It's Deja Vu all over again for Del Negro


Apr 3

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Vinny Del Negro’s seen what the Bulls are facing before, a sub-.500 team needing to close strong just to get into the playoffs.

That’s this season’s Bulls, who at 36-40 and 1.5 games ahead of Charlotte for eighth in the Eastern Conference host the Nets Saturday in the regular season home stretch.

But that also was the 1999-2000 Milwaukee Bucks, where Bulls coach Del Negro then was a reserve guard. That team also was four games under .500 the first week of April and fighting for that final playoff spot. It was an offensive minded team of perimeter shooters with questionable defenders. Like the current Bulls, they spread the court and ran, but it would come down to one defensive stand. And the Bucks made it to get into the playoffs.

“It is having the right approach and this is what you need to do,” says Del Negro. “Play as hard as possible, and then it all comes down to who gets stops defensively in the fourth quarter and who doesn’t turn the ball over.

“It’s not much different than how we have to think now,” said Del Negro. “It’s the old cliché, take it one game at a time. But the importance is you have to treat it like a playoff game. This is your season. Win or go home. You can’t have slipups or excuses. You cannot take a night off. You’ve got to find ways. That Milwaukee team had so much firepower with all our scorers, Glenn (Robinson), Sam (Cassell), Ray (Allen), Tim Thomas, myself. We had a lot of shooters out there, a lot of scoring guys. But we had to get after it defensively. Play your role and know what your job is. We’re in that situation now as a team. Six games left, five at home. But we’ve proven all year we’re unpredictable. It’s not going to be easy.”

It wasn’t for that Bucks team of 1999-2000, either.

They went into Orlando needing to win in the next to last game of the season to knock out the upstart Magic. After giving up an average of 102.6 per game in the previous five games, the Bucks clawed out an 85-83 win in Orlando with Thomas hitting the big shot down the stretch.

The Bulls aren’t quite down to that last, must win quite yet. Though with the tight margin and Charlotte behind them having the tiebreaker and playing well, there is little room to relax.

It’s been two years since this Bulls team has been in an important game, and it’s now a very different team with three starters who basically weren’t a part of the last playoffs, the sweep over the Heat and loss to Detroit.

Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah came after that, and Tyrus Thomas was a little used rookie then. So this Bulls team doesn’t have the experience of that Bucks team, which would go on to almost upset the eventual Eastern champion Pacers in losing 3-2 in the opening round series on a last minute Pacers’ score.

That was No. 1 versus No. 8, so anything can happen once you are in.

It’s getting there, and the Bulls’ February trades could prove crucial in that regard.

“Confident players play through those kinds of situations better,” said former Bulls assistant Ron Adams, who was an assistant on that Bucks team. “That team had a lot of innate confidence. Ray never met a shot he didn’t like. Glenn probably more so. Confidence is a factor that is important. Guys like (John) Salmons and (Brad) Miller are not going to have much trouble trying to maintain. The same with Ben Gordon. He’s very much that kind of guy. Kirk (Hinrich) can prepare himself. They have a number of guys capable of that.

“You try to bolster confidence,” said Adams, now on the Thunder staff. “That time of year the die is cast. You’re not changing anything too radically. You are what you are as a team. You are trying to promote a good esprit de corps and teamwork. On that Milwaukee team it was a bit elusive at times, but they generally played big games well.”

So we’ll see with the Bulls. They had a nice run with wins over Boston, Miami and Detroit. But then they went on the road and couldn’t finish in Toronto and Indiana. Now, they’re home, where they are 24-12. But every possession will be scrutinized like never before this season.

The Bulls hope to have Salmons back and he’s saying he’ll play. The same with Hinrich and Rose, though Luol Deng is likely out for the regular season.

“If you don’t know what your role is and what needs to happen by now, you’re behind the eight ball,” says Del Negro. “On really good teams you know if your job is to shoot. If your job is to rebound, rebound. Set screens, set screens. If my job is to run the team and get assists, do that. If guys try to do more things, it’s more difficult.

“There are players who can do it in practice, and then there are guys who I like to say, smell the popcorn,” said Del Negro. “There are practice All-Stars. Some guys smell the popcorn (and are ready to play) and some players tighten up. We didn’t have those issues with that Milwaukee team. Sam was confident. I didn’t hesitate. Ray, Glenn, it was the same.”

We’ll know in the next 10 days what kind of players the Bulls have.

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