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Bulls beat their Wisconsin rival
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 25
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This kind of season for the Bulls, somewhat unexpected at 31-14 given the serious injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, makes basketball fun. And the Bulls were enjoying themselves after Monday’s 92-83 United Center win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Derrick Rose, who had 21 points and 10 assists, was laughing that he knew people older than teammate Kurt Thomas, but “definitely not (who are) playing.”
“My brothers are younger than him and they’re retired already,” Rose said of the 38-year-old veteran who led the Bulls with 22 points. “I’m mad he’s not a little younger so I can play with him more (years). So I’ll cherish the times playing with him.”
Carlos Boozer, who added 14 points and nine rebounds as he returns from an ankle injury, loved that the Bulls had 25 assists on 32 field goals, 15 assists on the first 16 scores as the Bulls took a 48-32 halftime lead.
“A game where you have 25 assists, you can see how unselfish we are,” said Boozer. “And we root for one another. Like OG (Boozer’s nickname for Thomas). He had 22 points. Here’s a guy who I don’t think has scored 20 points in 10 years, and everyone is happy for him.”
Actually, Thomas, who also had nine rebounds and five assists and joked if his teammates shot better, he’d had a chance for a triple-double, last went into the 20s with the Knicks in 2005.
“The shot was there,” said Thomas, who was popping off the pick and roll with Rose as the Bucks sent two and three defenders to Rose. “The way Milwaukee was playing defense tonight, they were really playing off of me. I knocked down the first two or three shots (16 first half points) and the shot was there so I kept firing away.”
But, no, Thomas said, he knew the crowd’s MVP chant wasn’t for him.
As Chuckles the Clown used to say, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
Yes, it’s fun when you’re winning, and the Bulls continue to do so, starting to move solidly into third in the Eastern Conference. They now trail Miami for second by a half game and are just three games behind the Celtics, who have two Western Conference road trips in the next month. The Bulls moved two games ahead of fifth place Orlando, which is in the United Center Friday as the Bulls get to take a breath with a three day break after 15 games in the last 25 days with two sets of four in five nights, a brutal stretch in the NBA. Yet, the Bulls came through 11-4 and overall have won 21 of their last 27.
But this is a not a team about to relax as it went 10-0 in the Central Division with a massive 13-game lead over second place Indiana, the largest division lead in the Association. It wasn’t exactly payback to Wisconsin for Sunday’s Green Bay win, but it was something.
“Our focus has to be on every game,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I won’t say it is not important (division title), but in the grand scheme of things you are look at your place in the conference and the league. We have a number of things that we need to clean up and improve upon.”
No, it wasn’t perfect, which is why Thibodeau never truly will be satisfied. He believes you can get a good shot every time and make it and stop the opponent. So until the Bulls win 100-0, I suspect we’ll hear about the need to play 48 minutes and having work to do, yadda, yadda, yadda.
But this Bulls team seems fine with all that. They repeat the Thibodeau mantra of improving regularly and seem unmoved by their record.
“We keep coming back to being up by a lot and then giving it back,” said Luol Deng of the Bulls 20-point third quarter lead melting to seven with 4:32 left in the game. “We’ve got to work on that.”
But it never got closer than that as the Bulls defense remained robust.
The Bulls pestered Keyon Dooling into a long, three point miss and then Luc Mbah a Moute into another long jumper when the Bucks had a chance to make it a scare.
Boozer then got inside and was fouled, making one free throw, and the Bulls scored on their next three possessions to take a 90-79 lead with 90 seconds left and avert any real threat.
“(Rose) did a great job with the pick and roll,” said Thibodeau. “Kurt had it going. Being ready to play and he did a great job for us, especially the way he stepped in.”
No, it wasn’t picture perfect. The Bulls shot just 39.5 percent as their perimeter shooting remains a weakness. They failed to score 100 points for the 12th consecutive game and 17th in the last 19. The Bucks did shoot 46.1 percent as Chris Douglas-Roberts got off for 30 points, early against Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer and then in the fourth quarter against Deng as Thibodeau even gave Rose a shot at him late.
“We had to double team him,” Rose said of his close friend from college. “Toward end of the game, coach tends to put me on two guards. I don’t know why. It’s a challenge, why you love this game. why I play. Every night playing against the best in world so you have to bring your best game every night.”
But this is a whole greater than the sum of its parts system for the Bulls, whose defense continues to rank at the top of the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage, and overall defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions).
And that without a player who ever has been an all-league defender.
“We trust in each other,” said Deng. We keep saying before practice, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do.’ If I’m supposed to help and my guy (beats me), I’m expecting someone else to pick him up. I believe with the way we play defense you can have guys not known for defense and you won’t even know. We’re in position to help each other. If you beat us you’re going to beat us with contested shots. We’re going to take the paint away and take those easy baskets away.”
The Bulls have done that brilliantly under Thibodeau, and it was a contrast to the Bucks, who under Scott Skiles generally are known for their defensive play.
But the Bulls’ ball movement and unselfish play, the best it’s been in weeks, was too much for the Bucks to grasp. In trying to thwart Rose, which is every opponents’ game plan, the Bucks left Thomas open. And when they didn’t close or bit on his pump fakes and flew by, Thomas drained shot after shot to exasperate Skiles and his team, now a disappointing 16-26 as Brandon Jennings, John Salmons and Drew Gooden didn’t play.
Rose shot five of 16 and is 22 of 64 the last three games. He offered, actually, matter of fact after the game, his back has been bothering him and should be fine with the three days’ off. Though then comes Dwight Howard, who body slammed him twice last season.
“I thought we did a very respectable job on Rose, Deng and Boozer,” said Skiles. “We were just slow getting back to cover Kurt. Fell for his pump fakes a little too much. No matter who was on him, we just didn’t get back to him quick enough. Our weak side wasn’t active enough. Kurt generally does not shoot a contested shots. He’s a pretty smart player. If you get back to him and close to him, he’ll give it up and play the weak side of the floor. In the first half, he was open and we weren’t quick enough getting back to him. In the second, he still hit some contested shots.”
It was hardly the game plan, which generally is a lot of Rose, and Rose did make it all possible given the defensive attention. But Thomas responded like he certainly never has as a Bull with his previous high 12 points. And Monday in a game high 43 minutes and 39 seconds played, also with a pair of blocks. What is this guy eating?
“I’ve been known as the guy who can hit that shot my whole career,” said Thomas. “The last couple of years my shots have been down. I just try to be a team player. If the shot is there, take it. If not, swing the ball and try to find one of my teammates if he’s open or set a pick to get him open. But when the shot is there, I have confidence that I can make it. My teammates just kept finding me. They kept telling me to shoot the ball.”
The Bucks actually got the early edge going to center Andrew Bogut, who has had a rough season with the after effects of a serious right elbow injury last season. It still isn’t quite healed and the elbow is tough for him to bend. He had 18 rebounds, but just eight points. So teams play Bogut mostly to his left hand now and he’s been less effective as he tries to go that way almost all the time.
He got a few to go early against Thomas as the Bucks took their biggest lead of the game at 14-9. But Rose quickly figured out the Bucks defense against him, which is a Skiles staple. Skiles always had a good plan when he coached the Bulls against players like Dwyane Wade by creating a so called wall of defenders. The idea is to have the big guys stay with the guard in the pick and roll and not give him a view toward the rim after the screen. The Bucks loaded up as Rose went over the screen, but Thomas simply stepped back for the free throw line jumper or moved the ball as Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson hit threes in a 16-2 late second quarter run that basically broke open the game.
“The biggest thing coach was talking to us (about) was moving the ball,” said Rose. “It was (assistant) Ron Adams telling us in the first half of season, the first 10, 15 games we were moving the ball and we kind of slipped. Tonight we were trying to do that and get back to our old selves, moving the ball, keeping people on their heels.”
So Rose would move right over a screen, the defense would float with him and then Rose would pass back to Thomas, who’d shoot or move the ball to the wing, where it then would make its way into the corner. That’s usually where the shooting guard is stationed, though the Bulls didn’t get much production from there with Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer a combined one of eight, mostly on open corner threes.
Thibodeau did get Korver there late in the game, though Korver probably needs more time in that spot to open the floor. He’s the team’s best shooter from that spot, which is a favorite of teams because it’s the shortest three.
“The corner three is a deadly shot and is a short shot,” Thibodeau agreed. “It’s one most teams always are trying to take away, It’s worth too much. Kyle being over there creates a little more space for Derrick, but I think we’ve done a good job. It’s not an easy shot to get open.”
It is much easier the way the Bulls play and with so much attention to Rose that when the Bulls move the ball like they did Monday you can find that open on seemingly every possession.
It helped the Bulls that Milwaukee was slow to close out on the shooters throughout the first half with untypically for a Skiles team sort of half hearted waves at the shooters.
The Bucks tightened their pick and roll coverage and closeouts after halftime and pulled within 68-58 after three. Though Taj Gibson gave the team a few solid defensive segments after Boozer had lost shooters, Gibson being more physical than usual and pushing the smaller Bucks defenders out of the way in finishing with six points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes to complement Boozer and Thomas.
“Kurt had a great night for them,” said Bogut. “He knows our stuff backwards (from playing in Milwaukee last season). He knows where to get to and where our help is going to come from. He is a really smart player. Rose puts so much pressure on your defense and that really helped Kurt a lot. They are just a good, solid team.”
“They are better than people know,” added Douglas-Roberts
Douglas-Roberts got loose for 15 points in the third quarter, though he threw in some well defended shots. The Bulls opened it back to 13 early in the third as Deng hit a three with Douglas-Roberts casually watching. And then the Bulls closed it out in the fourth with Rose beating three Bucks to the ball on a Deng miss and in a throwing a bucket of water motion underhanded a two handed pass to Boozer for a layup. That came just before Rose’s driving score for that 11-point led with 1:30 left.
“You know Kurt,” laughed Rose. “If he hits a couple of shots, then he wants it every time.”
Just having fun now.