Bulls brace for Raptors and season's biggest game


Apr 10

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Well, at least there didn’t seem to be much of a depression hangover for the Bulls from Friday’s numbing double overtime loss to the Washington Generals, err, New Jersey Nets.

The Bulls gathered Saturday afternoon on the upstairs practice floor in the Air Canada Centre for a light workout while on the main floor the Harlem Globetrotters were performing.

There were half court shots flying all over the place, dribbling exhibitions and loud, cackling voices and laughter.

And the Globetrotters downstairs seemed to be having fun as well.

“I beat myself up yesterday,” said Derrick Rose, who had 25 points but seven turnovers in the Nets’ loss. “The next day I’m not worried about it. It’s already gone. I’m way more relaxed and way more confident in my game now and you’ll see a big difference tomorrow in the way I play. I’m not going to have no turnovers tomorrow. It’s going to be fun. That’s what the NBA is all about. We’re right here at the end three games away. Two games you lose you are out. One game you might be out. It’s gonna be tough, but I think we should be fine.”

It’s the biggest game in, well, at least this season Sunday when the Bulls play the Toronto Raptors. Both are 38-41, tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference. Though each have two games left afterward, it’s likely the winner goes to the playoffs and the loser goes home.

Whomever doesn’t get to the playoffs, this likely is their playoff game, the so called win-or-go-home game and there’s no figuring these two teams as the Raptors are without injured Chris Bosh and Antoine Wright and the Bulls just lost to the Bucks without Andrew Bogut and to the Nets after barely escaping the Cavs without LeBron James.

Someone will get in. But with a lot of beep, beep, beep with all the backing up.

So we’ll see who wants it and who wants the number of their travel agent.

“We gotta defend, gotta be on the same page, be on edge and play harder and hopefully things like shooting will go our way,” said Joakim Noah.

The way also seems clear now for Noah to give what he has as coach Vinny Del Negro said Saturday Noah, who had been on a limited minutes schedule because of his plantar fasciitis, has had that lifted.

“I don’t know about (playing) 45 (minutes),” said Del Negro. “But I don’t think there will be a mandate on him.”

That became something of an issue late in Friday’s game as Noah wasn’t on the floor at the end of regulation and for just 12 seconds in the two overtimes, though the Bulls were spent after the first overtime and had nothing left for the second.

It was a back to back and Noah had played 34 minutes against Cleveland Thursday night.

His minutes were to be limited to 35 for Friday’s game to continue bringing him back without a chance of regressing, like he did when Del Negro went over the prescribed limit back in February in an overtime win over Portland.

But when the game headed into overtime Friday, Del Negro, who had been warned not to endanger Noah, sought permission for extra minutes, which was given. Though the message in the heat of the moment didn’t come through clearly, and Del Negro was left to explain Saturday.

“My interpretation of that was not to go play him 3, 4, 5, 6,10 minutes and get him into 40 to 45 minutes,” said Del Negro. “But when we needed him for a stop, and when we did, that’s when I put him back in. I would have loved to have played him some more minutes, especially in the overtime. But that was the understanding, and there was probably a little miscommunication there as well. Would I have liked to play him more? Of course. But his future and his health is the most important thing.
“There’s been a lot of things that have gone into this. I would have liked to have played him more,” said Del Negro, “but we just couldn’t do that [Friday] night.”

You could make the case if Noah was in the game in the last seconds of regulation he might have denied the Brook Lopez putback, which looked like offensive goal tending, anyway. But you did have Brad Miller, who was playing great, and Taj Gibson. And had Rose made the previous free throw it probably would just have come down to fouling.

In the first overtime, the Bulls scored seven straight and seemed ready to coast to victory without Noah. They still were up seven with 69 seconds left. But they began to falter and Del Negro did bring back Noah, who blocked Lopez but then fouled him for two free throws that enabled the Nets to tie the game at 112.

Noah could have been Michael Jordan and it wouldn’t have mattered the way the Bulls collapsed in the second overtime.

I don’t think it was a major issue as I believe Del Negro was caught up in the game and probably thought the lead was safe and he wouldn’t have to use Noah, anyway, while management had previously discussed late game issues with him regarding Noah and said Noah could be used in those and clarified it after regulation ended to say the team needed to go for the win.

I believe both were trying, though signals were mixed.

What’s uncanny, really eerie, is how similar it was to the famous situation with Jordan in 1986 that Jordan even brought up at his Hall of Fame induction last year.

Jordan had broken his foot early in the 1985-86 season and doctors told the Bulls there was a chance, maybe 10 percent, his career could be over if he came back too soon and injured it. Jordan, of course, decided that meant there was a 90 percent chance he wouldn’t.

So a minutes per game limit was agreed to as a compromise, much like with Noah.

Jordan believed management was trying to miss the playoffs to get a lottery pick, which isn’t the case this season—it wasn’t then, either—because the Bulls swap their pick with the Bucks. Unless against crazy odds they get a top three pick.

Management was worried about Jordan’s future, much as they are with Noah.

Look, the Bulls weren’t serious playoff contenders with Jordan in 1986 (they were swept in the first round even with him scoring 63 and 49 in consecutive games) and are not now.

It’s the age old sports conflict: The GM has to be concerned with the franchise’s future. The coach has to be concerned with winning today’s game. It’s why those coach/GM things never work.

So the Bulls were being cautious with Noah as Del Negro, like a kid reaching for an extra piece of candy, kept trying to steal an extra minute here or there for Noah, who admitted his foot still bothered him some. Noah is just too valuable a piece going forward to risk injury now.

So Del Negro and management clashed a few times, which is hardly unusual. Ozzie Guillen seems to do it once a week with his boss.

Anyway, back in 1986, Jordan was pushing coach Stan Albeck to play him more and Albeck was in intense battles with management. Finally, came the breaking point.

The Bulls were at Indiana and 26-50. Yes, they made the playoffs at 32-50 if you think the East was so great then. Jordan reached his minutes limit with less than a minute left and the Bulls trailing by one after Jordan had brought them back with 15 fourth quarter points. Albeck pulled Jordan in what general manager Jerry Krause viewed as a clear swipe at the policy, the building issues and him.

Kyle Macy replaced a furious Jordan.

The Bulls ended up winning the game as John Paxson hit a winner with seven seconds left. The policy was abandoned shortly thereafter and Jordan went on to play full games through the playoffs.

If only Noah could do the same.

The way I saw it management had prepared Del Negro for the circumstances with a scenario for late game plays if the minutes limit was exceeded and then Friday a quick conference with general manager Gar Forman on the scene and vice president John Paxson on the phone and passing word to Del Negro to do what’s necessary to win the game.

It seemed to me Del Negro was trying to serve numerous masters with the issues raised to him about Noah’s health, especially given the major setback when Noah played over his limit in February and had to miss three weeks and the Bulls lost 10 straight. If the Bulls miss the playoffs, that period will be why. Del Negro knows if he’s not in the playoffs his job could be in jeopardy, so he is trying to win games and not get into gamesmanship with management. But he’s also been put on notice about the policy.

Yet, management could not be in position to make it seem they don’t care about winning given Del Negro’s initial post game comments he couldn’t play Noah because of the time limitation. It would appear they were tanking the season, which is far from the truth, especially given the draft pick exchange with Milwaukee which makes having a better record and making the playoffs less painful in such a switch.

“I wanted to put him in if there was 10 seconds to go, or the 3.6 seconds, but I hadn’t got the authority yet to do that,” said Del Negro, uncertain about the situation but mostly caught up in the game with multiple lead changes down the stretch. “I wasn’t able to play him extended minutes because of the 35 (minute) mandate. Then when I got the OK to put him back in, I put him back. I think it was the first overtime, to try and get that stop, and I think we fouled Brook Lopez on it. I wasn’t going to play him 40, 45 minutes, or something like that, just because it was back to back games and Joakim’s future and his health and everything is a big concern to everyone. It’s the first time he’s played back to back like that with those many minutes.”

So having played almost 36 minutes in regulation and given the circumstances Noah was only going to play briefly in overtime no matter what anyone said as that was Del Negro’s own intention as well.

For his part, Noah sounded like Mongo, just pawn in game of life.

“I don’t know what’s gong going on,” said Noah “I think you (media) guys know how I feel. Obviously, it’s frustrating. But there are three games left. There’s no time to say anything that puts anybody in a bad position. For me it’s frustrating because I want to be out there on the court. I really don’t know what to say about yesterday. But as a player, I’m trying to focus on the huge game against Toronto. The goal is to make the playoffs. I’m trying to focus on that and be as positive as I can.”

And the Bulls need to be positive after exploring so many negatives in losing to the Nets, none which should be obscured by the brouhaha over playing time.

“The bottom line,” Del Negro said, “you can talk all you want about minutes or whatever, but we had a  seven point lead with a minute or so to go.”

Left unsaid was, ‘Over the Nets!’

“You have to make plays,” said Del Negro.

Miller bricked a three after making two in the fourth quarter. Rose missed a 10 footer. Miller missed another three.

Someone drive the ball! The Nets looked like they had surrendered and were happy to have played close.

Rose dribbled the ball off his foot out of bounds, they left Courtney Lee wide open for a three, Rose was called for another turnover, though clearly seemed to be fouled with no call. Devin Harris blew by Kirk Hinrich, who quietly just missed a triple double with 13 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, and was fouled at the basket and made two free throws. Suddenly it was 112-110 Bulls and the Nets figured they’d play.

“You have to make plays,” said Del Negro. “We had opportunities to win the game. We know how big the (Sunday) game is, but we’re still in control if we play good basketball. I always say you get what you deserve. We got what we deserved. We turned the ball over (for 28 points), we missed free throws (19 of 29). We can’t dwell on it. We learn from it and hope we can execute better (Sunday).”

Because the loser pretty much gets executed for the season.

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