Bulls take down another contender


Nov 6

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Let’s see: Wins over two of the five accepted title favorites this season, the Spurs and the Cavs. Leading the Central Division despite four of the first five games against playoff teams and three on the road. And they still can’t shoot.

“Heck of a win,” Joakim Noah exulted Thursday running off the floor in Cleveland after helping on the game saving play, forcing Cavs star LeBron James into a turnover as James drove for the game winning points.

“If he scores they win the game,” noticed Luol Deng, the other half of the duo to sandwich James. “If we get a stop we win the game. All you can do.”

And what do you know. There was no superstar call, though the superstar, James, was left speechless, looking vainly at the referees but not sure even what to say.

“I felt a push from Deng, and I felt some contact up top from Noah,” said James. “Enough to put me on the free-throw line? Yes. But it is a judgment call from the refs, and he saw what he saw.”

And what the rest of us saw was an impressive defensive effort from the Bulls, right down to the last moments when they forced James left, to his weaker side, on the drive to the basket that had a lot to do with James being unable to control the ball.

It trickled out of bounds with two tenths of a second left. The referees went to the video replay, and if you were a Bulls fan you were thinking, “They’re changing the call for LeBron.”

But it was to determine possession and time, and it went to the Bulls and they soon walked off with an 86-85 win to go to 3-2 after what looked to be an impossible start to the season.

“It’s huge beating them here,” said Derrick Rose, who had 14 points and 11 assists with 10 points and five assists in the fourth quarter and what was the deciding basket, a floater on a switch over a helpless Anderson Varejao with 1:44 remaining. “But we didn’t do nothing yet. It’s the fifth game of the season. We’ve just got to be consistent and keep up this energy.”

It seemed like another improbable victory, though that’s what happens when you are better with your defense. The Bulls shot 40.9 percent, their season average, and 30 percent on threes to catapult them to 29th in the league. It wasn’t artistic.

But the Bulls were smart and relentless.

They committed just six turnovers, held the Cas to 40.7 percent shooting and didn’t overplay Shaquille O’Neal, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds but was virtually no factor. James led the Cavs with 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but in the miasma the Cavs call an offense with Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas lumbering around together like ailing hippos, James in one stretch went 24 minutes, according to TNT research, without attempting a shot in the lane.

Yes, the Bulls defense was good, but no one does a better job than Cavs coach Mike Brown in shutting down James.

Though the Bulls played a big part.

Deng, who led the Bulls with 15 points and had seven rebounds, took on the primary assignment of defending James and did a heck of a job. Kirk Hinrich continued to inspire the perimeter defensive play and took three stitches to his chin trying to draw a change on James, but returned quickly.

Hinrich has been a catalyst of the improved defense, especially with Rose slowed from his missed preseason and John Salmons still in somewhat of a funk over his poor shooting. Plus, Hinrich is a high activity player while Salmons, while working hard, tends to do it at a more leisurely looking pace.

Deng, meanwhile, was relentless and continued to attack the boards. Deng got some nice help from Taj Gibson, starting again for Tyrus Thomas, who came out of his sick bed to join the team in Cleveland and had six points in 12 minutes.

Deng and Gibson, the latter having his best game as a Bull with 11 points and seven rebounds, combined to cleverly keep James on the perimeter on his favorite pick and rolls.

When the screen was high, opening more space, Deng dropped under to cut off James by coming across while Gibson stepped up. When the screen was lower, Deng could just stay with James knowing there wasn’t room for a drive and stay off him a bit so he would take the shot.

Though we’ve seen James hit some big shots, one weakness in his game is he doesn’t seem supremely confident in his jumper. It seemed he passed off instead on several late down the stretch, and though you expected a drive late, he did have room outside when he got the ball on that last play.

James also was six of nine on free throws, and it’s been speculated at times he passes late in games because he doesn’t like going to the line late. But he did drive this time and wanted to go to the line with a chance to win the game.

The Bulls did a heck of job in denying that.

“It was a big win for us,” said Noah, who had seven points and a team high 11 rebounds. “We did not shoot the ball well again, which is kind of a problem. But our defense is picking up. It’s not great defense. It’s good. When our offense does start coming we’ll be better.”

James took the lead for the Cavs to start with 11 in the first quarter, but the Cavs never could get free from the Bulls and led 27-25 after one. The Cavs tend to be a good front running team, but never could get that big lead to incite the home crowd. So the Bulls kept making plays, Noah stripping Shaq when Shaq put the ball down to drive, Gibson with a dunk on a pass from Deng, Deng taking Mo Williams on a switch and scoring over him and Hinrich coming in to hit a three and blow by Daniel Gibson on a drive.

Coach Vinny Del Negro alternated Noah and Brad Miller on Shaq, rarely doubling with an occasional late help from the baseline out of Shaq’s eye sight. The theory lately around the NBA is more and more Shaq can’t do enough to beat you. So let him work and leave LeBron outside. The Bulls also did a good job of crowding the lane, while with their bigs playing so much the Cavs weren’t much at opening the court.

James took a couple of stumbles into the crowd chasing balls, once twisting an ankle and then landing on a sensitive part. He played, but slowed some afterward and with Shaq in the midst of a pair of second quarter turnovers, the Bulls pulled ahead 46-43 at halftime on a Salmons three.

This was beginning to look like one of those games in which the better team lets the lesser team hang around and then has a game on its hands. And it seemed the Bulls began to believe.

They worked to pull Shaq out in pick and rolls, which he doesn’t do well, and got some open jumpers. Their pace was better, though I thought they still could have run and attacked more. This Bulls team will have to score that way.

“The bright spot right now is defense,” said Noah. “I think the way we play (on) shows (double teams on pick and rolls) and rotations, it’s all about effort. If we come with the right mindset, we’re a good defensive team.”

The Cavs took a 65-63 lead after three, but Deng tied it with a three at 66 and the Bulls began to surge behind Rose looking like the star rookie.

“I’m getting back in the groove,” said Rose. “My shot was off in the first half. In the fourth quarter, I know my teammates want me to step up. I want to step up and make big plays.”

Deng hit Rose for a layup on a nice hi-lo pass, Deng then hit a long two and Rose blew by defenders full court for a layup like we saw Boston playoff style. Suddenly, the Bulls were ahead 72-68 and the Cavs were gasping.

Gibson put in a nice banker on a pass in from Rose with a second left on the shot clock and Rose again ran out for a layup after a Miller steal. Rose was then fouled and made a pair and drew a double and hit Miller for a jumper to make it 82-78 with four minutes left.

After two more Cavs missed jumpers, Miller pump faked Varejao and drove to score to make 84-78 with 2:35 left.

“It wasn’t the dagger today,” Miller joked. “The last nine years I shoot it or pump fake and it still works. I try to teach guys you need three moves to make it in this league: Catch and shoot, get up on you and drive and the dribble and pull up.”

Mo Williams then drew Rose into one of those fake fouls for two free throws, Miller missed a leaner and James hit two free throws to bring the Cavs within 84-82 with 1:59 left.

Rose then put in what would be the game winner with 1:44 left dribbling inside, faking and then putting up a quick floater.

“I’ve been working on that move after practice, kind of like luring them in, thinking I’m going to pass or dribble around,” Rose said. “Then, I’m just five feet away from the basket so I can shoot a floater real good.”

But James answered with a big three and then blocked Salmons layup attempt from behind after he got open for a split second at the basket.

Williams then missed a wide open three on a pass from James and coming out of a timeout Salmons missed a three from on top of the floor. The Bulls came hard at Williams, who missed a runner with 28.9 seconds left and the Bulls ahead by one. But the Bulls then botched a possession against Cavs pressure with Deng eventually throwing up a forced runner that the referees said hit nothing and a 24-second violation was called. Which set up that last play for James.

“I asked Brad (who wasn’t in the game) if they’d go hi-lo,” said Noah. “LeBron wanted the ball in his hands LeBron wanted ball I hands. I knew it was in our favor when he caught the ball because by the time he was driving to the basket there wasn’t enough time to pass. So I got off Shaq. I was just trying to block the shot or try to make him deviate the shot a little. We forced him left. We didn’t want him going right. And the best about it is they called it our way.”

Yes, things are going the Bulls way for now.

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