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Bulls and Coach Del Negro facing elimination game

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Apr 26

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It was an appropriate setting Monday in the Berto Center for what could have been the Bulls last full practice of the 2009-10 NBA season and perhaps Vinny Del Negro’s last as Bulls coach.

Yes, coach Vinny Del Negro had his back to the wall.

“Everyone is frustrated because we know we can play better,” said Del Negro of the Bulls being down 3-1 after Sunday’s 121-98 loss to the Cavs and LeBron James’ triple double and six three pointers. “But give Cleveland credit. They made plays. It’s not like we didn’t want to play better. They put us back on our heels a little. They made a run at the end of the first half and then jumped on us to start the third. Derrick (Rose) hurt his ankle and we got out of the flow a little. But our defense wasn’t good enough. We have to do a better job defending and making it harder on them. We did it in spurts, but we didn’t have consistency.”

It’s not a particularly upbeat time for the Bulls, and not only because of the playoff deficit to the league’s winningest team and likely MVP.

Rose and Luol Deng didn’t practice because of minor injuries.

Rose had an MRI on his ankle injury suffered early in the second half. It was negative, but he was sore. He traveled with the team to Cleveland and is expected to play Tuesday in Game 5.

Deng aggravated long standing knee and calf injuries.

“(Rose) was sore,” said Del Negro. ” He jammed it on Shaq’s foot. He was limping a little today, so hopefully he’ll feel better tomorrow. Luol’s knee and calf were a little sore. It’s that time of year. Things are going to happen. You have to get the guys out there who are healthy. Obviously we need both those guys to play at a high level. I think they’ll both be fine, ready to play. Who is 100 percent at this time of year? Not many guys.”

Well, the Cavs for 12.

James is playing at a tremendous level after sitting out the last four games of the regular season to rest while the Bulls had to play their way in with, effectively, three win-or-go-home situations. It has to have taken a toll, especially now facing a team which finished 20 games ahead of the Bulls.

James crowed about not returning to Chicago after Game 4, and it was not unlike the confident claims Michael Jordan would make in the 1990′s.

In that era, first round series were best of five. After the Bulls would win the first two, Jordan would generally tell his teammates to pack for one game.

He never was wrong. In the Bulls’ six championships, they never lost a first round game.

There also has been speculation about Del Negro’s job future basically going on since January of Del Negro’s first season, and it only has grown with a recent confrontation between Del Negro and Bulls vice president John Paxson.

It was a travel day for the Bulls Monday, so after a short practice, only Del Negro and Joakim Noah addressed reporters.

Del Negro had been asked some before the last regular season game about it being perhaps his final game as Bulls coach and he said he’d prepare as he always does and deal with other circumstances after the season. The question didn’t come up Monday.

Noah was asked about the speculation and reports regarding Del Negro, and said it hasn’t been an issue with the players, and that clearly seemed to be the case the way the Bulls overcame the Raptors late to make the playoffs.

“Those are things that we as players can’t control,” said Noah. “Our mindset is just to be ready for tomorrow’s game. We’re in this all together. A lot of things can happen and there’s a lot of rumors and speculation. But some things are better kept internally, kind of like a family or a frat, you know? Kind of like that.

“(It) doesn’t mean you guys have to know everything,” Noah told reporters. “As long as we fight every day on the court for you guys, what else do you need to know?

“How about we focus on this game tomorrow and see what happens and then when the season is over you figure it out?” Noah said. “It’s important to live in the moment. I’m enjoying this. Even though we got slapped by 30, I still think we’re in a good situation getting to play on the biggest stage in the world and battle it out tomorrow against the best players in the world. I think that’s pretty cool.”

It’s the ultimate optimism of youth. And the way the Bulls have played to come back from a March 10-game losing streak, you can never truly count them out.

Rose is averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 assists while Noah is averaging 16.5 points and 14 rebounds. The Bulls have been able to count on them, and Deng has been consistent averaging 17 points. The question will be whether the Bulls can get Kirk Hinrich rolling again. He is averaging 12.5 points on 41.9 percent shooting, but 58.3 percent on threes.

Overall, I feel the Bulls have played the Cavs the right way.

They’ve pretty much shut off the middle in Del Negro’s “elbows, boxes and nails” defense, which is a shorthand for the way the team provides a shell of a defense around the lane.

The key in playing the Cavs is keeping James out of driving the middle, where he then can attack the basket or pass off into the corners for threes.

Though James was scoring the first three games, the Bulls limited the other shooters. In Game 4 Sunday, James got into the middle more to free Antawn Jamison, who had 24 points and Mo Williams and Anthony Parker, who combined for five threes. James added another six, and the Bulls could not score at that level.

The Bulls have to push the ball to get over 100 points to match the Cavs, but the Cavs shot the ball so well Sunday the Bulls couldn’t run, and then, as Noah noted after the game, lost their enthusiasm and allowed the Cavs to run away.

Rarely have the Bulls when healthy played two poor games in a row, so if Rose’s ankle is OK I can see them making a good effort.

The elemental weakness the Bulls have on offense is the lack of a true post player, which they really haven’t had since, well, ever, and the lack of a consistent three point threat.

The Cavs have made 42 threes in this series. The Bulls have attempted 44.

That’s right, the Cavs have made 28 more threes in the four games while outscoring the Bulls by a combined by 44 points.

It’s the right strategy. See if they can beat you “over the top,” the shorthand for long distance shooting, and the Cavs have.

And why not try that given James shot 28.5 percent on threes in the regular season since the beginning of February, one of 14 in April.

“At times, you can live with, but when he’s (James) making six, you have to get up in him a little and come with the double-team,” said Del Negro, who did very late in Game 4 to finally take the ball out of James’ hands a few times. “You have to pick your spots with him. It wasn’t like we didn’t do that. He made one step across halfcourt, banked one in, things are going to happen. Those are the tough shots. That’s why it’s so important to take the easy ones away. The one where he splits you and takes a dunk, those you can’t have because you know he’s going to make some difficult ones.”

So I suggested to dare James to do it again. It’s easy to say you take the ball out of his hand with double teams, but that compromises your defense and rebounding, putting everyone out of position and helping. Great players do great things and James is great. And they do these things at big times. LeBron qualifies with some memorable playoff performances. But I think he’s more dangerous when he gets those other guys good shots, which comes when the defense is scrambling. Hey, LeBron, I’d say, you can’t shoot threes. Do it again!

You have to use some gamesmanship when you are behind and some innovation when you are a big underdog. Del Negro isn’t much a believer in that.

“Shouldn’t the message be he can’t do this again, let him try?” I asked Del Negro.

“No,” said Del Negro. “That’s your message. That would not be my message. It’s not one guy. Antawn played very well for them. They isolated him on the wings. He’s a very tough cover one-on-one. Mo is always Mo and you have to find him. It’s not just LeBron who is going to fill up the stat sheet. You have to have a huge amount of attention on him. But they’re very good for a reason. The reason starts with LeBron. But they have other players who are capable.”

I don’t deny that, but you have to try to lure the Cavs into doing things they don’t usually. Look, they are better and more talented and have the best player in the series.

So call out LeBron and see if he forgets he’s playing with the other guys. We know he’s got a giant ego, and maybe he wants to show you.

The Bulls had one of these elimination games last year in the Boston series, but it took three overtimes to finally win at home and go back to Boston for a seventh game.

Another key for the Cavs, I thought, was Shaq getting in foul trouble. That brought in J.J. Hickson, who runs the court and finishes strong and fits better with James in a smaller lineup in wich they are able to open the court better and get to the middle. Coach Mike Brown basically is looking two series ahead and trying to get Shaq ready for the Magic and Dwight Howard. Take advantage of that.

I’d put Jannero Pargo on Shaq.

Actually, Vinny hasn’t been very good with his bench, basically rarely using guys or so inconstantly that when he puts them in now for a short stint it’s difficult for them to do anything. So he pretty much has to stay with seven guys with Brad Miller and Flip Murray off the bench. James Johnson came in and committed several fouls on James when the Cavs closed the first half fast to get a 62-52 lead. But James is the Bulls best reserve matchup with James because of his size and basically has been told to play James physically. So he went a bit far in Game 4, but it was hardly his fault.

Given wildly fluctuating minutes, Hakim Warrick has been inconsistent.

I’d also liked to have seen Pargo some to match some three point shooting.

But you know making a move like that with Pargo on Shaq would force the Cavs and the sensitive Shaq to go at Pargo. Challenge the Cavs to beat you with Shaq. I don’t see how given how long he’s been out he could score much, and he might waste a lot of time doing so and slow the Cavs and take them out of their running and three-point shooting game.

It’s called junking up the game, but it’s OK when you are in a desperate situation. It doesn’t get more desperate for the Bulls than Tuesday.

“I think there was frustration because guys were so excited to play,” said Del Negro. “We were in the game and then we gave up some scores and free throws late in the half. We felt good at halftime with some of the stats we had (leading 16-5 in fast breaks and 26-19 on the boards). Then in the third quarter they jumped on us and Derrick hurt his ankle and we took quick shots and they built that lead on us. LeBron was hitting threes. There was frustration. But it’s been a very resilient group all year. I expect us to come out tomorrow. Our backs are against the wall.”

We’ll see if it’s a firing squad looking at all of them.

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