Misfiring Bulls beat Pistons in overtime


Dec 27

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It was just like old times Sunday in Detroit as the Bulls battled the Pistons to overtime, finally hanging on for a bruising 95-92 victory.

Except it wasn’t exactly Jordan and Isiah and Scottie and Rodman, but Mark Landsberger and Ollie Johnson and Leon Douglas and Ben Poquette.

This one was badly played, badly coached, probably badly written, watched by few and admired by none.

“Sometimes you have to win ugly,” said Carlos Boozer, who saved the Bulls with another big game, 31 points and 11 rebounds, Boozer averaging 29 points and 13.3 rebounds on the 2-1 road trip. “We’ll take a win any way we can get it.  In the NBA, nothing’s given to you. You have to earn it, especially on the road.  I take my hat off to my guys. We played a tough game.  I take my hat off to the Detroit Pistons.  They played a tough game.  We fought hard and got the win.”

Hard, perhaps. Well, not exactly.

Actually, both teams played pretty much like they had hats on, especially with brims over their eyes as the Bulls slogged along under 40 percent shooting behind Boozer and Derrick Rose, the latter with 23 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. The Pistons shot slightly better, though just 23 percent on threes and were dominated on the boards, 55-39.

Though when the Bulls needed just one more rebound to close out the Pistons after still another dreadful fourth quarter, this time shooting 33 percent and blowing a nine-point lead with under four minutes left, the Bulls lost three offensive rebounds and Charlie Villanueva tipped in the fourth shot to tie the game at 85.

The Bulls survived to go to 19-10 on two big Boozer scores in overtime, a long jumper after the Pistons scored the first overtime basket, and a pretty roll and lefty finish for a 93-90 lead with 40.8 seconds left after the Pistons trapped Rose on top of the floor.

The Pistons had a chance to take a lead while trailing 93-92 with six seconds left in overtime. But Rose got in front of Rodney Stuckey with solid defense on a drive from the left wing, and Stuckey fell back just enough for the runner to hit short. Rose went into the scrum of bodies, where he ventured for the career high in rebounds, and tipped the ball to Luol Deng.

Detroit fouled, and then fouled again on the inbounds. The Bulls ran a good inbounds play with Rose and Kurt Thomas screening across court above the free throw line and C.J. Watson finding Kyle Korver, their only reliable free throw shooter. The  Bulls shot 68 percent on free throws thanks only to making their last six. Korver made both for that 95-92 margin, and the Pistons had 3.9 seconds left, certainly time enough for a tie.

The Bulls looked to foul except if the ball receiver caught facing, which was the correct strategy by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Obviously, with so little time and a three-point lead you want to foul for two shots. But if a player catches facing and goes up even after a foul, referees will usually call a shooting foul.

The Pistons tried to get the ball to Tracy McGrady, who had a big fourth quarter with 13 points to bring the Pistons back but was scoreless in the overtime and looking gassed. So where was Ben Gordon, who hadn’t played since getting a fourth foul with 8:28 left in the third quarter? The Bulls had to be grateful because that was Ben’s kind of game to win.

But Deng, who had just 10 points on four of 15 shooting and was switched onto McGrady for defense late in the fourth to slow him down, pinned McGrady inside, where he couldn’t get open for the shot. So Villanueva bolted for the three point line with Kurt Thomas trailing. Thomas avoided running into Villanueva, who missed wide right to end the game.

“It was actually designed for T-Mac,” said Villanueva, ‘but they defended it pretty well. I thought I had a clear look. I just missed the shot. We didn’t really have a second option. Mac was our first option and they took that away.”

And thus the Bulls escaped after what would have been a disastrous holiday weekend after the collapse and loss in New York on Christmas Day.

“We’ll take it,” said a relieved Thibodeau, who would have had himself to blame as well. “This was a hard fought game and we hung in there in the end. I thought our rebounding was great all night until that last one (at the end of regulation). It was the most important one, but we didn’t come up with it. But the thing I liked is we didn’t hang our heads in overtime (Thibodeau, neither). We kept fighting and did what we did to have to get the win.”

That “last one” Thibodeau referred to was the brutal sequence as the Bulls were collapsing and scoring just two free throws in the last 3:56 after Rose appeared to clinch the game as he came from the right wing defending Stuckey to rebound a McGrady baseline miss over Greg Monroe and Jason Maxiell and bolt out on a one man fast break.

Rose blew past Stuckey and climbed Richard Hamilton’s back to score the layup and give the Bulls that 83-74 lead with just under four minutes left. With this Pistons team, you wouldn’t think they could score nine more points.

Rose’s shot had deserted him on this trip, going zero for 11 on threes, which made his scoring all the more remarkable as he basically had to drive. And still could.

But McGrady hit a three—he still holds the ball too much and stops everything—Tayshaun Prince followed in his own miss when Boozer and Taj Gibson mistimed their jumps for the rebound, and then after Rose missed a jumper, the Pistons had the ball with 18.4 seconds left trailing 85-83.

It was then that Thibodeau apparently out thought himself. They used to do this when he was in Boston, putting Brian Scalabrine in to bother the inbounder, sometimes putting two active defenders on the inbounder. So Thibodeau substituted Scalabrine for Kurt Thomas.

McGrady shot a jumper as Taj Gibson switched onto him. It missed and bounced long with Villanueva tipping it out to Stuckey. Stuckey passed crosscourt to an open Hamilton in the left corner. Ronnie Brewer made a great recovery to make Hamilton shoot higher and it missed, but Prince got inside Scalabrine and tipped the ball to Hamilton, who missed again. It bounced off to Villanueva, who tipped the ball in to tie the game at 85 with six tenths of a second left as the Bulls had no real size under the basket with both Thomas and Boozer off the floor.

Thibodeau was furious and was screaming at Scalabrine, though he shouldn’t have been in the game after not playing until that point.

“We had been doing a great job rebounding the ball all night, but then we couldn’t grab the biggest one of the night. It was a scramble play,” said Thibodeau said afterward as he is very good at regaining his calm quickly. “You just got to find a way to come up with it, but I have no complaints. We played hard the whole game. Things weren’t going our way. We weren’t shooting well, but we just kept grinding. I thought our defense was good, I thought our rebounding was good. I thought it was a good win for us, a very good win for us.”

Much better than a bad loss, of course.

It would have been, though they only ask what happened, not how, eh?

Of course, what it continues to show is how much the Bulls miss Joakim Noah even as they dominated on the boards. Noah, who is out until late February, stayed back in New York with his family, though he’ll travel most of the time with the team.

It also showed that as long as Noah is out most every game is going to be a challenge, especially if Deng cannot have big scoring games, which has never been his specialty, especially with Boozer now occupying post space.

“Lu didn’t have a good shooting night, but he was out there fighting, doing a lot of good things for us,” said Thibodeau.

Though Rose can get his 20 or so points seemingly anytime and Boozer has been having big scoring games with his variety of fallaways and lean ins and spins, it seems Thibodeau has gone away from using Korver, who got just three shots Sunday and is averaging fewer than five shots per game the last five games.

Korver has to be involved more. But the Bulls rarely run his baseline screens lately and Korver isn’t a player to create for himself off the dribble. Whereas the offense functioned beautifully up to a week or so ago with considerable movement and weak side action, it seems to have slowed now with Rose and Boozer mostly playing two man games.

Boozer is a good passer and found Brewer for a big time cut when Hamilton dropped off to double. Brewer raised his hand and darted to the basket for the layup to give the Bulls the lead at 89-88 two minutes into overtime, a lead they finally would not give up.

The Bulls would stiffen then, forcing Prince into three consecutive turnovers, one when Deng defended him well and Prince forced a pass Boozer picked off and then when Thomas got Prince on a switch but slapped the ball away as Prince was trying to drive past him.

“Kurt Thomas helps us a great deal on the defensive side of the ball,” said Boozer as Thomas had eight rebounds.  “I think we’re continually improving in that area.”

But how about these fourth quarters the last three games: 17 against the Pistons, 12 against the Knicks and 14 against the Wizards. The Bulls would have lost all three if two of the teams were not a combined 17-41.

If, if, if.

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, danderoo, what a fine Christmas it would be.

Or so went the old proverb popularized by the late quarterback and football announcer Don Meredith, and, in the end, the Bulls did have a successful Christmas with a 2-1 road trip and now a five and a half game lead in the Central Division.

It could be worse, a lot worse.

This was one that didn’t look like it should be a problem with a dysfunctional Pistons team with Hamilton now coming off the bench.

The Bulls pounded it in to Boozer to open the game against the ghost of Ben Wallace present.

The one time Bad Boy is just bad these days, hanging on with a franchise in transition as my favorite play was when they actually threw it to Ben on a pick and roll and he hit the bottom of the rim trying to go up.

Boozer had 13 points and seven rebounds in the first quarter and the Bulls had a 17-4 rebounding edge, 8-0 on the offensive boards. Boozer was simply punishing Wallace and the Pistons went right to their one-on-one If-I-get-it-I’m-shooting-it offense.

The Bulls got a 23-15 lead after one quarter and looked like they were going to dominate with size as Omer Asik came in to open the second quarter and scored on a pair of offensive rebounds, the second hanging on the rim after dunking on Maxell and Monroe. The Bulls bench exploded in support, but as the Pistons went small the Bulls fell into their trap and stopped pounding the ball inside.

It would come back to almost sink the Bulls down the stretch even with Boozer’s huge numbers. Thibodeau has had limited trust in his bench of late and continues to ride Rose and Boozer pretty hard. And though Rose had another high turnovers game with six, he is facing a collapsing defense as his shot isn’t there and defenses aren’t respecting the Bulls perimeter. It’s a wonder teams don’t play more zone against the Bulls the way they’ve played lately.

Rose is asked to do most everything. Remember, Magic Johnson was among the league leaders in turnovers all of his career, even leading the league at times and averaging about four for his career. When you are called on to make all the plays it happens.

“Derrick helped up with his rebounding, his defense, his playmaking,  everything,” said Thibodeau. “When they were doubling Carlos in the post, we spread the floor and Derrick did some things that made them take away that second guy.”

The Bulls led 40-34 at halftime as the game began to grind down with Rose coming up with another of those terrific one man breaks late in the second as he ran by Villanueva and Gordon.

It looked like the Bulls might take control in the third quarter as the much maligned Keith Bogans hit a pair of big threes on Rose passes to give the Bulls a 58-47 lead with six minutes left in the period.

Thibodeau stayed with his rotation and went back to Brewer, and it looked like the game was in control as Deng hit a three and Gibson scored on a spinning layup lefthanded as the Bulls closed the third ahead 68-57.

Thibodeau is good at trying to get guys going, and he went right back to Gibson to open the fourth, though Gibson couldn’t produce and McGrady started hitting jumpers and Detroit was within 68-63 four minutes into the fourth.

Though Thibodeau praised Gibson after the game—“I thought (he)  was high energy, he had some shots that were really good shots and didn’t fall for him, but I thought his rebounding and defense was excellent.”—Gibson has regressed this season. He had a good start and huge games to open the Western trip in Dallas and L.A. But after hurting his ankle in practice and missing the Suns game, Gibson scored in double figures in three of the next 11 games he played before a concussion. He then missed a game and played a few seconds in the next, and has combined for nine points the last two, though he had nine rebounds Sunday and said he has no after effects. Still, he’s added almost no offense with Noah out and is averaging just 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in December.

He’s another place the Bulls need to go for offense with Noah out but have failed to.

C.J. Watson floated in a three just before Rose returned with the Bulls then ahead 75-68 midway through the fourth quarter, and the Bulls would extend their lead to 83-74 on that Rose rebound, runout and riposte.

But the Pistons crowded Rose into a miss on a drive and turnover, and Rose tried to end it with a late jumper that went short and gave the Pistons that last chance in regulation, which bounced their way.

At least for a little while. So it was a fairly merry Christmas, after all.

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