The NBA's Mariano Rivera returns to Chicago


Dec 2

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Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons general manager, calls them the Team Mariano Rivera guys.

They’re the players who come into the game to close out your win, in basketball to shut down the opponents by making the big shots down the stretch.

“It’s who can make that Mariano Rivera team,” said Dumars. “I don’t know how many others are out there. I know Kobe’s (Bryant) on there. I know Paul Pierce is on there, and I can name some other guys. But he’s on there, too. He’s proven he’s a closer.”

That’s former Bull Ben Gordon, who was in Chicago Wednesday for his first return as a member of the Pistons after leaving the Bulls as a free agent last summer. Gordon remained uncertain about playing coming into Wednesday’s game after missing the previous two Pistons games with a sprained ankle.

And while the Pistons, without injured Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Charlie Villanueva, would miss Gordon, who is averaging  19.8 points per game for 16th in the league, it’s become apparent the Bulls are missing Gordon as well.

Or at least what Gordon did, which was make big shots at the end of games, if not always the last one, and create pressure for the defense, which opened teammates for presumably better shots.

Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro in preseason talked about the end of games where the team might miss Gordon most, and that has developed, though to sign Gordon without trading anyone would have taken the Bulls out of competing for the possible 2010 free agency class.

An example was the end of the Bulls loss to the Bucks Monday, and not because Brad Miller missed the last shot on the pass from Derrick Rose. It was the correct play with Rose trapped and Miller open. And guys miss last shots, as Gordon did often as well.

But in the last two minutes among those attempting field goals for the Bulls were Miller, Lindsey Hunter and Joakim Noah. None of them scored.

It’s remained an issue for the Bulls, one they’ve pretty much been unable to address in the first month of the season, finding that scorer to make and take the big shots down the stretch.

Gordon, without rancor and in his usual matter-of-fact manner, said he has watched some Bulls games and doesn’t think they’ve replaced him. Gordon made a point to commend his former teammates, but he said:

“I watched a few games and at the end it was basically, with the addition of D. Rose a year ago, there were two guys who could make big shots. Now it looks like it’s only him. John (Salmons) can make big shots and Luol (Deng) can make big shots, but I think last season the team relied on me and D. Rose to make plays down the stretch. It looks like it’s just him right now, but I’m sure they’ll be fine with the guys they have.”

Gordon’s point is there are shots and there are shots. They all count toward the total, but there’s a mindset to finishing, to being the ninth inning last out guy versus the setup man or even the starter.

“I think it’s important to have guys who not only are capable of making big shots, but who actually welcome big shots,” said Dumars. “He’s proven that’s who he is. He’s a closer. He’s done that here in Chicago for, I don’t know, four, five years from the time he got here. As a rookie, he closed out games. That definitely appealed to me.

“He’s made them when they count,” said Dumars. “That’s a commodity that if you have a chance to acquire you do. I don’t think there are a lot of guys like that you can just name and say, ‘These guys are closers.’”

Though Gordon insisted the return to Chicago didn’t mean that much to him as friends and reporters mentioned it more than he thought of it. Though he did say he’d hoped to be at full health.

“It’s frustrating being hurt,” Gordon said after Pistons shootaround Wednesday morning at the United Center. “I pride myself on not missing games. I’m frustrated because I don’t know if I’ll be able to play or not. I like to be 100 percent coming here the first time.

“Chicago is a great city,” Gordon said. “I had great times here. There’s definitely things about the city I’ve missed. I’m happy about where I am now and I feel I made the right decision.”

Gordon said he pretty much expected the result once a deal wasn’t agreed on in the summer of 2008 and he had to sign the qualifying offer for one year.

“Just moving my stuff was the hardest part,” laughed Gordon. “It’s like a family (in Detroit). They made me feel right at home right away. (But) Chicago has a lot of good players. So I didn’t have any bad feelings about (being let go). It is what it is.”

And it’s understandable given Gordon declined $50 million contracts two consecutive summers and the Bulls committed to trying for a potentially higher level free agent.

But in being near the bottom of the NBA in scoring, the Bulls have to feel the effect of losing Gordon.

“I think Chicago misses him a little bit,” said Darrell Walker, the native Chicagoan and former Bull who is now a Pistons assistant. “They’re my team to scout so I‘ve watched them. They don’t really have a guy to go to, to close a game. Derrick’s a good player, but in my opinion he’s not a closer yet.

“For all Ben’s fault, what people thought he had, that he was too short, can’t guard, whatever, he can close a game,” said Walker. “That’s important. As an NBA coach you’ve got to have guy you can go to and know he can close and he is a closer. That’s what Chicago is missing, I feel.

“He’s been great for us,” said Walker. “It’s a new system for him. He’s trying to fit in. But he’s playing good basketball. Ben also creates a lot of stuff for teammates. He’s coming off screens, guys are trying to hedge out and he’ll make that little pocket pass to a big for layups

“I like Salmons a lot,” Walker continued. “He’s no Ben Gordon. Nothing personal. I like Salmons a lot, but he’s not Ben. It’s too bad he couldn’t stay here. But we got him. He’s a professional. If I’m a team paying a guy, this is a guy you don’t have to worry about. He’s going to be in the gym. He takes care of his body. He does the right things. He doesn’t get in trouble. It’s what you want.”

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