Bulls pay back Hawks with overtime win


Dec 20

No question. No doubt. That 101-98 Bulls overtime victory Saturday over the Atlanta Hawks was the best win of the season. Better than over an aging Spurs team on a back to back to open the season, better than even that road victory over the Cavaliers trying to figure out what to do with Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

I know. I know. There haven’t been many other victories this season at all for the Bulls.

“You do have to remember it was these same guys in this same locker room feeling terrible about ourselves,” said Joakim Noah, becoming something of a team spokesman and leader not just with his inspired, hustling play but his willingness to speak for the team now in good times and bad.

No one among this Bulls group, or, really anyone in the last decade, has stepped up to try to become that leader. Hey, it would be nice if he could make a 20 footer. But Noah, with seven points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks, made one of the key, albeit subtle plays of the game .

Coming out of a timeout trailing by one with 19.8 seconds left in the first overtime (sorry if I fall into Celtics playoff memories), the Hawks lined up Joe Johnson, who had 40 points. Johnson was terrific all game, perhaps even a bit too much as the Hawks after leading by nine with 4:12 left in regulation got to standing around a bit and watching Johnson.

It was a great show, and now that the Bulls have played the top potential free agents for the Summer of 2010, I’d still go LeBron, Wade one and two. But I move Johnson to three ahead of Chris Bosh. Johnson can make plays, stretch the defense and defend, his smothering of Luol Deng denied the Bulls a chance to even get off a good shot in an attempt to win the game in regulation.

Johnson faced up John Salmons at the top of the key and was by him before you could say, “Help!”

Johnson came in a bit strong and Noah was there to turn what seemed like an easy layup and a one point lead into a miss. Noah then tipped the ball to Deng, who got it to Derrick Rose. Rose was equally brilliant, though more on that to come. The Hawks fouled Rose with 10.8 seconds left and Rose coolly made both for the 101-98 final margin, though Rose would miss two more just afterward and be saved from perhaps a miracle finish by a Noah steal after the second miss.

That second miss came with the Hawks trailing by three with 10.8 seconds left and moving to mid court after a timeout. No, game hardly over the way Johnson shoots.


I’d foul, but not immediately. Too soon to start playing the free throw game as the Bulls aren’t the greatest free throw shooters this season.

The Hawks inbounded and then looked for Johnson, who got the ball with about five seconds left. I would have fouled then as Johnson wasn’t in the shooting motion. But the Bulls clearly weren’t going to foul. Kirk Hinrich stayed in front and Johnson missed on a decent look from 26 feet. Rose rebounded and was fouled with 2.3 seconds left. He missed both, but the Hawks were out of timeouts and Noah caught that outlet from former college teammate Al Horford to end the game.

“Our spirits are a lot higher and we were definitely playing better basketball,” said Noah as the Bulls moved to 10-15 and have won three of five (hey, the way things have been going that’s Lakers-like).  “We can’t get complacent or starting to feel too good about ourselves because we still have a lot of work to do.  But I think we’re getting better. (Derrick) played huge for us.  He just played great.  He’s playing with much more confidence and he’s doing a great job for us.”

That’s why Saturday’s win was so good.

Rose was the can’t-believe-how-lucky-we-were-to-get-an-All-Star Rose who gave the franchise such hope last season. You can’t expect Rose to do this stuff all the time. But he was terrific with a regular season career high 32 points with half in the fourth quarter and overtime, six assists and zero turnovers in 43 minutes.

Rose hit a jumper with nine minutes left to give the Bulls their only lead except for a few seconds in the first quarter and after they seemed headed for blowout alley again trailing by 14 in the second quarter.

The Bulls fell seemingly hopelessly behind again with four minutes remaining in regulation. But Rose had a short jumper in the lane and one of those bullet train bursts of speed for a tying coast to coast layup with 35.3 seconds left in regulation. He then opened the overtime with a jumper, got an inside pass from Deng for a layup and 99-96 lead with just under a minute left and hit the pressure free throws.

“I’m just happy with the win,” said Rose.  “I really don’t care about my stats.  I just want to win.  I guess I did what I’m supposed to do out there tonight and we were able to win the game. My ankle’s better.  That’s really it.  My explosiveness is there and that’s the real difference in the way I’ve been playing.”

There was that comeback again from a double digit deficit like the win over New York earlier in the week and Deng again continued to pile up the hustle points. He had 21 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. But he’s back to moving again and seems often to get into the right place at the right time. He almost had a chance for a first ever game winner at the end of regulation, a well defended 20 footer.

The play was to be for Rose with 10.5 seconds left. But Johnson, showing he’s not just a scorer, was relentless in denying Rose the ball, forcing a timeout and then denying him again until Deng had to shoot. It came up just short. You don’t necessarily want Deng isolating and trying to score. But when he gives up a basket inside he’ll usually respond at the other end with a hard move. He gets some of the toughest rebounds in traffic and on one occasion just happened to be there to pick up a ball on a scramble and lay it in. and Deng went 45 minutes while John Salmons went just under 46.

Tyrus Thomas is to begin practices Sunday and should play after Christmas against the Hornets, which will ease some of the strain. But coach Vinny Del Negro is making it pretty clear that with all the talk about his job security and the team starting slowly he’s going to play just the players he trusts and who he believes can get him wins, which for now is seven guys with Hinrich and Taj Gibson off the bench.
Everyone else can get ready for blowouts.

I’ve never heard Vinny say anything like this, but it’s sort of a, “What’s the worst they can do? Fire me?”

Every coach with a struggling team knows the only thing that talks is wins.

And as for the struggling, Salmons added 16 points and a restrained night on threes, making two of four plus a big one with 2:22 in overtime for a 97-94 Bulls lead.

“We just couldn’t get that one shot to get us over the hump,” said Johnson. “They made a big three toward the end of the game, which got them over the hump.  This is definitely a game we should have won.  Credit the Bulls, they never gave up.”

Salmons isn’t giving up, but we are seeing who we think he is. Huh?

So Salmons makes that big three, a cold blooded shot in the right corner on a Rose pass.

Mike Bibby, who was fairly awful, then fires off a three and misses.

Back to Salmons, who now can’t get off his shot. So begins that little dance of his: step in, step back, step in, fade back and shoot. Everyone by now has stopped and is standing around watching and you are shaking your head.

Josh Smith followed that sequence with a score to get the Hawks within one with 1:22 left. But Rose answered with the score from Deng to retake the three-point lead. Johnson was fouled and made both to bring the Hawks within 99-98 with 40.7 seconds remaining in overtime. Deng got tangled up trying to break through on a face up drive and was called for an offensive foul. Uh oh. But Noah helped make Johnson miss that layup and the Bulls somehow hung on.

Both Hinrich and Gibson were solid again off the bench, adding energy and toughness, though Brad Miller again was too slow for the quicker Hawks and the Bulls again fell into an early hole. Del Negro is stubborn about changing the lineup, though Miller played just 52 seconds in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. Of course, this Hawks team was a bad match for him. But for now Del Negro seems satisfied to coach by not disturbing his regulars.

So there were the Bulls, again at home, down 29-16 after the first quarter as Johnson was bombing away against Salmons, Hinrich and Deng, whomever the Bulls tried.

“Obviously Joe Johnson is a handful,” said Del Negro.  “He can take you outside or inside.  He’s got size, a little floater and all that stuff.  We could not really control him.  I thought we did a good job on some of the other guys.”

The Hawks are an intriguing team and seemingly for real now at 19-7. They gave the Bulls a 35-point beating earlier this month in Atlanta. But the Bulls seem to have learned from that game.

The Hawks play a new age kind of game that many speculated about when Magic Johnson came to the NBA.

What if you can get five 6-8 guys with varied skills and then switch everything on defense? You effectively negate the most common tactic in the NBA, the screen/roll. It doesn’t work as well with Bibby. But the Hawks have been better with the acquisition of Jamal Crawford, who had 14 points off the bench. Both Smith and Marvin Williams shot poorly Saturday. But the Bulls also took advantage of a lot of the switches and attacked the Hawks’ defense when the Bulls had matches they liked.

It thus became the best of times for a change.

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