Bulls come up big and win in Toronto


Apr 11

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It was clearly written for the Bulls on the board as soon as you walked into the locker room before Sunday’s potential playoff playin game with the Toronto Raptors.

“How bad do we want it?”

It might have needed an adverb, but the message was clear.

Joakim Noah got it, and everyone followed along for a 104-88 domination in which the Bulls led by double figures the entire second half and by 25 with seven minutes left, the Bulls best win in the season’s biggest game.

“I knew it was a really important game,” Noah was saying, his foot resting in a bucket of ice while the hot fever of the win resonated in a raucous locker room around him. “I was really focused. I wanted to go out there and impose my will as much as I could, be aggressive offensively and defensively. I wanted to make sure our team played harder than their team.”

Derrick Rose, who had a team high 26 points, seven assists and just one turnover, is the Bulls best player.

Noah is the MVP and leader.

Yes, finally, ponytail and all, the Bulls have a leader.

Need it, and he will come.

The Bulls now are 39-41, one game ahead of the Raptors for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and winners of eight of their last 12. That came after 10 consecutive losses with Noah out with plantar fasciitis.

“(Noah’s) a guy always energetic, always yelling, talking,” said Rose. “He’s giving all his energy when he’s out there and you want to do the same when you see him do that stuff.

“He was telling people (Sunday) there was no need to play around, on the layup line no bs-ing, making sure everyone goes hard,” said Rose. “In the locker room, on the bus. He was focused the whole time.”

And biggest of all, Noah took the Raptors’ heart away. And win the hearts of his teammates, who even were cheering for him as he came into the locker room after the game.

Yes, he’s a keeper.

The Raptors are down with Chris Bosh out for the rest of the regular season and Antoine Wright out.

“If you take Derrick Rose off their team and take out Joakim Noah, are they a playoff team?” whined Jarrett Jack. “Nothing against the others guys…”

Yes, in the end the Raptors had nothing.

Still, they were home and the crowd was engaged and energized.

This one could have gotten away quickly, and the Bulls aren’t exactly fast starters.

But Noah took command right away.

He dove on a pick and roll to open the Bulls scoring, hit Taj Gibson with a hi-low pass for a slam dunk, Gibson back from a mini slump and going hard to the glass, and rattled in a jumper, even calling for the ball.

“I’m playing with confidence and feel like being able to knock down a few jumpers keeps the defense honest and helps our team because hitting shots makes my driving opportunities better and I’m able to make plays for other people,” Noah said.

This was the guy a year ago who wouldn’t even look at the basket when he got the ball.

The Bulls broke from a 16-16 tie with a pair of Noah free throws, a Gibson jumper and then slam on another Noah pass, a 10-2 run that gave the Bulls a 28-23 lead after one.

Noah had six points, four rebounds and three assists and by halftime 10 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on the way to 18 points, 19 rebounds and a career high equaling seven assists.

Look that up in the phrase dictionary for “Coming up big.”

“I was really excited about the game,” Noah acknowledged. “My mom was here. She flew out. I did not even know she was coming. It was good to have her in the crowd.”

I’ve seen Noah’s mom, the former Miss Sweden, and she may be the most enthusiastic fan I’ve ever seen, and certainly a loyal mom. She cheers for everything Noah does, whether it’s a pass, a free throw, a rebound or retying his ponytail.

“I knew whoever won this game would have a better chance of making the playoffs,” said Noah. “It feels good we’re in that position right now. And we’ve just got to keep it up.”

With a burst out of the locker room after halftime with a 13-4 run as Rose began to exert his will, the home crowd began booing loudly and chanting slogans which suggested the Raptors were enjoying Popsicles.

You could see the Raptors giving up and Bosh perhaps watching somewhere thinking, “Chicago? New York? Miami?”

It was the season’s biggest game because the Bulls and Raptors were tied, but Toronto retains the tiebreaker. That means they still could make the playoffs over the Bulls. The Bulls magic number is now two, which means if the Bulls beat the Celtics Tuesday and Bobcats Wednesday or the Raptors lose to the Pistons Monday and Knicks Wednesday the Bulls are in. Or if each team splits. If the Raptors split and the Bulls lose both the Raptors are in. If the Bulls split and the Raptors win both, Toronto is in.

The odds finally favor the Bulls, but losses to the Bucks without Andrew Bogut and in New Jersey suggest nothing is sure with this Bulls team.

“I think we’ve been a team like this all season,” Noah said. “We can beat the best teams and lose to the worst teams. With us it’s a question of a mindset and coming ready to play. No denying, this was really an important game.

“What’s good is we have Boston coming up,” Noah went on, the first player reporters went to as the hoots and laugher were loud around him. “That’s an easy game to get up for. Playing in front of 2,000 in New Jersey is a little different situation. We understand what’s at stake. We (now) control our own destiny.”

Yes, there was plenty of noise as Noah spoke, but it was less the celebration of achievement than the character of this Bulls team, for good and bad.

They don’t get that upset, and maybe you’d like them to more after a loss. But this is who they are, and they did demonstrate they can get up for a big game.

“I try to keep the guys as focused as possible,” Noah said, the din rising. We’re a close group. It’s always like this in the locker room… when we win.”

Noah did pause a bit, and while there isn’t wild celebrating after a loss, there are no dirges playing, either.

After Sunday’s win, the players were chiding Rose, who was shyly blushing, over an inside joke they had going with the kid since practice Saturday. And it was egalitarian. Chris Richard chimed in loudly. Flip Murray, dour with outsiders, happily went around telling others what had happened. Stars and reserves are equal. Players dissolved into laugher. It usually isn’t that funny once you hear about it. But it is the camaraderie of guys on teams, and it’s been this way through ups and down with this group.

Though it also was something of a relief to have something tangible to enjoy.

Especially for Rose, who’d been laboring some under the weight of having to do so much and be so perfect while Noah recovered and worked his way up in minutes. Noah’s limitations were lifted after Friday’s loss in New Jersey, and Rose breathed a sigh of relief.

He’d committed seven turnovers in that game, and Sunday had just one, that coming with 4:19 left and the game long over with Patrick O’Bryant and Marcus Banks in the game for Toronto.

“It’s been crazy (the last few days) thinking about a lot of stuff,” said Rose. “Yesterday was great for me, away from home, not worried. I laid down and looked at TV all day. (I got that turnover) toward the end of the game. I was so mad. The ref told me he missed (the call, allowing a turnover). So as long as he knew, it was fine.”

Rose’s scoring was essential, really the one/two punch with Noah that made the difference. The defense still plays off Noah, so those jumpers are open. No one still believes that spinning tornado will do in.

Rose gets the defensive attention because he is the scorer and teams generally challenge anyone else on the Bulls to beat them.

The Bulls got a nice all around game with six players in double figures, including big contributions from Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick with 10 each off the bench.

The Bulls outrebounded Toronto 49-41 and had a nice 26 assists on 42 baskets and just 10 turnovers.

Rose had an agenda. He doesn’t usually come out shooting, but he was armed and ready Sunday and had an unusually high nine shots up in the first quarter.

“Attack,” said Rose of his game plan. “Play like it’s the last game. Go to the hole early. Some of my shots were going in and out, but I knew the majority would go in. I know if I attack the whole game, people get open and everyone else plays aggressive. The guys on me were closing out kind of sloppy, so I was taking it. Their big man were not stepping out on the elbow shots and I was taking them.”

Yes, the Raptors are an awful defensive team, scattered and uncommitted. Still, you have to make the shots and plays, and the Bulls did.

They got out on the break in the second quarter and Murray even showed off some with one of those Jordanesque switch hand layins. The Raptors did get within 47-44, but Rose hit a jumper, Noah beat his man downcourt again and pushed in a Murray miss, letting out a scream, and Warrick closed the half with a slam dunk on a great Luol Deng find as the Bulls pulled away to a 58-48 margin.

Then came that boomlet to open the third. The Raptors tried a zone, which always gets the Bulls shooting jumpers as they rarely adjust well. It was then Rose took over and, effectively, ended the game.

It was an appropriate, “Get out of my way” moment.

Down 73-54 and the crowd in unison apparently calling for Lou (Amundson), the Raptors got a pair of free throws and a three from Jose Calderon and were only trailing 74-63.

Enough of that, figured Rose.

He cupped the ball with his right hand and finished a tough drive for a score, the Raptors missed a three and getting Andrea Bargnani in a switch, Rose went left and up for another layup, shredding what serves as the Raptors interior. Rose then was fouled and made both free throws.

“They were better than us, obviously,” said Raptors coach Jay Triano.

And when Noah backed up and made a 17 footer, the Bulls were back ahead 84-65 after three quarters and the Bulls were thinking green thoughts with the Celtics next.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, who was hopping around and using so much English as every shot went up I think he got a call from Dancing with the Stars. “We’ve got to refocus and get our energy back for Tuesday. “Every game is a playoff game for us. This is one step in the right direction, but there still are a lot of things to handle. We’ve put ourselves in this situation. Now, we’ve got to handle it.”

They showed at least once they do want it. Badly.

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