Bulls shoot down Rockets for second straight


Jan 24

It was a typical pregame for Brad Miller, loosening up a bit, though not too much, joking around with Lindsey Hunter and assistant Pete Myers, carefully storing his post game chaw when Joakim Noah ambled by.

“You’ve got to go,” Noah said to Miller.

“What?” Miller answered curiously.

“My foot,” a somber Noah said and walked away, sitting out his first game of the season with a worsening case of plantar fasciitis that makes uncertain his return.

But with that Miller returned to the starting lineup and produced the game of his second Bulls career, 25 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter and perhaps a game saving offensive rebound before Derrick Rose’s effective game winner to lead the Bulls to a surprising 104-97 win over the Houston Rockets.

It was the Bulls second straight win over a high quality Western Conference opponent with a winning record to go to 2-2 on this seven-game Western Conference road trip. The Bulls also continued to display a new  oie de vivre playing style in which the Bulls once again scored more than 100 points. The Bulls are averaging 106.1 the last 10 games and have won 10 of 15 to improve to 20-22.

“We lose to two under .500 teams and come out and beat two good teams on the road,” noticed Miller. “This trip last year I wasn’t on (the team yet). It was a building block for them (going 4-3) and they went on a roll before the trade. This is the trip to build momentum. Teams that are good on the road you get that swagger. You’ve got to work harder on the road. We’ve got a long ways to go on this trip. (But) it’s a good confidence builder.”

It was an impressive win over a 24-19 Rockets team that won in San Antonio (the Bulls next stop Monday) Friday night while the Bulls were beating the Suns. But the Rockets were back home from that game before the Bulls game even ended, and with the time change the Bulls rolled into Houston after 4 a.m.

Of course, on the road players often do that when there are no games, but we’ll pretend to give them an excuse for a while.

“I was so fatigued from the game last night I was just trying to pass the ball the majority of the game,” admitted Rose, who finished with 20 points and a beauty of a step back jumper from his favorite left elbow spot to give the Bulls a 101-97 lead with 30 seconds left.

Yes, game winner, again, as the Rockets didn’t score afterward.

Rose is becoming that closer, at least for now.

“Whenever we need a basket I’ve got to do something to get us in that position,” Rose said.

But amidst the euphoric relief about the win in the second of a back to back on the road, there hangs over the Bulls Noah’s condition.

Miller’s 25 points were the most he’d scored since coming to the Bulls for a second run last February. He came into the game shooting, by far, a career low 39.9 percent.

It’s been, by most accounts, his poorest season, and some around the Bulls have wondered whether Miller, at least mentally, had packed it in. He’s on the final season of his contract, making $12.2 million and with a good chance of retiring after this season. How much into it can you get? The team hasn’t been that good and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Who could blame him?

But Miller came through big with a pair of fourth quarter threes to stunt a furious Rockets comeback in a game the Bulls never would trail, as well as adding a clever offensive rebound when Taj Gibson missed two free throws with the Bulls ahead 99-97 with 48.9 seconds left. That extra shot enabled Rose to get possession for his winner.

Still, this was as big an aberration as there could be. Cracked Miller when asked what he was thinking about starting for Noah: “More Icy Hot. Load it up.”

That’s the senior citizens’ friend muscle relaxer and pain reliever for arthritis sufferers and aging basketball players. It is endorsed by Shaq, and comes in many forms, including a balm.

But Miller is not enough balm for what could ail the Bulls without Noah, the team’s double/double machine and the league’s No. 2 rebounder.

Noah said he took a shot, got an extra massage and treatment and right up to game time tried to give it a go but couldn’t.

“This morning I could hardly walk,” Noah said. “I was in this position where I couldn’t stop abruptly; I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t push on it. There was no point. I’ve had it a little bit throughout the year. It’s getting worse and worse.

“I took the shot, I got a massage, I stretched. I did everything before the game. I couldn’t go,” Noah said. “I’ve had this for awhile. It’s getting worse.”

Gibson, who was terrific in support of Miller’s effort with 16 points and a career high 14 rebounds, also is battling the burning, stabbing foot ache, though he plays on.

“It’s hurting a lot,” Gibson conceded. “I’ve played through it. I’ve never looked toward sitting out because I want to play so bad.

During the game at first it hurts a lot, but then it simmers down. It feels like I get stabbed every time I run. But it works itself out (as the game progresses). In the morning it’s stiff and hurts even though I sleep with a boot, a special cast.”

But it was a special cast from the Bulls Saturday once again as the Bulls shot spectacularly to open the game, 63.4 percent in opening a 32-21 first quarter lead and 64-52 at halftime.

Yes, people are even starting to notice.

Rockets coach Rick Adelman says he’s been watching the Bulls on this trip and has been impressed.

“They were a playoff team last year and I expect them to be a playoff team this year,” said Adelman. “They have the talent, the athleticism and all that to be there. They get in the open court. That’s when they’re good. They’re hard to guard. When they’re making shots and attacking, they’re a difficult team and their energy level seems to get better on the other end.”

Adelman makes a salient point for when the Bulls speed the game and are scoring, they become that much more aggressive defensively, and were again Saturday in holding the Rockets to 40 percent shooting. The Bulls finished at 53.4 percent with all five starters and John Salmons in double figures, the Bulls hitting seven of 12 threes, including three of five by Kirk Hinrich, and battering the Houston Lilliputians on the boards even without Noah, 42-32.

“We got in 4:30 (from Phoenix),” noted Miller. “That’s the NBA. You’re going to be tested at some point. You can use it as an excuse. We went out and competed.”

Salmons has been shooting the ball really well, 20 of 34 the last three games, while Hinrich’s presence has been incalculable as he led the team with seven assists and has enhanced the ball movement that’s opened the court and given the Bulls better shots. I know Vinny talked all season about having good looks and missing. I didn’t buy it. I thought there were way too many forced shots and quick shots, and now the ball has moved better and more quickly, even Tyrus Thomas getting into it Saturday with several of those so called hockey assists when he’s the second to last player to move the ball. Thomas also had six of the Bulls’ 12 blocks as they challenged the tougher, but smaller Rockets constantly at the rim and clearly bothered Houston’s inside players.

The Rockets were led by Carl Landry with 22 and Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks with 20 each, though the Bulls controlled the majority of the game. It was the first time in three years in a home game the Rockets never led.

“Another strong victory for us,” said Del Negro.

After losing in Golden State in a mess of a low IQ effort and then taken down the stretch against the Clippers, the Suns seemed like a sure loss. Then going to Houston, which just won in San Antonio, seemed an even surer loss. Then no Noah, and the Bulls were whining about the loss of Hinrich in Golden State and Salmons in L.A. because of the flu.

But the Bulls came out sharp with Hinrich hitting a three and Miller rolling inside on a nice bounce pass from Rose.

“I didn’t have Joakim to clog up the lane,” Miller quipped afterward as he usually works through his minimalist routine after the rare games reporters want to talk to him.

Rose was attacking early and had one of his usual oooh moments with an over the shoulder baseline floater over Scola after blowing by the speedy Brooks. Rose followed with another and Tyrus, of all people, had the pass of the game, a terrific touch pass to Gibson for a dunk as Hinrich bookended the first with a three for that 32-21 lead.

“Taj had a strong game for us,” said Del Negro. “Tyrus was active and blocked six shots. A lot of guys stepped up.”

The Bulls continued the barrage in the second quarter as Miller displayed his offensive arsenal with a drive for a three-point play when Rose dropped off a pass for him in the midpost after Rose got blitzed on the screen roll. Miller than has a hard driving score that got Noah leaping to his sore feet.

Miller then hit a running (slowly) banker and Deng closed the half with three straight scores as the ball movement was terrific with Hinrich taking over for the tiring Rose.

“We needed Brad to step up and he did at a perfect time for us,” said Del Negro. “I know he enjoys playing against Rick (Adelman, whom Miller played for in Sacramento). He knows what they are running and knows the system.”

The Bulls stumbled to open the third, which is becoming something of a habit as Houston scored the first six points attacking inside with Scola trying to take advantage of Gibson’s inexperience with Scola’s array of shot fakes and flops.

One of Scola’s children was running the halls outside the Bulls locker room after the game, a cute four year old, and I could swear I saw him just fall down a few times on his own, apparently watching daddy play basketball.

Rose stopped the run with a drive for a foul and shot putting in a runner. And then it was Miller again with a jumper that finally went and a driving half hook to get the Bulls comfortably back ahead 73-60.

But the Rockets closed the third with seven straight points and it seemed the Bulls might become unhinged and not finish, which has been an all too frequent occurrence.

Salmons opened the fourth with a three, but Tyrus missed an offensive rebound jumping too early and Landry put it in. Thomas then drove wildly and missed and began yelling at the referees, another all too frequent occurrence and Del Negro quickly got him out of the game.

With Houston within 88-86, Miller bottomed out a three despite entering the game shooting 25 percent on threes. Deng then took a dirty elbow from Landry for a technical foul with Miller making the free throw, and then after a Chase Budinger air ball as the defense pushed up on him, Miller hit a three from the top of the floor, producing a wild scene on the Bulls bench as the Bulls went up 95-86 with 5:49 left.

“The guys get fired up,” said Miller of the shot and him skipping back to the huddle. “Showing a lot of emotion. You hit a shot like that it gets Jo, JJ fired up.”

Salmons then stripped Brooks on a  drive and Miller faked a drive to draw the defense and passed to Gibson for a slam dunk, resulting in a round of noogies as Miller returned to the bench in a Rockets’ timeout, the Bulls ahead 97-86 with 5:21 left.

It should have been over. But the Rockets came out of the timeout going to the basket as the Bulls would fail to score on seven of the next eight possessions: Hinrich was blocked, a 24-second violation, Hinrich diving on the floor in a scramble and calling timeout and not getting it, but winning the tip. Miller got two out of that possession with a ball fake and drive and two free throws. But Salmons had to force a shot at the 24-second clock as the Rockets tightened up, Rose and Miller passed up open shots before Hinrich missed a jumper and then Rose and Miller missed again. When Landry got a three point play beating Miller and Brooks hit a three, the arena was back in full throat and the Bulls were ahead 99-97 with 1:36 left.

It looked like they’d blow this one. It looked like the agony of defeat.

Miller handed off to Gibson, who was fouled driving. Gibson missed both free throws. But somehow Miller snuck inside to get the rebound, setting up Rose, who probed the middle, found his spot and hit that now very reliable jumper for the four-point lead with 30 seconds left.

Brooks drove and missed wildly and Houston had to foul and Rose made two to clinch the win.

“Derrick’s shot has improved dramatically,” said Del Negro. “We’re going to go to him. He knows that. Everyone knows that. They were trapping the high pick and roll. We said when the big guy jumps out don’t just pass the ball, beat him around the corner, and he did and pulled up for a step back jumper and made a big play for us. We’ve been sharing the ball, spacing the court, our tempo’s been better. A lot of good signs.”

Except perhaps the agony of the feet.

“I want Jo to comeback and me help out when I need to,” said Miller.

No offense, but so does everyone else.

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