HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Dominique Wilkins is living life young hoop dreamers fantasize about. High school and college star, NBA superstar and eventually a Hall of Famer.
The Atlanta Hawks’ vice president of basketball joined us on Episode 116 of the Hang Time Podcast to talk about his journey as well as the path his Hawks are walking now as they embark upon a huge summer rebuilding project.
And he takes our advice and makes sure that Hawks GM Danny Ferry places a call to Phil Jackson (why not? Everyone else is calling the Zen Master these days), the Hawks could be on the cusp of the greatest stretch in franchise history. They’d have to pull off the stunner first, however, and actually get Jackson to take the call and even entertain the possibility of joining the Hawks in some capacity (which is longtime Hawks fan Lang Whitaker‘s hoops fantasy). And that would require some serious lobbying on the part of Rick Fox, who played on championship teams coached by Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the playoffs and awards season and continue to debate which is more unpredictable. The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers both won Game 1 on the road in their respective Eastern Conference semifinal series, while the Memphis Grizzlies won Game 2 and the Golden State Warriors will attempt to match that feat tonight in San Antonio (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). We discuss how big a deal the shakeup has been on LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony (the top three vote-getters in the KIA NBA Most Valuable Player race).
We also got off into a heated debate about the merits of each candidate in the Coach of the Year race and whether George Karl’s runaway win makes sense with his team already gone fishing and other worthy candidates such as Tom Thibodeau, Mike Woodson, Mark Jackson, Lionel Hollins and others still working this season. (Trust me, it gets plenty messy … especially when we try to rationalize Vinny Del Negro getting a first-place vote and finishing ahead of both Doc Rivers and Scott Brooks).
You get all of that and much more, right here on Episode 116 of the Hang Time Podcast …
MIAMI – While much of the NBA still is in its introductory phase with the Chicago Bulls’ fresh small forward/shooting guard – meet Jimmy Butler – LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat have moved on to the next stage of a young player’s career.
That is, beat Jimmy Butler.
Butler, a second-year guy out of Marquette and the last player drafted in 2011′s first round, earned some serious individual acclaim for the Bulls’ team victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series Monday. Matched up with the reigning MVP, Butler pestered James, stuck to him as much as possible and funneled him toward help defenders when he couldn’t. All if it contributed to a performance in which, yes, the Heat superstar eventually burst through for 15 points in the fourth quarter but was contained to just nine prior to that.
Butler did well at the other end, too, scoring 21 pints on 5-of-13 shooting and getting to the foul line 10 times, more than James (nine) and Dwyane Wade (zero) combined.
Oh, and he played every second of the Bulls’ 93-86 victory in the series opener, the third straight game – dating to Game 6 against Brooklyn in the first round – in which he has logged 48 minutes. So often, given his reputation and world-weary ways, Wade is the player who seems like the new “hardest working man in show business,” in need of some James Brown crew and robe to get helped to his feet. But lately, it’s been Wade’s fellow Marquette product in the J.B. role.
“To be able to play that many minutes in a row, obviously a lot of guys can’t do that and still be aggressive on the offensive end and defensively be able to guard different guards,” Wade said as Game 2 Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, TNT) approached. “Obviously he has [something special]. That’s why Marquette chose him.”
Butler admitted he’s a little tuckered. But he added: “You learn to fight through it, when you do it so often. And it’s easy ’cause you have guys on your team that are in your corner when you are tired. You look at Lu [Deng], he does that 82 games. It’s definitely tough, but it’s all about your mental state. If you know in your mind that you can do it, your body will follow.” (more…)
Who’s your favorite playoff underdog, the Warriors or Bulls?
Steve Aschburner: The Bulls. Being based in Chicago, I’ve seen this team more than any other — and most of the time, it is overcoming some injury, mishap, illness or absence. It’s no longer just a Tom Thibodeau phenomenon, their coach stubbornly and without excuse driving them through adversity. It’s the whole team manning up without Derrick Rose, without Kirk Hinrich, without whomever, and new guys without much track record for grit (Marco Belinelli) or selflessness (Nate Robinson) pulling on the same rope as if they’d been in that locker room for years. From Game 7 in Brooklyn to their Game 1 on Miami’s court, the underdog Bulls already have experienced a level of exhilaration and accomplishment that talented, three-star championship teams never know.
Fran Blinebury: You love these “Which of your children do you like best?” questions. Let’s face it. While we can admire and respect the work ethic, the attitude and the intensity of the Bulls, what little kid ever grew up in the backyard or on a schoolyard fantasizing about grinding out possessions and getting bloody fighting for rebounds? In the game of our dreams, it’s all about being Steph Curry hitting ridiculous, unbelievable shots from anywhere on the court, Jarrett Jack being utterly fearless, Klay Thompson getting it done at both ends and everything being played at warp speed. I’d be happy to watch the Warriors play into June, July, August or September.
Joakim Noah (by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)
Jeff Caplan: No question it’s the Bulls. Hey, I love the Warriors just like everybody else, but they’re essentially a young, healthy team (Brandon Rush was lost at the start of the season) on the come and led by an emerging superstar. They’re a great feel-good story, but the Bulls have proven time and again to be the ultimate warriors. How in the world is this banged-up and depleted club, one that keeps absorbing blows — a spinal tap gone wrong for Luol Deng, I mean, WTH? — in the second round and up 1-nil on the champs. Because nobody outworks the Bulls. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I’llgo Golden State, even with the running start of Bulls 1-0 and Warriors 0-1. Chicago is pretty special at dealing with, or even ignoring, adversity, but is still bigger underdogs than Golden State. The Warriors are closer to the Spurs in talent level, have the hottest hand of the postseason (Stephen Curry) and are doing fine at ignoring as well. The Warriors had more of a chance from the start. One game doesn’t change that, for either option.
John Schuhmann: Well, the Bulls are the true underdog, aren’t they? They’re facing the defending champs, the world’s best player, and a team that had lost just two of its previous 43 games before Monday. They’re a M.A.S.H. unit of injuries and illnesses. They’re carried offensively by a guy who’s barely taller than Sekou. Their best (active) player has a ponytail, wears le coq sportif shoes, and shoots a jumper like he’s playing paper football. And they have the most disheveled-looking coach in the league! This is no contest.
Sekou Smith: This is a tough one. It’s like asking who do you like better, Miss America or Miss Universe. You’re right no matter who or what you choose. I love the Warriors’ style and the fact that Steph Curry can turn a game upside down in minutes with his scoring and shooting. But my pick is the Bulls. Any team capable of doing the things they’ve done, under these circumstances, has earned my attention and the favorite status. Tom Thibodeau has turned the bottom third of his roster into a wicked playoff machine over the the past five days. They’re doing it with defense, fueled by the relentless Joakim Noah and the surprising Jimmy Butler. But they’ve also got the best fourth quarter scorer in the playoffs (Nate Robinson) driving the bus late in games. How can you not love what the Black-and-Blue Bulls are doing?
Lang Whitaker: The Warriors are obviously fun to watch, but it’s hard to root against the Bulls. They’ve got more guys missing than they have healthy, or at least it feels that way. Also, the Bulls have a cast of characters who we’ve seen try and fail with other franchises, from Nate Robinson to Marco Belinelli, so it feels as though there’s some great quest for redemption. Also, it doesn’t hurt that their coach, Tom Thibodeau, looks like he’s being played by the King of Queens, Kevin James.
What do you make of Miami’s Game 1 trip? What’s ahead in this series?
Steve Aschburner: Rust. A dearth of games with urgency not just in recent days but recent weeks. And an adrenaline-charged Chicago squad. Those things conspired against the defending champs in Game 1. I expect that Miami will snap back to form — most talented, most dangerous team in the NBA — and advance in no more than six games. I just hope it’s earned on the floor, not with a parade to the foul line. Also, the Heat’s stars need to be careful, because whining about no-calls and even winning too gleefully might cast them as bullies again against the plucky-underdog Bulls, just when we all thought the “hate Miami” theme had run its course.
Fran Blinebury:The Bulls, the layoff, the fact that despite the absurd standard to which the Heat are held, really nobody wins them all. Come in off the ledge. Miami in six, maybe even five.
Jeff Caplan: I attribute it to a remarkable effort by the Bulls’ players and coaching staff. Miami had a long layoff and didn’t bring the proper focus and determination to get the job done against one heck of a stubborn opponent that is going to bring physical play and hard effort as long as it’s on the floor. I certainly expect the Heat to bounce back, understanding that Chicago — and I’d give the Bulls more of a chance if it seemed at all that Luol Deng will be healthy but it does not — is going to mentally and physically exhaust them for the full 48. In a seven-game series, the more talented team is going to come through and I fully expect the Heat to advance in six games.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Well, stuffhappens. The Bulls played like a team on a mission — as Tom Thibodeau clubs do — and the Heat played like a team that has had opponents aiming for them every night since November. It was wrong to think they would go undefeated in the playoffs. It is not wrong to think they will regain control of the series and win.
John Schuhmann: It was pretty obvious that the Heat were out of rhythm after an eight-day layoff. That put them in a grinder of a game with the Bulls, a situation that no one wants to be in. They still had a chance to win, but Dwyane Wade forgot that he’s one of the worst 3-point shooters in NBA history. I expect them to win the series in five or six games and it wouldn’t surprise me if they win the next two by 15-plus.
Sekou Smith: The cause for the Heat’s Game 1 performance was a nasty mix of the Chicago Bulls, the long layoff after the first round sweep of Milwaukee and a classic case of fat cat syndrome. Heat star Chris Bosh was the only guy willing to say it out loud. But the Heat couldn’t get the car out of cruise control against the Bulls. All the trainingcamp style practices in the world cannot prepare you for a physical and feisty opponent like the Bulls coming at you from opening tip to final buzzer. The Heat thought they had things under control late but miscalculated. I expect them to be fully prepared for what comes next in Game 2 and the remainder of this series, which I predicted to go six games with the Heat advancing.
Lang Whitaker: The thing about the Heat losing Game One wasn’t that they weren’t prepared — they got the shots they were looking for, including a bunch of those corner threes that Chicago defends so preciously. They just didn’t make a lot of those shots. Also, defensively the Heat can (and will) make some adjustments, such as using LeBron in a way that he’s not just standing around on the help-side and instead will be actively defending the ball.
The best fourth quarter scorer in these playoffs, Robinson served the Heat by scoring the final seven of his game-high 27 points (he also had nine assists) in the defining minutes of the game. He did all this after needing 10 stitches to close a gash over his lip, courtesy of a LeBron James elbow and head smash during a scramble for a loose ball.
“Get stitched up and continue to battle,” Robinson told reporters after the game.
LeBron’s already snagged the “King” nickname. But after watching Robinson the past eight games (and, really, the past eight seasons), is there any doubt that he’s the pound-for-pound king of toughness in the NBA?
Yes, that’s high praise for a third-string point guard. And Robinson remains one of the more unpredictable players in the league. His highs, though, trump his lows every time. Tell me the last time a third-string point guard outdueled the MVP on the night he received his trophy? Robinson became the NBA’s first three-time Sprite Slam Dunk champ and built a cult fanbase from New York (where he spent his first four and half seasons in the league) to Boston to the Bay Area and now Chicago and beyond.
Nowhere is Robinson more beloved than in his native Seattle, where he was the big man on campus at Ranier Beach High School, where he was a three-sport (football and track, too) star. Unlike many of his NBA colleagues who love to fantasize about being crossover stars in the NFL, Robinson could have pulled it off.
He was a All-Pac-10 Freshman Team pick at cornerback at the University of Washington, where his father, Jacque Robinson, was a Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl MVP. Nate Robinson was believed to have a much brighter future in that sport.
But he chose basketball instead and the rest is pound-for-pound history for a player who says he’s having the time of his life with this Bulls team.
“There’s something special about this group,” Robinson said. “It feels like we’ve been playing together for, like, 10 years. I told [Bulls] Coach [Tom Thibodeau], we just love to play for each other.”
Hoops fans love having players with Robinson’s toughness on their team. That’s why he’s the king/captain of the Hang Time Pound-For-Pound Toughness Team. These are the guys still working in these playoffs who give up every ounce of what they’ve got on a nightly basis for their respective teams, be it blood, sweat, tissue, tears or whatever else is needed.
The other starters:
David West, Indiana Pacers
6-foot-9, 250 pounds
An absolute bruiser, West changed the entire culture of an organization in Indiana with his reserved-but-unwavering leadership style. The Pacers have become the picture of defensive toughness and consistency since West arrived. West is a physical specimen who has found a way harness his brute strength and play under complete control at all times. He’s a huge reason why the Pacers are up 1-0 on the New York Knicks in their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
6-foot-7, 220 pounds
Another reserve who has moved into a starring role during this postseason, all Butler has done is play every single minute in three straight playoff games (Games 6 and 7 against the Brooklyn Nets and Game 1 against the Heat). That’s 48 straight minutes for three straight games while guarding the likes of the Nets’ Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and the Heat’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With his tireless work on both ends of the floor, Butler has done a masterful job filling in for Luol Deng while also showing the sort of mettle of a future star.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
7-foot-1, 265 pounds
The Memphis branch of the Gasol basketball family tree is much sturdier than the Los Angeles version in every way imaginable. Pau Gasol has always been considered the most skilled big man in the family. But the toughest Gasol, the recently crowd Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year, does his home work near Beale Street. He’s got it all … brains, brawn and he can ball.
Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
6-foot-4, 214 pounds
A defensive stopper everywhere he’s been, Allen’s junkyard dog attitude inspired the Grit and Grind movement in Memphis (where you could fill out a Pound-For-Pound roster with the likes of Zach Randolph and others). Allen’s greatest trait is his fearlessness, which was on full display during the Boston Celtics’ title run in 2008 and has been as identifiable as his No. 9 jersey is since he joined the Grizzlies three seasons ago.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls; Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs; Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks; Chris Andersen, Miami Heat.
MIAMI – Maybe, as one postgame wiseguy smirked after Game 1 of Heat-Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets should call P.J. Carlesimo and give him his job back.
There was no shame in losing Sunday to an undermanned, overachieving Chicago team in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference’s first round after all. Because 48 hours later, defending champion Miami lost Game 1 of the East semifinals on their home court to that same driven, unflappable bunch.
While the outside world has been busy defining Chicago by the bodies that are not there – Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich again, same as in the clincher in Brooklyn Saturday – the Bulls keep on defining themselves by the hearts of the players who are. And their habits, discipline and trust.
When something happens that isn’t supposed to happen – like beating a well-rested Heat team while missing a pair of All-Stars and a third guy who started in Rose’s spot when he wasn’t otherwise banged up – it might be written off as a fluke. Monday, it might have been a bit of rust on Miami’s game, maybe, and a nothing-to-lose, why-the-heck-not? attitude from the Bulls.
But when it happens over and over, like the Nets ouster or the victories at Miami in January or to snap the Heat’s 27-game winning streak in March, it’s less about game-plan trickery or hard-foul skullduggery.
And when multiple things happen to bring it all together – Jimmy Butler playing 48 minutes while shadowing freshly re-minted MVP LeBron James, a Little 1 (Nate Robinson) outscoring each of the Big 3, a Miami attack that ground down to 39.7 percent shooting, a Bulls team or anyone else for that matter hanging 35 on the Heat in the fourth quarter – then it is about a pattern, a culture, a way of life as ordained by coach Tom Thibodeau.
“It starts up with Thibs,” said power forward Taj Gibson, who banged with Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, felt James breathing down his neck a few times and even chased Ray Allen through screens a few times. “Thibs is the guru, he understands the game plan. Then it’s the bigs talking to the guards, understanding what they need to do. Bigs are the second defense, guarding that rim. And it works out. We all talk to each other. Talking is big on this team and we help each other. We cover a lot of our weak points and we show our strong points, that’s the main thing we do.” (more…)
NEW YORK – There’s no way to avoid it. This was about toughness and defense.
Actually, it was about Joakim Noah, who, in turn, is about toughness and defense.
It was Noah who promised that his team would win Game 7 in Brooklyn on Saturday. And it was Noah who was most responsible for that promise being fulfilled, leading the Chicago Bulls to a 99-93, series-ending victory.
“We’re going to go into a hostile environment, and we’re going to win,” Noah said after his Chicago Bulls lost Game 6 of their first round series with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.
From the outside, it seemed a little far-fetched. And if you’re reading this, you already know the circumstances. No Derrick Rose. No Kirk Hinrich. No Luol Deng. Taj Gibson? Banged up. Noah? Banged up. This was (and still is) the M.A.S.H. unit of all M.A.S.H. units.
Meanwhile, the Nets had seemingly found their footing after their brutal collapse in Game 4, earning this Game 7 on their home floor with two series-saving victories. They had outscored the Bulls by 20 points over the course of the first six games. But never underestimate the heart of a … team that’s got more heart … and better defense.
Noah set the tone early, grabbing (or tipping) three offensive rebounds in the first three minutes on Saturday. Eventually, he took his offense to the outside, knocking down a couple of jumpers and attacking the Nets’ sagging defense from the high post.
Oh yeah, the Nets’ defense. It was terrible, especially in the first half.
The legacy of this Nets team may be that they didn’t care. More accurately, they didn’t defend. And appropriately, they started their summer vacation a little early by allowing a really bad offensive team (missing two key components) to score 61 points in the first half of the most important game of the season.
The killer stretch was the end of the second quarter, when Chicago scored on 13 of its final 15 possessions. And one of those two empty possessions was a wide-open corner 3-pointer for a guy – Daequan Cook – who won the 3-point shootout a few years ago. The Nets simply couldn’t stay in front of the Bull with the ball, whether he was guard or a big. Carlos Boozer drove right past Andray Blatche. Noah drove right past Reggie Evans. Marco Belinelli drove right past Gerald Wallace for maybe the biggest basket of the game.
Rinse. Repeat. See you next season.
“They got too many easy layups, easy baskets,” Deron Williams said. “Our defensive principles we didn’t execute today.”
The Bulls’ defense was far from perfect. It allowed the Nets, when they finally played with some energy, to score 31 points in the third quarter and climb back in the game. Brooklyn actually finished with more offensive rebounds (19) than Chicago (13), but they couldn’t convert them as well. And not coincidentally, it was the better defensive team that got the stops it needed down the stretch.
Noah, of course, was the anchor, and he kept Brook Lopez (21 points on 9-for-20 shooting) from ever getting much of a rhythm. Noah himself finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. All effort and energy.
“We were asking him to do a lot, basically be everywhere on our defense,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Defend the pick-and-roll, sprint back to the basket, close out, block out, pursue the ball. In every aspect of our defense, he’s exerting a lot of energy. He’s in unbelievable shape and he can make plays that very few can.”
Of course, Noah wasn’t in great shape a couple of weeks ago, dealing with plantar fasciitis that kept him out of 13 of the Bulls’ final 16 regular season games.
“The day before the playoffs, I was barely walking,” he said.
He played just 13 minutes in Game 1, but gradually started to feel better. And he obviously felt great on Saturday. Promise fulfilled.
If ever there was going to be the perfect, if overdue, moment for Derrick Rose to return to action for the Chicago Bulls, it would be a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs, with his team desperate for help, facing the Brooklyn Nets in a hostile building …
Stop. Rose won’t be walking through that door for the Bulls Saturday night, even if he does have more spring in his step than Willis Reed did 43 years ago on the other side of the East River, limping back for a Game 7 and straight into sports mythology. The Captain only stuck around long enough to hit two shots and inspire the New York Knicks to their first championship. Rose would seem to have that much in him, in what would likely be a 15-20 minutes limit whenever he actually does return to action. And of course we’re wasting our time and our typing here.
After all, Rose’s extended layoff from knee surgery last May – we’re at 51 weeks now – could have had its perfect ending in Game 6 Thursday at United Center, where a packed arena’s warm embrace for however long he lasted might have been enough to propel the Bulls into the second round already. It could have come two weeks ago, synchronized to the start of a postseason he missed last spring. It could have come last month or sometime after the All-Star break, when word began leaking out from behind the practice curtains that, in 5-on-5 scrimmaging, that the 2011 MVP was looking as good as ever.
The arc of Rose’s repair and rehabilitation from ACL surgery has gone from anticipatory to antsy to anticlimax. It has overstayed its welcome in the Windy City, like the occasional stubborn winter, and as with the Chicago Cubs’ ridiculous drought, a numbness and a whole lot of scoffing is settling in for some folks. If they did not laugh, they would cry.
But there’s more floating out there than jokes. During the Game 5 telecast Monday, TNT analyst Steve Kerr was critical of Rose for his refusal to take that last big step of rehab, testing all that work and dedication where it matters most, in an NBA game, for a team in need. Multiple Bulls players have been pushing through bruises, pain and illness, while Rose still monitors the repair of a year-old injury (April 28, 2012, to be exact).
“I know I’ve kind of changed my mind,” Kerr said on-air. “I’ve really supported the Bulls and Derrick with the way they’ve handled it. I think you err on the side of caution. But I think where the Bulls are now with this series with [backup point guard] Kirk Hinrich struggling with the calf injury — if Derrick is OK and there’s no threat to further injury, I think he’s got to play.”
It’s that kind of talk, not just from Kerr but all over sports-radio airwaves and the Internet, that has dinged Rose’s reputation. As beloved in his short career as any Chicago sports star save one, Rose’s hesitancy to play until he’s fully “comfortable” or regains “muscle memory” has some people questioning his courage, his character, his commitment, you name it. It is as irrational as it was inevitable with a layoff this long, fan stuff of impatience mixed with the coverage of the other hobbled Bulls as “gamers.”
Rose told reporters at the Bulls’ shootaround Saturday in New York that he hadn’t heard the criticism. “That’s my first time hearing about it,” he said in another too-rare media moment. “I barely turn on the TV. I’m with my son all day so that’s about it.”
None of the second-guessing is coming from the organization or his teammates. Coach Tom Thibodeau and Hinrich, as all of them have for months, gave Rose absolute votes of confidence Wednesday. Still, the Bulls and Rose failed each other by failing to keep everyone – not just themselves but the media and the fans – in the loop. They let him, his agents, his family and his sneaker partners (adidas) dictate the terms of communication, kept at a trickle, that bled away empathy and heightened suspicions. Monthly sit-downs with Bulls reporters would have provided better feedback, kept Rose’s affable personality front and center and calmed if not satisfied the locals.
The Bulls also should have avoided distractions, speculation and all this angst by shutting down Rose’s will-he-or-won’t-he return about six weeks ago. Did they really want to overlay the learning curve of his return onto their playoff preparation, risking other guys’ roles and rhythms? Did they seriously consider throwing him raw out there against a Brooklyn backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson? Would they seriously put Rose as red meat in front of the Dobermans from Miami, if they made it to the next round?
Come on. Who’s believes this stuff?
There would have been nothing wrong had Rose and the Bulls tossed the entire 2012-13 season aside and simply let everyone know the plan, assuming they had a plan. If this truly was matter of, physically and mentally waking up each day and gauging his health and his confidence, OK, fine. Even that would have gone done better if not for the elaborate, expensive series of shoe commercials – “The Return” – that made it look as if Bulls fans would be getting Rose as “Rocky” sooner rather than later.
The long, unsatisfying NBA season in Chicago is nearing an end. When Rose does come back in October, he’ll turn this all into a win-win: Show rust and people will nod, agreeing finally (and probably wrongly, since rust is part of these things whenever) that he needed another five months. Play great and the uber-cautious strategy will seem like genius, and the teeth-gnashing of this spring will fade away.
It’s just difficult for a lot of folks over the next few hours or days knowing that – with Hinrich’s calf, Luol Deng‘s illness, Joakim Noah‘s plantar fasciitis, Taj Gibson‘s knee and Nate Robinson‘s towel-and-bucket routine Thursday – the healthiest guy on the Chicago roster might be Derrick Rose.
CHICAGO – In this league of small ball and limited or specialized, defense-and-rebounding big men, the Brooklyn Nets have been going old-school middle on the Chicago Bulls in their first-round Eastern Conferene playoff series.
Brook Lopez, the NBA’s 10th-leading scorer during the regular season (19.4 ppg) against defenses both good and bad, ranks sixth in playoff scoring, getting his 23.6 points per game against one of the league’s most lockdown and locked-in defensive units. The 7-foot Lopez has topped 20 points in all five games and is pushing higher (21, 21, 22, 26 and 28). Lopez grabbed 30 rebounds in the three games heading into Game 6 Thursday at United Center, and his 3.4 blocked shots is tops in the postseason.
Then there’s Andray Blatche, who has backed up the best season of his eight-year, underdeveloped career with equal impact for the Nets in this series. Blatche, who carries more weight at 6-foot-11 than his roster-claimed 235 pounds, has almost identical numbers against Chicago as he had across 82 games in his first season as a Brooklyn sub. He is averaging 19.8 minutes and, pro-rated out to 36 minutes, is playing at a clip of 19.3 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent.
And here is the best part for Nets fans: Together, Lopez and Blatche have been loads of trouble for the vaunted Bulls’ defense. Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo has used them in tandem a total of only 36 minutes in the five games, but when they are on the court at the same time, the Nets have outscored Chicago by 38 points. That’s better than every other Nets tandem, including Lopez and Deron Williams (plus-28 in 171 minutes) and Williams and Joe Johnson (minus-2 in 166 minutes).
Some of that may be attributed to small sample size, but it’s also an indication of Brooklyn’s advantage with two offensively gifted big men against a Bulls front line that is playing hobbled (center Joakim Noah‘s plantar fasciitis, forward Taj Gibson‘s sore knee). Lopez and Blatche have given the Nets relief valve’s against Chicago’s shifting, aggressive defense, asserting the middle on a unit that breaks the court down strong side vs. weak.
“Well, they’re skilled,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Nets’ big men. “The thing is, both Lopez and Blatche can shoot the ball, they can put it on the floor, they can post the ball and they can get to the offensive board. When you add to it the greatness of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, it spreads you out pretty good.
“You may defend the initial part fairly well and then it’s the second and third part that you’re recovering, and making a second and third effort as a team, not just individually. Now when the ball is shot, you have to get back to bodies,,and that requires a lot of discipline and commitment.”
Play in the paint has dictated swings in this series. The Nets were at their best in Game 5′s victory, with 54 points in the paint to Chicago’s 42, a 24-12 edge in second-chance points and 17 offensive rebounds to 22 on defense for the Bulls. Lopez grabbed six of those, with Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries taking three each. Meanwhile, Blatche scored 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Nets own that period 33-18.
“Defensively and with rebounding, we have to do better,” Thibodeau said. “At playoff time, the more you go after, the more you’re going to get. Having a multiple-effort mentality is critical.”
Brooklyn’s mentality seems to be driven by taking that NBA playoffs’ “BIG” slogan seriously.
DEERFIELD, Ill. – The timing was impeccable. As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said for the third or fourth time that guard Kirk Hinrich‘s bruised left calf was healing, Hinrich emerged for a cluster of reporters to limp 20 yards toward the locker-room hallway at the team’s Berto Center practice facility Wednesday afternoon.
Long John Silver, Fred Sanford and Jabba The Hutt would have been glancing over their shoulders, laughing, in a foot race. If the Brooklyn Nets have anyone on their bench with whom Hinrich in his current condition can keep up in Game 6, it’s coach P.J. Carlesimo. Maybe.
So it’s a long shot Hinrich — who injured his leg in Chicago’s triple-overtime victory in Game 4 Saturday and sat out the Nets’ Game 5 victory at the Barclays Center Monday — can play Thursday night at United Center. He only ditched a walking boot Wednesday, has yet to test his left leg by running or jumping and said he would have to improve further for his “game-time decision” to go thumbs-up.
That puts instant-offense guy Nate Robinson, the team’s third preferred option at point guard after Derrick Rose and Hinrich, in the likely starter’s role again.
Thibodeau also delivered the news that forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson were sick and skipped the practice, further thinning the ranks if only for Wednesday. He didn’t sound optimistic about rusty veteran Rip Hamilton, who hasn’t played since the series’ opener, making an appearance in Game 6, though.
So naturally, it was time to ask about Rose. Hey, he’s moving way better than Hinrich.
“There’s always a chance,” Thibodeau said straight-faced. Then a twinkle appeared in his eyes for what would be a fresh quote on the stale subject. “Small as that might be.”
Chuckles all around. But it scarcely could get smaller at this late date. Rose — whose ACL surgery on his left knee know requires a year reference (April 28, 2012) — still hasn’t felt comfortable enough in his recovery, apparently less for physical reasons than trust and confidence in his game, to return. To do so suddenly for Game 6 or even if his teammates advance to the next round against Miami would be like turning from a standing stop onto a freeway where every other vehicle is going 80 mph, no merge lane, nothing.
That hasn’t stifled impatience and criticism from within the team’s fan base, which has watched a parade of other players — from Hinrich throughout the season and Gibson (strained knee) to center Joakim Noah‘s ongoing plantar fasciitis — gut through discomfort while less than 100 percent.
Thibodeau and Hinrich both said again that the Bulls have Rose’s back.
“We know what kind of guy he is, we know what kind of teammate he is. We don’t feel that way,” Hinrich said. “I haven’t heard one ill word said [among teammates] about it.”
Said Thibodeau: “There’s a big difference between the type of injury he’s had and all these other injuries. We certainly appreciate what all the other guys are doing. But Derrick has had a very serious injury. It requires time. He’s 24 years old. We’re not going to rush him back. When he’s completely comfortable, that’s when we want him out there. If that means we wait another game, if that means we wait till next year, so be it. We want him completely comfortable. We’re not going to make that mistake.”
Criticism from outside of Chicago tossed at its native son, one of the most competitive and popular performers ever for the city’s pro sports teams, means nothing, the Bulls coach said.
“Derrick owes it to do what’s right. And the more I’m around him, the more I’m impressed by this guys’ character. He’s not being swayed by anybody. He’s not quite there, and we made that clear to him from the beginning — we’re going to support him in every way possible. I would never question him. Ever.”