It's Thunder Road for the Bulls with fourth straight


Jan 28

They insisted they knew. Even when they were losing 35-point leads at home to bad teams, even when they were in a three game stretch of losing by 32 at home, then to the 1-19 Nets at home and then by 35 on the road. Even when their coach supposedly was being fired any day now and there were injuries and they couldn’t score 100 points and fans were demanding just about everyone be traded. At least Joakim Noah said the Bulls knew.

“Last month it was almost like a disaster,” Noah was saying matter-of-factly after still another impressive Bulls road victory, 96-86 over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “In just a matter of a month. It’s all about confidence. When you can’t win games because you aren’t talented enough that’s one thing. That’s what was so frustrating about the whole thing. We were better than that. We’re showing that now.”

And showing it as impressively as any team in the NBA, once again Wednesday with a dominating win over one of the rising young teams in the league with Derrick Rose leading the way with 26 points, a dozen in the fourth quarter, the Bulls young guys overwhelming the Thunder’s core.

That’s right. No one, perhaps the Cavs, and maybe not even them because they’ve been winning narrowly and mostly at home, has been playing as effectively and impressively as the Bulls.

To recount:

— 115-104 in Phoenix, then 25-18;

— 104-97 in Houston, then 24-18;

— 98-93 in San Antonio, then 25-17;

— And the high flying Thunder, now 24-21 after the Bulls once again closed strong, pulling away from a four-point game with 9:45 left behind a series of spectacular moves and shots from Rose and Brad Miller with a dagger of his second three of the game and dancing and skipping back to the Bulls huddle.

It brought the Bulls back to 22-22 on the season.

“Brad likes to have a good time,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “He keeps Jo into the game, which is great. He stretches defenses out with his range. He gives you that pump fake and tries to drive. You just have to make sure you have a lot of time on the shot clock if he’s driving from the top of the key because it takes some time to get there for him.”

Yes, even Vinny is starting to loosen up and make jokes.

Winning is the best stand up routine of them all. It leaves them laughing and feeling good all the way home.

“I don’t think anybody in the league or anywhere else thought we’d be sitting here after that (early season start),” said Rose. “But we pulled it together.”

Yes, there’s still another game on this two-week marathon road trip. But this may be as good as the Bulls have played in more than a decade, since the great Jordan championship Bulls. The Bulls now are 4-2 on this road trip. If they win Friday in New Orleans, it would be the best road trip record since the championship seasons.

Last year’s 4-3 trip right before the trades for Miller and John Salmons was the previous best. The worst the Bulls can do is tie that.

“It’s a long season and we always pick it up after the All Star break,” said Luol Deng. “We’re picking it up earlier now, so this is a really good sign.”

There were plenty of good signs in Wednesday’s win with the defense sharp in creating something of a floating zone with aggressive help to keep Kevin Durant on the outside. Durant had 28 points and 11 rebounds, but shot just seven of 19. Though he didn’t shoot well going just two of 13, Kirk Hinrich did a terrific job on Russell Westbrook, who had torched the Bulls in Oklahoma City’s win in Chicago earlier this month.

Westbrook isn’t a particularly good ballhandler or passer, and Hinrich played him tight and Westbrook ended with 10 points and four turnovers. The Thunder tried a defensive switch of their own, moving Thabo Sefolosha onto Rose after halftime. It was effective early in the half, but Rose is growing into that closer’s role and left Sefolosha grasping for nothing on one killer crossover to make it 82-72, beat Sefolosha on top on a clearout with no screen for an 89-73 margin and then closed off the game with a flourish with a two handed tomahawk slam after Gibson had made still another great save outhustling the gasping Thunder players.

“They play really hard,” marveled Durant. “Everyone helps each other out a lot. We could learn from something like that to help us get better as well. They play tough all night. They are scrappy and they have, arguably, the best rebounder in the game in Noah. Taj Gibson did a great job as well. They have good rebounders. It was a tough game for us.”

Yes, that same team that was being booed at home for weeks.

“I know that (fourth quarter) is when my team looks for me to pick up my game,” said Rose, now waiting an announcement Thursday on whether he’ll be the first Bulls player since 1998 to make the All Star team. “Now, I’m that guy to take the shot or get people open. At first at the beginning of the season when we were losing I wasn’t used to taking all the shots like I am now. I’m kind of getting used to it. I’m feeling very comfortable. My teammates trust in me. That makes me more comfortable than anything. I come down miss a shot, two or three in a row and they’re, ‘You’re next shot is going in. C’mon, keep shooting. You all right, you all right.’ That doesn’t do nothing but build confidence and we feel we’ve got a lot of trust in eachother.

“Winning is fun. I can’t lie,” said Rose. “We’ve got a whole bunch of winners on this team.”

And they don’t seem to be settling.

It even seemed Noah, who ceded much of the fourth quarter to Miller’s hot shooting but still finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, was making an open appeal to Tyrus Thomas.

Thomas had his best game on the trip since the Clippers’ loss, getting 13 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes and with a stunning block on an Eric Maynor fast break layup attempt when Maynor was well ahead of everyone. Thomas came sprinting from behind with those long strides and blocked the easy two points.

Noah called it the turning point of the game.

Barely remember?

Because it happened in the first quarter with the Bulls leading 28-21.

It’s because Noah knows, as everyone else does around the Bulls, that if they could get Thomas playing at that level on defense regularly, that with himself and Gibson one of the best defensive inside tandems in the league and with Rose playing as he is, the Bulls could be a team you don’t want to play in the playoffs.

“The turning point of the game definitely was Tyrus’ block,” said Noah. “I think that if we can get energy like that out of Tyrus it elevates our team to a whole different level. I think this was probably our best team effort as a group. Tyrus’ play on the block. There’s no one who can make plays like that on our team. The way he ran down was unbelievable. Tyrus brings something we don’t have. He has abilities nobody on this team has. If we have everyone playing with that focus and energy we’re a tough team to beat.”

Tyrus, of course, is Tyrus, so he also had five turnovers in fewer than 20 minutes and got taken out after a wild one-on-one move for a travel with the Bulls leading 78-70 with 8:21 left.

Tyrus doesn’t like to see me coming, particularly, as I’ve been tough on him. But he is a player who could use accountability, and I also can see what he means when he is engaged. Thomas insisted to me he always is.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, I think I’m always engaged,” said Thomas. “I got some good looks at the basket, got a few rebounds, a few blocks. I think that’s what I always do. I haven’t really been making shots of late. But seven rebounds in 20 minutes I don’t think is bad. Six rebounds in 18 minutes I don’t think is bad. It’s about getting time and opportunity.”

I did think the Bulls best chances for wins on this trip, like everyone else, was in Golden State and against the Clippers. But in watching the West this season, I thought the Bulls, at least, had a chance at everyone else. Except the Thunder. They beat up the Bulls so badly in early January, I just figured they’d be the toughest matchup.

But the Bulls had a good plan in stringing out Durant, pressuring Westbrook, though I wanted to see more upcourt defense on him, and attacking the boards with Jeff Green more a forward tweener. Green got off fast going at Gibson with 18 in the first half. But he was one of seven after halftime and ended with 24 as Gibson played him more physically and Gibson finished with a career high 15 rebounds in the Bulls 53-40 rebounding margin.

Yes, it’s the Bulls who push around teams now.

Thunder players were moaning some before the game about not liking to play against Miller, who had 14 points off the bench and plenty of banging around.

“Brad was playing big all game,” said Noah, who played just 27 minutes but said his foot felt better. “Sometimes spreading the court the way he’s able to spread the court… we’re definitely different in that aspect. He can spread the court and it makes it easier on D. Rose sometimes, so sometimes I have to suck it up and say it’s not my time.

“That’s his swag right there,” Noah said of Miller’s celebratory leaps after threes. “I’m happy for Brad because he’s having fun again playing basketball. I love it.”

The Bulls jumped on the Thunder early. Noah had a great touch pass to Gibson for a slam dunk. You’ve got to love the way Gibson finishes so strong. Deng hit a pair of threes and was three of four from long distance for the game, Noah had another one of those hustling follows on a Rose drive, and the Bulls led 28-17.

But perhaps more importantly was the start, that team huddle after the introductions. Rose is beginning to speak up.

“I told the guys in the huddle we owe this team,” said Rose.

The Bulls bench in that first run was awful, and the Thunder regained control with a 13-0 close to the quarter to lead 30-28 after one.

But Thomas responded in the second quarter with a jumper and run out for a fast break and dunk, and Miller and Rose began to work their two man game. When Miller sets the pick he can pop out and shoot or drive while Noah isn’t the offensive threat. The Bulls closed the second with a 21-12 edge breaking from a 35-35 tie with in one sequence a Miller three, a Rose pull up jumper and then Rose hitting Miller rolling in for a three-point play and Rose letting out a scream of delight.

“Derrick made great plays for them. He found his teammates and they made shots,” said Green.

The Bulls could have lost it in the third quarter when the Thunder put ball hawking Sefolosha on Rose and the Bulls went cold, shooting 27.8 percent and scoring 12 points as the Thunder players began to aggressively contest shots. But the Bulls were saved with their defense, especially in frustrating Durant, who was just one of four in the quarter.

“We were trying to deny and blitz him and double team him,” said Noah. “We didn’t want to give him nothing easy.”

I thought the key was the way they blitzed on the pick and roll, stringing out Durant and then collapsing into the lane in the sort of shell the better teams employ on defense. It kept Durant on the outside and forcing himself into foul shots.

And then Rose took over the game.

It’s something to see the way now game after game he’s hitting big shots and now making more plays for teammates, a drive and pass into the corner setting up Deng for a three for a 94-83 lead with 1:41 left. Like against the Spurs, every time the Thunder scored, the Bulls would respond and not let the game get away.

“Derrick Rose is playing the best basketball as a Bull,” said Noah. “He’s playing huge for us, making the right decisions, staying aggressive offensively. When you’re point guard is playing like that it leads to good things. We’re a confident basketball team.”

Del Negro also said he’d help me with a bit of explanation as I’ve been joking about his use of the word thrust all the time to explain what he wants.

“I like the thrust (Rose’s) playing with,” said Del Negro. “It means pace and getting the ball out; it means getting your back to the sidelines, it means extending your outlets; it means getting the ball up the court into our early offense. Derrick is making big shots, but his overall game is improving.”

And then there was that dunk to close it, but no dunk contest for him.

“I can jump high, but I’m not creative at all,” Rose said laughing. “Either you’re going to see a one hand dunk or a two hand dunk or a rock the cradle or something like that. You’re not going to see all that other stuff. Jo (sitting with his foot in a bucket of ice) needs to be in the dunking contest. He’s been dunking a lot.”

No, it’s the Bulls who suddenly are dunking every opponent in their way.

“Well, we got beat by a better team tonight,” shrugged Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “There’s no way around that.”

The state of the Bulls is looking very good.

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