Small doesn't come up big for Bulls this time


Dec 13

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

You figured this "small ball" thing had to catch up to the Bulls at times, and it will continue to do so as it did here Friday with the Memphis Grizzlies jumping all over the Bulls, figuratively and literally, in a 103-96 victory.

The loss dropped the Bulls to 10-12 with a wakeup call to play the New Jersey Nets at home Saturday. While Friday was billed as a matchup of the two likely candidates for rookie of the year in the Bulls Derrick Rose (12 points and 11 assists) and the Grizzlies O.J. Mayo (14 points), Saturday's game features Rose and Devin Harris, the two point guards perhaps fighting it out for the last spot among the reserves for the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

And once again the Bulls will find themselves looking up. Not drastically in the standings to the 11-10 Nets, but to a front line of several seven footers, whom the Bulls have little counter for but to hit those jump shots and run the fast breaks.

"You cannot go small all the time," acknowledged Larry Hughes, who continued his hot streak shooting with 12 points off the bench and a pair of threes. "You have to have the paint. It's where the game is won, low post scoring and rebounding. When you go small, it's kind of tough to control the paint. You allow teams to get to the free throw line, get second chance points when you have to double a lot of times. It's tough to go completely small."

Though Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro doesn't seem to feel he has much choice with his "bigs" of Drew Gooden, Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray and Tyrus Thomas.

Gooden did have 10 points and 13 rebounds, his third straight double/double after two poor shooting games. But Gray, Noah and Thomas played bit parts as the Bulls reverted to those three-guard sets with Luol Deng or Andres Nocioni at power forward and Gooden at center down the stretch.

Leading early in the game by 14 after a sizzling first quarter shooting exhibition by Ben Gordon of 18 points with five threes, the Bulls pulled within 83-79 with about 10 minutes left on a Nocioni three. But little Mike Conley snuck in for a rebound, one of a career high 10, and Hakim Warrick hit a short bank shot. Nocioni missed and Rudy Gay knocked in an 18 footer, part of his season high 29. Gooden countered with a nice inside cut for a layup, but Darko Milicic—yes, Darko with season highs of 13 points and 11 rebounds—spun inside for a score. After Luol Deng got himself loose for a reverse along the baseline after a miss, Warrick turned into Dominique Wilkins, bouncing around for a layup off his own miss on three consecutive possessions, 12 points in the fourth quarter to help the Grizzlies pull away.

In all, the Grizzlies outscored the Bulls by a whopping 52-26 in the paint, and that was with the Grizzlies missing perhaps 10 layups.

"Give them some credit," said Del Negro. "Warrick hurt us. Gay hurt us. We didn't handle Milicic well in the post. We couldn't get good matchups against their lineups. I don't always prefer to play small. I felt we needed to go small and trick it up, but we couldn't handle their penetration. They were getting in the middle and breaking us down."

As we've heard before with this Bulls team: Live by the jump shot; die by the jump shot.

How it happened this time on defense with Gay leaping over Bulls like a young Dr. J was the difficulty you get in trying to squeeze through so often with small lineups. That said, I am not opposed to it with this group, though the question always remains if you give regular time to players like Thomas, Noah and Thabo Sefolosha, the latter finally getting six minutes after sitting out the last five games, do you end up with more production? Or do you run into quicker losses because they give you so little and your guards are your best scorers?

It looked that way as the Bulls built a 26-12 lead.

First Gordon and then Hughes were punishing and embarrassing Mayo, who couldn't stay with either and the Bulls kept picking on him to take that big lead.

But after leading 30-22 after one quarter, Gordon drew his third foul 35 seconds into the second quarter and sat down with 18 points.

"I was locked in and focused," said Gordon, who finished with 26. "After I got in foul trouble, I wasn't a big factor in the game. I kind of let my team down not being out there."

And give him this: You pick on his defense or ball handling, but when the guy is hitting his shot, there are few players in the NBA as deadly. You still need to score to win the game, and it would be difficult to see how the Bulls could score enough to win much with this roster and Gordon not playing.

I also enjoy Gordon's direct answers.

I asked him if he thought of asking Del Negro if he could stay in since he was hot.

"Yeah, but I knew he'd take me out anyway, so I didn't bring it up," said Gordon with a gentle smirk.

Actually, my favorite comic moment of the game was with Gooden checking in. He was standing in front of the scorers' table when one of the scorers said, "Dwight, can you sit down."

"You guys keep calling me Dwight," Gooden says. "It never changes."

So after the game I was standing with Gooden and asked him what that was about. He was a first round pick of the Grizzlies but traded a few months into his rookie season. He said everyone always got his first name wrong and called him after the infamous baseball pitcher. So as we're standing there, a local radio guy comes up and says, "Uh, Dwight, can I ask you a question."

"See, see," Gooden said. "I think it may be southern for Drew."

Anyway, the Bulls went south after Gordon went out, though not right away, leading 54-52 at halftime. The Bulls shot 53.8 percent in the first half with eight of their 54 points inside. Gordon, Hughes and Rose scored 48 of the Bulls 54 first half points. You knew that couldn't last.

From a tie at 66 with four minutes left in the third, the 8-15 Grizzlies went on a 15-4 run with Milicic and Marc Gasol scoring inside and Mayo and Gay hitting threes, and Warrick finished it off.

The Bulls tried playing zone on occasion, but didn't react well enough to contain penetration and were losing position for offensive rebounds. Given Memphis is a young team and young teams often cannot take advantage, the Bulls tried to front the post on Memphis' big guys, which required Gooden to come over and help behind. But too often that left a guard matched against Warrick or Gay and it was no contest as those guys were jumping over, throwing lobs and dunking in spectacular fashion, especially Gay, a stunning athlete.

Deng had 19 points and was as active as he could be gathering up loose balls and following misses. But he is in the unenviable position of playing against the most athletic players in the NBA at the small forward position and had huge problems trying to stay with Gay or Warrick.

"Gay and Warrick are as athletic as you'll find in the league," said Del Negro. "Their length definitely bothered us. We couldn't sustain anything after the first quarter and were playing catchup in the fourth."

Otherwise, it was a homecoming for Rose, who attended the University of Memphis and was tremendously popular here.

He was introduced as being from the U. of Memphis instead of from Chicago as he is introduced at the United Center and got a standing ovation from the Grizzlies largest crowd of the season.

"I have great fans," Rose said. "They came out and supported me and I love them for that."

Though the Grizzlies, one of the lowest drawing teams in the NBA, were aware as well and there seemed to be a little extra in their step.

“We knew what the people were coming for tonight, but we wanted to put a show on for the fans even though its Derrick’s homecoming,
" said Conley. "
I thought we did a great job of not letting that get to us."

Rose's Memphis team was off playing at Georgetown, so they weren't in attendance, but Rose has become close with Mayo and the two talked. Rose said they stayed with one another in the summer in Los Angeles and Chicago and Rose said Mayo is his closest friend among the rookies.

They were matched up only occasionally, mostly on switches. But neither played a major role in the game, though it's perhaps more vital for Rose with the Bulls, especially when his teammates' shots stop going down. Still, Rose played more than 44 minutes.

"I didn't want to force up shots," said Rose. "That's not my type of game. I try to pass if guys are open and let someone else create and I can play off them.

"I felt like I was at home," Rose added of the appreciative crowd. "It felt good. It seemed like it was a Memphis game."

In more ways than the Bulls preferred.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.

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