Bulls Rise to Occasion against Pistons Without Rose


Mar 25

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Yes, that’s your Bulls. The Bulls of the Coach Who Never Coached. Of The Other Draft Pick from 2006. The Energy Guy Who Wasn’t in Shape. Captain Backup.

Yes, those Bulls are one of the league’s hottest teams at the time you hope to be your best. The Bulls were again Tuesday, dominating the Detroit Pistons, 99-91 in a game hardly that close, for their fifth win in the last six games. The Bulls now are 34-38 and just a game behind the Pistons for seventh in the Eastern Conference.

I know. I know. They won’t sell authentic locker room t-shirts and caps for that.

But in also taking a two game lead over ninth place Charlotte, the Bulls are closing in on a nice recovery from last season’s 33-49 collapse and some real hope for the future.

“We’re just trying to get in sync,” said Ben Gordon, who had 19 points in being paired with old backcourt starting mate Kirk Hinrich with Derrick Rose out with a sprained wrist. “We need to continue to play well from here on out. They were down three starters tonight so we just wanted to come out and take care of business. Right now we’re in the playoffs. The most important thing is that we have to continue to play well. We can’t worry about what other teams are doing. We just have to continue to play well and play hard.” The Bulls are doing that. Not always impressively, like in hanging on against a decimated Washington team Monday. But in the last 10 days have beaten the Hornets, Celtics and Pistons, all playoff level teams, and added road wins over Oklahoma City and Washington. Yes, the latter are bottom feeders. But so were the Bulls. And winning on the road has been rare for the Bulls against any teams.

With Miami coming up Thursday and Rose probably out after his wrist swelled after that aborted dunk attempt at the end of the first half in Washington Monday, the Bulls effectively conclude the last difficult stretch of the season. After Thursday, they play only one team with a winning record, the 76ers, and six of the last nine games at home, where they are an impressive 22-12.

In addition to making the playoffs, which seemed unlikely just weeks ago, the Bulls have a chance to get to .500, which few predicted or even imagined, though hardly a destination.

And they’re doing it in an encouraging way with lively play and effort from their oft criticized young, big men, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Once again, Noah was feverish in his play, pumping his fist in accomplishment after rebounding a John Salmons miss with the Bulls ahead 60-53 in the third, slamming the ball and getting fouled and finishing the game with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Earlier in the quarter after the teams were tied at 43 at halftime, Thomas pinned a Rodney Stuckey layup attempt and then saved his own block, caught it falling out of bounds and flipped it back into the court high in the air, where Salmons got in and was fouled for two free throws.

You could only mutter, “Wow!”

“I’m understanding the game better,” Thomas said. “What I need to do, what the team wants and needs from me. I have the ability to do a lot, but it is what the team needs from me.”

And Tuesday, the team needed Kirk Hinrich.

You know. Backup point guard. The past. Replaced by rookie Derrick Rose. Mentioned in numerous trade rumors. Closer than many imagine to being traded last month.

But Hinrich was terrific Tuesday in one of the biggest games of a not that big season.

Rose, who hadn’t missed a game all season and had been perhaps the team’s most valuable player, had a bad reaction in his wrist following Monday’s win in Washington. It came from an attempted dunk to end the second quarter when Rose came up just short on a near fantastic attempt. He split a double and was about to dunk over Oleksiv Pecherov. Rose came up short and was slammed in the face by Pecherov with no foul call.

Rose finished the game with no apparent ill effects, but suffered discomfort afterward. He had X-rays and an MRI Tuesday morning. It was diagnosed as a bruise, though Rose could be out a few more days. This is with Luol Deng remaining out and uncertain about a return this season. Immediately, it meant Rose wouldn’t be playing in the pivotal game against the Pistons, just ahead of the Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings.

Hinrich started, and had his best game of the season, 24 points, eight assists and three steals.

“It’s been challenging at times,” Hinrich conceded. “I feel like I’ve been playing well lately in somewhat limited minutes. I’m just trying to stay in and do whatever I can.”

And Hinrich was in the middle when the Bulls broke open the game and pulled away in the third quarter.

The Bulls were trailing 51-50 with 9:08 left in the third quarter when Tyrus Thomas scored on an awkward looking drive, going left and throwing the ball back right. Thomas makes these kinds of moves, though gets more results than you’d expect. Between Noah’s shooting and Thomas’ drives, you’d wonder if those guys get any coaching at all. But they’re making plays.

After Stuckey missed a spinning layup attempt, Gordon lasered in a nice bounce pass to Noah, who was fouled and made both. It was the second game in the last three Gordon has had at least six assists.

Hinrich was doing a clever job all game doubling off Stuckey, and helped trap Tayshaun Prince into a turnover. Hinrich then ran out for a score. Kwame Brown committed an offensive foul, and then Tyrus Thomas hit a short baseline jumper on a heck of a bullet pass left handed from Gordon on top of the key. Gordon then stole an Antonio McDyess pass and did a wild shake and bake dribble, at least a half dozen times between his legs before getting fouled and making both.

Hey, no one said it was classic basketball.

Noah then added that fist pumping three and Hinrich finished the third putting the Bulls ahead 75-68 as he stole a pass from Walter Hermann and dribbled all the way for a layup against a badly disorganized Pistons defense.

Yes, the Pistons were without Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson. But the Bulls were without Rose and Deng. With five potential starters out, the TNT national cable studio crew of Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith were dismissing both teams. I caught the halftime show and both Barkley and Smith were saying the two teams stunk. They actually used a more evocative street term, still suggesting both teams weren’t worth watching. They even said they weren’t showing many highlights or breaking down plays, as is their halftime custom, because of the low quality of the teams.

Yes, you have to earn respect. But the Bulls may well be on the way.

Hinrich actually found himself being defended by the 6-9 Hermann at times and crossed him over for a score just after Tyrus Thomas nicely anticipated a Prince cross court pass, intercepted and ran out for a score and three-point play.

That combo put the Bulls ahead 80-68 a minute into the fourth quarter, and the Bulls were all smiles a few moments later when Gordon drove in from the right side and saw the defense react. He lobbed a pass to Brad Miller, alone left of the basket, though Miller doesn’t jump much. Miller went up on his toes to catch the ball and put it in for an 82-69 lead. And the Pistons never got the deficit under 10 until a few seconds remained.

The win gave the Bulls a 2-1 record this season over the Pistons with one more game, April 13 in Detroit. If the Bulls win that one, they get the tiebreaker, and if not it goes to division record, which is tied now. The next tiebreaker is conference record and Detroit has a big edge.

But even with their injured starters, the Bulls’ young legs appear to be making a difference over a declining team like the Pistons.

“My body feels good, but tonight I just felt a step slow,” said Antonio McDyess, outrun and out jumped by Thomas and Noah. “I just wonder if playing all these minutes is going to catch up to me later. It could hit me all of a sudden, you know? I hope it don’t, but I am afraid it might.”

It was interesting to hear that from McDyess given it was the Bulls playing the second on the back to back and with, essentially, a six player rotation. Tim Thomas played briefly after he was uncertain with back problems, and Lindsey Hunter also played fewer than five minutes early. Salmons, Gordon and Hinrich all played at least 45 minutes, and Miller was the only real reserve used.

It’s an interesting dynamic for these Bulls players, who seems to sag in enthusiasm when the roster is full. It’s tended to cause coach Vinny Del Negro confusion in rotations, which has flowed down to the players. But even with the heavy load of minutes, which can hurt, like it seemed to when the Bulls faltered at the end of the loss to the Lakers Saturday, these players seem comfortable not having to fight for minutes.

“With the shorter rotation I think everyone really knows what their rolls are,” said Gordon, who always can be counted upon for the most direct answers. “I think we moved the ball well. Kirk did a really good job being aggressive and he gets everyone moving out there on the offensive end. It was different because Kirk’s style and Derrick’s style is completely different. The tempo is different.”That, too, is an intriguing observation because Hinrich tends to be less an offensive weapon attacking the basket than the talented Rose. There’s long been murmurs of jealousy toward Rose this season, about the organization’s outward commitment to the rookie. I get the sense the players like Rose personally. But Gordon also has played with Hinrich for several years and they showed Tuesday they can fit together well.

Though they shouldn’t count on it too long. Despite Tuesday’s win, it’s difficult to see how the Bulls would have won nearly as many as they have without Rose.

Thomas even added five assists as the Bulls had 23 assists on 37 field goals and had a lot more of the drive and kick type plays Hinrich and Gordon ran so often under former coach Scott Skiles. Hinrich also seemed to find Salmons as well, and the two teamed for a classic after a moment of Bad Tyrus.

Thomas, as I said, was terrific much of the game with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Though he has his moments, like when he tried another of those twisting, pretzel drives with the Bulls ahead 86-73 midway through the fourth. Thomas missed and didn’t get the foul call, though he often doesn’t because he looks out of control. So he stopped to argue as the play continued. Stuckey missed an open jumper, and Hinrich retrieved and dribbled deep into the Pistons’ defense. Hinrich would often drive coaches and fans to distraction with his excess dribbling. But as he went deep and began to weave right, he passed back to Salmons, who stopped at the three point line and bottomed it for an 89-73 lead.

“I think he (Hinrich) played great and led the team,” said Salmons. “We were a little stagnant offensively and he got us going with his leadership. In no way is Kirk a back-up point guard. But when he’s coming off the bench, we’ve got the best back-up point guard in the league. It’s great to have a guy like that on this team.”Moments later, the Pistons committed a 24-second violation, a defensive three second and gaped as Hinrich roared in for a score as Noah did a nice job picking off Stuckey. In addition to his hustle and fight on the boards, Noah has been thinking the game better. Later in the fourth after an 8-0 Pistons run, Noah rolled in on a screen play when McDyess trapped the guard and slammed, and moments later after a Hinrich miss, Noah retrieved the ball and brought it out to kill time rather than risk a quick miss and any chance for the Pistons to gain hope.

Meanwhile, that Hinrich score off the Noah screen made it 93-73 Bulls with six minutes left. And even a brain dead few minutes when Gordon, Miller and Hinrich committed consecutive unforced turnovers in that 8-0 Detroit run didn’t allow the Pistons to get within 10 until Crane Tech’s Will Bynum made a few jumpers in the last minute.

“They pretty much shot out on us,” said Bynum, who along with Prince led the Pistons with 20.

But the Pistons pretty much haven’t recovered since the Bulls rallied from 15 points behind in the last eight minutes to defeat Detroit last month on the night honoring Johnny “Red’ Kerr. The Pistons were 27-22 going in and the Bulls 22-29. And it’s been the Bulls making the run since.

And the signs were positive from the beginning Tuesday as the Bulls opened with Thomas finding Noah for a slam dunk in what’s become an interesting combination as a few months Thomas wouldn’t pass and Noah couldn’t catch the ball. At least without needing a break before shooting.

And if the pair isn’t exactly Parish and McHale yet, they are starting to fulfill the hopes many in the Bulls organization had for them, an active, enthusiastic center who’d outrun defenders and a brilliantly athletic forward who could stun opponents with his quickness and jumping.

In fact, during the TNT broadcast, analyst Reggie Miller spent several minutes defending his position that Thomas could average a triple double with one category being blocks, something no one in NBA history ever has come close to doing.

“Their athletic defense caused us problems tonight,” said Pistons coach Michael Curry. “Especially when you go out and trap their guards.”

Yes, Thomas and Noah now not only look to score, but they can.

The Bulls shot well to open the game, hitting 10 of 17 to take a 22-11 lead as Thomas hit Noah for a slam a second time in that first quarter. Detroit closed within 22-18 after one as Del Negro tried Hunter and Tim Thomas without much success. We would not see much of either again.

“We’d like to have Derrick and Luol back as starters and work from there,” said Del Negro. “John Salmons is playing a lot of minutes at the three. I can rotate Tyrus, Joakim and Brad in the post.”

Though even when the Bulls had more players healthy, Del Negro still generally used a short rotation, and you wondered if that would hurt Tuesday with Rose out because the subs hadn’t played much all season. It obviously didn’t, but it will be something to watch if Rose is out for any length.

The Bulls missed seven straight into the second quarter before Hinrich ended the run with a three. Detroit wasn’t particularly effective, and Prince conceded, “The situation we are in, we almost have to play a perfect game to come out with the win.”

Gordon came back with a pair of pop out jumpers that had the Pistons trying to help outside, and working with Hinrich and Salmons, the Bulls kept finding the openings as Salmons then drove and kicked to Hinrich for a three and 38-32 lead. Tyrus did throw in one of those “what was that?” turnovers that had Del Negro in his classic pose with arms outstretched as the Pistons tied it at halftime.

“I told them I was not happy,” said Del Negro. “We needed to play our tempo. In the second quarter, the game got too slow for us. They started to pound it on us a bit and their guys are experienced pros. In the third quarter we came out with some energy and pushed the tempo. We got some steals and got after it a bit. The momentum shifted our way in the third quarter.”And soon the game. The young guys were too fast and athletic, and the guards shot too well. Why not them? Why not now?

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