Bulls leave nuggets behind the 8-Ball


Feb 21

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For the Bulls, it turned out Eight was Enough.

Well, maybe seven kids and one senior citizen in Lindsey Hunter.

But those kids, led by Ben Gordon with a season high 37 points on 12 of 23 shooting Friday, outplayed and outclassed the Denver Nuggets for a 116-99 victory despite only eight players being available because of the big trades from Wednesday and Thursday.

Brad Miller and John Salmons were at the game, but couldn’t play because the players the Bulls sent to the Kings had yet to pass physicals. And there was Tim Thomas, who hadn’t reported yet.

“It feels like I’m going to a Cubs game,” said Hoosier native and resident Miller of being back in Chicago. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Though the Bulls’ play, a bit awkward and sloppy early, remained impassioned as they came from a dozen down in the first half to mostly control the second half and pull away from an 87-87 tie with eight minutes left.

“When teams have their backs against a wall, they tend to play better. It increases your focus,” said Gordon. “Maybe because there were not enough players you play a little extra. It’s fun. I think guys play more relaxed. We’re not coming out of the game or whatever. That’s been working for us the last few games (uh oh. Because decisions have to be made soon). I was in a great rhythm and my teammates fed me. It was a great win with only eight players.”

I’d have to add that Kirk Hinrich did a heck of a job down the stretch when the Bulls pulled away on Chauncey Billups, who led Denver with 25.

Before Billups returned to the game with about seven minutes remaining and the Bulls leading by four, the Nuggets, effectively, were playing without a point guard, using J.R. Smith. Hinrich forced him into a turnover with the Bulls leading 85-83, and then stripped Smith of the ball before Linas Kleiza recovered and made a layup for an 85-85 tie.

But then Billups, who kept Denver ahead early, couldn’t find room around screens or in the lanes as Hinrich did impressive work staying in front of him, harassing Billups and forcing long shots. It was the kind of relentless defense that led me to conclude Hinrichs effort Wednesday’s win over the Bucks was one of the best games of his career. Billups failed to score in those last seven minutes, putting up three, bad long jumpers as the Bulls closed the game with a 17-7 run.

“He is a tough guard,” Hinrich said of Billups. “He may be the best point guard in the league right now. If not the best, he’s in the top three. They’re all big (games) now. We’re making a push for the playoffs. We will have the new guys there and we have to get them used to what we do.”

That said, I still hated that Derrick Rose sat the last 9:26 of the fourth quarter.

“I liked his (Hinrich’s) demeanor out there,” said coach Vinny Del Negro. “He did a great job with Chauncey and really stabilized us out there. He was fantastic, especially on the defensive end.”

I can’t say Rose was upset, and he wasn’t. Players always say they only care about winning. Many are fibbing as they examine the box score. Rose is not. He really does only seem to care about that.

“It was really impressive,” said Rose, who had 10 points and six assists and was facing doubling and trapping defenses all game. “We were just trying to play together, I’m surprised we won the game (because of being so shorthanded).”

Del Negro got violently second guessed when he left Rose out at the end of that last second loss to Miami before the All-Star break and in the rush of offensive/defensive switches at the time I speculated Del Negro simply forgot. Perhaps he was sending us all a message that he knows what he is doing.

The Bulls moved to 25-30 with their third win in the last four, and have been the aggressors throughout this stretch.

They’re now just a half game behind the injury-depleted Bucks for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and just four games behind Miami for the fifth spot. And with reinforcements on the way in the form of Miller, assuming he is healthy as he’s been out of late, Salmons and Tim Thomas.

With the Pistons in free fall, Miami trying to adjust to Jermaine O’Neal and the 76ers slumping, it’s hardly out of the question that this Bulls team—if there isn’t a major disruption with Miller, Tim Thomas and Salmons—has a legitimate chance to move well into playoff position like the surprising 2004-05 team, which started 0-9 and didn’t reach .500 until late January. It finished with the East’s third best record. Fifth is hardly a lock for any of the aforementioned teams the way they’ve been playing.

“Hey, they got a lot of young athletes,” said Billups. “Guys that can really fill it up. You look at some of those guys that had an effect on the game. It’s no wonder why we lost.”

But I still want my best player in the game down the stretch no matter what is happening, and that is Rose. I know his defense is problematic at this point. But he does so much more. Sure, the Bulls won easily Friday, so there won’t be an issue of it. But I believe you have to play your main guy whom you are developing to be the leader of your team no matter the circumstances.

We’ll see where this goes, and I can’t see Rose out at so called crunch time much more. But the Bulls backcourt with the arrived of Salmons suddenly is looking very good with Hinrich, with nine points and eight assists off the bench Friday, back to being a stickler on defense and Gordon showing Salmons it’s not going to be easy to take his time, and his shots.

Salmons is regarded as a quiet guy who pretty much plays basketball and goes home and in his biography lists the Bible as his favorite book.

He seemed just as humble when he arrived Friday, telling reporters he was proud to be with the Bulls.

“I’m happy to be part of history,” he said. “Everybody grew up watching the Bulls. It’s definitely going to be fun to be a part of that.”

And what that was Friday was a heck of a closing kick highlighted by some nifty defense with Luol Deng pestering an aching Carmelo Anthony into a miserable, indifferent five of 18 shooting for 12 points.

“Carmelo is hurt, there’s no doubt that he does not have as much zip,” said Nuggets coach George Karl. “We cannot force the game. He was not the only guy. We had other guys forcing the game too. This year we’ve had pretty good unselfish basketball. In tonight’s game against a team where we should be attacking the rim instead we were playing 1 on 1 basketball.”

Deng also ran Anthony on the other end, then dropped off a pair of terrific passes against Nuggets help for two Joakim Noah slam dunks. Then Tyrus Thomas took advantage of Anthony for a clinching three-point play before the Bulls finished it off at the free throw line.

Deng ended with 22 points, 12 rebounds and three steals while Thomas continued his hot play with 21 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and three blocks. Noah had 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

No, Thomas still has issues when players back him down with physical play as Nene, with 19 points, bowled Thomas over early when the Nuggets were controlling the game as Thomas and Noah both have trouble fighting off more physical big men. That’s where Miller should help. Though Thomas was terrific again with his weak side help, and Noah was more aggressive on offense as he’s actually began to look at the rim. He still will come in and flip the ball up on occasion, but made a heck of a drive early in the third quarter when Nene shaded to his left to help on Deng and Noah ran in from about 16 feet for a slam dunk.

“Ben was just great for us and I thought Tyrus came up big and Deng came up big,” said Del Negro. “I thought Joakim did a nice job out there. I’m just happy for the guys to stay together after not a good first quarter and then battle back. I thought we got after it in the second half. Ben was hot and we found him. I liked Luol’s aggressiveness tonight. Chauncey didn’t miss a shot the first half, we put Kirk on him in the second and he did a great job. I’m just really happy for the guys, sticking together and getting it done. We have resilient guys and I’ve said that from the beginning. Now we have to incorporate the new guys who will practice tomorrow with us. You have to go out and work and give the effort and our guys have been doing that and now we’re getting results.”

This was one of those games the Bulls were supposed to lose with all the early turnovers and Andres Nocioni, Drew Gooden and Thabo Sefolosha gone.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the Bulls couldn’t have been left with four players if four fouled out as Aaron Gray and Noah were in foul trouble.

The NBA rule is if there are five players left and one commits a sixth foul, a free throw is awarded to the other team for each foul and the last player to “foul out” gets to remain in the game. Don Otten holds the NBA record for eight fouls in a game for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks against the Sheboygan Redskins in November 1949. There was said to be no blogging about it after that game.

There looked like there was not going to be any bragging for the Bulls after this game with the Nuggets attacking Rose, primarily with Billups, and Nene pushing around Noah. The Nuggets would lose Kenyon Martin to back spasms in the second half, which would help the Bulls.

Deng again came out carrying the Bulls offense like against the Bucks Wednesday, but Denver was too physical and aggressive. The Nuggets also tried to exploit Gordon early as most team do, but shooting guard Dahntay Jones isn’t much of an offensive player. It will be interesting to watch what Del Negro does with the addition of the bigger and more defensive oriented Salmons.

The Nuggets led 31-21 after one, but Gordon shot the Bulls back into it in the second quarter. Though after Noah drew a third foul, the Nuggets punished the Bulls small lineup to take a 43-32 lead.

It was clear Anthony was dragging himself around with a leg injury and clearly hurt the team. Deng ran out on him several times and then Gordon took advantage of reserve Anthony Carter in transition. The Nuggets came in with the second best record in the Western Conference, and given they are so small with such a limited bench, if they are the second best team in the West (now third best record behind the Spurs), then we know we’re back to the 1980’s with a better East and the Lakers.

Trailing 47-36 with five minutes left in the first half, Gordon scored nine points in the next two minutes as the Bulls got a 54-54 halftime tie.

Gordon kept it up with a three to open the Bulls second half scoring and he outscored the Nuggets 7-1to open the third.

“Once he got it going, it was hard for us to contain him,” Anthony said.

Rose then contributed a terrific reverse drive, a jumper and a little teardrop to push the Bulls ahead with Thomas pinning a Nene shot to thrill the crowd.

Karl always has used a sort of a zone with a lot of switching even when it wasn’t allowed as he was known as a coach who, so called, “junks up the game” with varied defenses. But when the Bulls began to spread the court and run out in the third quarter and the Nuggets began to settle for jumpers against a more aggressive Bulls defense, it seemed just a matter of time. Though the Nuggets had that one early fourth quarter run left behind Chris Andersen and Kleiza.

But it was hardly enough as the Bulls Magnificent Seven, at least on this night, gave way for Hunter to get a last minute of action. Though he had to be proud of all those kids just romping around.

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