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Bulls Come Home to Humiliate Hornets
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 15
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So why can’t they do that all the time?
Which exactly is what everyone has been asking about this schizophrenic Bulls team that Saturday absolutely dominated one of the league’s best teams and players, the New Orleans Hornets and Chris Paul, in a 97-79 runaway in which the Bulls led by 30 with more than 10 minutes left in the game.
The stars were Ben Gordon with 27, though John Salmons with 24 and five threes got the Bulls off fast. And in a nice defensive switch by coach Vinny Del Negro, Salmons played Chris Paul and helped the Bulls put the Hornets in an early hole they never were able to escape.
Brad Miller, with 13, and Tim Thomas came in and helped stretch the lead to 24 midway through the second quarter as Del Negro was particularly innovative and employed a bigger reserve lineup with Tim Thomas at small forward. And it again gave the Hornets trouble and helped almost totally silence David West and Tyson Chandler, with Joakim Noah vastly out hustling former Bull Chandler.
Paul, with 29 points, was fabulous to watch skittering almost wherever he wanted with the ball, though the Bulls did a heck of a job in closing down the lane with their big lineup of Miller and Noah shading into the paint and forcing the Hornets to shoot jumpers.
With Peja Stojakovic out and the poor shooting Julian Wright starting, the Hornets were zero for 11 on threes and didn’t have anyone but Paul score more than 10 points. Though the Hornets were able to bait the Bulls into switches constantly, the Bulls kept their defense tight in the paint, also cutting off the Hornets lobs from Paul.
So why only at home and only occasionally?
“Obviously, we play a lot better at home than we do on the road,” agreed Gordon. “Obviously, we’ve got to figure out how to play better on the road in the few road games we have left.”
It’s more an institutional issue.
The obvious answer is the Bulls are a sub-.500 team starting three players who never before were regular NBA starters. That equals inconsistency. Becoming a solid pro in the NBA means producing on a constant level. Noah, Tyrus Thomas and even Rose, the latter the more reliable of the three but with four points on two of nine shooting Saturday, give you varying efforts from game to game. Plus, young players are more comfortable at home, where the Bulls now are 20-11 and just 30-37 overall.
Basketball is a game of aggression. Young players, especially, tend to be more aggressive when comfortable. They are more comfortable at home where people are cheering for them. So they generally play harder, thus also getting more foul calls because they are the aggressors. Typically, that changes on the road, where the noise and attitude is against them. So they hesitate. It’s why you win with veterans, who have been through it and know how to be aggressive home and away.
Plus, there’s the lack of an inside scoring presence. Even in a blowout win like this, the Bulls still were outscored in the paint as the Hornets plan, however unsuccessful this time, was to create the mismatches on the Bulls switches and then score inside. But West was ineffective, and nobody else really has inside presence.
“Our guys did a good job of fighting and making it difficult on some of their rotations,” said Del Negro.
Noah, with six points and nine rebounds, was very good. And he ever made a jaw dropping elbow 13 footer. Amazing because he actually took a jump shot. Forget making it. When’s the last time we’ve actually seen Noah trying to shoot from the perimeter with that wacky, side spinning globe rotation?
The Bulls, as we’ve said for years now, cannot get or count on post scoring, thus limiting them from changing the pace of the game.
They even opened Saturday’s game by sending Rose into the post against Paul, and Rose missed that attempt in the first meeting of the star point guard and the Bulls hope the young challenger.
“I think he’s a lot faster than me and a lot more explosive than me and he’s a lot more athletic,” Paul said graciously, though Rose is not in Paul’s class yet. “I should be asking what I see myself in him. I think he’s adjusted to the game very well.”
Teams generally open games going to a post shot to bait the defense into sagging so the spacing for the shooters gets better on subsequent possessions.
The Bulls aren’t able to do that starting Noah and Tyrus Thomas, and Salmons is usually at his best facing up with jumpers or driving hard, like he did blowing by West after a switch in the first quarter for his eighth points as the Bulls were quickly ahead 26-16.
In fact, it was a game in which the Hornets, 41-24, led for a total of 47 seconds, all early in the first quarter.
It’s now left this unpredictable Bulls team with home wins over the Hornets, Cavs, Magic, Rockets and Jazz, all headed for 50-win seasons, as well as winning teams like the Nuggets, Pistons, Suns and Mavericks.
Which is why I’m ready to go on the record:
The Bulls will make the playoffs.
Saturday’s win put the Bulls in eighth, a half game ahead of the Bucks, though that seems almost meaningless with six teams separated by two games.
“I look at it,” Gordon said of the standings. “I can’t help but look at it. There are like four or five teams that are right there right now and if a team goes on a winning streak they are going to get themselves in the playoffs.”
Or maybe if they play .500 ball, which would be an improvement for all those teams vying for eighth.
Still, in looking at the schedules and looking at the way the Bulls have played at home, the odds favor the Bulls. Of course, they aren’t a team that does the expected.
The Bulls have 15 games left, 10 at home with just six of their 15 against teams with winning records.
Here’s a look at the others:
n Bucks: 14 left and eight at home with nine against winning teams;
n Knicks: 17 left with eight at home and nine against winning teams
n Bobcats: 16 left with seven at home and seven against teams with winning records;
n Nets: 17 left with eight at home and 10 against winning teams.
n Pacers: 15 left with 10 at home and against seven with winning records.
There’s obviously a big chance all this will come down to tiebreakers. So head to head games will matter most. The Bulls have the edge if they tie with a division opponent as they have a good division record. But their conference record is one of the poorest if there is a tiebreaker with, say, a team like the Knicks or Bobcats, the latter with the tiebreaker already over the Bulls.
So that makes the recently concluded 0-3 road trip all the more frustrating with those late losses in Miami and Philadelphia.
“We have had some tough losses on the road,” acknowledged Salmons. “The Miami and Philly games we were right there at the end, so I don’t consider those bad losses. It’s the games like Orlando that we’ve got to cut out.”
Still, just about everyone below them continues to lose. So I like the Bulls chances.
There was little question of the outcome Saturday with the Hornets curiously indifferent other than Paul. Chandler, who had four points and nine rebounds, was extremely passive on defense and his closeouts barely drew an arm above his waist as he appeared more at military attention.
Paul, like a lot of the great ones, tends to feel his way into games and assess how the defense is playing him, and this time he had almost no help.
He tried to lob to Chandler on their pet play, and the Bulls got under Chandler and Chandler fumbled the pass. They tried to attack Gordon, as most teams do, but there’s only so many games Rasual Butler can win for you.
Meanwhile, the Bulls were hitting shots, and when they do it looks a lot easier.
“They made a lot of shots,” said Paul. “You can’t just say that we played horribly. John Salmons shot the light out of the ball, Ben Gordon does what he usually does, Brad Miller was hu
ge in the game. We just never weathered the storm tonight.”
That tsunami swamped the Hornets when coach Byron Scott went with his withered bench to open the second quarter and the Bulls buried New Orleans with an 18-0 run.
Gordon, five of 22 the previous two games though the rotations were awkward and Gordon didn’t play much, got hot. Tim Thomas posted longtime nemesis James Posey and hit one of his two threes in the run on terrific ball movement with Salmons around the perimeter. Salmons took a tight handoff over a screen for a three.
By then it was 48-24 Bulls with 5:43 left in the half, and the Hornets’ group of Hilton Armstrong, Devin Brown, Ryan Bowen, Posey and Antonio Daniels somehow didn’t dominate.
“We didn’t come ready to play,” said Scott. “They played like the game meant something to them and we didn’t. They came out with a lot more energy and were a lot more aggressive from the start of the game. We got down early. I brought in the second unit and we got down even more. We were just never in the game from a mental standpoint or a physical standpoint. I don’t know if it shocks me, but it disappoints me more than anything. You could see the fact that they wanted it a whole lot more than we did. They just played harder.”
All that was left for the Hornets was Paul, and it was still something to behold.
After a Miller turnover, he went behind his back on a drive beating Rose for a layup, and shortly thereafter blew by Rose with Salmons out in the big lineup, then cut right leaving Noah in cement and scored on another layup.
That brought the Hornets within 53-39 at halftime, but one on five wasn’t going to be enough.
Paul isn’t going to be MVP. That’s now between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as they are throwing 50-point games at one another, Wade with one Saturday after James Friday night.
But I had one coach tell me recently he thought Paul did more for his team than any player in the NBA. So is that the definition of MVP? Certainly, the Hornets would be a lottery team without Paul. Though some note Paul’s strength also is his weakness, that he has to have the ball all the time to be effective. A player has to be able to do more. Still, watching him slice up virtually any defense and find his shot, since he doesn’t have long distance range, is one of the joys in watching the game.
Soon, Paul would be on the bench prematurely watching this one.
Salmons opened the second half with a pair of threes, Noah tipped in a Gordon miss, and then Tyrus Thomas, quiet and quickly subbed in the first half with fouls and foul looking jumpers, took a slick Noah pass for a baseline reverse slam dunk to put the Bulls ahead 70-49. And shortly thereafter, the Bulls began a 17-0 run. Happy days are here again. Happy day?
“It just shows what we can be, how good a team we actually can be,” said Salmons. “If we come out every night the same way.”
If only, eh?