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Bulls tighten race with win over Charlotte
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 4
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The Bulls players insisted they didn’t see it, but everyone else did. Eighth place Toronto had won again earlier in the day. The seventh place Bobcats had come off the floor Saturday night from a dozen behind in the third quarter and trailing the first 36 minutes to stun the Bulls with an 11-2 run to open the fourth quarter and take an 82-76 lead with six minutes left.
The Bulls season looked finally in the toilet with the water swirling counter clockwise.
Talk about your unfortunate flushes.
“The season was on the line,” said Joakim Noah. “We understood the situation. We understood it is do or die right now.”
And it was a big time flush that got the Bulls poking their heads above playoff waters again with a terrific, well earned 96-88 victory over the Bobcats.
It brought the Bulls to 37-39, 1.5 games behind Toronto and three games behind Charlotte. The Bulls play Toronto next Sunday April 11 and close the season April 14 in Charlotte.
“We have to win as many games as we can,” said Noah. “We understand what is at stake, keep fighting, stay focused and hopefully Toronto loses a couple of games and we take that eighth spot.”
After the Bulls drew within 82-78 on a pair of Derrick Rose free throws after Boris Diaw generously missed a pair, Noah got an open lane with Rose being trapped and began that long legged gallop toward the basket.
Eying that from the weak side came former Bull and premier shot blocker Tyrus Thomas in his first game against his former team.
It was Noah still standing with a big time slam and Thomas staggering backward.
In your face! Block this? Jo doesn’t think so!
“I did (notice who it was),” laughed Noah, who had 11 points and 16 rebounds back starting. “There was a point in the game he hit a jump shot and we were talking trash to him from the bench. He mean looked us real bad. He blocked one of my shots and he was talking a little. It felt good to dunk that one.”
And it was a big one for the Bulls hopes as Rose, who led the Bulls with 26 points, then made the first of two catch-your-breath-amazing driving, hanging, reverse layups that simply cannot be made! No human being can do that/ And yet the kid did. Great stuff.
Those plays which drew more ESPN top 10 highlight of the night mentions sandwiched a Kirk Hinrich three as Hinrich’s shot was as accurate as it’s ever been. He had 24 points on nine of 12 shooting.
That second Rose reverse on a back door pass from Brad Miller out of a timeout–nice call, Vinny–gave the Bulls an 87-84 lead with 2:33 left. In the next possession, another former Bull, Larry Hughes, who shot the Bobcats back in earlier in the quarter with two threes, one for a four point play on a Flip Murray foul, missed three shots, one blocked by Noah with bodies flying around and on the floor for a loose ball.
“The guys have a lot of confidence,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “You have to make plays. Defensively or offensively, screening or slipping a pick, making shots, getting a dunk. We won this game rebounding and getting some defensive stops.”
And still another big play came on the following possession as Rose got caught looking too much for a shot against severe trapping and fired off a three that missed. Hughes grabbed the rebound and his teammates broke out down one possession, as the TV analysis usually goes.
But Luol Deng held back. He swiped the ball from the stunned Hughes, like a defensive back pulling away the ball, turned and put the ball back into the basket for an 89-84 lead with 1:15 left.
Lu! Lu! Lu!
Deng exulted, a rare show of emotion from the cool veteran, and it was over on the next Bulls possession when Charlotte doubled Rose again and with Tyson Chandler wandering toward Rose, Rose dropped the ball to a cutting Noah along the baseline for a dunk-you-very-much-have-a-nice-flight-home. And a chance to play still another game that mattered.
“It was a big play,” agreed Deng, also back starting and with 12 points and seven rebounds. “Larry kind of grabbed the ball and to tell you the truth I was going to try to hit it out of bounds. The ball bounced my way. I knew most of their guys ran out when he grabbed it so I knew I could step in.
“We made big plays,” agreed Deng. “I thought defensively when they went up six we turned it up and that’s how we’re going to win. If we play with that kind of intensity we’re going to beat a lot of teams. The last two games we played well together. Now, it’s all about winning a game at a time. We cannot look too far ahead, play Milwaukee (Tuesday) and try to win that game.”
Which suddenly looks a bit more winnable with Andrew Bogut hurt Saturday. But the Bulls know about injuries this season. So you move on.
“That’s one thing about this team,” said Noah, whose spirit is incalculable. “Even when things were not going well. Everyone always gives everything they got. That’s not the case for all teams. A lot of teams, with their starters hurt, there is a lot of ways to make excuses. But this team never made excuses. We keep fighting.”
It was a heck of an entertaining game with all five Bulls starters in double figures, the Bulls outrebounding the Bobcats 56-34 in a return to their No. 1 rebounding game of pre-Noah injury time, Taj Gibson terrific again winning his battle with Thomas with 14 points and 15 rebounds, his sixth double/double in the last seven games, and Thomas with 10 points and three rebounds in 16 minutes with some moderate booing every time his name was announced.
“I thought it would be a different emotion than I had,” said Thomas, who exchanged hugs with most of his former teammates after the game. “Once the ball went up it was just another game. I didn’t have any anxiousness or nervousness. Just like it’s been since I got traded. I’m just trying to help my team secure a playoff spot and go from there.
“I didn’t play attention (to the reaction),” insisted Thomas. “I was thinking yesterday as we were coming here I thought I’d have some kind of different emotion. But I just went ahead and played.”
As for his times with the Bulls, Thomas said: “Just a life experience. Something you take and run with. You cannot harp on it and say what would have happened. You learn from it and move on.
“We dug ourselves a hole (Saturday),” said Thomas. “It’s hard to do against a good team at home. It’s hard to get out of a situation like that.”
The Bulls did come out flying as Hinrich, Rose and Gibson were each four of five in the first quarter and the Bulls led 29-24.
A word about Gibson: Wow!
I was sitting next to my colleague from the Daily Herald, Mike McGraw, and we were saying we laughed a few months ago about the idea that Gibson would be a replacement for Tyrus. Now, you ask yourself if you even want a power forward in free agency watching Gibson make big plays in every game and never stop.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” Del Negro said of the season without Gibson. “He is very coachable, he works every day and he plays hard. If he has one fault it’s that he helps too much defensively, which is very rare for a rookie. He played in college four years. He works every day and is ready to go. And he’s such a great kid. He’s been a big factor for us all season.”
Thomas has been hampered of late with a sprained ankle and isn’t playing quite as much with another former Bull, Tyson Chandler, back from various foot and ankle surgeries, and Theo Ratliff starting and playing surprisingly well.
Thomas checked in late in the first and went right to a baseline hook over Gibson and made it and was fouled. He followed that with a layup. But Gibson then got a switch and backed down Gerald Wallace, whom Deng held in check, and Gibson scored on a nice post move.
“Me and Jo kept attacking,” said Gibson. “We get after it like that in practice. One of our keys to win is to dominate (on the boards) and it worked well for us tonight.”
Gibson then came out and dominated the opening of the second quarter as the Bulls went up 37-24 in the first four minutes.
He blocked a Thomas shot from behind coming to help, grabbing three tough rebounds in traffic as Hinrich lined in a three and Rose ran out for a twisting layup score.
“They were really much more aggressive than us,” admitted Chandler. “They got their hands on the ball and tipped all the loose balls out there. We took the game over by six and we had control then. Momentum was definitely in our favor. Then we just didn’t get good shots and they made big plays down the stretch.”
Hinrich was really shooting the ball well, and at times like that you’d like to see him take more shots. But he remains a reluctant shooter, sort of like John Paxson was, always searching more for the better shot. You wish Flip Murray, say, would do that more as Murray fell back to earth with a two for 10 games, though he squeezed off the 10 shots in 16 minutes.
The Bobcats were set back a little as Stephen Jackson’s hamstring tightened and he played little after halftime, and Hughes looked like the Larry we knew as he was one of his last 21 shots—and still taking them—until he hit those two threes early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls led 50-41 at halftime, and 70-63 after three as both teams went dead the last five minutes of the third quarter combining for one score in 13 possessions, a Tyrus jumper that brought boos and hoots from the Bulls bench.
The Bulls were feeling pretty good then, but it would soon disappear as Gibson drew his fourth foul early in the fourth quarter and the Bobcats outscored the Bulls 9-4 while he was out.
He did play 42 minutes and it was a back to back, so it certainly made sense. But it remains a pet peeve of mine and I asked Del Negro. Coaches talk about players using all their fouls and keeping them available for the close, which I understand. But usually when a guy gets his third in the third quarter or fourth in the fourth early he comes out. Taj ended with four fouls. I’d let them play.
“Brad (Miller) has been productive for us,” said Del Negro. “It was a back to back, he played 42 minutes and his foot is bothering him and he’s battling through it. Those decisions have to be made and it worked out for us.”
Del Negro made the decision every NBA coach makes. But I like to see guys play to that last foul if they have to, especially in crucial games like the Bulls are now playing.
But still they lived to play another that matters.
And perhaps get a shot at Charlotte again as the Bulls now hold a 2-1 series edge and a potential tiebreaker if they can make up the difference by the final game. How would that be against Michael Jordan’s new team. Jordan passed on the game Saturday, but that would be some finish with Jordan sitting on the bench baiting referees at Bobcats home games.
“Bottom line is having some of our key guys back,” said Del Negro. “Joakim 16 and 11 (25th double/double and second in the last three), Luol making the big play and 12 and seven. Get your players back and they have to make plays and they did. They stuck to it when we were down and started grinding them out, which is what we’ve done all year.
“Enjoy Easter and get yourself ready for Monday practice,” said Del Negro as he leads the egg hunt for colorful late season victories . “Get ready for Milwaukee and go out and execute. Defense and rebounding has won it for us all year and that’s what we have to continue to do.”