Bulls begin countdown with win over Pacers


Feb 25

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Make that magic number 11. Any combination of 11 Bulls wins or Bobcats losses, or 10 Bucks losses or nine Heat losses, or nine Raptors wins, or…

OK, OK, it’s too soon. But it’s coming. Trading deadline is past and now it’s all about the playoffs.

And the Bulls made another step toward that ultimate goal for this season with a riotous, wide open 120-110 win over the Indiana Pacers that gave the Bulls a 30-27 record.

It moved them to sixth in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half behind Toronto in fifth and two and a half games ahead of ninth place Charlotte.

Last season, the Pistons made the final East playoff spot with 39 wins, and you figure it may take 41 this season with the Raptors, Bulls, Heat, Bucks and Bobcats in a tight race for the last four spots and Charlotte in ninth at just two under .500.

“It’s a win, wasn’t pretty but we got it done,” Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro offered about the Bulls blowing all of a 23-point first quarter lead, and then opening up after halftime with a 20-10 run and leading by double digits the rest of the way.

“They were very good with the draw and kick,” said Del Negro. “They shot the three very well (13 of 29). It was a game of runs. They made some shots but we got solid performances, obviously from Luol (Deng with 31 points and nine rebounds) and Derrick (Rose with 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists). We gave up too many points but the way they shot you have to give them credit.”

And so onward the Bulls go having won five of their last six and 12 of their last 17. They probably need something like 10 or 11 wins in their last 25 games to make the playoffs, though fifth certainly is within reach with Chris Bosh out of late.

The top four look pretty set at Cleveland first and Orlando, Boston and Atlanta fairly closely bunched.

Now, it is too early to assume the playoffs given Joakim Noah remains uncertain and played just seven minutes, though Del Negro said he didn’t play him in the second half because of matchups and Indiana going small. And Deng, whose shooting touch returned, took a hard bump on his knee and spent the later part of the game with a slight limp.

“You should have seen him earlier,” Rose told reporters after the game. “He was putting Ben Gay all over his body. He looked like an old man.”

Deng doesn’t get much love from the fans (how about me catching on with the latest slang). But he hasn’t missed a game coming off a stress fracture last season, leads the team in minutes played after another 43 in Wednesday’s win and is averaging 17.9 points, second on the team, and 7.3 rebounds.

And Taj Gibson, who had another strong game with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, has his own plantar fasciitis.

So where’s the advantage? The Bulls are 1-1 against Cleveland and Orlando and 1-2 against Atlanta and Boston. But now the schedule begins to turn difficult again with 10 of the next 11 games against teams with winning records.

“Our upcoming schedule definitely gets tougher, but when we play our best I think we can play with anybody,” said Deng.

The playoffs open seven weeks from Saturday, and nothing is assured yet with that schedule, so the Bulls have to continue to grind it out.

It didn’t look like it would have to be that way Wednesday when the Bulls were thoroughbreds out of the gate, running up a shocking 35-12 lead. Deng had not been shooting the ball particularly well of late, so he’s taken to driving to the basket more, usually off that high screen and curl. But this time he was hitting his shot, and, sadly, after the Bulls took a 12-4 lead with Deng scoring half the points, Deng did not touch the ball once in the next four possessions.

The Bulls scored in three, and then Deng just took the ball and drove, scoring for a three-point play.

The Bulls still have trouble recognizing that hot shooter, but it didn’t look like it would matter this time.

On the next play, the Pacers lost the ball and Rose took off, missing the layup. But three Pacers’ players stood and watched as Deng blew through the middle and followed the miss in. Impressive stuff.

“I really tried to come out aggressively in the first quarter,” said Deng. “I was able to get fouled and get to the line. When they came out to guard me, I was able to get to the basket and when they dropped back I knocked down some shots.”

Rose was pushing the ball impressively and the Pacers, their season pretty much over, were firing off jumpers and admiring their arc. And even on the rare drive, I liked on one occasion how Flip Murray, who had 16 points off the bench and was eight of 10 on free throws as he’s a fearless attacker, shaded Brandon Rush to force him left into a more difficult shot, suggesting even the new guys are picking up the nuances of the defense quickly.

But the Bulls seemed to grow a bit complacent with that big lead and didn’t bother to close much as Danny Granger and Luther Head ended the first with threes. Indiana then opened the second quarter with a Granger three, and after a couple of run outs, Rush hit three more threes and Granger a pair on the way to 21 points for Rush and 20 for Granger and, stunningly, the Pacers pulled even at 54 with about a minute left in the first half.

“They obviously got on a really big run. We were missing our shots and they were making their shots,” said Rose.

From the mouth of babes.

Pacers coach Jim O’Brien had yanked his starters late in the first quarter and went with a lineup of guards and small forwards and the Bulls were slow to adjust. They had Gibson trying to chase Rush too much, and Indiana spread the court and began hitting the long ones.

“They moved Danny Granger to the four and they just really pushed the ball,” said Deng. “They did a good job pushing the ball against us and we didn’t react very well.”

Though the game seemed to be slipping away, you still had to appreciate the individual brilliance, especially Rose.

“Rose is a great player and one of the premiere point guards in the league,” said O’Brien. “Perhaps in a little longer time he’ll be the best in the league.”

Late in the second quarter, the Pacers jumped at Rose with three players on a trap at midcourt, and Rose dribbled out of it in his best Curly Neal style, even if it’s unlikely he ever heard of Curly. He went behind his back and between his legs and through all three quicker than you could see and came out still dribbling the ball. How does he do that?

Meanwhile, the Bulls were attacking inside and going to the free throw line, and eventually that’s a better formula than shooting jumpers.

Still, the Bulls adjusted after halftime and Noah and Hakim Warrick would not get back in the game.

“They were available,” said Del Negro. “I just thought that Taj was playing well and they were going small and spreading us out a lot. I wanted to keep Luol on Granger as much as possible. Also, Murphy puts a lot of pressure on you because he can spread the defense at the four spot. They got back in the second quarter when we were trying to go a little bit bigger.”

Brad Miller lunched in a reverse to open the third, Rose hit a pull up, Gibson picked up a loose ball and dunked it, and you have to love seeing a rookie finish everything so strong. I was watching after the Bulls game the end of the Thunder and Spurs and saw Kevin Durant go up soft for a two handed dunk and have Manu Ginobili swat it away for the turning point of the game. For a rookie, the way Gibson attacks is impressive.

Kirk Hinrich, who had 14 points and five assists, hit one of his two threes, and Hinrich has been impressive and obviously more confident with his shot. He’s taking it quickly instead of hesitating, as he was earlier in the season when he also was looking to move it along instead of making himself a threat.

Gibson rebounded a Deng miss and then Deng got it back and dunked it. And when Rose drove deep and pitched to Deng for a corner three, the Bulls had regained control and an 83-67 lead midway through the third quarter.

Rose then put the exclamation point on the wild 37-28 third quarter with a blow by crossover move past Earl Watson, who is in for defense, and then a switch to the left hand and fade away from big Roy Hibbert for a banker and three point play as Rose would nearly get his first ever triple double.

“I did know (I was close), but I’ll probably never have a triple double in this league,” said Rose. “More than anything I was just trying to get the win.”

He’ll get those triple doubles. Surely, if he even half tries.

The Bulls remained in control in the fourth quarter, and Rose showed why he can get that triple double if he wants.

With the Bulls leading 116-101 with just over three minutes left, A.J. Price stripped the ball from Rose. Price tried to score, pump faking Rose several times as Rose went for none of them. Price finally went up. Rose blocked the shot, basically catching the ball on the way up and taking it away. As Bulls broadcaster Stacey King likes to say, Rose is a guard version of LeBron James.

“We can play either way,” said Del Negro of the Bulls matching when the Pacers went small. “We have guys who can get up and down. We have the athletes to do that especially with Derrick’s ability to push the ball.”

They’ll need it now when March opens Monday with the Hawks and then Memphis, Dallas, Utah, a four game trip to Orlando, Miami, Memphis and Dallas and then back home for the Cavs and LeBron. Check back then as we should have a pretty good magic number. Or desperate situation.

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