Bulls bring a strong defense to Washington


Dec 23

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You hear all the time about the ugliness in the nation’s capital, the recalcitrant Congress, the political attacks on the White House, the Bulls/Wizards game.

“A win is a win no matter what,” said Derrick Rose.  “They are a good team and we still came here and got a win.”

The Wizards are not a good team, now 7-20, though Derrick is too polite to say so. And the Bulls did get a win Wednesday, 87-80, to raise their record to 18-9 behind a near triple double from Carlos Boozer with 30 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists and 25 points and 10 trips to the free throw line from Rose.

So can we stop complaining about the refs for awhile?

“Joakim is out, so we’ve got to do everything. We’ve got to step up a bit, including myself,” said Boozer, who got some physical defensive help from Kurt Thomas, who played almost 41 minutes and had a pair of blocks and seven rebounds, four offensive as the Bulls’ defense saved the game after halftime and down the stretch in the fourth quarter with the basketball version of a shutout, 10 points for Washington and four of 15 shooting in the fourth.

The Bulls weren’t much better at six of 17 in the fourth. But consider this remarkable statistic and you can imagine what went on and how fortunate you were not to be there: The Bulls went more than nine minutes in the fourth quarter shooting one of 10 with seven turnovers and saw their lead go from eight to three. At that point with 35 seconds left in the game, Boozer completed a high pick and roll with Rose, slipping his screen for a layup and foul that effectively ended the game.

“We made it hard on ourselves because of the (21) turnovers,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.  “In the first quarter, we gave up 33 points and a high (shooting) percentage.  I was concerned about that.  In the second quarter, we changed our mindset and established the paint.  We got the ball into Carlos and I thought that helped us get control of the game.  Then in the second half we attacked and in the fourth quarter the defense was fantastic.”

Credit the Bulls because it was one of those did-what-they-had-to-do games, grinding out a win over a lesser opponent and not getting bushwhacked, somewhat common in Washington in previous years, before the Christmas Day game Saturday against the Knicks.

What the Bulls had to do was tone up their attitude and defense, which they did, especially after the Wizards led 33-29 after the first quarter and 50-44 at halftime.

I thought the key was the second half the way they played Kirk Hinrich, who had 19 points and nine assists, but didn’t have a field goal the last 22 minutes of the game.

“We definitely tried, but offensively we got a little stagnant,” said the popular former Bull. “I think we fought hard. As for me, I was cramping during the last couple of minutes.”

Hinrich was terrific the first half with 13 points, constantly running Rose into screens and attacking the rim or finding backcourt mate Nick Young for jumpers as the Bulls were lost in their rotations. Young had 22 points, 15 in the first half, and Hinrich played 43 minutes and clearly was tiring late with rookie star John Wall still out injured.

The Bulls generally make a habit of falling behind early, or, at least, not playing their best to start games, which has become something of an exercise for Thibodeau. He’s very good at making in game adjustments, and especially after halftime the Bulls began blitzing Hinrich more off the pick and roll.

That forced Hinrich into more so called east to west activity, though it helped that the Wizards big men, Andray Blatche, especially, and JaVale McGee are not particularly basketball savvy. Neither seems to know how to slip screens very well or dive to the basket, and Hinrich was trying to run the pick and roll more with wings.

Though what a nightmare it would have been for former Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro with Kirk going at Kurt.

The Bulls then began to spread out that pick and roll, but also did a good job recovering back. It also helps when guys miss shots, and Young conveniently went cold. Plus, Boozer doesn’t come out very far on shooters.

The Wizards did go small some with newcomer Rashard Lewis. But Lewis was cold, shooting four of 10 and zero for five on threes, and unable to take advantage of Boozer’s preference to stay in the paint. So the Bulls were able to better tighten the lane, allowing 20 inside points in the first half and just 12 in the second as the Wizards, not a particularly motivated group other than a few exceptions like Hinrich, began to settle for their jump shot.

“We started playing a lot of one-on-one dribbling and put ourselves in very difficult situations,” said Wizards coach Flip Saunders.

Saunders, who is an excellent tactician, didn’t help his team any, though, as he stayed with Blatche, having one of the more miserable games you’d ever see. Blatche watched loose balls bouncing in front of him like they were sunsets to be admired. He’d settle for jumpers, routinely having the ball knocked away and then stop to argue and mime upset and get a technical as the Wizards got three. He fumbled around a few times with feeble post moves, finishing three of 14 for seven points, yet Saunders played him the entire fourth quarter.

He looked last season like he was going to be a player, an athletic seven footer with a light touch. But you get the sense this season with the franchise going to Wall that Blatche much preferred being the best guy on just a bad team going nowhere.

As for the Bulls, they are keeping their heads above, now 2-1 without Noah as Thomas is becoming a vital pickup.

Thomas was the interior guy the Bulls went to in opening the game inside/outside and became the rock with a poor reserve effort other than Ronnie Brewer, who showed the spark—and 30 minutes played to 18 for Keith Bogans—and activity with eight rebounds to suggest he is at least the finisher.

Thomas defended Blatche and was a big part of making Blatche not want any part of this game, and Thomas also did a nice job helping and recovering in the lane. I also thought Omer Asik had a good stretch defensively to open the second quarter with four rebounds, two offensive, in just six minutes. But he never got back into the game, and Taj Gibson, though cleared to play, only played 31 seconds at the end of the half.

Thibodeau said he wasn’t comfortable with Gibson given he’d missed practices, though it did seem Thibodeau, who prefers veterans, liked the idea of riding Thomas and Boozer. It worked well, though Boozer played 46 minutes, and Thibodeau is not going to get away with that for long, though the Bulls now have two off days.

It’s a family unfriendly schedule like never before for the Bulls with the team gone Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the day after and then playing New Year’s Eve day and New Year’s day.

Just about all the Bulls players are single, so there isn’t a lot of family time with children, though Thomas has three small children. He said the children will come to be with him in New York. “Got to make sure Santa shows up,” Thomas said with a smile and visions of pillows stuffed in his Santa suit.

Some of the players, including Rose, will be spending the Christmas holiday with Noah and his family, though it was amusing as reporters before the Bulls last home game Tuesday heard Thibodeau playfully reminding Noah while it was gracious to be entertaining his teammates that everyone should have a quiet holiday.

I didn’t hear, but I assume Noah assured him that’s the way he lives his life.

So would Thomas have been enough, meanwhile, to have traded Noah for Carmelo Anthony?

Hey, where did that come from!

It’s way past that now as Noah has signed his extension and, effectively, is untradeable. And it’s hard to imagine that Thomas at 38 could carry you through a season. The Bulls hoped to save him for the playoffs, where he was excellent last season for the Bucks. And Thomas is no long term answer, so, yes, the Bulls needed to keep Noah.  But Thomas is a nice addition of toughness and veteran intelligence for now.

“He (Thibodeau) knew that we are both threats,” Boozer said of he and Thomas playing down the stretch with five fouls each.  “We have played in a lot of playoff games, played a lot of games where we had five fouls.  For us we know what to do, just play smart defense.  Even Kurt’s sixth foul was a smart play. He was able to make him miss one at the line.”

While the Bulls opened fast with a pair of Thomas jumpers and Luol Deng hitting a pair of threes, the Bulls lost Young several times for open shots and gave up a 15-7 Wizards edge in the last two and a half minutes of the quarter as Josh Howard, back from injury, made a pair of jumpers and the Bulls could not slow Hinrich. Washington led 33-29 after one even though the Bulls shot 58 percent.

The second quarter Bulls reserve group ground to a halt, scoring four points in the first five minutes, though in a harbinger of later events, the Wizards couldn’t take advantage and led 38-33 with seven minutes left in the half.

Rose came back in, though, and began to perform his magic, splitting double teams as he saw nothing but traps, blocking a pair of Hinrich drives even with two fouls, and finishing the half to bring the Bulls within 50-46 with a blowby of Hinrich and then a reverse past McGee flying by at the basket.

“We really just stepped up our intensity, making sure that we contest every shot,” said Rose.  “Kirk and Nick Young were making some shots, people with hands in their face.  It was just a tough game in the beginning, but we got a lead a little bit and we were safe with that.”

I happened to be talking with Knicks GM Donnie Walsh on the phone before the game about the upcoming Christmas game in New York. Walsh was back with the team after hip surgery, still walking with as cane, but doing better, especially with his team on the rise. We got to talking about Rose and Walsh said something interesting. He said he thought Rose could be the league’s Most Improved player.

You don’t usually get that after being an All-Star, but Walsh said Rose was making the toughest jump of all, going from being a star to one of the few elite players in the NBA, which is the most difficult step to take.

Rose’s shot was off Wednesday as he missed all six threes, so Hinrich, ever the smart defender, stayed under the screens to try to keep Rose on the outside. Rose still was able to get to the basket on several plays, but he went more to Boozer this time.

The Wizards also threw doubles at Boozer when they could, basically leaving Bogans and Thomas uncovered much of the time, and Boozer was excellent in both making the quick move and moving the ball.

“They double teamed me a little more, and I just tried to find the open guy,” said Boozer.  “I turned the ball over a little bit trying to get it to him, but for the most part I thought we did a good job of moving when they double teamed me and I thought I did a good job finding the open man.”

What I especially liked about Boozer was the way he was taking passes from Rose and going up quickly, not having to gather himself like many big guys do. It enabled Boozer to get some quick scores as the Bulls went on a 13-0 run midway through the third quarter behind Rose and Boozer and the turned up defense to take a 63-58 lead.

The Bulls nursed the lead to the end of the quarter behind Rose driving once through a forest of four Wizards for a layup and took a 73-70 lead into the fourth.

The Wizards began to melt down at that point with a pair of technicals as Boozer also scored on a nice fake handoff like he was a quarterback, curl and jumper for a score for an 81-73 Bulls lead with 10 minutes left in the fourth.

With 40 seconds left in the game, the Bulls would have just two more points, and still a lead before that Boozer pick and roll layup to wrap it up, an early gift of sorts. But one that took an awful lot of hard unwrapping to find.

Merry Christmas, the Bulls hope.

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