With the ancient Celtics having recently exposed the Magic’s lack of heart — not once but twice! — the Bulls and the Heat are currently the only viable contenders to rule the Eastern Conference. Sunday’s game in Miami provides a wonderful opportunity for Chicago to chill the Heat’s championship pretensions.
Meanwhile, the home standing Heat have the opportunity to prevent the Bulls from even dreaming that they can compete on equal terms with the holdover conference champs. Again, in this compacted and bizarre season, every game has an enhanced and disproportional importance.
HOW THE BULLS CAN WIN:Derrick Rose has become the most potent point guard in the NBA. Although his unselfishness and considerable ball-time result in his being one of the league’s leading assist-makers, Rose is really the Bulls’ go-to scorer. That’s because his shooting stroke has greatly improved, he’s nearly as strong as a power-forward, and his quickness and speed are otherworldly. Indeed, where other players are celebrated for the quickness of their first-step, Rose accelerates as he approaches the rim — making his second- and third-steps incredibly unique. Also, players necessarily lose a half-beat when they resort to some kind of crossover dribble, but Rose’s changes-of-direction likewise amp up his quickness. And with Dwayne Wade not at 100 percent, none of Miami’s backcourtsmen can contain Rose.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Few teams in the league have shown a better understanding of how to survive without a key player than the league-leading Chicago Bulls.
They lose reigning MVP Derrick Rose for a few games with that bad toe and don’t miss a beat.
So while it’s obvious that the Bulls know exactly what to do when one of their big dogs is out of the lineup, it will be interesting to see what they do with Luol Deng on the shelf with that “Kobe Bryant” (torn ligament) in his left wrist.
It’s strange how Deng and Bryant’s names have criss-crossed over the course of Deng’s career. Don’t forget, it was reportedly Deng that the Bulls tried to send to the Lakers in a deal that would have brought Kobe to Chicago years ago. Reports that Bryant was objecting to any deal that included Deng (he wanted to make sure the Bulls had enough talent to compete for a title) is a testament to the value Deng’s peers place on his game.
That’s impressive for a player with no All-Star appearances on his resume yet and is one who is often overlooked when the conversation of the best small forwards in the game comes up.
Even more impressive will be the Bulls’ continued ability to grind through the avalanche of nicks, bumps and bruises that they’ve been able to brush aside so far (16-3 and atop the Eastern Conference and the league). They host the Pacers tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NBA TV.
“I know it’s a bad injury and it sounds terrible, but really, I think it will fine,” Deng, who is trying to avoid surgery, told reporters yesterday. “We’ve got a good team, and I think I’m going to be fine.”
When it comes to NBA on-court violations, those other “-tions” seem to count just as much as the actual flesh-on-flesh interactions. At least, that’s how columnist Rick Morrisey of the Chicago Sun-Times sees it after watching the Bulls up close in their playoff run against Indiana, Atlanta and now Miami and the rest of the postseason on flat screens.
Morrissey verbally scratched his head over what he feels is the trickiest part of the referee-player dynamic: Adhering to a consistent standard – across stars and non-stars, across quarters, across games and series – for what is and is not a foul.
What is tolerated in the lane, he suggests, is forbidden outside of it. A slap by a big name doesn’t generate the same whistle as a tickle from a journeyman. Then there is the convergence of those tricky reputations and situations, Morrissey wrote:
In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Thursday, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden went to the basket on a fast break. The Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, who has a reputation for being a defensive liability, met him there. Nowitzki made a passing attempt at stopping Harden, who scored. There was hardly any contact, but that didn’t stop the ref from calling a foul on Nowitzki.
Two factors were at work to explain the foul that wasn’t a foul:
Everybody knows Nowitzki is bad at defense.
A fast-break layup? There’s bound to be contact.
Whistle. Foul, Nowitzki.
Let’s face it, officiating an NBA game has to be a nearly impossible job. Call everything you see and the game becomes unwatchable, a Sousa march of whistles. Let too much go and mayhem ensues.
As always, it comes down to consistency, game to game and, more important, throughout a game, regardless of players involved or clock. If a Kyle Korver-on-Dwyane Wade foul is the same, first quarter as last, and the same as a Wade-on-Krover foul that night, that’s probably the most anyone can hope for.
As Chicago center Joakim Noah said after practice Friday: “As a player, you’ve just got to get a feel for what you can get away with. Sometimes they call it tighter than others. That’s just part of the game.”
Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
Which generally under-the-radar player do you see making a big-time impact in the first-round of the playoffs?
David Aldridge: I see Jeff Green poised for a breakout in Boston. If the Cs hold onto second and play Philly or New York in the first round, you’d anticipate a small ball series, which would allow Doc Rivers to play Green a lot at power forward. I like that matchup of Green over either a Thaddeus Young or a Jared Jeffries or ‘Melo.
Steve Aschburner: Gerald Wallace seemed to disappear with his coast-to-coast move from Charlotte to Portland, so he’s managed to be both an All-Star and under the radar for me. Wallace is a versatile player at both ends of the floor, allowing Nate McMillan to exploit mismatches with Wallace against both bigger and smaller foes. He’s active and aggressive, and he should be enthused by the Blazers’ postseason involvement, period, never mind their prospects.
ATLANTA – From what we gather, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen get along fabulously. They’ve won a championship together. Allen attended Pierce’s wedding last summer. They have other common interests, perhaps. There’s a bond.
Oh, but can you imagine the trash-talking that’s going on between them right now?
Pierce will defend his 3-point championship in L.A. on All-Star Saturday and who’s the biggest threat? None other than the guy who’s poised to become the all-time 3-point shooter in NBA history. Yes, that would be Allen, who will take down Reggie Miller first for that career honor, then take aim at Pierce. Surely, this rift will divide the close-knit Celtic locker room and possibly destroy team chemistry for the season. Doc Rivers‘ job just got tougher, trying to referee such a bitter contest between two of his most important players.
Besides, Allen doesn’t talk smack; his verbal confrontation with Kobe Bryant years ago was the exception, not the norm. Still, there will be some good-natured give-and-take between now and Feb. 19. The burden is on Allen, obviously; he’s made a career from the 3-point line, while Pierce is a streaky long-distance shooter.
The title will probably be decided by a Celtic, because the rest of the field isn’t as good as it could’ve been. There’s no Kyle Korver, a 41-percent shooter. Or Matt Bonner, the Spurs’ specialist who’s making half his shots this season. Or Steph Curry, who lost to Pierce in the final round last year (perhaps Steph is being punished for that). Or Mike Bibby, a veteran 3-point shooter, or Kevin Love, a rare power forward with range. At least there is an interesting subplot between James Jones and Dorell Wright; the Heat gave up on Wright last summer partly because they were sold on Jones.
I suspect Pierce, in order to gain a psychological edge, might remind Allen of that 0-for-13 stretch in the NBA Finals last summer. Is that out of bounds? We’ll see.
The Bulls have been extremely patient in their pursuit of another quality outside shooter/slasher to help take some of that perimeter scoring load — responsibilities that both Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans have tried to assume admirably (though neither of them appears to be versatile enough to handle the job without major assistance).
Casspi showed flashes of being able to handle those duties, even though Casspi is more of a small forward than a shooting guard. Casspi also plays with an edge that the Bulls need and haven’t had since they shipped Andres Nocioni to the Kings in a deal at the trade deadline two seasons ago.
With the Kings rolling around in the mud in the Western Conference basement, this is the perfect time for a young talent like Casspi to be freed from a situation like the one he finds himself in. Who wouldn’t want to go from a 7-24 team in the West to a contender in Chicago that’s already stocked with a superstar and MVP candidate in Derrick Rose, a veteran star in Carlos Boozer and stud big man in Joakim Noah?
Like we said, this one makes sense on so many levels — hypothetically speaking, of course.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Who in the name of Naismith would be crazy enough to try to watch all 13 games on Wednesday night’s NBA schedule, completely ignoring Game 1 of the World Series, Modern Family and whatever else was going on last night?
You know we did.
The crew here at the hideout managed to view significant portions of all 13 games and we must admit, we came away impressed more often than not, even by some teams that ended up on the losing end at the end of the night.
The most anticipated season in league history? However preposterous it might have sounded to hear that in recent weeks, we’re warming up the idea now.
Back to Wednesday night’s games, though. It was an absolute embarrassment of basketball riches on display from coast to coast all night. Did you see what we saw?
Looking good: Now you know why the Cavaliers refused to part with J.J. Hickson last year in a proposed Amar’e Stoudemire deal. He was a force (21 points on 8-for-11 shooting) and is poised for a breakout season. Boobie Gibson rebounded from an ugly start (0-for-8) to finish with 16 points and a team-high eight assists.
Sound the Alarm: The Celtics can’t afford many off nights in the revamped Eastern Conference, where the Magic, Heat and even the Hawks plan to push the pace. There was bound to be an emotional letdown, of sorts, after Tuesday’s season-opening home win over Miami. There just can’t be many more like it.
HT’s Take: They say the best way to get over a breakup is to dive right back into the game. And the scrappy, LeBron James-free Cavaliers proved they’ll do just that by out working the Celtics down the stretch. But I wouldn’t go making travel plans for the NBA Finals yet.
Looking good: All those new additions, rookies and otherwise, showed well in the Nets’ debut in their new arena. Even Jay-Z and Beyonce showed up, a rare occurrence compared to last season when, our Twitter family informed us, Jay never showed up. You expect an Avery Johnson-coached team to play a certain way and the Nets did that down the stretch. He’s already got the Nets 18 games ahead of last season’s win pace.
Sound the Alarm: The Pistons’ inability to finish this thing off, they were up seven with 1:40 to play, doesn’t bode well for a team that enters this season without a whole lot of confidence in each other.
HT’s Take: We tuned in hoping to see something from Nets rookie Derrick Favors and he didn’t disappoint. The eight points and 10 rebounds are fine, but he was much more physical around the basket than even we expected. Our initial fears about the Pistons were confirmed. They just don’t look like a team on a mission of any sorts.
Looking good: Welcome to the season, Dwyane Wade. We knew he needed more than those four minutes he played in the preseason to get warmed up. His 30-point outburst against the Sixers is much more like normal. When James Jones sinks six of his nine 3-pointers against anyone, the Heat become nearly impossible to deal with for anyone other than the league’s elite.
Sound the Alarm: As NBA.com’s Andy Jasner pointed out, the Sixers’ starting five did not attempt a single free throw all night. That’s either some sever disrespect for their games or a serious lack of force being used by Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, Jason Kapono, Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes.
HT’s Take: The Heat will do the same things they did to the Sixers to most of the teams in the league. The fact is, few teams will be able to match their firepower and depth. And any team that can’t protect the rim will see Wade, James and Chris Bosh have their way attacking the basket. We did see another solid rookie debut, this one out of the Sixers’ Evan Turner (team-high 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists).
That’s lofty stuff for a team that played .500 ball (41-41) in each of the past two seasons. The Bulls did make it to the playoffs in both of those seasons, losing in spirited first round series against the Boston Celtics in 2009 and the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.
Having a young nucleus of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng, however, is reason for optimism. Adding veterans like Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer is cause for even more excitement. Toss in a new coach, Tom Thibodeau, with championship pedigree and all these prime time appearances for the Bulls make plenty of sense.
“They’ve got everything you need to make a move this season,” said a veteran Eastern Conference executive from a team that will battle the Bulls in the Central Division this season. “They added the right kind of vets and have really done a fantastic job bringing those young guys along. Rose is a star and perhaps the most important thing, they’ve got two years of playoff experience under their belts. They are the clear-cut favorite [in the division] and I expect they’ll challenge for one of those top four spots [in the East]. They’re not the ‘Baby Bull’ anymore.”
The proof will be in what the Bulls do early on this season.
We’ll be watching closely early on to make sure their chemistry is what it needs to be and that Thibodeau is the coach many of us think he will be.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You didn’t hear a ton of bellyaching out of Chicago when they didn’t land LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh in free agency.
No one in the Windy City was happy about missing out, but no one was crying foul when they lost out.
And the Bulls vigorously pursued all of those guys, and more. But they didn’t do the sky-is-falling routine when they missed out on the summer’s Big 3.
They rebounded with solid acquisitions (Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and an offer sheet to J.J. Redick) to go along with a sturdy cast led by All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, budding star Joakim Noah and solid role players in Taj Gibson and Luol Deng, among others.
Add it all up and first year Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has a team poised to make a significant climb up the Eastern Conference food chain, perhaps even into the top three (though, the impact of the loss of Kirk Hinrich remains a mystery).
Keep in mind that Derrick Rose is not the boastful type.
Now fear for NBA defenses.
“It’s there; I have a consistent 3-point shot now,” Rose said Wednesday night. “You’ll see. I just have so much confidence in my jump shot now. It’s coming along so good. It’s past even my expectations at this point.”
Rose arrived here a week in advance of U.S. national team practices and to support the Bulls’ summer-league team, which blew out the Clippers 79-50 at Cox Pavilion.
He spent the first half sitting next to player development coach Randy Brown on the Bulls’ bench and the second half sitting courtside next to new coach Tom Thibodeau. At one point, old coach — and new Clippers coach — Vinny Del Negro stopped by to say hello to both.
To hear Rose tell it, that should be some rivalry next season.
“I’m happy for him,” Rose said of Del Negro. “And I’m excited about what coach Thibodeau can do. He and I have been talking a lot. A lot.
“We’ve talked offense, defense, what we’re going to do in certain situations. He’s a cool guy. People say he’s not a people person but you sit and talk to him and he’ll talk for two hours. So that’s not accurate.
“He’s a workaholic. I sometimes leave the gym at 3 and come back at 11 at night to shoot and he’s still in the office, going over film. He will come down, watch me work out and tell me things to work on. He’s helping me a lot.”
Rose said he left free agency up to management and would have welcomed any additions. But he called the signings of Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver and possibly J.J. Redick “perfect for our style.”
“We definitely needed players like them,” Rose said. “They’re guys who have won and fill needs for us. I’ve talked to Boozer a lot. And Korver and I played on the U.S. select team. He can really shoot it.
“They’re guys who don’t care about themselves. They’re for the team. That’s what we need.”
The Bulls still have cap space to work with, anywhere from $5 to $12 million, depending on whether or not the Magic match the offer sheet to Redick.
Either way, they are on the right path to competing for one of the top spots in the East.
Raise your hand if you thought they’d pull it off without bagging any of the top three free agents this summer.