Bulls beat Bobcats; look out Cavs, here they come


Apr 15

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They beat Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats Wednesday 98-89 to get into the playoffs, and now this improbable Bulls team gets LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Bring ‘em on, starting Saturday 2 p.m. to open the playoffs in Cleveland.

“To me what this is about is my team sacrificing everything they’ve got to get in order to make it to this stage,” said Joakim Noah, who with Derrick Rose combined to drag this Bulls team back to 41-41 and the playoffs. “Now we’re playing the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone thinks we’re gonna get our (butts) whipped.

“You know what,” said Noah, sucking on his second bottle of celebratory beer in the loud post game locker room. “We’re going to shock the world. That’s pretty cool, right?”

Yes it is, however it goes, and it was one of the best finishes a Bulls team ever has had to a regular season, including victories in ten of their last 14 games and winning three straight they had to get, all against teams with better records, with no room for error. It’s hardly the best Bulls team, and one with long odds to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs against heavily favored Cleveland.

But it is a confident team that was accepting hand shakes and congratulations from new Bobcats owner Jordan, who graciously went around to every Bulls player in the locker room after the game to congratulate them.

It was a show of respect, and one well deserved, less so for finishing .500, but for the way the Bulls persevered through a troubling season of coaching uncertainty, major trades, disastrous blown leads and big losses, free agent player departures, crippling injuries and just lately management controversy with coach Vinny Del Negro.

But the players refused to yield, and the close of Wednesday’s clinching game as Toronto won again was symbolic, almost a fictional story, like Rocky, as guys like Rose, Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich were literally wobbling around down the stretch, trying to hang on like boxers with a lead and out on their feet, Noah and Rose combining for five late turnovers.

“My mindset,” said Del Negro, “is going with the guys who got us here, fatigued or not they have to step up and that’s what they did.”

Rose finished with 27 points and five assists, including several electrifying drives late that left you shaking your head at the pure greatness and a cold blooded three with the clock winding down midway through the fourth to hold off any rally.

Noah ended with 21 points and 13 rebounds in another racehorse effort of constantly beating the defense up and down the court and scoring on tip ins and follows and making clutch free throws in the fourth quarter.

“We’re going to the (bleep) playoffs,” Noah exulted running into the ocker room from the court. “All this (stuff) and we’re still going to the playoffs.”

Yeah, take that!

In these three biggest games of the season against the longest of odds, Noah averaged 16 points and 16 rebounds while Rose averaged 30.7 points and 6.3 assists on 57 percent shooting.

It was impressive and inspirational to watch and you felt in the post game locker room a strong feeling of accomplishment mixed with relief and possibility that was most eloquently expressed by Noah, who’s grown so quickly into the leader of this team.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Noah, his smile so deep from the moment the game ended you couldn’t peel it off his face. “I really feel like we’re deserving. Anyone who sees the Chitown Bulls, I want them to say, ‘They play their (butts) off.’ and I think that’s what we’ve done the last few games.

“I’m just so proud of my team,” said Noah. “I’m feeling good right now. It feels so good to win, man. It’s hard to explain. At any level, there is nothing better than being in the locker room winning. And now the real fun begins.”

This one was all about a great win and the days ahead, but Noah was asked about the incident involving Del Negro and John Paxson and why he was angry being asked. Noah said he wasn’t, that media people just didn’t understand what was significant.

“I feel like we were fighting for our lives and giving everything we’ve got,” said Noah. “Who wants to talk about something that happened last month? Talk about guys who play hurt and try to do whatever they can to win a basketball game. Look at Taj (Gibson, with 11 points and 13 rebounds on his aching plantar fasciitis), look at Kirk. Brad is old and he’s getting shots in his (butt) just to play a basketball game for two months now. Talk about that. That’s what he has to do to get ready to play. It goes on and on.

“That’s all about team and sacrificing everything they’ve got in order to make it to this stage,” said Noah. “People can say he (Noah) is acting like a fool and this and that, but I’m having fun, enjoying this, loving my life. I’m playing NBA basketball against the best team in the world in the playoffs and my goal is to try to try to shock the world.

“At end of day in the course of this series our goal is to win,” said Noah. “But it’s all about going out there and saying we gave everything we’ve got. I want people to think, ‘You guys gave everything, gave your best.’ And I think our best is better than people think.”

It was just enough again Wednesday in the season’s 82nd game as the Bulls jumped on the Bobcats for a 33-26 first quarter lead and then 57-43 at halftime, though the Bulls seemed on the verge of breaking it open late in the second quarter with a 52-37 edge. But it’s still a team that relaxes with leads and they couldn’t make the Bobcats, who had clinched a playoff spot already, give up.

Coach Larry Brown said before the game he’d play his regulars for the good of the game, and Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace kept the Bobcats in early. They seem to have little chance against Orlando because they lack scoring.

And who knows with Jackson.

He can get going, as he was at times Wednesday, though she spent much of the first half screaming at Del Negro about how much better the Bobcats were.

Rose said the Bulls plan was to try to get that big lead early and get Brown to give in the game and go to his bench and save his regulars.

“We were pushing ourselves that first half, playing hard,” said Rose. “We felt we could take control of the game. The second half they came out and made a run (within 65-60). We played good defense and somehow we got the win.”

The Bulls were sluggish to open the third and looked in trouble when it got to five.

But Noah got a dunk sealing his man on a pass from Deng. Rose then blew through the defense on a fast break, scoring the team’s next eight points in a “hop on guys I’ll take you there” moment to get the lead back into double figures going into the fourth quarter.

Brown pretty much threw in the towel then after Tyson Chandler took a hard fall and stayed down a while and the Bulls got through the fourth with another late Hinrich three putting it out of reach.

And Rose’s prediction of weeks ago of guaranteeing the playoffs—which I’ll admit I doubted the way they were playing—came true.

It’s also why after that loss to the Nets last week when Rose had seven turnovers he told me the next day he wasn’t making any Sunday against the Raptors. And he didn’t have any until a questionable late one when the game was decided and he really was fouled.

Rose said he gets inspiration from a book, the Seeker, which suggests saying things out loud and they will come true. It’s become something of a life philosophy for him, sort of a power of positive thinking for the new age. When we were talking Saturday after practice and he said he wouldn’t commit a turnover Sunday, I said, “You better not say that.” He never hesitated, and Wednesday he said that’s also why he made the prediction. It’s also something of self motivation, putting demands on himself and then forcing him to follow through.

“We deserve to be here,” said Rose of the playoffs. “We’re a young team, but we have a lot of confidence and trust in one another. It will be a great challenge playing Cleveland. It’s going to be fun. We’re going to go out and fight. That’s all I can say.”

The Bulls and Cavs tied the season series 2-2 with the Bulls winning in November in Cleveland when the Cavs got off to an uncertain start and in Chicago April 8 when James sat out. The Cavs beat the Bulls at home Dec. 4 by 14 and March 19 at home by seven. Shaq is questionable having been out so long with a thumb injury, but this Bulls team suddenly is feeling very confident.

After all, it was a year ago they weren’t given much chance against the Celtics. But Rose went into Boston and stole Game 1 and turned that series on its head and it’s what can happen in the playoffs when you have a star, which Rose truly is now with this latest run of brilliance. There isn’t a point guard in the NBA who is tougher to stop.

“No one will pick us,” said Miller with 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench. “We’ve got to go out and play our game and enjoy ourselves and see what happens.

“This season has been crazy,” agreed Miller. “This has been the biggest roller coaster season I’ve ever been on. We come back off the West Coast trip winning five of the last seven and everyone is, ‘Oh, my god.’ We’re climbing up the seedings. Then I don’t know how we sustain 10 (losses) in a row. Honestly, if you had told me we’d lose 10 in a row in March and make it and we’d get to .500…it shows a lot of will.

“Obviously, Derrick has matured,” said Miller. “This last week and a half in crunch time. And Joakim with his energy. We’ve got guys who truly want to be in the playoffs. You don’t really get that a lot. You’ve got a lot of players who talk about it. We had to go out and play our (butts) off to get there.

“We lose to Jersey and it’s ‘How can you guys lose to Jersey?’ Then we come back with a great game against Toronto,” said Miller. “Obviously Boston and tonight. It shows the growth on this team. This team shines well under the gun in big games. These were playoff games. We had to win. It was in our hands and we did it.

“We’re playing great basketball now,” said Miller. “Obviously, we’ve got one hell of a challenge, a 60-some win team. But we’ve shown we can beat anybody and lose to anybody. It’s going to be fun.”

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