CHICAGO – No way the Chicago Bulls can win a championship with Carlos Boozer.
For Boozer’s first two seasons in this town, that was the vibe, sometimes an undercurrent, more often a topic that could light up the phone lines and carry a whole show of afternoon sports talk.
Then a funny thing happened. Derrick Rose‘s knee blew up (we’ re talking funny strange, not funny ha-ha, in case you’re wondering). Expectations in and for Chicago plummeted. At various points in the 2012-13 season, the bar was set no higher than having five Bulls players healthy enough to start and two or three more in reserve. And Boozer kept on being Boozer, to the point that …
No way the Chicago Bulls can win much of anything right now without Carlos Boozer.
On a team whose offense too often looks like tossing horseshoes at a trailer hitch on I-94, Boozer has been nearly a sure thing through three games of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets. He’s averaging 20.0 points and 12.0 rebounds, shooting 57.4 percent and logging serious minutes, an average of 42:19.
In the unsightly but effective 79-76 Game 3 victory Thursday night at United Center, Boozer was good for 22 points and 16 rebounds, his second 20-15 playoff game since signing with the Bulls and his 10th in the postseason in 11 NBA seasons.
With Luol Deng (21 points, 10 rebounds), Boozer even participated in a little Bulls playoff history. They became the first Chicago teammates to post 20-and-10 performances in the same playoff game since June 2, 1993, when Michael Jordan (29 points, 10 assists) and Scottie Pippen (28 points, 11 rebounds) did it against New York in the Eastern Conference finals.
Michael and Scottie, of course, were beloved. Deng is admired, certainly, and increasingly appreciated by the United Center fans. And then there’s Boozer, receiver of much guff both earned and unearned during his Chicago stay.
“I’m really happy for Carlos because Carlos has been criticized a lot since he’s been here,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said afterward, Boozer dressing about six feet away. “I just see in his eyes, he’s really, really hungry. Just to prove all his critics [wrong]. And he’s been huge for us. … We’ve had so many injuries this year and he’s been the one constant all season. I think he’s put it in the books that he’s going to get us rebounds, get us buckets and make plays.”
Without Rose, with others such as Noah, Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Marco Belinelli coming and going from the rotation due to injuries, Boozer, 31, appeared in 79 games. That was third-most on the team and the most for Boozer since he was 26 years old.
As for his numbers, well, Boozer always has been a Tim Duncan Jr. as far as year-to-year predictability. In 2012-13, his shooting was off but only by slivers – he averaged 0.2 fewer field goals (7.7) for every 36 minutes played compared to his first 10 seasons in the league (7.9), while taking 1.4 extra field-goal attempts (16.1 vs. 14.7).
Boozer is, pure and simple, a 19-point, 10-rebound man, regardless of circumstances, through good and through bad, season in, season out. His personality pretty much tracks his stats, affable yet inaccessible, a cool professional-athlete-as-clock-puncher veneer with a hint of Teflon. It has frustrates fans who revel or suffer so publicly, win or lose with each Bulls outcome. Particularly those who still haven’t gotten over Boozer not being LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Joe Johnson in the summer of 2010.
Boozer has shrugged that stuff off his broad shoulders since Day 1. He hasn’t let outsiders in through various lows – notice how his minutes so far this postseason compare to what he averaged last spring (33.3) or in 2011 (31.7), when he wasn’t trusted on the floor for his defense. So Boozer isn’t inclined to let the outsiders in now, either, with things perking up.
“I feel good and my teammates are great,” he said, slipping a question about the criticism. “I’ve got great teammates and a great coaching staff, great management. Family’s great. So I just feed off of that.”
Right now, Boozer has a great opponent, too. In six games against Brooklyn, he has averaged 20.7 points and 11.3 rebounds. The Nets have not come close to solving his combination of baseline and mid-range game. Meanwhile, he ripped rebounds away might have gone to others, taking 15 off the defensive glass to make sure Brooklyn’s 34.6 percent shooting hurt to the max.
“We’ve tried to deny him the ball,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “We’ve tried to make him go a certain direction and we’ve contested his shot. But we haven’t done any of it real well. When he gets shots, he’s making shots. He doesn’t seem to miss an open shot. … We have to do a better job on him.”
Said Gibson: “Carlos is so skilled offensively. They throw a lot of things at him, they try to front him, try to double-team him. But Carlos is such a smart player mentally. Plus he’s been in these situations before with many teams in the playoffs. And he’s real humble about it, but he understands he’s a leader now and he’s calling for the ball. He’s being dominant. That’s what we need him to do.”
Some of this might not be there for Boozer if Rose were around, carving lanes to the basket with his drives, changing the rhythm of the Bulls’ offense. He still has an amnesty clock over his head like that big national-debt counter, except that Boozer’s counts down the days until the Bulls – if they choose – cut him loose a year early in the offseason of 2014. Probably he never will be beloved at United Center.
But he has been good enough this season, and especially this week, that the discontent with him previously seems a bit harsh now. It’s as if those who booed rather than “Booooz!”-ed are coming around to him, but he already has their number.
Said Noah: “I don’t think it’s easy for anybody to play through that. Everybody’s human. He’s a tough guy … but it’s still not easy. I think he’s using all that as motivation.”