Bulls break losing streak and beat Wolves


Jan 10

Why didn’t the Bulls think of this before: Forget Derrick Rose. Run the offense through Joakim Noah.
Hey, maybe the Bulls finally have found that closer.

“I don’t think that’s what it’s about,” Noah said Saturday after scoring 20 points, one below his career high, to lead the Bulls to a 110-96 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.  “I’m just happy to help my team win.  We had a tough loss (Friday) and it can be tough to bring energy and focus after a tough loss but we did that.”

It wasn’t quite a classic as the Bulls, as is their custom of late, fell behind by double digits in the first quarter. They got back quickly behind some rare good three point shooting from Kirk Hinrich, also with 20 points, and John Salmons. They did break a three-game losing streak. But they fenced with a lackluster Minnesota team, falling into some bad jump shooting habits to the point coach Vinny Del Negro yanked Tyrus Thomas late in the third quarter after a pair of quick jumpers when the Timberwolves pulled within 73-64.

But Brad Miller gave the Bulls a nice shooting effort off the bench along with Salmons and Taj Gibson came on late to help the Bulls move to 15-20.

“We came out a little sluggish at the start, but we had a very solid defensive second quarter,” said Del Negro.  “We got our energy back.  We got some confidence from there and had a very good third quarter (in going ahewad 79-64).  It was a very good win.  We had too many turnovers again.  We could have made it a lot easier on ourselves.”

It’s not going to be easy with this Bulls team unless they can spread the court better with three point shooting and get some steady inside play. They sort of got that Saturday, though from unlikely  sources with the generally offense challenged Noah with 20, though most on wide open free throw line jumpers the Timberwolves were giving him. The Bulls also hit seven of 14 threes, including four of nine from Hinrich, somewhat unusual for the league’s most hesitant three point shooting team.

“We feel like when we come to play, we can compete with most teams,” said Hinrich.  “When we don’t we are going to get beat.  This is the NBA.  Minnesota’s record is not very good (8-30). But if you don’t come and play against them, they are more than capable of beating you.”

The Timberwolves have beaten the Jazz twice, for example, and had beaten the Pacers at home Friday. And who can forget this is a Bulls team that lost at home to the then 1-19 New Jersey Nets. The Bulls have shown no team is too bad for them. And, as we painfully know, no lead is too big to blow.

But there were no serious worries this time as the Bulls won for the first time all season in eight tries in the second of a back to back, though five of the seven had the Bulls playing on the road in the second half of those back to backs. The win also made the Bulls 5-0 on Saturday nights in home games televised by WGN. See, the problems may just have been scheduling. I’m still computing the record when Lindsey Hunter wears blue underwear.

Overall, though, it was a good effort after the sleepy start with the Bulls shooting 51.8 percent and getting a season high in points.

“We had nice balance out there,” said Del Negro.  “I thought Derrick (with eight points and seven assists and just one turnover) had a nice floor game and he guarded well.  Everyone contributed in their own way.  That is what it is about as a team.  Sometimes it’s your night and sometimes it’s not.  You always have to find a way to be productive and contribute to the team.”

Rookie James Johnson, who’s contributed little thus far in only lately increasing minutes, may be coming out of his cocoon. He had a strong driving slam dunk move coming in from above the free throw line, then went on the floor to help force a jump ball, ran the court as the Bulls got the jump and was fouled and made a heck of a switch hands pass on the run after a turnover for a HInrich score as the Bulls pulled within 34-33 in the second.

“I want to be a team player whether I play a lot of minutes or no minutes,” said Johnson, who left briefly to retape after tweaking his ankle. “I still want to really play hard in practice.  I had that demonstrated to me in college where some guys who played no minutes were some of our best practice players.  I’m trying to take that approach.  It’s been different for me coming off the bench.  I’ve never done that before.  I need to get used to it. Yet, it’s something I don’t want to get too used to.  I do appreciate the opportunity to play and I think that’s come because I am working hard.”

Fellow rookie Gibson had a slow start shooting, air balling a pair of shots and then getting one to drop after it bounced off the top of the backboard. But he came out strong in the third quarter when the Bulls began to take control of the game with a big time follow up slam of a Luol Deng miss and a spinning layup as he finished on a fast break.

The mystery again remained Tyrus Thomas, who did have three blocks and, at least early when he shot short and thought he was fouled at least didn’t complain long and had time to get back downcourt to block the Wayne Ellington fast break layup attempt from behind. That was right after the Bulls had just taken their first lead at 35-34.
But Thomas had six of the Bulls 18 turnovers in just 23 minutes and made some dreadful decisions.

Later in the second with the Bulls ahead 41-39, Thomas on consecutive possessions on runouts after Minnesota turnovers failed to give the ball up to a guard and both times ran into his own turnovers.

Kevin Love then beat Thomas back and was fouled and only a Hinrich three gave the Bulls some breathing room. Then late in the third quarter with the Bulls ahead 71-62 after having led by 14, in two of three possessions Thomas took the first pass he received with not much under 20 seconds left on the shot clock and fired off jumpers each time without moving the ball, the second one an off balance runner. Del Negro yanked Thomas right after that second one and the Bulls recovered to finish the quarter with a 6-0 run to take that 79-64 lead.

Del Negro rarely, if ever, publicly challenges or criticizes his players. But it was obvious in the substitution pattern as Thomas left after playing fewer than two minutes in that quarter. Del Negro did bring Thomas back with under five minutes left and the Bulls up 17 with long buried reserves like Aaron Gray and Jannero Pargo finishing the game with Thomas. Perhaps fittingly, the Bulls last possession had Thomas committing a turnover on a high degree of difficulty interior pass.

But forget that stuff. It was a big relief win for the Bulls after losses to the Thunder, Bobcats and Bucks, hardly your NBA elite. After all, the notion was if you cannot beat those teams where were you going? The Bulls played the Bobcats and Bucks both close down to the last possession on the road. But they continue to search for that reliable guy to make big plays at the end. Forget it. He’s not there, so the Bulls are going to have to win games like they did for the most part Saturday in competing throughout and making some shots and their free throws.

“It just feels good to win,” said Noah, who also had nine rebounds.  “We’ve been going through a tough little stretch as a team and it’s good to play well and to play with good energy.  If we can play with some level of consistency, that’s what would really help us..  But it was a good team effort.  As a team we came out with the right mindset.  We just have to continue to play that way to make a push towards the playoffs.”

It makes little sense to examine that day to day with more than half the season left. Suffice to say the Eastern Conference is not as good as we (OK, I) thought and you might get into the playoffs with 35 or 36 wins. No shame. Michael Jordan’s first two Bulls teams made the playoffs with fewer than 40 wins (30-52 in 1986) and that was when Jordan had 63 points against the Celtics in a memorable first round loss. Like Rose, that’s the way Jordan started.

The top four seem set with Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta, and five and six also seem likely with Miami and Toronto because they have stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That puts the Bulls, at least for now, in a four-way race for two spots, now held by the Bobcats and Bucks with the Bulls one behind them and the Knicks one and a half behind.

So you can’t lose games like Saturday’s, and the Bulls didn’t, though they sleep walked into the game again, going with quick stand still jumpers and a 14-4 deficit.

“I don’t know what it was,” said Hinrich.  “Maybe we didn’t warm up enough, but we did start very sluggish.  Fortunately we were able to snap out of it.”

Oooh! Oooh! Pick me, teacher. I know, I know.

It’s Rose. He’s unselfish. He cares about his teammates. The heck with that. One issue with Rose as a player is what you’ve probably seen in interviews. He’s not exactly a walking energy drink.

The Bulls have to make Rose come flying off the bench and into games, going to the basket, pushing the ball, making everyone run. The Bulls almost all the time come into games walking into their high screen roll for long jump shots. Rose has to take charge, and someone has to tell him. He listens. You can see before games he’s always listening to a coach.

I know, I know. Sometimes easier said than done as teams come out prepared to collapse in the lane against Rose. He’s got to force the action better, draw fouls, or at least contact, make plays for cutters. Scramble the game and wake those guys up!

Minnesota rookie Jonny Flynn was that guy early with 10 of his 14 points in the first half. He’s really quick and fun to watch and was buzzing around with a nice reverse past Noah and then late in the second quarter a follow score when it looked like he was 6-10 the way he was up above the basket. The Bulls did a better job keeping him on the outside after halftime and he began to shoot jumpers.

The Bulls also proved too big and active for Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. Love is clever, but cannot jump and was getting his shot thrown back at him, and Jefferson doesn’t seem recovered from his knee surgery yet. He was vastly outplayed by Noah and seemed hardly the inside threat who’d make much difference. He had a quiet 12 points and eight rebounds and little impact on the game as the Timberwolves had their best stretches with Jefferson off the floor when they went small. Though I don’t put much stock in the plus/minus stat, Jefferson’s was the poorest among the Timberwolves. The Bulls dominated the interior scoring 48-30.

There have been rumors Minnesota would trade him because he doesn’t fit the triangle offense because he isn’t a good passing big man. The Timberwolves have denied that, though some executives around the league believe you could get him. It would seem Jefferson would fit with Love since Love can step outside and shoot, and if I were the Timberwolves I’d play fast with Jefferson as a smallish center instead of that half court triangle. The consensus is if you want Jefferson you better have an All Star big man to exchange since the Timberwolves have plenty of perimeter guys.

The Bulls still trailed 32-28 after one as the Timberwolves had little resistance scoring.  Minnesota shot 56 percent in the first quarter but a more familiar frigid Minneapolis like sub-40 the rest of the way. Those shots began to come up short the second quarter and the Bulls moved out ahead 52-46 at halftime as Rose attempted just two shots in the first half and made them both.

Hinrich has moved the ball well and is averaging seven assists the last four games. He made a beauty to a cutting Noah for a slam late in the second,  and then the Bulls shut down the Timberwolves to open the third and pretty much were unthreatened the rest of the way.

For a welcome night for a change.

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