Bulls win in Ben Gordon's limping return


Dec 3

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Ben Gordon returned to the United Center for the first time Wednesday in an opponents’ uniform and was greeted with a cacophony of boos as the Bulls led all the way and beat the Detroit Pistons 92-85.

But perhaps more significantly, Derrick Rose, the Derrick Rose we all knew from his fabulous Rookie of the Year season, returned to the United Center as well in the Bulls first home game in more than two weeks and played some sweet string music of his own.

“I like it when he’s attacking like that,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “I think he feels more comfortable with the ankle injury and is comfortable pushing off.”

So comfortable, apparently, that Rose dunked twice in a game for the first time all season, sky walking, hammering dunks on lobs from Brad Miller.

And then late in the game with the Pistons desperately trapping, Rose took a short inbounds pass under the Pistons basket, raced across the baseline, then veered up court between two Pistons, passed another past midcourt and then blew by a fifth Piston, a gape mouthed Rodney Stuckey at the basket for, effectively, a clinching layup and 13 point lead with about two minutes remaining.

Rose finished with 19 points and six assists and seven of nine free throws, but got a bit sloppy at the end with the Bulls comfortably ahead and had five turnovers.

But if the Bulls are to go anywhere given their current injuries and general lack of depth and offense, they’ll need this Derrick Rose and not the one we saw so tentative most of November.

“It just feels good to get a win,” said John Salmons, who led the Bulls with 22 points and hit three of four threes. “At the beginning of the year, we knew we had a tough schedule. We’ve had some games that we could have won, should have won, could have won. Now we have to take advantage of all these upcoming home games.”

This is an important time for the Bulls after the miserable road trip and coming off five straight losses with four being blowouts. Tyrus Thomas and Kirk Hinrich remain out injured and now Jannero Pargo was slated to see a specialist Thursday about his bothersome hip and back problems.

It’s left the Bulls struggling mightily on offense, which was emphasized with the return of Gordon, the team’s leading scorer the last four seasons who was let go in free agency last summer.

Gordon led the Pistons with 18 points in 31 minutes, but still obviously was bothered by a sprained ankle that cost him the last two Pistons’ games.

As always, the laconic Gordon seemed dispassionate about his return, though Joakim Noah, whom Gordon said was the most vocal with him on the court in playful bantering, said Gordon was looking forward to the night.

“He wasn’t 100 percent, but he really wanted to play in this game. I know that,” said Noah, who had a ferocious bock on a Gordon drive and finished with seven points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. “It was a game on the calendar he was waiting for a long time. He’ll be ready next time. He’s a competitor.”

Gordon only decided to play at game time, and to the surprise of his former teammates, Gordon was mostly booed and then repeatedly every time he touched the ball.

“I kind of expected that seeing how it went with past players who been here and went to another team,” said Gordon. “The home team is always going to back their team. It wasn’t like I won a championship when I was here. Just had a couple of good years. So I wasn’t surprised at all.”

But Luol Deng, among others, said he was disappointed by the reaction.

“Honestly, I didn’t like him getting booed,” said Deng, who had 14 points and a tough eight rebounds, including four offensive. “I felt when BG was here he played hard and really committed to the game, tried his best. When he came in I thought they were going to cheer for him. I thought BG played great when he was here, played every game, played hard. So I was disappointed.”

Though the Bulls, now 7-9, were relieved about the outcome with a trip to Cleveland Friday and then back home Saturday to host Toronto.

Noah played just under 46 minutes, and it’s tough minutes when the Bulls often go with Deng at power forward in smaller lineups. On Wednesday, Noah got some terrific relief as Miller, who’s been having as tough season and shooting just 40 percent, had 16 points off the bench along with seven rebounds and six assists in easily his best effort of the season.

Miller came in early for foul prone Taj Gibson, who was getting beaten over the top for rebounds, and stabilized the front line in a stagnant game with an excess of free throws and stoppage of play.

The Bulls pretty much held on thanks to a disastrous Pistons first quarter during which the Bulls led 23-6 and the Pistons never led in the game.

But the Bulls still had to grind out points with Deng and Salmons both playing more than 41 minutes and Rose just under 39. Del Negro curiously continues to leave rookie James Johnson tied to the bench while variously saying it’s just a matter of matchups and overlap at his positions, mostly forward.

It’s led to some odd, punchless lineups, like a fourth quarter five of Lindsey Hunter and Pargo in the backcourt, Noah, Gibson and Deng for almost six minutes who saw a 74-57 lead to open the fourth cut to 78-68 before Rose and Salmons returned.

“It’s been hard out here losing to opponents who are very physical and dominated us inside a bit,” said Noah. “I thought against Milwaukee we competed, but we got beat at the end. Tonight was sloppy, but it was great to get the win.”

As an aside, it’s been a joy to deal with Noah this season.

I’ve rarely seen a player go through such a dramatic change in attitude and personality as Noah has from his first season and a half with the Bulls until now.

Whereas he used to hide from the media, mostly try to do interviews in French to make things difficult and famously was suspended by his teammates as a rookie, Noah is one of the more standup guys on the team now.

Win or lose, he regularly waits for reporters, the role previously most employed by Gordon. He talks easily and without the anger, attitude and suspicion he showed a few years ago.

So it was no surprise at the end of the game the first player over to the Pistons bench to greet both Gordon and Ben Wallace was Noah, though Deng, Rose and assistant Pete Myers also went over to embrace Gordon.

“I thought he’d get a little more love than that. He’s definitely someone who did a lot for this ballclub, who brought a lot of happiness in this building,” said Noah of Gordon. “I appreciate everything he did here, everything he did. I know he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen in the NBA. In the summer time he’d be in the Berto Center four hours at a time three times a day. I’ve never seen anybody with the work ethic like that.

“Basically just (wanted to) pay my respects,” said Noah. “Those are my veteran players. When I came into the NBA those were the guys who showed me the way. The intensity they brought to practice…. Body’s (Wallace) tricks on the court, holding onto the guy’s hand on the opposite side. Those are the kind of things you never go through that in college. Those are the guys who showed me the way a little.

People have this image (that) me and Body had this altercation and this and that, but you see how it is. We (joked) before the game on who’d win (the tip).”

That was about the only thing the Bulls didn’t win as they blew out fast for a 10-4 lead by the time Gordon came off the bench with 6:24 left in the first. Gordon was booed on being announced and then louder as the game progressed.

“The memories are a thing of the past,” said Gordon. “I didn’t do too much reminiscing today.”

Salmons, who replaced Gordon and has struggled to be a shooting guard with a game that is more fitted to small forward because he doesn’t catch and shoot and prefers to put the ball down on a drive and then shoot, played Gordon vigorously. With his ankle sore, Gordon didn’t have quite the lift and explosion he usually does, but he remained active.

“Better to play with him than against him, I can tell you that,” said Salmons. “I chased him around all game. Tough guard. He’s a good player.”

With the Bulls ahead 21-6, Gordon got past Salmons on a drive. But Noah came up from behind and swatted the ball away with gusto and engaged in some friendly talking and a good primal scream.

The Bulls led 24-10 after one led by Salmons seven points. Though Salmons doesn’t say much and didn’t after the game, he also knew he was playing the guy some felt was irreplaceable.

Detroit moved within seven in the second quarter before Rose made two beautiful passes for baskets, one an inside bounce pass for a Noah slam and then faking a shot and seeing Miller flash open, hanging and then passing to Miller for the reverse layup.

Shortly afterward, Rose hammered a two handed slam on a lob pass from Miller after Noah stood up Will Bynum with a back pick and Rose flashed in for the lob.

It’s the kind of stuff we hadn’t been seeing from Rose after he missed all of training camp with an ankle injury. Now, if he just gets isolated a bit more on top instead of being put in so many pick and rolls with big men who generally don’t roll to the basket.

Though Deng wasn’t hitting his shot, I liked his competitiveness as he started cutting to the basket and attacking the boards, and when rookie Jonas Jerebko beat Deng on a reverse late in the second quarter, Deng went right back at the rookie on the next possession and was fouled and got a pair of free throws.

It’s another area where the Bulls could improve their scoring as they still miss some mismatches and even when a guy gets hot they won’t milk that player enough.

Though part of that early big lead came after Del Negro brought in Miller for Gibson and Detroit had remained small with their three guards along with Jerebko and Ben Wallace. The Bulls then ran off eight straight before Pistons coach John Kuester called for Kwame Brown and Chris Wilcox. But it helped give the Bulls that big cushion which they would need.

That’s because the Pistons came out of halftime, as many teams have this season against the Bulls, with a run to close within 50-47. It included three Detroit offensive rebounds, a steal, a layup on an inbounds play and suddenly a game again.

What a brutal loss that would have been to a 6-12 Pistons team without three starters, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Charlie Villanueva.

But Deng fought for a miss and put it back, Rose banked in a drive, Noah hit a reluctant elbow jumper when everyone was covered and Deng drew the defense on a drive and found Salmons in the corner for a three.

That enabled the Bulls to get back up by 10 and they extended the lead to 74-57 after three with Deng running a perfect two on one and waiting for the defender to commit before passing to Salmons for a layup. The Bulls too often this season have lost fast breaks with premature such passes. Rose closed the third quarter Bulls scoring with a nifty drive after holding the ball for a last shot.

And, finally, though not often enough, the Bulls pitched the outlet to Rose near midcourt on a fourth quarter made Pistons basket, where Rose took off running and passed ahead to Deng being fouled for free throws.

Though most of the games are home this month, they are coming fast and in bunches, and the Bulls are going to have to find easier ways to score. They began to show some promise Wednesday.

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