Bulls turn off the lights on the Spurs


Jan 26

They ran off the court together and the locker room was loud and boisterous. They went out together after the game to Mi Tierra, the famous San Antonio Mexican restaurant that is always open and has Christmas lights displayed year ‘round.

And down the stretch when they were holding off the San Antonio Spurs, 98-93, for a third straight improbable road win over a tough Western Conference team, Derrick Rose was making a big shot, and Joakim Noah was making an even bigger putback and Luol Deng was making an even bigger block of a Manu Ginobili drive.

Suddenly, the Bulls are becoming one of the bright lights of the NBA.

“The West Coast always has been tough for us,” said Deng. “To get three wins and we didn’t start it off right. We could easily have lost the next three games. But we stuck with it. It shows a lot about our team.”

It shows, perhaps, that this disparate group that was stumbling along toward a miserable season, which seemed destined to be listening to a new coach and many perhaps wearing different uniforms, could be turning into a real team.

“Sixth, fifth, who knows,” Kirk Hinrich was saying after another good all around game with 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. “I feel like we can do something.”

For now, it’s three straight to get to 21-22 on the season and quietly 11 of the last 16 and tied for seventh in the East, a game and a half behind fifth place Miami.

And that’s with the Bulls about to finish their last long road trip of the season with games Wednesday in Oklahoma City and Friday in New Orleans. Sure there’s a long way to go and nothing for certain as Rose’s 27 points gave the Bulls a season sweep over the Spurs.

“If there’s one thing I realize in the NBA as a player and a team you can never look at it as a turning point,” said Noah. “You’ve got to come in and live in the moment and focus on every task at hand and once the season is over you can say that was the turning point. Once you think you have it all figured out that’s when you get smacked by 50. Right now it feels good because we won.”

But these are not just ordinary wins and ordinary games as the Bulls not only have beaten some of the best in the West, but how they’ve done so by answering every challenge down the stretch, making big plays and refusing to back down.

Like with just over a minute left and the Bulls standing in their huddle awaiting a referee’s replay review of a ball that clearly went off Tim Duncan (the referees would still award the ball to the Spurs).

Duncan wandered to look into the Bulls huddle as coach Vinny Del Negro talked to the team, and Noah took exception, much like he did in standing up to LeBron James last month when James was dancing and mocking the Bulls in a blowout.

Noah had some choice words for Duncan and gave him a shove, MVP or no MVP, four rings or not. The referees and players jumped in to separate them. Later in the locker room, Lindsey Hunter would be gleefully commending Noah for not being intimidated.

It’s becoming a symbol of this team. They push back.

“He was in our huddle,” explained Noah. “I didn’t want him to see the play. We gave him an earful. We did a little more than tell him to leave.”

Then they sent Duncan and his teammates, now 25-18, home.

Duncan went back at Noah when the Spurs got the ball back, but missed, leaving the score tied at 91. Rose, who has been magnificent of late and Monday playing with flu like symptoms and a head cold, probed the lane on a drive and circled back out to the free throw line for a 12 footer to give the Bulls a 93-91 lead with 56.9 seconds left.

“I’m not going to lie,” said Noah. “D. Rose is playing at a really high level. I think he understands how they’re trying to play him. When they try to get the ball out of his hand he has more confidence giving the guys the ball to make plays. He’s doing a good job reading the coverage and hitting some unbelievable shots and it’s making the game a lot easier for me and a lot of other guys on the team.”

Rose is averaging 26.3 in the last three, shooting 35 of 58 (60 percent), primarily on jumpers, and Monday had 27 points and six assists without a turnover in 35 minutes despite being sick.

And this guy isn’t an All Star? If he isn’t, the coaches voting are not watching basketball.

With the Bulls up 95-93 after the Rose jumper, the Spurs isolated Manu Ginobili, who went behind his back and then hard at the basket and Deng.

Deng, long armed, rose up and swatted the shot away with emphasis.

“He’s tough,” said Deng. “He’s running at me. I know he wanted to go left. I wanted to misdirect it and as soon as he switched hands I was able to block it.”

The Spurs quickly fouled Noah after having to give a foul first, and Noah made one of two. I admit. With a three-point lead with 13.4 seconds left, I’d be looking to foul once it got to about seven or eight seconds.

But the Bulls forced Manu in too deep and he missed and Noah grabbed the rebound over Duncan, and was fouled, making both as Noah would end up scoring the last five points of the game.

After Noah’s free throws with 5.2 seconds left, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich walked to embrace former Spur Del Negro before the game ended. There was symbolism in that as well. The Spurs on this night—this season, really—were not good enough for the Bulls.

Think about that.

“We’re not as healthy as we want to be,” said Del Negro about Noah being a surprise starter after missing the Houston game with plantar fasciitis, Rose with his flu, Taj Gibson with his plantar fasciitis and Brad Miller with a sore body. “We’re finding a way. Guys are stepping up. It was a team effort. Lu had some big rebounds. Jo made some free throws down the stretch. We’ve been winning as a team and let Derrick make his plays down the stretch.

“Deng’s block was huge and the runner he hit to put us up two was a big play as well,” said Del Negro of Deng’s tough drive through Ginobili to give the Bulls a 91-89 lead with 2:19 left. “We made plays down the stretch. I thought Derrick got hit there (on a floater for an 89-87 lead). He had some blood in his eye. Derrick said one time, ‘Give me a couple more minutes.’ He was looking pale. When I subbed he was going to drink fluids.

“I knew Jo was going to play, but I didn’t know if it would be five or 10 minutes. He’s in some pain. We grinded it out. It was a solid win.”

Del Negro’s been saying that after each of the last three games, and I keep trying to get him to be a bit more effusive. After all, I know he was there for that 35-point blown lead, the loss to the Nets, the Saturday night massacre by the Raptors, the Atlanta-is-burning-us-down rout and many other such lowlights.

So maybe Del Negro knows better. Don’t get too high because then the lows can be worse.

But this is impressive stuff for this Bulls team, especially not backing off against seemingly superior talent because maybe they are getting it.

“We’ve got young players growing up in this league and playing like veterans,” said Hinrich.

It didn’t look like it to start as the Spurs stunned the Bulls with wide body DeJuan Blair getting two offensive rebounds on the first two shots leading to his own slam (he had 11 rebounds, eight offensive), and Tony Parker, who led the Spurs with 20 points blowing out and past the Bulls for a 15-4 lead.

The Bulls like to blitz the pick and roll, and the Spurs were carving them up with Blair slipping inside against Taj Gibson, and the Bulls fumbling the ball away.

“We were shell shocked to start the game,” said Hinrich. “But we came out of that first timeout and were able to get some stops and get back in the game.”

That was thanks to an amazing shooting display by both Hinrich and Rose as after missing three of their first five shots, the Bulls hit 15 of their next 18 with Hinrich was six of seven in the first quarter and Rose three of four. The only one Hinrich missed was a half court desperation heave at the buzzer that hit the rim.

“I thought it was going in,” laughed Hinrich. “Lately, offensively, we’re playing really well. We’re moving the ball. The last couple of weeks our offense has picked up. We’re doing a good job; we’re knocking shots down; we’re playing together. We’re really competing now.”

Sinking jumper after jumper (53.8 percent on the game), the Bulls got back into the lead before the end of the quarter and trailed 31-29 after one.

Rose continued hot in the second quarter, hitting four of five while the Bulls slowed the Spurs and held them to 30.8 percent shooting and 41.9 percent for the game.

And here’s the facts, ma’am.

Del Negro’s Bulls are a better defensive team than Popovich’s Spurs. The Bulls are fifth in the league in field goal defense, eighth against threes and the league’s leading rebounding team. Popovich’s vaunted Spurs are 11th in field goal defense, 10th against threes and 10th in rebounding.

“Congratulations to the Bulls,” said Popovich. “They did what they had to do down the stretch to get the win.”

The Bulls poured it on in the second as John Salmons continued to shoot well, too, and took a 52-43 lead before the perimeter shots went dry a bit and the Spurs got within 52-50 at halftime.

But this isn’t the same Spurs, either. Duncan is good, but not overwhelming anymore, and Richard Jefferson has been awful, dominated by Deng and one of eight for two points. Popovich continues to experiment with starting lineups, more than a dozen different ones this season. Ginobili has slowed as well and Parker, though showing impressive bursts, has been hampered by his own plantar fasciitis. Suddenly, the Spurs look a bit slow for an athletic team like the Bulls.

As for his plantar fasciitis, Noah admitted he didn’t expect to play when he arrived at the arena Monday. But he decided to try when some taping on the bottom of his foot felt better, and he had 11 points and that big close in 25 minutes. He says he’ll remain day to day.

He made have made the play of the game in a finish filled with great Bulls plays. It was with the score tied at 93 with 42.8 seconds left. The Bulls couldn’t get the ball in after the first timeout and called a second, finally getting the inbound to Rose. Noah set a screen on George Hill and Rose went off it to the basket, where Duncan jumped out at him, forcing Rose to shoot the layup hard. That’s when Noah came bursting in after setting the screen on the smaller man and followed the miss and let out a huge scream of triumph.

It was a play few big men make, but a classic Noah play since you have to sprint to the basket to follow the shooter. It’s all hustle and desire and recognition of the situation.

“When there’s a situation like that I dive hard for the basket because I know I’m going to be naked at the basket,” said Noah. “Big play.”

Huge play, especially from a guy sometimes limping.

“Brad (Miller) told me this morning the best drug when you’re hurt is adrenalin,” said Noah. “It’s so true. Once you’re into the game that’s when you don’t even feel the pain anymore. If I feel I can help the team I’ll be out there. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m trying to do my part.”

The Spurs took a 71-70 lead after three as the Spurs upped their defensive pressure. The Bulls worked that mid post pretty well with the big man slipping the screen to try to find an opening at the free throw line, but points were coming slowly.

The Spurs opened the fourth with a flourish to lead 77-72, and you thought the Bulls would pack it in.

But Miller made some classic veteran moves. He makes you smile if you love a guy thinking the game, which he has to.

On that perimeter weave the Bulls run, he got a pass from Rose for a three early in the fourth, and then Rose with the clock running down swished a three to put the Bulls back on top 80-77. Antonio McDyess answered with a jumper, but Rose found Miller again for another three as Miller signaled studiously toward the bench in an I-told-you-so salute.

After Salmons stripped Roger Mason, Miller set up to shoot a three, knowing he wouldn’t but now the defense would come to him. He faked, put the ball down and walked in for a layup (he thought he was running). The Spurs collapsed and Gibson put in the miss for an 85-79 Bulls lead with 7:16 left.

“That’s how I’ve made my living for 12 years,” said Miller. “I just run the floor and picked up the scraps.”

But the Spurs came back in a fury with the improving Hill throwing in an over the head layup while Rose, Miller and Hinrich missed jumpers. Hill’s hard drive gave the Spurs an 87-85 lead with 3:49 left. You don’t overtake the four time champions with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili at home. Do you?

Deng came in cutting hard as Rose drew the defense underneath with a drive. Rose pitched to Deng, who finished strong for the layup and tie. Mason then missed a three and Rose followed with a drive and step back floater for an 89-87 lead as Noah was fouled on the play. But he missed the free throw.

Parker tied it on a drive. But the Bulls wouldn’t let the Spurs go ahead as Deng came through again with that tough drive through Ginobili, the Bulls stopped Duncan after that huddle incident, Rose hit the free throw line jumper, and Noah finished it and the Spurs with that follow basket and three of four free throws.

The Spurs left the floor complaining of missed calls even though they shot 20 free throws to 12 for the Bulls. The Spurs had 15 more shots and 12 more fast break points. They scored 18 more points in the paint and eight fewer turnovers. But it was the Bulls who made the big plays on both ends and big shots. Yes, the Bulls.

“I really don’t know the significance of it,” said Hinrich. “I just think we’ve been playing a lot tougher on the road. Last year, we were really bad on the road and this year we didn’t start off very good (now 7-15). Winning on the road just comes down to competing, mental and physical toughness throughout the whole game.”

By George they’ve got it? Eh, professor Del Negro? This doesn’t seem mainly to be such a plain Bulls team anymore.

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