Just another night at the UC: Bulls beat Cavs and LeBron


Jan 16

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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 its 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.

So let’s see, Thursday the Bulls beat the Cleveland Cavaliers who beat the Boston Celtics the other night and the Cavs have the best record in the Eastern Conference, so that must mean…

Nah. We know it doesn’t work that way.

But Thursday’s Bulls national TV 102-93 win over the Cavs was the high point of this thus far somewhat disappointing season and filled with positive signs that this Bulls team isn’t quite as dead in the water as it’s seemed lately in losing to Minnesota and Oklahoma City.

By the numbers, the Bulls got 22 points, eight rebounds and four steals from Luol Deng, who has returned from a sprained ankle in the body of Luol Deng of 2007, cutting hard, shooting and scrapping. The Bulls got 16 points and six assists from Derrick Rose, who despite a poor shooting game never quit and broke down the Cavs defense throughout the overtime in finding Deng and Kirk Hinrich for wide open threes to win the game. And the Bulls got 12 points, five assists and three three pointers from Hinrich, who returned from his thumb surgery as some sort of cross between Doc Rivers and Richie Guerin, a tough, active and vocal hard playing guard to complement Rose.

“Real fun, especially playing a team like that,” Rose said. “They’re a good team. We played well together.”

It was as animated as Rose has been in his short NBA career, the poker faced rookie letting out screams of accomplishment on a drive for a three-point play to give the Bulls an 83-81 lead with 4:50 left and then when Rose blew by the entire Cavs defense for another three point play 53 seconds into the overtime to give the Bulls a 90-87 lead, and the Cavs would never be closer.

Rose then found Hinrich for a three, LeBron James drove and was fouled and hit one of two free throws (11 of 16 overall). Rose then drove right and found Deng in the left corner alone with a skip pass and Deng hit the three for a 96-88 Bulls lead with 2:59 remaining. Tyrus Thomas, with 15 points and four blocks in a terrific defensive effort, knocked the ball loose from Mo Williams and Hinrich tied him up and won the jump. Rose then drove over a Thomas screen and found Deng again open in the left corner. Deng’s three hit the front rim, jumped about six feet in the air, and then settled through like Don Nelson’s famous bouncer off the rim that won the 1969 championship for Boston.

This one wasn’t as significant, perhaps except for a young Bulls team to beat the NBA’s hottest team, the Cavs, who had been tied with the Lakers for the league’s best record and now are 30-7.

“It was a very competitive game all night,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “They kept coming at us and I thought our guys really responded well. We had a lot of good performances. Luol was very active tonight. Derrick was aggressive when he needed to be. Kirk really gives us that intensity and edge defensively, and gets us into our sets offensively. Tyrus protected us well at the rim. With their penetration and shooting they spread you out. Lebron is Lebron and I thought we contested him well. We met him at the rim a few times with Tyrus contesting his shot. They are a very good team but have a couple guys out. I was very pleased with Drew Gooden giving the effort tonight. I could tell he was in pain but he was productive in his minutes. Every little bit helped. We have a tough schedule and back to back wins is a good sign for us.”

And give Del Negro and the coaching staff some credit for this one, though the Cavs were down three starters with Zydrunas Ilgauskas out injured and Ben Wallace with the flu. Plus, Delonte West, who was abusing Ben Gordon in the post in the first quarter, suffered a fractured right wrist late in the first quarter trying to contest a Rose drive.

Plus, James said he was sick, and his game was awful, right down to a poor choice to attempt a game winning shot in regulation, a fall-away 20 footer from the left side after Rose tied the game at 87 with 17 seconds left in regulation. James, who missed 13 straight shots from the fourth quarter into overtime had 28 points and 14 rebounds, but on eight of 28 shooting, and spent much of the game settling for bad jump shots.

OK, maybe he’s not MJ quite yet, though Jordan did have his foggy nights as well. One game doesn’t make a legend. Or dismiss one.

“This was my worst game of the season,” James said. “We gave ourselves a chance to win in regulation. Yes, I was sick tonight. When I get sick like that I miss layups and put-backs, things I usually make. It’s tough out there when you can’t breathe. I missed layups and put-backs as I had no lift in my legs. We’re a team and we win and we lose as a team. Coach doesn’t have to take the blame for the loss. It’s easy to ask what can we do to make up for “Z” out, Ben out and now Delonte. Guys having to step up is easy to say but it is tough when you have three starters absolutely out of your lineup. But they did a good job defensively on me.”

The Bulls did and with a plan they hadn’t tried before. And why not since none of the previous ones had worked in the Cavs winning three from the Bulls already and James twice with 41 point games.

Usually, you trap and show hard on James, go under or fight over, and the Bulls had tried most with no success. So they went with something of a zone system.

They switched every time James made a move.

The switches weren’t always aggressive, and at times James ended on a defender not able to move his feet well, like Joakim Noah, and James drove for fouls, though he was missing his free throws.

An aside here, and I’m not saying I know for sure.

But the Cavs arrived in Chicago Tuesday night after a relatively easy game in Memphis and a relatively short flight. Yes, I know it’s cold and all that.

But NBA players generally rate Chicago one of the top five destinations for its many late night activities, and perhaps two nights in Chicago before the game was two too many.

I’m not saying. I’m just wondering.

Anyway, the Bulls had a plan for James and stuck with it.

Deng took the assignment straight up, but James saw plenty of Thomas, who had a great stretch in the fourth quarter around that Rose three-point play. First he came to help and blocked a sure James layup at the rim after an offensive rebound and then stripped James on a drive after taking the switch.

The Cavs didn’t do a particularly good job of making adjustments and trying to exploit the switches or putting out shooters to space the defense and give James more room to pass or shoot.

“Give Chicago credit,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown. “They did a terrific job defensively, especially in the second half. I take the blame for this loss as there were some things I should have done. They blocked us on our pick and rolls and they switched Tyrus on Lebron and then Hinrich for effective defense. We didn’t have much movement in that second half. We took 19 threes in that half. In the first half, we didn’t start that way and moved the ball and shot 57 percent. That is how we have played in the past and lost. No ball movement and no body movement causes the poor play. Give the Bulls credit for their physical style as they put bodies on us all night.”

Big, bad Bullies? Though, yes, it is required after every Cavs loss that someone from Cleveland take the blame and make sure everyone knows it was that man, or the man, or some man, who was holding back James.

But it was a more active and unselfish Bulls team, getting 22 assists to 16 for the Cavs and showing some emotion and animation, especially on defense. The catalyst seems to be Hinrich, who has been a different guy since his return. Never very vocal, Hinrich has been directing players on defense and those around the team say speaking up and seeming to hold teammates accountable on assignments.

Teams do adjust, and Hinrich and Deng have some fresh legs from being out so long. But it’s a welcome sight for this Bulls team, that moved to 18-22 and seems to be testing itself more.

Like against Toronto Wednesday when the Bulls clearly were more physical with the Raptors bigger players and kept them more on the outside, particularly Chris Bosh, and not allowed them to create space so easily in the pick and rolls they run so often.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Thomas.

It didn’t look that way early as the Cavs came out with an obvious plan as well: Whoever Ben Gordon is guarding gets the ball.

It was Delonte West and he ran right into the post, scoring over Gordon repeatedly and had 11 points in the first quarter before his awful fall.

“They told me I’m going to be out a few weeks with this fracture of my wrist,” said the left handed West. “I really don’t use my right hand, anyway.”

The Bulls didn’t use much of anything in that woeful first quarter and fell behind by 13 before trailing 28-20.

The two scores from Andres Nocioni to end the first turned into a 17-3 run with Hinrich and Thabo Sefolosha delivering threes and with Gooden firing in jumpers, the Bulls were up six midway through the second.

A word about Gooden here. It was good to see him want to return even though he clearly was not fully healthy from a groin injury. He does stop the ball a bit much as he gets into those modes when he’s firing shots. But by the end of the game, he was up on the bench and cheering as hard as anyone and into a celebratory drive that you don’t see enough on what is usually a restrained Bulls supporting group.

Those reserves got the Bulls back into it, though Rose couldn’t get anything to go down and the Bulls trailed 48-46 at halftime.

“My teammates wanted me to shoot and I was trying to get us to move the ball and get my teammates open shots as well,” said Rose.

The teams pretty much matched shots in the third quarter, though you had to like the way the Bulls did it, especially on one possession when Rose dropped the ball off to Hinrich who hit Gooden in the post who found Deng at the free throw line who found Rose along the baseline who then found Hinrich in the deep corner for a three.

Once again, Larry Hughes didn’t get in the game and Gordon had a quiet night with just two of six shooting in 32 minutes and didn’t play most of the last five minutes of regulation or in the overtime.

The Bulls did this more with defense with Thomas and Deng helping bother James into eight turnovers.

They were subtle at times, like when they squeezed James on a drive and he was called for a second travel late in the third quarter, and there was Thomas when he wasn’t switching onto James blocking Anderson Varejao shots twice early in the third.

Though it looked like all the effort would go unrewarded as the Bulls had a brain lock run late in the fourth with three straight turnovers, Rose stepping out of bounds, Hinrich throwing too low for Deng and Thomas lost and dropping a ball for Rose that went out of bounds. With that, the Cavs finally figured out Thomas was over-helping. So James held the ball and when Thomas made a move toward James, James dropped the ball to Varejao for a dunk and 87-83 Cavs lead with 2:14 left. It would be the Cavs last score in regulation.

Rose came back as if to say, “I’m the best player on this court,” and he went hard with a crossover past Varejao for a score.

“He’s going to be a really big talent in this league,” said James. “Chicago got a really good player there. Rose hit a big shot coming down that stretch and then made that free throw. I’ve watched him a lot. He’s a very good talent. They definitely made the right choice in drafting him. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s a special player.”

James is supposed to be the guy making those drives and the Cavs are supposed to be the great defensive team.

But James again pulled up for a bad jumper and missed, and Rose ran out and was fouled, but missed both free throws. Ouch. The Bulls still trailed by two with 90 seconds left. But Deng swiped a Daniel Gibson pass to give the Bulls life. Thomas missed a good look from 15 feet, but when James drove this time, Deng reached down with still another defensive marvel and tied up James for a jump ball.

Cleveland won it, but James slipped down as Williams threw the ball back to him and the Bulls gained possession. Rose drove yet again, was fouled, and this time made both to tie the game at 87 with 17 seconds left.

James took the ball and went and held up for that last shot, a curious choice, it seemed.

“LeBron had a great look at the end of [regulation],” said Williams, who had 26. “We’ll take that any day.”

But you won’t win many with those kinds of shots, I’d say.

Best player in the game—some say now—taking that to end the game? I can’t say I saw Jordan attempt many like that when the game was on the line and there was no way you could keep from fouling him.

I guess James is 24.

Though this may have been a game the Bulls grew up a bit.

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