Previous ArticlesBulls add John Lucas III; Rose questionable
Carmelo downs Bulls in dramatic finish
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 27
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Tom Thibodeau coached a heck of a good game Friday in Denver with Derrick Rose out with a stiff neck, Carlos Boozer yet to play and Taj Gibson struggling on a bad ankle and ineffective.
Thibodeau roused the Bulls from a disastrous start when they fell behind 24-7 and again 56-38 to open the third quarter. He refused to believe the Bulls weren’t the better team and it seemed to inspire his players.
His plays out of timeouts and stoppages in play produced scores almost every time. He had the team take advantage of Denver’s liberal switching on defense by helping C.J. Watson get loose for a season high 33 points. He didn’t give up on a poor two of eight shooting first half for Luol Deng, who went on to hit seven of nine after halftime and finish with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
But then came the last 24 seconds of the game with the Bulls with the ball and inexplicably leading 97-96, though on the way to a dispiriting 98-97 defeat.
With Rose out after his stiff neck worsened, the Bulls made an emergency call to John Lucas III in Houston to sign him as he was eating lunch back home, asking him to get to Denver for the game.
Not having played since being released by the Bulls in training camp, Lucas found himself making the inbounds pass with 24 seconds left and a Bulls lead in a situation where Denver had to foul.
So why was Lucas, of all players, in the game with the rest of their best free throw shooters–Kyle Korver, Watson, Deng and Joakim Noah?
“Free-throw shooting,” a terse Thibodeau told reporters after the game.
And, in fact, Lucas has been a terrific free throw shooter his entire life, 86.9 percent in college with 90.5 percent as a senior, 78.9 percent when he played briefly for the Houston Rockets and 86.1 percent last year playing in China.
“I knew they weren’t going to foul him initially,” Thibodeau said. “I thought they were going to trap and make us pass the ball around.”
Which the Nuggets did in a rare bit of intelligent play for a team whose idea of a good shot is one they can take with up to five defenders on them.
But the Nuggets had time, 24 seconds, and chased, first looking for a steal. And it’s not like they didn’t think they had a chance to win it or tie it with a two as the Bulls are the second poorest free throw shooting team in the NBA, ahead of only Orlando. The Bulls got the ball around, and then into Korver’s hands as he and Watson are the team’s most reliable free throw shooters other than Rose. But Denver wouldn’t foul Korver. The five second rule is just for out of bounds plays and used to be an in game rule, though I initially thought it still applied. But had Korver held the ball the Nuggets likely would have tied him up and caused a jump ball, so he had to move the ball
The problem was only Lucas ran toward him. Lucas, then, instead of moving the hot potato, dribbled and was fouled. It seemed he could have gotten the ball to an open Deng, but seemed reasonably worried about a turnover.
So Lucas went to the free throw line for the first time in an NBA game in almost three years and the first time this season for anyone. Both free throws were missiles that hit the back rim and bounded off, though fortunately not injuring anyone the way the liners flew back.
“I wanted guys that could make plays,” said Thibodeau, “and it didn’t work out.”
Wow, didn’t it.
The Nuggets, predictably, looked for Anthony.
“I came to the huddle and I told everybody, regardless of the play, I’m popping out and getting it,” said Anthony. “If we lose the game, it’s on me. If we win the game, it’s on me. I accept that.”
Anthony, though, said he didn’t want to be paid as coach.
They got the ball with 12.6 seconds left after the two Lucas misses and got the ball quickly to Anthony matched against Deng. Deng played him great, not that Anthony was passing, anyway, as he couldn’t have been screaming louder all game with his indifferent play that he wants out of Denver. The Bulls didn’t double to take the ball out of his hands as they’d been doing much of the game as Anthony didn’t seem, until the end, want to bother with playing too hard against doubles. But Deng stayed in front and Anthony threw up a double clutch hanging fall back shot that missed everything as Noah stepped up to help. Bulls win, Bulls win? Not yet.
Nene got in among three Bulls and the ball deflected out of bounds off Keith Bogans.
“You have to come up with the loose ball,” said Thibodeau. “The game is on the line.”
Now, four seconds remained with the Bulls ahead 97-96.
“It depends on where the ball is and who has it,” Thibodeau said curtly about potentially doubling teaming Anthony now with so little time remaining. “They had a lot of shooting on the floor. We were not going to let someone drive it to the basket. We made him play in a crowd. He made a tough shot.”
Anthony got the inbounds pass on the right wing. He got separation from Deng with Ronnie Brewer to Anthony’s left on J.R. Smith. Brewer waved at Anthony but stayed. Anthony took a jab step and one dribble and… won the game!
“We stopped him the play before. We just didn’t come up with the ball,” said a dejected Deng. “He just hit a tough shot. It is a long season. I am disappointed about the game and we feel like we should have won. There are a lot of little things at the end of the game that we could have done better, but it hurts that we lost and we have to bounce back tomorrow.”
It’s too bad because it was a terrific effort by the Bulls, a game that could have had the Bulls flying without a plane into Sacramento Saturday and perhaps home with a 5-2 record on the once feared “circus” road trip to the Western Conference. Now, it’s the hope of 4-3 and legitimate fear of 3-4 as Rose didn’t seem to be feeling or moving any better Friday night with his neck stiffness and facing a late night plane ride to Sacramento into the early morning hours.
Perhaps the Bulls look at it as the basketball gods evening things out after the improbable double overtime win in Phoenix Wednesday when so much went right, with two key baskets being reversed in Houston enabling the Bulls to win, with Gibson making the first three of his career to send the Bulls to a win in Dallas.
Sure, but this one seemed right there in a game the Bulls had no business being in without Rose and Boozer and with Gibson playing fewer than 12 minutes, though Thibodeau said it was not for health problems but Gibson’s play as he was without a rebound.
It will be a game long remembered for not so much Anthony’s 14th career game winning shot—and likely one of last with Denver—but for poor Lucas, thrust into that last second cauldron as Thibodeau went with the numbers. Lucas, career wise, probably was the best free throw shooter on the Bulls roster. But to be put in a situation like that?
Still, after all, you are a professional and a 28-year-old veteran.
Thibodeau was obviously defensive after the game, keeping his answers to the second guessing questions clipped and short, which is unusual for him. He’s a proud man, especially about his coaching, and that was clear after he held out Rose and Noah for the end of a game against the Knicks that seemed winnable earlier this season and said they were at fault for allowing the Knicks such a big lead.
But I didn’t believe the Bulls are in this game with most any other coach.
Prior to the game, Thibodeau said the Bulls even without Rose, averaging more than 30 per game on this trip, had plenty to beat a Denver team that is one of the most difficult at home.
But it’s that attitude of expecting success that Thibodeau has quickly instilled in this group that enabled the now 8-6 Bulls to be in position to pull off one of the major surprises of the NBA season.
So when Denver scored the first seven points of the game with uncontested jump shots, Thibodeau called timeout just over two minutes in to blister the team. Same with less than two minutes into the third quarter when Denver again scored the first seven on the way to a 56-38 lead.
It’s the third night in four, now 12 days on the road in their sixth city without their best players.
“That’s all?” you can imagine Thibodeau saying. “You guys must feel like it’s a vacation.”
It’s the kind of play that inspires–the Bulls were down 23 before coming back in Phoenix—regard and has the NBA taking notice.
“We were joking (on the bench), ‘Maybe Rose would have been better,’” said Nuggets coach George Karl afterward. “Watson was throwing everything in at the end. Chicago, I think, is the hardest playing team in the league right now. Play hard makes good things happen. If you can pick your team up when your best player isn’t playing and almost win a game. I am not sure they weren’t the best team tonight. We were more fortunate probably.”
The Bulls trailed 25-20 after one as Watson began to show some stuff.
He had a brutal beginning with a pair of turnovers in the first few minutes and some strong demands from Thibodeau after he wasn’t closing to shooters, either, a Thibodeau must.
Watson has been viewed as something of a disappointment as a backup to Rose as he’s played tentatively with the offense bogging down with Rose out.
Denver likes to switch most everything on defense, except the center, which most teams won’t. But Watson showed he’s a smart player in taking advantage of the mismatches and driving and when Nene did step up in the one/five screens, Watson blew by him.
Watson isn’t the classic distributing point guard. But he did begin to demonstrate, especially as he’s an excellent free throw shooter and can get to the basket and draw fouls (nine of 12 in the game and he might show Rose) that paired with Rose he could continue to be a good two guard combination, which Thibideau has done increasingly of late.
Watson scored 10 of the Bulls 20 first quarter points, setting a tone with six free throws in the quarter.
This was a Bulls team for Denver to jump on with Thibodeau lifting Gibson early and for good five minutes into the third quarter. Lucas, who arrived just before the game and wore his No, 15 for his celebrated father, made a shot and then threw up an air ball when he entered in the second with the Bulls down 10.
The Nuggets seemed to play as if they expected the Bulls to quit with only Nene challenging the basket and giving Noah trouble, though Noah would come on after finishing a lob late in the third quarter that seemed to wake him. He had 17 points and 16 rebouds and a team high four assists. Yes, he is the best passer when Rose is out.
It’s really a brutal situation for the Nuggets with Anthony giving half hearted efforts as he waits for his Triple A Triptik to find where he’s going.
So the Nuggets with Chauncey Billups out hurt to join Rose went to Nene a few times, and he was eight of nine. But he had foul issues which may have saved the Bulls as with Nene out Arron Afflalo, Smith, Al Harrington and Ty Lawson seemed to just take turns firing off long jumpers without much ball movement.
They led 48-38 at halftime, and after the Bulls brutal beginning to the third, Deng stepped up and started hitting and carrying the team with Rose out. Good for him as Deng gets a lot of grief for not doing that kind of thing. He scored a dozen in the quarter on drives, short pull ups and run outs, Watson banged in a three and Noah finally got into it and the Bulls suddenly were within 76-73 after three.
The Bulls opened the fourth attending turnover-fest, but the Nuggets joined them as the teams combined for six in the first 71 seconds.
Then Watson took over the game
He used the pick and roll twice for driving scores, and passed to a one for 10 Korver, who hit a three with 6:05 left in the third to give the Bulls their first lead of the game at 85-82.
Our start wasn’t that great and the third quarter was pretty bad like usual,” said Watson. “We need to work on that and get that taken care
of before we play another game. Just trying to pop it back to Joe or Lou and try to drive it back to the basket.”
The Nuggets inched back ahead on an Anthony drive with three minutes left for a 92-91 lead. They still led 94-91 with two minutes left when Watson scored three consecutive times, a runner past Nene, a driving bank to his left side and another drive after a solid high screen.
And the Bulls led 97-94 with 30.3 seconds left. Could they get this one, too?
Anthony, who led Denver with 22 and began paying attention with about three minutes left, drove into Noah and was fouled, making both for a one point Bulls lead with 24 seconds left.
So Thibodeau, knowing the Nuggets had to foul, went with whom he decided were his best free throwers.
And you know the ugly rest.