Bulls Steal One from the Knicks


Apr 8

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I’m getting ready to order my exclusive, locker room eighth place hat and t-shirt. Could a sparkling wine shower be next? Manischewitz Concord Grape? For five bucks a bottle. Nothing says eighth in the East like Manischewitz.

I kid, of course. But the Bulls pulled a lot closer to the playoffs Tuesday with an uneven 110-103 victory over the New York Knicks in a game that you had to be glad you didn’t hire Mike D’Antoni.

I’m a big fan of the Knicks (and former Suns) coach. But Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, playing a short rotation with Luol Deng looking like he’s done for the season and maybe the playoffs and Tim Thomas away on a personal matter, outmaneuvered D’Antoni down the stretch as an aggressive perimeter Bulls defense was responsible for a 15-0 fourth quarter run that saved the game for the Bulls.

The Bulls now are at 38-40 with their 12th win in their last 13 at home and with a magic number for making the playoffs at two over Charlotte. The Bulls actually are seventh, a half game ahead of Detroit. The Bulls also have a slight chance of catching Philadelphia for sixth as the team’s play in the United Center Thursday on national TNT.

“We have to start building our playoff mentality,” said Kirk Hinrich, who was terrific with 25 points and three of the Bulls 12 steals. “We have some guys who haven’t played with us a lot and we need to continue to work to create a playoff mindset.”

Perhaps making the playoffs when more than half the teams in the NBA do isn’t an exclusive honor. But it’s a major step forward for a Bulls team that was sunk—and stunk—last season with two coaches being fired and falling to 11th in the Eastern Conference with 33 wins.

But the Bulls appear to have a good chance not only to make the playoffs, but perhaps end the season at .500, which would be one of the better turnarounds in the NBA this season.

“We buckled down, we got some stops and we got out on the break a little bit,” said John Salmons, who looked a lot more explosive with his groin injury problems and had 19 points and five steals. “Lately we’ve been winning a lot of games like that. In second halves, we’ve been getting some stops that has helped us win some games. It hasn’t always been pretty and probably won’t be pretty.”

You always hear about “ugly” games in the NBA, and what it means is both teams made a lot of mistakes, didn’t play that hard and didn’t seem to care much. Until the end when someone had to win because that’s the way it works.

For three quarters, it pretty much was that way until one team started to play. The Knicks seem rarely to play much, and so they fell to 30-48 and headed to their fifth consecutive season of at least 49 losses and eighth consecutive losing season. Yeah, free agents are lining up.

I’ve long liked the D’Antoni system, though it doesn’t much involve stopping anyone from scoring. But you need All-Star talent in it. The Knicks don’t have any, so it doesn’t work. They shot 50.6 percent, which spoke mostly to a spotty Bulls effort other than in the fourth quarter. Any somewhat better team would have beaten the Bulls in a game like this in which they looked a bit too much like they had a playoff spot clinched.

DePaul’s Wilson Chandler shot the ball exceptionally well from the perimeter and had 26 points. Al Harrington had 23, completely befuddling the Bulls when the Knicks took the lead in the third quarter. But D’Antoni, curiously, didn’t play Harrington much in the fourth quarter, and when he did play Harrington’s teammates forgot he made eight of nine third quarter shots. Harrington got one shot attempt in the fourth.

“First half was really good,” said D’Antoni. “Second half we played well in spurts, but we had about 13 turnovers in the second half and that doomed us. We had a stretch where we tried to feed the post and I told them we were in the blue shirts, not the whites. They kept throwing it to the white guy. To be honest, (the Bulls did) nothing (different after halftime). We just threw the ball to them. There were some post feeds in there that were awful. Maybe the Bulls played a little harder. I doubt it. I just felt we turned it over, even without them being forced errors. It was just not real good basketball plays.”

That wasn’t the game I was watching as after the Knicks took a 90-85 lead with about nine minutes left in the game, a different Bulls team came out of the timeout. They were fortunate not to be down eight as Quentin Richardson, with 17, missed a wide open three as the Bulls continued a third quarter pattern of having watched the Knicks’ DVD on how to play defense.

When the Knicks aren’t running into quick jumpers, they’ll run a lot of high screen rolls, like the Bulls, and postups with mismatches. Finally, the Bulls, playing small again with Tim Thomas and Deng out, began overplaying and pressuring the post passes.

First Hinrich on a double team overplayed a pass in to Richardson and made a steal. After another Brad Miller tip out of a miss like Ben Wallace did (Miller had 12 rebounds to offset his one of 10 shooting), Derrick Rose made a beautiful touch pass for Miller’s only basket.

Salmons fronted on another Nate Robinson pass into the post, stole the ball and Hinrich hit a jumper from the left wing to get the Bulls within 90-89.

“In the first half we were a little sloppy and gave up too many easy baskets,” said Del Negro. “In the fourth quarter, our defense was the difference. We attacked off the dribble. I was happy we were able to grind it out in the fourth quarter. We held them to 19 points and that was big because New York can score. It was nice to see us being aggressive. We made our rotations and our quickness of defense was better. When you win with defense, it makes your offense able to get into the attack mode.”

Robinson, who was running the team (into the ground) then took a quick runner that missed, and Salmons hit a wide open three on the other end when Richardson fell down on a switch. Larry Hughes, with six points on excellent (for him) two of six shooting, missed also as it doesn’t take the Knicks long to forget to pass to anyone.

Rose blew by Hughes on the other end and pulled up for a jumper and 94-90 Bulls lead with 6:35 left and D’Antoni finally brought in Harrington. Though he left Robinson in to mess the offense up some more.

Robinson gave to David Lee way up high, and Hinrich picked off Lee’s pass, ran in and was fouled and made both free throws for a 96-90 Bulls lead with 6:22 left.

The Knicks finally found Harrington after a wild inside pass that skipped accidentally to him with the shot clock running out, and Harrington fired up a desperation miss. Rose, who had 18 points and six assists, drove with Jared Jeffries stunting and then basically getting back to no one as Rose lobbed to Tyrus Thomas for a slam dunk and 98-90 Bulls lead.

The Knicks finally found Harrington, but the Bulls chased him into a turnover, and Rose scored on a pass from Salmons on a break and suddenly it was 100-90 with 5:16 left as D’Antoni finally brought back Chris Duhon to settle his team.

“They did a great job of knocking down the shots when they counted,” aid the former Bulls backup point. “There was a big stretch where we turned the ball over maybe three or four times consecutively. It kind of got us out of a rhythm. We played hard, but they just made plays at the end. They did a good job of making it difficult for us to get it to them in the post. We were trying to exploit them this way. Our low-post game was kind of working but sometimes when you focus on that too long you just start to force things that you shouldn’t force.”

Chandler stopped the run with a three with 4:58 left to get the Knicks within seven.

Rose beat Jeffries again as Jeffries occasionally was guarding Rose to try to take advantage of the height difference. But Rose was too quick with his shot, and you wondered later when the Knicks were down four with about 50 seconds to go why Jeffries not only was in the game, but why he was shooting a three. A bad one at that, which missed by a lot.

It was fortunate for the Bulls because after taking that 102-93 lead on Rose’s shot over Jeffries with 4:28 left, the Bulls missed their next seven shots and committed a turnover, enabling the Knicks to pull within 102-100 with just over a minute left.

That last miss was from Ben Gordon, who was an ugly six of 15. But Miller stepped inside Lee for rebounding position, got the ball and was fouled. Miller made both free throws for a 104-100 lead with 1:07 left. Miller’s fundamental plays have been a joy to watch, and vital for the Bulls playoff run as he generally finishes games.

Jeffries then missed that three after Thomas, with 18 points, got his third block of the game against Lee. Thomas has been burned coming from the weak side too early at times as teams have anticipated it and scored behind him. But Thomas was able to drop off the non offensive Jeffries, and made the big block.

Gordon then missed a runner as he didn’t see Miller coming wide open rolling down the middle, and then Chandler hit another three with Joakim Noah all over him on a switch to bring the Knicks—again—back within 104-103 with 22 seconds left.

As I said: Not a great effort for the Bulls. Just enough.

New York then had to foul, and they let Gordon come open. He made both.

Coming out of a timeout, the Knicks tried Robinson on backdoor from the top against Rose. Rose caught Robinson, who passed way back outside to Richardson, who pump faked. Thomas bit. But he recovered so fast he was able to jump again and block Richardson’s three point effort, and then Thomas made two free throws to effectively wrap up the game.

It was a heck of a defensive play by Thomas as the Bulls would end up with 28 points on Knicks’ turnovers.

“Guys were making plays,” said Hinrich.

It didn’t look that way early as the Bulls led 26-24 after one quarter as Gordon came out firing, missing the Bulls first two shots and then committing a turnover before he turned it around and had 10 of his 17 in the quarter.

Hinrich was particularly sharp when he entered as his shot was true. And the Bulls looked in good shape when Rose put in a highlight reverse scoop on a drive after a Hinrich three. Miller then cleverly faked a jumper and the Knicks stopped. Thomas cut toward the basket on the weak side and slammed Miller’s pass as the Bulls lead 44-39.

But Harrington hit a three and tipped in a miss of a sign of things to come as the Knicks led 56-53 at halftime despite Hinrich’s 14.

The third quarter was a disaster for the Bulls as they continually lost Harrington, having both Thomas and Noah, curiously, take him and the results were awful as the big men tended to stray near the basket. Harrington hit two more open threes and had 18 in the quarter, and the Bulls did all they could to stay within 84-81 after three quarters.

It was looking scary when Rose took a hard fall early in the third on that bad wrist, and seemed to wince several times afterward. The Bulls have to hope he’s OK or clinch a playoff spot soon and rest him after that.

Because it also is beginning to look like Deng may be done for the playoffs as well. It seems a plague on the Bulls house with all these injuries. It’s difficult to imagine him playing in the regular season anymore after missing so many games and still not practicing. But still with pain the Bulls, assuming they make the playoffs, will have to make a decision on a playoff roster. They’re not that deep, so they can keep Deng on. But though Deng has been saying he doubts surgery, the way things are going that seems possible.

One only needs to look at the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, who just went out for the season and playoffs with recurring pain in his ankle.

Though Salmons has played well in Deng’s absence, the Bulls lose a major weapon without Deng. His presence would give the Bulls some possibilities in a first round playoff matchup. But it would seem too big a risk now to even play him considering the lack of recovery.

So, the Bulls search out small victories first. They got one Tuesday. Perhaps later this week or early next week it could be a night different from all other nights lately with the Bulls charting playoff plans. Drink a toast.

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