No more time for Mr. Nice Guy as Bulls lose to Portland


Jan 13

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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.

Vinny Del Negro is a nice guy. It’s one reason I believe he’s the Bulls coach. Del Negro was known in his NBA career as a communicator. And when communication broke down so badly last season for the Bulls, and players told management after the season about the gulf between coach and player, it perhaps was no surprise the Bulls sought out someone to work more closely with players.

Well, it’s time after the Bulls Monday 109-95 loss to the Portland Trailblazers to fall to 16-22 for Del Negro to not be such a nice guy anymore. Not with eight losses in the last 11 games.

It was understandable Monday at the United Center with the Bulls at full strength for the first time all season for Del Negro to experiment with rotations and combinations in trying to piece together a full team.

But in the Bulls continued softness on the defensive end and with a bench filled with offensive players, most of whom play on the perimeter, it’s going to fall to Del Negro to make the tough decisions that a lot of his players may not like. And they may not like Vinny for it. But as much as many try, it’s never the job of the coach to be liked. Just to produce, motivate and develop.

It’s time for that to begin with the Bulls, and this is how it has to start: With defense.

Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas have to be on the court regularly.

They were to start the game Monday, and that’s when the Bulls looked the best in dominating the first quarter, even if they only led 28-21 after one.

It was good to see Derrick Rose, who finished with 13 points and 10 assists, to go right at the basket against Steve Blake to open the game and score. Rose needs to be a scorer more, which is why I’d probably open with Rose and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt, or perhaps Rose with Sefolosha and Hinrich coming in for Sefolosha and Rose moving to off guard.

Hinrich returned almost a month ahead of schedule from thumb surgery, and though he had just four points and three assists, his energy and defense was pivotal when the Bulls build up their biggest lead of the game at 34-23 early in the second quarter.

Drew Gooden, who led the Bulls with 22 points and nine rebounds, was outplaying Greg Oden early in what was supposed to be the matchup of 2007 and 2008 overall No. 1 picks. Oden ended with 17 points and 13 rebounds in one of his better efforts of the season and came on later.

But Gooden was outrunning him and then stepping out for jumpers with Oden not following, That energy and effort from Sefolosha, Thomas and later Hinrich when he entered to a nice ovation enabled the Bulls to play the open court game to their advantage. Because Portland with its size, as it eventually would, prefers to be in the halfcourt and batter opponents, especially smaller ones like the Bulls.

But early Gooden found Sefolosha cutting for a score and Sefolosha scored after his own miss. And when Oden couldn’t get one up at the basket, the Bulls took off for a classic three on two with the ball moving for an easy Sefolosha layup from Hinrich via Rose.

But we wouldn’t see much more of Sefolosha after that first quarter surge in which he helped thwart Brandon Roy into an uncharacteristic 11 points on three of 13 for the game. Thomas, though not even getting a shot, was active on LaMarcus Aldridge, and you wonder how far that went toward Aldridge’s meager eight points.

Thomas played 24 minutes and scored only on three free throws, and you get the sense even with a good defensive effort he was discouraged not being able to go back at Aldridge given the controversial draft day trade involving the two.

Perhaps you are wondering by now how the heck the Trailblazers won this game.

Travis Outlaw, who often mistakenly is called “Bo” or “Charles” by many for those previous NBA players, had a season high 33 points, 13 more than his previous high. Monday you could call him the Mask, because he was smokin’ hot. And Blake did a nice job with 16 points in having the Bulls have to admit the obvious at times, that their prized rookie isn’t a very good defender.

Blake repeatedly beat Rose into the paint, forcing the defense to collapse and leaving pitch out opportunities for Outlaw. It’s another reason why Rose needs to be looking for his shot more. The guys playing him should be made to work as well.

So it’s time for Del Negro to make demands of his roster and the heck what anyone says.

Ben Gordon, who had 17, needs to be sixth man. With more than a half season left, he still can win the post season award.

It’s not a punishment. And I believe Ben has way too much pride to give up no matter how unfair he may think it is. Plus, if you have watched Ben his entire career here, you know he gets most of his points in bunches or spurts. Look, sixth man is no insult to Manu Ginobili, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry. Ben will handle it and produce.

As I said, put Rose with Hinrich or Sefolosha, and then Luol Deng, with 14 points back from his ankle injury, splitting time with Sefolosha depending on small forward matchups.

Thomas has to play with Gooden to prove the athletic shot blocking help that might have made a difference with someone like Oden Monday. Gooden allowed Oden deep position, and it’s not easy to keep Oden that far out as he seems sort of a modern day Artis Gilmore, big and powerful if not that artistic. So you front him and make him work and have Tyrus watching the backside for the lob. I doubt at this point Oden could catch them anyway as he still moves deliberately.

Though it was Oden who got the Blazers back into the game after they were down 11 in the second.

The Trail Blazers came out of their timeout throwing to Oden deep in the post and Oden backing down Gooden. The mistake on the offensive end, and Gooden didn’t make many, was taking the next several possessions to try to retaliate with jumpers, which stopped any motion the Bulls had and Portland went on a 9-0 run.

“I just took advantage of what they gave me out there,” said Oden.  “I was taller than Drew Gooden and was able to get inside and score.  It also allowed me to get the ball to someone open when I was covered.  The key to our getting the lead was starting to go to the basket more.  The guys seem to get warm and more comfortable in that second quarter. The X-factor is me, Travis and Steve Blake. We’re the three that are behind (Roy) and LaMarcus. Whenever we can step up and have good games to take pressure off those guys, it’s going to be big.”

Oden then continued to back in and draw fouls and the Bulls turned stagnant, mostly shooting jumpers as Portland went ahead 49-45 at halftime on an Outlaw three to close a half that felt like the Bulls controlled.

“It was a big momentum boost,” said Outlaw. “Everybody came in talking, ‘Yeah, we got ’em. We got ’em.”

They did have ’em.

Portland exploded out of halftime with Blake hitting a three off an Oden pass as the Bulls now overcommitted to Oden, Aldridge scored from the post and Oden deftly spun by Gooden for a layup.

That gave Portland a 56-46 lead, and then Outlaw seemed to hold off the Bulls on his own with three three pointers by the end of the quarter as he scored 13 points in the last six minutes of the third to 14 for the Bulls while Gordon had one particularly bad run of three quick shot possessions.

“We did not sustain our intensity,” said Del Negro  “They got us in trouble by going to Oden in the post.  In the second half we tried to double him and Travis Outlaw hit some shots and had a big night for them.  We did not control penetration well.  They broke us down and shared the basketball.  Aldridge and Roy, you have to double.  We were picking our spots in the first half.  In the second half we got a little complacent defensively.  Our rotations were slow out of the double team.  You have to give them credit, they made some shots.”

The Bulls got within 83-78 on two Rose free throws with eight minutes left. But Rudy Fernandez hit a three against an overcommitting Bulls defense, Roy drove at Gordon and was fouled for two shots and then Blake beat Rose along the baseline and found Roy in the corner for a three and a 91-78 lead.

“They are definitely a good team,” said Hinrich, who missed the 42-point loss in Portland in November  “They wore us down in the second half.  We weren’t able to control the penetration. We struggled with rebounding, too.”

Gordon came out of a timeout for the Bulls and committed an offensive foul and this time Blake got open and hit the three, and down 16 with six minutes left it wasn’t going to be possible for the Bulls against this Portland team.

“It’s almost like you have to pick your poison with them,” said Gordon. “They’ve got great big guys, really good guard play, good wings.”

It’s not like the Bulls can match their talent, especially in size. But when the Bulls defended and ran and opened the court and speeded up the game, Portland wasn’t so awesome.

So, sorry, but Larry Hughes doesn’t play anymore this season unless someone is hurt. He didn’t particularly do anything wrong, but the Bulls have got to get in some form of eight, perhaps nine player rotation. Aaron Gray got six minutes for no real reason. There’s no need anymore. Joakim Noah got eight minutes, and perhaps he’s that ninth man with the occasional run to see if he makes a difference.

It’s a small team, but you play with what you have, and you still can compete if you defend.

Andres Nocioni, who had six fouls, five shots and four rebounds, is that eighth man playing some power forward, using his strength and trying to lure a big man outside on occasion for a mismatch.

Yes, some players will be mad at Vinny. Perhaps a lot. So what. When you try to please everyone you generally end up pleasing no one.

This is a tough week in Toronto Wednesday and then home for the Cavs and Spurs.

Those teams are bigger and more talented. So show them something they might have difficulty dealing with: Rose off the ball at times as a scorer, Sefolosha with those long arms pestering and playing up and Thomas jumping at everything. Gordon is no secret, but he’s a weapon. There’s room for one only guy who shoots everytime, and that should be Gordon. He’s good at it. It’s no shame to come in firing. It’s a grand NBA tradition made famous by Boston Celtics’ champions.

Gooden can step out and make shots and Thomas has to stay in the game now that he seems to be competing on the defensive end all the time. So call his number and get him some shots. It’s OK. Gotta feed the big dog, as the saying goes. Even if he’s not that big.

We’ve seen the core of that group defend, work hard and earn respect. There’s no reason why they can’t it again. And being good is a lot better than being liked, anyway.

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