Johnny Red and Norm Would Have Appreciated This Win


Mar 1

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It was a night the Bulls would have made Johnny Red and Norm proud.

The Bulls Saturday had a moment of silence for their first coach and longtime broadcaster Johnny Kerr and one of the stars of their great 1970’s teams, Norm Van Lier. Both died Thursday, and the Bulls players they so loved and agonized over couldn’t have provided them with a greater tribute in the biggest comeback of the season, a game won with tough, rugged, never-give-up defense and heart.

So I can smile a little and hear Red yelling, “Bulls win! Bulls win! with Derrick Rose’s driving pull up seven footer to give the Bulls their first lead of the game with 32.1 seconds left after trailing by 17 points with under six minutes remaining and then going on to beat the Houston Rockets 105-102.

And I can see Norm banging the table and saying how that was more like it with the Bulls’ best defensive stand of the season, a 23-2 run to close the game with Brad Miller brilliantly denying Yao Ming in the post with a blue collar, ditch digging aggressive fronting game and the kind of overall defensive effort that has been all too rare this season.

“Brad Miller did a great job and Joakim did a great job with 15 rebounds,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “Tyrus (Thomas) was active (with 19 points and nine rebounds). We got good performances from a lot of guys. I liked our demeanor. I liked our toughness and I liked our attitude. The bench was doing a great job of supporting the guys. It was a good sign especially after some of our frustrating losses lately.”

There is more possible frustration as Luol Deng left the game with what Del Negro described as a possible stress fracture of his right leg.

“It doesn’t sound very good,” said Del Negro.

Deng said he’d been experiencing soreness for a few weeks and felt something coming down after a first half shot. He said “worst case” he’d be out for the season.

“The x-ray revealed something in there,” said Deng, who was told by team doctors it was a possible stress fracture. “We’ll get the MRI and see. I just hope it’s not that bad.”

Tim Thomas also left with a hyperextended left knee, which he termed day to day.

But the story of this game was a shocking turnaround led by Rose, who had 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals in probably his best overall game of a potential Rookie of the Year season.

“I was just trying to score quickly,” said Rose, who had 16 in the fourth quarter while Ben Gordon added 11 of his 16 overall. “We knew that if we could score and stop them on D, we could come back. Down the stretch, it came together. We came together in the huddle and said the game wasn't over. It was whoever got the ball, just push it. Just push it, pass it, get movement.”

And enough of this giving up stuff, like in Washington Friday, and enough of not playing in the fourth quarter. It’s been a quiet controversy around the team with Rose being pulled often recently late in games. It’s been something of a head scratcher, though Rose would never complain about it and again Saturday reiterated that he had trust in Del Negro’s decision making.

“Of course you want to be out there as a player,” said Rose. “(He) puts the players in who thinks can win the game and that’s what we’ve got to go with. My teammates, we all trust in him and that’s what the coach is doing.”

It wasn’t clear for awhile as the Bulls came out soft on defense again, trailing 31-26 after one and 58-55 at halftime, though Tyrus Thomas had returned to playing more aggressively, diving into the stands to save a ball, picking off an inbounds pass and dunking to close the half in a spirited 10-point second quarter.

But Ron Artest, hitting threes and uncanny shots from all over until giving it back with some forced threes late, looked like he’d drive the Rockets to the win as he finished with 32 points.

Houston took an 88-71 lead after three quarters with a late quarter meltdown by Miller, who gave Houston four free throws to end the quarter with a bailout foul of Kyle Lowry shooting from almost behind the basket and Miller fumbling a John Salmons inbounds pass and fouling out of frustration.

The Bulls gained some life to open the fourth with Noah running out for a score and Rose with a pair of short jumpers. But Houston recovered when Von Wafer ran out after a Tyrus Thomas bad pass, Artest drove past Thomas and dunked and then hit a pair of rainbow jumpers for a Houston 99-82 lead with 5:51 left.

Stick a fork in em, eh?

C’mon, we’ve seen this before. We saw it in Washington Friday night, a time for surrender.

“I did not think we gave up last night,” demurred Del Negro “I just think we did not have the mindset to fight through it. Washington was on a roll. They scored in bunches and we did not react well to it. Tonight we had some turnovers and lost the ball in the lane, but I told the guys we have to keep after it. If they keep working, good things happen. In the fourth quarter, things get more physical. I thought our guys banged and we were getting out and running.”

Just like Johnny Red and Norm always instructed them.

It was a thing of beauty to watch.

Gordon, curiously, had been out almost the entire third quarter and had attempted one shot since about five minutes left in the first quarter. Say what you will about Gordon, and the Bulls will have to consider this after the season. But they have difficulty scoring without him. Salmons did have 12 in another workmanlike effort, and Kirk Hinrich had just seven on three of nine shooting.

Gordon had five points through three quarters.

He doesn’t accept such things.

So it started with Ben.

He drove left hard and put in a running left handed bank and followed that up with a quick pull up three after a Houston miss and suddenly down 12 with 5:11 left didn’t sound so bad.

“I had an overall sense of urgency,” said Gordon. “At that point, I had to come in quick and make a difference in the game. I was waiting there patiently. I didn’t let that stop me from continuing to be aggressive.”

Yes, that aggressive thing.

It’s one of the big basketball cliché words these days like focus and rhythm.

I try never to write them down or say them because they don’t actually mean anything. And it seems what LeBron and Kobe say in answer to every question.

But here’s what happened. For some reason the Rockets were not trapping Rose to get the ball out of his hands. One reason was Gordon was out there. And he was getting hot. You need that kind of weapon when the defense begins to laser in on Rose.

So with just that bit of hesitation, and that Rose do-anything-to-win-the-game mentality, the Bulls had a chance.

They can score with anyone, though usually their issue is defense.

They’d been playing Yao Ming with varying double teams from different angles and it wasn’t working much as Yao had 17 through three quarters. He finished with 17. And on a team that starts its offense going through him. Go into Yao, who is hard to hold off. Double and he’ll find a shooter, like Artest Saturday.

The best and toughest way to defend the post is by fronting the post man. That was the Scott Skiles staple and the key to his team’s defensive successes. The Bulls have not wanted to do it under Del Negro, and it’s left them vulnerable with no great individual defenders. It’s really hard work, especially on someone as big as Yao.

“We said (heck with) it,” said Miller. “We made the adjustment no matter what. They hit all those threes in third quarter, so we changed it up. You had to work your butt off to get around that guy.

“Last night I think everyone had to be a little bit embarrasses the way we finished that game,” said Miller. “Tonight was a big game to show character. We got down, but said to stay with it and kept guys fired up and saying we’re going to get back in this. We just kept fighting.”

The Rockets couldn’t get the ball into Yao with Miller fighting his way around and Noah watching for the lob over the top. So on just about every possession, the Rockets got down to a few seconds left and had someone, usually Artest, force up a shot.

“I take blame for this loss,” said Artest, who had to be escorted by teammates off the court at the end of the game as he protested the lack of a foul call on a potential tying three at the buzzer than Salmons apparently blocked. “I could have been more helpful for us to sustain the lead. The fourth quarter was a big disappointment. You have to put teams like this away and we didn't. They beat us. Give them all the credit. Derrick Rose stepped up and took control. Yes, I was fouled at the end. It was a bad non-call but that wasn't what beat us. This game was like a playoff atmosphere. They played tough defense when they front Yao like that you have to force them out of it and we didn't do that.”

Playoff atmosphere? Why not as the Bulls went to 27-33. Twenty two games left. I’m saying a .500 record gets them in. I know. Not much to brag about. But they still need to win those 10 games.

They will, and perhaps more, if we see more of Rose like that.

I know Del Negro protested again when I asked him about Rose not playing down the stretch recently.

“The thing with Derrick is people forget he is a rookie,” said Del Negro. “He does make mistakes. I have more confidence in Derrick than just about anybody and he has been fantastic all year. You have to go with the peaks and valleys. We have a few young players. There are going to be inconsistencies. As the young guys develop, we are going to have chances to win and more consistent wins.”

Rose is not a rookie, at least not by any standards we’ve seen.

He didn’t hit any so called rookie wall I could see, and as a rookie Magic Johnson was the best player in the Finals and Michael Jordan was averaging almost 30 points and Dwyane Wade was making big game winners. When you have a special player, as I believe Rose is, you should never give him or yourself or the community the excuse of saying he is a rookie. He doesn’t play like one. Some guys in their seventh seasons play like rookies. You judge guys by what you see, and in Rose we see a player who can take over games.

And so he did Saturday with a will as strong as his talent.

He started it off missing a three, following the shot (yes, he knows fundamentals, too) and scoring on a layup. Then came a pull up 10 footer, a floater in the lane, then Gordon fouled for two free throws and Noah hitting Rose cutting for a score and foul. And then after the Bulls again thwarted the Rockets trying to get the ball into Yao and forcing a turnover, Gordon scored over a jarring Noah screen and it was, amazingly, tied at 102 with 1:08 remaining.

“What do you want me to say about Rose,” said Houston coach Rick Adelman. “He got into the paint and killed us on the pick and roll.”

Luis Scola then missed a jumper, which was rebounded by now an everywhere Rose. The Bulls called time with 39.6 seconds left, and Rose came out with Aaron Brooks on him. Noah knocked Brooks off with another hard screen—for you, Norm—and Rose pulled up with Scola and Artest coming at him and hit the short jumper.

It was interesting before the game as reporters talked with General Manager John Paxson about Kerr and Van Lier. At one point, WSCR’s David Schuster asked about Rose, and Paxson said, prophetically, as it turns out, “I just want Derrick to keep doing what he’s doing. If he’s a little more aggressive, that would be great.”

So I got the sense that perhaps Rose heard this before, and this time got the chance again.

“Just attack,” said Rose. “I know there’s no way he should be able to get in front of me if I’m coming in quick, so just try to get the ball up.”

Yes, he’s thinking the game as well.

Artest then missed a pair of jumpers as he was now forcing shots, and then Houston fouled Salmons, who made one of two. It was 105-102 with 11.1 seconds left. The Bulls had a foul to give, but that got lost in the translation as Del Negro said he called for it, but no one gave it as the inbounds pass was deflected into the backcourt. Artest retrieved it and weaved his way into place on the left side for a potential tie. The shot wouldn’t get far. Artest said foul. Clock said zeros. Referees said, “Game over.”

After being dominated by a bad Wizards team Friday, the Bulls outrebounded the Rockets, who had won six straight and are 37-22, 51-40. The forced 16 turnovers for 23 points and dominated on inside points 52-36.

Appropriately, there was much talk about Johnny Kerr and Van Lier before the game, and Paxson quoted team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf as saying the best way to honor the two Bulls legends was to play hard.

“It’s great to hear but it’s better to see,” said Paxson. “I hope they mean it and they show it. Norm did play hard and even though Johnny was never a Bulls player, he was an iron man, played 850-plus consecutive games and both competed, so I do hope our guys compete.”

It was the ultimate homage Saturday.

Thanks, guys.

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