Road gets Bulls again in Charlotte


Jan 13

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Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was talking the other day about the four elements of a basketball game, not to be confused with the four classical elements, that being air–which was Michael Jordan–earth, fire and water.

Thibodeau has often explained the elements of a basketball game to be the first and last five minutes of each half, and once again the Bulls were missing those first five minutes on Wednesday in Charlotte. The result was their fourth road loss in the last five away games, 96-91 to the Bobcats.

The loss, which dropped the Bulls to 25-13, also was the third consecutive road loss to a team at least seven games under .500.

And once again, for the seventh consecutive game—every game this month—the Bulls trailed midway through the first quarter, this time 20-9 on the way to falling behind 36-22 after one quarter.

“They got whatever they wanted to start the game, so you’re playing from a deficit,” said Thibodeau. “The big thing about this league is getting ready to play each and every night. Everyone says it’s the last five minutes. No, it’s not. It’s the start of the game. It’s readiness to play. And when you study all the stats, you’ll see that the teams that are leading after the first quarter, there’s a big discrepancy in terms of how much they win.”

It wasn’t exactly the same pattern, or what, frankly, anyone in the league has seen before. It was Kwame Brown dominating. Which hasn’t been said in the same sentence this decade, except in something like, “If Kwame Brown is dominating, I assume the NBA is in a lockout.” But it was Brown on the inside, getting deep position and dunking, even rolling inside and getting fouled.

Brown had 10 points as every Bobcats starter scored in double figures.

The Bulls generally try to play Carlos Boozer on the least of the opposition scorers. But the Bobcats were ready and went right at Boozer with Brown. And though Boozer finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds, Brown’s fast start helped put the Bulls once again in a hole.

“We’ve been giving up too many points in the first quarter,” agreed Boozer. “We try to clean it up in the second half of games, but we can’t continue that pattern. We have to play better from the start. We can’t be one of those teams that have slow starts then try to bring ourselves back. We have to be a team that puts it on them from the jump. It’s something we’ve got to clean up.”

Well, OK, who’s stopping you?

You can’t blame it all on shooting guard Keith Bogans, the brunt of most of this sort of criticism. But the Bulls look like it is time for a change. Starting lineups get changed all the time. Again, it’s not all on Bogans. Boozer’s defense was poor and the Bulls played soft inside. Derrick Rose, who had 17 points on just five of 17 shooting and seven assists, accepted the trap and didn’t attack the basket, which is not uncommon for him early. The Bulls walked into their offense, rarely even trying to push the ball.

But it’s also a disadvantage for Rose playing with Kurt Thomas and Boozer. Boozer will roll some to the basket, though he’s not always principal screener for Rose. Thomas will screen, but he doesn’t space the floor very well. He’ll pop out, though not that far, leaving the middle more closed and the defense in position to get to Rose easier.

Of course, this all has to do with Joakim Noah being out. Noah does roll strong to the basket, taking the defense with him and opening the court more for Rose. Plus, Noah is the best big man passer in the post to cutters, which is often why Luol Deng, who shot the ball well and had 22 points, ends up taking more jumpers and fewer basket cuts without Noah.

Of course, it’s going to be more difficult without Noah, whose energy certainly cannot be matched by 38-year-old Thomas, who has played better than anticipated and had a solid nine points and seven rebounds.

But, again, the Bulls don’t run as well without Noah as Boozer tends more to stop at the free throw line looking for his shot.

It’s all magnified, of course, in a loss, but consider this month approximately halfway through the first quarter of every game. This is what those teams led by as the Bulls ended up winning four of seven:

Cavs: 15-8

Raptors: 16-10

Nets: 14-8

Sixers: 14-13

Celtics: 17-8

Pistons: 14-13

Bobcats: 20-9

I’m not blaming Bogans, and no one should as this is a team effort, or lack of. But especially without Noah, you cannot afford to have still another non scoring player who isn’t that quick on the court to start. At least one of those Brown dunks was when Bogans got beat off the perimeter and Boozer had to step out to help.

As I’ve written before, I’d go with Kyle Korver, who shook himself a bit out of a so called slump with nine points and three assists. I say so called because he was averaging fewer than four shots. You can’t be in a slump if you aren’t getting shots. This time Korver got only two shots, but he made them both, three pointers, and three free throws.

He isn’t a great defender, either, but his shot making can open the court, or, at least, spread it to give Rose more driving lanes. And Korver is an underrated passer and satisfactory on defense. No, Korver cannot create, but there is really no one like that. There’s no way Thibodeau would ever start two small guards with C.J. Watson with Rose.

But, mostly, Korver gives the Bulls a legitimate scoring option to open the games as the Bulls cannot expect scoring from Thomas. They’ve done better than I imagined they could with two non scorers starting with Noah out. But it’s difficult to sustain that. Ronnie Brewer has gotten comfortable in his role off the bench and is a good energy pick-me-up, and his group has actually gone a long way to getting the Bulls back in these games.

But when things aren’t going as well as you like, there’s nothing wrong with trying something different.

Bogans did do a nice defensive job after halftime as he was on the floor with the regulars as the Bulls cut the Bobcats halftime lead of 13 to five when he was replaced by Brewer with 4:21 left in the third.

The Bulls would actually go on to take a 70-69 lead after the third quarter.

But former Bull Tyrus Thomas with eight points, four rebounds and two blocks in the fourth quarter for his 17 and 13 in the game made the two big plays down the stretch: A three point play after the Bulls got within 83-82 with just over four minutes left and a hard to believe, over the back reverse layup with 1:14 left to retake the lead for the Bobcats a 90-89, a lead the Bobcats would not surrender.

“I think I came out and I was like one for five, and he (coach Paul Silas) looked at me and said ‘Keep shooting,’” related Thomas, who suffered under former coach Larry Brown. “He’s going to do that as long as you do what you have to do on the defensive end and you play hard. He’s going to let you play ball as long as you learn from your mistakes and play smart. He’s just giving a lot of guys confidence. We were able to keep our lead. Overall, I think we did a good job.”

Yes, Tyrus was good and you know he loved it, just as he had a huge game his first game against Scott Skiles, though, as usual, Thomas publicly made little of it.

The Bulls did have foul problems among their big men, which didn’t help, and Omer Asik got just a brief stint late into the first and into the second and never got back.

Boozer got his second foul about seven minutes in, and Taj Gibson still seemingly has been unable to shake his post concussion game and was one of six in about 18 minutes and had five fouls. So with Asik not playing and Gibson in foul trouble, Thibodeau ended up staying with Kurt Thomas the entire fourth quarter, which opened things up for Tyrus Thomas.

Kurt is a good position defender and help defender, but he wasn’t quick enough to stay with Tyrus. As a result, he also wasn’t able to put physical pressure on him. The way you play Tyrus is tough as he doesn’t like contact. But Kurt could not stay with him and Tyrus got loose for those late big plays, though on that reverse he was guarded well and made a ridiculous shot.

“Having Coach (Charles) Oakley here with the big guys is definitely helping them a lot, and them speeding the game up for us and helping us play faster is helping us too,” said Stephen Jackson, who was just six of 17 but effectively clinched the game with an isolation postup and fadeaway 13 footer over Deng with 34.8 seconds left for a 92-89 lead.

Rose then got caught when Jackson came quickly to double and his pass to Deng was stolen and the Bulls had to foul, and the Bobcats put the game away with free throws.

And then came the unusual sight for Chicagoans of Michael Jordan, who sits on the end of the Bobcats bench as owner, celebrating a Bulls loss.

“The other day MJ got mad at me for my five turnovers,” said D.J. Augustin, who had 22 points and 12 assists. “He told me never to do that again and I took it to heart tonight.”

Now, that’s coaching.

Though it was interesting to watch Jackson get pulled after jacking up a bunch of long jumpers that enabled the Bulls to take the lead in the third quarter and sit next to Jordan. Jackson then went back in the game and drove the ball, scored and was fouled.

“Who’s going to back talk?” Gerald Wallace, returning from an ankle injury, told reporters. “When you have the best guy that ever played sitting there criticizing your game or helping you improve, I don’t think anybody takes it the wrong way.”

Yes, it’s all smiles again in Charlotte with the Bobcats now 6-2 since the easy going Silas replaced the intense Brown.

The Bobcats maintained their edge through the second quarter as Deng was called for a questionable flagrant foul against Tyrus late in the quarter. His free throw gave the Bobcats that 55-42 halftime lead as the Bobcats play clearly was crisper and smarter early.

The Bulls did a better job adjusting to Brown after halftime, denying him easy post position, and the Bobcats got dumb and began to hoist jumpers. Charlotte did make a change briefly to open the second half by moving Wallace onto Bogans so Wallace apparently could play off Bogans and try to disrupt Rose on drives.

It was perhaps a further sign to the Bulls that they better get someone in that position the defense respects, though the Bobcats did go back to Jackson on Bogans after a few possessions.

“We gave them isolation type plays, the ball being driven to the rim with no help, not containing dribble penetration. We brought on our own problems,” said Thibodeau.

Though it looked like they were being solved as the Bulls began to pack the paint and deny the lanes better and the Bobcats began to settle.

On the Bulls side, Rose and Deng began to drive the ball and get to the free throw line, both slowing the Bobcats, who were pushing the ball early before the Bulls defense could set, and closing the gap.

Trailing 63-52, the Bulls went on an 18-4 run as the Bobcats shot eight jumpers and went to the basket once. When Brewer scored on a pass from Korver to give the Bulls a 70-67 lead late in the third it appeared the Bulls had regained control.

“It was a weird game,” said Boozer. “We got down by a lot early. We were down by 13 at the half. We fought back and got the lead by the end of the third quarter. It felt like we had gained control of the game by the fourth, and the next thing you know we were down by four or five. It was a weird flow to the game.”

Korver hit a pair of threes early in the fourth to give the Bulls an 80-75 lead, both coming on catch-and-shoot plays, the kind Korver wasn’t getting much. That’s when he’s at his best, but he was getting too many passes where he’d have to take a dribble into his shot and that usually gives the defense time to close on him.

But the game turned at that point as the Bulls went six consecutive empty possessions, the lowlight a missed dunk from Boozer all alone with the Bobcats pulling back within 80-78.

The Bobcats had been doing a good job trapping Rose on top of the floor off the pick and roll and Rose was giving up the ball and not getting it back. The Bulls did make some adjustments, having the big man set the screen higher up the floor to give Rose more of a running chance and rotating the ball and having Rose attack off the wing on occasion.

But that stretch would prove fatal.

Rose returned for C.J. Watson after Boozer’s missed dunk. But the Bobcats were leaving guys open to get to Rose and Kurt Thomas missed an unguarded jumper. Boozer was called for an offensive foul and then Rose missed on a drive from the wing.

That stretch enabled the Bobcats to go back ahead 83-80 with 4:40 left as Jackson was now playing smarter, driving or shooting over mismatches on switches against Rose.

Kurt Thomas then rolled in unimpeded and Deng foul him for a layup. But Kurt missed the free throw as the Bulls trailed then 83-82. The Bulls switched the taller Deng onto Jackson after Jackson beat Brewer twice for scores, but Augustin beat Rose around the edge and when Kurt Thomas went to help Tyrus dove in for the pass and three point play. Again, no real back side help. And the Tyrus fist pump for good measure.

That made it 86-82 Charlotte with 4:01 left. Tyrus then spiked a Rose layup chance with Tyrus coming off the weak side, and the Bulls probably needed to take advantage of Tyrus’ aggressiveness as they should know Tyrus chases every drive and you can hit his man rolling.

Boozer then got a nice pass from a rolling Thomas for a score as the Bulls generally did too much standing around watching Rose get doubled. After a Jackson air ball, Boozer missed on a roll with a chance to tie. Augustin then got past a screened Rose and Boozer just waved at him as he drove in for an easy layup and 88-84 lead with 2:46 left. Boom! Time out! Thibs didn’t like that one.

The Bulls then eschewed the screen and Rose went right away and scored and was fouled, bringing the Bulls within 88-87 with 2:38 left. Jackson missed again, but so did Rose with a chance to take the lead. But then Tyrus airballed a jumper and Rose hit Boozer on a nice roll off the screen for an 89-88 Bulls lead with about 90 seconds left.

It would not be enough.

Tyrus hit that prayer of a reverse as Boozer got him on a switch, and then Rose went back to isolation. But he missed short on a drive and Jackson hit that jumper over Deng and the Bobcats pulled away.

“I thought for sure we had control, but we let it slip,” said Rose. “The only thing we can do from this is learn from it.”

Back to that drawing board? Another of the key elements.

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