It was still another game Saturday you wondered about the Bulls, even as they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers (again Cadavers) 92-79.
The Cavs, sort of walking dead with their 21st consecutive road loss, outrebounded the Bulls 51-48, including a brutal 18-7 on the offensive boards and 15-5 in second chance points. Make that a loss on the hustle board. Two of the Bulls starters combined for seven points in about 40 combined minutes, and back on the bench for the returning Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson had just two points and two rebounds as the Cavs got within two with just over four minutes left.
“We were struggling to score. It was a low energy game,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in what is becoming a regular observation. “We were searching and rebounding poorly. In the first half we got a big lead and relaxed. We did the same thing in the second half. We got a big lead and let up. They keep playing. Those guys are good. (Antawn) Jamison (31 points) is terrific. (J.J.) Hickson played extremely well. He crushed us on the boards (20 rebounds). He could have set a rebounding record today.”
Yes, despite all that, the Bulls did what they had to, just enough once again and moved to a remarkable 30-14 with still another suffocating defensive effort, holding the Cavs to 32.1 percent shooting.
But that’s little new for the league’s best defensive team by the key statistic, opponent’s field goal percentage. The Bulls last four opponents have combined to shoot about 38 percent.
Which raises the question one is beginning to hear from fans, “Why not us? Why not now?”
We generally assume they don’t have enough? But do they? Will they?
Joakim Noah will return in perhaps less than a month. Boozer back from a sprained ankle had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Luol Deng added 20 points and 12 rebounds and Derrick Rose led the Bulls with 24 points, eight assists and three blocks. Just doing what is necessary.
And all the while the Bulls have quietly moved to the fifth best record in the NBA, just a game behind Miami and a game and a half behind the Lakers, two teams who have been healthier than the Bulls this season. And the Bulls are now just three and a half games from the best record in the Eastern Conference. That, incidentally, basically playing all season without Noah or Boozer and the two, effectively, never playing together because once Boozer returned from a broken hand Noah had already injured his finger and was preparing to leave for surgery, though still playing.
So what happens when Noah returns and presumably can team with Boozer and maybe the Bulls find a shooting guard, perhaps not an All Star, but someone who can average double figures and spread the floor. And, we know, when Keith Bogans scores at least six points the Bulls are undefeated. So what if?
It’s certainly something to contemplate, though the Bulls also are 0-2 against both the Knicks, currently the tentative first round playoff opponent in the sixth seed in the East, and the Bobcats, who are on the edge of making the playoffs.
Which suggests this Bulls team has a chance to go much farther than anyone imagined, though it is hardly yet built to do so.
“I thought we came out ready,” said Boozer. “I thought we had great attention to detail, focus. We had opportunities to close the door on that team. But we didn’t. It’s something we need to work on, to be a 48 minute team. We can’t be a team that plays three quarters. We need to be a team that plays the entire game the right way.”
It’s perhaps difficult against a Cavs team that seemed to lose its spirit after the December loss to LeBron James and Miami when the Cavs players seemed to give up. They’re now a league worst 8-35.
And they looked like it in falling behind 12-2 five minutes into the game. But they began to batter the Bulls on the boards (really, how much can you ask Kurt Thomas to do?) and had an astounding 19 first quarter rebounds, though when you shoot seven for 24 there’s a chance for that.
The Cavs pulled within 22-17 after one as Rose had another slow start with just four points in the first half.
“That was not by design,” said Thibodeau, who later would pick up his first technical foul as a head coach. “We cannot pick and choose when we are going to go. We have to be ready by the start of the game. Everybody has to be aggressive. We have to establish who we are going to be. The initial part of our defense was good and our rebounding was poor.”
The Bulls did push their lead to 17 in the second quarter and finish the first half ahead 48-38 as Boozer stepped right back into his offense.
“Some good, some bad,” Thibodeau said of Boozer. “Mostly what I expected. He had a week off without doing anything. He still had 20 and 10. He had one practice. He will get better and better.”
Kyle Korver also continued to get better as he hit a pair of threes in the second quarter and finished with 11 points.
“Even when people said he was struggling with his shot, he was not really struggling,” explained Thibodeau. “We studied his shots and they were good shots that rimmed in and out. The thing about him is he helps us with spacing. People do not leave him so the floor is open. You can get the ball into the post and Derrick can get dribble penetration. It helps you pick and roll game.”
So start him? OK, ok, we’ve been there before.
The Bulls seemed to take control to open the third quarter with Rose going to the basket and after he and Deng hit back to back threes, the Bulls had gone ahead 63-43. Again, the Cavs got it back within 10 at the end of the quarter, and this time a slow start from the reserves brought Rose and Boozer back quickly, though the Cavs were making it scary down 77-75 with 4:37 left.
“I was a little rusty,” said Boozer. “I didn’t have the lift I wanted to have. I couldn’t rebound the way I wanted to. I pushed through it, though. They played us tough. We got up by a few points but they came right back in the game. ‘Twan got really hot from the three point line in the third quarter (13 points).”
So it was Rose to the rescue again.
He scored the Bulls first field goal of the quarter on a drive and was fouled for a three point play, Jamison missed a runner, C.J. Watson found Korver for a three, Christian Eyenga missed a drive, Rose hit a rolling Boozer for a score and three point play, Daniel Gibson missed a three—D-fense!—and Rose hit a 20 footer, the Bulls back up 13 with about two a half minutes left and that being that.
“We made the right plays at the end of the game to win the game,” said Boozer. “We shouldn’t have been in a dogfight to win the game like that. We’re not proud of that. We have to clean some stuff up. We did a good enough job to win, but we know we can play a lot better.”
But then if they do, where will they be? And if they are that much better, how much better do they need from there to be among the best? You have to start asking these questions now.