Bulls continue on losing arc without Noah


Feb 6

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You watch a game like Friday’s Atlanta Hawks 91-81 win over the Bulls and you wonder what the Bulls would be like if they had Josh Smith, the rangy, 6-9 athletic power forward who doesn’t have much of a shot, but dominated the game with a triple double with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists.

“Josh Smith has probably been our MVP,” said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. “I just wish he would’ve made that All-Star team because he has played like an All-Star this year for us. Everything that we have done from a team standpoint in terms of winning and losing… he has a great deal to do with that with the way he’s played on both ends of the floor.”

Yes, Smith is a marvel. Woodson may flinch when Smith tries to make a jump shot. But with Smith’s uncanny jumping ability, he won the game for the Hawks in the fourth quarter, in which the Bulls led entering 70-64.

Smith had six points and eight rebounds in the fourth quarter, four on the offensive boards, the final one just about clinching the game and his triple double when he gathered in a Joe Johnson miss with 2:14 left and hit Mike Bibby in the corner for a three pointer and 86-78 lead.

“Too many offensive rebounds and too many second shots by Josh Smith and Joe Johnson,” lamented Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “(Jamal) Crawford also hit a couple of big shots. We weren’t able to put any offensive pressure on them, and they scored in transition, and got a lot of easy buckets. We played pretty well for three quarters and hung in there, digging and grinding it out. But in the fourth quarter they just showed why they’re one of the better teams in the league. They had offensive rebounding and made the plays when they had to.”

It sure is a luxury to have an athlete who can change shots like Smith, pogo stick off the floor for rebounds and is so long.

Now, where would you get a player like that?

Oh, right.

On the Bulls bench, where Tyrus Thomas mostly was playing 16 minutes and getting four points and four rebounds.

Now, no one is saying the Bulls would have won if they played Tyrus more. The Bulls lost for a lot of reasons besides the absence of Joakim Noah. They were zero for 10 on threes, the first time in 263 games they didn’t make a three. The Bulls had one offensive rebound in the fourth quarter and Smith had four. Long the Bulls being the league’s No. 1 rebounding team, the Hawks outrebounded the Bulls in the fourth quarter 15-4. The Bulls began the fourth one of nine shooting and had one field goal in the first seven and a half minutes of the quarter. Oh, yeah. The Bulls scored 11 points in the fourth quarter on 28 percent shooting.

Tyrus, as usual, made some incredibly wild plays that probably cut his playing time, like when the Bulls even went to him in the post in the first quarter and he lurched left like a wounded crane, flapped his left arm up and pushed up a running shot that almost missed the backboard. There also was a balloon-floating-away pass a minute later that Maurice Evans picked off and ran away and dunked for his only points of the game.

But this is not to say other players don’t routinely make bad plays.

Yes, Tyrus’ have quite a bit more flair to them. But this is again a crucial time for the Bulls, who have now lost three straight and fallen to 23-25.

Noah is out until at least through the All Star break with plantar fasciitis. His defensive rebounding could have made the difference Friday. But teams always lose players to injury.

“He’s not here, so other guys have to do it,” appropriately said Del Negro. “You don’t fill voids like that. You never want to lose any of your players but especially your starting center. But there’s a lot of adversity thrown at you throughout the season. You just have to handle it, which we have before.”

Brad Miller isn’t the answer, though he tries. He played well, getting 10 points and three rebounds in the first half. He had zero points and two rebounds in 19 minutes in the second half for a game total of 40. It wasn’t clear if the Bulls had called for an artificial lung. Taj Gibson was tough with 11 points and seven rebounds, but he also has plantar fasciitis. The Bulls signed training camp player Chris Richard to a 10-day contract out of the D-League, but he didn’t play.

Vinny’s probably going to have to close his eyes and hold his nose. But he’s going to have to play Thomas now. Look, I’m no big Tyrus fan of his fundamentally poor play and indifferent effort at times, as anyone knows. But it was obvious the Bulls needed Thomas, or at least to see if Thomas could produce in big minutes, when Elton Brand was dominating Gibson in Wednesday’s loss in Philadelphia. And especially against the unusually athletic Hawks, who are so big and diverse they are one of the few teams who rely on switching most screens on defense because their big guys are so quick and athletic.

It left the Bulls at a disadvantage playing the slower Miller, and then going small in the fourth quarter in a crucial stretch when the gassed Miller was at center and Deng was at power forward. Smith and Al Horford combined for three offensive rebounds in that stretch leading to a pair of scores that helped extend the Atlanta lead from 74-72 when Thomas went out for the game to 80-72 three minutes later when Gibson replaced John Salmons.

Deng, who led the Bulls with 20 points and eight rebounds,, then hit a tough jumper. And when Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich followed with jumpers, the Bulls still has a chance trailing 81-78 with 3:34 left.

“I thought we had them tonight late in the game, but they went on a run,” said Rose, who had 19 points and six assists and a breathtaking one handed lob dunk he caught from Salmons behind his head and smashed through.

Rose even posed a bit, which is rare for him, but there was to be not much strutting for the Bulls in this game.

At that point in the fourth, Johnson, one of the big potential free agents for this summer the Bulls among several teams are coveting, got a switch with Gibson taking him and shot over for an 83-78 lead. Johnson also had 18 points.

Going the other way, Hinrich got Horford on a switch, but could not get by him and missed a fallaway short without much ball movement on the play.

The Hawks kept initiating their offense from the wing with Johnson against Deng. When the Bulls doubled, Johnson passed to Bibby, who missed. But Smith again grabbed an offensive board. The Hawks went back to Johnson, who dribbled in against Deng and went up. Deng blocked the shot, which came up short and Smith was there yet again to grab the ball and fire to Bibby in the corner for that big three and 86-78 lead with 2:10 left.

“They were hitting big shots and playing harder than we were,” said Rose. “They pulled out the game by being a tough team in the fourth quarter. We just didn’t have any cohesiveness on offense. I think we really missed Joakim tonight. He definitely helps us on the interior and could have really helped us tonight. They seemed to try and keep the ball out of my hands a lot in the fourth quarter. They did a lot of switches, which makes it tough for us offensively.”

Rose tried, blowing by Jamal Crawford on the perimeter and splitting Horford and then getting the ball up on the backboard for the layin before Smith could get there for the block.

It really was a remarkable move at a time the Hawks were barely paying attention to anyone else.

Crawford, who had 17 off the bench, then beat Hinrich and Miller off a screen from Horford. And with Miller hung up outside, Horford slipped in for the pass from Crawford and converted a six footer for an 88-80 lead with 1:42 left.

Rose then missed a forced three when he drove and found Miller for a three, but Miller passed back to the unsuspecting Rose, who launched the three. Smith got the rebound with no Bulls size on the interior with Miller supposed to take that three. Crawford dribbled up slowly without any real pressure and then hit a three from on top to effectively end it with 1:09 left and an 11-point Hawks lead.

“Too many rebounds, too many second shots,” offered Del Negro. “We hung in there. But in the fourth quarter they showed why they’re one of the better teams.”

The Hawks moved to 32-17 and are in a different league than the Bulls, fourth in the East and a half game behind Orlando in the division. The Bulls now are eighth in the East, percentage points behind Miami, whom the Bulls host Saturday in the United Center, and just a game ahead of Milwaukee in ninth.

The Bulls face the Heat and Magic at home and Pacers in Indianapolis before the All Star break, all without Noah. They get a bit of a potential break as Miami and Indiana aren’t particularly athletic inside like Atlanta. But there’s no guarantee Noah is ready even after the break.

Thomas played 16 minutes Friday, and 15 minutes in each of the previous two games when Noah’s time was being limited. Miller may be in the final season of his career and Gibson is a rookie who is going well past the amount of games he’s ever played before in a season. I know any coach doesn’t like to reward players they don’t believe have performed or had other issues with. But the Bulls seem in no position now to be teaching anyone lessons.

Because the playoffs could get away from you that fast and you’d at least like to finish ahead of Miami and Wade to make a nice impression on them starting Saturday.

The Bulls Friday looked like the only impression they’d make was one of defeat as Smith and the Hawks came out flying at them with Johnson hitting a pair of threes and Smith running the court and assisting on a pair of baskets for a 15-4 lead.

Smith, really, does make the Hawks go. But the East coaches added Horford to the All Star team because Smith always has been a bit of a knucklehead, challenging coaches, taking wild shots and being moody. Sound like anyone we know? But his defensive presence is as much the key to the Hawks play as Johnson’s scoring.

The Bulls got themselves back in the game behind Rose, who was again missing his jumpers short and flat. So he began going to the basket. He’s especially basketball bright 21-year-old. That’s when Rose threw down that lob pass from Salmons that had even the SportsCenter anchors gasping later. It was the highlight show’s No. 1 play of the day. And later Tyrus threw away a couple of possessions with those “creative” moves and added a pair of goal tends, though he also had a nice driving layup. So the Bulls trailed 27-20 after one.

Rose had them wondering why he isn’t in the dunk contest with another beauty, a spin by Johnson, who was playing Rose, and then an explosion down the middle past everyone for a two handed jam.

That brought the Bulls within 38-32 midway through the second quarter. The Hawks, as they sometimes do, began admiring their long jumper form and the Bulls pulled within 50-46 at halftime.

The Bulls came sprinting at the Hawks after halftime with Rose with a pair of nifty driving scores, and closed the third with some hope when Gibson bailed out a still struggling Devin Brown with a dunk after a handoff. Then Tyrus slipped next to Bibby taking the inbounds pass up and stole it. Thomas turned toward the basket and attacked, going up over the leaping Smith for a bank and score and suddenly the Bulls had a 70-64 lead going into the fourth quarter and momentum.

Tyrus can do that kind of stuff like no one else on the team.

The Bulls then blew it in just over two minutes when Hinrich, who had 13 points and a team high nine rebounds (yes, bad sign when Hinrich leads in rebounding), with a chance for an eight point lead got picked off throwing the ball cross court for a Smith breakaway. Brown then missed on a jumper and Smith forced a Salmons miss. Gibson then traveled and Crawford hit a three to tie the game at 70 with 9:33 left. The crowd was back in and the Bulls were heading out.

“Jamal hit the big three late to tie the game,” said Rose, “and the momentum was in their hands from that point.”

Now we’ll see what the Bulls have up their sleeves.

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