Watch out West. Here Come the Bulls.


Feb 2

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Bulls practice here Monday morning, in the wake of a three game winning streak, seemed serious and intense with plenty of competitive noise. Afterward, coach Vinny Del Negro had Derrick Rose aside, demonstrating a shooting technique.

Could that have been Vinny I heard humming, “Ain’t no stoppin’ us now?”

Nah, but the brilliant sunny skies here seemed pale in comparison to the mood of the Bulls.

“Probably,” Del Negro answered to whether he thought the Bulls were in their best stretch of the season. “You just never know. We have the mindset we have to play together, become a team, trust each other, go and do your job and what’s expected of you. I think the guys are understanding that a little better now. Having Kirk (Hinrich) back is a big plus. As a captain he helps Derrick and settles our second unit down, or when he’s out with the first unit he really makes plays off the ball. Our younger guys are getting better. And hopefully we can get (leading rebounder) Drew (Gooden) back and add another weapon for us.

“When you win it’s like a relief,” Del Negro said. “And when you lose you feel sick and terrible. My mindset is now looking at the big picture and getting ready for Houston (Tuesday) and what problems they present. Whenever you win you build confidence. The players get more confident in everything they’re doing, especially when you win on the road. Long road trips can be very difficult but also can be where teams come together as well because you are spending a lot of time. If you come out here and struggle the road trip was difficult. If you come out here and win, oh, it’s a great bonding thing for the team. Right now I think we’re in a good spot.”

Yes, it’s still six below .500. But the five game losing streak, surrender against Toronto, home losses to Minnesota and Oklahoma City and criticism of the season by team Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf now seem like events of the long ago past.

“I don’t get caught up in all the drama and all the things,” said Del Negro. “I think the guys are in a good mindset now. They know we’re playing better. And I think they’re understanding their roles and their jobs better and how I work and what I believe in. We’re just trying to get on the same page, as people would say, but it’s taken a little longer than I probably would like because of the issues we’ve had this year with injuries and other things. I feel we’re moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot of basketball left. I thought we had a good practice today and hopefully that will transfer to tomorrow night’s game.”

Perhaps the best thing was a full out effort from Rose, who had to take himself out with a sore foot in Saturday’s win against the Suns.

“I’m doing well,” Rose said. “(My) body is holding up. I got some rest. I’m doing fine. It felt good. (It’s) not bothering me, (but) I didn’t get no dunks today.”

Coming down after his two spectacular dunks Saturday is when Rose aggravated his sore foot. But when asked if he’s done dunking or when he’ll dunk next, Rose said: “Next fast break. We need that. We feed off that so I’m going to try to keep doing that.”

And perhaps it may be disappointing to Reinsdorf that his much debated comments apparently weren’t motivation for the blowout wins in California and impressive victory in Phoenix in the third game in four nights in the Western Conference.

“Tell you the truth,” Rose said, “I didn’t even read the quote or listen to the quote he said. All I heard was people talking about it. It didn’t affect the team.”

Actually, it was more the first truly sustained consistency of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah.

Gooden practiced Monday for the first time since reaggravating his groin injury and missing the last six games. Del Negro said he pulled out Gooden about three quarters through the practice to be cautious, but speculated Gooden could play Saturday in Dallas.

The assumption is he comes off the bench at the time, and perhaps as the season progresses with Thomas and Noah finally contributing in tandem.

Noah is averaging 11.3 points, eight rebounds and 3.5 blocks and shooting 68 percent on the 3-1 Western Conference trip. Thomas is averaging 12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks and shooting 46 percent.

“They have to continue to make themselves threats, and when they continue to do that it opens up things for the other guys,” said Del Negro. “They’ve been putting in a lot of extra work. And their attitude is good and their effort and intensity has been good, so those things are all positives. Maybe they’re just more comfortable with me or the system or what’s expected or they’re more familiar with things and how we’re going to run and how we’re going to do certain things. They’re picking their spots better. But with young players it’s always a work in progress. As long as their effort and intensity is there and their mindset is right good things will happen.”

Of course, next is Yao, who has been terrific this season and the Rockets are 10 games over .500 despite having to play 15 different starting lineups due to injuries. Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest, as they have been just about all season, are questionable with injuries. And attitude as well. McGrady has grown more remote with his in and out status and the rumors are the Rockets would do almost anything to move him, if only to get some stability. Artest announced on a website last week without telling the team he was out. When coach Rick Adelman expressed disappointment, Artest played. When in games, they’ll often fall into what seems like personal shooting contests, which makes the Rockets’ 29-19 record that more remarkable.

The Bulls look like they get a break, though, going into New Orleans Wednesday with Chris Paul now likely out after a groin injury Monday and Tyson Chandler out through the All Star break with an ankle injury. Then it’s up and down Dallas Saturday before returning to the United Center for Johnny Kerr night Feb. 10 vs. Detroit.

Then it’s Miami at home Feb. 12 and vacation for everyone but Rose, who’ll play in the All-Star rookie/sophomore game Feb. 13 (yes a back to back) and then the PlayStation Skills Challenge Feb. 14 against Devin Harris, Tony Parker and a fourth player to be named. The NBA had announced Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, but he suffered a shoulder injury Monday and will not be able to participate.

Nelson, just selected for his first All-Star game, will likely not be able to play in the Feb. 15 All-Star game as well. So could Rose be selected by the commissioner and make it the All-Star trifecta?

You’d assume the choice would be Vince Carter, the East’s highest scorer who was not picked for the game. Perhaps Ray Allen. But given a point guard going out, there remains a chance the commissioner could go for the Bulls rookie, though the Cavs have been complaining about the absence of Mo Williams.

With Paul also now likely to miss the All-Star game, the pick could be between Al Jefferson and Kevin Durant, both in the top 10 in scoring, or maybe even Steve Nash if the team needs a guard with Deron Williams now also hurt.

The Skills Challenge is one of the premier events of the Saturday night contests which culminate in the three point and dunk. The three point contestants will be announced Wednesday and Ben Gordon remains a possibility, though he said he’s yet to hear anything. The previous Skills winners were Jason Kidd, Baron Davis, Nash, Dwyane Wade and Williams.

The Skills contest consists of four players competing in a two-round timed “obstacle course” consisting of dribbling, passing and shooting stations. The two players with the fastest times from the first round advance to the finals. Last year in New Orleans, Williams covered the course in a record 25.5 seconds in the second round to capture the title.

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