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Bulls make a statement against Grizzlies
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 17
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That was a very big win for the Bulls on Monday, 96-84 in Memphis.
Not necessarily because it was Martin Luther King Day, though it’s an honor to win at the site of the primary celebration. And, really, it’s not a particularly good Grizzlies team, just 19-22 and riddled with selfishness that’s likely to lead to the team’s breakup after the season.
And it wasn’t really significant, though a nice milestone, that Derrick Rose back where he played college basketball had 22 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for his first career triple-double.
“It feels the same,” said Rose. “A win is a win no matter how my stats are. I was not aware at all I was that close. I was too caught up in the game. They made their run and they hit four or five straight shots and my concern was stopping their shots and I guess that led to a triple-double.”
That’s another difference about Rose: He really is sincere. He doesn’t care.
And, indeed, Rose walked into the benchmark with the Bulls playing out the game when a final missed shot ricocheted into his hands.
“I played 20 something games on that court,” said Rose of the University of Memphis’ home court. “I kind of know everything about it, like where I should shoot the ball. Tonight, I didn’t shoot the ball that well (7 of 20). But it was one of those nights where everybody else shot well. It felt good being back on this court. We came out with an edge. We played together and played defense. We were playing with an edge knowing that it was going to be tough. We played with a lot of intensity. They made their run. We held them off and we won the game.”
That’s what made it a special game. Not that it was the Bulls 18th win in their last 23 to hit the exact halfway point of the season 28-13, or that Luol Deng did a masterful defensive job on Rudy Gay and led the Bulls with 28 points, or that Kyle Korver scored 22, his first double figure scoring game in his last 16 in hitting six three pointers.
“I’ve felt good the last week or so shooting in practice,” said Korver, coming off his dramatic game winning three against Miami Saturday. “I just haven’t gotten good looks in games. Sometimes, you just have to see the ball go in.
I came out and hit the first couple of shots tonight and got onto a roll. Once you get a couple of shots, the guys start giving it to you more and coach calls plays for you. All of that stuff helps. It feels very good. It does. It’s been a pretty frustrating stretch. It definitely feels good to come out here and play well.”
The Bulls certainly did play well from start to finish, which was the significant part.
They shouldn’t have.
They were on the road against a desperate team. Or one that should have been, having won five of their last seven and fighting for a playoff spot. They’d just lost starting power forward Carlos Boozer, averaging 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds, to a sprained ankle. And though the Bulls said the swelling on Boozer’s left ankle has receded some, it seems highly possible he’ll be out a week. Plus, Joakim Noah remains out, and there was the high coming off arguably the best and most exciting win of the season, Saturday’s last minutes shootout with the Heat.
Yet, the Bulls were the poised, professional and tougher team, serious and committed from the start in leading the entire game and making a statement to the Grizzlies, if not the league as well, that they are a step above, a team to be taken seriously.
“They played like this was a playoff game,” said Grizzlies guard Mike Conley. “They played harder than we did. They had more effort. They were knocking down open shots and making extra passes. They played like a team more than we did.”
It was matter of fact, but it also was high praise.
Because that’s what the great teams, the professional teams do. They don’t get caught up in what they did, but what they have to do next. They don’t make excuses about who isn’t there, but make demands of who is. To overuse the old cliché, they come with their hard hats and lunch pails, and the Bulls did that against a far more talented team.
Look, no one on the floor was better than Rose.
Deng outplayed Gay, who had a season low nine points on one of 10 shooting, but who’d rank Deng ahead of him? Marc Gasol vs. Kurt Thomas? Zach Randolph vs. Taj Gibson? OK, maybe Sam Young because of injuries isn’t a huge edge vs. Keith Bogans. But they bring O.J. Mayo off the bench behind Young.
This shouldn’t have been close.
And it wasn’t as the Bulls had a double digit lead by the middle of the second quarter and kept it most of the remainder of the game.
“The reason we did not execute was because of their defense,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, a teammate of Bill Walton’s on the champion Trail Blazers.
“We shot (season low) 37 percent in the first half and for the game. Defensively we were on our heels. We did not compete against Derrick Rose. You have to give them credit. They made a lot of second and third efforts and the one thing that we didn’t do is get loose balls. I told the team, ‘This is what playoff intensity is.’”
That’s what the Bulls showed, that no matter the circumstances you have to play up to their level, that they are moving from the middle of the pack to the elite, which comes as much with professionalism as talent. The Bulls don’t quite have the overall talent to match as yet, but they are showing the commitment and determination to separate themselves.
It is a major step forward.
“They’re a good defensive team,” said Gasol. “They work really well together. They engage and communicate. They do a really good job.”
No matter who is there, it seems.
This was expected to be a challenge, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t go very deep into the bench with Rose playing just under 40 minutes, Deng 42 and Gibson 43. Deng is becoming the workhorse of the team, playing, as expected, power forward as well with Boozer out. But, after all, he is just 25 and when he’s had injuries before it’s been after playing many fewer minutes. Maybe he thrives more on the work. I know fans keep screaming for Deng to get more rest, though you can get injured hardly playing, as we’ve seen with Greg Oden, for example.
Or if you don’t put your suitcase away at home.
But what Thibodeau also showed was a great contrast compared with, say, Hollins, considered a competent NBA coach.
The Grizzlies played an erratic game, quickly settling for jump shots and effectively devoid of much teamwork. It seemed obvious Gay and Randolph don’t care to play together as almost every time Randolph flashed open, Gay looked the other way. Randolph is a free agent and expected to be traded next month as he is doubtful to resign with the Grizzlies.
Gay is somewhat like Indiana’s Danny Granger, a big, long athlete who could attack the basket at will but seemed more to admire himself shooting long jump shots. They are the poster children for the AAU mentality of the NBA of some of the best guys taking the easy way out.
That’s where coaching comes in, and Thibodeau has been terrific with his demands for fundamental, hard play, and the Bulls have responded. The results are wins like Monday’s. Hollins, conversely, can’t seem to get that message across.
Gay previously feuded with Mayo, who now plays off the bench, and though there’s little in the open between Gay and Randolph, it seems not to be a good fit. Point guard Conley seems mostly to look for his shot, and where they could have pounded the ball with Randolph, they settled more for jump shots, many falling away.
Without Boozer and Noah, the Bulls have little post threat. But their offense featured movement and activity as they got the hot shooting Deng open in the first quarter for 11 points.
The Bulls took a 26-17 lead after one quarter as Rose added 10 points, attacking the basket and getting to the line seven times and grabbing four rebounds.
“His scoring is there all of the time and the assists are usually there,” said Thibodeau of Rose. “I have said this all along, I think he’s made much more of a concerted effort to rebound the ball. Now, when you add the rebounding component to it, that’s when I think the triple doubles will come. The more he rebounds the ball, the more we can get out into the open floor and get some easy transition scores. Those fast breaks, the ones in which he rebounds and busts out with the ball, they’re impossible to stop.”
Thibodeau teaches the Bulls when they rebound to break out with the ball. Look, Rose isn’t perfect. Sometimes he waits back too much for the pass after the rebound, slowing a fast break. He gets beat on defense at times.
But games like Monday’s demonstrate how great a player he can be. Boozer out. Noah out. The second oldest player in the league playing center and in foul trouble three minutes into the game.
OK, so Rose decides the team needs rebounds and he gets double figures, leading the team.
That’s another thing the great ones do. Greatness basically is consistency. It’s performing at the same high level every game no matter what the defense does so your team can count on you. And then doing what the team needs whatever it is, and no matter that you’re the second smallest guy on the team.
“We lost two of our great players Joakim and Booz,” said Rose. “We just wanted to come out and let them know it was going to be a tough game.”
And the Bulls made it tough.
Gibson switched onto Randolph with Thomas’ early foul trouble and held Randolph off effectively, Randolph finishing with 21 points and 13 rebounds but just seven of 20 shooting.
Deng kept forcing Gay away from the basket and Gay didn’t want any part of the contact.
“The thing about Luol is that he is so solid,” said Thibodeau. The thing that Luol does so well is that he is going to make them work. Guys can score and you want them to do it on volume shots.”
Memphis shot just 23.8 percent in the first quarter, and they seemed to have little desire to fight back once they felt how hard it might be.
The big difference Monday also was getting Korver back in a scoring rhythm the Bulls hadn’t seen since November, the last time Korver had more than 20 points.
Korver has talked about being in a slump, though he’d also fallen out of the offensive priority and wasn’t getting many shots. In some ways it’s much tougher for the reserves. If they come in and miss two shots, they don’t often get their chance to shoot their way out of it. But Korver is a bit of a worrier and he began to aim those shots a bit more.
“I was trying everything,” said Korver. “I took off my knee sleeves. I was wearing them this season for some reason and I don’t even know why. We practice more here (with the Bulls than the Jazz), so I was thinking I needed them to keep my knees warm. Just thinking too much.”
So Korver came out in the second quarter shooting, and with seeing that one go down in Miami perhaps he loosened up a bit as well.
He bounced off a down screen for a three, took a handoff and screen from Deng for another and even drove and scored with a high banker, making it 38-21 Bulls with five minutes gone into the second quarter.
“If that shot (against Miami) didn’t get him going, I don’t know what will,” said Rose. “He has a lot of confidence in his jump shot now. He came out huge.”
The Grizzlies finally began to pound it inside to Randolph and Gasol and got back within seven. But Thomas popped out for a pair of jumpers as the old guy continues to produce on both sides, probably the team’s best interior help defender.
The Grizzlies hadn’t been doubling Rose as aggressively as he’d seen lately, though they began to trap some late in the second quarter. Thomas dove this time after a screen instead of popping out as he usually does, which is something the Bulls miss without Boozer or Noah. And then Rose found Korver for back to back threes as the Grizzlies began to pressure Rose more, the threes sending the Bulls ahead 51-37 and closing the half ahead 53-42.
“When (Korver is not shooting well, he’s still helping us because he covers the floor for us,” said Thibodeau. “Nobody leaves him. Everybody gives Carlos more room in the post, and gives Derrick more room off the dribble. He helps everybody. His defense has vastly improved. It is different when you get extended rhythm, with shorter minutes, it’s tougher because you’re getting less shots. People pay attention to him. We’re keeping it simple and he was able to get some good looks. Derrick created a lot of situations for him that got him those great shots.”
Of course, the obvious question then is why doesn’t Korver start given so much offensive malaise to start games in recent weeks. But let’s not muddy up a terrific win with such mundane chatter.
The Grizzlies tried to go inside to Randolph to open the second half, but Thomas held his position and his size bothered Randolph. And Gibson with six blocks and 10 points was discouraging more Grizzlies’ penetration. Meanwhile, Rose pulled up for a three and ran one of those one man fast breaks off a Memphis miss as the Bulls retained that 17-point edge and led by 19 after three.
Though three quarters, the Grizzlies had 60 shots and six assists, five from Conley.
The Grizzlies changed up to start the fourth, staying almost exclusively in a zone defense, and the Bulls generally tend not to react quickly to a zone. They committed a pair of turnovers and forced some late jumpers in the clock as the Grizzlies climbed within 84-75.
“At the start of the fourth quarter I had a whole different line-up out there and we went to zone,” said Hollins of going with Hasheem Thabeet, Darrell Arthur, Greivis Vasquez and Mayo. “Except for a few mistakes on defense and a few bad shots, that group actually got us back to where it was manageable.”
But the Bulls finally began finding the seams with Deng hitting an uncontested three, Rose double clutching on a driving layup score after Rose blocked a Mayo shot (Mayo has 13 in the fourth quarter after doing little before then) and Gibson scoring with a short hook to keep Memphis from getting back within double digits. And then, fittingly enough, Rose walked into that last rebound without knowing it or looking for it for that first career triple double.
“Luol was terrific and, of course, Derrick was excellent,” said Thibodeau. “A great team win.”