Bulls on a Run as they Rout Miami


Mar 27

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Could this be the start of something big?

You are starting to get that feeling with the Bulls, who dominated the Miami Heat Thursday, 106-87, to win for the sixth time in the last seven games and ninth of the last 10 at home and move into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, percentage points ahead of the Detroit Pistons.

“We’re playing well together,” said John Salmons, perhaps the key piece to all this with a team high 27 points, 13 in the third quarter when the Bulls broke open the game. “Just a couple weeks ago, we were out of the playoffs and weren’t playing well. We’ve put a good string of games together.”

Salmons, having moved in to start for the injured Luol Deng, is averaging 24.9 points in the last seven games and about 19 since joining the Bulls. Not a particularly motivated passer, he’s a tough, determined scorer who, along with Miller, has given the Bulls a fighting edge which they’ve missed and seems to have embolden the others, especially the young inside players, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah.

This was clear early in the game as Dwyane Wade, who was game high with 31, was determined after a poor game Wednesday in Indianapolis and was on the United Center floor shooting for hours before the game. At 29-29 in the second quarter, Thomas fought off three Heat players for his own miss and put the ball up for a score, and a possession later Noah drew the awe of the sellout crowd persisting in the midst of all five Heat defenders and coming up with a Salmons, miss. Though the Bulls would not score, it was as much message as result: We’re not going easily.

“They played extremely well,” said Heat coach Eric Spoelstar. “They had an incredible amount of speed and energy.”Salmons also impressed the TNT national cable crew, which raised the question of what the team would do if Deng did return. Salmons will remain the starter, Reggie Miller declared, adding when Salmons dribbled into a shot and hit a square up three in Dwyane Wade’s face with the Bulls ahead 91-75 midway through the fourth quarter: “Luol Deng can’t do that!”

Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said the team remains hopeful of getting Deng back from his stress fracture, though it seems less likely this late with Deng not having played or practiced. Tim Thomas remained out with back spasms, though Derrick Rose returned after missing one game with a sprained wrist. But Rose came off the bench behind Kirk Hinrich, who has been a better defender on Wade.

Del Negro contended the move wasn’t for defense (no one believed him), but added the team played well with Hinrich starting against the Pistons Tuesday. Hinrich had 15 points and four threes Thursday.

Del Negro also has stuck with a short rotation of just seven players with Rose back. And while you’d usually say that’s a mistake and it tires players, it looks like it will be best for this group.

The Bulls clearly are playing better than anytime in the last two seasons, and with more joy and enthusiasm than they’ve shown in two years. This group seems to enjoy playing together, and they seem to prefer the security of knowing they’re staying in the game. It seemed clearly the first part of this season the players were grating over Del Negro’s trial-and-error, experimentation, hey-I’m-a-new-coach rotation. Now there’s no question. Everyone has to play big minutes.

And it’s produced the most consistently aggressive and emotive play from Noah and Thomas, who most suffered from the ins and outs and whims of the new coach. The last two as well, come to think of it.

I think the enthusiasm they are showing for their jobs now transcends the fatigue, which often is more mental than physical and a result of feeling sorry for yourself. Now, the group seems excited about playing, and that is more likely to produce the raw energy so necessary to be effective in an NBA game.

And the Bulls have been.

At this point in the season, in the post All-Star game home stretch, is when you begin to look in someone’s eyes, and you suddenly realize that this could be the start of something big.

The Bulls now are 35-38, three games ahead of ninth place Charlotte, 3.5 over New Jersey, four over Milwaukee and 4.5 ahead of Indiana.

Left for lifeless just a few weeks ago, the Bulls clearly have been revitalized and energized by the big All-Star week trade for Salmons and Brad Miller, the latter with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and tough play to respond to some cheap shots from the Heat, mostly from Jamaal Magloire.

That stuff is for losers, which the Heat has been since their big trade for Jermaine O’Neal, playing .500 ball since then after being four games over before the trade.

I know I’ve been saying the Bulls have no chance to pass the Heat or 76ers to move up even farther in the Eastern Conference. But I’ve also learned never to say never to a run. And the Bulls are on one. Suddenly, they’re 3.5 games behind the Heat and 76ers with nine games left and just one against a team with a winning record, the 76ers.

No sub-.500 team in the NBA is playing as well as the Bulls since the All-Star break.

The Bulls are third in the East since the break and the big trades with a 12-8 record. Only the Cavs and Magic have better records. In that stretch in the Western Conference, the Lakers, Rockets, Hornets, Mavericks, Spurs, Jazz and Trailblazers have better records. Though all were top playoff contenders all season.

This latest run by the Bulls has the feel of the 2005-06 season, when the Bulls closed 12-2 to finish 41-41 and pushed the eventual champion Heat to six games in a terrific first round playoff series.

“Right now, it’s important for the team to have momentum going into the playoffs,” said Tyrus Thomas, with 15 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. “We (feel) we have that.”

The Bulls showed that in a relentless third quarter run, closing the period 15-0 after holding off Wade’s 21 first half points.

“They became the aggressors and then they got everything to go their way,” said Wade, now 7-9 in his career in Chicago. “We were in the fight early on, but that one quarter got away from us. That’s more disappointing than anything. We’re a young team. We’ve been in every ballgame, we just haven’t pulled them out. It’s still up and down for this team.” ? ? ?Hey, that was the Bulls excuse a few weeks ago.

No, you don’t hear that young team excuse thing much any more.

You grow up fast when you put a few wins together.

It was 57-56 Bulls with seven minutes left in the third quarter when Hinrich threw Noah an inbounds pass. Noah, with 10 points and seven rebounds, faked a pass to Hinrich and O’Neal inched toward Hinrich since Noah always passes. But this time Noah turned and the way was vacant and Noah ran in and slammed. Yes, someone told Noah the basket is where points can be scored and that’s how they decide who wins. And he’s listened.

Thomas then blocked Udonis Haslem from behind as Haslem slipped a screen and seemingly was open for an easy score. Salmons then drove and spun for a score. Salmons has that spin move that Wade anticipated in that fabulous double overtime game in Miami a few weeks ago. But Salmons’ moves usually are so quick and strong, he gets his shot.

There followed a few dry possessions, though one I especially liked. Thomas had a layup blocked by Jamario Moon as the spacing broke down when Noah flashed across the lane toward Thomas. Thomas immediately yelled for Noah that he couldn’t bring his man that way. Nothing personal, but you love to see Thomas thinking and caught up in the game.

“My confidence has always been there,” said Thomas.

Rose fired in a jumper as the shot clock went off. But the Heat ran off seven straight, five by Wade, to pull within 64-63 with four minutes left in the third. Game on? Not for long.

This one was about to be written in the magic book.

Rose, showing few effects from the injury with nine points, seven assists, five rebounds and zero turnovers, penetrated deep, drawing three defenders, and pitched back to Salmons for an open three. Michael Beasley, off in his shooting at three of 10, missed. Salmons zig zagged on a drive making Mario Chalmers and Beasley look like traffic cones and past Haslem for a layup. Wade missed a three. But Salmons, now drawing a trap, found Hinrich for a three. Beasley committed an offensive foul as he tried to get in the middle on the Bulls’ zone.

The Bulls probably play more zone than any team in the NBA, and I’m not a big fan of it. Though the Heat is a small team (the Bulls outrebounded them 40-32 and were 21-12 on second chance points), so it’s less risk as rebounding position is difficult in a zone. The Bulls also are in switching defenses often, which get them caught in mismatches, through the zones worked better Thursday.

Salmons then drove, fought off Wade, who grabbed the ball, pulling it back and scoring over Moon. Moon then fired off a three, and Miller made the symbolic play of the game. Salmons shot from the top of the key on a handoff Miller. Miller stepped inside Beasley and Haslem for rebounding position. Miller tipped the miss twice, then grabbed it over Chalmers and beat Chalmers to the left baseline former for the ball.

Miller handed off to Rose, who darted diagonally down the lane and as Haslem closed, Rose lobbed the ball to Thomas. He slammed it with Wade hitting Thomas from behind for a foul and three point play, a 13-0 run and 77-63 lead.

Thomas stuck the landing as the crowd exploded, letting off a scream and a bold fist pump. Rose went skipping back toward the huddle, and the Heat called timeout as defeat never was more inevitable.

“They just broke the game right open,” said Spoelstra. “They played extremely well offensively. Give them credit. They have some tough weapons. They can attack you off the dribble and then they got the lead up to six or eight. We cracked from there. It happened so quickly. We called a couple timeouts but they really exploded offensively, they played extremely well.”Miller closed the quarter and the 15-0 run with a pair of free throws, and when Ben Gordon with 18 knocked in a pair of threes midway through the fourth quarter, Spoelstra gave up and lifted Wade as Miami lost its fifth in the last seven.

No way to be going into the playoffs. No way to stay ahead of the charging Bulls, really. You’re walking along the street or you’re at a party, and they’re again talking Bulls in Chicago. This could be the start of something big.

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