Bulls and Gordon Ripple Nets to Move Closer to Playoffs


Apr 4

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Was that the shot that extended Ben Gordon’s career as a Bull?

Was that the play call that established Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro?

It certainly was the shot, a three pointer from Ben Gordon with 58 seconds left Saturday afternoon after Gordon had missed his first 10 shots, that saved the Bulls as they went on to beat the New Jersey Nets 103-94.

Happy 26th birthday, Ben. You gave the Bulls quite a nice present.

“I planned that tonight,” joked Gordon, who had 12 of his team high 18 in the fourth quarter. “I wanted to make it exciting. I wanted to get the Big Mac for the fans. It was a little part of my master plan.”

That, of course, was a reference to the now controversial cheeseburger prize when the team scores 100 points. Even in some wins lately when the Bulls fell short of that mark, the home fans had booed Bulls players, causing a new debate on the nature of the home support.

But there’s no debate of the nice position the Bulls now find themselves in with five games left in the regular season.

They even have a magic number—four—to assure a playoff spot. And with Saturday’s win after blowing all of a 16-point lead and trailing with 2:49 left, the Bulls moved past Detroit into seventh in the Eastern Conference and 2.5 games ahead of ninth place Charlotte.

“It was big for us,” said John Salmons, who had 17 points despite being slowed somewhat by his groin injury. “We definitely needed this game. We’ve just got to keep it rolling. We can’t really worry about what other people are doing. (Now seventh) you are not the last team in and mentally it does make a difference. Record wise, you’re not the worst team in. It’s good to have a chance to finish seventh.”

Just making the playoffs would be a terrific recovery for this Bulls team that was 33-49 last season, and mostly out of playoff contention all season since the February trades that brought Salmons and Brad Miller.

Though it was ol’ reliable Ben again, missing badly all game, but still shooting and making the big one.

It renews the BG debate once again.

Despite Gordon’s flaws, and they’ve been much discussed, like defensive and ball handling weaknesses, he’s never afraid to take a big shot and willing to take responsibility. Perhaps he’s not good enough to be the ultimate guy who does that, like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. But it’s a rare trait in the NBA and difficult to find. Though Gordon never has been picked as an All Star, he ranks fifth among NBA scorers who average 20 points with the percentage of his points scored in the fourth quarter. Gordon is behind only Chris Paul, Danny Granger, Joe Johnson and Brandon Roy.

So here’s the situation:

It’s a minute left and Ben had been awful, two of 13 at this point after that zero for 10 start. The Bulls are about to blow a game they seemed to have easily with Vince Carter doing almost nothing with a strained Achilles and Devin Harris out for long stretches in the second half in another of Nets’ coach Lawrence Frank’s disciplinary ploys that reports in New Jersey suggest could cost him his job after this season.

The Bulls still had been ahead by seven with under eight minutes left when they lost Jarvis Hayes twice and he made a pair of threes. The Bulls had been playing a zone much of the fourth quarter, and the left corner three was open on almost every possession, and the Nets recognized it.

The Bulls regained some footing as Gordon and Salmons hit threes to go back ahead 91-88 with four minutes left. But the Nets finally rediscovered Brook Lopez, who led them with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and put him in the post, where he scored on three straight possessions over Miller, who had no help. The Bulls would finally begin trapping Lopez after that, and it enabled the Bulls to inch back ahead 95-94.

Then came the controversial play and the closing play. And the “whew” play.

That first one was with Miller just putting the Bulls back ahead with two free throws at 95-94 with 1:49 left. The Nets found Ryan Anderson alone—and no one was within 10 feet of him—for a three. Sometimes, as we know, the most open ones are the most difficult. And Anderson missed.

Then after Lopez blocked Salmons, Salmons, even slowed, came up from behind Harris, poking the ball away to Derrick Rose. “Even though he wasn’t 100 percent, he made big plays,” said Gordon. “It was good to have him out there.”

Rose fired ahead to a running Salmons, who was lassoed from behind by Harris as Salmons went in for a potential layup. Salmons missed, but a flagrant instead of hard foul was called.

“I’ve seen worse,” said Harris. “You can’t really do anything about it now. It wasn’t that hard of a foul. Obviously they know I’m going to try to grab him at that point. But what can you do?”

Salmons made one of two free throws for a 96-94 lead. But the Bulls retained possession and called a timeout with 1:04 left.

Gordon inbounded to Rose and then ran off a pair of brush screens from first Tyrus Thomas then Joakim Noah with Keyon Dooling trailing. Salmons did a nice job of clearing out Hayes by cutting inside and Gordon ran right to his spot above the circle on the left side and without hesitating hit the three for a 99-94 lead with 55 seconds left.

It was a classic example of a shooter doing what he does: Shoot. For great shooters, the only one that matters is the next one. Most everyone remembers the last 10 misses. And credit Del Negro for not hesitating to draw up that play despite Gordon’s miserable afternoon.

“The thing with BG is there are not a lot of shots that he takes that you can say, ‘Oh that’s a terrible shot,’ because you know he’s capable of making it,” said Noah, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. “He’s really been huge for this ballclub hitting big shots. He’s been doing that since he’s been here.”

Noah then knocked away a Harris post pass meant for Lopez. Rose had Tyrus Thomas on a break, but Thomas, inexplicably, missed a lob dunk for what could have been a clincher. You know whatever happens, this Bulls team never will make it easy.

Dooling then dribbled up, stopped and pulled up for a quick three with 33 seconds left, which Salmons rebounded. Gordon was fouled intentionally after Rose quickly gave the ball up to the Bulls clutch shooter, and Gordon made both for a 101-94 lead with 25 seconds left. Hayes then missed and Tyrus wrestled the rebound away from Dooling to enable the Bulls to get their eighth win in the last 11 and some decent playoff breathing room.

“Chicago is a team that plays with a lot of energy and tenacity,” applauded Dooling. “We were able to match that for most of the game, but down the stretch they seemed to make more plays than us.”

And so stretch runs are built. I know, I know. It’s just the bottom of the playoff ladder and still below .500 at 37-40. But Saturday’s game was instrumental in the way the Bulls were able to rely on Gordon for a big shot. The Bulls don’t have that take-over-the-game star. But Gordon demonstrated that cool ability even during an off game to make the big plays. And big plays are what playoff series are about. No, I’m hardly predicting the Bulls winning a first round series, assuming they make the playoffs. But it again raises the thorny question the Bulls have faced on and off for the last two years, about moving forward with Gordon.

Likewise, Del Negro, who’d been hesitant at times this season to trust Gordon and had often relied on Rose and even Salmons for late game situations, faced the possibility of a collapse and awful loss and put his faith in Gordon in a play that seemed to have one option: Ben and done!

“It was a big win for us,” said Gordon. “We came out and weren’t very sharp from the get go, but we finally took control of the game. We did a great job of getting stops when we needed them. We started to score a little more easy on the offensive end. It was nice to close them out the way we did.”

So now its five games left with the 76ers Thursday the only team with a winning record. But as teams like the Nets, Pacers and Raptors have shown in the past week as the Bulls lost two of three and almost all of them, there are no easy games when you are under .500 and have pressure on you for the first time all season.

“It was a huge (win),” said Rose, who had 15 points and five assists playing through foul trouble. “It was a sloppy game, but we got the win. We just wanted to play hard and make sure this one didn’t slip away like some of the other one’s have. I don’t really watch the (standings) because if we continue to win we’ll be fine.”

It’s beginning to look that way, though you’d never want to count anything with this Bulls team. I thought 37 wins would be enough to make the playoffs in the East, which Atlanta had last season for eighth. If Charlotte, the only team with a realistic chance to move up, wins out, they get to 40-42. The chances are slight with five of their last six on the road, starting Sunday in Detroit. So you assume if the Bulls can get two of the last five, they’d have 39 wins and probably enough to get in. Though still too many ifs, ands and buts.

The Bulls were into it and hustling to start Saturday after what players described as an aggressive practice Friday. Noah got a tip in after Tyrus started with a running bank shot and then Tyrus with a followup slam for a 6-0 lead.

Noah drew early foul trouble again. But Miller came in and scored eight points on his own variety of upfakes and slow drives, pick and pop jumpers and offensive rebound folos. I was talking to a general manager the other day who long has followed the Bulls because he is close with some organization members, and he said the midseason trades absolutely reenergized the team. “They were going nowhere until then,” he said.

There’s been some debate about Miller finishing games, and he did get taken advantage of by the quicker Lopez late before Noah switched onto him and the Bulls provided some help. But Miller, who had 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench, gives the Bulls that scoring option Noah doesn’t and spreads the court better than Tyrus, who isn’t guarded much on the perimeter, especially late in games. Sometimes Tyrus on offense stands instead of moves when someone else has the ball. So the defense is able to collapse more easily because they lay off Tyrus and zone the middle. So it also was no surprise the way the Bulls have played of late for Tyrus to play just one minute in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls led 22-16 after one quarter, and then got a nice push from Tim Thomas, who finished with 12 points in 15 minutes.

Tim Thomas had a follow dunk off a Miller miss to cap off 7-0 Bulls run to open the second and give the Bulls a 29-16 lead. Tim Thomas also hit a three when the Nets went into a zone, and then Kirk Hinrich did what he does at times: Saves you and breaks your heart.

With the Nets closing within 34-29 as Frank began going more to the bench, like Rose’s collegiate teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts, Hinrich hit a pair of jumpers and a clever stop and go banker to put the Bulls back ahead 41-31.

The Nets looked like they’d had a late night on Rush Street and were about ready to be done as they fell behind 50-34 with about two minutes left in the first half. But then Hinrich had a shot blocked by Lopez and missed a wide open layup, and the Nets behind Ryan Anderson with 17 points and 10 rebounds, closed with 55-44 at halftime.

“I think early their pressure got to us,” Frank said of the Bulls trapping in the backcourt to open the game. “It also didn’t help we missed a couple of free throws, layups and open threes that would have helped us get back in. In the second half, we started to recover and we controlled the paint after they had done it for most of the first half. The moment of truth came, I thought, late in the game when we cut their lead and had two chances. Then we had a missed shot, a flagrant foul call and the Gordon three. That finished it.”

The Nets got back into the game in another of those dry Bulls stretches, this time midway through the third quarter when Gordon overdribbled looking for a shot as he clearly was trying to get himself going. The offense grew stagnant as there was a shot clock violation and Gordon trying a behind the back pass for no real reason on the break an committing an offensive foul. Then came a three second violation with Salmons backing in. and Tim Thomas with a turnover. The Nets began attacking at that point out of their set offense, and closed with eight free throws in the last half of the third and within 73-69. The Nets might even have had the lead if Tim Thomas didn’t add another key three.

The Bull to seemed to regain control open the fourth as Gordon, zero for eight shooting through three quarters, added two more misses before a jumper coming out of a timeout to make it 79-74 Bulls with about nine minutes left and then being fouled on a drive, though Gordon made one of two. But Gordon wasn’t hesitating.

“You just keep shooting,” said the shootist.

It may have shot the Bulls into the playoffs. Party time? Not yet. But perhaps getting close.

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