Bulls beat Wizards, but real tests now coming


Apr 3

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

The Bulls beat the Washington Wizards Friday 95-87. But make no mistake–they did not play very well, just well enough to beat a team that had just lost 16 straight games.

It took, in the end, a brilliant defensive sequence by Taj Gibson and then a Gibson jumper along with a Luol Deng three and a highlight Joakim Noah lob to Derrick Rose to finally pull away from a collection of D-League players and end of the bench reserves thrust into starting roles in the Wizards’ lost season.

Back home Saturday, the Bulls play the Charlotte Bobcats, who scratched out a rugged playoff style overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks Friday. If the Bulls want to seriously believe they have a chance to make the playoffs—and they have not beaten a playoff team since Feb. 26—then they have to start with Saturday’s game.

“I try to remind everybody that we are going to be in the playoffs,” said Rose, who led everyone with 24 points. “We just have to continue to win.  Even though the task is going to be hard, we’re still going to fight, come together, and try to put some games together.”

Yes, it’s going to be very difficult, especially since the Bucks could not help out the Bulls with Friday’s loss. It leaves the Bulls at 36-39, a game and a half behind Toronto but without the tiebreaker, and four games behind Charlotte with two games remaining with the Bobcats and a chance to get that tiebreaker.

But the Bulls are going to see a motivated, tough team Saturday instead of a rag tag bunch playing out the season. Nevertheless, the Wizards trailed by just one going into the fourth quarter. Thanks only to Washington shooting 12.5 percent in the fourth, the Bulls were able to pull away, though never quite convincingly.

“Our guys got some stops in the fourth quarter when we needed to,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.  “Overall, I didn’t think our rhythm was good as a team.  We had a lot of guys in and out of the line-up that have not been playing together for a while.  We found a way to win and we got the defensive stops in the second half that we needed. We don’t have time for an adjustment period.  Guys are going to have to battle through it and we will see who is healthy and those are the guys that will be out there.  We are going to need everybody and who ever can go will be out there.  We will see how it is all going to come together every day.”

There’s really no time for that anymore and, frankly, no reason.

There are seven games remaining. Everyone is healthy, or, at least, playing as Luol Deng returned from a calf injury and had 28 minutes off the bench. He had 14 points and six rebounds and a big three to make it 90-82 with 4:45 left right after the Wizards went to a zone and the Bulls acted like they’d never heard of the concept.

Deng needs to be back in the starting lineup. James Johnson made a few good plays, but he still makes way too many mistakes. I’ve seen about enough of him for this season. Development time is over.

Look, the Bulls need six wins, probably at minimum.

Rose played 41 minutes. Not quite enough, or at least he has to be engaged all the time. I know it’s a lot to ask for a kid whose played through a beating all season and took back to back hard falls again on his bad left wrist and on his back.

Joakim Noah was back in the starting lineup and played 27 minutes, getting 10 points and eight rebounds. I know he’s been hurt. But if he can’t play 35 minutes, then forget it. He’s had plenty of rest the last six weeks. Same with Deng. Put them out there and cut back the minutes of Brad Miller, who was awful shooting zero for nine, and Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick if they are having off nights.

Murray had been terrific the last few games, but his shot was missing Friday as he was two of 11. Vinny should have recognized that and gotten him out of there before he could do more damage. Warrick was very good. He had just seven points and  two rebounds, but he impacted the game.

He had a huge block on Andray Blatche with the Bulls leading 85-78 with just over six minutes left that led to the play of the game. Noah gathered in the ball and started dribbling up court, reminiscent to his coming out play in Game 6 of the Boston series last fall when he denied Paul Pierce and went all the way for the slam and three point play for the overtime winner.

This time Noah took the middle like a guard and found Rose with a perfect lob pass for a two handed flush that would have had Republicans cheering for health care.

“I was just thinking, ‘No bounce pass,'” laughed Rose afterward.  “‘At least throw it up so I can attempt to get it.’ But he threw a good pass. Jo was small when he was young, so he learned how to handle the ball. It was a great pass. I hope he continues to do that.”

Health permitting, we assume, though he looked good again high stepping in his loping running style, which is a good sign.

Del Negro coached best with a short rotation, basically using seven players down the stretch last season, and given the time off for the injured players who are back and the urgency, it’s time again.

I’m not saying guys don’t try hard. Or that some are unmotivated. But it has to be natural if you know you won’t be back with this team. Ride the guys who have an investment in the franchise’s success, like Rose, Deng, Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Gibson. The Bulls have some dry stretches on occasion even when Rose is playing, and that generally is because Rose will have periods where he defers or gives in too easily to the double team. He cannot do that now. Seven more games! He has to attack. He has to have the ball in his hand. He has to continue to make plays and force the referees to react.

“There are adjustments we have to go through, but there’s no time for it,” agreed Noah.  “There’s no time for excuses.  We have to go out there and play to the best of our ability and focus on what we have to do.”

So it’s Miller, Murray and Warrick off the bench with the starting five. If Miller is missing shots or driving and then standing around to argue with officials, like he was Friday, get him out of there. If Murray isn’t hot and standing outside, yank him. If Warrick is holding the ball too much and settling for long jumpers instead of attacking, forget him. Because if you need anyone else, you probably have lost, anyway.

Rose, as usual, was wonderful. Obviously, he can get a shot whenever he wants. But you can see how much he wants it.

The Bulls were soft on the boards for most of the game with the exception of Gibson. So Rose went up in traffic to get several rebounds when Blatche, with 18 points and 13 rebounds, was making fools of the Bulls interior early. Eventually given the kind of season they have had, the Wizards decided to hoist up a lot of selfish jumpers. But in the first half they were playing and making the Bulls look weak on the inside.

So with the Blatche and JaVale McGee playing volleyball over the Bulls heads in the second quarter, Rose went up to grab a defensive rebound. I liked  with the Bulls barely ahead 83-78 with eight minutes left Cartier Martin, a D-League guy, breaking out for what looked like a fast break dunk. Rose took off and caught him and forced him into losing the ball in what would have made it a three point game with eight minutes left. Yes, that’s how close it was.

It was right after that play Warrick bottomed out an 18 footer. Martin then missed a three and Noah spun out an easy layup on a beautiful feed from Rose. But it was then Warrick made the block to set up the Noah to Rose lob play and an 87-78 lead with just over six minutes left.

But the Bulls weren’t quite good enough to make the Wizards disappear yet.

The Wizards got some nice play from onetime Peoria star Shaun Livingston, and he looked good enough to resume an NBA career after horrific injuries. He had the highlight pass of the game, a behind the back, Magic no look for a McGee slam. But he wore down chasing Rose.

“He’s definitely a world class athlete,” said Livingston.  “He has definitely earned everything he has received.  There is definitely talent coming out of Illinois.  He was freshman when I was senior.  He grew up watching me take those titles, and then he got one It definitely wears you down (guarding him).  Part of his athleticism is that he can come at you full speed the whole game.  By the fourth quarter, you have to have some endurance to stay on him.”

Murray missed on a three and Wizards coach Flip Saunders sprung a zone on the  Bulls and the Bulls looked flummoxed, committing a 24-second violation. Fortunately for the Bulls, Mike Miller traveled, though the defense forced him into it, and Blatche, who had checked out mentally by now as he often does, fired up a jumper.

Nick Young was fouled and made both to bring Washington within five with 5:02 left. But Deng got deep in the left corner for a three and 90-82 lead to make the zone less appealing.

“We would not have won the game without the help of Luol,” said Del Negro. “I think he gave us some good minutes in both halves.”

Mike Miller got wide open on top for a matching three and it still was a five-point game with about four minutes left.

Murray finally drove and was fouled, making one of two, and then came the key possession.

Young fired off a three that missed long, but James Singleton retrieved the ball in a scrum with Gibson. The Wizards then worked the ball nicely and found Miller cutting down the lane. He got the ball and then passed to Young along the right baseline. Gibson turned to cut off Young, who passed into the lane to Singleton.

Gibson wheeled back toward the middle at Singleton and blocked the ball, a brilliant recovery.

Gibson finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.

Rose then was trapped on top and laid the ball off at the elbow to Gibson, who swished a 16 footer with three minutes left for a 93-85 lead, and that about took the heart out of Washington. The Bulls made a solid defensive stand on the next possession, rotating aggressively on several passes and forcing a 24-second violation. It was enough.

But it won’t be enough Saturday if what the Bulls showed Friday was all they’ve got. The Bobcats bring former Bulls Tyrus Thomas, who hasn’t been playing much with an ankle injury, Tyson Chandler, who got the same saving rebound tip Friday in overtime, Larry Hughes, and perhaps MJ in the building. Time to play for real.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: