BROOKLYN – As P.J. Carlesimo, the Brooklyn Nets’ coach, talked about the Chicago Bulls’ halfcourt defense early in the evening Monday night, his tone gradually morphed from respect to reverence to … something darker. Suddenly, he was Robert Shaw as Quint in “Jaws,” scaring the hell out of Brody and Hooperwith his tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, 1100 men into the water, 316 coming out and those black, lifeless eyes.
Eleven Nets players checked into the game, only a few came out unscathed.
Bulls center Joakim Noah will get more of the headlines in the Windy City for his courageous-slash-reckless performance in helping Chicago even the best-of-seven series 1-1. Noah reached double figures in points (11) and rebounds (10) while going single figures in feet, running and jumping – trying to, anyway – on a nasty case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Plantar fasciitis being Latin, of course, for “hot needles jammed into the sole of one’s foot.”
If Noah played a familiar, vital role as the Bulls’ heart — pumping blood into their bounce-back game for the first victory by a road team in these 2013 playoffs — the Chicago defense handled the predator end of it, draining the lifeblood right out of Brooklyn’s attack.
Forty-eight hours after the Nets hung 89 points on the Bulls through three quarters, they needed all four to reach 82. Two days earlier, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace had combined to score 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting, with Brooklyn hitting nearly 56 percent overall. This time, Williams and Wallace went 2-for-16 and the Nets shot 35 percent.
“Their defense was very good,” Carlesimo said afterward, “But our execution was not as good as it needs to be. … When they made an adjustment or when they increased their defensive pressure, we didn’t handle it or react as well as we needed to. … Their interior defense was better, they contested a lot better and they didn’t let [Williams] turn the corner.”
The dorsal fins showed up in full in the third quarter. With Chicago crowding Nets center Brook Lopez some, staying aggressive on Williams’ attempts at pick-and-rolls and zealously patrolling the defensive glass, Brooklyn scored only 11 points and missed 17 of its 19 shots, including the last 10. What resumed after halftime as a one-point game pushed out to 12 by the end of the third quarter, 69-57. (more…)
NEW YORK – The Chicago Bulls’ “practice court” Sunday was a conference room in a midtown Manhattan luxury hotel. The dimensions and lines of one end of a basketball floor were accurately laid out in advance by some experienced Bulls staffers – it’s not an uncommon option for NBA road teams, particularly when more mental than physical preparation is needed. Still, this was tape on carpeting, so by the time a dozen pairs of sneakers got done shuffling across it for an hour, it looked pretty raggedy.
So, for that matter, do the Bulls.
An anniversary of sorts came and went for the Bulls Saturday: From the day after their disastrous Game 1 in the 2012 playoffs to the day after their dismal Game 1 in the 2013 postseason.
Back then, Chicago and its fans were crestfallen because they knew they’d be without the services of MVP point guard Derrick Rose for the foreseeable future.
Now, exactly 51 weeks later, they still are. Crestfallen and without Rose.
No one expected that.
Oh, sure, they might have roughed out that lousiest-case scenario in their heads and covered their butts in official prognoses. Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf made it clear that he’d rather have Rose sit out till October than risk re-injury via a hasty comeback around or after the All-Star break.
But the “eight to 12 months” recovery period put out to the public by Dr. Brian Cole, the Bulls physician who performed Rose’s knee surgery last May 12, always sounded like a safe bracket of time, one that would get media folks and fans to back away from Rose for a spell while allowing wiggle room for maybe an unforeseen physical setback of some kind.
One never came. Yet there the Bulls were Saturday night in Brooklyn, getting smacked in their series opener against the Nets 106-89. With Rose on the bench in street clothes, looking chipper and reportedly sound of game and sound of body, if not sound of mind about those two things as they relate to his delayed return.
“You hope for the best, you plan for the worst,” coach Tom Thibodeau said Sunday afternoon. “The thing is, we don’t want him out there until he’s completely comfortable. And he’s not comfortable. That’s part of what we expected. As long as he continues to work the way he has, I’m good with it.”
Thibodeau didn’t blink, either, when asked about the hit to Rose’s reputation by those who frame his reluctance to play as a lack of courage or commitment to his team .
“It’s not bothersome because I know all that he’s putting into it and I know who he is,” Thibodeau said. “I know his character. And he’s done amazing things for our organization. He’s doing all he can. That’s all you could ever ask a guy to do. So there’s always gonna be some negativity, but I think the vast majority of it is very positive.”
Teammates say the same things — what else do you expect to say, at least publicly, especially since none is named Stephen Jackson or Metta World Peace? They sound satisfied with Rose’s work ethic in rehab, sincere in their trust of his judgment and freed up by the ol’ “you can’t know until you walk in his shoes” qualifier.
So they all talked Sunday about better readiness against Brooklyn in Game 2, about dialing up their defensive intensity and about the crisper execution it will take to cope with the Nets’ multiple weapons (Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams), while generating enough punch-back of their own.
Carlos Boozer continues to run roughshod over the Nets (22.3 ppg on 55.5 percent shooting). Guard Kirk Hinrich (bruised thigh) is expected to start and so is center Joakim Noah, who right foot wasn’t bothering him as much Sunday as the Bulls might have feared. Noah, who started in spite of plantar fasciitis pain, only logged 13:27 with limited effectiveness (four points, five rebounds, one block) but at least his condition didn’t worsen.
Thibodeau said that, even hobbled, Noah can help. “He’s a plus,” the Bulls coach said. “We feed off what he can do defensively, and offensively he has a very unique skill set because of the way he can pass the ball.”
Then there’s Luol Deng, the Bulls’ two-time All Star forward who is no more banged up than he usually is at this time of year but who struggled through a 3-for-11, six-point performance. Deng took responsibility for a “bad game” and wasn’t grabbing the too-many-injuries and no-Rose lifelines tossed to him and his team by media questioners Sunday.
“The way you’re saying it, we may as well pack our bags,” Deng said at one point. “This has been our team all year. We’ve done well with guys out, guys in, and we’ve been able to deal with that. It’s not time to really bring all that up. It’s us against them. Whatever they’re going through, whatever we’re going through really don’t matter.”
Still, for the second time in a year, the Bulls’ postseason is being defined by who they don’t have. The elephant in their room is the 190-pound point guard sitting on their bench.
. BROOKLYN – The last postseason game played in this borough, the guys from Brooklyn didn’t even score (Johnny Kucks and the New York Yankees shut out the Dodgers 9-0 in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field).
So things already were looking up when Brook Lopez turned teammate Reggie Evans‘ offensive rebound into a layup 62 seconds into Game 1 of the Nets’ best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls Saturday night at Barclays Center.
The thing is, it only got better from there. Everything got better. The Nets’ offense purred under the direction of Deron Williams. The Brooklyn defense clamped down hard on a Bulls team with a reputation for clamping down (“I think we’re better,” Nets forward Gerald Wallace said).
Lopez played so well – 19 of his 21 points by halftime – that it might not have mattered if Chicago center Joakim Noah had had three good feet, never mind two. Brooklyn scored in the second quarter alone (35 points) what it took the Bulls a whole half to post and needed only three quarters to do (89 points) what took the visitors the entire game.
NBA playoff series are all about game-to-game adjustments, holding home court and never, ever getting out front of one’s self in excitement or assumptions. The Nets expect nothing less than a resurgence by Chicago’s players, properly chewed, spit out and told to do better by coach Tom Thibodeau.
Still, if a series opener could count double or at least set a tone for what’s likely to follow, this one would shoot to the front of the pack. This was one of the Nets’ most complete victories of their inaugural season at Barclays and it came precisely at the right time.
“Fresh start. New season. Playoffs are totally different,” said Wallace, who has seen performances by his squad similar to Saturday’s but only for partial credit.
“We’ve been doing that in the regular season against them but we’d give it away in the fourth quarter,” Wallace said, referring to Brooklyn’s 1-3 record against Chicago in the regular season. “We just been really inconsistent at times – we got comfortable during the regular season when we got leads as well as we did tonight. Tonight our focus was for 48 minutes.”
Funny how the urgency takes hold when the wiggle room vanishes. “You’ve just got to know that it’s win or go home,” said Wallace, whose 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks mattered less than the aggressiveness he showed, particularly on defense (his counterpart, Luol Deng, got sideways with just six points on 3-of-11 shooting).
“There’s no, ‘Well, OK, we’ll just chalk this one and come back tomorrow.’ We don’t have 82 games to kind of fix things. Four losses and we’re at home. And all the little nick-nack things and petty things that you had to deal with during the regular season have to be thrown out the window now.”
Swapping East Rutherford, N.J., for their fancy new digs, the Nets brought to their new home an almost entirely new team. That bunch got off to an unrealistically perky start – 11-4 through November for East Coach of the Month Avery Johnson, who was gone before their full reversal in December (5-11) was complete.
The parts didn’t always fit, especially with Williams out of shape, aching in his ankles and generally cranky about it all. Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo steered the Nets to the best winning percentage in franchise history (.648) but there still were hiccups late in the regular season, including a loss to Toronto and a scare against Indiana.
But Williams shed some weight, got specialized treatment on his ankles and came back from a getaway All-Star break in Miami looking like a new player, as in, the old D-Will. Guys around him got healthier and more comfortable playing with him, even as Williams’ bursts and jump shots improved.
The Nets’ attention to detail picked up. They have made it routine to get Lopez active early, because of the good things that usually follow. Just run to the rim, big fella. As forward Reggie Evans said: “I have so much confidence up to the point where I know he’s gonna bring it every night. I won’t worry about him … we’ve already been talking about this moment and stuff. Typical Lope – here early, ready to roll, and he did what he did. You can’t really argue, one of the top two big men in the league by far.”
There was hardly a thing to dislike, as “Brooklyn basketball” played to an identity Saturday rather than just a marketing slogan. Highlights abounded, from vet Jerry Stackhouse singing the anthem to Williams swiping the ball and racing downcourt for a reverse dunk.
Chicago was the team in off-day disarray, with a lot of its fans wondering if Noah’s sore right foot (plantar fasciitis) can heal enough again to allow him on the court. Failing that, some who noticed All-Star guard Derrick Rose on the visitors’ bench might be wondering if Noah’s heart could be transplanted into Rose’s chest. The healthiest guy on Chicago’s roster might be the one who hasn’t played since last April 28.
Still, this one was about Brooklyn, so much so that some were bemoaning the Nets’ failure to chase down the No. 3 seed, considering the second-round showdown it might have set up with the Knicks.
For now, though, one Brooklyn postseason game that went right nearly 57 years after the last one went wrong was cause enough for anticipation.
Williams, touting “ball movement, defensively being attentive and helping each other out,” called it “really unselfish basketball.” And “fun basketball.”
“We’ve had ups and downs all season,” the point guard said. “But I think we always expected to be in the playoffs. and hopefully [we're] clicking at the right time.”
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The playoffs are here. And to get you ready, we’ve got statistical nuggets for each series, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.
Eastern Conference basketball was slower and less efficient than Western Conference hoops. Five of the eight East playoff teams ranked in the bottom eight in pace, while four of the eight ranked in the top seven in defensive efficiency.
Yet, a couple of these series (Knicks-Celtics and Nets-Bulls) can be seen as offense vs. defense.
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank) OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank) DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank) NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank) The league averaged 94.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 103.1 points scored per 100 possessions.
The Knicks scored just 97.6 points per 100 possessions in 70 minutes with Kevin Garnett on the floor this season, and scored 115.8 against the Celtics with KG on the bench. He missed the final two regular season meetings.
CHICAGO – Brash talk for a guy picked last in the first round of his draft in 2011, a relative unknown by two names – Jimmy Butler – in a league where the big dogs need only one. Like, for instance, Carmelo.
So when Butler talked after the Chicago Bulls’ shootaround Thursday about the mind games he hoped to play with the great New York Knicks scorer Carmelo Anthony, it seemed like tugging on Superman’s cape or spitting into the wind.
Turns out, ‘Melo was the one who shouldn’t have messed around with Jim.
“Yeah, I think it was all right,” said Butler, the Bulls’ small forward drawing so many of the dirty defensive assignments these days. “Just challenging him, man. I’ve got that much respect for the guy.”
Butler respected the heck out of Anthony earlier in the day too, about 10 hours before Chicago’s overtime, streak-busting victory, but that didn’t stop him from sharing some of his game plan after shootaround. Stuff like crowding Anthony, making him uncomfortable physically, the usual pestering and hassling. But Butler talked as well about his ambition to get the Knicks star off his game mentally.
“There are ways you can get into him,” Butler said, “try to get into his head a little bit and just try to make everything as difficult as possible.”
OK, so how’d that work out for Butler? Anthony – on one of the most torrid scoring and shooting paces in NBA history – wound up taking 34 shots for his 36 points. He came in hitting 61.1 percent of his attempts over the previous five games (and 58.6 percent on 3-pointers), but walked off a loser for the first time since March 17, lugging a 38 percent performance overall, an 0-for-4 collar from the arc and a defunct 13-game winning streak.
“Every time we see Chicago, they try to beat us up. Especially seeing us shorthanded,” Anthony said, overlooking the Bulls’ many injuries too.
Anthony put up 10 shots in the game’s first nine minutes and had 12 by the end of the first quarter. He was getting the full attention not only of Butler but of Luol Deng in their tag-team shifts on him and as the Knicks’ early 23-6 lead fizzled down into single digits.
On one play, Anthony picked up a loose ball foul when he put a forearm into Butler’s back. Then, after a whistle in traffic in the lane, he came out yapping and picked up a technical from ref Joey Crawford.
Butler had plenty of help against the obvious focal point for any Knicks opponent. One time, as Anthony bulled back against Deng near the rim, Chicago’s Richard Hamilton snuck around him on the baseline and stripped the ball. In general, the Bulls made life miserable for him, as they did for New York in sweeping the four-game season series.
“They can have it [the sweep],” said Anthony, who still had a chance to settle things in regulation but his 21-footer at the buzzer bounced off. “They can have the regular season wins. … We’re not worried about them right now at this point.”
Nate Robinson was the drama king for Chicago, scoring 35 points (18 in the fourth quarter and overtime) and out-3-balling the 3-ball specialists. But Butler did so much of the grittier stuff, from shadowing Anthony to chasing J.R. Smith, from stealing and slamming consecutive New York turnovers in a pivotal third-quarter turnaround to hightailing downcourt defensively after Raymond Felton to thwart a Knicks break-out opportunity in the fourth.
The kid from Tomball, Texas, by way of Marquette, was the No. 30 pick in 2011, sandwiched between Cory Joseph and Bogan Bogdanovic. He mostly sat for Chicago as a rookie but with Ronnie Brewer gone, Butler’s rapid development has looked like elapsed-time cinematography.
“Every time he’s been called upon, he’s played huge,” Kirk Hinrich said. You can just see his comfort level is much higher and his confidence is much higher. He’s really grown up before our eyes.”
But had 14 rebounds against New York, his latest career high, while scoring 22 points. When the Bulls snapped Miami’s 27-game streak on March 27, Butler had 17 points, five assists and five boards while guarding Dwyane Wade. He scored 28 points on 10-of-12 shooting and logged 48 minutes against Toronto Tuesday, and Chicago now is 4-0 in his double-double games.
“I loved Jimmy’s demeanor,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “Jimmy will keep coming, he doesn’t get discouraged. he has proved each and every day that he has gotten better and better.”
CHICAGO – If there is one coach in the NBA who looks like he might enjoy hitting himself in the head because it feels so darn good when you stop, it is Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau. That essentially is what this season has been like for him and the Bulls, and rather than simply enduring it, Thibodeau seems to have embraced it.
“You’re always trying to learn. You never want to stay the same,” Thibodeau said the other night, reflecting on the curve he’s traveled since taking over the Bulls in June 2010. “Y’know, I like going through things that are challenging. This season is certainly challenging.”
Uh, yeah. Chicago has been without the services of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose all season — and about six weeks longer already than it reasonably expected, based on Rose’s projected recovery time from left knee surgery last May. Veteran shooting guard Richard Hamilton has been equal parts “Rip” and R.I.P., missing nearly half the team’s games for the second straight year.
Lately, the All-Star tandem of center Joakim Noah and all-purpose forward Luol Deng have fallen to injury flare-ups. Yet Chicago has been comfortably over .500 since late December, clinched a fifth consecutive postseason berth, and still has a shot with one week left at gaining homecourt in the first round. There are those who think Thibodeau has done his best work yet.
That’s no small achievement, whether true or just kinda close. In 2010-11, after years of waiting for the opportunity, Thibodeau took over a .500 team and — adding Carlos Boozer and a newly upholstered bench — tied the NBA record for most victories (62) by a rookie head coach. He (and Rose) got Chicago to the conference finals for the first time since Michael Jordan roamed United Center.
Last season, despite the short post-lockout prep time and an increase in injuries, the Bulls got a little better at 50-16 (.758 vs. 756 in 2010-11). Their offensive/defensive ratings were 107.4/98.3 compared to 108.3/100.3 the year before. The Bulls allowed the fewest points per game (88.2) by any team in eight years, while leading the league in scoring margin and rebounds. Thibodeau reached 100 victories faster than any other coach in league history and ran the Bulls’ streak without suffering consecutive losses to 86 games (Feb. 2011 to April 2012) .
Then Rose went down near the end of the playoff opener against Philadelphia. Noah followed days later with a badly sprained his ankle and the Bulls’ clipped postseason and plans for much of 2012-13 circled the drain.
Sure enough, this season Chicago has dropped two in a row nine times. Only once, though, has that turned into a three-game skid. Its offensive rating is down (103.3, 23rd in the NBA), its defensive rating is up (103.0, sixth), so based on stats alone it ought to be about a .500 team. Yet the Bulls began Thursday — with the New York Knicks in town (8 p.m. ET, TNT) — in fifth place in the East, percentage points in front of Atlanta, long shots to chase down Brooklyn.
“Each year is different, you learn things,” said the taciturm Thibodeau, not generally given to public self-evaluation. “You’re presented with different challenges. It’s how you respond to those challenges that’s important. Our team has repsonsed well overall.” (more…)
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – In Chicago, they’re getting mighty used to seeing No. 21 on the floor. That’s because Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau rarely takes second-year swingman Jimmy Butler out anymore.
The youngster from Marquette is racking up the minutes and stands to be an integral part of any postseason success the Bulls (42-34, fifth in the East) might have — with or without Derrick Rose.
“I love his demeanor,” Thibodeau said. “I love the fact that you don’t have to wind him up. He has great energy every day.”
It’s been crucial on a club that’s dealt with its share of injury woes from Rose missing the entire season to Rip Hamilton possibly being done for the season to Joakim Noah‘s and Marco Belinelli‘s eight-game absence that ended with both players back in the lineup Sunday at Detroit.
Belinelli’s abdominal injury opened a starting spot for the 6-foot-7 Butler and he remained there in Sunday’s disappointing 92-90 loss to the Pistons. Even with Belinelli back and playing 20 minutes, Butler, in just his 14th start of the season and eighth in a row, went for 45 minutes. Some of that heavy load was caused by a hip injury to Luol Deng that sidelined the NBA’s minutes leader (39.2 mpg) for Sunday’s game and likely more.
Still, 40-plus minutes are becoming routine for Butler, an excellent rebounder and solid defender who is aggressively building his offensive game. In seven of his last eight games, he’s logged 42-45 minutes. In the one game he didn’t, he logged 39 minutes. During that stretch, he’s practically doubled his season average of 24.8 mpg, a number that’s obviously risen of late.
There have been bumps in the road, but Thibodeau has praised Butler’s progress from a rough rookie season that didn’t include a full training camp or many practice days due to the lockout and truncated schedule. He played in 42 games last season, averaging 2.6 ppg. He attempted just 11 3-pointers all season, making two.
Now he’s putting up 8.1 ppg while shooting 46.0 percent from the floor. He’s lifted his 3-point shooting to 33.7 percent. In the last eight games as a starter, he’s produced 14.0 ppg, has gone 10-for-23 from beyond the arc (43.5 percent) and 37-for-85 overall (43.5 percent). He produced similar numbers earlier in the season when he replaced an injured Deng in the starting lineup for four games.
“As long as he continues to work, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t, he’s going to continue to get better and better,” Thibodeau said. “He showed a great commitment last summer and just the way he works every day. I think those types of guys always get better.” (more…)
CHICAGO – This is the way a 27-game winning streak ends: With a lot of bangs and a few whimpers.
Undermanned almost beyond credulity, the Chicago Bulls stiffened defensively, tried to whack twice for every one they absorbed and toughed their way to a 101-97 upset over the Miami Heat that snapped the NBA’s second-longest streak of consecutive victories. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 33 in a row rests easy, which is more than can be said about Heat star LeBron James, who ended his night both battered and a little cranky.
The Bulls met arguably the NBA’s most imposing and unstoppable physical force with force of their own. Point guard Kirk Hinrich managed to grab the cow catcher, crash to the floor and live to tell about it when James barreled straight at him in the first quarter. In the fourth, Taj Gibson put James on the floor with a two-handed swipe as the Miami forward drove to the hoop. Initially and incorrectly ruled a flagrant foul, the refs got it right upon review but James didn’t appreciate going down, his legs twisted like a pretzel.
Moments later, James drove one of his massive shoulders into a screen set by Chicago’s Carlos Boozer. That one was a flagrant foul, a spill of frustration not so much that the streak was about to end – it was 90-82 with 3:52 left – but that he was getting abused in the process.
“I believe, and I know, that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays,” James told reporters afterward. “First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. … And you know, the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground.
“Those are not basketball plays. It’s been happening all year and I’ve been able to keep my cool. But it is getting to me a little bit.”
First things first: No one can blame James for disliking the thumping. But what Chicago did apparently was within the bounds of Doc Naismith‘s game – OK, maybe Doc Lecter‘s – because none of the Bulls got tossed or ejected. Not that their depleted roster could afford any ousters.
“He probably got a little frustrated,” Gibson said. “But you got to keep playing. These are two physical teams. The refs did a great job, because they let a lot of stuff go.”
Besides, what were the Bulls supposed to do? The NBA’s hottest team in, sheesh, 41 years was bearing down on them. And they were light in the loafers – no Derrick Rose, no Joakim Noah, no Richard Hamilton, no Marco Belinelli. Absent those players and their skills, Chicago’s only real alternative was to dial up the grit.
“Obviously having those guys out is not easy,” said Hinrich, who stuck in his nose and jaw wherever he could, from attacking James off the dribble with some – ugh! – inevitable results to ripping the ball away from Chris Bosh for a critical takeaway at 92-85. “But we realize, collectively, if we share the ball, team defense, have good energy and intensity and play with that edge, we’re going to have a chance to win some games. … We just grinded.”
That play where he grabbed James and all but tackled him? “I was just hanging on for dear life. Just didn’t want him to get the ‘and 1,’ ” Hinrich said. “You just don’t realize how powerful that guy is. With his speed and strength you can’t take anything for granted. I still feel I got the worst of it.”
Hinrich, at times in the second half, found himself guarded by James, the bigger man’s extra six inches and 70 pounds or so eclipsing his view of the basket. So what did Hinrich do? He drove left and got snuffed. He drove right and got snuffed. Then with just over two minutes left, Hinrich went up the gut again – and kicked the ball to Gibson on the left baseline for a 16-footer that made it 94-85.
“Kirk is one of the toughest guys I know,” Gibson said. “He has so much swag every day in practice. He’s a real vet. He doesn’t shy away from anything. He’s always in the middle, especially on big men – he switches out with centers. He really doesn’t care.”
Miami, throughout its remarkable streak, had played numerous teams that were missing key players: Orlando (no Nikola Vucevic), Cleveland (no Kyrie Irving or Anderson Varejao), Milwaukee (no Luc Mbah a Moute to guard James), Boston (no Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett). The point of which isn’t to sully the Heat’s accomplishment but to marvel at how hard and well these various depleted rotations play when their coaches’ options are limited, their minutes are high, everyone’s expectations are muted and the opponent is toting around a huge bull’s-eye.
The Bulls claimed streak-busting had little or nothing to do with Wednesday’s outcome. They were driven more by the 86-67 hairball they spit up against Miami at United Center on Feb. 21, back when the streak was just nine games old.
Said Gibson: “We didn’t like that. We felt like we got punked on our own court. They blew us out.”
If the players that end such a streak get credit. so does the fellow who coaches those players. From the outside, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks to have painted another masterpiece of X & Overachievement. But while Hinrich acknowleged, “Yeah, he was fired up,” other Chicago players saw or heard nothing different from their guy on the sideline.
“Honestly, the dude is the same every game,” said forward Luol Deng, who scored 28 points and made the most of those reprieves when James shifted over to Hinrich. “No matter who you’re playing. I didn’t see any difference. He’s intense. He’s always focused.”
It was that way for both teams Wednesday, but the only way out for the Bulls.
“We just came in with that dog mentality that we weren’t going to go soft,” Gibson said. “We really had it in the back of our head. Once the game came, we knew we had to do it. There was no talking. Guys just understood, to go out there and play hard. Take hard fouls when you need to.
“Every time we play that team, we try to send a message. They sent the message the last game we played them. So we had to keep pushing. Every time to play this team, it’s like a new testament.” a
CHICAGO – Derrick Rose wants to do what’s best for Derrick Rose. He has been clear about that from the start of his long, painstaking rehab from knee surgery last spring, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Chicago Bulls are going to do what’s best for Derrick Rose. That has been their default position whenever the topic has come up, which only has been every day, repeatedly, for the past 10 months.
Fans of the team should want all parties involved to do what’s best for Derrick Rose. They have been bystanders, cheerleaders and skeptics through this process, investing both money and emotions into the lengthy wait, constantly weighing the short-term against the long-term and mostly coming up stumped.
So let’s make it easy for them here and now:
The Bulls should shut down Derrick Rose till October.
Enough already. The networks and affiliates have more footage of Rose working out and shooting jump shots before Bulls games, locked in eternal preparation, than they ever will be able to use. Fans who arrive early see him out on the United Center court looking so much like the guy they remember, save for the practice gear, and then – poof! – he’s gone. They and everyone else spend much of each evening there bandying about his fate, and then some of them call talk shows or post comments on Web sites and vent as if Rose has changed his name to LeBron or something.
Where Rose’s brother Reggie once laid blame on Bulls general manager Gar Forman and VP of basketball operations John Paxson for somehow contributing to this limbo with their roster management, the player himself recently thrust the timeline of his return into the hands of his deity, whose “honey-do” list already was a little long.
Sorry, but this decision – should he or shouldn’t he? – has to stay between Rose, his doctors, his coaches and the team, erring always on the side of caution.
They’re there now. Shut him down.
The Bulls have only 14 games left on their regular-season schedule. One comes tonight in Minnesota, the tail end of a back-to-back. The next comes Wednesday against the barreling locomotive that is the Miami Heat. After that, it’s down to a dozen, a small window – more of a transom, actually – for Rose to work his way into NBA game shape and pace, for his teammates to adapt, for head coach Tom Thibodeau to fight his orneriest instincts and manage Rose’s minutes for the player’s benefit rather than the team’s.
Three weeks from next weekend, the playoffs begin. Chicago is mired in that pack of five East wannabes-to-also-rans (some would say seven) who are neither good enough to seriously challenge Miami nor, with No. 9 Philadelphia sputtering at 16 games under .500, bad enough to fall out of the seedings. The Bulls look like a one-and-done team without Rose; with him, still rusty and maybe on a slightly longer minutes leash, they could push it to the second round.
That is not worth it. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and the Bulls’ other owners don’t need and shouldn’t want two or three extra home gates that badly. Fans in Chicago, who have deferred their gratification this long, surely can wait a little longer – they’re good in this town at the wait-till-next-year mantra. And Rose, when he does come back, needs to be on the floor as a recovering knee-surgery patient in the final stage of his rehab, not as a savior or a leading scorer or as the hero of a slick campaign of sneaker commercials.
Look, it was one thing when doctors’ pegged Rose’s return, on a purely physical timeline, at late February or early March. That left 20 or more games to adjust, assimilate, navigate some lows along with some highs.
It was different, too, when the Bulls were a team in waiting, all pieces in place, ready for Rose’s return to chase the same prize they’d have been eyeing had he never gotten hurt at all. But that team doesn’t exist anymore. Several of his teammates are broken down physically, most recently center Joakim Noah missing this weekend with a flare-up of some persistent plantar fasciitis. Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton have been eternally banged-up. Rose himself, like others who undergo ACL procedures, always figured to need a full year or more to regain all or most of his powers.
Meanwhile, some of those not hurting physically beyond the NBA norm for March have been wrung out by the heavier load they’ve lugged in Rose’s absence. And frankly, by the moving goal posts of his return. Luol Deng wouldn’t be making any All-Star teams off his low-ebb performances this month.
Bottom line: The team he would come back to isn’t worthy of what Rose would be expected, or would try himself, to do if he returned this late. Does anyone want to see the Heat’s Dobermans set loose on Rose in his uncertain state for anywhere from four to seven games? Even a feisty George Hill, a rejuvenated Deron Williams or a tenacious Avery Bradley might be too much in a playoff situation and put Rose in harm’s way.
Compared to that, the opportunity to work his way back through eight meaningless games in October when his teammates are fresh and everyone is coming off a layoff of his own (three months if not 15) holds great appeal and all the common sense.
A season without the Chicago Bulls’ electric point guard has put some hard minutes on players like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, and made it even harder for the Bulls to score. Ranking 29th in the league in scoring at 92.7 ppg, the hardest-working team in the NBA might be on the verge of total burnout — if they’re not there already.
After a 5-8 February, Chicago is 3-6 in March, 36-31 overall after Thursday’s 99-89 home loss to Portland and tied for sixth place in the East with the Boston Celtics. Further slippage and the Bulls, just two games up on the Milwaukee Bucks in the dreaded eight-hole, could be faced with a first-round meeting against the Miami Heat.
“We got smacked,” Noah told the Chicago Tribune in assessing the loss to the Blazers, the West’s 10th-place team. “It’s really disappointing. We’re not playing great right now. It’s the final stretch and we’re not getting it done. We have to find a way.”
If the Bulls aren’t capable of scoring, they have to be able to bring their suffocating defense and that has not been the case. Portland shot 10-for-21 from the 3-point line and its 99 points is right at the average (99.4) the Bulls are allowing in March, six points more than their season average.
Road losses to playoff teams like Indiana, San Antonio and the Lakers can be reasoned away, as well as this week’s controversial home loss to Denver. But a 42-point undressing at Sacramento? And the loss to the sub-.500 Blazers, with just two road wins since Feb. 4?
How else to explain it than a team running on fumes?
Portland is the only team in the league with three players among the top 10 in minutes played. Chicago is the only other team with more than one player in the top 10. Deng logs more minutes per game (38.9) than anyone in the league. Noah ranks 12th.
Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson made welcomed returns Thursday night, although it failed to help the bottom line.
A savior might be the Bulls’ last hope to re-energize for the stretch run and the playoffs. His name is Rose. And only, well, you know who knows when, and if, he’ll play this season.
With 15 games left beginning with Saturday’s home game against Indiana, the Bulls are hoping to get a sign from above very, very soon.