Bulls welcome New Year disposing of Nets


Dec 31

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When the Bulls were 45
It was very good year
It was a year for MVP point guards
Who did all they would
So that Booz and the others could
Time to start coming alive
When they were 45

I assume Frank Sinatra, the great singer from New Jersey, is rolling around in his grave after that one.

Well, maybe not as that 90-81 Bulls victory Friday, New Year’s Eve, over the New Jersey Nets hardly disturbed anyone, still another torpid affair of poor shooting—neither team above 40 percent—and leisurely pace.

“A win is a win,” said Derrick Rose, who had 19 points and nine assists and has that post game comment now tattooed to his forehead (well, he could). “It was an ugly game but we got the job done. I know tomorrow is going to be different.”

Yes, the fightin’ Cavs without LeBron should bring it out of you.

It’s OK, really, because the Bulls raised their record to 21-10, a 55-win pace playing basically all season without either Carlos Boozer, who led the team with 20 points and 15 rebounds, or Joakim Noah, who took a break from cheering from the bench to spend a quarter with the broadcasting team of Neil Funk and Bill Wennington.

It was the most energetic anyone on the Bulls seemed in yet another game mired in halfcourt, mud ball with the Bulls rarely running, which is their best way of scoring with the flash of lightning quick Rose, generally swifter than an arrow from the Tartar’s bow. But without Noah and with the coach’s philosophy of playing inside-outside, the Bulls are crawling more into the half court to seek out Carlos Boozer rather than pushing the ball despite the coach’s instructions to seek both. It also doesn’t help without Noah that the Bulls are beginning to get outrebounded, 46-43 Friday. No rebounds=no rings, and many fewer fast breaks.

The Bulls with Noah sitting in on the third quarter TV color in his own colorful way, though he wasn’t quite dressed for it, outscored the Nets 24-19 in that quarter to get some separation from a 46-44 halftime lead. Though there were no known plans for Noah and Funk to party New Year’s Eve, clearly as much as Noah would like to get some of his swag back from partying with the FunkMaster.

Yes, it was fun for the Bulls because winning is fun, and the Bulls have been doing plenty of it lately, their 12th win in the last 14.

They don’t ask you how? Just how many, right?

At this lethargic pace this should not continue much longer, though 12 of the 16 games in January before the Bulls head out on their next long Western Conference are against teams with losing records. So with a seven game lead in the Central Division, the Bulls could do well for themselves in gaining traction on a top four first round playoff seed until Noah is due back in late February from thumb surgery.

Yes, things could be worse, and they have been, like a year ago as the Bulls were finishing December 2009 with a 13-17 record, with coach Vinny Del Negro answering daily questions about his job status, after losing in December to the then 1-19 Nets, blowing a 35-point lead at home and losing to the Sacramento Kings, getting blown out by 32 at home by the Toronto Raptors, whose point guard was tying his shoe on one possession with the ball while the Bulls defenders admired his slip knot.

It was a season, and more, that seemed to be tied in knots, though a year later despite the injuries and the relatively uninspired play, at least of late, the Bulls have become a threat, if not quite a force, in the NBA.

“We’ll take the win,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “You have to win different ways. We are struggling offensively. Our defense was good. I did not like our rebounding and New Jersey played extremely well. They played hard. I thought in the second half we did some good things.”

And it turned out to be just enough as Luol Deng added 19 points and eight rebounds, including 10 points in the third.

The Bulls started fast for a change, trying Deng to start as it’s vital to get him going early. He did have nine points in the first quarter. But Boozer got in foul trouble with a pair halfway through the first with sub Taj Gibson no longer an offensive threat as he seems not to have much called for him and Kurt Thomas having difficulty with center Brook Lopez.

Lopez had nine points in the quarter and going at Thomas late in the first rallied the Nets, who had lost their past three by an average of 17, to within 23-21 after the first quarter.

With Boozer’s early foul trouble, Thibodeau changed the rotation to play Boozer the entire second quarter and with he and Omer Asik on the boards, the Bulls went ahead 39-28 midway through the second. But Thibodeau doesn’t seem to trust Asik for long stretches, and the Bulls defense let down against Stephen Graham and Travis Outlaw as the Nets went small and caught Boozer in several mismatches. That enabled the Nets to pull within 46-44 at halftime as the Bulls had the lead only thanks to Ronnie Brewer’s first three of the season in just his third attempt.

The Bulls went to Deng again to open the third and he responded with two straight jumpers, and later when Boozer converted a nice side pick and roll pass from Rose for a score and Rose picked up a loose ball on the baseline and put it back with two hands, the Bulls were back in control ahead 62-52 with five minutes left in the third after a Deng three.

Thibodeau wants the Bulls to rebound and push the ball, sort of in one man breaks when they don’t have a turnover or long rebound. But they seem so determined to go into postups in the halfcourt the break and easy scores seems to have disappeared without Noah’s push. It’s why the game looks so different now with Noah compared to without Boozer.

“Lu got us going to start the third,” said Thibodeau. “He was moving without the ball and got some open looks and got our guys going again. Like I’ve said all year, he’s provided us what we need, whether it’s defense, rebounding, scoring or passing. He is an all around player. He is an unselfish player and a guy you can count on.”

Also, Brewer had 10 points off the bench, even hitting a three as the Bulls led 70-63 after the third.

“They were great,” Thibodeau said of Brewer and Kyle Korver off the bench combining for 19 points and five assists. “The ball was moving and we were getting good shots. We were not making shots, but credit their defense. They were also changing defenses on us. I thought we executed our zone offense (early in the fourth as the Nets were on a 10-5 run) fairly well. Every time we got a lead, we got a little loose and they fought back. I would have liked to get the ball in the paint a little more tonight.”

A quick word on Brewer.

He is the starting shooting guard.

I know Keith Bogans starts as Thibodeau doesn’t like to change lineups and make it look like someone is demoted or change things when the team is doing well. But Brewer has been playing the so called starter’s minutes at shooting guard with Korver doing the Mariano Rivera–though I prefer Luis Arroyo–closer for offense. So there’s not such a desperate need now for a new shooting guard. Brewer is providing a nice lift with good mid range shooting and good effort and Korver is a tough outside threat.

And, heck, Bogans even got two free throws on a rare drive early in the first quarter.

Free Keith Bogans!

As Thibodeau notes, it’s working for now.

And then, as it is with all top teams, their main guys take over. Boozer and Rose carried the Bulls the last half of the fourth after the Nets pulled within 75-73 with just under seven minutes left in the game.

Thibodeau gave Rose a brief look with C.J. Watson so Rose could play off the ball at times and attack from the wing without the defense trapping him so quickly. But Thibodeau didn’t stay with that long, and after a slow start to the fourth replaced Watson with Rose.

The Nets’ zone was effective early in the fourth as the Bulls failed to get to the middle or move the ball much, though they eventually forced the Nets out of it with Boozer and Rose attacking and getting to the free throw line. Though the Nets had gotten back within a pair by then. But the Bulls defense remained strong even without Noah with mostly good rotation to the ball, though it helped Sasha Vujacic seems to have no idea of a good shot and missed five of six bombs in the fourth and the Bulls escaped on a day they seemed they’d rather be most anywhere else.

“It was a brave effort by our team tonight,” said 9-24 Nets coach Avery Johnson, who is finding life tougher with Kris Humphries at power forward instead of Dirk Nowitzki. “Defensively, we played good. Anytime you can come in here and hold Derrick Rose to 5-for-16 shooting and out rebound a team like the Bulls you are playing well. Offense has been our Achilles heel all year. For us to win, Devin (Harris, with 10 points and nine assists) has to score. It would have been nice if he could have gotten 20 out there tonight. Our guys battled out there tonight, the game was very physical. I thought we played Boozer very tough inside and just gave a good effort. We just couldn’t get it into the basket at the other end.”

Yes, the opposition hasn’t exactly been the ’86 Celtics and ’72 Lakers with a week of the Central, but they do have NBA players and actual wins. And any of them, as evidenced by a one basket difference midway through the fourth, could have won.

But the Bulls have consistently done a good job of tightening their defense, closing better on shooters down the stretch and cutting off second chance opportunities after the Nets had 11 to that point. But they got just one more the last six minutes as Boozer got a nice inside pass from Kyle Korver for a score and three point play to put the Bulls up five with 5:41 left. Then Boozer repaid the favor with an inside assist to Kurt Thomas for a basket and 84-77 lead.

Finally, the offense began to churn out some efficiency as Boozer got a dunk off a tough baseline pass from Korver, who added nine points, and then Korver effectively closed it out against a straining, jump shooting and missing Nets team with a 20 footer off the elbow on a pass from Rose for an 11-point lead with 1:47 left, leaving hardly enough time for the 28th ranked defense to do much more.

And so the Bulls move into 2011 and the team can enjoy a cup of kindness for auld lang syne, whatever that means. Though I assume Noah has his out of a larger container.

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