Bulls set the pace in Indiana


Jan 14

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Now the fun begins, finally.

It’s LeBron, Wade and Bosh–the so-called Three AmEgos–at the United Center Saturday, following one of those rare, meaningful regular season games, as the Bulls disposed of the Indiana Pacers Friday, 99-86.

The victory, propelled by Derrick Rose’s 29 points and 10 rebounds and an aggressive and active team defense against a relatively disinterested opponent, raised the Bulls record to 26-13, just three games behind the Heat. And now with a comfortable nine-game Central Division lead over the second place Pacers.

It’s quite the remarkable run for the Bulls, on a pace for 54 wins even without Carlos Boozer and the still injured Joakim Noah effectively playing together this season given Boozer’s early season broken hand.

Yes, Miami has had key role players Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller out. But their big three players rarely haven’t played, though James remains a game time decision after a twisted ankle in their Wednesday loss to the Clippers.

Perhaps none of the top teams in the NBA have lost one of their top three for all season and still competed at as high a level as the Bulls have. You see what losing Dirk Nowitzki now has done to staggering Dallas, losers of seven of their last nine after having the league’s best record.

Rose has stepped forward to carry the Bulls, who also had Boozer in foul trouble much of the game Friday as he had 14 points in just under 23 minutes.

But the Pacers curiously played a loose defense against Rose, their point guards dropping below screens as Rose pulled up for three of six threes, and the Pacers being one of the few teams not to aggressively trap Rose off the pick and roll.

As a result, Rose was able to roam relatively free, and the Bull’ defense, particularly Luol Deng, locked down the middle. And the Pacers settled for jumper after jumper and trailed by double digits virtually the entire second half.

Despite living in Indiana, it’s clear no one ever showed the Pacers the movie Hoosiers, for as fictional coach Dale said in it, “I’ve seen you guys can shoot but there’s more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense.”

“We had good balance to our offense,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, “post ups, pick and roll, catch and shoot and transition. We were more high energy with cutting and we made the ball move, and when we do that we’re successful.

“The big thing was defense (32.6 percent Pacers shooting),” said Thibodeau. “On the road, you play defense, rebound and keep turnovers low and you should be in position to win.”

The Bulls had just seven turnovers and 52 rebounds, one fewer than the Pacers, though Indiana missed so many shots they were frequently trying to bat back their own misses and had 16 offensive rebounds.

Thobodeau praised the bench, which was especially good early among C.J. Watson, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. And Ronnie Brewer, who effectively was the starter as Keith Bogans was in foul trouble less than two minutes in.

That reserve group began to spread out the margin in the second quarter when the Bulls took control of the game with a 53-41 halftime lead.

“The guys coming in did a great job,” said Thibodeau. “We had good balance to our game.”

 Well, not exactly as the Bulls once again could only muster three players scoring in double figures, Rose, Boozer and Luol Deng, the latter with 17 points. They’ve been able to survive that thanks to an unrelenting defense authored by Thibodeau.

No, Thibodeau isn’t guarding anyone—just like the Pacers—but he doesn’t let anyone among the Bulls stop.

The Bulls, actually, were doing a fairly decent job trying to give back this game given the offensive lulls they have without Noah and a true shooting guard.

Kyle Korver was just two for eight for five points in 22 minutes, but he played well. He needs to play at least that and shoot as often. No, he wasn’t making shots. But at least four spun in and out and he will make them. He’s one of the best shooters in league history. It’s just that he’s played so little and gotten so few attempts in recent weeks. Give Thibodeau credit for recognizing that, trying to get him more shots and sticking with him. It will pay off.

But it was instructive to watch the two teams down the stretch as the Pacers got an 18-point deficit down to 11 with almost seven minutes left.

You’d think it was the Bulls trailing by 18 with eight minutes left the way Thibodeau wasn’t allowing them to rest, or join the Pacers’ malaise. “Up, up,” Thibodeau shouted to defenders to get out on the shooters. As I’ve noted before, no one is finding all-league defenders on this Bulls team. But Thibodeau keeps them moving with various entreaties: Close the lane, back, drive the pick and roll down, rotate, recover. It goes on and one, and they respond. It is admirable to witness.

Without Noah, this isn’t exactly a tremendously talented Bulls team. There are two non scorers in the starting lineup. Thibodeau is the F. Lee Bailey of coaching: The defense never rests.

The Pacers were led by Danny Granger, who had 22 points on eight of 23 shooting and is one of the elite “doesn’t get it” guys in the NBA. He’s a unique player with a great shot and quickness to get to the basket. Mostly, he stands around shooting long jumpers, which suggests he doesn’t like contact.

Deng had been doing an excellent job staying in front of him, which pretty much assures Granger will be passive and stay outside, which he did in a two of 11 first half.

But occasionally Granger has these lucid moments when he realizes he can score driving. So he did it twice at that point in the fourth quarter as the Pacers were closing to 11. Though the Bulls answered each time after the Granger driving scores with Rose getting easy floaters off soft pick and roll coverage.

So with the drive working, Granger pulled up and shot a 26 footer short.

Hello, Danny! Anyone in there?

Brewer then dove as Rose was caught running baseline, and Rose found him for a layup and 90-77 lead. And though the Pacers would inch within nine, Deng basically closed it out with a corner three with just over three minutes left to restore the double digit lead.

Rose, obviously, is the reason the Bulls are where they are. With United Center tickets at a premium, Bulls fans often venture to Milwaukee and Indianapolis, and there were vibrant MVP chants for Rose. Boozer has been showing 20/10 form, and Noah would be an all-defense candidate.

Sweet home, Indiana. 

But Deng, by far, leads the team in minutes played with more than 46 Friday as Thibodeau relies on Deng when opponents go small, as the Pacers frequently did, and Deng defends power forwards, this time Granger moving there.

Thibodeau called Deng the Bulls’ glue, quite the compliment.

“Lu is in such great shape he can handle the minutes,” said Thibodeau. “He’s prepared himself for this, the way he works in the offseason and takes care of himself during the season, he has shown he can handle it. He’s really the glue to the team. Whatever we need, he provides. Guard a range four, the primary scorer (yes, Deng will get LeBron if James can play Saturday). He gives you rebounding, scoring. He hits the three and opens things for Derrick and gives him more room to operate.”

As if on cue, the Bulls had their usual sluggish beginning, this time falling behind 15-10, and I wonder if the game plan is part of the problem.

I know the NBA and Thibodeau mantra is play inside/outside to begin. So the Bulls start out that way and open with a snoozing offense, lots of side to side motion and bad jump shots as they search out the post.

Boozer doesn’t duck in enough but gets in the post and often shoots that fadeaway jumper, leaving himself in poor rebounding position.

And while Kurt Thomas was big Friday with 18 rebounds, three fewer than his career average, he doesn’t go to the offensive boards as well for scores. Plus, his usually reliable shooting hasn’t been very good of late. He was six for his last 17 before hitting two late jumpers, all of which are wide open as he’s never guarded anymore. And he is shooting only about 46 percent this season, well below his career average.

So the Bulls offense comes to a standstill early searching out a postup, and, actually, Boozer’s best early score was a trailer finishing on a fast break. The Bulls are best when running, and they should probably drop those early postups which seem to bore Rose into indifference, anyway, and push the ball from start to finish.

You could almost see Rose getting weary about that midway through the first as the Bulls fell behind by five. He rebounded a Collison miss and took off, blowing by everyone on a one man fast break for a score.

“I think we played hard and with intensity throughout the whole game,” said Rose. “I was just taking what they were giving me. Tonight they were going in.”

It was surprising given the way Rose shoots these days to see Indiana’s guards constantly go under the screen, leaving Rose wide open for jumpers, which he smoothly hit.

With Boozer in foul trouble early as the Pacers went right at him with Tyler Hansbrough, Brewer with five rebounds and five assists and Gibson with nine points, mostly on drive-and-dropoff dunks, helped the Bulls get the lead for a 28-24 first quarter edge.

 “The first half I think it was a lack of defensive purpose on our end,” said  Pacers coach Jim O’Brien.

 Not that the plan seemed that great.

Though part of the problem is the Pacers are getting so little from Roy Hibbert anymore, two points in 21 minutes, as the early Most Improved candidate has become Most Likely to be Moved.

C.J. Watson, who had eight points in less than 12 minutes off the bench, kept the reserves rolling in the second quarter, and with the Pacers settling for long and longer jump shots it began to look like it would be an easy one for the Bulls as the Bulls handoff and curls off the post were ending up in layups.

Sort of running that picket fence while the Pacers were getting caught watching the paint dry.

 “CJ has been playing well for awhile now,” said Thibodeau. “He played terrific. In the first half the way he ran the team, good floor balance. When his shot was there he took it. That’s how we want him to run the team. He’s playing at a high level now.”

This time there would be no malaise coming out of halftime as Rose began to hit jumpers without his usual defensive escort, even fouled on a three as the Bulls took a 70-54 lead midway through the third quarter.

“Derrick Rose made sure there wouldn’t be a comeback,” said O’Brien. “In the

second half when he’s going like he’s going, it doesn’t matter what you do on a pick and roll. He’s a terrific player. I think (Granger) started to press a little bit. But Deng  is a terrific defensive player and always plays Danny well.”

Rose passed Rajon Rondo in the fan voting this week for the other starting spot for the Eastern Conference in the All Star game. Though the way Miami got walloped on national TV with James out Thursday, you wonder if the inequity is Dwyane Wade being a starter instead of Rose and Rondo.

The Bulls led 79-63 after the third and that Deng three with 3:07 left after the Pacers had gotten within nine ended what little drama there might be. Though Deng made sure blocking a Granger fadeaway (no, the guy never learns) on the Pacers’ next possession.

“We were just ready tonight,” said Boozer. “We did a great job of focusing on what they do offensively. We made them take tough, contested shots. We were efficient on offense. Everybody was ready to play. Our intensity and focus were there. We helped each other on defense. It was just the kind of effort we needed tonight.”

Because they’ll need a much better one Saturday.

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