Bulls victimized by their own gridlock in Washington


Feb 23

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Free Joakim Noah!

Free Joakim Noah!

“I want to play,” the Bulls plantar fasciitis gripped center was saying quietly in the Bulls locker room after the team was blowing a 10-point third quarter lead and losing 101-95 to what passes for the Washington Wizards these days. “I want to play. What can say? I’m not going to go in the media and say, ‘I want more playing time. I’m not happy with the situation.’ It is what it is. They told me this was going to happen. They want to ease me into it.

“I don’t think my foot is going to be 100 percent for the rest of the season,” Noah conceded. “It’s frustrating because I want to be out there and I want to help. But I have to be healthy. I’ve got to play though it. I don’t really know what to do.”

There’s no question the Bulls can use Noah as Brad Miller is wearing down and had four points on one of six shooting, the Wizards outrebounded the Bulls 43-36 and no one could defend Andray Blatche, the Wizards’ version of Tyrus Thomas who has been unleashed since the Washington trades. He is averaging 25 points since and led the Wizards with 25 points and 11 rebounds.

“They are going to Blatche inside like they should,” said Derrick Rose, who almost led the Bulls back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit with a personal, highlight, ooohs and aaaahs run of nine straight points. “I am very surprised with how well they are playing together. They’re a young team, but if they can play they can play. They know the game of basketball and they are finding a way to win games.”

After Rose’s two minute blitz of off balance, reverse and from the hip shots on drives while surrounded by three defenders, the Bulls pulled within 96-92 with 2:25 remaining.

Taj Gibson then stripped Al Thornton, and Flip Murray with another strong game and 16 off the bench hit a three to bring the Bulls within 96-95 with just over two minutes left.

But Washington came out of a timeout with the Bulls playing three guards and posted up Murray with Thornton, who hit a short jumper for a three point lead with 1:45 left.

The Bulls went to Rose on top and as he drove against the collapsing defense, Rose lost the ball. It squirted to Luol Deng, who stepped in to draw a foul. With no contact, he leaned toward the basket and the shot missed.

“I tried to get a foul and he went by me, so I tried to jump into it and I left it short,” said Deng. “That was the big play of the game.”

Thornton then isolated again and missed, but someone named James Singleton, who had a game high 12 rebounds, got the rebound and then freed Randy Foye for an 18 footer by picking off Rose, who got no help off the screen as the Bulls were a step slow on defense—or more—all second half. Foye’s jumper gave Washington a 100-95 lead with a minute left. The Bulls then broke down trying to go to Rose and eventually went to a gasping Miller for a three from the right wing that came up short to effectively end the comeback and four game winning streak.

“The third quarter was terrible,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro of being outscored 31-16. “Five games seven nights. Guys struggled. Overall, they outworked us and we didn’t get out in the open court and attack. We had some opportunities down the stretch and weren’t able to convert. We’ve been doing a good job overall. We just weren’t able to do it in the second half.”

And now they’ve got a big, 800 pound elephant in the room.

They’ve held out pretty well without Noah. But the seven foot Blatche–the Wizards version of former Bull Thomas, a wildly inconsistent and often indifferent super athlete who recently was suspended by the team for complaining about his playing time—did pretty much what he wanted. It’s too much to ask of Miller, and Taj Gibson doesn’t have the size as he was solid with nine points and eight rebounds.

Noah concedes he’s not going to be healed this season. But his foot condition is better, so he may as well play, he indicates. The Bulls are being cautious. There is no perfect treatment or cure. But if there is too much aggravation it could force Noah to start resting all over again and waste his three weeks out already.

Noah’s still a kid, remember. He wants to go out and play with the other kids.

“My foot is feeling better than it was three weeks ago,” said Noah. “It’s still not 100 percent. They told me before I started playing they were going to play me 10 minutes a game and see how it feels (he had six points and two rebounds in 12 minutes). It’s feeling OK. I’m not projecting anything. I want to play more. I think they know that. I think they understand I want to be out there as much as possible. What player doesn’t?”

Asked what would be a reasonable number of minutes for the next game, Noah said,” Me? I want to play the whole game.”

The Bulls, meanwhile, are the parents who want to make sure Noah is wearing his earmuffs, gloves and goulashes before he goes outside to play. Aw mom, c’mon.

It was an interesting scene in the Bulls locker room after the game.

There is order to the madness. The players usually have about a half hour to shower, dress and leave for the bus to the airport. Dirty socks and clothes are being thrown into the middle of the room as kids scurry around collecting the laundry. Players grab from plates of food while others, like Noah and Gibson, sit with feet in buckets of ice.

Rose generally is the first one dressed and then speaks to reporters with his coat on. He’s usually cold. Deng generally is last out of the shower, usually just after Hinrich. Noah often takes a lot of time a well. But he sat, curiously, patiently in his uniform, doing a few interviews but never rising.

The Chicago reporters were across the room talking to Rose. The general procedure is to listen to Del Negro outside the locker room and then get the high scorer or anyone involved in a controversy. Noah was a bit player in his limited time, so he might have been ignored. But he sat and sat and sat there as players began to leave.

It seemed he had something to say, that he’d said what he could to management and the coach. He’s not a bomb thrower, a player who defies management to get attention and is about himself. He’s about team as much as anyone on the Bulls. So he didn’t want to demand anything, but it seemed he clearly wanted to make a further case for himself.

Free Joakim Noah!

Let him play!

It has to be tempting for the Bulls, who fell to 29-27, just a game and a half ahead of ninth place Milwaukee. The playoffs are no guarantee even as well as the Bulls have played of late. Hakim Warrick was good again with 12 points and five rebounds, but the Bulls just don’t have the size without Noah. He knows it and it’s killing him to watch.

“It’s frustrating because I want to be out there and I want to help,” said Noah. “I just want to get in there and help the best way I can. But I have to be healthy. I want to play as much as possible. I don’t want to sit on the bench. I want to play. What can I do? They don’t want to push it too much now and I have to sit out three weeks, four weeks.”

It reminds me some of Michael Jordan’s broken foot imbroglio in 1986. Jordan was going nuts not playing and went back to North Carolina and actually was playing pickup games without the Bulls knowledge.

He was desperate to play. But the Bulls were taking the long view and doctors said if he played and hurt the same foot again it could be career ending. Similarly with Noah, the Bulls don’t want to lose him for any long period of time or who knows how long. They want to protect him for his and their benefit.

Noah is a competitor like Michael. He feels he can play. He wants to help. He wants to play.

The Bulls always regretted allowing Jordan in the meetings with team doctors and hearing he had a 10 percent chance of making it worse. Jordan decided that was 90 percent for him and faced down the Bulls.

So the Bulls apparently just told Noah they’ll bring him along, see how it goes and let him know how much he can play.

“I thought he moved pretty well,” said Del Negro. “He’s got to get back in condition. It’s going to take some time. We have five minutes stretches for him and get him out. We’ll see how he feels (Tuesday). If he’s sore we’ll sit him down. If he can practice that will be great. We’ll monitor it as it goes along and as he feels better we’ll extend his minutes and build his conditioning.”

Not exactly what Noah wants to hear, but it doesn’t seem it’s a democracy this time. And mom and dad generally do know best.

The Bulls could see they would have trouble with Blatche to start the game as he went deep in the post and scored on all four of his first quarter shots, though the Bulls led 26-25 after one.

James Johnson had maybe his best stretch of the season early in the second with a beautiful pick and roll pass to Noah for a dunk and a drop step move for a score out of the post after a Murray left handed dunk-you-very-much facial of JaVale McGee that had the mixed Bulls/Wizards crowd roaring.

The Bulls seemed in control as they led 56-46 at halftime.

But the Bulls’ engine cut off in the third quarter as they seemed to adopt the local District of Columbia ethic of gridlock. They went 11 consecutive possessions without scoring, including turnovers in four straight possessions. Nothing worked. They stood, apparently shocked on defense, failing to close on shooters as Washington, missing on five of six possessions of their own in that stretch, ran off 14 straight points. It could have been 20 or more if the Wizards were efficient, but they’d already lost Josh Howard to a knee sprain. The Bulls shot 28.6 percent in the quarter and the Wizards 59.1 percent.

And this is a Bulls team that just had moved to No. 1 in the NBA in field goal percentage defense at 43.6 percent.

“We were in a slump,” said Rose. “They came out and jumped on us. Got right back into the game; got the momentum. It was hard getting it back. We weren’t making any shots. The ball stopped moving. No way we should have lost this game.”

The Bulls were trying to hang on later in the quarter as Noah missed a wide open breakaway dunk with no one on him for the second straight game.

“I missed a dunk I should have made,” Noah noted. “I missed some free throws I should have made.

Tomorrow’s a big practice for me. Come ready to practice, work with (big man coach) Sidney Green, work on my touch around the rim. I wasn’t feeling really comfortable out there. I just felt rusty. I feel better than I did last game.

Hopefully I’ll keep moving in that direction.”

The Bulls again gave up one of those end to end layups to finish the third, trailing 77-72. They were still right there.

Though he committed an offensive foul early in the fourth, it was encouraging to see Johnson being aggressive and physical as he’s played passive and tentative this season despite his size.

The Bulls still were leaving shooters wide open and with Blatche pounding inside, the Wizards took a 93-80 lead with 5:25 left.

It was then the Bulls woke up with a Hinrich three and Rose’s magnificent, personal run while finally getting up and aggressive on defense. After all, this was a Wizards team that traded its two All Stars while it’s third, Gilbert Arenas, was suspended. And Howard was out. Quinton Ross outscored every Bull but Rose in the fourth quarter.

“I feel like we’ve been playing well,” said Deng. “Tonight we didn’t. I feel like the guys that came in, they make us a better team going from here. There’s just a few things new teams have or go through. I feel like we’ll be fine. I like the team. We’re going to play well. Today was just a tough one.”

And for now, every day is a tough one for Noah. The story continues.

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