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Streaking Bulls Shoot and Block Out Pacers
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 28
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Is it too soon to begin calling it, “The Miracle on Madison Street?”
Hey, if someone copyright’s that and makes money from t-shirts, I want some credit. And a t-shirt.
As for the Bulls, well, they just keep trying on the wins, the latest in Saturday’s matinee, 112-106 over the Indiana Pacers. It was the Bulls season best fourth consecutive victory and seventh win in the last eight games as they begin to get fitted for a nice spot in the playoffs.
The Bulls now trail fifth place Miami by 3.5 games and remain 2.5 games ahead of ninth place Charlotte as the hottest team among those making a stretch run for the playoffs and late positioning.
“We’re showing growth,” said John Salmons with 22 points and two big threes down the stretch. “We’ve come a long way. We’re making long strides. We’ve put a good string of games together.”
The NBA–all sports, really-is in large part about making big plays at big times. It’s what establishes reputations, creates legends and results in winners.
This Bulls team has yet to truly be in that position because it hasn’t truly been in the big playoff games. But the signs are growing positive that this group could be prepared to respond if—and when—they do get there, and Saturday’s fourth quarter stretch provided some perfect examples why.
This was a game with 22 lead changes and 10 ties. The Bulls were shocked early by a 35-21 Pacers first quarter, recovered in the second quarter behind Ben Gordon and his game high 25 points, and seemed to be in control with a 92-82 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the Pacers, battling to remain in the playoffs and so no easy out, came back with a smaller lineup that caught the Bulls off guard and took a 102-99 lead with about three minutes remaining.
Salmons, who has proven a cool competitor since coming to the Bulls from the Kings in February, took a soft pass from Derrick Rose and dribbled in on the left side against Brandon Rush, who had been killing the Bulls earlier on the way to a career high 29 points.
Salmons was met by Danny Granger on the help, so dribbled back out, stopped behind the three point line, faced up Rush and serenely dropped in a three to tie the score at 102.
Call him Johnny Steady.
The Pacers came back with a heck of a Jeff Foster-inspired possession, Foster with 18 rebounds, seven offensive, to keep the Pacers battling. First, Jarrett Jack beat Gordon and split inside Brad Miller, but missed a runner. Foster grabbed the rebound and passed out to T.J. Ford, who gave to Danny Granger, who had a game high 32. Granger missed. Foster then beat Miller inside, but missed his own put back and the Pacers batted the ball out of bounds.
Time for Johnny Sangfroid.
The Bulls tried to run Gordon off a high screen. But the Pacers were doing a good job of collapsing and sealing the middle. Gordon dropped the ball off to Rose in the left corner. Rose threw on top to Miller, who handed off to Salmons. He fumbled the ball. It rolled back toward midcourt. Salmons went back for it and picked the ball up near midcourt with eight seconds on the shot clock. Salmons never panicked. He picked up the ball against Jack and moved over a Miller screen, where Foster was waiting and stepped out. Salmons backed up as Jack got in front by now, took two dribbles and rose up with two seconds on the shot clock for a 105-102 Bulls lead with 2:13 left.
I almost thought I saw Salmons smile.
“I’m (feeling) comfortable,” said Salmons. “Things are going well.”
Jack then got Miller on a switch and despite Gordon on Foster at the basket, Jack jacked a long three that Salmons rebounded.
That was the kind of dumb stuff we saw from the Bulls earlier this season, but not so much lately. And the Pacers had some more of that to come.
Rose then dribbled in, drawing a double as Granger dropped off Tyrus Thomas, who had a terrific game with 18 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks. Thomas stepped inside the free throw line and caught the back pass from Rose for the 14 footer and 107-102 lead with 1:29 left.
The Pacers came out of the timeout with Ford isolated on Rose. Rose played up too close and Ford beat him for a layup to bring Indiana within three with 1:26 left.
Still plenty of game to play.
Rose then got on top and waved Thomas out of the post to spread the court. Rose beat Ford left. Granger failed to step in toward Rose, curiously staying to protect against Thomas shooting a baseline three. See. And Rose exploded in for the layup at 109-104 lead.
Ford, with 14 off the bench, answered quickly beating Rose and a late recovering Miller for the layup to get back within three with about 57 seconds left.
The Bulls got stuck in a jumbled possession and Miller had to launch an air ball and the Bulls gave the ball up on a shot clock violation with 32 seconds left.
Time for Big Play No. 3.
The Pacers, coming out of a timeout, got the switch they wanted as Granger went out top and was taken by Joakim Noah. Granger blew by Noah to the left. But the Pacers had left Foster in and Foster tends to remain around the basket. Indiana needed a shooter to be in the corner, a coaching mistake. So with Foster at the basket, Thomas was there as well with Foster on the switch. As Granger went for the layup, Thomas stepped out and—boom!–got the block.
“I beat the first guy, but he made a great play,” said Granger. “That was pretty much the game. I knew I had to get it up there quickly, but he just made a great play. He’s a good defensive player. Obviously he’s a great athlete and he can create a lot of havoc out there.”
Like Bill Russell—OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole—Thomas grabbed the blocked shot and now with 25 seconds left, Indiana had to foul. Thomas made both and the Bulls were safely on the way to 36-38 and heading for Toronto Sunday for their last back to back game of the season.
And, in the end, thanks to a terrific defensive play.
It’s never quiet with Thomas, who was doing his share of talking with the Pacers bench early and had to be calmed down by assistants in the team’s first timeout in the first quarter. But in the last seven games, Thomas is averaging 14.9 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks to bring his season average slowly to 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.85 blocks, seventh in the NBA.
“He blocks shots, he rebounds, and when he gets open looks he makes shots,” said the Pacers’ Ford. “He’s definitely improved.”
And Thomas, as we know, hasn’t always been a regular this season.
He is being noticed, though, fortunately for the Bulls, not by enough opposing shooters.
It brings up the interesting discussion the broadcasters were having during Thursday’s TNT game between the Bulls and Heat. Thomas had three blocks, and Reggie Miller, who did the game with Marv Albert and Mike Fratello, said with Thomas’ quickness and leaping ability, Thomas should average 10 blocks per game as part of a triple double.
Reggie, as we know, falls on the side of showmanship and drama.
Hakeem Olajuwon holds the career record average of 3.83 per game. Utah’s Mark Eaton once averaged 5.56 in a season, the record, and Manaute Bol is second at 4.97. Of course, in the crazy record keeping of the NBA, which is why history is harder to judge than in baseball, blocked shots weren’t kept as a statistic when Russell and Wilt Chamberlain played. Could one have averaged 10 in a season? Maybe they did. I know if everyone told Wilt he couldn’t, he would have done it.
So maybe at fewer than two per game, Thomas has a ways to go. The seven Saturday was one short of his career high. But, perhaps more significantly for the Bulls, Thomas is stepping up to make big plays at big times. Not only the block. But the 14 footer after Salmons’ threes.
It’s what the pro game is about.
“We played a great possession and had Johnny Salmons hit one at the shot clock buzzer,” lamented Pacers coach Jim O’Brien. “That was really the difference in the game. I thought our guys really competed. It was a very hard fought game on both teams part. Tyrus Thomas, with seven blocked shots, had a major impact on the game down the stretch. We did everything we could, we just came up short. I thought the trade that the Bulls orchestrated to get Brad Miller (17 points and six rebounds off the bench) and John Salmons was the best trade of the year. My hat is off to John Paxson. They got Miller, who can space the court on pick-and-rolls, and he’s a good passer. Johnny Salmons, I had him in Philadelphia. He’s playing great basketball. He hits big shots. He hit two three pointers at the shot clock buzzer. Over the last 10 games, he’s their leading scorer. That trade, for what they gave up, was just fantastic.”
Yes, these are becoming heady times for the Bulls, even at two games below .500, still. But stuff happens in sports when a team can get on a roll. It’s always said you are what your record is. But what if you don’t know what your record is? The Bulls have been playing like they don’t, and they’ve had the third best record in the Eastern Conference since the trades for Salmons and Miller.
So even though the Bulls took that punch in the face early as Rush blitzed Gordon and Kirk Hinrich for 18 in the first quarter, the Bulls hung in despite trailing 35-21 after one in the unusual 1 p.m. Saturday start.
Gordon went back in the game to open the second quarter and played his classic role of gunner after a passive first quarter. Gordon remains a terrific weapon when used right, which is mostly back into the game shooting. Less than four minutes into the second quarter, the Bulls were within 37-34 as Gordon led them on a 13-2 run with nine of the points.
“We did a good job of keeping our poise even when they made their runs,” said Gordon. “We weathered the storm and kept going and got a big win.It’s a lot of fun being out there with other guys who are making big plays and are taking the tough shots. It’s always fun when you are playing good basketball and you are winning.”
The Bulls got within 58-42 at halftime behind Rose, who was back starting despite his sore wrist and had 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
If there’s any Bull who is going to get triple doubles, it should be Rose in what was a classic type game for him. Commentators look at his modest assist average of 6.2 and say he doesn’t pass. Nonsense. Watch the games! Rose had what I thought was a classic sequence late in the first half.
He bounced a pass back to Salmons for a jumper to get the Bulls within 50-48 after a drive, and on the next Bulls possession again hit Salmons as he drew the defense, though Salmons missed a wide open three. With Indiana ahead 56-52, Rose went off a screen/roll with Thomas and looked to throw to Thomas, who wasn’t looking for the pass, so Rose went up with it.
The point is Rose plays with his head up looking to pass. We’ve seen so many of these shot happy guards come along in recent years like Stephon Marbury and Baron Davis and their assist totals usually come from drawing defenders and then having to pass. Rose looks to pass. His teammates, often running screen and roll with Thomas or Joakim Noah, aren’t confident scorers.
Rose reminds me some of Jason Kidd when Kidd was a rookie. Kidd couldn’t shoot at all, so always looked to pass. Rose is a far better shooter. But Kidd was such a good passer and so fast he often was ahead of the break, so he couldn’t pass because teammates couldn’t run with him. And teammates couldn’t imagine the passes he could make. So they often weren’t ready. Rose is a heck of a playmaker and will become even better as his teammates begin to understand.
It looked like the Bulls would take control in the third quarter behind Thomas blocking Roy Hibbert yet again that Hibbert had to leave the game and didn’t return, and Thomas shooting out after a Gordon steal and breakaway. Gordon missed the layup, but Thomas—see that Scott Skiles!—was there running the court behind Gordon and slammed in the miss.
The Bulls led 87-80 after three, but got burned when the Pacers went with both point guards, Ford and Jack, with Granger at power forward while the Bulls stayed with Noah and Miller. Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, with Luol Deng likely out the rest of the regular season now, pretty much stayed with his seven player rotation with Tim Thomas getting a brief first half cameo. That late big lineup enabled the Pacers to get within 95-91 before Thomas came back, and the Bulls eventually pulled out the game.
“Hopefully we cannot stay at this level. but will take it to a higher level,” said Thomas. “Some of the (blocks) got the crowd going, some of them gave us another possession and some took Indiana out of their flow. We are playing good but I don’t think we are playing at our best. We can be more active. We just have to come out to a fast start, play hard and then good things will happen.”
They seem to be happening.