Boozer arrives and Bulls thrive vs. Thunder


Dec 7

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Carlos Boozer showed up Monday as advertised in a solid win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, 99-90.

Boozer, in just his fourth game since breaking his hand in training camp, had 29 points and 12 rebounds, his little fadeaway jumper going and Boozer finding plenty of open space diving for the rim and making sweet string music working in concert with Derrick Rose.

That sentence, I know, will make you wince, but this time it was the Thunder shaking their heads watching Rose and Boozer.

“We’re getting better and better every day,” Boozer said of his comfort level with a new All-Star point guard Derrick Rose.  “It’s going to be exciting where we are 20 to 30 games from now.”

It was a good, decisive win against a credible Western Conference opponent, a game the Bulls pretty much controlled in going to 11-8.

They got a dozen second quarter points (of his 13) from Kyle Korver when the Bulls began to take charge of the game. They got a nice tag team defensive effort against Kevin Durant, first from Keith Bogans and then from Luol Deng as Deng had 19 points and eight rebounds and Bogans nine in one of his better efforts of late.

It wasn’t a big offensive night for Rose, who had just 11 points along with nine assists, though Rose got the highlight shot of the game with a 40 foot banker to end the third quarter. It put the Bulls ahead 82-66 after a quarter in which Boozer had 13 points and Thunder coach Scott Brooks benched Durant and Jeff Green, apparently for indifferent defensive efforts.

Durant had 29 points as he made all 14 of his free throws, most with the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, and sat the last nine minutes of the third with a towel over his head, though he hardly worked up a sweat before that the way he was playing.

“We just weren’t playing well,” said Brooks.  “I tried those changes to manufacture more energy out there.  It’s important that we learn how to play better.  It was my choice and there was no other reason.”

And more than anything, more than Boozer’s evolution and Deng’s or Bogans’ defense, this was a game in which the Bulls simply played better and smarter, had a better plan and ran it well.

This can be a dangerous Thunder team, but mostly if you let them. They are 14-8, but my guess is the league will begin to catch up with them. I was not impressed. They did beat the Bulls in the opener for both teams back in October, but mostly as Durant and Russell Westbrook threw themselves at the basket and drew fouls.

They are a terrific free throw shooting team, first in the league as they exceeded 90 percent again Monday. The Bulls shot 10 of 17 for 58.8 percent, and if they fail to reach 50 wins or a first round home court seed they can probably check back at their free throw shooting.

So you want to try to keep the Thunder off the line and out of transition, where Durant and Westbrook excel.

I thought the Bulls did a terrific job with their game plan, executed well by the players.

Though I might even have played zone against them or employed an across the board switching game like George Karl often plays wherever he has coached. The Bulls did an element of that by hanging back in the lane and creating a tighter shell.

That kept Westbrook and Durant more on the outside. Durant has been off target often this season, and was so again to start the game as the teams played a deliberate first quarter and the Bulls led 24-22 with Boozer getting eight.

The Bulls did begin to build their inside/outside pattern going to Boozer early, though more off Rose penetration than straight postups. But this was a good matchup for Boozer as the Thunder is a small team up front and with Nenad Krstic not particularly athletic. Boozer has difficulty against size, like the Lakers as he’s had in the playoffs, though most everyone does against the Lakers. But against the smaller Thunder with Jeff Green at power forward, Boozer was better able to get inside.

Though Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau always talks of playing with pace, the Bulls kept it down a bit to start the game because of the opponent. The other key against the Thunder is to keep them out of transition, thus taking care of the ball better.

Though Rose didn’t shoot particularly well, I thought his game was more limited by not attacking in the half court to help keep the Thunder out of transition. When Rose attacks, often the other guard doesn’t do a good job of getting back, and the Bulls didn’t want to risk that against the dynamic Westbrook.

The strategy seemed to frustrate Westbrook and he became particularly passive with just six points in the first half.

Westbrook/Rose was another of those big point guard matchups for Rose, though it is more for Westbrook. Westbrook is said to be somewhat disturbed by the publicity Rose receives and tends to take his matchups with Rose personally to prove himself. Rose is more quietly confident, as if he simply expects to be better no matter what is happening.

So when the Bulls began to lay back, Westbrook began to settle on the outside, which is not his game.

It’s also seemed that Durant has been a bit self conscious this season about trying to live up to the incredible expectations for him as a likely league MVP. Though averaging 27 points, his shooting is well down and his three point shooting just 27 percent, some 25 percent below his career average.

The Bulls didn’t double him, thank goodness, as that strategy has been awful this season and usually allows for too many easy scores. But they did sort of a delayed closing as when Durant would take a dribble they’d send help then depending on which way Durant went, and Durant isn’t particularly good yet at passing once he’s into his shot.

“Durant is such a tough cover,” said Thibodeau.  “I have been pleased with Luol’s defense all year.  We can count on him for a great effort each night.  He does a good job of mixing things up.  He made Durant work for his catches and got up on him when he tried to shoot.  You cannot play him one on one.  You need a lot of team defense.  I thought our team was there for him.”

The results were terrific, 35.4 percent shooting overall for the Thunder and four of 19 on threes. And though the Bulls committed 17 turnovers, they had just nine for a total of five points through three quarters. That meant few easy points for Oklahoma City, which is what they survive on given their spotty defense which is 24th in field goal defense and 23rd in points allowed.

Consider, when the team met to open the season back in October, the Thunder had an edge in fast breaks 23-11. It was 17-14 Bulls Monday. The Thunder attempted a staggering 47 free throws that night to 31 Monday. Durant and Westbrook combined for 15 Monday, one for Westbrook after the duo was a combined 23 of 26 last time with each attempting 13.

It wasn’t a great night for Joakim Noah, who had foul trouble and fouled out for the second straight game, this time in 21 minutes with six points, 12 rebounds and six assists. He is an uncanny big man passer, but his defense has been spotty and the only thing the Thunder had going early was Krstic against Noah. Omer Asik came in and despite not much in the box score did a nice job clogging the paint and setting hard screens to free Korver when Korver got going in the second.

Ronnie Brewer got a couple of quick, inside scores to get the Bulls going in the second quarter with a reserve group that again looked good without a starter, though Taj Gibson now is with that group. Gibson and Asik were setting terrific screens and you were getting the sense the Thunder didn’t want any part of a tough game.

No, you don’t have to fight to play tough.

The Bulls took a 51-40 lead late in the half as they battled inside and as Oklahoma City contracted toward the paint, Korver and Deng got plenty of room for threes. But the Bulls fell into a stretch of quick jumpers that enabled the Thunder to get within 53-48 at halftime.

The game then turned to open the third, a time when the Bulls have had problems earlier this season and Boozer was big this time.

“Taj Gibson, who started against us last time, is more of an energy guy and can hit the open shot,” noted Durant. “But they’re going to throw the ball to Boozer and get a bucket.  He’s an All-Star. He played like it tonight.”

After the Thunder opened the second half with a score, a Krstic tip as Noah does go to help and gets out of position, Boozer scored on a reverse from Rose and then a follow on a Rose miss and a fancy back to the basket flip that went in for a three point play.

This seemed to drive Green nuts as Green, being scored on by Boozer, did the immature thing and went right back at Boozer with an isolation, fadeaway jumper than clanged. Bogans then had a terrific stretch with a putback after a Rose miss and a three on top in transition with the Thunder defenders, hands by their sides, watching. That went down to make it 65-54, and Brooks yanked both Green and Durant.

Westbrook then tried to take over, but the Bulls weren’t allowing transition or penetration and the Thunder shots weren’t falling. Westbrook also tends to be loose with ball and a high turnover guy and kicked away a few at the end of the quarter as Rose finished strong with double pumper layup and that long banker to effectively close out the Thunder with the 16-point third quarter lead.

“I just mentioned to Derrick that he did not have a particularly good shooting night, but he played well,” said Thibodeau.  “He ran the team extremely well.  In the fourth quarter we could have had a better job.  We got careless with the ball and they were trying to take the ball out of Derrick’s hands and prevent him from even getting the ball.  Then we struggled a little bit.  We picked it up some and were able to close it out.” 

The Bulls got the lead up to 18 to open the fourth before the Thunder had some success trapping and stripping Rose. Durant then forced his way to the free throw line. But Gibson, Deng and Boozer made enough shots to keep the Thunder from cutting it below double digits until the last minute of the game when the only drama was whether the Bulls would score 100 points.

They didn’t, but they didn’t need it, which was much more significant.

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