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Bulls Thundering Toward Playoffs
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 19
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So who would be the better matchup for the first round of the playoffs for the Bulls? Boston looks the toughest defensively, assuming Kevin Garnett returns from injury at a high level. The Cavs’ defensive play has slipped of late, though they have the best player in LeBron, who scored 41 twice on the Bulls earlier this season. The Magic, who don’t defend much at all, has Dwight Howard, though they fall into the trap of forgetting about him and shooting too many jumpers.
Let’s see, late April in Boston could be nice, and…
What? The Bulls haven’t even made the playoffs yet?
It, however, is beginning to look a lot like it as the Bulls hung on Wednesday to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-96 behind Derrick Rose’s 25 points and 10 of 10 shooting after halftime.
“I was just feeling it tonight,” said Rose. “I didn’t want to lose, so I just started shooting the ball. It feels good to get the win. If I have the empty space I was just going to shoot it tonight. We just have to keep it going.”
Enough so the Bulls took a game and a half lead over Milwaukee and Charlotte for the final playoff spot in the East, and moved within two games of Detroit for seventh place as the Pistons lost in Houston in double overtime. With Devin Harris hurt for the Nets, and the Knicks still being blown out at home Wednesday by New Jersey, it’s beginning to look like the Bulls’ biggest threat for eighth is Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats, who have won eight of 11.
“If we take care of business we won’t have to worry about anyone else,” said John Salmons, who added 20 points and spent the game trying to fight off high scorer Kevin Durant, who had 28.
But it was a tough 28 on nine of 21 shooting as it was the Bulls experience and savvy that won out, though the Bulls almost blew a nine-point lead with 1:47 left.
The Thunder has an impressive young nucleus with Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. But they don’t defend much and tend to fall in love with their jump shots, something we’ve seen with the Bulls in recent, unsuccessful years.
Yes, all the kids do it.
So the Bulls, like Tuesday against Boston, took control in the fourth quarter behind Rose and Brad Miller, the latter with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists in another hard working effort.
“We need every game right now,” said Miller. “I am glad we were up nine before they started that run. We could have closed it out a lot easier, but it’s a learning experience. Derrick played well and these games are very important to us. We gave up a lot of points early and then held them to 40 points in the second half. (Nick) Collison did a good job on the boards. All of these road games are motivating. There is nothing better than a road win.”
It’s rare for the Bulls as it was the first after seven straight road losses. Also, the Bulls now are 17-12 against the Western Conference. Too bad they play in the East.
But they almost let this one get away as Thabo Sefolosha put together a heck of a defensive sequence with the Bulls ahead 99-90.
The Bulls seemed to be coasting when they came out of a timeout with three minutes left and ended up with a forced shot after Sefolsoha blocked a Salmons drive. Westbrook, clearly, had gotten caught up in a personal battle with Rose and forced up a runner. Miller was fouled on a loose ball, but missed both shot and Durant came back and was fouled and made both to make it 99-92 with 1:47 left.
Gordon drove and was blocked by Sefolsoha, who dropped off covering Rose after Sefolsoha has been on Gordon earlier in the game until Rose got hot. The Thunder pushed the ball better than the Bulls with a 22-9 fast break edge. Westbrook ran out after the Sefolsoha play and found Nick Collison, who was the Thunder’s lone bright spot on the boards with eight of his 13 rebounds offensive, cutting for the layup and 99-94 Bulls lead with 1:23 left.
Collison also had a key steal earlier in the quarter off college teammate Kirk Hinrich with Hinrich trying to pass ahead for a fast break with the Bulls ahead 91-84. It was those types of miscues that kept the Bulls from running away.
Miller then missed a reverse as Rose was trapped on top and Tyrus Thomas missed the tip. With the two big guys caught back, Westbrook took the ball all the way for a layup on a four on two and made it 99-96 Bulls with 56 seconds left.
We’ve seen this play before, and it, too often, has had ugly endings.
In a raucous arena, the Bulls again came out of the timeout going to Gordon, though with little action off the ball. Gordon took the ball on a handoff from Rose on top and against Westbrook just pulled up and shot a ball so wide left it missed the rim. Miller dove on the floor and grabbed the ball and handed back to Tyrus Thomas, who didn’t realize the ball didn’t hit the rim. Time ran out on the shot clock with Thomas holding the ball and just starting to dribble.
So who was the young, mistake prone team? Oklahoma City got the ball down three with 32.1 seconds left.
So maybe this isn’t a playoff team
Durant drove from the left side,. circling around toward the rim, where it appeared Salmons got a piece of the ball. Though plenty of time remained, Durant hastily picked up the ball, backed up and shot an off balance three that was picked up by Thomas.
He made both free throws, and then Durant stepped back for another long three, which missed badly and was collected again by Thomas, who made both free throws on the way to 12 points, 11 rebounds and three steals, but no blocks as his franchise record streak was stopped at 29.
“They had a couple of opportunities to get back in the game, but Tyrus hit some big free throws and we got some stops when we needed them,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.
“Give Chicago credit. They played with a lot of heart and fight,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They are fighting for the eighth spot in the East and it showed tonight. The did a great job with their guard play driving off the dribble. Give them credit.”
So we will.
The Bulls moved to 32-37 with their third consecutive win. It’s a good time to be playing well as the Bulls come home Saturday to play the Lakers. And then the schedule turns easy—in theory, anyway—with only two games in the last 12 against teams with winning records. And they are the Heat and 76ers, neither in the top four in the standings.
With the exception of Luol Deng, who is questionable the rest of the season, the team seems in relative good health and has something of a rotation with Miller playing for Joakim Noah late and Del Negro relying heavily on the scoring of Rose, Gordon and Salmons, three pretty good offensive weapons.
The Bulls’ defense has been spotty, at best, but they seem to have accepted, either as a staff or as individuals, that they have to push the ball as often as possible and take advantage of their shooters.
Salmons has proven a huge addition, and though he isn’t much of a distributor, he is strong going to the basket and has a nice mid range game. Gordon, we know, can get hot anytime. And Rose was the key Wednesday after a sloppy first half with an amazing shooting second half when he didn’t miss and lured fellow rookie Westbrook, older but with not quite as mature a game as Rose, into a series of poor shots and decisions.
The two are good friends, and Rose said he and Westbrook, the fourth overall pick in the draft, worked out regularly before the draft.
“Basically, it was just me and him before the draft, just working out every day,” Rose said.
But it’s not totally Westbrook’s fault as the Thunder seemingly is trying to make him something he is not, namely a point guard. Westbrook is a terrific, powerful athlete, but seems vastly lacking as a floor leader. Though the Thunder has a nice collection of talent, they too often play like they’re not sure if Westbrook is going to get them the ball, so they shoot it when they have it.
“We didn’t come out the way we did in the past couple of games. We had that
fire at some points in th
e game but not throughout the entire 48 minutes,” said Sefolosha, who had five rebounds, four blocks, three steals and three assists, but just six points, which is one big reason he was traded by the Bulls. “That’s what hurt us tonight. We need that to win games.”
Still, it was a good win for the Bulls, who quickly fell behind 29-22 after one quarter. Rose committed five turnovers in the first half and Gordon three as Sefolosha kept getting his long arms in and disrupting drives and the Bulls kept falling into a soft zone which the Thunder was blitzing for 59.5 percent shooting in the first half.
The Bulls somehow overcame 22 turnovers for 30 Thunder points, so 52.5 percent shooting for the game was crutical.
Gordon, who added 18 and seven rebounds, got the Bulls back into the game against a casual Oklahoma City group when Sefolosha rested. Gordon had 11 in the second quarter, though was more impressive fighting for the ball and rebounding, going over Nenad Krstic once and scoring after a Tyrus Thomas miss, and then retrieving one of his own misses and getting the ball to Rose for an easy layup.
The Bulls weren’t particularly in concert on defense. But they were competing hard, which has been something we’ve seen more of lately and has been the most encouraging. They might not have been more talented than Oklahoma City. But they were more determined and got within 56-51 at halftime.
“The Bulls do a great job of crashing the boards,” said Durant, noting the Bulls 44-31 rebounding edge. “Give them all the credit. We just have to fight a little harder.”
Rose began to connect in the third quarter, mostly with mid range jump shots. Though the knock on Rose has been his shooting, we’ve seen few signs of it as he understands his range and limitations. He simply was coming off screens and pulling up, or getting in switches with bigger guys like Durant, and then shooting as they backed off to prevent the drive.
“He definitely wasn’t missing in the second half,” said Sefolosha. “He’s that type of player. He’s got a streaky jump shot but when he starts making a few of them like that, it’s hard to stop him.”
Rose hit all seven of his attempts in the third quarter while Durant and Westbrook cooled off and were a combined one of nine. Joakim Noah blocked a pair of shots and the Thunder pulled up and missed nine jump shots outside 15 feet in the quarter.
That enabled the Bulls to lead 80-75 after three. They were ahead 87-80 after Rose added a 12 and 16 footer sandwiched around a Hinrich three. Hinrich hit another three a few minutes later, but with the Bulls small, the Thunder took advantage of Hinrich on Jeff Green and got within 91-86 with 6:43 remaining.
Miller, as he did against Boston Tuesday—and we thought the old guy couldn’t play back to backs—then took control inside. He rolled in and was fouled, making one of two, and then took a bounce pass from Rose and was fouled again, making both. The Bulls, who go into zones often, were in something of a matchup by now, just sagging into the lane. Westbrook tried to drive and Rose stripped him, and on the other end Miller retrieved a Tyrus Thomas miss and laid the ball in left handed for what seemed like a clincher, a 95-86 lead with under six minutes left.
Rose then banked in a 17 footer for his 10th straight make of the second half. Still, the Bulls would have to hang on after Rose pounded himself in the head after overthrowing Miller deep for a turnover with the Bulls holding that 99-90 lead.
This time the Bulls just made it exciting and not fatal. They seem to be coming together at the right time. Though it doesn’t appear Boston or Cleveland is sweating quite yet.