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Lakers Show the Bulls How it's Done This Time
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 22
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The Bulls were not supposed to beat the Lakers, I know. Though I thought the way they were playing lately they could. Saturday’s 117-109 loss didn’t hurt that much in the playoff race with Charlotte and Milwaukee also losing.
It was an entertaining game in many respects, except perhaps when United Center fans began chanting “MVP” for Kobe Bryant late in the fourth quarter. C’mon, as ABC commentator Mark Jackson would say, “You’re better than that.”
Though the Bulls eventually succumbed despite leading by 16 in the first half and getting 30 points from John Salmons and 25 points from Derrick Rose, the game was perhaps symptomatic of why this Bulls team can’t quite go far enough as currently constructed.
They can’t stop anyone when the shots stop falling.
It’s a fatal failing, and one we witnessed again in a fourth quarter avalanche of futility. The Bulls scored 109 points and shot 50.6 percent. They outrebounded the Lakers 45-39, converted nine more free throws and a half dozen more fast break points. Yes, the Bulls committed a ridiculous 23 turnovers that the Lakers converted into 27 points.
But the Bulls still were up eight early in the fourth quarter when they began to miss, and the Lakers, or guys wearing Lakers uniforms since it was mostly Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell and Jordan Farmar gave the Lakers a 102-93 lead by the time Kobe Bryant returned with 6:24 left, a 15-point turnaround from the start of the fourth quarter.
“We were leading all three quarters and came out in the fourth and didn’t get it done,” said Rose. “The game just slipped away from us.”
It probably also didn’t help that the Bulls continued to play with seven players with Luol Deng out and Tim Thomas not used. No one would admit to fatigue. But the Bulls, shooting more than 50 percent for the game, shot 31.3 percent in the fourth quarter to almost 61 percent for the Lakers. The Bulls also committed nine fourth quarter turnovers.
It was a gruesome fourth quarter stretch of turnovers, five in seven possessions, including two by Gordon, who had seven in the game, and two by Rose, who had four. There were a couple of quick shots, long threes by Gordon, who had a miserable game with five of 14 shooting and constantly being attacked on defense by whichever Laker he was guarding, a baseline jumper by Tyrus Thomas, who had an impressive 15 points and 16 rebounds but a few too many jumpers as the defense constantly stayed four steps off him, a rare miss by Salmons, an easy layup missed by Miller.
It happens. Though three of the five Bulls starters played at least 40 minutes and Rose just over 39. All four played longer than any Laker.
So when the Bulls needed to again they couldn’t make the defensive plays as the transition defense again was amazingly poor—no one ever seems to get back to help teammates who are driving of pursuing offensive rebounds—the play on screens was soft with no one but Kirk Hinrich and Salmons on occasion trying to fight over, and there were poor closeouts as Vujacic, Lamar Odom and Farmar, who combined for four three pointers in that 21-6 run to open the fourth quarter that changed the game.
“It’s a long (road) trip and we’re going to need our second unit to play the way they’re capable of on nights when it’s kind of a seesaw battle like that,” said Bryant of the Lakers’ lately inconsistent bench. “Our depth is one of our greatest features.”
Bryant, who ended with 28 on 10 of 25 shooting but with five steals, then came back in the game. And like it was with the Bulls with Michael Jordan, there would be no comebacks when the reserves played like that and the star came back rested.
Bryant added a three, a pair of free throws and a dunk after he stripped Salmons, and the Lakers were headed farther East on their longest road trip of the season at 55-14 and the Bulls back to six games under .500 with their seven-game home winning streak ended.
“We were playing well early in the game, but we definitely didn’t play well in the second half,” agreed Gordon. “Their second unit is not an average second unit. They got the job done when Kobe was over there resting. We didn’t take care of the ball. We just didn’t find any flow offensively. They’re just a great team, probably the best team in the league. When you turn the ball over like we did tonight, it’s tough to beat any team in the league let alone a team as good as that one.”
I can’t fully disagree with Gordon on that one, though there’s only so far a team can go that relies so much on offense.
The Bulls talk about defense, but in their last seven games they’ve allowed almost 108 points per game, and almost 113 if you take out that easy win against the Hornets. There’s almost no way you can win in the NBA playing like that. Yes, the Phoenix Suns came the closest until this season, but they were grilled and drilled in that system. The Bulls talk about defense all the time like we’re listening to politicians. You know: Do you believe your eyes or what I’m telling you.
Sure, the way the Bulls play is entertaining and fun to watch.
Like the end of the second quarter when Rose took a pass from Gordon on the run and double pumped in a hanging two handed slam dunk. Trevor Ariza put back a Bryant miss, and then with seconds left Rose pitched ahead to Salmons, who hit one of those lean in threes to beat the buzzer like Dwyane Wade did to the Bulls in that overtime loss almost two weeks ago.
That made it 62-48 Bulls at halftime.
Five minutes into the third quarter the Bulls were ahead by one point.
Again, it was transition defense as Thomas went to the boards and Odom ran out for a layup. It was Kobe firing over Gordon, which was a head scratcher again as coach Vinny Del Negro began both halves with Gordon trying to defend Bryant. With Ariza in the starting lineup you figured Salmons would defend Bryant along with Hinrich, which they did in long stretches. Though you didn’t expect Gordon, as Bryant opening the second half firing two jumpers over Gordon.
Pau Gasol added 23 points and 10 rebounds. And if he didn’t play so softly and flip up so many shots underhanded he could have had 40 with all the point blank feeds he got from Bryant. He ran out and scored after a long Thomas jumper early in the shot clock. Ariza, who did have 18 points and took a couple of post up runs at Gordon when the Bulls switched defensive matchups, hit a three when Salmons helped off him, and Bryant blew by Salmons on the wing for a stunning dunk as no one came to help.
“We had to pick it up a little bit,” said Bryant. “We started the game pretty well. There was a lot of energy and they matched that. They kind of overwhelmed us with their energy in the first half. We wanted to come out and do the same. What got us going is our defense. We got scoring because we got steals. We got the steals and we got control of the game. And we got momentum in the game. All of a sudden those shots become a lot easier to take and not knock down. But it started for us on the defensive end with active hands.”
The Lakers aren’t a particularly good defensive team, so their championship hopes may rest on the eventual return of center Andrew Bynum. He’s no Tim Duncan. But he’s a big body who can protect the basket. Gasol isn’t the tough guy to guard the basket, and Odom spends a lot of time on the perimeter. The Lakers give up more than 100 per game, but are third behind Golden State and Phoenix in scoring.
The notion is Bryant is their lockdown defender, but not really any more.
There was one terrific matchup late in the third quarter when Bryant was on Rose, and Bryant went into his deep defensive stance. Rose lined Bryant up on the wing and blew by, leaving Bryant reaching for a foul from behind. Rose hit the two free throws for an 87-79 lead, though Bryant came back and was fouled and made two to go into the fourth with the Lakers trailing 87-81.
The Lakers even got a last shot after Bryant’s free throws when Salmons threw away the inbounds pass and Bryant missed a 20 footer at the buzzer.
Yes, the Lakers had 16 steals, and several were terrific, like late in the fourth when Salmons spun back and Bryant anticipated the move like Dwyane Wade did to set up that winner in that Miami game. Bryant was terrific in anticipating Bulls moves.
But it should have been a sign when the Bulls opened the much anticipated Lakers only visit to the United Center with Gordon making a lazy crosscourt pass picked off to open the game and Rose getting a pass to Salmons stolen in the second Bulls possession.
“Too many turnovers tonight,” said Rose, who was just an equal contributor. “I made two crucial turnovers and it turned the game around. We were just turning the ball over and when you do that in this league, anyone will beat you. We had 23 turnovers as a team and I had four. It’s just way too many to win.”
No, he didn’t cost the game.
The Bull actually recovered nicely from that early harbinger.
Thomas had a terrific block as Gasol was about to lay in a ball he should have dunked. Rose started hitting shots, and then it was Showtime Chicago as Gordon had his run of the game with a tear drop floater, a hard driving score and a three after another ferocious Thomas block and it was 34-24 Bulls after one as Gordon and Salmons had nine each and Rose 10 in the quarter.
“We were running real well in the first half and pushing the tempo,” said Del Negro. “In the second half, we got stagnant and were not moving the ball as much. We were dribbling a lot and not passing.”
The Bulls continued to dominate in the second quarter with an aggressive sequence from Kirk Hinrich, who had nine points and six rebounds off the bench and some continued vocal commentary for teammates, which has been a new and good addition this season.
He hit a three and a jumper, the latter to give the Bulls a 16-point lead after Joakim Noah blocked a Gasol attempt and pumped his fist vigorously as Thomas ran out and scored. It was looking like a chance to beat the Celtics and Lakers in the same week.
But Phil Jackson is good with adjustments, and the Lakers began to trap Rose’s dribble more in the half court, and the Bulls inside players, Noah and Thomas, failed to dive to the basket to open the fourth quarter, the offense began to stall, and the Lakers spirited reserves took advantage.
“Chicago has played at a high level,” said Jackson. “They shot the ball exceptionally well. I told them we had to pick it up another notch. I told them if they (Bulls) cool off and we start playing with a little aggression then we’ll be there. They (reserves) got some turnovers. When you do that, you can get some runouts and make things happen. Just little things like getting loose balls, getting down on the floor.”
A heck of an effort disappeared in a few minutes, and it seemed there was nothing the Bulls could do to stop it from happening.