Posts Tagged ‘Taj Gibson’

Emotions Well Up On Road-Weary Bulls


VIDEO: Bulls lose big to Kings in Sacramento

Some percentage of sports is acknowledged to be mental (or emotional or psychological or whatever words you choose to distinguish the thinking-and-feeling stuff from the physical). Fifty percent, some coaches will tell you. More than that – 75 percent – others may contend. Or as Yogi Berra allegedly liked to say, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.”

The Chicago Bulls, at the moment, are all mental.

Before, during and after their 99-70 loss to the Sacramento Kings Monday night, the Bulls in fact were a hot mess. The most obvious and video-worthy of them was center Joakim Noah, who momentarily lost his mind after being banished in the third quarter with his second technical foul. Noah erupted, going into his own Al Pacino-esque, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order!” movie-courtroom rant, only he directed his wrath and his pointing at three referees rather one judge.

But the Bulls’ center, typically a ball of emotions in the calmest of times, has had plenty of company lately. Forward Carlos Boozer is irritated with his benchings in fourth quarters (he has played only 128 of his 1,314 minutes, less than 10 percent, after the third quarter). Coach Tom Thibodeau is frustrated that Boozer hasn’t absorbed the reasons for those benchings – primarily, backup Taj Gibson is a more stalwart defender, even as he improves offensively – and general manager Gar Forman is disappointed that Boozer shared his irritation with reporters before the team’s shootaround Monday morning at Sleep Train Arena.

Gibson, meanwhile, probably is confused by a wild-hair trade rumor that A) makes no sense for the Bulls, B) seems built off the flimsiest of dots-connecting, and C) makes no sense for the Bulls. Wing Jimmy Butler is flummoxed, or ought to be, by his miserable shooting – 36.8 percent and 27.6 from the arc, after 46.7 and 38.1 in 2012-13.

Reserve Mike Dunleavy should be feeling a little cranky about now, since – to use team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf‘s adjective – this “mediocre” trudge through the schedule wasn’t what Dunleavy imagined when he signed last summer, nor was the trade speculation hovering over him for the next couple of weeks.

And naturally, the whole lot of them sure are forlorn over the loss of point guard Derrick Rose to a second season-ending knee surgery and the subsequent trade of forward Luol Deng as a bag-it move to avoid luxury tax. Deng is heading toward free agency and was unlikely to re-sign at Chicago’s price, so why go into the onerous tax and lock in repeater status for, y’know, a mediocre season?

All of which illustrates that the NBA challenges players’ minds as much as, maybe even more than, their bodies. Mental toughness is a must for teams that want to not just survive but achieve, and really accomplish big things.

The same Bulls team that reeled in the immediate wake of Rose’s injury, losing 12 of 15 in a month’s span, had righted itself through some very physical tactics: Defense and effort. The Deng trade on Jan. 7 sent Noah into a funk, yet he appeared to channel his emotions then into rousing individual performances, stringing together double-doubles and growing his point-center role in the offense.

Now, however, Chicago is halfway through a six-game, 13-day “Ice Show” trip that forces the team out of United Center each year at about this time. A 2014 that began with nine victories in 11 games, bumping them above .500 at 21-20, has turned into a 3-4 slip since. They’re on the road through Sunday, they missed 56 of 78 shots against the Kings’ defense – the Kings’ – and their offense is off the rails (less than 90 points in four of the past five games).

The whole we’ve-seen-this-movie-before storyline, with Rose declared out till October, is wearing on everybody – players, coaches, management, fans – and the Bulls are stuck between their usual plucky selves and the upside-down allure of stumbling their way into the lottery for a deep draft.

Until the Bulls wrap their heads around what’s left of this season, and what it is they really want to be or achieve, there’s nothing physical (other than reliable health of the players who remain) that will help. This is mental.

“The one thing about this league – things can change quickly on you,” Thibodeu told reporters in Sacramento. “And they have. So it went from good to bad very quickly. And just as quickly as it has gone from good to bad it can go from bad to good again. We gotta change. We gotta have more urgency. We gotta work our way out of this.”

Actually, they need to think their way through it.

“We can’t get mired in personal dilemmas,” Thibodeau also said. “You got to get into the team. Get into the circle. That’s what we need to do.”

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Conley goes down in Grizzlies win | Pacers to sign Bynum | Bulls getting calls about Gibson | Irving taking responsibility?

No. 1: Conley goes down in Grizzlies win — The Memphis Grizzlies have won 10 of their last 11 games and have the league’s best defense since Marc Gasol’s return. But they lost starting point guard Mike Conley to a sprained ankle in Friday’s win in Minnesota. They should be OK without him against the Bucks on Saturday, but they visit Oklahoma City on Monday and have a huge game against eighth-place Dallas on Wednesday. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has the story from Minneapolis:

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley sat in the trainer’s room rather than at a station alongside his teammates in the visitor’s locker room.

He wore a walking boot Friday night after the Grizzlies’ 94-90 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Target Center. Conley, who also had crutches near his side, hobbled home after the Griz polished off a sweep of their three-game road trip that included wins at Sacramento and Portland.

However, a trek that got Memphis to within a half-game of Dallas for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff standings hardly ended on a happy note.

Conley didn’t look or sound as if playing Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks in FedExForum would be an option. He might need several games off given the severity of his sprained ankle.

“I turned it pretty good,” Conley said. “It’s tough for me to put weight on it now. (Saturday) is looking real iffy. We still have a lot of games ahead of us. We obviously want to finish out these last several games before the all-star break with some momentum. We’ll see how long this will take.”

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No. 2: Pacers to sign Bynum — It’s been over three weeks since the Chicago Bulls waived Andrew Bynum. And it looks like he finally has a new home. ESPN‘s Brian Windhorst tweeted Friday night that the Indiana Pacers plan on signing Bynum, though a deal is not yet in place. The Indianapolis Star‘s Candace Buckner first reported that Bynum and his agent were in town to talk to the Pacers:

Free agent center Andrew Bynum and his agent are in Indianapolis.

Bynum has been a free agent since being released by the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 7 after a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to earlier reports, the Indiana Pacers were one of several teams to reach out to Bynum.

Bynum’s agent David Lee told The Indianapolis Star that he and Bynum were in town. According to Lee, Bynum and the Pacers have not reached a contractual agreement.

“(Bynum) has not signed as yet,” Lee said on Friday night.

Bynum, the 7-foot mercurial center, played in only 24 games this season, averaging 8.4 points on 41.9 percent shooting for the Cavaliers. Bynum missed all of the 2012-13 season with knee problems and last March underwent surgery on both knees. Besides his health, Bynum’s commitment has also been called into question.

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No. 3: Bulls getting calls about Gibson — The trade deadline is less than three weeks away and chatter is starting to pick up. The Chicago Bulls already made a major move (sending Luol Deng to Cleveland), but would need to make another one if their ultimate goal is to add another star (like Carmelo Anthony) this summer. Shedding Taj Gibson‘s salary (and waiving Carlos Boozer via the amnesty clause in July) would give them the cap space for a max free agent. And other teams would certainly be interested in Gibson’s services. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Bulls have received calls about Gibson and what they do with him will be a clear sign of the direction they’re looking to go:

And while Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy have been churning in the trade rumor mill for more than a month, Taj Gibson’s name is the one that is picking up, and could determine how serious the Bulls are in clearing space for a max contract to land the likes of a Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James.

According to a source, the Lakers, Wizards and Bobcats have each inquired about Gibson, but they were preliminary talks in which the Bulls did not like the return.

If they do move Gibson, however, it will definitely signify how determined the Bulls are to give Derrick Rose a second superstar to play along with.

With Carlos Boozer and his 2014-15 $16.8 million contract likely amnestied this summer, moving Gibson is all but a necessity if the Bulls want to stay under the luxury tax and add a max deal. Gibson will make $8 million next season, $8.5 in the 2015-16 season, and $8.95 in his final year of the deal.

While Anthony told the Sun-Times this week that he hasn’t put any thought into joining the Bulls, there are basketball executives who think differently, as ESPN reported on Thursday.

But to land Anthony or James, it will cost the Bulls Gibson, and is a growing possibility in the next three weeks.

***

No. 4: Irving taking responsibility? — There’s been talk this week about Kyrie Irving being unhappy in Cleveland, with coach Mike Brown and with the roster the Cavs have built around the 2011 No. 1 pick. But of course, Irving’s unwillingness to play defense and lack of leadership are two of the reasons the Cavs are 16-30 right now. So it was good to hear him seemingly accept some responsibility for his team’s struggles on Friday, as Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal writes:

Kyrie Irving conceded this season has been more difficult than he imagined, he’s upset so much attention has been placed on his contract and he admitted he doesn’t always have all the answers to what is plaguing the Cavaliers this season.

“I needed this. It was more or less a wake-up call,” Irving told the Beacon Journal following practice Friday. “I got away with so much my first two years. It wasn’t a breeze, but everything came easy. This is the first year where every single night it’s going to be a challenge. That’s one of the things I’m getting used to and I’ve accepted.”

Irving came under fire throughout the week, particularly after a Beacon Journal story last Sunday questioning the progress he’s made this season, followed by an ESPN report Thursday that Irving wants out of Cleveland.

“Everybody has all these rumors and stories they’re coming out with and it’s all based on me,” Irving said. “It’s not really about me. It’s about the team and what we’re going through as a team together. Obviously, some things will be put on me and I take responsibility for that, but all that extra stuff that comes with it. … It’s the business. I understand that. But that’s one of the things I wish I could change. It’s definitely not about me, it’s about my teammates and what we can accomplish.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Nate Robinson had ACL surgery on Friday, which means that the Nuggets need to figure out what they’re doing with Andre MillerKyle Korver has declined the NBA’s invitation to the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest … Wesley Matthews would go, thoughRajon Rondo likes the idea of being a free agentKemba Walker suffered a setback in his return from a sprained ankle … and Lance Stephenson says he’s “mad” about not being selected as an All-Star.

ICYMI of The Night: Terrence Ross looks ready to defend his dunk title:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Terrence Ross takes flight and posterizes Kenneth Faried.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 23


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

CP3 hoping to return for All-Star Game | Bulls get better of Deng, Cavs | Knicks hit new low in loss | OKC’s Jackson feasts on Spurs | Celts’ Bradley out ‘a couple of weeks’

No. 1: CP3 hoping to return for All-Star Game — L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul is a perennial All-Star now, but as a member of the (then-)New Orleans Hornets in 2008, he made his debut at the league’s showcase event. That the game was held in New Orleans that season was icing on the cake for Paul and is a memory that has stuck with him throughout the years. Paul, who is nursing a shoulder injury he suffered on Jan. 3, said he hopes to be able to play in this season’s All-Star Game (which, coincidentally is in New Orleans again), writes Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, who has been sidelined since Jan. 3 with a separated right shoulder, said he hopes to be back on the court in time for the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 16 and would like to play in the game.

“If I can play, I’m going to play, I love to play that much,” Paul said Wednesday. “The All-Star Game is in New Orleans and that’s part of me. That’s where I played my very first All-Star Game at. Anytime you have that opportunity, I’m not going to pass that up because it’s not guaranteed to happen next year.”

Paul had been the leading vote-getter to start at point guard for the Western Conference before his injury, but has since been passed by Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who is expected to be named the starter.

When Paul was injured, the initial timeline for his return was six weeks, which would put his return around Feb. 14, which could mean Paul’s first game back may be the All-Star Game.

“I think the goal is to make sure I get healthy,” Paul said. “Everybody knows how eager I am to get back and play and stuff like that, but at the end of the day you have to look at the big picture. When I’m ready, you’ll know.”

Paul said he’s making progress in his rehabilitation. He stayed in Los Angeles during the first half of the Clippers’ two-week, seven-game road trip but joined the team in Charlotte before Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Bobcats.

“I feel better,” Paul said. “I’m still trying to get the range of motion where I want it at. Right now, the only good thing about this thing is nothing happened to my legs so I’ve been able to do conditioning.”

Paul said his right shoulder is “still in the healing process,” but was happy to be back with the team after watching them on television for the past three games.


VIDEO:
Chris Paul hopes to be back by the All-Star Game

***

No. 2: Bulls, Gibson get better of Deng, Cavs in reunion game — Just 16 days ago, the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers completed a swap that sent forward Luol Deng to Ohio for some future Draft picks and such. Both teams have done pretty well since making the trade, with Chicago going 7-2 since Jan. 7 and the Cavs posting a 4-4 record during the same span. Last night, Cleveland hosted Chicago in what was Deng’s first appearance against his old squad and, despite some early talk from Deng, it was all Bulls all night long, writes Sam Smith of Bulls.com:

They’d been asked for days, “What’s it going to be like?” “How would it feel?” “What would you say?”

So when Taj Gibson Wednesday in the Bulls anxiously awaited first game against former teammate Luol Deng got a defensive switch onto Deng, Gibson was ready.

“ ‘Lu, I know every move you want to do,’” Gibson chided the new Cavs small forward. “’I know you want to pump fake and make me jump in the air. I know all your moves.’

“ ‘All right,” came Deng the next time down court after Gibson forced Deng into a turnover. “’I’m going to turn it up. I’m about to play even harder.’

“Wow, Lu,” Gibson said he thought to himself.

But there would be no “wow” moments for Deng nor the Cavaliers as Deng had a quiet 11 points while Gibson with 26 points and D.J. Augustin with 27 points both matched career highs and the Bulls pulled away from a three-point game in the last three minutes to defeat the Cavaliers 98-87.

“It’s different than anything we imagined at the start of the season,” said Mike Dunleavy, who with Augustin made big threes down the stretch—four between them—as the pair combined for 18 of the Bulls 27 fourth quarter points. “But not a bad thing. This team has a lot of resilience and is playing well now. It’s all about the journey. It’s been a rocky one and it’s only half way. But we’re headed in the right direction. Which is most important.”

“One of things I respect about our team is they respond to every challenge,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “They have a lot of heart. They play smart and play hard and play together. Each day they have the right approach, not looking ahead or behind but concentrating on what they have to do to win. We’re shorthanded. We understand how hard we have to play to give ourselves a chance to win. Someone is out, the next guy gets in there and does the job and what is necessary to win. So we don’t have to change plays or anything. Just go in and get the job done.”

It was a frustrating night for Deng in many respects. He was barely part of the offense, shooting two of 11 and rarely involved. He was the kid who had to go onto the other side in the schoolyard to fill out a team and play against all his buddies. With the kids who already had a team. Deng and the players had talked about it for days, and Deng went over before the game to hug Thibodeau and some of the players and coaches. Afterward, it was like a greeting line and Deng rushing to catch the Bulls bus before it left the arena for one last farewell. No, he didn’t get to go this time. Nor fare as well.

“Obviously I’ve never been traded,” said Deng. “It was weird. I said I wasn’t going to be emotional, but when I went over to hug Thibs, when I went over to the bench, that’s when it hit me a little bit. But when the ball went up, seriously, I knew what they were running the whole time. I knew what they were trying to do on defense. They just played great D.”

He expected that, however.

“I tried to really play the game within myself,” said Deng, who did look disengaged at times as it’s clear Cavs coach Mike Brown has no idea how to use him as yet. “I missed shots. I’m not happy with my performance. That’s a good defensive team. We’ve just got to keep growing. We’ve got a lot of stuff to work on as a team. I really believe that we can get there. We’ve just got to lock in. In terms of me, I could have played better. It would have hurt less if we got the win. Even if I shot the way I shot or played the way I played.

“As much as my ex-team was hyped up, we’ve got to understand that there’s a next game coming in two days,” said Deng, whose trying to be the Cavs Thibodeau. “What was this, my sixth game? Seventh game? Guys gotta get used to me. I’ve got to get used to some of the guys. When you play a great defensive team like that, they’re going to take away the easy point. They’re going to make you go into you second and third option. I thought tonight we settled for the first option.”


VIDEO: Taj Gibson talks about the Bulls’ victory with NBA TV’s crew

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No. 3: Knicks may have hit rock bottom — Just when the New York Knicks likely thought things couldn’t get much worse, they likely have. Last night, the Philadelphia 76ers — one of the league’s worst teams — came into Madison Square Garden and delivered a 110-106 loss to the Knicks to send them to their third straight home loss and fifth loss in a row overall. What made this loss worse than perhaps any other, though, was reports of Carmelo Anthony reportedly cursing out a fan mid-game and the team being booed off the court in the game’s final minute. Marc Berman of the New York Post has more:

In the final minutes of another disastrous Knicks loss, a fan shouted at Carmelo Anthony “Nice defense, Melo.” According to an eyewitness, Anthony shot back “Go f— yourself,” drawing a reaction from other fans in the area.

After the game, a fan on Twitter wrote “Carmelo told me to F off. Huge Philly fan and I got in his head.’’

Yes, the Knicks have hit rock bottom. Beleaguered coach Mike Woodson defended his defensive schemes before the game and then the Knicks continued to prove they can’t master them in a horrendous 110-106 loss at the Garden to the rebuilding Sixers.

The Knicks dropped their fifth straight Wednesday as the Sixers racked up 61 points in the first half and held off a Knicks’ charge in the fourth quarter when they took a six-point lead and blew it.

“Right now we are so tight,’’ Woodson said. “I thought we played great offensively, but defensively we weren’t there. We gave up 110 points and that’s too much.’’

Asked about Woodson’s future, Anthony, who did not address any of the late-game heckling, remained ambivalent.

“As far as that, I haven’t heard anything,” he said. “I don’t listen to any of that stuff. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen and it’s out of my hands.’’

Guard Evan Turner tore up the Knicks defense for 34 points as four of the Sixers’ starters scored at least 18. Meanwhile, Anthony looked disinterested for much of the night. He finished with an inflated 28 points, thanks to two late 3-pointers in the final seconds with the game out of reach.


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ disappointing effort vs. Philly

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No. 4: Jackson continues to torment SpursOklahoma City point guard Reggie Jackson has gotten some well-deserved praise for his efforts this season in holding down the fort while Russell Westbrook recovers from injury. Jackson is in the midst of one of those stretches now and his play has been no less impressive than his earlier stint. In particular, though, Jackson has thrived against one of OKC’s nemesis in the West, the San Antonio Spurs. He finished with 27 points in last night’s win and came up big down the stretch time and again as Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman notes:

There’s something about that San Antonio silver and black. It seems to get Reggie Jackson going.

Jackson has scored 21 or more points in five games this season. Three have come against San Antonio. Combined in the three games, he has 71 points on 30-of-45 shooting.

He’s a confident young man,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s taking no prisoners, he’s not deferring to anyone, he’s not doing it gingerly, he’s being aggressive and he’s playing to win. That’s impressive.”
“And then secondly,” Popovich continued, “he’s made pretty darn good decisions. A young guy can come out, try too hard, try to do too much on his own, not find open people, but his decision making has been really good.”

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No. 5: Celts lose Bradley for ‘a couple of weeks’As we mentioned in this space yesterday, the Celtics got a bit of an injury scare on Tuesday night when shooting guard/defensive stopper Avery Bradley went down with an ankle injury. That scare got a lot worse on Wednesday night as coach Brad Stevens told ESPNBoston.com’s Chris Forsberg that Bradley is now slated to be out a couple of weeks with the injury:

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday that shooting guard Avery Bradley is “probably out a couple weeks” after spraining his right ankle during Tuesday’s loss to the Miami Heat.

Bradley planted awkwardly trying to defend Mario Chalmers near halfcourt early in the second quarter of Tuesday’s game. He arrived for Wednesday’s game in Washington wearing a walking boot and utilizing crutches.

Bradley had started Boston’s first 43 games of the season, averaging a career-high 14.5 points on 43.9 percent shooting over 31 minutes per game. Just three games after Rajon Rondo returned to game action, Boston will again be without its preferred starting tandem as Bradley recovers.

The Celtics have seen their backcourt depth eroded recently. Last week the team traded MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford to Golden State and excused Keith Bogans from the team due to his frustration with a lack of playing time. Jerryd Bayless, acquired earlier this month in another trade, is expected to miss more than a week after spraining a toe in his left foot in Sunday’s loss in Orlando.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: More on this later today, but here’s a report on who’s likely to be in the USA Basketball player pool … If you don’t like “Durantula” as Kevin Durant‘s nickname, The Oklahoman is open to your suggestions for a new one … Toronto’s Terrence Ross is already gearing up to defend his Dunk Contest titlePaul Millsap is taking on a bit of a leadership role with the Hawks

ICYMI of The Night: Lots of great dunks on folks last night from the likes of Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, Miles Plumlee (x2), Joakim Noah (scream included for free) and, of course, Earl Clark. But we’re going with a guy who was in the zone last night — Jeff Green — and his bucket that helped tie up the Celts-Wizards game late in the 4th:


VIDEO: Jeff Green’s crazy one-footed 3-pointer ties the game late in the 4th quarter

‘Blowout Minutes’ Contributing To Chicago’s Injury Woes?


VIDEO: The GameTime crew talks about how the Bulls are adjusting without Derrick Rose

CHICAGO – On a short list of the dirty words of Chicago sports, “minutes” is to the Bulls these days what “Bartman” is to the Cubs or “Cutler contract” is this week to the Bears. Cringe-inducing lightning rods, all three of them.

To many around the Bulls, outside the team and even inside, minutes equal workload, which equals overuse, which equals injuries. No team has been more waylaid by them the past two seasons than Chicago. The most obvious have been Derrick Rose‘s two knee mishaps: an ACL blowout that wiped out 2012-13 and the torn meniscus that shut down his comeback after just 10 game this season. But others – Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler – have crowded into trainer Fred Tedeschi‘s domain often enough that he should hand out numbers, like the deli counter.

So far this season, only Gibson, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy have played in all 31 games. Joakim Noah has missed just one, but that’s on the heels of a training camp and preseason lost almost entirely to a groin strain. Deng came back Thursday against Boston from soreness in his left Achilles – for the second time – but has missed nine games. Hinrich’s aching back put him down for a week last month. And Butler followed up a case of turf toe that wiped 11 games off his schedule with a sore ankle that cost him another just before Christmas.

Because this is more than a one-player or one-snakebit-season thing with this club, questions and criticism have intensified about coach Tom Thibodeau‘s demands on and use of his players. Remember how Butler played three entire games consecutively and hit 48 minutes in five of 12 overall? And how Deng, after averaging 39 minutes through 211 games in Thibodeau’s first three Chicago seasons, got so worn down that he became sick, leading to the spinal-tap exam and complications that put him in the hospital in what some termed a life-threatening crisis?

Last season, despite Rose’s absence and lineup juggling to accommodate other hurt players, the Bulls overachieved to a 45-37 finish and a first-round upset of Brooklyn in the playoffs. This season, they’re 13-18 – 7-13 since Rose went down Nov. 22 – and the crankiness has become more targeted.

Say “injuries” and the dogs of Chicago instantly drool. So do some many miles from United Center, too.

One former NBA player and coach told NBA.com recently: “Is Tom going to become the new Larry Brown, where after three years, because of the grind he put on guys, they can’t take it? Because the players were complaining about Thibs and practices last year, and all the minutes they were playing there. On their team, everybody’s always hurt. Even Jimmy Butler – young guys are breaking down. He just keeps his foot on the pedal the whole time.”

Leave it to NBA.com’s stats maven, John Schuhmann, to pull some numbers that indicate just that: Minutes logged late in lopsided games.

Most fourth-quarter minutes with team up or down
16 or more points among players who have started
at least half their team’s games
Player MIN Team MIN PCT
Lance Stephenson 74 124 59.6%
Wesley Johnson 71 96 74.1%
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 65 104 62.5%
Joakim Noah 63 124 50.7%
Victor Oladipo 63 114 55.3%
Paul George 56 124 45.1%
Kirk Hinrich 56 124 45.1%
Jodie Meeks 54 96 56.4%
Arron Afflalo 51 114 44.7%
Nikola Pekovic 48 126 38.1%

Makes sense, right? If a coach is using key rotation players deep into games that look to be breezy victories or lost causes, then he is overburdening them and courting future injuries from overuse. Or, viewed from the half-full perspective, that’s a swell time to conserve energy and legs, while giving backups and young players on-the-job experience. At least that’s how coaches like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and a few others see it, yanking veterans such as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker unless circumstances change drastically.

Now consider the Bulls: Through Friday’s games, they had five players among the league’s top 59 in fourth-quarter minutes when their team was either ahead by, or behind by, 16 points or more. Sixteen points, the filter applied via NBA.com/Stats, seems a reasonable-enough definition of “blowout” or “garbage time” in the fourth quarter – that means it is a six-possession margin. Through Friday, Schuhmann discovered, teams were 1-205 when trailing by 16 points or more in the fourth quarter. The lone exception: Golden State’s comeback against Toronto on Dec. 3.

(more…)

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Woodson takes blame for Knicks’ loss | Oden’s status remains a mystery | Brown impressed with Trail Blazers | Johnson is Nets’ unsung ironman

No. 1: Woodson botches final seconds, shoulders burden for loss – A public vote of confidence from Carmelo Anthony won’t make things any easier on Knicks coach Mike Woodson today. As if things could get any crazier for Woodson and his beaten down team, Monday night’s Manhattan Meltdown against the Wizards left Woodson on the hook for a late-game mistake. ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley delivers the goods on Melo defending his coach after the curious late-game tailspin that might ultimately cost Woodson his job:

Some will be calling for Mike Woodson’s job in the wake of the New York Knicks’ disastrous one-point loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday.

But Knicks star Carmelo Anthony believes his coach is safe.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s secure right now. I haven’t heard anything,” Anthony said Monday night after initially declining to answer a question about Woodson’s status. “There’s nothing to discuss. He’s our coach, and we’re rolling with him.”

Woodson’s job security has come into question in recent weeks with the Knicks (7-17) playing well below expectations. Woodson and the Knicks’ late-game errors Monday will only put more heat on the coach.

New York had a one-point lead against the Wizards with 24 seconds to play and a foul to give.

Instead of using the foul, the Knicks allowed Bradley Beal to drive for an uncontested layup with 6.9 seconds to play.

Then, Woodson and his players did not call timeout to set up a final play. Instead, Anthony dribbled the ball across half court and took a 25-foot off-balance shot that fell short as time expired. The Knicks had three timeouts to use.

“I probably should have taken a timeout there at the end, but you know, Beno [Udrih] grabbed it [to inbound] and the ball is in Melo’s hands before I could even react, and I should have reacted a lot sooner once the ball went through the bucket. So, that’s on me,” Woodson said. ” …. I didn’t call the timeout so I’ve got to take the heat for that.”

There is plenty of blame to go around in New York, more than enough for Anthony, Woodson, Spike Lee and anyone else to get in on the action. But Woodson’s seat is the hottest.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew breaks down the Knicks’ Manhattan Meltdown

***

No. 2: Oden’s status remains a mystery for Heat-Pacers and beyond – Greg Oden had to watch the first chapter of the Heat-Pacers drama in street clothes last week. His status for Round 2 Wednesday remains one of  South Florida’s biggest mysteries. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra isn’t tipping his hand. And Pacers big man Roy Hibbert probably doesn’t care, even after his woeful performance in the Pacers’ first home loss of the season to Josh Smith and the Detroit Pistons Monday night. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald does his best to uncover the secretes surrounding Oden’s status:

The Heat plays the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night in the biggest home game of the first two months of the season, and the topic of Oden and his playing status (or lack thereof) will once again be a point of discussion.

Last week, Oden watched from the bench in Indianapolis as Pacers center Roy Hibbert dominated the paint both offensively and defensively. After the game, Hibbert said he was looking forward to Oden joining the rivalry.

But exactly when Oden will begin playing games for the Heat remains a mystery. He made an appearance in the preseason but hasn’t suited up for a regular-season game. Oden, who was in street clothes against the Jazz, has been inactive for the first 24 games of the season.

As a follow up to a question about his rotations, Spoelstra was asked about how to efficiently incorporate Oden into the Heat’s system once he is ready to play.

“We’ll get to that when we get to that,” Spoelstra said. “It will be no different than when we had to incorporate Michael [ Beasley], when we’ve had to incorporate Shane [ Battier]. We incorporated Norris [Cole]. When we get to that point, we’ll deal with it the way we always do.”

Spoelstra was then asked whether he thought adding Oden midstream would be the biggest challenge of the season.

“You can’t ever pinpoint what the biggest challenge will be in an NBA season, really,” Spoelstra said. “They come daily, they come weekly because of the schedule, but they will arrive on your doorstep.”

Oden hasn’t played in regular-season game in more than four years.


VIDEO:
Did the Pacers get caught looking ahead to Wednesday’s showdown with the Heat?

***

No. 3: Brown sees much to like (maybe even love) about the Trail Blazers – Don’t judge Cleveland coach Mike Brown for being envious of Terry Stotts and the machine he’s presiding over in Portland these days. All coaches wish they could get off to the early season start the Blazers have. So while Brown has the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (Kyrie Irving) at his disposal, he’d love to have the NBA’s team of the first two months (arguably, the Pacers want in on that as well) to work with, as Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer explains (oh, and that point guard matchup tonight between Irving and Damian Lillard should be as good as any we’ve seen thus far):

Ask Cavaliers coach Mike Brown what makes the Portland Trail Blazers so good and his long, long list of compliments starts with coach Terry Stotts and goes through LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews all the way to Mo Williams.

It’s no wonder, either, since the Trail Blazers come into The Q on Tuesday with a shiny 21-4 record, best in the Western Conference. After an overtime victory at Detroit on Sunday, they’re even better on the road — 11-2 — than at home.

“Terry is a good coach first of all, but if you look at their roster, they have veteran guys on that team or guys in their prime,” Brown said after the Cavs practice on Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “They have very few young guys they’re asking to run or lead the ship. They’ve got a lot of veteran players on their team who know how to play the game the right way on the floor. A lot of those guys have had success. Maybe not last year, but LaMarcus has won before, Batum has won before, Matthews has won before there and even in Utah.

“I thought the Lopez kid was the right fit. They needed a big body that doesn’t need to score or anything like that who will do the dirty work because they have enough scorers when you look at the guys they rotate in and out of the game. Then on top of that you’ve got a veteran like Mo Williams who can shoot the 3, who can come off pindowns,  who can play pick and roll. He’s fast with the ball, can play in transition, can make plays for himself and his teammates.

“That’s a nice mix of players they have who know how to score the basketball. Because they have size and because in my opinion they added a guy like Lopez, that makes them bigger. Lopez has great feet, so that makes them even better defensively than what they might have been in the past. Then you have Batum and Wes Matthews, too, on the perimeter. Those are two big guards who know how to defend.”

***

No. 4: Low-key Johnson serves as Nets’ unsung ironman – His record-tying shooting night thrust Joe Johnson into the national headlines. But he’s been the Nets’ unsung ironman all season, writes Filip Bondy of The New York Daily News. Through all of the trials and tribulations this team has faced this season, Johnson has been the one constant. And whether Nets fans and others realize it or not, that could very well be the one factor that saves their season:

Of all the remarkable season stats for Joe Johnson, the most impressive one right now rests directly below the “G.”

There, you will find the number 24, which means that Johnson is one of only four Nets, and the only one who really matters, not to have missed a single game this year due to injury. It is a wonder how he has remained in one piece, while all around him his teammates have been felled like Christmas trees in early December. “I love to come out and play,” Johnson said after he had done something remarkable on Monday night. “I just try to be here for the guys.”

Johnson wasn’t merely there for the guys at Barclays Center, he was ablaze. Johnson went on a record-tying 3-point streak that suddenly made a lopsided game worth watching, at least for a period. In that third quarter, he scored 29 points and buried eight of 10 threes, including an impossible bomb from the left corner with defender James Anderson draped all over him — while drawing a foul.

“I got a good look, got separation,” Johnson insisted. “I just let it go. I was in the right spot a lot of times, at the right times, catching the ball with the seams every time in the right place.”

It was all more than enough to bury the Sixers, 130-94, and to demonstrate again how Johnson has become the rock on a team largely comprised of delicate sand pebbles. “Got to keep giving him the ball, keep giving it to him,” Andray Blatche said.

Johnson finished with 37 points and 10 3-pointers, and all around him his teammates were shouting, “Just keep shooting.” But Johnson had been battling a bug these last couple of days, skipping practice, and so he took a seat on the bench while watching the fourth quarter of this laugher. He had earned the rest, averaging 34 minutes per game while shooting .433 from 3-point range. “He’s been the one horse, been consistent for us,” Jason Kidd said. “A guy who never complains.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Heat’s Dwyane Wade insists the average fan just doesn’t understand the anatomy and physiology of an NBA star … Joe Johnson wasn’t the only former Hawks star to have a good night. Josh Smith is working on back-to-back monster nights for the Pistons … Contrasting styles were on display in the Clippers-Spurs game last night, Gregg Popovich’s way vs. the unique approach that Doc Rivers employs … Derrick Rose is worried about the Bulls’ future? (while most everyone else is worried about his!)

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: Forget about the Bulls’ struggles for a minute and just enjoy Taj Gibson‘s finishing touch on this pick and roll  …


VIDEO: Nik Vucevic is a HT fave, but he’s on the wrong end of this dunk by Taj Gibson

Finding Things To Play For In Chicago

VIDEO: How the Bulls survive without Rose

CHICAGO – Defeat upon defeat has led rapidly to despair, and a Chicago Bulls team already demoralized by another season-ending injury to star point guard Derrick Rose soon might find itself on the verge of depression. Angry at the basketball gods, feeling sorry for themselves – that’s certainly no way to slog through the five long months that remain in the NBA regular season, months made tough enough in these parts by wind chills and salt trucks.

But a 1-6 stretch since Nov. 18, an exhausting triple-overtime home loss to New Orleans and a no-mercy NBA schedule that brings the two-time champion Miami Heat to town Thursday had the Bulls slumped in chairs and dead on their feet late Monday night. They had left town nearly two weeks earlier, eager to bond, Rose “close” to his pre-ACL surgery form, on their daunting annual “circus trip” (when United Center welcomes the clowns and elephants, sending the Bulls and the NHL Blackhawks on the road each November).

They didn’t come home with even a lousy T-shirt. Rose is gone again, done in by a torn meniscus in his right (other) knee this time. What remains, while a lot, was built to welcome and maximize his return, without alternate shot creators such as Nate Robinson or Marco Belinelli. Mike Dunleavy was signed to spread the floor, his deep threat opening lanes for Rose.

This time, there’d been no time to prepare the roster, never mind the Bulls’ psyches, for such an outrageous loss of star power, confidence, swagger and ambition. Pluck? Overachievement? Chicago got its bellyful of that last time around, when the Bulls at least had the carrot of a Rose return dangled through the season’s second half.

This one was gonna hurt, and it has. The Bulls lost in Portland the night Rose went down, got blown out two days later by the Clippers in L.A., and – aside from a character victory in Detroit last Wednesday – has dropped overtime games to Utah and New Orleans and lost in the final seconds at Cleveland.

“In this league, you start feeling bad for yourself and the wolves come,” forward Taj Gibson said after the Pelicans loss. “The wolves aren’t going to feel sorry for you. Every team is going to come in smelling blood and feel like they need to get a win.”

“We’re showing a lot of fight,” coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and don’t have much to show for it.”

Clearly, that can’t continue. If the Bulls hope to make this season bearable not just for the customers and the TV cameras but for themselves – entertaining and successful are pretty much off the board – here are five targets toward which they can strive:

1. Develop your young players. Bulls VP John Paxson said that, whether by design or not, player development invariably looms larger for teams that suffer manpower outages. For Chicago, that means plumbing the skills and potential of rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy. Snell already has been tested more than expected, moving into the starting lineup when Jimmy Butler – who benefited from last season’s talent drain, especially late – went out with turf toe. Thibodeau likes Snell’s attitude and effort, and his high-arcing 3-pointers are a welcome variation on Butler’s clothesline attempts.

Developing players also means learning what’s not there, which has been the case so far with point guard Marquis Teague. The team’s first-round pick in 2012, Teague had a typical Bulls redshirt season as a rookie. But he hasn’t earned anyone’s confidence now in his second try and has fallen behind 38-year-old Mike James in the rotation. On Tuesday, Teague was assigned to the Iowa Energy of the NBA Development League.

2. Remember who you are. Everyone figured the Bulls would struggle offensively without Rose, both throughout the game and particularly at closing time. The other side of the ball didn’t figure to suffer as much, and yet Chicago’s defense has been way too Thibodeau-vexing through the first five weeks. Rebounding hasn’t been reliable and so far, teams have pelted them from 3-point range (the Bulls rank 29th in opponents’ percentage from there, .399). Prior to Monday’s marathon, Thibodeau recited the three tenets of staying close/winning games: Defense, rebounds and low turnovers. It’s who they’ve been, even through Rose absences, and it’s who they need to be again.

3. Lean on the front office. This means more than the obvious keep-him-or-trade him decision on two-time All-Star Luol Deng, who will hit free agency this summer. That one’s been getting the attention from Chicago’s fan base – Lose Deng for nothing? Get something now or take the cap space in July? – but Paxson and GM Gar Forman face other challenges.

Dunleavy, who signed a reasonable two-year, $6.5 million mid-level deal, could attract offers as the February trade deadline approaches. The frontcourt needed more size back when the Bulls were chasing a Larry O’Brien trophy, but the most pressing position now is point guard, where Kirk Hinrich is starting again and almost certain to break down from overuse. Teague and James make some sort of move imperative, whether it’s from the waiver wire, the D-League or off the street.

Longer term, Paxson and Forman face the harsh reality of building around a one-time MVP who will have played only 50 games in three years by the time he’s back on an NBA court. Gibson, Butler, Snell, center Joakim Noah and, if he’s back, Deng still would form a young-enough, talented-enough core. But the Bulls would need their Nikola Mirotic import plan to pan out, put to stellar use the future No. 1 they hold from Charlotte and get Rose back as undiminished as possible as a franchise guy. That’s a lot. And they can’t just rely on the lottery luck that delivered Rose.

4. Spoil other teams’ nights. That never gets old. Remember the satisfaction that came from ending Miami’s 27-game winning streak — without Rose available — at United Center last March? (Of course, payback might pinch a little Thursday.)

5. Remember, someone always is watching. That means possible trade partners and future employers. If Chicago can’t realistically hope to reach The Finals, its players and coaches can find ways to redefine and reinvent themselves. Find the next Butler, in Snell or whomever, who can provide the roster with a bonus player. Discover a closer in Rose’s absence so he has more help when he does come back.

For Deng – a machine since Rose went down – there is a market to make. Maybe for Carlos Boozer, too, if the Bulls finally pull the amnesty trigger next summer and he wants to keep playing. For Noah, it’s the mental chore of soldiering on without “Pooh” (Rose’s nickname). For Thibodeau, add wrinkles offensively (the Bulls already were doing that before Rose’s injury) and somehow manage minutes in a way that doesn’t grind guys to nubbins.

There’s much to be done and accomplished. It’s just … different now.


VIDEO: Pelicans battle past Bulls in triple OT

Physical? It’s Mental, Too, As Heat Know What Bulls, Others Still Learning


VIDEO: Balanced offensive attack carries Heat over Bulls on opening nightx

MIAMI – The Miami Heat practiced with blocking pads, or at least ran a few drills with them, Monday in the small window when reporters and TV cameras are allowed to watch. Players and coaches on both sides talked about how rugged games always get between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls, the Eastern Conference rivals who seem to most resent the two-time defending champs’ creation.

And yes, there was much contact and banging Tuesday night in the two teams’ season openers. The Bulls’ Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler wound up on the bench in early foul trouble and coach Tom Thibodeau seemed to allude to the rugged play when talking about Derrick Rose‘s forgettable play and the meager four free throws he shot.

Forget physical, though, as the pivot point of Miami’s 107-95 victory,  and whatever series of games plays out vs. Chicago over the next seven months.

This was and is going to be mental.

Starting Tuesday and continuing until one of them is eliminated next spring, the battles that will define this basketball war will pit all that Miami knows it has done and can do, against what Chicago thinks maybe and kinda hopes it can.

That is the gap between these teams, beyond the jaw-dropping talent of LeBron James, the twilight swagger of Dwyane Wade or the edges Miami’s other players enjoy in their matchups thanks to that uber-mismatch up top. It’s an experience and confidence gap that the Heat, after three straight runs to The Finals and back-to-back championships, enjoy over just about every opponent.

Only, relative to the Bulls, it’s a little more so.

Think about where the Heat are at this point in their championship run. Not “not five, not six,” to dust off some old snark, but two tucked away after the hard knocks administered by Dallas in The Finals in 2011.

James has figured it out. He’s at the peak of his skills and know-how. Wade sees something to stick around for and replenish. Everyone else on the roster is bolder and brasher as well.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra seems to be saying and doing all the right things, running a graduate school in winning while most of  his counterparts are stuck coaching up the freshmen.


VIDEO: LeBron James on Miami’s season-opener

Even some of the oldest mental gymnastics in the manual — the that-was-last-year-we-haven’t-done-a-thing-this-year pitch — sounds fresh coming from Spoelstra. He has earned this status, too, after a year … OK, two years … hmm, maybe three in which his professional chops constantly were in question.

Let’s just say that, if Spoelstra were in charge of a healthcare Web site, it would have been ready for its rollout. The way Miami was Tuesday.

“What we talked about [at the start of camp] was starting the 28-day process of our burial of last year,” Spoelstra said earlier Tuesday. “The championship, as gratifying as it was, this [ring and banner ceremony] will be the culmination of it, where we put the last shovel of dirt on it, where we have to move on. This new challenge, it will be different. Last year was totally different from the year before, and you have to be able to embrace that. The competition is better, it’s different. Our team is different. Guys, where they are at stages of their career, is different.

“And our guys enjoy the difference of this new challenge.”

Miami’s players enjoy more than that; they enjoy a sizeable advantage in knowing how they have done what they’ve done. Not so much the Xs and Os of particular games they have taken but the resourcefulness in small moments, and spotting warning signs and early fraying, and all the other tricks and lessons that came hard against Dallas, so fast against Oklahoma City and against long odds in tight spaces against San Antonio.

“Where it helps us is when it hits,” Spoelstra said, pounding a fist into a palm, “and you start to struggle, we’ve been through it. We’ve been through it with all the noise and storylines and adversity. That we’ve been able to persevere and focus on what matters. That is sometimes tough if you haven’t experienced it as a group.”

That is what Chicago is facing, meeting challenges, making memories and filing them away. Rose’s return is a work in progress, evidenced by his 4-for-15 shooting Tuesday and five turnovers. The Bulls’ starting lineup — Rose, Deng, Butler, Carlos Boozer and out-of-sync-and-condition Joakim Noah — never had played together (owing mostly to Rose’s absence and Butler’s late blooming last season). The unfamiliarity showed at both ends. When Deng and Butler sat down, it got worse.

Meanwhile, James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and even Ray Allen and Shane Battier look sometimes like they never have played with anyone else.

“That’s a tough team,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We would like to think we have that chance to knock ‘em off, but it’s a long season. It’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of preparation to get to that point because they’re the two-time defending champs.

“We just want to do our jobs and build on the right things. That’s what we’ve done the last couple years, is building and building and building. Hopefully this year will be the year that it all pays off.”

Hope isn’t a plan, though. The Bulls find themselves squeezed between building and planning to remodel. A big summer looms for Chicago — from Deng’s free agency and Boozer’s possible amnesty to the comings-or-not-comings of Euro prospect Nikola Mirotic and, always, injury concerns with Rose, Noah and anyone who slogs through Thibodeau’s workloads.

The Bulls could use another big and another scorer, even as they try to gain the wisdom and solve the puzzle that took Miami repeated tries.

“You never really know until you know,” Bosh said. “That’s the main thing. You’re going to be tested. You have to overcome those tests and it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”

OK, we can hear Chicagoland — and Pacers-land, Thunder-land and Nets-land, too — thinking in unison, “Shaddup, Chris.” But proving him wrong is only one of the things still on those teams’ to-do list.

“Whether you’re going for six championships or whatever,” Bosh said, “you’re always going to face a moment where you have to completely trust the system, trust your teammates and trust yourself. You have to stay together. The first team to fall apart or split apart and not pay attention to those moments, those are usually the teams that come up short. And we’ve been on the side of both fences, so we understand.”

The Heat demonstrated that with their performance on ring night, while tossing one of those little tests the Bulls’ way on opening night. It’s a long season for the contenders and the pretenders, with time enough to learn but no guarantee that they will.


VIDEO: Derrick Rose on his season debut, Chicago’s loss

Gibson, Dunleavy Are Bulls’ Other October Bright Spots

.

CHICAGOThe bright spot of the preseason so far for the Chicago Bulls is a no-brainer: Derrick Rose hasn’t just looked like his old self at times, he has looked quicker and stronger than his old self, with no apparent inclination to baby his surgically repaired left knee.

It’s early, but it looks as if sparing himself the rigors of an 82-game season might have benefits beyond the restoration of that torn ACL. That rehab year, in fact, almost might have been a physical and mental sabbatical.

Consider: Through five October appearances, Rose has scored 104 points in 124 minutes. That’s a rate of .839 points per minute and THAT is more prolific than at any previous point in his career. He was at .454 as a rookie in 2008-09, .564 a season later, .670 in his 2010-11 MVP season and .620 in an injury-riddled post-lockout season.

“He has great balance to his game right now,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the 105-84 dispatching of Milwaukee Monday night at United Center. “If you back up on him, he doesn’t hesitate to pull up. … He is pushing the ball and attacking right from the start.”

The dim spots for Chicago have been obvious as well: Joakim Noah (groin strain), Jimmy Butler (bruised left knee) and Kirk Hinrich (concussion) all are hurt. Injuries big and small have undone Chicago repeatedly during the Thibodeau era, at least by spring, a source of profound frustration for the team and fans.

It’s especially vexing this preseason, with Noah eager to build on an All-Star season, Butler promoted into the shooting guard spot and Hinrich presumably freed by Rose’s return to lead the second unit and sometimes play alongside the star point guard. A lot of learning time is being burned, with the regular season a week away.

Fortunately for Chicago, two other players have eased the fretting and kept the storyline from going entirely Rose 24/7: Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy.

Gibson is the 6-foot-9 power forward whose contract extension last October produced a nice payday (four years, $33 million) and a step-back season. His scoring, rebounding, shooting and defense all dropped from previous levels, a particular problem in the wake of backup center Omer Asik‘s departure. Then there were stretches of 10 and seven games that Gibson missed with left knee issues.

“I think he was distracted last year,” Thibodeau said recently. “He had a different sort of season. Once he got on track and started playing well, he took on the injury. He still managed to have an OK season, but it wasn’t up to his standards.”

Those standards are going up now, along with expectations, based on Gibson’s work during the Bulls’ 6-0 start. His 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 27.7 minutes translate to 18.4 and 10.2 per 36 minutes, easily the best of his five NBA seasons, and he’s making 62.5 percent of his shots. Thibodeau calls him the “best practice player” of their preseason.

Playing center more in Noah’s absence, Gibson came back heavier and stronger. He’s more comfortable and confident in the offense, not rushing as much. And he was reminded over the summer, in talks with Thibodeau and in workouts with Rose, of the value of hard work.

“One thing when you’re an NBA player, you want to be perfect,” Gibson said. “I was frustrated. I felt like I could have done a lot better. When I started working out, especially in the weight room with Derrick, I just had that mindset. I was thinking about playoffs, I was thinking about Miami, I was thinking about all those moments and I just made it bother me. I thought about the [final playoff] series, the season. I had a chip on my shoulder and I still do.”

Dunleavy was thinking about the playoffs, too — and how seldom he has sampled them. The 11-year veteran has gone twice, without ever playing for a team that finished .500 or better. That’s what led him to sign as a free agent with Chicago, where the learning curve can be steep — especially defensively — for newcomers. Wings like Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli have had periods of adjustment, but Dunleavy has had a fairly breezy transition thus far.

“I think I have an understanding of what we’re trying to do at both ends,” he said. “Yeah, I’m not shooting the ball great, but all the other stuff I feel really comfortable with. Each and every day, there’s always something new you’re picking up and learning.”

Thibodeau has been delighted with Dunleavy’s versatility, decision-making and potential to create space with his perimeter shooting. He has hit only 33.3 percent of his shots (5-for-16 from the arc) but he has started three of the six games and been used in various combinations. Against the Bucks, Dunleavy had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 32:35. He orchestrated a highlight, too, dropping a behind-the-back pass for Gibson for a fast-break dunk.

“He’s a 6-9, 6-10 wing,” Gibson said. “He can shoot, he can rebound, he can dribble. He looks like the old Dunleavy when he was at Duke – a triple threat. You look at his size, he’s really big, he’s in there rebounding. Him and Lu [Deng] give us tall wings. His shot is going down now. As long as his confidence is going, he’s good.”

Gibson and Dunleavy both have been good, sources of encouragement beyond the most obvious one.

Rose Gets Respect Of Rivals’ Rugged Play

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CHICAGO – Maybe when all the firsts become seconds in Derrick Rose‘s much-anticipated, heavily-scrutinized comeback from 17 months lost to knee surgery, the attention will wane, the media crush will recede and everyone involved will exhale.

For now though, the firsts still are dictating the terms. First game back. First dunk. First time facing defensive double-teams. First regular-season game. First bounce back from the floor. First test of his surgically repaired left knee through back-to-back games. First drive through the paint with Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, DeAndre Jordan or some other big planted down there.

Turn all those into seconds, and maybe the clamor around Rose will ease. Maybe other people will start to relax about his physical condition, his resiliency, his confidence and even his need for occasional “precautionary” DNPs when the knee barks at him and his bosses dare not tempt fate.

When will Rose, himself, know for certain that he’s back? His answer Wednesday night, after the Chicago Bulls went to 4-0 in the preseason with a victory over Detroit at United Center, came out a little sideways. And he buried the lead.

“I don’t really know,” the Bulls point guard said. “We’re winning games, so as long as I’m playing the way that I’m playing and we’re still winning games, I could care less about getting back to my regular self. Even though I think I’m already there.”

As firsts go, this one was pretty good. Rose took the court for real – not as a pregame tease, the way he warmed up before most Bulls home games over the second half of 2012-13, only to disappear or don street clothes by tipoff. Rose took the court for real at United Center for the first time since April 28, 2012 and, though the game itself meant nothing, the moment meant a lot.

The sellout crowd cheered his name in the introductions, cheered again when he got the ball on Chicago’s first possession, cheered once more when he cut, took a pass and scored the Bulls’ first points.

Rose scored 18 points in 14 minutes in the first half, 22 in 22 overall. He got knocked into the photographers by Pistons center Andre Drummond and popped up, scurrying to the foul line like it never happened. Just before intermission, he went airborne and sideways while taking a foul from rookie Peyton Siva for a 3-point play that ranks as his top highlight in three October appearances. (more…)