Bulls swat Hornets in big return of Tyrus Thomas


Dec 27

Can Tyrus Thomas save the Bulls? Can Thomas save Vinny Del Negro? Can Thomas save the season? Can Thomas turn the Bulls into serious playoff contenders this season and get consideration for league MVP? Can Thomas be traded?

Yes, Bulls fan can smile again, maybe only briefly, as the much anticipated return of Tyrus Thomas from a fractured arm turned out to be worth waiting for.

Thomas had 21 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, a steal and numerous changed shots in inspiring the Bulls to a 96-85 victory over the New Orleans Hornets, just the second time all season the Bulls have won a game by double digits.

“You saw what his athleticism does for us,” said Bulls coach, Beleaguered Vinny Del Negro (yes, it’s said so often that “Beleaguered” is now officially part of his name). “He was very productive. I liked his activity. It was tough to take him out because he was so productive.”

It was the new look, new lineup, newly energized Bulls in the wacky Eastern Conference whose win thrust (favorite Del Negro word) them to a tie for eighth in the conference at 11-17, just a game and a half behind Toronto for sixth.

We’re No. 8!

“It feels good right now just to get a win and to get one with a margin of victory that we haven’t had for some time,” said Joakim Noah, who had 17 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks and simply dominated Emeka Okafor. “It just feels really good.”

You watch those two teams Saturday in the United Center and you’d never want Okafor in trade for Noah or Thomas. Heck, you wouldn’t take him and that contract for Lindsey Hunter. David West or Thomas? Not even close. West mostly lumbered around trying to post up Taj Gibson without much success, and you wondered why you’d ever though he’d be an improvement. Chris Paul? Either he’s hurt or already asked to be traded. He was awful.

Derrick Rose, who had 14 points, nine assists and six rebounds including four offensive, did a decent job but nothing special as Rose mostly went under screens. Kirk Hinrich, who replaced John Salmons in the starting lineup and helped change the attitude of the lineup, helped out on Paul as the Bulls worked to close the middle against penetration. But Paul has seen that before, and from better defensive teams. Hinrich actually did a better job after halftime on Devin Brown, who scored 22 points in the first half hitting four three pointers. Hinrich stayed with Brown in the third quarter as the Bulls broke open the game with a 23-9 defensive stand more reminiscent of the way they played a few years ago, and Brown didn’t score in the second half.

“They were really effective defensively tonight,” said New Orleans coach/general manager Jeff Bower. “Their bigs were a big factor tonight.”

Who ever said that before?

But it was true.

Noah and Thomas were a great tandem inside, protecting the middle with shot blocking, changing shots and forcing the Hornets to settle for jump shots, a script usually reserved for the Bulls on offense.

The jump shooting Bulls had a staggering 54-16 edge on points in the paint.

Tyrus’ Believe it or Not!

Thomas was the story. He was returning from that bizarre weight lifting accident when he fractured his left arm. The Bulls went 7-15 since then, though when he went out the enigmatic Thomas wasn’t exactly headed toward his first All Star appearance.

Thomas was averaging 8.3 points and 5.3 rebounds and was coming off a benching in the team’s big road win in Cleveland when Thomas played just 12 minutes. It seemed the same old story with Thomas of so much potential and tease and so little satisfaction. It seemed to be the beginning of the end for Thomas in Chicago.

But Thomas returned Saturday with the aggressiveness, activity and ability that made him a lottery favorite in the 2006 draft. Here was almost 6-10 of explosive leaping that could help anchor a defense and produce offense. Paired with Noah, it was the kind of size the Bulls haven’t had on the front line for a decade.

And then you began to think what the old timers tell you, that it takes four to five years for big men to mature, and you thought, maybe, just maybe, this could be a breakthrough for Thomas, the injury a blessing of sorts as the sensitive Thomas found himself missed and longed for by Bulls fans and the team. Finally, love instead of condemnation.

“It felt like the first day of school all day,” said Thomas, “a new backpack, supplies, everything. Tonight was just about getting in a rhythm, slowing myself down and getting into the flow of the game. I haven’t played for seven weeks, so I really just needed to be able to slow things down and not play too fast. I was a little rusty, but I just got to keep running hard and everything else will come. As a team, we’ve just got to play hard for 48 minutes on both ends of the court. That’s the most important thing right now.”

When players come back after a long layoff they can have fresh legs and a big first game. They could be off on timing and play badly. They often play early on adrenalin, but that may wear off late in the game or as the first week goes on. So we’ll see. But if the Tyrus of Saturday night was the new Tyrus, the Bulls just might have something.

And something to consider since the speculation has been for some time the Bulls were looking to trade Thomas. If you trade this Thomas, you better come back with something special the way that game with the Hornets went. Then again maybe Thomas never plays as well again. That’s why management is so tough. How do you know with a history like Tyrus has had? But if you can get this kind of production—or anything close to it on a regular basis—you may just have the kind of team you thought you had to open the season that might look very appealing to a top star free agent.

The new starting lineup with Gibson back for Brad Miller and Hinrich for John Salmons did what was hoped for, an energized group that got the Bulls off fast, though they trailed 27-24 after one quarter.

Salmons and Miller never did get it going, combining for five points as Salmons looked hesitant every time he had the ball, as if he were afraid to make a mistake. That was troublesome for the Bulls in the fourth quarter with James Johnson getting a long stretch. Both he and Salmons seemed uncertain and seemed to keep seeking out Rose late in the shot clock to do something.

The Bulls had taken a 15-point lead with under eight minutes left, but Jannero Pargo missed and Johnson committed an offensive foul and you began to think Sacramento and that 35-point blown lead.

“When we got the lead, I knew you guys were thinking about that,” Deng joked to reporters afterward. “I thought we did a good job even though at times we panicked a little bit.”

Del Negro got Johnson and Salmons out, and Noah grabbed a big offensive rebound on another Pargo miss and Pargo scored on a short jumper just before being replaced by Rose. Thomas stayed down on a James Posey shot fake and drew an offensive foul in a smart defensive play. Yes, Tyrus! And then Thomas followed that with a jumper from the elbow as you wanted him to take that 18 footer. Everyone would wince when Tyrus shot, but when you work that hard you earn the shot. Shoot, Tyrus shoot!

Thomas really was all over the pace, going back on defense after that jumper to deflect an inside pass attempt to Posey. Thomas added another elbow jumper as he came off another Hinrich down screen. Hinrich was luring big men into hard screens like John Stockton used to do in that interior Jazz offense. Thomas’ 20 footer was good for a 91-76 lead with 4:11 left, and then Rose, who was trapped all game, fought off two defenders to retrieve the ball and passed out to Hinrich for a three to give the Bulls just enough room.

Oddly, Paul hit a three to bring the Hornets within 13 with just under three minutes left, and we’ve seen the Bulls lose those leads. But the Hornets, for some reason, emptied their bench and gave up despite the Bulls being in the midst of five straight misses and a turnover.

No, they still don’t have that closer, though that’s a problem for another night.

“It feels great to have Tyrus Thomas back,” said Noah. “He was huge. He brings a dimension to us that we just don’t have without him. We are better in transition because of the way he runs the floor and we are also better defensively.”

All of that was obvious pretty much as soon as Thomas entered the game to a nice ovation with 8:52 left in the first half with Gibson in foul trouble.

Del Negro said he’s not going to rush things and not put Thomas back into the starting lineup, which probably is smart.

Thomas certainly wants to start and generally has been resentful when he hasn’t.

But like with Salmons and Miller, perhaps Del Negro is sending a new message of players having to earn that spot. And perhaps it is that carrot that will work with Thomas, that if he comes off the bench for a time he’ll appreciate the chance to start more and work harder to get there.

“I want to leave it the way it is,” said Del Negro. “Let’s not rush into anything. Tyrus gives us great versatility off the bench. He can play the three or four spot. With that new line-up, Kirk gives us a nice thrust and takes pressure off Derrick because he is a guy who makes plays in the open court. We want to have a pace game but also control the tempo and be smart about it. If we can stay healthy and have some good practices, those things should work themselves out.”

Thomas made his presence known right away changing an Okafor shot and then blocking what seemed like a sure dunk for Okafor, who was zero for five for four points and out of place in the Hornets’ offense. The trade of Tyson Chandler, even though Chandler is out again, looks like a disaster for the Hornets as Paul and Okafor clearly have no chemistry.

It would be no surprise if there is some sort of fire sale with that franchise as the team looks disjointed.

“I take my hat off to Joakim Noah. His energy on the glass tonight was great and really big for them,” said Paul. “I told the guys when they were talking about the big lead loss the other night that this was a good team. I told them their personnel are quick and would be a problem for us.”

The Bulls would be.

Later in the first quarter after Paul missed on a drive, Rose took off and found Hinrich who hit a running Thomas for a layup, the kind of easy points the Bulls need to break out of their scoring doldrums, 29th in scoring and shooting coming into the game. Hinrich would add seven assists as the Bulls ball movement was so much better as they had a season high 28 assists on their 42 baskets.

The little known Brown befuddled the Bulls in the first half with 22 points as he kept stepping farther and farther out to shoot those threes, and the Bulls fell behind 42-31 midway through the second quarter.

But Noah kept breaking the momentum, even on offense, the first time with a dunk after a driving miss from Deng. Deng finished with 12 points after five straight games of at least 20, and his scoring could suffer some with Thomas back.

Hinrich dropped in a three on a nice find by Deng, Noah dunked on a Rose inbounds pass on a nice play, Salmons hit a three for his only points (he was one of five), and then Rose had a fabulous spinning layup past the grounded West. Tyrus then picked West clean and ran out for a score and the Bulls were back in it and trailing 51-50 at halftime.

The third quarter was a defensive clinic for the Bulls as they got off fast on offense with Noah again beating Okafor downcourt for a layup and Deng with a nice driving score. Hinrich tailed Brown and Noah and Thomas did a nice job stepping up whenever Paul tried to penetrate. Rose then had time to recover and the Hornets were reduced to one bad shot and out.

As the quarter went on, Gibson had a strong dunk trailing on the break as Rose dropped a pass off, Noah threw in a nice half hook, Tyrus slammed on a good pick and roll with Salmons and even James Johnson got in on the fun with a runner on an assist from Thomas.

Can Tyrus lead the Bulls to a championship?

Will he score four points the next game?

Will he be benched and traded?

Will he become the leader the team so desperately needs?

Is he truly the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?

Tune in next time for Part II, “The Adventures of Tyrus.”

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