Bulls return to .500 with super win over Indiana


Feb 10

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I loved this game, that being Tuesday’s 109-101 Bulls win over the Indiana Pacers.

Oh, it was nice for the Bulls they won to even the season record at 25-25 with one more game before the All Star break, Wednesday in the United Center against Orlando. So it was hardly a critical win as it was over a 16-34 Indiana team that still was leading by seven points with about eight minutes remaining.

So, yes, it was the Bulls who came back and won the crucial stretch in the game. But it was how an undermanned and limping-into-the-break Bulls team did so with intelligent, controlled and opportunistic play that obscured their weaknesses. They weren’t so much better, but smarter, more committed and tougher.

It could be a big step toward the stretch run of the season.

“Guys just made simple plays and it seemed like things started going our way,” said Kirk Hinrch, who had 17 points and hit a trio of three pointers. “It was balanced scoring tonight (five players in double figures) and I think that’s a result of how we moved the ball. Everybody did a good job. Once we get stops, you get to play with a little thrust and we made good basketball plays.”

I’m not going to be concerned about Hinrich’s use of coach Vinny Del Negro’s favorite adjective, thrust, unless, of course, Hinrich says he wants me to call him Kurt.

But I digress.

The bare facts are that Luol Deng led the Bulls with 23 points and 11 rebounds, Derrick Rose and John Salmons each scored 21 points and Tyrus Thomas quietly returned from his one game suspension for verbal misconduct to get nine points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes, his most playing time since Jan. 20.

Maybe the suspension was his plan to get on the court more. He may be smarter than the rest of us.

Thomas had little to say to reporters, which was typical for him as he generally speaks in disgusted, clipped sentences. He said he has no regrets, it’s over with, he’s moving on and it’s all good, the latter phrase being his favorite answer to most questions he’s asked.

And to his credit, Del Negro showed he holds no grudges.

With Taj Gibson in foul trouble all game, Thomas got additional playing time, and even played more than eight minutes in the fourth quarter, a rarity for him.

“Ty (Vinny even used a nickname) gave us a big boost,” said Del Negro. “He was solid. But I thought we had a good team effort. Lu got going in the first and Derrick in the second. So there was nice balance there. Our front line gave us solid minutes. Salmons didn’t settle for jumpers all the time. He attacked the basket and got to the free throw line 10 times, which I’m happy about. He was big for us with his aggressiveness off the dribble.”

A word first about Salmons, who was very good off the bench.

He’s less happy than Tyrus about his benching. He can be a free agent and is an older player. But he’s been a pro, and had a heck of a game.

Yes, he did launch a few jumpers after hanging onto the ball too long, which has been his biggest flaw. But there weren’t many.

He may have had the highlight play of the game, a baseline reverse dunk with emphasis in the first quarter and followed that with a drive for a pair of free throws to give the Bulls a 29-28 lead after one quarter.

But what was more impressive, and it was more common among the others Tuesday, was the way Salmons recognized mismatches and weak defenders, namely Mike Dunleavy, and attacked.

Sometimes these matchups will occur, and the Bulls seem to go back to some pregame script.

But this time when Dunleavy came in and got on Salmons, Salmons went right at him, scoring three baskets in the first three minutes of the second quarter and running Dunleavy back to the bench with the Bulls edging ahead 39-37 in a see saw game with 15 lead changes and 13 ties.

And Salmons, I thought, made the biggest play down the stretch with the Bulls hanging onto a 99-97 lead with two and a half minutes remaining.

He got the ball on the right wing and drove hard, cupping the ball and protecting it from the swiping linebackers and then going up to score for a 101-97 lead. Brad Miller, who had 13 points and five rebounds in another strong effort, then helped trap Earl Watson at the baseline with Rose trailing and knocked the ball loose. Rose took it and passed ahead to a streaking Deng for a 103-97 lead and the Pacers were pretty much done with the Bulls mostly shooting free throws the rest of the way.

“I wanted to attack the rim as much as possible,” said Salmons. “I feel that by doing that I can take a lot of pressure off Derrick Rose. So he doesn’t have to make all the plays for us. He’s been doing a great job of that for us lately.”

Rose did, as usual, and had another strong finish, though with more all around play as he scored on two of three shots with three assists and a steal.

“Rose (Derrick) in the open court was the difference in the basketball game,” said Pacers coach Jim O’Brien. “He attacks like a running back. There is no point guard in the league that can guard him one on one.”

Rose, by the way, is expected to be added to the USA team trying out for the 2010 World Championships in an announcement scheduled for Wednesday.

I’d agree with the latter part of O’Brien’s observation that Rose is one of the league’s ultimate mismatches.

But I thought the key plays were made by Deng with his hustle and, especially, his rebounding with Joakim Noah out with plantar fasciitis, Gibson in foul trouble and not as explosive to the defensive boards with his plantar fasciitis, and Miller with his aching, ancient, atavistic body.

Deng suffers much from whom others wish he should be, a high flying, big scoring, game breaking forward.

He’s not blessed with as many natural athletic gifts as some of those players. But, to me, his hustle, desire and working man’s effort makes up for it. With those front line guys limited and Thomas not a good position player, it was left to Deng to get the big defensive rebounds which save a team from all those extra possessions which silently kill. Deng did, fighting the bigger Pacers on the boards and always moving on offense and getting those opportunity baskets.

After the Bulls took that 103-97 lead when he saw the trap on Watson and ran out past Troy Murphy for the dunk, he was the only Bull breaking out when Rose had the ball. That sent the Pacers into a timeout for their last gasp. Little noticed as Watson went inside to eventually lose the ball was Deng sealing off Murphy on the outside so Murphy couldn’t come to help.

Deng is such a fundamentally sound player as to be almost antediluvian in this modern era of whirling dunks and extra long jumpers.

The Pacers came out of a timeout with a jump shot off a curl for Mike Dunleavy, who missed. Deng got the defensive rebound with 1:45 left and that six point lead.

You’d say why didn’t they go to their star, Danny Granger, who led the Paces with 27 points.

Because Deng was guarding him?

I don’t know, and I’m not trying to suggest Deng is all-NBA.

But I thought one of the most impressive sequences of the game was just before the half with the Bulls leading 45-42 after Deng got a long rebound and outletted to Rose, who went to the basket so fast he seemed to be gliding on carpet of air.

The Pacers then called timeout and came back out with a play I see them run all the time. Granger is on the right baseline. He runs along the baseline to the left past a screen from Roy Hibbert and pops open for a jumper.

Granger took off running. But Deng veered over Hibbert’s screen into the passing lane and Watson had to hold the ball. Granger retreated back to the weak side, and they tried the play again. Again, Deng beat Granger to the spot and the play collapsed. Watson dropped the ball to Hibbert, finally, and with the shot clock running down Hibbert threw up a 14 foot miss.

Now, that hardly was any turning point since the Bulls slowed after halftime and fell behind 77-66 with five minutes left in the third quarter.

But when games come down to a few points in the fourth quarter—and the Bulls were ahead by one with three minutes left—it’s these kinds of plays that keep you in position where you can pull out games at the end you might not have been in.

“It was a team effort tonight,” said Salmons. “I think everybody did a good job of contributing.”

And now the Bulls have a chance with a win Wednesday, which is no easy task on the second of a back to back with the Magic resting, to go into the All Star break with a winning record. The Bulls come out of the break, hopefully with Noah back, playing seven of their next eight against teams with losing records through the end of February. Of course, there’ll be the trading deadline Feb. 18 in the midst of that, so we’ll see if it’s the same team to finish the season.

Deng got off to a big start, as he often does, with 14 points in the first quarter, though he also quickly identified Dunleavy as the defense weak link and went right at him after Dunleavy replaced Granger eight minutes in. Tough week for the family as dad Mike lost his Clippers coaching job and son Mike looked like a career Clipper. And it wasn’t that great a week for Indianapolis at all.

Also, the Bulls stayed with Deng. They tend to ignore hot shooters too often. But this time when players got rolling they looked for those guys.

The Pacers started fast, going ahead 11-3 and dominating on the boards, though Rose often was at fault. Rose tends to wander on defense and turn his head, and Watson beat him to the boards several times for offensive rebounds. It’s a habit Rose has to work on, though he is being asked to do most everything offensively.

After that start, the Bulls went to Deng twice in the post and he produced, which is encouraging for his mostly face up game. Deng also subtly helps on defense, and against the Pacers the Bulls had some success with their late double that comes along the baseline. Deng isn’t the fastest, but he was quite the contrast with the mail-it-in Pacers, typically in the first when Rose went rocketing out on one of those breathtaking one man breaks. He missed with the defense collapsing, but there came Deng in behind for the follow.

Everyone was waiting to see how Thomas would respond to his suspension. But his attitude on the court seemed similar, though he was in somewhat better control. He had a nice drive off a shot fake (yes, he didn’t pull up and launch) in the first quarter, and early in the second he had a good move posting Granger deep and getting a three point play.

Tyrus did throw up one of those driving lefty shots to nowhere just afterward. But he was more in control, for the most part, and hit a stand still, feet squared 20 footer—the kind of shot he can make–with five minutes left for a 98-94 lead after an 11-0 run gave the Bulls their first lead since late in the first half.

The Pacers closed that first half with a half court heave from Watson for a 60-57 lead, and the ball did stop after halftime for the Bulls with the jumpers began bouncing off as Indiana took that 11-point lead.

But Miller hit a three on top as four Pacers followed Rose deep. Granger missed long, as he spends most of his night chucking long jumpers, and Deng got the defensive rebound and then sprinted ahead and got a wide open 20 footer. Gibson and Deng converged to block a rare Troy Murphy drive as Murphy had 18 points and 16 rebounds and is one of those scoring forwards rumored headed to Cleveland to help LeBron James to his first championship.

The Bulls ran out and Hinrich finished on a three-on-two break. And when Rose dropped a floater the Bulls were back within 77-75. T.J. Ford came briefly out of Pacers’ detention for a mini scoring run, putting the Pacers up 86-81 heading into the fourth quarter. In the midst of it was another pretty baseline dunk from Salmons.

He’s become something of the forgotten man or wish-he-weren’t here guy because of the ramifications of free agency this summer and the need to move a contract for salary cap space. But games like this show he still has in him the stuff of the run of the last quarter of last season for the Bulls, and no one should discount his ability to contribute.

The Bulls began their comeback to victory trailing 92-85 with just under eight minutes left.

Rose drove from the right wing and three Pacers converged and stripped the ball. One was Dahntay Jones, guarding Deng. Jones turned to go after Rose. So Deng ran past him and scooped up the loose ball and laid it in to bring the Bulls within five.

Thomas then had a terrific sequence when he changed a Jones shot. The Pacers rebounded, but then Thomas tied up Jones on an attempted back door and won the tip.

The tip went to Salmons, who handed to Rose at the top of the circle on the Bulls side. Rose blurred ahead of everyone and laid the ball in and was fouled, making the free throw to bring the Bulls within 92-90 with 7:16 left.

Deng then overplayed Granger and intercepted Murphy’s pass down the middle. Deng took the ball to the top of the key on the Bulls side, handed to Thomas, who shoveled a beauty of a pass lefty to Gibson for a dunk and tie game. The Pacers were backing and the Bulls were attacking.

It seemed now just a matter of time.

And it would be.

Salmons did hold the ball a bit long, but spun and stepped through and banked in two. Thomas bothered Hibbert trying to go at him a second time for a second straight miss as the Bulls went small, and Rose ran to the elbow for a pullup for a 96-92 lead with 5:55 left. The Bulls would not trail again.

The Bulls weren’t great. But they were smarter and worked harder. You can do something with that.

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