed to find a dynamic point guard to replace Marquis Teague as the backup and help get the season back on the rails. D.J. Augustin spent much of the last season and a half riding the pine in Indiana and Toronto after a promising start to his NBA career in Charlotte. The Bulls took a chance on D.J. after he was waived by the Raptors last month, and the move has paid big dividends. After some predictable growing pains in his first few games as a Bull (Chicago lost first 4 games after acquiring D.J.), the team and Augustin have really hit their stride of late.
D.J. entered Monday’s tilt with L.A. averaging 16.2 points, 7.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals over his past 5 games, and he had his biggest game of the year on Monday. Augustin set a season-high with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting (5-of-7 from 3), and chipped in 4 assists and 4 rebounds. He hit several clutch 3’s down the stretch and his recent play is a big part of the reason the Bulls’ season has turned around. When D.J. was asked why he’s played so much better in Chicago than he did in Toronto, his answer was a simple one: “I’m getting an opportunity. When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years in Indiana and Toronto, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I get an opportunity, I think I play pretty good.” As long as Augustin keeps playing the way he’s been lately, the opportunities will continue to come, but he wasn’t the only Bull who was really impressive on Monday night.
Monday was the final day for fan voting for the NBA All-Star Game, and Bulls’ center Joakim Noah made a pretty strong case for himself to anyone who was voting at the last minute. Noah was already having another standout season, but the way he controlled the paint against L.A. was a joy to watch. Jo ended the game with 17 points, 21 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. He also smothered Pau Gasol in the overtime period and forced him into 1-of-4 shooting and 2 turnovers in the extra session. “Joakim battled the whole game,” gushed Thibs after the game. “Gasol is such a tough matchup and the Lakers spread you out with their shooting. Jo is doing a lot of different things. You’re asking him to make three, four, five efforts and then get back into the post. You can’t say enough about what he’s doing for our team.” I think an All-Star selection would be a good start. Noah clearly has earned it.
The Lakers came out shooting well early against Chicago, connecting on better than 50% of their first half field goal attempts and 43% of their 3’s as they built a 3-point halftime lead. In the second half, the game turned into more of a slugfest. Neither team ever really took control of the game, but the Bulls seemed to be in position to win in regulation. They were up 3 with the ball but turned it over out of bounds with 10.7 seconds to go. Nick Young managed to get fouled by Joakim Noah on a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left and hit all three from the charity stripe to force the overtime period. In the extra frame, the Lakers built a 5-point lead early on, but D.J. Augustin hit a 3 to tie it up with 2:33 to go. In the closing seconds of OT, it appeared that Nick Young had again extended the game with a baseline jumper to tie it up with 6 seconds left, but all he did was set the stage for Taj’s game-winner.
Gibson finished the game with 12 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks. Mike Dunleavy scored a quiet 12 points, and Jimmy Butler did a nice job stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and a block. The only thing the Bulls didn’t do well on Monday night is shoot the ball, knocking down a paltry 38.2% of their field goal tries. If they had shot the ball a little better, they likely would have won comfortably. Nick Young paced the Lakers with a game and season-high 31 points. It was the second straight game that Young set a season-high in points after serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch at a Suns’ player (Goran Dragic). Young scored 29 on Sunday against Toronto. Pau Gasol also had a strong game for L.A. despite his shaky overtime performance. The tall Spaniard finished with 20 points, 19 rebounds, 5 blocks, 3 steals and 5 turnovers. Most of the turnovers were costly though, with 4 of them coming in the game’s final 10 minutes.
For the Lakers (16-26), the loss was nothing new. Los Angeles has dropped 13 of their last 16 games after a 13-13 start. The problem has been health. L.A. has been playing without Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake, which leaves them with a rotation featuring Pau Gasol and a bunch of kids. Nick Young and Gasol are the only regulars over 26 years old, and Young is 28. The Lakers have certainly shown more fight over the past few games, but until the vets get back it’ll be all about developing the youngsters for L.A. The recent addition of Manny Harris from the L.A. D-Fenders of the D-League could provide a spark. Harris was averaging 30.6 points per game for the D-Fenders in 13 games.
Unlike the Lakers, the Bulls’ recent strong play seems sustainable. They’ve finally dug themselves out of the hole created by the post D-Rose slump. The addition of Augustin and his rapidly increasing chemistry with the rest of the team have the Bulls looking like a team to be reckoned with again. I’m not saying that they can hang with Indiana or Miami in a playoff series, but I don’t think there’s any other team in the East that they aren’t capable of beating. If they hadn’t traded Deng, they might even have been able to give the Heat or Pacers all they could handle. It’s finally becoming fun to watch the Bulls play again this season, because let’s face it, Bulls games were pretty ugly for a while there. I’m excited to see how the rest of the season plays out. There might be a couple more deals coming next month at the trade deadline, but I doubt the Bulls do anything drastic. Speaking of Bulls’ deals, Chicago heads to Cleveland Wendesday night to take on Luol Deng and the Cavs.
It’ll be the first time that Deng will play against the Bulls in his career, and you can bet there will be some emotion involved. Many of the Bulls looked to Deng as a friend and mentor, so facing off against him will be a different experience. “I love Lu,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “I’ve learned so much from that guy. It’s going to be a weird feeling looking at him in the opposite jersey.” It might be even tougher for coach Tom Thibodeau, who hasn’t been shy in the past about heaping praise on his now former star forward. “I know how fierce a competitor he is,” explained Thibs, “so I know he’s going to be trying to beat us, and we’re going to be trying to beat him, and then after the game we’re going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him, all the stuff he did for us, what he did for me personally, but that friendship aside, we’re coming up there and we’re going to be ready.” We’ll find out Wednesday just how ready the Bulls are to face Lieutenant Deng. It should be a good one.
The group of men who have been chosen first overall in the NBA draft is an elite fraternity. They almost always walk into a broken down team with an entire franchise and city’s hope resting squarely on their shoulders. Not everyone has lived up to the expectations that come with the territory. For every LeBron James there’s a Greg Oden. For every Allen Iverson there’s a Kwame Brown. Monday night at the United Center, two men who have thrived as top overall picks squared off for the first time in their burgeoning careers. Any hype swirling around Monday’s Bulls-Cavs game focused on the showdown between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, but both players struggled to make their impact felt. It was the Bulls’ defense that took center stage down the stretch in a 96-81 Chicago win.
The strong finish was a welcome sight for Bulls’ fans, who have watched the team be badly outplayed down the stretch in losses to Indiana and Philadelphia. It’s safe to take your finger away from the panic button now that the team has pulled back to .500 at 3-3. Rose certainly ended up with the better statistical night of he and Irving, but the real hero of the matchup was the Bulls’ team defense on Kyrie. Irving ended with a respectable line of 16 points and 4 assists, but he shot just 5-of-19 from the floor and committed 3 turnovers. He didn’t make his first field goal until the final minute of the 3rd quarter. “Every time I’ve played against the Bulls, Coach Thibodeau just does an excellent job of corralling me into a little bit of space,” explained Irving, “and they do a great job of loading up and making it tough on me.” Derrick Rose echoed that sentiment, mentioning that, “It’s really not me going out there and trying to play him a certain way. It’s the team.”
Despite a somewhat lopsided final score, Chicago really struggled to put the Cavs away in this game. They played from ahead for the majority of the game, but every time it seemed like the Bulls were on the cusp of breaking it open, the Cavaliers would do just enough to stay in striking distance. In the first quarter, the Bulls got up by 6, but C.J Miles drilled a triple in the closing seconds of the quarter to cut it to 3. In the 2nd quarter, the Bulls pushed the lead all the way to 12, but Dion Waiters cut it back down to 7 with back-to-back buckets in the final minute of the half. A Jimmy Butler layup at the buzzer pushed it back to 9 at the break. The 3rd quarter was more of the same. The Bulls came out hot and got in an offensive rhythm, building up a 13-point lead 4 minutes into the half, but the offense sputtered after that, allowing Cleveland to creep back in once more. Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum got going with 10 combined points on a 16-8 Cavs run that cut the lead to 5. The spurt carried over into the 4th with Kyrie Irving heating up, and Cleveland got within 1 at 68-67 with 10 minutes to go. They were never able to get over the hump and take the lead, however.
Cleveland had 2 chances with the ball down just 1, and failed on both opportunities. First it was a Kyrie Irving miss from 6 feet, then an Anderson Varejao offensive foul that stymied the Cavs’ efforts. That was the last chance the Cavs would get to pull ahead. Carlos Boozer knocked down a midrange jumper to open the lead to 3, then after a Chicago stop Mike Dunleavy managed to get fouled on a 3-pointer and knocked down all three shots from the charity stripe. The next couple minutes turned into the Rose and Dunleavy show. Rose made 2 explosive layups and Dunleavy knocked down a couple big shots including one from beyond the arc and another 2 shots from the free throw line as the lead ballooned to 11. Rose’s second layup sent him to the bench with a tweaked hamstring, but it didn’t matter in this game. The damage was done. The Bulls managed to hold on for a 15-point win.
The Bulls’ 4th quarter dominance came in 2 areas: on the defensive end and on the glass. They held the Cavs to just 6-of-19 shooting for the quarter and outrebounded them 14 to 6. They also turned 4 Cleveland turnovers into 8 points. The shooting of Dunleavy was a big plus, but the Bulls simply smothered the Cavs on the defensive end. This is exactly what Bulls’ fans are used to seeing. The defense dominates one end of the floor, and Rose dominates the other. One out of two isn’t bad while Rose rounds back into form, and he doesn’t seem that far away. Cavs’ coach Mike Brown wasn’t pleased with the way his young team handled Chicago’s defensive pressure. “When we hit adversity tonight, we didn’t handle it well,” lamented Coach Brown. “Chicago got up in us. They tried to take us out of our stuff. We hit a little bit of adversity and we didn’t do a good job of handling it. Mentally and physically they just did what they wanted to with us.”
For the night, the overall numbers weren’t all that lopsided aside from the final score. Both teams shot around 41%, the Bulls were +3 on the glass and both teams scored 16 2nd chance points. The one area the Cavs were demolished was in turnovers and points off them. Chicago scored 29 points off 20 Cleveland turnovers, and the Cavaliers scored just 9 off of 11 Bulls’ TOs. “We just didn’t execute,” mentioned Cavs’ guard Jarrett Jack in reference to the turnover struggles. “We need to learn like in baseball to hit singles and not go for homerun passes all the time.”
Tristan Thompson led the way statistically for Cleveland, tallying 14 points and 13 rebounds. It was Thompson’s 5th double-double in 8 games this season. Kyrie Irving did lead the team with his 16 points, but it was Thompson’s play that kept the Cavs in the game in the 3rd and into the 4th. 2nd year guard Dion Waiters was the worst offender in terms of turnovers with 6 on the night, but he did add 13 points, 2 boards, 2 assists and 2 blocks. C.J. Miles scored 9 points off the bench and Anderson Varejao scored 5 and grabbed 6 rebounds. Matthew Dellavedova scored his first 2 NBA points in the game, and struggling number-1 pick Anthony Bennett was left on the bench in this one. Bennett has made just 1 field goal thus far in his young career.
The biggest surprise from Cleveland on Monday night was the play of Andrew Bynum. In a little bit of gamesmanship on the part of Mike Brown, Bynum wasn’t announced as a starter until right before tipoff, and Cleveland tried to get him going quickly. They fed him in the post early and he scored 7 of their first 10 points, but it was clear that his knees are still a bit of an issue. He was limited to just 21 minutes for the game, and didn’t play at all in the 2nd or 4th quarters. Bynum ended up with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists, but also committed 3 turnovers, 2 of which were bad miscommunications in which he threw the ball to no one. It will take some time for him to get adjusted to playing with his new team. “We just don’t know how to play with a guy like that yet,” commented Brown. “Every time he touched the ball on the block, something good happened. When they double-teamed, he kicked the ball out for a 3. I’d love to establish him down low, and that’s what we wanted to do tonight.” We’re just 6 games into the season, so the Cavs have time to adjust to the big man, but it will all hinge on the health of Bynum’s knees. He did say he was contemplating retirement a couple weeks ago.
The Bulls were paced offensively on Monday by Carlos Boozer’s 17 points. Boozer has been much more consistent on the offensive end than Bulls’ fans have been used to, averaging 18 points a game (his highest mark as a Bull). He shot 7-of-11 for the game and added 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Luol Deng struggled with his shot but still scored 12 points and added 5 boards and 3 dimes. Joakim Noah was limited by foul trouble, but still wound up with 10 points, 6 boards and 3 steals. The bench made a big impact in this one as well. Taj Gibson (9 pts, 8 boards, 3 blocks) and Kirk Hinrich (6 pts, 3 boards, 7 assists) made several clutch plays, but the bench star in this one was Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy scored 15 points (10 in the 4th), grabbed 4 rebounds and dished out 2 assists. His big shots in the 4th were the key to Chicago blowing the game open, and it was fitting since his college coach (Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski) and his Duke players were in the building watching. Boozer and Deng also played their college ball at Duke. Dunleavy seems to be finding his niche with this team quickly.
As for the Derrick Rose, his stat line wasn’t overwhelming. He scored 16 points on 8-of-21 shooting, but he had a season-high 7 assists and more importantly, a season-low zero turnovers in the Bulls’ victory. He was starting to flash the speed and explosiveness that make him the star that he is when his night was derailed by a tweaked hamstring. Rose was pulled with 3:15 to go, but it seems to be more of a precaution. Coach Thibodeau said that “it appears to be minor,” and Derrick agreed in his postgame comments. “Just a minor sprain, nothing serious,” explained Rose. When asked if he expected to be ready to play Friday, Derrick answered: “I should be. It’s really not that big at all.” The injury took a little bit of the thunder out of the D-Rose vs. Kyrie matchup, but they will certainly square off again.
Cleveland appears to be on the right track as a team. In a very top-heavy Eastern Conference, they should be able to find their way to a playoff spot over some lackluster competition, but the key to getting there will be integrating Bynum and keeping him healthy. It’s amazing that this team might not need much of a contribution from the number 1 overall pick to make the playoffs, but that is the case right now. Kyrie and Dion Waiters are an imposing backcourt, and when they go small and bring in Jarrett Jack along with those 2, it’s very difficult to match up with. They also have great versatility in the frontcourt with Thompson, Varejao and Alonzo Gee along with Bynum, but it all depends on health. Varejao missed most of last season, Irving has had his own injury issues, and Bynum’s struggles are well documented. One thing the Cavs aren’t short on is confidence, at least as far as their point guard is concerned. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” asserted Irving. “We’re all basketball players here. It’s what we get paid to do, so we’ve got to figure it out, and we will.” I agree with Kyrie and fully believe the Cavs will still be playing beyond 82 games.
As far as Chicago is concerned, it’s nice to get back to .500, but that is obviously not the goal. Everyone in the locker room was spitting out the same company line about improvement. “The big thing is to concentrate on our improvement,” mentioned Thibs. “We’ve got to just keep improving,” claimed Joakim. The Bulls are never satisfied after a win, and that’s a good thing. They managed to clean up the turnover issues that have been plaguing them, even if only for one game, but in order to keep piling up wins they know they need to continue to work and to get better. The upcoming schedule is daunting, with 7 of their next 9 games on the road. Things are starting to come together, but they need to show an ability to put together a full 48 minutes of good basketball. They played Indy even for 3 quarters before getting crushed in the 4th. They were dominating Philly into the 3rd before falling apart. They were crushed by Miami in the 2nd quarter. They have to start playing more consistently from start to finish in each game.
“We’ve just got to stick with it,” mentioned Dunleavy when asked when the team would be able to put together a full 48 minutes. “It’s not an easy thing to do, probably the toughest thing to do in this league. There are a lot of great teams, so to think you’re going to go out and put it on people for 48 minutes every night….You’d like to do that, but it’s not maybe realistic. We’ve just got to keep grinding at it, keep thinking we’re going to do it. We will.” With drill sergeant Thibs in charge and Derrick Rose rounding into form, I’d expect the Bulls to start putting full games together sooner than later. The league better take their shots at the Bulls while they can. The D-Rose revival tour is coming. Soon.
In case you haven’t been watching, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat don’t like each other very much. Chicago, still down Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose, is severely outgunned by the defending champion Heat, but they haven’t backed down. They play with what Bulls’ TV announcer Stacy King likes to call heart, hustle and muscle to win games, and it’s allowed them to be competitive when they shouldn’t, but it wasn’t enough to win on Friday night. The Bulls battled Miami all night, but Miami was able to hit shots down the stretch and pull away for a 104-94 victory and 2-1 series lead. LeBron James scored a game-high 25 points, but it wasn’t his best outing as he shot just 6-for-17. The real stars for the Heat were Chris Bosh who put up 20 and 19 rebounds, and Norris Cole who scored 18 points off the bench on 6-of-7 shooting. Carlos Boozer led the way for Chicago with 21 points, but every Bulls’ starter scored at least 15. “Tonight we didn’t play particularly well,” asserted Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, “and a lot of that had to do with Chicago, but in the 4th quarter we just found a way. Even if it wasn’t the prettiest way, just found a way to get this win.” Spoelstra was right that it wasn’t pretty. In fact, this one seemed like it was teetering on the brink of an all-out brawl.
There’s always been tension between the Heat and Bulls, going back to the Eastern Conference Finals 2 years ago, but it’s escalated to new heights in this series. During the regular season, the Bulls ended Miami’s franchise record 27-game winning streak, and league MVP LeBron James took exception to Chicago’s physical play, commenting that some of the fouls weren’t “basketball plays.” That physical play continued to frustrate King James and company in game 1 as the Bulls stole the series opener in Miami. In game 2, however, the Heat decided to get physical themselves. Udonis Haslem set the tone on the game’s first play, practically tackling Nate Robinson in mid-air as he drove in for a layup. Miami started to use the passion that the shorthanded Bulls have to play with against them, using cheap shots and hard fouls to bait the Bulls into technical fouls and ejections as the game spiraled out of control on the scoreboard. In total, by the end of game 2, there were 9 technical fouls (6 on Chicago), 1 flagrant foul (Chris Andersen), and 2 ejections (Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) as the Heat dealt Chicago a franchise playoff worst 37-point loss. It was an embarrassing showing for the Bulls, and they vowed to keep their composure and deliver a better performance in game 3. That composure lasted for about 1 quarter.
In the closing seconds of the first frame, Chris “Birdman” Andersen took his time getting off of Nate Robinson after a hard foul by Andersen sent both to the floor, so Joakim Noah decided to help him out. Noah grabbed Birdman by the arm and threw him off of Robinson, and Andersen responded by attempting to kick Noah in the leg but whiffed. Both teams rushed in to separate the two, and Joakim was hit with a technical foul, but the bad blood didn’t end there. Early in the 2nd, an Andersen block started a fast break for Miami, and Bulls’ backup center Nazr Mohammed wrapped up LeBron in the open floor to prevent an easy bucket. LeBron didn’t like it and threw Nazr off of him. James was instantly T’d up by referee Joey Crawford, but before he could even react to it, he was shoved to the ground by Mohammed. The Bulls appeared to be unraveling again. Nazr was ejected, but after the dust settled, Chicago was finally able to get focused back in on the game.
For all of the theatrics, the actual game was riveting. The storylines practically write themselves. The depleted Bulls, missing 3 of their team leaders, continue to go toe-to-toe with the big bad Miami Heat and their 3 superstars. Even Hollywood would have a hard time crafting a better underdog story. The difference is, in Hollywood the underdog usually wins. For three and a half quarters Friday night, the Bulls answered every punch Miami threw at them, and they were within 2 points with 4 minutes to play. In those final minutes though, a couple of dicey calls and two clutch 3-pointers helped the Heat put Chicago away. Noah was whistled for a loose ball foul that looked extremely questionable on replay while going for an offensive rebound with the team down 5. Instead of a chance to cut the lead back to 2 or 3, the Heat opened it to 7 at the free throw line. The Bulls answered with a Belinelli 3, but moments later LeBron hit a ridiculous fade away 3 as the shot clock expired, and Norris Cole splashed in a 3 on the next possession, and that was all she wrote. The Bulls missed their last 3 shots and LeBron put the game away at the foul line.
Despite the very competitive game, all the talk afterwards was about the Nazr push and the officiating. “From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop,” mentioned Coach Thibodeau about the push. “I don’t think it warranted an ejection. A flagrant foul, I understand that, but an ejection, no. I watch some of the plays with Haslem and Andersen, and I just don’t get it.” The coach said after game 2 that his team needed to show more composure, but when asked if he was upset with Nazr and Jo for their technicals in game 3, he didn’t give the response I’d expect: “No. I see how things are going. I watch very closely, and what I’m seeing….We’ll adjust accordingly.” For his comments, Thibs was fined $35,000 by the NBA, but he did take the focus off Nazr, who wasn’t suspended or fined for his push. Nazr did take the blame for his actions, but he agreed with his coach that he shouldn’t have been ejected: “I’m disappointed in myself because I let my teammates down, I could have been out there to help. Disappointed in myself also because my son was probably watching the game and I don’t want him to see that kind of behavior on the court, but I’m also disappointed that they went to the ejection for something like a push. I mean there’s so many plays that have happened already in this series, guys jumping on Nate’s face, guys tackle Marco Belinelli out of bounds, a guy takes out Nate on the 1st play of the game. There have been a lot of plays that didn’t get ejections, and a push shouldn’t get an ejection.” When pressed about how hard the push actually was, Mohammed was careful with his words. “You saw the play,” he responded. “You know the answer to that. You want me to say it.” He didn’t say it.
Miami’s conduct on the court wasn’t any better than Chicago’s, but since they won, it was much easier to take the high road off the court. Coach Spoelstra referred to the extracurricular activities as “inconsequential” to the game. “Out there (in the media), it will be more theater than it is reality,” commented Spoelstra. “Both teams are very competitive. It’s physical basketball, but no one wants to put on the gloves and turn it into anything else.” That may be the case, but from where I’m sitting, Miami’s goal seems to be to do just enough that the Bulls do want to put on the gloves and settle it like men and then act appalled by it. It’s worked pretty well for them in the last 2 games.
The Bulls have been walking a fine line in the first few games of this series. To be able to compete with Miami with such a short rotation, they have to play with great passion and energy. Unfortunately, playing that way makes them vulnerable to the emotional flare-ups that have resulted in technical fouls and ejections. The have to find a way to keep those emotions in check without losing that passion and competitive fire. Miami will continue to try and goad the Bulls into a fight, so Chicago needs to show how mentally tough they are to have a chance to stay in this series. With an 8-man rotation, ejections cannot happen, especially over things done by Haslem and Andersen, two guys who aren’t that critical to Miami’s chances.
If the Bulls are able to show a little bit more composure and focus down the stretch, they really have a chance to win game 4, and they need to. They did everything else in game 3 that you have to do to have a shot to beat Miami. They moved the ball exceptionally well all night, they limited their turnovers and Miami’s points off of them, they defended the paint well, and they frustrated LeBron into a bad shooting night, but down the stretch, they spent much of their energy arguing foul calls rather than finishing the game off strong. If they can correct that in game 4, there’s a chance for a happier ending. “We’re not worried about what the refs say or what they (the Heat) say,” asserted Nate Robinson. “We’ve just got to focus on playing Chicago basketball, which is hard, gritty and together. It’s (Game 4) a must-win for us, so we’ve got to continue to play. You can’t count us out because we’re going to continue to play hard, no matter what, and we’ll do whatever it takes to win.” The season hangs in the balance Monday night. Luol, Kirk and Derrick are probably not going to be on the court, so the underdog narrative remains as strong as ever. Hopefully game 4 provides the proper Hollywood ending that was missing on Friday.
Playing shorthanded is nothing new to the Chicago Bulls, they’ve been doing it all year. Injuries have been a bigger nemesis for Chicago than any opponent they’ve faced. Coach Tom Thibodeau has spent the better part of the last two seasons telling anyone who would listen that the Bulls have “more than enough to win with,” and often times his team has been able to prove him right. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Thursday night was not one of those times. Already missing Kirk Hinrich due to a calf injury, Thursday brought news that several other Bulls’ players were in jeopardy of missing game 6 due to illness. Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson were able to battle through the flu and play Thursday, but Luol Deng wasn’t as lucky. The All-Star small forward suffered from symptoms similar to meningitis and was unable to suit up and play. The Bulls who did take the floor battled tooth and nail to put the Nets away, but the absence of Kirk and Luol was just too much to overcome. Chicago played from behind all night. They kept within striking distance, but just couldn’t get over the hump as Brooklyn held on for a 95-92 win.
“It was kind of a bloodbath game, and fortunately we came out on top,” explained Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo. “If there’s a team in the league that plays harder than them, I don’t know who it is.” As hard as the Bulls played, it just wasn’t enough. Even with Kirk and Lu in the lineup, the Nets are more offensively talented than the Bulls. The games Chicago has been winning in this series aren’t being won by simply outscoring Brooklyn. They’re being won on the defensive end, and with grit and determination. Deng and Hinrich are crucial to that formula. “He (Deng) does so many things well at both ends of the floor,” commented Jimmy Butler. “He can just cover up for so many different people in a variety of ways, but more than anything, just his leadership role. He is missed.” Kirk’s impact is just as big. Hinrich has had the unenviable task of covering Deron Williams in the series, and actually did an admirable job of it in the games he played. He also keeps the offense running smoothly as the floor general. His absence was an obvious factor as Chicago struggled to communicate defensively and Brooklyn controlled the tempo in the early going.
On the Nets’ second possession, the Bulls starting backcourt of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli collided with one another trying to defend a screen. The play resulted in a Gerald Wallace 3-pointer. Chicago’s offense got off to a fast start, but the defense failed to set the tone they needed to. Brooklyn shot 13-for-20 (65%) in the first quarter, and scored the final 6 points of the quarter to lead 33-27 after 1. Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez each scored 10 points. It was the guards’ inability to limit D-Will and Johnson’s penetration that led to the big quarter. Noah and Boozer often had to help off of their guys on the blocks to cover the driving guards, and it led to some easy buckets for the Nets. The second quarter wasn’t much better. The thin bench started to show when Rip Hamilton and Marquis Teague got on the floor. Hamilton was rusty on offense missing on his only 2 shot attempts as the Nets’ lead went from 1 to 8 in the 3 minutes he was on the floor. Teague wasn’t much better, failing to switch on a screen that allowed C.J. Watson a wide open very long 2, and was immediately sent back to the bench. The poor play of those two made it pretty obvious the starters were going to play a LOT of minutes. Before the end of the first half, the Nets had built the lead to as much as 10, but Marco Belinelli scored 4 points in the final 30 seconds of the half to trail by six at the break, 60-54. Deron Williams got his scoring going with 10 points in the 2nd quarter.
The Bulls took control of the tempo in the second half. They came out with renewed energy on defense, and got back to playing physical, grinding defense. They struggled to score, but they absolutely shut down the Nets. Brooklyn shot just 4-for-19 in the 3rd, but still managed to hold a 4-point lead into the final quarter. Chicago continued to fight and battle throughout the 4th, but it just didn’t seem like it was meant to be. One tough break after another went against them. Down 5 early in the quarter, the Bulls had a stretch where they had 7 shots to try and close in, including 4 in one possession, and they missed them all. After the 7th miss (4th in that one possession), they were able to get enough of the rebound to get a jump ball. After winning the jump ball, Belinelli rushed up a 3-pointer before the offense had a chance to get set up, and off the miss, the Nets were able to push the ball up the floor and get a wide open triple of their own by Gerald Wallace to open the lead back to 8. The Bulls wouldn’t go away though. They fought back to within 2 a couple times, and were down 4 with 3 minutes to play when Nate Robinson seemed to be on his way to a fast break basket when he slipped and fell down. The Nets were able to tie him up for a jump ball against Reggie Evans, a jump he wasn’t going to win.
The jump ball turned out to be another break that went against the Bulls. Nate decided to do something only Nate would do, and attempted to simply let Evans tip the Ball and run around him and try to catch it wherever he tipped it to. That’s not legal, and Nate should know that since he was called for the same violation in a regular season game against Toronto. The worst part about his mistake is that it appeared that Carlos Boozer would have come up with the ball if Nate hadn’t tried to get it himself. Instead the ball was given to the Nets. Brooklyn continued to miss free throws down the stretch to keep Chicago in it, but time and time again, the Bulls failed to get over the hump and tie the game or take the lead. The Bulls got a couple of chances in the waning seconds. They were inbounding the ball with around 10 seconds to go, down by 3, and they called a play that’s known in basketball circles as “closing the fence,” where a player runs between screens set by two teammates who then pinch together to block any defenders from getting through to challenge the shooter. Unfortunately, Gerald Wallace got a hold of Marco Belinelli around his waist as he tried to run between the screeners, and he pulled Wallace through with him. It should have been a foul and Beli should have been on the free throw line, but it wasn’t called and Wallace was able to contest the shot and Marco missed it long. Joakim Noah was able to chase down the rebound with 6 seconds left, but he couldn’t stay in bounds. The Bulls weren’t quite finished yet. Noah was able to tie up Deron Williams on the inbounds pass and get a jump ball call with 3.6 seconds left, still down 3, but the Nets came up with the ball on the jump, and escaped with the win.
The most telling stat for the Bulls on Thursday was that they shot 0-for-7 with a chance to tie or take the lead in the second half. Robinson missed a couple layups that could have tied it in the 4th, but it’s hard to blame him considering he was vomiting on the sideline during the game. “It wasn’t there,” lamented Noah. “It’s hard because I know how hard we fought just to get in that position. We just couldn’t get over the hump. You just think about so many plays in the game and wish you could have them back, but that’s what it’s all about.” Noah gave another gutsy effort on his ailing foot, putting up 14 points, 15 rebounds (9 off.), 5 assists and 5 blocks. Nate Robinson scored 18 and Jimmy Butler scored 17 along with 7 boards and 6 assists while playing all 48 minutes. He was the first Bull to play all 48 minutes of a playoff game since Luol in 2007 against the Pistons. Carlos Boozer put up his 4th double-double of the series with 14 points and 13 rebounds. The Bulls real surprise came from Marco Belinelli, who was filling in for Deng. Marco scored a game-high 22 points while tying a career high with 7 assists. He served as a ball handler for much of the first half and allowed Nate to play off the ball. “I thought he did a very good job,” commented Thibs. “He did a lot of good things out there. He ran the pick and roll, shot the ball well, made plays…but not enough.”
Brooklyn’s big 3 all tallied 17 points for the winning side, and Gerald Wallace did a nice job as well with 15, including a couple of clutch 3-pointers. Reggie Evans didn’t score much (2 pts.), but provided his usual strong effort on the glass with 15 boards. Deron Williams had 11 assists to go along with his 17 points, and Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson chipped in 10 and 9, respectively. The free throw line had a chance to be Brooklyn’s real undoing in this game, as they shot just 13-for-23 from the charity stripe in the second half.
With game 6 in the rear view mirror, both teams now turn their focus to do-or-die game 7 in Brooklyn. The Nets have all the momentum and confidence in the series, but the Bulls aren’t going down without a fight. Unfortunately, they are likely to be shorthanded again for game 7. Hinrich seems to be improving and might find a way to play Saturday, but it doesn’t look good for Deng. Luol said that he felt as weak as he ever has Thursday after having a spinal tap procedure performed on Wednesday, in which fluid was drawn from his brain and back. He could barely get out of bed on game day. His symptoms worsened on Friday and he ended up back in the ER, leaving his status highly doubtful for the final game of the series. Regardless of who plays, the Bulls know what they have to do to win Saturday. The defense can’t wait until the second half to assert itself. The Bulls have to make this game physical early. If they let Brooklyn start out offensively the way they did in game 6, they won’t be able to slow them down, not in Brooklyn. I doubt the Bulls will change up the rotation much if Kirk doesn’t play, but the guys out there simply have to play better. If they can make this a slugfest, there’s no reason they can’t beat the Nets. They have certainly shown over the first 6 games that they are the mentally tougher team, but that doesn’t guarantee victory.
“We need one great game, and that’s all we’re thinking about,” mentioned coach Thibs. “I know we are capable of doing well against them, so we’re going to have to play our best game and I believe we will.” The Bulls have handled adversity all season long, so why should the playoffs be any different? They always find a way to show up for the most important games, and I don’t doubt they’ll show up ready to go Saturday. Neither does Joakim Noah. “We’re a team of fighters,” Noah proclaimed. “We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team. We’re going into a hostile environment in Brooklyn, and we’re going to win.” Isn’t that the kind of guy you want leading your team into a do-or-die game? Win or lose, Bulls fans should be proud of the effort this team has put forward this year, but it’ll be a hell of a lot better if they win.
Over the course of this NBA season, Bulls fans have become acquainted with two different players who wear #2 for their team, good Nate Robinson and bad Nate Robinson. Good Nate is instant firepower. He plays within the flow of the offense, gives a good effort on the defensive end, and gets the home crowd fired up with his energy and scoring. Bad Nate forces his shot, often early in the shot clock, turns the ball over with silly passes, and gets a little sloppy with his defense. Bulls’ fans know all too well that it isn’t rare to see both Nates make an appearance in the same game, heck even in the same quarter, but there was no split personality disorder from Nate on Saturday. In fact, Nate was more than just good, he was downright heroic in leading the Bulls back from what seemed like a sure defeat to take a stranglehold of the series.
The Nets led the game by 14 with 3 minutes to play when Nate and the Bulls’ defense took over. The defense started getting stops, and Nate went on a personal 12-0 run against Brooklyn to get the Bulls back in the game. He hit a 3, then a layup, then a midrange jumper and the lead was down to 7. Then he got fouled on a triple and hit all 3 free throws, and moments later he hit another midrange jumper to cap his run and get the lead all the way down to 2. He wasn’t quite done yet. He made another huge play by forcing a 5-second violation on the following inbounds play, then assisted on a Boozer layup to get the Bulls all the way back to a tie game at 109 with 55 seconds left. After a pair of Brook Lopez free throws, it was Joakim Noah putting back a Luol Deng miss with 24 ticks remaining to pull even again. The Nets had one final chance to win in regulation, but Jimmy Butler blocked Gerald Wallace’s shot to force OT.
“Nate Robinson brought us back,” mentioned Carlos Boozer afterwards, “We got a stop and we got the ball to Nate. We got a stop and we got the ball to Nate. He carried us. He was amazing.” What Robinson did in the 4th quarter bordered on historic. He scored 23 points in the quarter on 9-of-11 shooting. The franchise record for points in a quarter is 24, by the incomparable Michael Jordan. Despite Nate’s heroics in the 4th, the game had to continue, but the tide in the building had certainly turned.
In overtime, the teams traded buckets for most of the 5 minute period, but with just 2 seconds to go, it was Robinson again, knocking down a ridiculous, off-balance 23-foot bank shot that appeared to clinch the victory, but the Nets answered. Out of a timeout, Brooklyn was able to inbound to Joe Johnson and the Bulls allowed him to waltz into the lane for an 8-foot runner to force another overtime. The second extra session was painful to watch. Both sides were noticeably gassed, settling for jumpers and missing them short. Nate Robinson fouled out during the period for Chicago, as did Gerald Wallace for the Nets. It was going to be on the rest of the team to pull this one out after Nate had saved them. Chicago got up by 4 with under a minute and a half to go, but again couldn’t hold it and Brooklyn pulled even one more time. Joakim had a couple looks to try and win it in the closing seconds, but couldn’t convert. The game was headed to overtime number 3.
In the 3rd and final extra period, Chicago finally took charge. Noah and Gibson fouled out, but the Bulls scored 6 of the first 7 points, and never let Brooklyn get it closer than 3 after that. Old man Nazr Mohammed, who was forced back into the action when Gibson fouled out, made two crucial buckets to seal the win, including a put-back off a Boozer missed free throw with just 20 seconds left in a 4-point game. The bucket put them up 6, and that was finally enough to end this game.
When the actual ‘final’ buzzer of the day sounded, the Bulls had pulled off a 142-134 victory to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Robinson ended with a game-high 34 points (29 after the start of the 4th), and left the United Center crowd with the feeling they had just seen something really special. “It was big shot after big shot,” effused Coach Thibodeau. “But that’s what he does. That’s what makes him so valuable. It doesn’t take him much to get going, and once he does he can have a great run.” The biggest key for Robinson is just how incredibly confident he is. “I always think I’m on fire,” asserted Nate. “It’s like in the old-school game ‘NBA Jam,’ when you make a couple the rim’s on fire, when you shoot the ball’s on fire. I feel like that all the time. You kind of have to lie to yourself, feel like you can’t miss. If you do that, things turn.” It was that attitude that turned this game for Chicago, and maybe won them this series, and it almost didn’t happen.
The Nets had an opportunity to put the game away down the stretch when they were up 14. With 3:20 to go in the game, Nate coughed up the ball in the midst of a 7-0 Brooklyn run. It was passed ahead to C.J. Watson, who was by himself. No Bulls hustled back. It almost looked like it was going to be a ‘throw in the towel’ moment. Lucky for the Bulls, Watson went up for a dunk instead of the conventional layup, and the ball rattled around and popped out. By the time Watson realized it and secured the rebound, Jimmy Butler was back to prevent an easy bucket. The possession ended with a foul, but Reggie Evans missed both free throws, and the Nate show started. Nets’ coach P.J. Carlesimo lamented about just how big that miscue was: “I don’t think it would be possible to overstate it. They turned the ball over and we got a breakaway to get it to 16. I mean there was nobody even in the picture. That’s not good judgment on our part.” Unfortunately for Brooklyn and C.J. Watson, the game unfolded the way it did and they return home needing a win.
Nate Robinson had the breathtaking performance of the day, but every Bull that saw the floor made an impact. Before Nate’s explosion, Kirk Hinrich was actually leading the team in scoring with 18 points (he finished with 18), and he tacked on 14 assists and 3 steals while playing 60 of the game’s 63 minutes. Even more impressive, he played the game’s final 20:37 with 5 fouls and guarded the Nets’ best player, Deron Williams, all game. “Don’t underestimate the game Kirk Hinrich played tonight,” mentioned Boozer. “He scored the ball for us when he had to, he got everyone involved when he had to and played amazing defense.” Coach Thibodeau called Kirk’s game “unbelievable.” Unfortunately, it took a toll on him, and he will miss game 5 with a bruised thigh. As for the rest of the Bulls, Carlos Boozer scored 21 and grabbed 8 rebounds, while Deng added 15 and 8 along with 6 assists. Jimmy Butler had a nice shooting game (6-of-8) and scored 16 points, while Taj and Nazr chipped in 10 and 9 points off the bench, respectively.
The gutsiest performance of the day undoubtedly came from Joakim Noah. Noah’s been battling a foot injury, and was supposed to be limited to 20-25 minutes in this contest. He wound up playing 39 before fouling out with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks. “He has a great heart, and again he is sort of mucking through it,” explained Thibs. “He keeps going after every ball. He has an uncanny knack for getting to the ball late (in games), so it was a big time effort by him. He’s doing it on will.” Hopefully Noah’s extended minutes don’t cause any setbacks with his injury going forward, but I highly doubt Jo would have let Thibs take him out of this game.
For Brooklyn, the offense revolved around their big 3 as usual. Deron Williams led the Nets with 32 points and 10 assists, but also had a game-high 7 turnovers. Brook Lopez scored 26, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 4 shots, and Joe Johnson added 22 points. Reggie Evans posted a double-double with 15 points and 13 boards, and Gerald Wallace nearly had one with 17 and 9. The Nets’ stats provided them with little solace after the deflating loss. “When all is said and done, we did not do enough things to get a win,” explained Carlesimo. “We couldn’t get enough stops when we needed to get stops.”
Game 4 played out much differently than the previous 2 victories in the series for the Bulls. In games 2 and 3, the Bulls won ugly, low-scoring, grind out type of games. The Nets scored 82 and 76 points in those contests. In game 4, it was all offense, which would seem to favor the Nets, but Chicago was able to find a way to win. ”Obviously we’d like to play better defense,” mentioned Boozer, “but you’ve got to win different ways, especially in the playoffs.” The Bulls outshot the Nets, 53% to 49% on Saturday, illustrating just how bad the defenses were. “For two teams that are supposed to be pretty good defensively, it was a shootout, and not just because it was overtime,” stated P.J. “Neither of us did a good job stopping each other.” The big difference was that the Bulls were able to get stops when they needed them, even if it was the Nets stopping themselves.
There was no shortage of feel-good stories for Chicago, from Nate to Kirk to Joakim, but the biggest story is that they end up 1 step closer to round 2. If the miraculous comeback didn’t happen, the Nets would be in pretty good position. They would essentially have a best-of-3 series with 2 home games. Instead, the Bulls have Brooklyn on the ropes. Even if the Nets are able to beat the Hinrich-less Bulls at the Barclays Center on Monday, they get to come back to the United Center and deal with a rabid crowd that was fantastic for game 4. I’m sure the Bulls will be looking for the knockout blow on the road, and why shouldn’t they? So far they’ve dominated the series in a new statistic that White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson invented: The will to win. It won’t be easy. The Nets will be desperate. As coach P.J. Carlesimo said, “When you get to the elimination game, you put the uniforms away or you get to play another day.” We’ll see which one on Monday.
On a night where the majority of the teams in the NBA were resting their stars in preparation for the playoffs or simply letting them start the offseason early, the Chicago Bulls, led by their drill sergeant Tom Thibodeau, were still grinding. Names like Durant, Carmelo, Garnett and LeBron were taking the night off, watching their teams finish the regular season from the sideline, but that’s not the way the Bulls do things. Coach Thibs has put his stamp on this team over the last few years and forged a team identity that focuses on not taking nights off, so why should the season finale be any different. There wasn’t much at stake on Wednesday night. For the Bulls to not end up as the 5-seed, it would have taken a loss to the Wizards and a Hawks’ win over the Knicks. The Hawks weren’t going to let that happen. They benched their entire starting lineup for the finale. Despite that fact, Coach Thibodeau insisted before the game that he wasn’t going to be paying attention to the Hawks’ score and would focus on coaching this game to win, and he stuck to his guns. The Bulls used just about every able body they had on Wednesday night, making a point to work back in injured players Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli on a limited basis.
While most of the guys didn’t play big minutes, Thibs will no doubt catch a little heat for having important guys playing at the end of a meaningless game. The group on the floor down the stretch consisted of Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, even though by that point the Hawks had already lost and the 5th seed was locked up. Like it or not, this is the way that Tom Thibodeau coaches, and that isn’t going to change. He constantly claims that he’s only worried about the next game, and that you can’t skip steps, and the one thing you can say about the man is he is not a hypocrite. You just sense from his demeanor on the sidelines during the game and in the postgame interviews that he feels like there’s no reason to even lace ‘em up and go play if you aren’t playing to win, and you have to admire that attitude. You don’t have to be happy when a guy gets hurt or re-aggravates an existing injury in garbage time, but you have to accept that it can happen with Thibs in charge.
As far as the actual game went on Wednesday, it looked like it was going to be an easy romp in the early going, as the Bulls scored the game’s first 10 points and led at one point 29-8, but the Wizards didn’t exactly go quietly. A.J. Price proved to be a huge sparkplug for the Wizards as they nearly erased the deficit by the middle of the 2nd quarter. From the time Price entered the game with 3:16 to go in the first until the 7 minute mark in the second, the Wizards went on a 27-8 run with A.J. accounting for a ridiculous 16 points in that span. From that point on it became kind of a cat-and-mouse game. The Bulls would put a few scores together and get up by a few buckets, and the Wizards would pull back in, but it never really felt like the Wizards had enough to overtake them. It was like watching an old-timey cartoon where a big guy is holding off a little guy with his hand on the little guy’s forehead as he flails away underneath, unable to overcome the big guy’s reach advantage. At the same time, however, the Bulls just couldn’t seem to put the game away.
The Wizards finally made it all the way back into the game with 3:19 to go in the 4th when who else but A.J. Price knocked down a 3-ball to tie the contest at 85. It was the first time the game had been tied since 0-0, and it would be the last. Chicago rattled off a 7-0 run following the basket, but the Wizards managed to give themselves one last chance in the closing seconds, down by 3. After a timeout with 17 seconds to go, Washington came out with a play to get a game-tying shot attempt for Price, but Taj Gibson was able to close out and block the shot, knocking it out of bounds with 10 ticks left. On their final shot attempt, it was John Wall launching a well-contested three, and it fell plenty short to secure the Bulls a 95-92 victory. While the win was nice, the most important thing for the Bulls was how they came out of the game in terms of health.
“We’re good physically,” explained Thibs afterward. “We were a little choppy, but that was to be expected. We cut back minutes on some guys and some guys got a little bit more so they could get a little bit of rhythm. Overall, I was pleased with the way we started the game, but we still have a lot of things we have to clean up.” The big takeaway for the Bulls is that everyone is back playing (well, except for Derrick Rose of course). For Taj and Joakim, it was just the second game back for each of them as they deal with recurring injuries. For Hamilton, it was his 6th game back after missing 19, and for Belinelli, it was his 7th after missing 7. Coach Thibodeau sounded almost giddy, or at least giddy by his standards when talking about the health of his squad. “Yeah, it’s nice. I like having the problem of having to decide on a rotation, and you’d like to have everyone completely healthy, but I’ll take what we have.”
The Wizards don’t have to worry about health, with a bit of time off now, but they can certainly be pleased with the way they finished the season. “We came in short-handed tonight,” commented Price after the game. “We had only 9 guys active and we got down early, but we kept chipping away, kept fighting back and made it a game tonight. That’s all you could ask for. It’s all about playing with pride and heart which we showed tonight.” Price finished with a game-high 24 points, and fellow bench player Chris Singleton also made a big impact with 13 points and 7 rebounds, but this team goes as their star point guard John Wall goes. Wall made a few brilliant plays in Wednesday night’s game, and finished with 23 points and 4 assists, but shot just 8-for-21 and missed the biggest shot of the night at the buzzer. Wall is still just 22, and will surely improve next season, which could springboard the Wizards into the playoffs. It seems silly to say that about a team that finished 24 games under .500, but Wall missed the team’s first 33 games with injury, and after his return the team went 24-25. That record would equate to a better winning percentage than the Milwaukee Bucks put up this season, and the Bucks will still be playing next week. At the very least, the Wizards play over the past couple of months is something they can build on for the future.
The Bulls top performers on Wednesday night were not exactly the usual suspects for them. Sure Carlos Boozer continued to be a double-double machine with 19 points and 15 rebounds, but Nazr Mohammed and Kirk Hinrich also came up big for Chicago in the win. Mohammed tallied 17 points and 7 boards while Hinrich came up with 18 and 5 assists. As for the two most recently returned Bulls, Taj seemed to find his rhythm fairly quickly, as he chipped in 8 points and 4 rebounds, but Joakim made almost no impact on the box score with 1 assist, 1 rebound, 1 steal and 2 turnovers in 14-plus minutes. “I’m just happy I didn’t have too much pain in my foot,” mentioned Noah afterwards. “I wish I would have gotten more time, but it is what it is. We’ll see where it goes.” Unfortunately for Joakim, things may be going in the wrong direction as there have been reports headed into the weekend that Noah has had a setback with his foot injury, and is likely doubtful for Saturday night’s game 1 in Brooklyn.
Wednesday’s win brought Chicago’s final regular season record to 45-37, and as I mentioned earlier earned them the number 5-seed in the East and a first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls won the regular season series with Brooklyn 3-1, but that doesn’t mean much when the postseason rolls around. “The postseason is totally different,” asserted Jimmy Butler. “It’s 0-0. The past is the past.” Joakim Noah shared Butler’s sentiment: “It (the 3-1 record) doesn’t mean anything. It’s going to be grinded out. Everybody wants to win. The difference is that the schedule has such a big impact on games in the regular season with back-to-backs and injuries. In the playoffs, everybody comes ready to play.”
This series is going to be an interesting one because it pits strength against strength. The Bulls are one of the most formidable defensive teams in the NBA, and Brooklyn has three of the most dynamic offensive players in the league in guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and center Brook Lopez. Williams has been playing at a different level this year for Brooklyn, averaging 19 points and nearly 8 assists per game on the season, and he’s always capable of going off for 30+. Johnson is an electric scorer, but has a reputation for trying to do too much and shooting more than he should, and Lopez is a strong post-up offensive player with an impressive mid-range game to boot. Lopez actually led the Nets in scoring. Finding a way to contain all 3 guys could be problematic. “They ask a lot of the 3 main guys, Deron, Joe and Lopez,” explained Rip Hamilton. “They’re the go-to-guys. Defensively, we’ve all got to be on a string. We’ve all got to help each other. It’s going to be tough.” Coach Thibodeau had plenty to add about Brooklyn’s team: “They are really good. They are the higher seed and they earned that. They play hard, they have Lopez who’s a low-post presence, and Deron Williams and Joe Johnson off the dribble, and a lot of other guys who are very good basketball players. We have to be ready for them.”
The Bulls’ players aren’t exactly bums on the offensive end, but they certainly won’t be able to simply try to score with Brooklyn. The Nets just have too much firepower for that. This series will be decided by Chicago’s defense, and their ability to at least slow Brooklyn down a bit. The most important thing for Chicago to do will be to force the ball out of Deron Williams’s hands. Just as dangerous as his scoring is his ability as a passer and playmaker, so you’d rather have the ball in someone else’s hands as much as possible. The Bulls might try to trap him and double-team him early in possessions to force the ball away from him before he can make things happen. Between Deng and Butler, the Bulls should be able to slow down Joe Johnson a bit, but the real challenge could come from Lopez. If Noah is unable to play for a couple of games, keeping the Nets’ big man in check could be a real challenge. It will be on Taj Gibson and crafty Nazr Mohammed to get the job done, because we all know about Carlos Boozer’s lack of defensive prowess. Assuming all of this goes according to plan for Chicago, they will have one other issue to deal with: keeping Reggie Evans and the rest of the Nets off the offensive glass. The last thing the Bulls can afford to do in this series is give the Nets second chances, and that means making sure they’re aware of Evans at all times once a shot goes up. Evans is on the floor to do two things, play defense and rebound, and he’s pretty good at both.
If Chicago is able to do all of that, they should have a solid shot to take out Brooklyn and earn the right to get knocked out by Miami in round 2 (C’mon, they’re not beating the Heat). If they aren’t, they are likely looking at another disappointing first round exit. Of course, there’s always the specter of Derrick Rose lurking, claiming he could still return in the playoffs, but I’ll believe that when I see it. However things unfold, it should be a fantastic series, wrought with drama and intensity. “This is what you play for,” effused Hamilton. “The real season starts now.” While Thibs apparently didn’t get that memo that Wednesday’s game wasn’t part of the real season, you can bet he’ll have the Bulls raring to go when this series tips Saturday night. “They’ll be ready, we’ll be ready,” explained the coach. “That’s what makes the playoffs so exciting.” Saturday night will be the first time a crowd at the Barclays Center will get to watch playoff basketball, but something tells me once the ball goes up, they’ll know what to do. It should be fun.
My prediction: Bulls in 6
Chicago is quickly becoming the place where streaks go to die. It was just over 2 weeks ago when the Miami Heat rolled into the United Center on a 25-game winning streak, only to be upended by the undermanned Bulls. On Thursday night, it was the New York Knicks’ turn to try and extend a lengthy win streak at the UC. The Knickerbockers had rattled off 13 straight wins coming into Thursday night, but like the Heat, they failed to tack on another victory in Chicago. The Bulls needed overtime to get the job done, but they battled back from deficits of 15 or more twice and pulled off a 118-111 win. Luol Deng returned to the lineup for the Bulls after missing the previous two contests with a rib injury, but it was Nate Robinson who stole the show. Nate tallied 35 points off the bench, including 8 of Chicago’s 13 points in overtime. Carmelo Anthony led all scorers with 36, extending his streak of 35+ point games to 6, and he added an astounding 19 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough.
Both Chicago and New York came into Thursday’s contest a little beat up in the frontcourt. The Bulls were still without starting center Joakim Noah and backup power forward Taj Gibson, while the Knicks were missing all of their big men, a list that includes Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby, Amare’ Stoudemire, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace. The result of the injuries was a matchup of two of the smallest lineups you’ll ever see in an NBA game. 6’7” Jimmy Butler took the opening tip for the Bulls against 6’8” Chris Copeland for the Knicks, and for a couple stretches during the game, small forwards Luol Deng and Carmelo Anthony played center. The Knicks have been playing undersized for a few games now, but it seemed to take the Bulls a little while to get used to it. ”It was crazy,” mentioned Robinson. “It was different, but at the same time it’s basketball. We’ve still got to go out there and execute.” Early on, it appeared the Knicks’ win streak was in good hands as Chicago struggled to keep pace and defend the 3-point line.
The Knicks opened the game like a runaway train, connecting on 9 of their first 12 shots from the field en route to a 23-6 lead and a couple quick Bulls’ timeouts. After the 2nd timeout, the Bulls settled in and started to chip away. They started to hit shots, defend and rebound, and they went on a 10-0 run out of the timeout and had the lead all the way down to 4 late in the first. The teams traded baskets for much of the second quarter, and they went in at the half with the Knicks leading by 5.
There was an awkward exchange with around 4 minutes to go in the half when Carmelo Anthony was hit with a technical foul after drawing his 3rd foul on the Bulls in a matter of 10 seconds of game time. It’s rare to see a player receive a technical foul after a call goes his way, and it’s even rarer when 3 calls in a row go his way, but referee Joey Crawford has a reputation for having a quick trigger on the technicals. He backed that reputation up again seconds later, when he called one on Nate Robinson as Rip Hamilton shot the free throw from the Melo technical. When asked what he got T’d up for, Nate commented, “For not saying anything. It is what it is. Joey’s a hothead just like me, so I don’t blame him.” Crawford had one more technical left in him in the 1st half, charging Luol Deng with one for arguing a foul call a couple minutes after the other 2.
In the early stages of the second half, the game seemed to be falling right back into the Knicks hands, as Carmelo Anthony asserted his will. Anthony controlled the action for the first 7 minutes of the half, with 8 points and 6 rebounds as the Knicks built the lead back up to 15. The Bulls seemed to be running out of energy and fading fast on the scoreboard until Jimmy Butler turned the tide. Butler came up with steals on back-to-back possessions and turned both into breakaway dunks to cut the lead down to 11. The sequence gave the Bulls a huge spark and started a 24-5 run that had Chicago up by 4 with 9 and a half minutes to go. Rip Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson all connected on triples during the rally, and it energized the crowd in a big way. For most of the 4th quarter, the crowd was on its feet and chanting “de-fense” every time the Knicks had the ball, and erupting every time the Bulls made a play. It was a playoff atmosphere, and Chicago fed off it. The Bulls continued to play well throughout the middle of the 4th quarter, and held a 99-90 lead with 5:42 to go, but they went cold from then on. The Bulls didn’t make another field goal in regulation after that point. It was New York’s turn to battle back. The Knicks closed back in behind Anthony and J.R. Smith, but a few clutch free throws by Kirk Hinrich kept them ever so slightly at bay. With just over 40 seconds to play, the Bulls got the ball with a 105-103 lead and a chance to put New York away. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Nate Robinson decided to do something very Nate Robinson-like.
Robinson spent most of the possession dribbling around, working the shot clock, then as the clock wound down, he drove towards the bucket, but pulled up from about ten feet and took about as off-balance a shot as I’ve ever seen that didn’t come close to going in. I’m convinced he couldn’t see the basket when he shot it, but it caromed wildly off the glass and gave the ball back to the Knicks with a chance to tie or take the lead with 19 seconds left. Out of a timeout, the Knicks went where they went all night, to Carmelo Anthony, who was able to draw a foul on a quick drive to the basket with 14.5 seconds left. Anthony sank both free throws to tie the game, and it was the Bulls turn to try to end it. They were able to get a decent look for Luol Deng from about 12 feet, but his shot rimmed out and the Knicks snared the rebound and got a timeout with 1.5 to go. They would have one more chance, and it turned out to be a good one. The play was designed for J.R. Smith, but as luck would have it, the Bulls defended it well and were able to deny Smith the ball, but they didn’t deny Anthony, who had a decent look at a long 2 at the buzzer. The shot looked good when it left his hand, but clanked out and sent the game to overtime.
In the extra session, the Bulls took control almost immediately. Robinson converted a 3-point play just 16 seconds in, and after a Carmelo basket, Luol Deng hit a big 3-pointer on the following Bulls’ possession to open the lead to 4. The teams traded missed jumpers for a while, before another curious technical foul put the Bulls on the line to tack on another point. For the second time in the game, a Knicks’ player was called for a technical after a call went their way. This time it was J.R. Smith after being fouled by Jimmy Butler. Robinson hit the free throw to extend the lead to 5 with 2:09 to go, and after another stop, Nate put in a layup to pretty much put the game away, up 7 with 1:36 to play. The Bulls held on for another improbable victory, and the Knicks streak came to an end. “I really thought the ball was going in,” mentioned Carmelo regarding the last shot in regulation. “I wasn’t trying to go to overtime. I thought we played extremely well tonight, and in the overtime, I thought we just ran out of gas.”
As I mentioned, this was the 6th game in a row in which Carmelo scored at least 35 points, even if he did need overtime to break that mark, and his 19 rebounds were easily the most he’s had in a game all season (Previous high: 14 vs. Milwaukee). The problem was that he shot 13-of-34 to get to the 36 points. The Knicks entire game-plan ran through Carmelo, and it led to inadequate ball movement. Carmelo had the ball in his hands on almost every possession he was on the floor, and he finished with just 2 assists. As a team, the Knicks had 5 fewer assists than Chicago on 3 more made FGs. The fact that the Knicks didn’t share the ball as well as Chicago probably led to the scoring dry spells that let the Bulls back into the game. While Carmelo led the way, J.R. Smith also had an impressive stat line for the Knicks, tallying 28 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists. Raymond Felton scored 19 to go along with 6 assists and 5 rebounds, and Chris Copeland scored 14, but shot just 4-for-14.
Nate’s 35 led the way for Chicago, but Jimmy Butler was equally impressive. Butler was fresh off a career-high 28 points last Tuesday against Toronto, and he scored another 22 against the Knicks, but also added 14 rebounds (another career-high), 3 blocks, 3 steals and 2 assists. Carlos Boozer suffered a brutal shooting night, but still accrued 13 points and 15 rebounds, good for his 9th double-double in his last 10 games. Rip Hamilton seems to be getting his timing back in his second game back from a back injury that sidelined him for 2 months, as he put up 14 points and 8 assists. Deng’s return was marred by foul trouble, but he still managed a solid night with 16 points and 8 rebounds, and had the coach singing his praises afterwards. When asked why the team was able to battle back in this game after falling short in comeback tries against Detroit and Toronto, Coach Thibs answered in 1 word: “Luol.” When asked to elaborate, Thibs did. “It’s just what he brings to the team. Luol is the glue to our team. When things are tough, he makes us go. There are a lot of subtleties to his game that people don’t notice or appreciate, but I think all his teammates and his coaches do. That’s why he makes our team what it is.”
As great as Luol is, while he was out Jimmy Butler filled in admirably as the engine of this team despite the 0-2 mark in the 2 games, and has possibly played himself into a starting role for next season. “He’s been a tremendous lift,” explained Hinrich. “Every time he’s been called upon, he’s played huge. You can just see his comfort level and his confidence are much higher. He’s really grown up before our eyes.” The head coach also couldn’t help but gush about Butler after this game. “I love Jimmy’s demeanor,” effused Thibs. “Jimmy will keep coming. He doesn’t get discouraged. He keeps battling. He has improved each and every day and he’s just gotten so much better. He’s a great worker, and doing an unbelievable job for us.” With Rip Hamilton’s contract expiring at the end of the season, it’s easy to envision Butler stepping into Rip’s starting spot next year. Derrick Rose will certainly be back by then, which would give the Bulls one of the most dynamic players in the league at point guard, and the best tandem of wing defenders in the league as well in Jimmy and Luol. Noah and Taj’s motors aren’t going anywhere as long as they can stay healthy, and Boozer will be back to provide some scoring inside. It gets very easy to see this team as a serious championship contender next season with that core group, but I digress. There is still a playoff run to be made this season, and we all know how Thibs doesn’t like to skip steps.
The Knicks playoff run will likely start off against the Boston Celtics, whom they’ve beaten in 3 out of 4 regular season meetings. The Knicks will likely be heavily favored to win the series, but the Celtics are crafty and should make it interesting. The Knicks real worries should come after they advance to round 2, where they would meet the Pacers, the Bulls or the Hawks (depending on which of Chicago and Atlanta is the 6-seed). I doubt they would have much trouble with Atlanta, but Indiana or Chicago would be a nightmare matchup for New York. The Knicks have struggled all season with physical teams, and teams in the East don’t get more physical than the Bulls and Pacers. Indiana is 2-1 against the Knicks so far in the regular season, and the Bulls swept all 4 meetings. Carmelo Anthony downplayed the head-to-head struggles against Chicago saying, “They can have it. They can have the regular season wins. We’re not worried about them at this point. We’re just worried about ourselves.” They may not be worried now, but they certainly will be if they draw a relatively healthy Bulls team in round 2.
The Bulls have just 4 regular season games left after Thursday night’s contest, and winning them all shouldn’t be the biggest priority for the team. Getting everyone healthy should. Joakim and Taj will be a big part of any chances this team has to advance in the playoffs, so they have to keep working to get back out there. Rip and Marco need to continue to work at getting back in rhythm and be clicking on all cylinders into the playoffs, and the rest of the team just needs to not add any names to the walking wounded. The Bulls can ill-afford any new injuries. “Our best chance of winning is with everybody healthy,” stated Boozer. “We know that, so obviously for us, we’d like to have everybody back.” At this point, it seems clear that Derrick Rose will not be back. I’d be stunned if he were to play his first actual game in the playoffs. That just isn’t happening, so the Bulls have to be prepared to go with the guys they have. Winning these last few games might help the Bulls secure the 5-seed instead of the 6, but I think they’re better off as the 6. Both Indiana and Brooklyn would be challenging first round foes, but if you can avoid Miami in the second round, I say do it. Maybe they can pull off a surprising run past Indiana and New York. I’d be lying if I said I think the Bulls can beat Miami in a best-of-7 series without their MVP, but who knows, they’ve surprised us before. At this point, it’s about getting their ducks in a row, so to speak, and being as close to full strength as possible. As Coach Thibodeau loves to say, they’re going to need everybody.
Over the nearly 3 seasons of Tom Thibodeau’s reign as head coach in Chicago, Bulls fans have gotten used to a lot of things. They’ve gotten used to a team that plays with a workman-like mentality and always hustles. They’ve gotten used to a team that plays suffocating defense and outworks opponents on the glass. They’ve gotten used to a coach who has a permanent scowl on his face and often speaks in mantras and clichés. He’s not flashy or exciting, but he’s consistent. Bulls fans have become all too used to phrases like, “we can’t skip steps,” “we have more than enough to win with,” and “know your job, do your job.” One thing Bulls fans haven’t gotten used to is mediocrity, but that’s exactly what they’re getting out of their team lately. Since the start of February, the Bulls have tallied a 10-14 record, and several of the 14 defeats have been ugly.
To be fair, this season was going to be an uphill fight from the start. The Bulls knew they would be without superstar Derrick Rose for a good portion of the season, and they brought in 5 new bench players and a new point guard over the past offseason that had to get worked into the team. It was going to be nearly impossible to match the gaudy 75% winning percentage that the team put up in each of the last 2 seasons. Still, after an up-and-down start to the season, the Bulls really seemed to be figuring things out in January, as they went 12-4 for the month and set their high-water mark for the season at 11 games over .500. Things immediately went south at the start of February.
There are plenty of factors that led to the winter swoon. The schedule wasn’t exactly favorable, with 9 of the first 11 games in February away from the United Center. On top of that, the squad suffered a rash of injuries that have made them more closely resemble a triage unit than a basketball team. Since February 1st, 6 different Bulls have combined to miss 47 games, an average of 2 guys out per game, and they’ve used 7 different starting lineups in the 24-game span. Kirk Hinrich missed 16 games, Taj Gibson missed 10, and Rip Hamilton missed 12. Those numbers don’t even take into account the games missed by the former MVP. Speaking of D-Rose, the status of his return from a torn ACL and the media circus surrounding it has been a major distraction for the players who are healthy. Those players certainly aren’t going to blame Derrick for their own poor play or any lapses in focus, but it wears on you when you’re asked after every game and practice how Derrick looks in practice, or when he’s coming back.
All of these factors have added up to a team that has been sluggish and inconsistent. The offense hasn’t had a whole lot of flow and rhythm without Hinrich, which is a problem considering the Bulls aren’t exactly sharpshooters (tied for 25th in FG%, ahead of only Minnesota, Indiana and Charlotte), and even the defense and rebounding efforts haven’t been up to snuff of late. Thibs is understanding of some poor shooting nights, but he isn’t ok with this team not showing up on the boards or on the defensive end. “We will shoot the ball better on some nights than others,” concedes Thibodeau. “What we should be able to count on every night is the defense and rebounding.” They haven’t been able to count on that lately, and the results have been some blowout losses. Getting run off the floor by some of the elite teams in the NBA can happen to anyone, so the drubbings Chicago got from Miami, Denver, Oklahoma City and San Antonio are at least slightly excusable. Getting run off the floor by the dregs of the Western Conference is not. The Bulls suffered one of the most embarrassing losses of Coach Thibodeau’s tenure a couple of weeks ago when they were walloped by 42 points by the Sacramento Kings. You would think that would be a pretty alarming wake-up call, but here we are a couple weeks later, and another sub-.500 team manhandled the Bulls, this time on their home floor. This one might have actually snapped them out of it.
The Portland Trailblazers came into Thursday night’s game sitting at 31-36, 3.5 games back of the Lakers for the 8th spot in the Western Conference, but that didn’t stop them from running roughshod over Chicago. The Bulls hung in the game for about a quarter, and then Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge took over. The duo combined for 52 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, and J.J. Hickson dominated the boards with a career-high 21 rebounds. In the end, the Bulls only lost by 10, but the game wasn’t nearly as close as the scoreboard indicated. The Blazers dominated the middle 2 quarters, and led by as many as 28 before a 4th quarter flurry from the Bulls reserves made the final look more respectable, but the outcome was never in doubt. The loss spoiled the return to the lineup for Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson. Gibson had a solid game with 14 points and 9 rebounds, and was a big part of the 4th quarter charge, but Hinrich had a miserable night, shooting 1-for-7 with just 2 points and 3 assists. “I knew there would be some rust,” explained Thibs, “but there’s no getting around it. You’ve got to go through it.” Portland head coach Terry Stotts could certainly empathize with the Bulls’ situation. “When players come back to the team, it’s about getting them back into sync,” mentioned Stotts. “Hinrich and Gibson back, that’s an adjustment. When Derrick Rose comes back, there’ll be an adjustment, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re still a very good team.”
Considering that this is just the latest in a string of disappointing performances, it was no surprise that many of the Bulls, including head coach Thibodeau, were feeling frustrated and dejected after the loss. “We got smacked,” offered Joakim Noah after the game. “We’re not playing great right now. It’s disappointing. It’s the final stretch and we’re not getting it done, so, we’ve got to find a way.” “It’s the defense, the rebounding, that’s what we’ve got to clean up,” asserted Thibodeau. “We’re winding it down now, and part of it is that we’re moving guys around quite a bit, but you have to get your part done. Whatever it is that you’re asked to do, you’ve got to go out there and get that done. Right now we’re not getting it done.” Adding even more injury to insult on Thursday, Joakim Noah re-aggravated the plantar fasciitis that caused him to miss a few games in February, but it shouldn’t keep him out long.
As difficult as the past couple of months of Bulls’ basketball have been to watch, the loss to the Blazers might just have been the loss that finally snaps them out of their funk. The team is getting healthier, despite what happened to Joakim, and they managed to bounce back very well over the weekend with wins over the division-leading Pacers and the Timberwolves on back-to-back nights. They continued to play shorthanded, but managed to get big contributions from reserves Nazr Mohammed, Jimmy Butler and Daequan Cook. Taj and Kirk are starting to look more like themselves again, and the team got back to the basics of playing defense and rebounding to secure those two wins. They held the Pacers to under 40% from the field and out-rebounded the T’Wolves by 20, and in the process, put up just their second pair of consecutive wins since the start of February. They also seem to be finally buying in to Coach Thibodeau’s message again. “I feel like if you hear the same things every day you start to buy into it,” commented Jimmy Butler. “Thibs is constantly telling us that we have enough to win on any given night, so I feel like as long as we go out and we play hard and guard and play for one another, we can win with however many men we’re down with.” This is the mentality that guided the Bulls through much of last season, when they dealt with similar injury issues, and it’s the mentality the team needs to ride down the stretch.
There isn’t much time left, with just 13 games to go before the end of the regular season. The Bulls are certainly going to be playing in the playoffs, but getting healthy and building some positive momentum into the postseason will be critical to the Bulls’ playoff success, especially if D-Rose somehow doesn’t return this season. They can’t fall back into playing mediocre basketball. They’ve got to dig deep, play through pain, and keep grinding out wins. They can’t take nights off. There isn’t enough margin of error for this team for them to play that way and win. Derrick may be coming back, but the guys on the floor can’t worry about that. “We have to keep grinding,” commented Taj Gibson. “It’s almost time for the playoffs. Every team is scratching and clawing right now, and we just have to get better.”
We should learn a lot about the resolve of these Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, when the streaking Miami Heat visit the United Center. Miami has won 27 consecutive games and will be eager to make it 28. This is one of those games that could get out of hand in a hurry if the Bulls don’t show up to play, but like I said, I think the funk is over. This game won’t be about whether or not the team wins or loses. They likely still won’t have Joakim or D-Rose back in the lineup, and Marco Belinelli will be a game-time decision (I expect him to play), so it will be difficult to derail Miami and come up with the win. This game will be about the Bulls believing they have a shot and grinding for all 48 minutes. If the Bulls hang around and make this a tough game for the Heat, it will be a successful outing. If they get the win, it will be an outstanding one. Miami seems destined to break the L.A. Lakers’ all-time record 33-game winning streak, but the Bulls would love nothing more than to be the ones to end it. “When you start thinking about streaks and that pot of gold at the end, you skip steps,” mentioned Nazr Mohammed. “I hope they’re thinking about the 33 or whatever and we’re one of the steps they want to skip, so we can go out there and try to get us a victory.” It’s not a victory the Bulls need to have, but it’s certainly a chance to remind the nation what Bulls basketball should look like, and wash away the last 2 months of lackluster performances. Mediocrity is not something I expect we’ll have to get used to.