Bulls keep it going against reeling Cavs


Jan 2

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The Bulls are not exactly the star quarterback or the beauty queen cheerleader. They won their 13th game in the last 15 Saturday, 100-91 over the depleted Cleveland Cavaliers, 8-25 and missing three starters and with 14 consecutive road losses.

Although the Bulls are running away with the Central Division at 22-10 and are on pace for the best record for a Bulls team since 1997-98, the Bulls are just 8-7 against teams with winning records and the same mark on the road.

They are a comfortable date now, a warm feeling and nice company, but no one really is taking a second look quite yet.

“We’re proud of ourselves for winning,” said Carlos Boozer, whose 20 points and 11 rebounds supported Luol Deng with 23 points and Derrick Rose with 28 points and 11 assists. “But we also want to play much better. It’s not easy to win in this league no matter who you play. They have pride, a coach who wants to win. We want to play better, and we will play better, but we are happy to win. It would be one thing if we were getting beat. But to continue to win we know we’ve got to get better. We’re going to start playing teams that have a winning record.”

Yes, Boozer is back from his broken hand about a month now while Joakim Noah is out likely another six weeks or so with his thumb fracture. So this, of course, isn’t the team the Bulls hope to see or hope to be.

And, to their credit, they are winning the so called games you have to win, not giving in or looking past inferior opponents like this recent set with sub-.500 teams who also are missing key players. Still, the Bulls have fallen behind these teams, and against the Cavs as well, trailing by 10 in the first quarter and 61-53 at halftime to a team that hadn’t scored more than 100 points in more than a month.

“We did not play hard in the first half,” said coach Tom Thibodeau. “We’ll take the win. We struggled. Our defense was poor in the first half.”

Soft, really. That’s what it comes down to. Playing hard. It sounds simple enough, but it isn’t done as often as you’d think it should be, which you’d think should be all the time.

The Bulls generally are regarded around the league as one of the best at simply competing. After all, they came into the game second to the Celtics in defensive efficiency, the number of points per 100 possessions, and No. 2 behind Miami in opponents’ field goal percentage, the principal defensive markers.

But good luck in finding an all-league defender on the roster, especially with Noah out. No offense, but Boozer, Keith Bogans and Kurt Thomas probably rank toward the bottom defensively at their positions. We know defense is not Rose’s specialty, though he has gotten better. So how is it possible?

The Bulls simply outwork opponents, closing down the lane, running out and challenging shooters, constantly working under the demanding bark of Thibodeau.

But, hey, it was New Year’s Day after playing New Year’s Eve afternoon, and they are kids, mostly single, and it was a bit of an early start Saturday night. Maybe it was some of that.

Still, the Cavs had to be playing maybe the poorest starting lineup in the NBA, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison, Leon Powe, Manny Harris and Ramon Sessions. No offense, but match it with the Kings, Clippers or Timberwolves. Still, they jumped ahead 26-16 with Jamison punishing Boozer and then Taj Gibson when Boozer got in early foul trouble again, and then blitzing the Bulls with 63.6 percent second quarter shooting behind J.J. Hickson, who took advantage of Boozer as the Cavs played small without Anderson Varejao.

Without Noah, the Bulls are using Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik at center and have trouble with smaller lineups because neither Thomas or Asik is able to take advantage on the offensive end. Thomas can hit some jumpers, but is not a threat because he doesn’t roll to the basket but pops out. And Asik is not much of an offensive player as yet, though, to be fair, it seems the Bulls rarely give him any chances. And he has been very good defensively, if getting a quick hook like C.J. Watson.

So the Cavs sized down, making Boozer the center against the faster Hickson, who was hitting jumpers for some reason, and after the Bulls seemed to regain control going ahead 49-47, the Cavs closed the half on a 14-4 run to lead by eight at halftime on 54.8 percent first half shooting.

“We came in the locker room and critiqued each other,” said Boozer. “We looked ourselves in the mirror and said, ‘We got to play better defense.’ And we came out and they only had nine points in the third quarter. And that was where the game was won for us at. It was us. It was the team. We all came in and started talking to each other before he got in the room. And we told each other, ‘We got to hold each other accountable and play better (defense).’ And that’s what we did.”

And it mostly was effort, working harder with a bit more double teaming on the pick and roll instead of the soft wave of the hand going on earlier.

The Cavs missed shots they could have made as well as there’s not much defense that can hold a team to three of 21 shooting as the Bulls did to the Cavs in the third in a 32-9 romp.

“Coach said we’ve got to get into them defensively and we responded,” said Deng. “The third quarter showed. We’re winning games and still not playing great. But a win is a win in this league.”

It also helped to have a true MVP candidate as Rose was magnificent in the third quarter in leading the Bulls with 12 points and five assists and a pair of three pointers.

It was one of those highlight quarters we’re already taking for granted, something of the Rose, “I’ve had enough sitting around and watching. Now watch me.”

With the Bulls still trailing 63-55, Rose hit a three off a Boozer pass back out of the post. He then split Harris and Powe trying to trap him and went past Jamison closing late at the rim. In the first half, and especially the first quarter, Rose tends to let those traps make him give up the ball, which is one reason the Bulls start slowly so often.

The coaches urge him to be more aggressive early, but also to involve everyone. And tape everyone’s ankles as well? Rose is like the kid at work who’ll do everything and not complain. So everyone asks him to do more. But lately the Bulls offense has slowed more without Noah as the team concentrates on posting up Boozer.

But because Boozer also is looking for his postups, he doesn’t run the floor, certainly not like Noah who is what they call in the game a “rim runner,” running from one end to the other and bringing the defense with him all the way back to the basket. The result is Rose then can get deeper penetration and better driving lanes. But he is not likely to be seeing that again until Noah returns no matter how much Thibodeau will like him to.

Thibodeau does understand, but it’s difficult to see disaster when you are winning like this.

“Derrick can’t be the only guy running,” said Thibodeau. “We have to have other guys running with him. We have to run through. We have to run deep and we have to have a guy running to the front of the rim. Right now we’re sort of jogging, stopping at the three point line. It bottles up Derrick and doesn’t get him the gaps he needs.”

But, look, that’s who they are.

Kurt Thomas does a fine job, and he had a personal season high 13 rebounds Saturday and a couple of those classic strips, a big one late against Hickson with the Cavs fighting back and trailing 95-89 with just under two minutes left. Keith Bogans isn’t running. Boozer generally gets as far as the lane looking for a postup. Deng will run, but he’s often back lately without Noah trying to help rebounding.

So it’s too often a Rose one man fast break. The amazing part is that he completes it so often with so few other offensive options.

It’s why there’s some below the surface concern when the schedule begins to turn later this month. This type of play isn’t beating good teams. But also why Rose is beginning to get serious consideration as a league MVP. LeBron James said before the Heat game Saturday he doesn’t believe he or Dwyane Wade are candidates because they now play together. writer Steve Aschburner, who does a weekly MVP rating, has Rose rated first if the voting were today in his analysis this week.

In part because of quarters like the third.

“Just amazing to be on the floor with him,” said Thomas. “He’s definitely right there at the top (point guards). He’s playing unbelievable, putting the ball in the hole, getting rebounds, assists, steals. He’s the key to our offense.”

After that driving layup to bring the Bulls within 63-60, Rose hit Deng across court for a jumper, later added another three on a pull up 25 footer, hit Thomas for an open jumper as the Cavs were sending everyone toward Rose now. Then as the margin grew, Rose finally got a perfect fast break opportunity. He took an outlet from Boozer and blew down the left side, running past Sessions and then converting a reverse scoop at the basket as Jamison and Hickson flew vainly by for a 79-68 Bulls lead with three minutes left in the third.

Rose then got himself to the line for a pair of free throws as he would finish with 10 free throws, the same as Boozer with the Bulls even making them this time, 25 of 32.

As for those free throws and fouls, I’ve been talking with some veteran referees lately who both call Bulls games and have watched them and the consensus was Rose isn’t fouled that much. They say Rose is more involved with marginal and incidental contact than actual foul contact the way he avoids contact and probably goes to the line about as much as he should. One official said, yes, he’s seen some missed calls, but said it’s no worse with Rose than anyone else and he doesn’t see Rose being singled out. The majority basically agreed. So if Rose wants to go to the free throw line more, he’s probably going to have to initiate more contact, which isn’t his game for now.

And, frankly, I think that’s probably right for him given as much as he’s asked to do for the Bulls he doesn’t need to be hitting the ground that often.

The Bulls seemed to have control into the fourth quarter with an 89-75 lead with just under nine minutes remaining. But the Cavs began pushing back. Thibodeau brought his starters back as the Cavs got to 10 with 7:22 left, but they were cold and short, and suddenly it was 92-89 Bulls with 2:48 left.

“It’s not like we’ve been playing horribly of late,” said Jamison. “We’ve got guys who can play. The biggest difference in the third quarter was that they were more aggressive than we were. We took off balance shots, not going to the basket. They did a great job limiting us to one shot. They were real aggressive in going to the basket. Derrick Rose dictated the game again, like always. Then you’re down 15 and having an uphill battle. We found a way to get it done. We just ran out of time.”

So it was Rose, of course, typically without any facial emotion as if he were going to the cleaners to pick up shirts. He just took the Cavs to the cleaners.

This time Rose sauntered up court, and as he approached the three point line Deng went to set a screen, bringing Jamison to join Parker on a trap. Rose split them pushing his dribble through and then Alonzo Gee and Hickson stepped up to trap him at the basket and try to draw a charge, and Rose split them, beating four Cavs for the layup.

Really, this is amazing stuff.

“That guy with the ball is unbelievable in transition,” marveled Boozer.

A word on Parker, meanwhile. He was three of 14 and one of six on threes. No, he’s not the answer to the shooting guard issue.

Parker then missed a 16 footer with Rose defending him and Rose found Boozer cutting and he was fouled, making one of two. Thomas then stripped Hickson on a drive—“I can still move my feet,” said Thomas–and though after a Bulls miss Jamison was fouled and made two, the Cavs began fouling with about 40 seconds left and the Bulls pretty much closed it out with free throws and Cavs misses.

And so next is the Toronto Raptors, who have been without Andrea Bargnani of late and are 11-21. Then it’s on the road to play the Nets and the 76ers, the latter the best of the bunch though the Bulls beat them by 45 the last time they played. And then it’s home to face the Celtics, though without injured Kevin Garnett. Sometimes it’s like that and you take the breaks you can and try to take advantage. After awhile, that record can begin to look awfully attractive and you begin to feel you’ve done pretty well for yourself and are in some good company.

The Bulls have been this good since the last championship season for just a couple of weeks in the 2006-07 season and for about a week in the 2004-05 season. They’re heading for the dance and looking a lot more attractive, though I am reserving judgment on the pregame huddle dancing Gibson has taken over from Noah, neither of whom seems a likely contestant for the next Dancing with the Stars unless they are doing bloopers.

After awhile, a lot of ugly wins can add up to a very pretty record and an attractive partner.

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