Bulls shake 35-point doldrums but lose to Knicks


Dec 23

The Bulls lost still another, this time Tuesday in New York, 88-81 to the Knicks, in a game in which the Bulls had the ball and a chance for a three to tie with 30 seconds left.

So they recovered, at least somewhat, from the shock of Monday’s staggering 35-point lost lead against the Sacramento Kings which left the Bulls in perhaps their worst shape in a disappointing season, as a national joke and object of ridicule.

There’s nowhere worse to be, and with a desolate, dispirited first half in which the Bulls trailed 54-31, coach Vinny Del Negro seemingly declared his independence from it all.

Conservative and cautious, always seemingly fearful of upsetting the veterans, Del Negro, instead, began the second half by benching both John Salmons and Brad Miller to go with a faster, more energetic team.

The result was an awakening that carried the Bulls back into the game behind Derrick Rose’s 16 third quarter points and the Bulls within 80-79 with 1:41 remaining.

It’s as close as they would come.

Chris Duhon then came out of a timeout and beat Rose, but shot too hard. the ball was rebounded by David Lee, who had 18 points and 21 rebounds. He was fouled and made both free throws.

Rose then short armed a jumper at the free throw line. Al Harrington, who led the Knicks with 20 points off the bench, missed a three. Rose penetrated and kicked back to Luol Deng, who missed a long two. Jared Jeffries was fouled, but missed both to give the Bulls a chance trailing 82-79 with 33.2 seconds left.

Del Negro said they were supposed to go on top for an isolation with Rose and back pick from Noah, who finished with 10 points and also 21 rebounds. But Kirk Hinrich lobbed, instead, at the rim, and the ball was deflected out of bounds. Taj Gibson snuck inside on the inbounds, but missed the pass in from Rose as he took a bad angle and the ball went out of bounds.

The Bulls elected not to foul with 28.3 seconds left. But Duhon found Lee open on a pick and pop and Lee made the deciding shot and the game ended in a welter of unnecessary free throws that artificially enlarged the final margin.

“It’s tough when you lose, especially the way we did last night,” said Del Negro. “I thought our energy in the second half was much better. When you make baskets and get after it defensively and guys are feeding off it, that’s a good sign.”

The sign I took out of the game, otherwise, is Del Negro, though not betraying a hint of anxiety, signed his personal declaration of independence.

And perhaps, finally, it’s what he needs to do to get this Bulls team on track.

Hold players accountable.

Play badly and you sit. Don’t defend and you sit. Take those crappy, quick jumpers and you sit. Who cares if you are a veteran or if you are playing for a new contract or what you did before.

“I thought Taj came with good energy, Kirk played with thrust,” said Del Negro explaining his decision to open the second half with Hinrich and Gibson. “I felt we needed a jump start. I liked the way we started the third quarter.”

Salmons said afterward he was surprised by the move, though perhaps that reflects more on Del Negro’s handling of the team thus far given Salmons is shooting 38 percent and 31 percent on threes. Salmons also committed a crucial turnover on a lazy pass with 3:16 left and the Bulls down seven and fighting to get back in and didn’t chase down court. Instead, Rose took off immediately and forced the breaking Wilson Chandler to lose the ball.

“John’s got to play through it, play with confidence and aggressiveness and make plays, not always settle for jump shots,” said Del Negro. “Not always try to score but make plays for teammates. He’s got to get back on track.”

Del Negro to start the second half also sat Miller, who put up another 0-fer Tuesday, though in just 13 minutes with three shots. Miller now has made just one shot in the last four games and is one for 15 in that stretch in 79 minutes played.

Which makes you wonder if the Bulls want to make a move with Miller. That’s because the hard luck Trailblazers, the Frailblazers as Mike from Queens suggested to me, lost center Joel Przybilla for the season Tuesday with Greg Oden already out. They have to have a big guy now. Would Portland go for a package around Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw, both free agents? You assume Philadelphia would be in there right away offering Samuel Dalembert. Something to watch.

“Instead of being passive we were attacking the basket and putting pressure on them,” said Del Negro. “Derrick was attacking, Lu was attacking. We got a few easy baskets, which got us back in. We had good shots. We did not get down. Our energy did pick up in the second half, especially defensively and we started making more shots. We got some easy shots instead of settling for jump shots.”

Now, no one is saying this season has been Salmons’ fault or Miller’s fault or any player in particular. That’s something to be shared.

As Noah said afterward, “We definitely have a lot of soul searching to do.”

If someone has to answer for it in the short term, though, it seemingly would be Del Negro. And he knows about that even if he doesn’t follow the standings or read about it. He’s asked about it now routinely and always said it’s out of his control.

Which for the most part it is.

Del Negro, though I’ve never fully discussed this with him, has coached like he’s a former player who always said if he ever got to be a coach he’d handle players the way he wanted to be treated: Give him his minutes and don’t change things around all the time. It doesn’t work. You’re brought in to coach them, not appease them. Hold them accountable and demand the best they have.

And so that appears to be what Vinny finally decided Tuesday. Enough of this standing around and shooting long jumpers when the urge hits you, not concentrating on either end.

Del Negro did address some of the meltdown from Monday’s Kings loss by playing both James Johnson and Jannero Pargo in the first quarter Tuesday, going nine deep after playing just seven Monday and seeing the shots come up short at the end Monday, a sign of tired legs.

After Monday’s game, Del Negro denied fatigue was a factor, but reconsidered and said before Tuesday’s game he could have done a better job getting other players in sooner with a big lead. Though Del Negro also said the team has had a tendency to blow leads, so he wanted to have his better players in.

It’s not uncommon with inexperienced coaches. They tend not to trust the lesser talents and while you’ll see someone like Phil Jackson sit even Michael Jordan and now Kobe Bryant when it his time to open the fourth quarter even if the team is losing, less confident and inexperienced coaches tend to ride their best players as a security blanket. It can backfire, and apparently did against the Kings.

But it was a brutal first quarter Tuesday, though Johnson had a poster slam late in the quarter. Yes, he can be spectacular, but his defense is poor and the Knicks led 22-12 after one and steadily extended the lead to 36-19 with Johnson and Pargo in. Johnson did get another stretch after halftime, but Pargo did not.

It looked over as the Knicks closed the first half to lead 53-31 on a Duhon back door layup, a driving layup and dunk from Wilson Chandler and then Lee rebounding a Chandler miss and finding Harrington for a closing 22 footer. Meanwhile, Deng and Salmons were firing wildly on long threes.

The Bulls were a different team to open the second half. They started off slowly, but their defense was more active as the Knicks missed five of their first six shots. Then Rose took over, pushing the ball for layups and fouls, and throwing in that Olajuwon-like dream shake move he’s picked up when he goes into the lane, though it was the one he came up short on with that last shot against the Kings Monday.

“I had to give it my all,” said Rose. “There’s really is no point in playing the game if you’re not going to go out there and give it your all. In the first half, we were tired from last night. But there are no excuses in the N.B.A.. You still have to go out there and ball. That’s what I tried to do in the second half but we didn’t get the victory.”

Rose would finish with 26 points and he seemed to rouse Deng, who ended with 23 and began again to collect loose balls around the basket for scores. Rose tossed in a fancy drive and Savard spin-o-rama and then ended the third with a full court burst against the clock for a pullup three, just his second three of the season.

The Bulls were within 68-56. And then after the Knicks seemed to regain control to open the fourth even without Nate Robinson (the Knicks are now 6-3 since they stopped playing him and 11-17 to 10-17 for the Bulls), the Bulls defense tightened again with Salmons back in and hitting a big three.

Noah’s half hook following a Rose set up after a Rose hanging drive for a score and another driving layup brought the Bulls within one with under two minutes left. They couldn’t finish, but perhaps it’s a start with Tyrus Thomas’ return from injury expected in the next game Saturday.

“We’re definitely capable of winning and I think that we’re just going through a tough stretch right now,” said Noah. “We’re not playing our best basketball mentally. As a team we’re not very good. So I’m hoping that we can get better and hopefully just find a way to play with high energy for a whole game, not just periods.”

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