Bulls and Rose magical against Orlando


Jan 3

C’mon. Tell me Derrick Rose is not an All-Star. C’mon, step up.

I know I used that same one about Joakim Noah after the Bulls beat the Pistons New Year’s Eve, but, c’mon, how great is Derrick Rose playing?

If you don’t believe me or your eyes, ask Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. I did late Saturday after the Bulls beat the defending East champion Magic 101-93 with Rose going for 30 points, seven assists and six rebounds, and also the crucial offensive plays when the Bulls were staggering again and the Magic cut a 15-point Bulls fourth quarter lead to five and then three in the last seconds.

“To me—and I don’t want to downplay any of those guys being back. I think a lot of guys are making a contribution and playing well—but, to me what’s really happened is Derrick Rose’s got healthy,” said Van Gundy, whose Magic fell to 24-9.  “He’s playing like he did last year. I’m looking at the numbers the last five games and I’m watching him on film and I’m reading about all these other guys and I’m saying, ‘Here’s the difference: Their best player is back playing like he did in the playoffs last year and the end of last year.’

“And that’s helping everybody on their team play well because Derrick’s creating most of the stuff,” said Van Gundy. “There’s no question the other guys being back, having more depth…Joakim  (Noah) is playing great. I think they’ve gotten good play out of  a lot of guys. But if you go back early in the year the difference was Derrick wasn’t healthy. Sometimes, and this is by his own estimation not mine, he was mediocre, and sometimes not even mediocre. But the last six, seven games he’s been great. He’s the guy they need to get them going. He’s been tremendous.”

But it wasn’t just the big number for Rose, who now leads the Bulls in scoring and assists. It was making the big play, taking the big shot when the Bulls, as they have so often this season, began to stumble down the stretch looking for that elusive closer. Rose couldn’t do it the first six weeks with that ankle injury. He also wasn’t sure he even wanted to, naturally deferring and trying to play the true point guard role.

But it’s not enough for this Bulls team, and Rose finally understands. He finished December averaging 20.4 points for the month and opened January with 30. He is averaging 25.1 per game the last seven games along with more than six assists. East All Star guards? OK, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson should be voted in by the fans. Maybe Joe Johnson next and probably Ray Allen. But Rose and Rajon Rondo have to be right there afterward for perhaps that final guard spot.

It hasn’t been just the numbers for Rose, but when Rose builds them they have come. It’s the moment, like Saturday with the Magic on a 10-0 run to get within 90-85 with 3:08 remaining and a confident home crowd doing the Sacramento murmur.

“I got to do something,” said Rose. “That’s all I was thinking. I’ve got to make a play, go to the hole, do something, make a play for another person. That’s all I was thinking.”

Rose drove hard to his left faking Magic center Dwight Howard back as Rose had been attacking the inside all game. Rose stopped short at the elbow and downed an 18 footer to show some life for the Bulls.

“I thought that was big,” agreed Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.  “We got a little tentative in the fourth quarter, too much pounding the ball and not enough ball movement.”

Taj Gibson, who was little short of brilliant, then blocked a drive by Jameer Nelson, and Luol Deng ran out on a pass from Rose and was fouled and made two free throws to give the Bulls some room and a 94-85 lead with 2:28 left.

A word about Gibson, who has to be the surprise of the rookie class, first among rookies in rebounding and second in blocks. He came up big in a tough game with Joakim Noah pushed around and in foul trouble against Dwight Howard. Noah played just 18 minutes and had nine points and five rebounds as Brad Miller came on in relief and did a nice job fouling Howard and helping hold Howard to nine points and 12 rebounds. Gibson bettered Howard in every statistical category as the Bulls outrebounded the Magic 54-48.

The Bulls did a terrific job on Howard and had a wonderful plan. They worked him hard with their “white,” which means fronting. Then the man guarding him would quarter and get around back, slowing the Magic’s offense. Orlando isn’t a patient team and when they cannot find Howard quickly they mostly shoot a three, and they squeezed off 37 on Saturday, hitting 14 (the Bulls were three of five on threes).

Howard will throw out of a double team, but the Bulls held their help until Howard put the ball on the floor or made a move. They’d stunt from the top or came behind on baseline, varying the help. They had a classic squeeze late when the Magic was trying to fight back when Kirk Hinrich hammered the ball loose from Howard. Howard recovered and went back up only to find Miller bodying into him and Tyrus Thomas and Gibson coming off the weak side the block the ball.

Oh, yeah, Taj. He had 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Nice numbers, especially with Noah neutralized and Thomas also with foul problems. It also was the way he was making plays, grabbing offensive rebounds in traffic (seven) and going back strong with dunks. “Throw it down big man,” as Bill Walton would declare. And on defense the way the Magic spread the floor, Gibson was on Rashard Lewis and even Vince Carter.

“I’m always ready to step up, play hard, work my minutes and try to help the team any way I can,” said Gibson. “Tonight I had a tough assignment (Lewis). Late coach tells me to switch out on John on Vince Carter and I as like, ‘Oh man.’ But it was good. It was fun, a good experience.”

Not so good for Carter, who, Gibson rammed off the court after one drive and back into the locker room with a turned ankle. Carter and Lewis combined to shoot five for 24 as the Magic shot 35.9 percent.

But they can overcome you fast with those threes, and even after the Bulls seemed to steady themselves, Orlando came back with a runner from Lewis and threes from Matt Barnes with a team high 23 and J.J. Redick. That got Orlando within 96-93 with 27.2 seconds left. They elected to foul and Rose calmly made both, going eight of 10 at the line, for a 98-93 lead and the Magic wouldn’t score again.

“I think it showed that we can compete with some of the best teams in the NBA,” said Rose.  “Don’t count us out.  We’re rebounding better and playing hard right now.  If we continue to play this way, good things are going to happen for us.”

Yes, it’s just four straight and the Bulls are just 14-17. But with Miami slumping and Toronto losing to a decimated Boston team, the Bulls suddenly are just two games behind Miami for fifth in the East and a half game behind Toronto for sixth. I know. They don’t give you banners or those locker room hats for that stuff. But it’s a long way from blowing that 35-point lead, losing to the Nets and counting the days for Del Negro.

“The confidence is there,” said Luol Deng. “Everyone leaving tonight felt really good about the next game. A lot of people ask you about (the coaching situation). We just go out and play. We leave that stuff for (John) Paxson, Gar (Forman) and Jerry (Reinsdorf). We’ve done a good job ignoring all that and playing basketball.”

I have to commend Deng as well. Del Negro mentioned he’s playing with a broken finger on the tip of his left hand, though Deng doesn’t say much about it. He hasn’t shot the ball well of late, but he is hustling and you had to love the sequence with just under five minutes left when Rose missed a jumper and Deng got the rebound and Hinrich missed and Deng got the rebound and finally Deng missed. But it was a 50 second possession late in the game, and who knows if the Bulls hadn’t spaced the clock out like that the explosive Magic could have shot themselves back into the game.

“I don’t think Luol gets enough credit,” said Del Negro.  “He is playing with a broken finger.  He is gutting it out for us.  He gets all those loose balls and is a threat on the court for us.  His activity really made a difference.  His leadership is important stepping up like that when I know he’s not feeling good with the broken finger.  It was just a great team effort.”

It was no wasted effort Saturday as the bench was strong again, led by John Salmons with 15 points and Miller with eight rebounds and a big driving banker with just over a minute left.

“When bad things happen and your confidence starts to go, it can seem like nothing can go right,” said the ‘ol Hoosier philosopher, Miller. “Obviously when things start to go your way, it helps build confidence and it just seems that more good things happen.”

It truly was an active game from the Bulls, a surprise win against a superior team. Few expected the Bulls to win Saturday. After three straight, it was the kind of game to be close and accept a so called good loss. That happened some earlier in the season, and looked that way again as Orlando took a 29-26 lead after one quarter.

Noah was quickly in foul trouble as Howard was getting terrific deep position. But Miller came in and was tough, fighting Howard, forcing him into foul trouble and serving up one of his famous passes, a behind the backer for a Deng dunk. If only Miller could ever have jumped and ran. He’d be Magic Johnson. Or if he could have shot with range and did I say jumped?

Orlando seemed to be taking control, but there was some strange stuff going on. Like with Howard sitting and Miller beating Marcin Gortat downcourt for a fast break layup on a Thomas pass. I’m not sure you can call anything Miller does fast, but Orlando may be rethinking matching that offer for Gortat.

The Magic plays like a team that feels with its threes it can turn it on when it wants to. They almost did pull a win out Saturday. But Carter still takes way too many crazy shots and they don’t get much rebounding at power forward with Lewis. And if you are looking for All Star point guards in the East, forget Jameer Nelson.

“It seems every night the point guard is the leading scorer (against us),” noticed Van Gundy.  “(Rajon) Rondo had a good night, Brandon Jennings, Jonny Flynn. Derrick Rose had a good night. The (Bulls’) 16 offensive rebounds is a problem. Our fours have  have got to take more pride in getting guys off the glass.”

No. they aren’t quite a finished product, though they can’t miss Hedo Turkoglu too much as he’s doing little with Toronto.

Orlando led 45-37 midway through the second when the Bulls came on, the big plays being a pair of jumpers from Salmons, Rose driving hard into Gortat for a score and Gibson going up in a mass of bodies to slam the ball, the Bulls closing the second quarter on a 9-0 run to take a 52-48 halftime lead.

“Attack, attack, attack.  He’s strong, fast, and was knocking down jump shots tonight,” Nelson said of Rose.  “When he’s knocking down his jump shots, it makes it tough to guard him.”  

The Bulls stretched the lead out after halftime as Hinrich hit a three and Rose and Deng scored on drives. The keynote play in what would be a 20-2 run was Deng tipping a rebound of a Nelson miss to himself running out and then getting the ball ahead to Hinrich for a three-point play and 72-62 lead with 3:35 left in the third.

“I thought our bench has been doing well,” said Deng.  “Maybe the lineup change and Tyrus back, too. We’ve got guys coming off the bench and giving us a big lift. There’s a number of things we can point at (Deng didn’t mention it, but the Bulls also got longtime press room veteran Pam Kunkel back from knee surgery).

“I feel we are playing great, but I feel we can be better,” said Deng.

The Bulls led 84-72 after three and did a heck of a job attacking to end the third, making 11 straight free throws in the last three and a half minutes and 24 of 27 overall. After a slow start, the Bulls have moved into the top half of the league in free throw shooting and now rank in the top five in defensive field goal percentage overall and against threes.

And so this time the Bulls had enough to take that 15-point fourth quarter lead, get threatened and then pull away again as they looked to the youngest among them, Rose, to stand the tallest.

“Derrick’s a totally different player now,” said Gibson. “He’s taking over the games when we need it.”

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