Bulls hold on against Knicks' three jamboree


Dec 18

There was some good news Thursday for the beleaguered Bulls. Yes, there was a 98-89 win over the New York Knicks after trailing by 17 points in the first quarter.

But if any of the big free agents for the summer of 2010 were watching the two biggest market teams with plans to recruit an All Star next summer, the Bulls looked like a much better choice.

“Our guys gutted it out in the second half,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “We got good performances from a few guys. Taj (Gibson) was solid with a double double. Kirk (Hinrich) with his thrust and defense was a big positive for us. John Salmons made some shots and Luol (Deng with game highs of 24 points and 13 rebounds) was solid for us. We held them to 36 percent shooting and we shared the ball well tonight. Overall our defense was the reason along with our rebounding that we won.”

I’d say a bit more the Knicks’ stupidity as they jacked up an astounding 47 three pointers, an alltime NBA record 29 in the first half when they missed 14 straight in one stretch. That’s right. They all felt good leaving their hands.

Heck, even Del Negro, the dismissal speculation around him subsiding, relaxed a bit with a rare post game quip.

“I was happy to see us making shots on the court instead of in the locker room getting shots from the doctor,” Del Negro said.

That was a reference, of course, to team injuries and players like Joakim Noah and Hinrich getting pain killing shots, which is somewhat routine around the NBA, while the team waits for Tyrus’ Thomas’ return, which I can see next week after Christmas against his home state Hornets.

But if you were watching Thursday’s game, you could make a case for the Bulls having a core of talent worth joining, that perhaps with one key piece you may be pretty close.

It’s obvious the Bulls lack an inside post presence and a three-point threat, two key elements for success in this NBA. So they are going to struggle for wins, as they did again Thursday, trailing 75-69 early in the fourth quarter before getting some big plays from Gibson, Rose, Deng and Salmons to pull away late.

Salmons’ three with the shot clock expiring with 47.7 seconds left effectively clinched the game to give the Bulls a 90-84 lead.

It was a big shot for Salmons, who’s struggled all season under the weight of having to replace Ben Gordon, though it also pointed out the team’s other principal flaw: Lack of a closer.

It’s ideal, of course, to get such varied contributions in the fourth quarter because it doesn’t allow the defense to load toward one player. But it isn’t something a team can count on. So you need a go-to guy. The Bulls also lack that, which is who they hope to add in the summer, be it an interior force or perimeter bomber.

You can’t count on Rose (at least yet), Deng or Noah to be that player. But you can make the case that they are good pieces to complement a star, a point guard, a hustling rebounder and versatile mid range player. Perhaps the Bulls aren’t that far away. Of course, you have to persuade the star, which remains the problem.

Though the way at least Thursday’s game went, the Bulls would seem to have a better case than the Knicks.

In the end, the Bulls also did the right things, getting to the basket and making free throws for a change, 25 for 28, outrebounding the Knicks 49-37, which is no great accomplishment as the Knicks play mostly perimeter players, and getting out and running for 17 fast break points to eight for the Knicks.

“We stayed hungry and hit the glass well and kept pounding it inside and finally got a W,” said Noah, who had 15 points and nine rebounds and was nine of 10 on free throws with his side spinning “tornado” shot hovering well. “It feels good, like we accomplished something. We stayed composed even though they came out like they did. And then John hit a huge three. We need that from him.”

It did look like a disaster to start with the Knicks taking a 25-8 lead and it’s one thing to be blown out by the Celtics. But the Knicks?

“I told the guys we have to find ways to grind it out,” said Del Negro. “What we’re doing offensively puts a lot of pressure on our defense so we really have to concentrate on the defensive end.”

Which is the closest the good natured Del Negro ever will come to criticizing his team. Though what that means is, “I can make more shots with my eyes closed with Bill Russell in my face than you guys can make in an empty gym.”

Though Del Negro got a slow start as well as he had Brad Miller starting with Noah. It’s OK to start Miller against a big team like the Lakers. But the Knicks play runners and shooters and the Bulls were a mess to open the game, giving up penetration and chasing shooters all over the place. Noah ended up on Al Harrington, who owns property outside the three point line.

Harrington hit four threes in the first quarter, and the Bulls were perhaps fortunate he did as 13 of his 18 shots were threes and he missed his last eight. He fell in love with that rainbow finding three point gold. But with Harrington, Danilo Gallinari and Chris Duhon, all with 18 points, raining threes on the Bulls, the Knicks were spinning the ball around the court, making extra passes and making the Bulls look incapable.

“We came out flat,” said Hinrich. “Some of these games the energy in the building isn’t there and as a group we’ve got to be able to create our own energy and we didn’t do that early. They were able to pick us apart. Then we were able to regroup and dig in and hit some shots. It’s kind of a funky game with them, guys crossmatched, (Jared) Jeffries on the point guard (Rose). They switch a lot. We knew they were going to take some jump shots. They are a perimeter shooting team. We did notice they were taking a lot of them.”

The Bulls are a different team with the energetic Hinrich playing for Salmons, who tends to float more into his shot. Yes, sometimes Hinrich plays too fast and that accounts for those missed layups he has at times as he’s moving and thinking so fast. He’s not one of those players who’ll you’ll ever hear say the game slows down when he’s on. But his energy, especially on defense, can be contagious and disruptive. And though Del Negro seems down to a seven-player rotation now until Thomas returns, you still wonder if the team would get off to better starts if Hinrich were teamed with Rose at the beginning. I don’t expect it as Del Negro doesn’t like to appear as if he’s punishing players, and it seems the crisis has passed for now.

Del Negro got Hinrich in with six minutes gone and then finally got Miller out trailing 33-16 when the Knicks did the Bulls a huge favor and effectively saved the game for the Bulls.

The Knicks’ free agent plan revolves more around getting enough money for two max salary free agents. They have the money for one unless they can get some team with an expiring contract, like Houston with Tracy McGrady, to take Eddy Curry. So the Knicks have been trying to put Curry into games, and whenever he plays he basically costs the team the game.

It happened again Thursday as Curry entered at 33-16 Knicks. When he left after three minutes the Knicks were ahead 34-28.

It was Curry’s first game back in Chicago in almost two years after a horrible series of events that included his driver filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, and two weeks later Curry’s nine-month-old daughter and his former girlfriend murdered. Curry is as likeable as ever, though I had to laugh when someone suggested to him the Bulls didn’t have post scoring and perhaps he’d return. There’s a better chance of the Bulls resigning Jawan Oldham.

But Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni likely is under pressure to get Curry playing and make him at least seem a bit capable. The Knicks routinely talk about how great Curry looks, but he’s a roadblock for them. When he came into the game everything stopped as the Knicks threw the ball to him in the post, where Curry missed a pair of shots and picked up a pair of fouls and was called for a defensive three second in his three-minute stint. He never went back in the game.

Meanwhile, the Bulls got some life as Hinrich and Deng closed the first quarter with threes to bring the Bulls within 34-23.

The Bulls muscled their way back in behind some impressive play from Gibson, a strong Hinrich drive for a three point play and six straight points from Deng.

Gibson is from Brooklyn and Noah grew up in New York, and both, especially Gibson, were particularly excited. Gibson made tough plays again, going in for hard rebounds and showing the maturity of a veteran when he got Duhon on a switch late and immediately signaled to Deng, who passed to him in the post as Gibson scored and was fouled as part of a 10-0 run to give the Bulls an 85-79 lead with four minutes remaining.

Frankly, the pick of Gibson at No. 26 in the first round saved the draft for the Bulls with Del Negro pretty much forgetting about James Johnson for now.

“I know Taj definitely was excited,” said Noah. “He’s in a similar situation like me. Everyone in the family is watching. Growing up in New York, watching the Knicks….In New York, basketball is a religion. Everyone watches the Knicks. Hate ‘em or love ‘em. I loved them. Taj has been playing very well for us. Whatever role you put him in, starting or off the bench, he has a great attitude every day. He plays hard. He’s somebody who deserves a lot of recognition.”

The Bulls pulled ahead late in the second quarter, though Miller was blocked after the Knicks retook the lead after missing 14 straight threes, and Miller then lost it and drew a technical foul call after the first half had ended. He played about three minutes after halftime as Del Negro went with six players the second half.

“There is concern (about minutes),” conceded Del Negro. “But that is what we have right now. That is what I’m comfortable with. We will have Tyrus back and hope to get Jerome James in there a little bit (me: What!) Tonight, we just had to go with the veteran guys other than Taj who has been a real constant for us. That is the way we are built right now. So guys have to get their rest and their therapy.”

Salmons got things going in the third quarter, finally running the court aggressively and also getting deep and finding a slashing Noah for a score.

With 20 points on seven of 14 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists it was a glimpse of the impressive Salmons we saw last season. Salmons admits it’s been difficult and hard to work out of.

Salmons is a religious person and often credits God for accomplishments and perspective. It’s not unusual in sports, though many reporters don’t like to use quotes attributed to religion in stories. I don’t, either, though Salmons when you speak to him at length uses the references constantly.

I credit Salmons that he never runs away from media when things are going badly. I have noticed Rose lately has tended to leave the locker room among the first after games, often not waiting for reporters who have listened to Del Negro’s post game comments. Last season, Rose would always wait. I don’t believe he’s angry at anything, though I do sense a frustration about how the season has gone and a weariness about explaining so many losses. Rose has never been part of anything like this as the Bulls now are 9-15.

As for Salmons, he admits he has felt the pressure of the circumstances, the losing, replacing Gordon, being relied upon to make those shots and carry the team at times.

“God is good. That’s all I can really say,” said Salmons. “I’m still feeling my way through and get it all together. It’s definitely been tough. You’ve got to stay with it and believe in yourself. I cannot lie. It’s not easy to go through. The only way to get through it is with God and keeping my faith. That’s the only way. If it wasn’t for that I don’t know where I’d be right now. Even today, I had a turnover when I was on a semibreak and I kind of hesitated a little bit and threw the ball away. It was not being 100 percent confident. Hopefully, I’ll keep getting better and back to where I was, I think people struggle at the job all the time. Mine is just more public.

“When I go home I’ve got my family,” Salmons said of keeping himself positive. “So I try to (leave) it in the gym. My wife has been a big support for me. She’s always trying to keep my head up, saying ‘You’ll come through,’ or ‘Stay with it.’ She’s been a great help. My son gives me a hug and you forget everything for a little bit. It helps your mental state.”

It helped the Bulls’ as well getting the win, though it wasn’t easy despite the Knicks’ failures.

“We just took too many (threes) in the first half when we needed to be more aggressive and drive more to get some fouls,” said D’Antoni. “If we’re going to play our bigs like tonight, we need to punish them when they go small like they did. We didn’t do that when they had Hinrich and Rose in there together.”

The Knicks constantly missed mismatch advantages as they fired up threes, though they went into a zone defense several times, which baffled the Bulls. The Bulls were playing small with Deng at power forward. Against a zone, you have to get a big man inside to take a pass and collapse the defense and then swing the ball to open some driving lanes. But Deng kept moving to his more familiar perimeter spot and the Bulls kept wasting clock and taking forced shots.

So they trailed 72-69 after three and fell behind to open the fourth before a 15-2 run capped by Salmons’ three after a tough Rose drive into Jeffries for a layup pushed the ball to the win.

“We needed it,” said Deng.

That’s because nothing is coming easy with this group. Until they can add perhaps one more special player.

Follow me on Twitter at @samsmithhoops

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