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Bulls Beat Charlotte. Eying Orlando?
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 12
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It’s starting to look like maybe a trip to Disneyworld will mean more than a ride on Space Mountain. Maybe it will mean a ride into the second round of the NBA playoffs.
The Bulls, who beat the Charlotte Bobcats Saturday 113-106 to lift their season record to 40-40, and the Detroit Pistons may be playing for that potential playoff matchup Monday in Auburn Hills in a game that could provide a classic test for this young Bulls team.
“That’s going to be a bigger game than tonight,” said Ben Gordon, who carried the scoring against Charlotte with 39 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls came from five behind. “Detroit is going to be playoff style game. Detroit is going to come out and give us their best blow. We’ve got to be ready.”
It’s all about first round matchups now for the Bulls, who clinched a playoff spot Friday night with Charlotte’s loss. And though no one would say it, it is looking like Orlando, which is set at third in the East, is the most vulnerable with losses the last two days to the golf course bound Knicks and Nets, and with starter Hedo Turkoglu carried off Saturday with a sprained ankle.
There’s still a chance the Bulls could get to fifth in the East, which would mean a first round series with the Atlanta Hawks, who’ve been far behind the so called East Big Three all season.
“Avoiding LeBron would get us the Celtics,” noted John Salmons, who bounced back from three of 15 shooting the first three quarters with 11 in the fourth and a pair of big threes when the Bulls hit the Bobcats with a 10-0 run after trailing by one with 5:24 left. “Avoiding the Celtics will get us Orlando. It (doesn’t) really matter at this point.”
Asked about the Hawks, Salmons smiled shyly.
“Atlanta,” he said. “Wouldn’t mind getting the Hawks.”
But Miami needs just one win to lock up fifth and is facing the Knicks and Pistons at home and Atlanta on the road. The Bulls would have to sweep and have Miami lose all three to get to No. 5.
Currently, the 76ers are holding the sixth spot. But they are just a half game ahead of the Bulls and with games against Boston at home and Cleveland on the road. So myriad possibilities remain. But if the Bulls beat the Pistons Monday in Auburn Hills, the Bulls would guarantee a spot ahead of Detroit and a good chance for sixth. If the Bulls lose, Detroit would move ahead and the Bulls would be most likely to finish eighth and face top seeded Cleveland.
Though the Bulls have had some success against the Cavs in recent years, the Cavs are playing by far the best among all the top seeded teams and are the healthiest. They have the likely MVP in LeBron James, who seems on one of those star missions. Plus, the Cavs are on pace to tie the alltime record for home wins with 40.
“The top three teams are really good,” said Gordon. “I don’t know if it matters much. It would be a lot better not to play Cleveland. They have been playing really well at home. They obviously have the best record in the NBA.”
In comparison, the Magic is slumping badly and coach Stan Van Gundy blasted the team after Saturday’s loss to the Nets and said they are playing poorly and he has no answers and not one player who has performed well of late.
The Celtics have played well. But Kevin Garnett has been out. The Celtics say he may play in the season finale Wednesday, but there’s a question of how effective he can be with continuing knee issues.
And suddenly this is a Bulls team on a bigtime roll, winners of 14 of their last 15 at home and 11 of the last 14 overall, one of the best closing kicks in the league.
Asked if now the Bulls are one of the most dangerous teams in the East, Gordon said, “As of late, yeah. Playing here we’ve beaten a lot of good teams. That gives us a lot of confidence. We’re going to have that confidence we can steal a game (on the road).”
The way the Bulls play, even with the big finish, it also looks like they have to steal games at home.
Salmons was a questionable starter with his groin injury, which coach Vinny Del Negro said is going to bother him the rest of the season. Asked given that the Bulls have clinched a playoff spot whether it was best to rest Salmons a week until the playoffs begin, Del Negro said he wasn’t inclined to do so.
“You want to keep on a roll,” said Del Negro. “You want to have the right mindset going in. Any of those three teams obviously have had great years and are going to cause great problems. But I want to go in playing well. We’re looking at the seventh or eighth seed, possibly the sixth, but most likely seventh or eighth, which means we have a lot of work to do and that will only happen by playing.”
For his part, Salmons isn’t ready to take some time off, anyway.
“We know we’re playing for more to just make the playoffs,” he said.
“We want to move up as far as we can. I’m just trying to help my team win. I don’t want to not be there for my teammates. I feel they need me out there.”
The Bulls did after a typically uneven start, though that, too, seems to be giving the team confidence.
“It’s real huge knowing we can go out and beat anybody (at home),” said Derrick Rose, who was terrific with 22 points and seven assists. “But we’ve just got to play hard enough. We’ve been in a lot of games we were down 20 at half and come back and win. That gives you confidence.”
The Bulls led 30-23 after one quarter as Rose was six of six shooting in the first quarter, mostly on jumpers. They still think the kid can’t shoot, so already there are very few holes in his game. And if he can extend his shooting range, who knows how he’ll be stopped.
“They’re going under on screen and roll,” said Del Negro. “He’s basically got a 15 footer and he’s going to make those. Then a lot of things open up when you can shoot the basketball.”
Though hindered by his sore groin some, Salmons was terrific overplaying and fronting Gerald Wallace, and Wallace never got going and finished with 13 points. Ray Felton led Charlotte with 26, though Gordon continued to singe him with even in-your-face jumpers.
“I was in his face and he hit shots,” lamented Felton.
Gordon and Felton continued their shootout in the second quarter with both in double figures, and Gordon, as well, getting burned by Felton. Charlotte pulled within 52-50 at halftime, and then looked like they’d take the meaningless game for them as their inside activity with Boris Diaw and Emeka Okafor both in double figures in rebounding continuing gave Charlotte second chances and they led 83-78 after three.
They still led 87-82 with 9:35 left when Kirk Hinrich hit an 18 footer, and then Joakim Noah began the turnaround.
Noah stripped D. J. Augustin as he spun past Rose. Noah then took off running down the middle, the post lane sprint as it’s called. Rose picked up the loose ball and fired to Gordon near the free throw line on the right side and Gordon fired ahead—the ball never touching the floor—to Noah, who dunked and was fouled.
Noah, pumped up and high fiving Gordon after the play, would finish with a near triple double with 11 points, 10 assists and a career high seven assists. Overall, the Bulls had 27 assists in 40 baskets as their high octane offense continues to flourish.
Charlotte’s big men are practiced in tipping the ball out and a pair of offensive rebounds got them second shots and scores when the Bulls, trailing 93-92, took control.
Gordon then missed a long three on top as he tried to shoot over Diaw on a switch. The ball bounced to Salmons in the right corner and he didn’t hesitate despite being three of 15 and hit the the three for a 95-93 lead.
“I just stayed with it and eventually I hit a couple,” he said. He ended with 19 points.
Gordon followed with a three after a Felton driving miss when Salmons drove and kicked out. Gordon then made a nice defensive play, picking off a Diaw pass to Felton and chasing after it and forcing Felton to hit it out of bounds. Salmons drove and was fouled, hitting one of two for a 99-93 lead with 3:56 left.
Augustin lost the ball on a drive out of a timeout, and Salmons stepped back over Okafor on a switch for another three and a 102-93 lead with 3:20 left.
The Bulls then paraded to the free throw line and continued their franchise record breaking pace with 22 of 27, and closed the game with 35 points in the fourth quarter to win going away, Gordon putting in a seventh three with Felton all over him with 1:11 left for a 10-point lead.
And so they move on, though not quite with any celebration yet. It is a beat up team with Salmons with that groin problem and Rose with his sore right wrist. Rose admitted he didn’t know Charlotte lost and the Bulls were in the playoffs until Saturday morning when he checked the scores. Del Negro said he watched the game and then went right to sleep.
Rose left the locker room wearing what looked like a clear boxing glove wrapped tight around his hand and filled with ice. Hardly usual spring wear. He said the wrist hurt when hit, though not otherwise. Though you get the sense he’s like Andres Nocioni and would say “what sword” if one were sticking out of his sticking out of his chest.
Del Negro said Tim Thomas would rejoin the team in Detroit after his family issues involving the health of a family member. Luol Deng remains out, likely throughout any playoffs. So Linton Johnson and Aaron Gray got some time.
So now comes the first test, a road game which will likely determine whom the Bulls meet to open the playoffs. Even the staff is interested to see which Bulls team shows up, perhaps a harbinger of the first round.
“It seems on the road sometimes we get down and start rushing things,” said Del Negro. “I don’t want to say panic. At home, we seem to have a little more grit, a little more toughness to us, a little more resiliency. I want to see that on the road. In this league you get punched in the mouth and it’s how are you going to respond to it. At home we respond a little bit better. On the road we have to find a way. We have to guard a little better. We can’t always rely on our offense. That’s the next step for us.”