Bulls clipped by Vinny and his cast


Dec 19

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Well, that didn’t go so well.

No, not Derrick Rose missing the second of two free throws with 0.8 left Saturday that enabled the Los Angeles Clippers in Vinny Del Negro’s return to escape with a 100-99 win over the Bulls and end the Bulls’ seven-game winning streak.

“I thought I was going to hit them,” Rose said quietly after taking an unusually long time dressing after the game.  “That’s basketball.  I hope I get put in that position again.  I know I’m not going to miss.  I’ve got to look past this as a player. They felt good.  If I get put in that position again, I’ll knock them down.”

Look, if not for Rose, especially in the fourth quarter after the Clippers continued to hold off the Bulls with an 86-78 lead with about nine minutes left, Rose pretty much took it upon himself to keep the Bulls in with a succession of drives against the Clippers’ constant traps and laser passes for easy scores.

No, this was the Bulls’ first game without Joakim Noah, who will be out about two months after thumb surgery. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau started Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson up front along with regular Luol Deng, and I thought it was the right move.

We both were wrong.

“The big problem was the lack of intensity,” said Thibodeau of the Bulls falling behind 20-11 halfway through the first quarter.  “So it is hard to judge whether it was lack of size, which it may have been.  If we don’t bring the right intensity to start the game and don’t have an edge to us… We have to be a defensive team first and a rebounding team.  Otherwise we are just trading baskets.  That is not going to work for us.”

It’s also somewhat difficult to judge because Taj Gibson played just under nine minutes after sustaining a concussion early in the third quarter and leaving when he got tangled up with Boozer on a rebound and fell backward and hit his head as he was falling on the knee of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan.

Gibson, who should be available to play Tuesday against the 76ers, however, still was a bit woozy after the game. He sat in Joakim Noah’s locker area to talk with reporters, leaving everyone guessing whether he knew where he was. He reminded me a bit of the boxer who got knocked down and when he was revived said, “Wasn’t I wearing a hat when I came in here?”

“I don’t remember what happened,” Gibson admitted about his fall, after which he lay holding the back of his head. “All I remember is sitting in the training room.  There’s just a little throbbing now.”

The headache earlier was another kind of problem.

It was Clippers’ rookie star Blake Griffin playing a number on Gibson’s head, figuratively, for sure, as with the leaping 6′-10″ Griffin and 6′-11″ Jordan going at Gibson and Boozer, the Bulls simply were overwhelmed to open the game.

Griffin, who had 29 points and 12 rebounds and several crushing lobs on passes from Baron Davis, went right at Gibson, scoring 10 in the first quarter, signaling to Davis to lob the ball on almost every possession. It was an unusual matchup as few players jump like Griffin, who already is the top highlight attraction of the season, and there was no way Boozer was going to deal with him. Especially as Boozer supplied the Bulls offense to open and helped the Bulls take a 31-28 lead after one quarter with 11 in the quarter as he splashed in short jumpers on the baseline and at the elbow over Jordan and even finished on a nice three/four pick and roll with Deng.

But Gibson was out with two fouls less than five minutes in, and then lasted 26 seconds in the second quarter before he got his third foul and had to sit again. It was four minutes into the second half before he went out for the night with the concussion.

And it’s not like the NBA doesn’t care, but Gibson said this was his first ever concussion and it wasn’t deemed serious based on the neurological testing Gibson received afterward. He’ll get rest for a few days and then it will be determined if he can play Tuesday.

But if he does, I’d suggest he go back to the second unit, both to change the look—and size—of the starters and put Gibson back in position to provide that scoring and rebounding boost off the bench, which the Bulls were lacking Saturday as they fell to 16-9.

“Teams are going to try to go big against us, especially when we have our three (Deng) at four,” agreed Rose, who finished the game with 34 points, eight assists and six rebounds. “We’ve got to know that as  a team and all five rebound or give help when they go in the post and go for the rebound or make sure the guy sees a double team.”

It was worth a try with the idea that you put your best players on the floor.

But I’d say the Bulls have to start Omer Asik now.

No, he’s not going to score, but they can score enough. He’s got size and is good on defense. He’s probably the Bulls best help defender, and though on offense he won’t score much, he is a good screener and should be able to help facilitate the offense.

The main reason is to get his size at seven feet in the game. He has foul problems, but, overall, I thought Kurt Thomas was adequate and once the Bulls had Asik or Thomas on Griffin, the Rookie of the Year leader was a bit more limited, especially with the lob.

“We were searching,” conceded Thibodeau.  “I was confident in Kurt Thomas’ low post defense.  We wanted to give Griffin a different look.  He was having his way with us.  We were just so flat. We were looking for any kind of a spark.  I thought Kurt did a good job for us.” 

Still, the Bulls were outrebounded, though just on that last missed free throw, 38-37. The Bulls are second in the league in rebounding, though mostly because of Noah as Boozer had just four Saturday. The improving Clippers, now 7-21, are ranked fifth in rebounding.

It was a particularly sweet victory for Del Negro, who was fired by the Bulls last spring after two seasons.

“All ‘W’s are great,” said Del Negro. “Yes, this one was special because it’s Chicago, probably for me coaching these last two years, but it’s for the players. We got out in transition early and then the guys just gutted it out in the end.” 

Griffin said Del Negro thanked the team after the game and called the win “a great present.”

The game completed a 2-1 Eastern Conference road trip for the Clippers, who had lost their last 15 road games since last March before winning in Detroit Friday. The Clippers then headed home after Saturday’s game, though indications were Del Negro wouldn’t be needing the team plane. Yes, he could probably float all the way home after this one.

Del Negro didn’t express any particular bitterness, though he said before the game he was proud of what the team accomplished at a time it was being broken up for free agency. But no matter what any of these coaches or players say, they love to come back and win where they let them go.

Yet, the Clippers almost fumbled this one away after leading 99-91 when Davis got Thomas on a switch and drove for a score with 90 seconds left. The advance scouts for the NBA teams sit at the media table, and as Davis scored one said, “Ball game!” and began to pack up. In fact, so had a good portion of the home crowd.

But with Rose you never are out of anything, it would seem.

Having witnessed up close what Rose can do, Del Negro threw everything in their defense at Rose with traps, blitzes on the pick and roll, doubles and a wall of defenders behind. Still, Rose willed himself through the double several times, even as it included the muscular Griffin, and often would find Griffin’s man, usually Boozer, who ended with 25 points.

So Rose whipped a fast ball to Boozer, who missed, grabbed the rebound and went up again to make it 99-93. The Bulls then fouled Griffin, who made one of two for a 100-93 lead with 42.5 seconds left.

All the Clippers had to do to win was commit a couple of 24-second violations.

“It wasn’t pretty at the end, but we’ll take it,” said Del Negro.

Rose got the inbounds pass out of a timeout and gave a surprised second look briefly as a huge lane opened down the middle for him. He took off, crashing into Jordan at the basket, but hanging on to score and was fouled, making it to bring the Bulls within 100-96 with 38.3 seconds left.

So maybe?

The Clippers took their final timeout, and still couldn’t get the ball in against Brian Scalabrine, jumping around, back peddling and lurching as if he were trying to catch bubbles. And it worked. Luol Deng got a hand on the late pitch in as the five-second count was expiring and Scalabrine got on the floor for the ball and called timeout.

Coming out of the timeout, all Clippers eyes were on Rose, and as Griffin stepped out to help, Rose found Boozer for the layup to bring the Bulls within 100-98 with 31.2 seconds left.

Now, there was plenty of time for defense and a last shot.

Davis, who was shockingly interested in playing and had 16 points and seven assists, held onto the ball, finally going with 10 seconds left and missing the drive. The Bulls were now out of timeouts and Rose hustled the ball up, but it was kicked out of bounds off his dribble. He got the ball in again with six seconds left and took off for the basket.

It seemed every Clippers player came at him including Benoit Benjamin. Rose got past Davis and Griffin, and Rasual Butler came sprinting the baseline and crashing into Rose as Rose tried a reverse at the basket. Yes, foul.

Rose has been terrific in these situations, especially this season, and he swished the first. But the second came out a little quick and low and hit the front rim, ending the game with the rebound to the Clippers as Rose turned with an exasperated look and walked slowly to the locker room.

“Things like this are gonna happen. I think this is the first miss like this since high school. You hit them, that way as a player it looks good on your resume. It brought my resume back down,” Rose said with a mournful laugh.

No one could blame Rose, and no one would given the game he had once again.

It was Rose rallying the Bulls once again late in that first quarter as he hit three of six threes with his shot again terrific. Though as he drove late in the first, yes, he did get the call, but he got plastered to the basket stanchion by Craig Smith, the first of several brutal hits Rose would take.

“He doesn’t shy away,” noted Thibodeau. “He continues to drive with a lot of force.”

But as Rose begins to truly dominate offensively, he also is becoming more and more a target, and while retaliation is frowned on in the NBA—and fined—it seems time that someone steps up to protect Rose’s back, or at least get some technical fouls making a point of what is happening.

Rose, of course, never says anything and just picks himself up and continues to make terrific plays.

The Bulls became more mindful of Griffin to open the second quarter, but gave less attention to the wings in the corners and Butler hit three three pointers to send the Bulls into a quick timeout—“Who’s got that guy!”—and the Clippers ahead 49-40 on the way to a 61-53 halftime lead.

The Bulls were hanging in with hustle on offensive rebounds, but with the Clippers shooting 61 percent in the first half Thibodeau was not a happy competitor.

“I did not like any aspect of out defense,” said Thibodeau.  “We did not come out with the right intensity at the start of the game.  They got going.  They are a tough team.  They are a talented team.  They played extremely well.  They got off to a good start:  28 in the first, 33 in the second. You let a team like that to get that confidence early, they are hard to slow down.  Then they were getting to the line.  That limited us in terms of running.  We cannot play like that. In this league, you have to come ready to play every night.  If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble.  We came out with the wrong mindset.  We did not establish ourselves defensively, rebounding.  We took a lot of short cuts and a lot of reaching.  Do that you are not going to win.”

Even with losing Gibson and Noah out, the Bulls began to grab hold of the game with Rose fouled on a three pointer and then after Rose blocked a Davis shot, Rose ran out for a fast break with Griffin waiting. Rose went right at Griffin, then Rose extended his hand with the ball far to his right out of Griffin’s reach and then laid it in to get the Bulls within 77-71 late in the third quarter. And then when the Clippers went back up 10, Rose closed the third with a three pointer.

But without Noah’s rebounding, hustle and intangibles like his communication on defense, the Bulls margin for error is slim. Other than Deng with a strong game of 17 points and eight rebounds in 46 minutes as he almost never sits down now, the next highest scoring Bulls was Ronnie Brewer with six. The Clippers reserves had a 33-20 scoring edge.

“Nine times out of ten, D. Rose makes that shot,” said Boozer.  “We’ll live with him shooting free throws to tie the ballgame up all day long.  He’s already won so many games for us. The game was not lost at the free throw line. We had chances to get stops.  They did a great job of isolating our guys and playing one on one.  Baron Davis is one of the best one on one players in the game.  You never know what you’re going to get with him, but we got his best tonight.”

Frankly, I don’t think it’s likely the Bulls will add a big man, at least not yet. It’s difficult to see where they’d get one who’d be better than Thomas, who is their fourth big man. So assuming Gibson is OK, I could see the Bulls going back with size as Asik had six rebounds in almost 22 minutes, a pair of assists and a block. The Bulls just need to stop him jumping at pump fakes. He’s big enough to just stand there and bother shots.

But this is a process now, and at least the Clippers were a good lesson to start. Because now it’s clear it’s not going to be so easy. No matter the opponent.

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