Bulls come home from road trip as winners


Nov 28

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After a successful road trip, now the Bulls add one of the game’s most prolific scoring and rebounding power forwards.

Yes, they really may have something special going here.

The Bulls Saturday finished perhaps the franchise’s best month since the Michael Jordan championship years, not necessarily in record, but in commitment and promise with still another rugged and unlikely comeback victory, 96-85 over the Sacramento Kings.

With Derrick Rose scoring 30 points coming off a missed game with a sore neck, Luol Deng fighting for 22 points with 14 trips to the free throw line and a fourth quarter defensive effort that was the basketball version of a goal line stand, the Bulls came from 16 down to close the feared and fabled “circus” road trip with a 4-3 record.

That gorilla just got off headed for someone else’s back.

The ghosts of circuses past are officially exorcized.

It does mean something in Chicago, where the Bulls once lost more than 30 straight on this annual Western death-of-a-season march. But rookie coach Tom Thibodeau from the beginning stressed they were merely road games, the same as everyone plays, and declined to engage in any horror history with the media or players. It’s an attitude that seemed to take hold with the players, who smirked at media antagonisms regarding the western road.

“We’re doing the right things everyday,” said Thibodeau. “I think we’ll continue to get better and better. I think this team has the capability to beat anybody on a given night.”

He stressed it, and the players came to believe it.

It was the team’s first such winning record on the November road trip since 1997 and gave the Bulls a 9-6 record, good for third in the Eastern Conference behind only Boston and Orlando as major summer free agent acquisition Carlos Boozer prepares to resume practice Monday after breaking his hand two months ago.

“I thought our focus was great,” said Thibodeau. “I thought each game we gave ourselves a chance to win. There are still a number of things we need to clean up. There is still the readiness to play, I’m still concerned about that. Hopefully we can get Carlos back soon so we can start moving forward with that.”

It’s uncertain when Boozer will play with the Bulls hosting Orlando next on Dec. 1. They’re in Boston Dec. 3, and then home Dec. 4 for Houston and Dec. 6 for Oklahoma City. Boozer’s return will depend on the after effects of the injury and getting in the proper condition and getting timing with the offense, though medically he is cleared to play this week.

So the Bulls finally will get a look at the one/two scoring punch of Rose and Boozer that they could only imagine as everyone else around the NBA basically has had their major stars available.

Boozer’s loss the first week of training camp seemed a huge blow, especially with the rugged opening schedule that featured the first eight road games of the season against teams with winning records last season, thus giving the Bulls the strongest opponents’ schedule of all the contending teams.

Yet, the Bulls come out of it not only with a solid winning record, but with Rose a strong candidate for Player of the Month after averaging 30.5 points, seven assists and 5.7 rebounds on the road trip with a smashing 30 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in Saturday’s victory.

And the league has to consider Thibodeau for Coach of the Month as the rookie coach has the Bulls in the top 10 in scoring, opponents’ field goal percentage, turnovers forced and rebounding and leading the Central Division, which would secure a top four playoff seed.

And not only without Boozer, their principal off season addition, but with both Rose and Taj Gibson missing games on this road trip. Even with the hiccup in Denver when Thibodeau was widely second guessed for using last minute free agent callup John Lucas III for a late game free throw situation, the Bulls resilience, especially on the road the last two weeks, has been remarkable and inspiring.

“I think it’s our competitive spirit as a team,” said Joakim Noah. “I think that’s kind of been our identity as a team. I think that not a lot of teams have that. We’re proud of it and I think people in Chicago should be proud of that.”

Consider the following:

Houston, Nov. 16: Bulls rally from down eight starting the fourth with three Rose three pointers to go on an 18-0 run and pull away for a 95-92 win.

San Antonio, Nov. 17: The Bulls go up 17 on perhaps the league’s hottest and biggest surprise team, but get taken out after halftime. They fall behind by 15 after three, rally within seven but lose 103-94.

Dallas, Nov. 19: Against the team that just this week stopped winning streaks in Oklahoma City and San Antonio and beat Miami, the Bulls trailed by a dozen in the third quarter, but buoyed by unlikely threes by Taj Gibson, and Kyle Korver from near half court, the Bulls roared past the Mavericks for an 88-83 win.

Los Angeles, Nov. 23: Against the defending champion Lakers, the Bulls were even with eight minutes left when an unlikely barrage of threes from the Lakers’ reserves took them out, though Phil Jackson said afterward that the Lakers will have to be a lot better to win in Chicago in December.

Phoenix, Nov. 24: A classic double overtimer in which the Bulls didn’t have their first lead until in the first overtime. They trailed by 23 late in the second quarter, but rode an amazing Noah to Rose backdoor and Rose closing in the second overtime to a 123-115 win.

Denver, Nov. 26: With Rose out with a strained and stiff neck, C.J. Watson scored 33. After being down 17 in the first quarter and in danger of being blown out with Gibson ineffective and benched, the Bulls seemingly pulled off the shocker until Lucas missed those two free throws and Carmelo Anthony hit a winner at the buzzer for the 98-97 win.

Sacramento, Nov. 27: Fourth in five nights going from California to Arizona to Colorado and back to California, then down 16 in the second quarter and a dozen late in the third quarter as the legs seemed heavy and the mind wandering, the Bulls put together what Thibodeau likely dreams about, that perfect defensive stand.

After closing within seven at the end of the third with Rose dunking on a fast break and then throwing a 90 foot pass that fooled the sleepy Kings into thinking it was a desperation shot and which Deng eventually gathered in for a score, the Bulls held the Kings scoreless for almost the first four minutes as they scored nine straight to take a 78-76 lead.

It was a magnificent defensive stand with Deng, Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Noah and Watson, the latter suffering a dislocated ring finger less than a minute into the fourth and replaced by Rose.

It was all the things Thibodeau has talked about and the Kings withered, eventually being outscored in the fourth 27-9. Sacramento shot 14 percent in the fourth.

“In the first half, it was hard to judge anything we were doing defensively because the intensity wasn’t there and the technique wasn’t there,” said Thibodeau. “In the second half, once the intensity picked up the technique picked up it was better. In the first half we did a lot of double teaming and they only had two turnovers so that tells you a lot about your pressure. In the second half, our pressure was a lot better and offensively Derrick was tremendous. I thought Ronnie Brewer played with great energy and Luol (Deng) got it going.”

Deng pressured Samuel Dalembert, who was killing the Bulls earlier with a soft jump shot and five blocks, into a turnover. Deng ran out and got fouled and made one of two. The defensive rotations were classic and the closeouts textbook. Just about every Kings shot was coming at the end of the shot clock and forced. Even when the Kings tried to work the ball around to the weak side, the Bulls doubled and recovered.

Luther Head squeezed off a wild 17 footer, then a 24-second violation, Jason Thompson, who led the Kings with 18 but 12 in the first half, was pressured and threw the ball into the 10th row, Head got stuck with the ball for another 24-second violation, DeMarcus Cousins went nowhere on a one-on-one effort until Tyreke Evans, who had 13 of his 17 in the first half, was fouled and hit a pair of free throws.

By then, Rose had taken back over, charging into the defense and getting the calls, making four free throws (among his nine of nine in the game), and just before those Evans free throws a classic touch pass that Brewer was unable to convert despite being open underneath.

Rose easily could have doubled his assists total the way he was blowing by the Kings and then passing out with two handed overhead lasers for wide open shots against a Kings team that doesn’t bother to close on shooters at all and basically spent its time trying to contain Rose.

Which hardly seems to matter to Rose, who had one classic crossover drive later that left Evans, last season’s rookie of the year and nowhere in the class of Rose, wobbling and then falling backward as Rose laid the ball in.

Though Evans was cutting up the Bulls, particularly Keith Bogans, early when the Kings surprised the Bulls in taking a 28-21 first quarter lead while shooting 11 free throws. Starting to fall behind badly in the second quarter, the Bulls went to quick doubles on Evans that scattered their defense, though the Bulls once again would play their best ball after halftime.

“We weren’t playing well for most of the game, but we’re resilient,” said Noah. “We found a way to get a win and work as a team.”

That Rose basket, meanwhile, gave the Bulls an 87-83 lead with 3:49 left. The Kings were now officially shell shocked and firing quick jumper after quick jumper, apparently in fear they couldn’t get off a shot if they moved the ball.

“We were awfully happy at halftime,” said Kings coach Paul Westphal. “We told the team that the Bulls have come back over and over this year.”

The Kings missed eight straight shots as Noah with 17 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals got a pair of free throws on a rebound foul and another terrific finish left handed, this time on a fast break after Cousins stumbled around and lost the ball. Noah has worked on post play, and while it doesn’t appear poetic, when he operates from the right block and goes left handed to finish it’s been an almost certain score. He has more difficulty going from the left block with his natural right hand as he seems to fade away more into a hook shot that isn’t as effective.

Noah earlier had a pair of terrific back door passes, one to Rose for a two handed monster slam and another to Brewer, who had eight points and  tied a career high with 10 rebounds, for a dunk. While his double/doubles dominate the conversation, Noah may be establishing himself as the best passing big man in the league with his clever bounce passes from the high post.

And down the stretch he was grabbing everything and added a pair of fourth quarter blocks.

With two minutes left, Deng wrapped it up with a three to make it 94-83 and cap an 11-0 run as Rose found him in the deep corner, Deng with 13 fourth quarter points as he belied his reputation as a player who couldn’t come up big late in the game. Deng also had nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks and averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds the last three games while playing 54, 41 and 43 minutes in proving the team’s iron man of the road trip. He is now averaging a career best 19.1 on the season.

Deng also fouled their matchups as Thibodeau smartly used him at power forward in the fourth quarter, which forced the Kings into matching down and limiting Thompson, who had most hurt the Bulls.

So get off his back already.

“We’re a type of team that’s going to keep fighting throughout the whole game,” said Rose. “We played defense towards the end of the game, but we can’t dig ourselves in hole like that in the beginning because it takes too much energy to get out of it. We just have to fight early and make sure that we take the lead or at least fight early in the game.”

Asked what he’d learned from the trip, Rose replied: “That I have a good team; everyone on this team is willing to fight. Everyone is going to go out there and give it their all.”

Yes, it is his team, but it is mostly Chicago’s, and as Noah said appropriately, it appears certainly one that can make you proud.

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