CHICAGO – Tom Thibodeau turned the Chicago Bulls’ shootaround into a minefield Monday. The head coach was in gruff “go” mode, locking in on players with his pale-eyed steely gaze and blistering them not with the fire he probably wished he could breathe in that moment but the next best effin‘ thing.
“Thibs was screaming at us early in the morning,” center Joakim Noah said later, smiling as he pulled back the team curtain just a little. “It’s not fun to be screamed at at 9 o’clock in the morning … What was he screaming about? That we were 10-10 at home. With a lot of f-bombs. A lot of f-bombs.”
And so Monday evening, the Bulls dusted themselves off from a miserable home loss to Phoenix 48 hours earlier and took it out on the Atlanta Hawks. They were led, again, by Carlos Boozer, otherwise known as the Bull least likely to be affected by an angry coach or blistering language.
If Bulls fans, nay, NBA followers have learned anything about the brawny 6-foot-9 veteran out of Aschaffenburg, Germany by way of Juneau, Alaska and Duke University, it’s that the armor of his bulging, inked-up muscles is coated in a veneer of Teflon. Nothing seems to stick to Boozer – nothing bad, nothing good – as he goes through the league and his career doing what he does best, over and over again.
In a sense, he is a thoroughly professional athlete: punching in, providing fairly predictable measures of production and emotion, taking the paycheck, clocking out and heading home.
“He is who he is,” Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said over the weekend. “I don’t think having a guy who can get 18 and 10 is that bad of a deal. And he does it pretty consistently. I think his game has changed for the better – he can step out on the floor, he’s become a better perimeter shooter than he was. But I still think he’s a guy who can finish at the basket. He’s strong, a very physical player. I think he’s pretty good.”
Against Atlanta Monday, Boozer scored 20 points and had 13 rebounds for his eighth double-double in the past nine games and 20th of the season, tops in the Eastern Conference. He is averaging 21.1 points and 11.1 rebounds across those nine games, which include some of the best (at Miami, at New York) and worst (vs. Charlotte, vs. Phoenix) performances of Chicago’s season.
Lately he has been putting up numbers that stir some Chicago echoes. Boozer’s recent run included four 20-10 efforts in a row, something no Bulls player had done since Scottie Pippen back in 1995. By following up his 31-11 night at Orlando with a 27-12 outing at Miami, Boozer became the first Bull since Michael Jordan to score at least 27 and take 11 rebounds in back-to-back games.
And in his three Chicago seasons, Boozer is averaging 16.0 points and 9.2 rebounds, while shooting 51.2 percent. In franchise history, only Artis Gilmore did better, longer (20.1 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 58.8, 1976-82).
One key recently is that Chicago’s offense is getting Boozer involved early. That’s borne out of both need and opportunity – with Derrick Rose out, there’s no ball-dominating shot creator to accommodate but also no easy way to get rolling on the scoreboard.
“We’ve got one [star] and that’s D. Rose,” Boozer said Monday. “He’ll be back whenever he gets back. The rest of us, we have to use each other to make things happen offensively. [I’m] just playing hard, feeling confident and playing off my teammates.”
Said Thibodeau: “It’s very important that we not only run the offense through Carlos but also Joakim.”
Noah has had an All-Star caliber half-season. In fact, at 12.3 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 4.1 apg and 2.1 bpg, he is on pace to became the first NBA player to average at least 10 points, 10 boards, four assists and two blocks since Kevin Garnett in his 2003-04 MVP year. Going as far back as 1980-81, only four players have hit all those thresholds in a season (Garnett, Chris Webber in 1998-99, Vlade Divac in 1994-95 and David Robinson in 1993-94).
When Boozer and Noah have double-doubles in the same game this season, the Bulls are 11-2.
“It’s not about double-doubles, it’s about our team,” Noah said recently. “But if Carlos keeps playing like this, we have to play off of him. He’s a handful down there, so it’s on us to get it to him.”
Boozer has talked about about being more efficient – his 48.0 field-goal percentage is the lowest of his career – but some of that might be due to moving more outside, as Gentry cited. After shooting 44.9 percent in November, Boozer has picked it up to 46.6 in December and 53.6 so far in January.
“More wins, getting more efficient and so far, so good,” Boozer said. “A little bit more time, more plays, but just playing better, to be honest. Shooting the ball better, free throws better, being aggressive.”
None of this has won over many United Center fans, not fully. Oh sure, it’s fun for them to bellow “Booz!” when things go well, but he remains the guy most likely to hear “Boo!” when they don’t.
Boozer remains a polarizing player, an awkward fit in Thibodeau’s gospel of defense-first. That Teflon repels blame after breakdowns as surely as it deflects credit after successes.
Still, it’s gotten to the point where Boozer – considered a pricey consolation prize in the free-agent sweepstakes of 2010 – might be equal or superior in value to the presumed bigger prize at power forward that summer. Take a look at Boozer’s production compared to Miami’s Chris Bosh:
Boozer: 16.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.4 bpg, 51.2 FG%, 70.4 FT% in 161 games.
Bosh: 18.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.9 bpg, 50.4 FG%, 82.2 FT% in 169 games.
Here are the two players according to some advanced stats:
Boozer: 19.0 PER, .539 TS%, 17.1 TRB%, 106 ORtg, 97 DRtg.
Bosh: 19.7 PER, .573 TS%, 13.4 TRB%, 113 ORtg, 103 DRtg.
At 31, Boozer, frequently mentioned as an contract-amnesty candidate in the next year or two, has two seasons worth $32.1 million left on his deal. Miami will still owe Bosh, who turns 29 in March, three years and $61.7 million.
Boozer is one of only 28 players who have averaged more than 10 points and 7.5 rebounds in each of their first 10 seasons in the league. If he pushes that to 11 seasons this year, the number of names on that list shrinks to 19.
Bosh missed as a rookie (7.4 rebounds) and, after eight years stringing together the requisite stats, is at risk this season (7.2 rpg) of falling off the list of wannabes. Also, rebounds seem to be kind of a big deal for the Heat these days.
Of Boozer, Thibodeau said: “When you look at him at the end of every season, against other power forwards, he’s always at the top. He’s getting more opportunities lately because people are searching him out. The defense is telling us he’s open, and the core guys have been together for three years now so they know how to play off each other.”
Boozer still might frustrate Bulls fans. He could find himself parked on the bench late in close games (though less so with Omer Asik’s departure thinning Chicago up front). But he is what he is, and lately that’s been quite good.