Bulls air it out against Bobcats


Feb 16

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What a perfect scene at the Bulls-Bobcats game Tuesday night at the United Center. The Bobcats were one of four teams in the NBA this season the Bulls had not defeated, and sitting just off his team’s bench was Charlotte owner Michael Jordan, the master of basketball vengeance.

So what better occasion to deliver some, and to paraphrase the Talmud, which I rarely do and promise not to again, “Playing well is the greatest revenge.”

And so the Bulls did just long enough against a tiring team to beat the Bobcats 106-94 to move to 37-16 on the season.

“Charlotte is a good team,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “They really played solid team defense. They had a terrific game against the Lakers last night. We probably benefited from them playing last night. But our guys hung tough.”

Well, yes, the Bulls hung in there, and no Charlotte wasn’t particularly good on defense, though Thibodeau is a kill ‘em with kindness coach. Like his mentor Jeff Van Gundy, Thibodeau never has seen a coach do a bad job or a future opponent who didn’t somehow resemble the ’96 Bulls.

Hey, nothing wrong with that. Better to keep them guessing. Though it was Derrick Rose, of all people, who the other day at Bulls practice offered some casual trash talk, if there is such a thing, in saying it should be a relatively easy game against the Bobcats. Rose isn’t the challenge type. It was more in the nature of it would be an easy game if the Bulls play the way they are capable, though it was interpreted as something of bulletin board material. Though with a dry erase board it’s quite possible the Bobcats were distracted trying to make the thumb tacks stick.

In any case, it was Rose with 18 points and 13 assists and Luol Deng with a game high 24 points who helped open up the game for the Bulls with a big third quarter spurt that led into the fourth. The Bulls thus went from a 57-57 tie with just under eight minutes left in the third to leading 88-75 four minutes into the fourth quarter to effectively wrap up the game and take their first game of the season in three attempts from Charlotte.

The Bulls next face the Spurs Thursday with only the Spurs (0-1), Knicks (0-2) and Hawks (0-0) teams the Bulls haven’t beaten this season.

“We’re looking forward to playing them,” Carlos Boozer, with 16 points and nine rebounds, said of the Spurs. “We’ve played other great teams during the season. It’s another big game before the break gets here.”

This will end the unofficial first portion of the NBA season, and the Bulls will finally get back Joakim Noah the first game after the All-Star break in Toronto Feb. 23, giving the Bulls their first real look at a healthy starting five all season. That’s because when Boozer returned early in December from his broken hand, Noah already has been injured and was playing a few more games before getting his surgery.

So if the Bulls can be 21 games over .500 and just two games out of first place in the Eastern Conference without ever playing with their regular starting lineup, what can the rest of the season hold? And what if the Bulls are able to pull off a trade by the Feb. 24 deadline, though that seems less likely.

The obvious spot has been shooting guard, where Keith Bogans had another good game Tuesday (there’s a sentence not used often this season). Bogans had nine points on three of four three pointers and good defense on Stephen Jackson, who finished with 20 points but never got truly hot.

Bogans has generally been regarded as the weak link in the offense, and he is shooting just 39.4 percent and averaging 3.8 on the season. But in the last eight games, Bogans is 15 of 27 on threes, which is 55 percent, and averaging 6.5 points, which is not unreasonable for a fifth starter who is more a defensive specialist. He’s also eight of 11 on threes the last three games. Is it too late to get him in the All-Star weekend contest?

Not to say the Bulls cannot improve at that position. But Bogans has done a solid job since late last month, and mostly in tougher road games. He’d become lately a special project of Thibodeau’s top lieutenant, Ron Adams, who functions as something of a shot doctor as well. Bogans had kind of a herky jerky follow through, what they sometimes call a “mosquito grabber,” a player who doesn’t hold his follow through, like a golfer who doesn’t finish high. Bogans also was just a bit loose with his shot. “Just tightening a few things up,” said Adams. “Nothing major. Things you could see.”

It’s no guarantee, but Bogans clearly is shooting the ball with more confidence now and in his limited minutes is doing excellent work.

It’s limited because Bogans generally turns over the position to Ronnie Brewer or Kyle Korver, and Korver had a big game with just five shots in 15 minutes, scoring 15 points and making all his field goals and free throws. Thibodeau likes to keep the floor balanced offensively. He’ll finish games with Korver over Bogans, though it’s also why Asik often will get a short run. That’s because Thibodeau feels he cannot keep him on the floor with other non-scorers and creators, and the Bulls have a few too many of those.

“You can’t leave him open,” said Charlotte’s Jackson of Korver. “Everybody knows he can’t do anything else but shoot. When he shoots, he shoots it well. You have to respect him as a shooter. He can’t really do anything else, but if you let him sit out there and shoot he’s going to kill you.”

Now, that was unnecessary.

Actually, Korver is an excellent interior passer and you’d say when his shot is going down like it was Tuesday with barely a movement of the netting, he needs more than five shots. Of course, the Bulls did score 106 points, which was quite enough even with their uneven defensive effort.

“We had pretty good ball movement and guys just found me open,” said Korver. “This is a team we lost to twice. We haven’t played well against them either time. We talked about that a lot the last couple of days. We came out focused and played a pretty good game.”

I’ve felt all season the Bulls need to get Korver more shots as even Thibodeau agrees when Korver misses it still occupies the defense and opens the court more for Rose. The Bulls usually run Korver off a varied sequence of baseline screens like you’d see Ray Allen do. Though they could just spread the court and let Rose drive and kick to him as Korver, who really seems to shoot best standing still. Sometimes it seems when he is running those sets knowing his number was called he’ll force a shot. He should get a dozen shots a game with this team just standing around.

Though Jackson was nice enough to say Korver was robbed not being in the three point contest.

“He should be in the All-Star three-point shootout every year,” said Jackson. “You can’t leave him open. You have to make him dribble or try to penetrate which he’s not good at.”

He just can’t be nice and let it go.

Actually, the Bulls did a fair amount of that standing around early in taking a 29-23 first quarter lead despite 50 percent Charlotte shooting. And the misses were mostly wide open and uncontested.

The Bulls looked as tired as the Bobcats, who were playing their fourth in five nights and coming off a huge home blowout win over the Lakers, another team, by the way, with a poorer record than the Bulls.

Though the Bulls pulled away, Charlotte remains a difficult team for the Bulls. The Bobcats, 24-32, are athletic at the so called wing positions, where Jackson and Gerald Wallace generally have an edge over Bogans and Deng, certainly in athletic ability. The Bulls again had some problems with Charlotte’s drive and kick game as they can beat the Bulls defenders off the dribble. Though the Bulls interior defense was better as Charlotte often plays small.

That, too, gives the Bulls problems with Wallace at power forward and Boris Diaw at center. Diaw had 18 points, but Wallace, bothered by various injuries this season, had just six. Deng did do a relentlessly effective job on him and as the team’s best perimeter defender also took some sequences against Jackson.

“After last night, we just didn’t have it,” said Paul Silas, who is negotiating and likely to remain head coach. “Also, this team was waiting for us. They had the resolve to beat us. It wasn’t any one thing they did. I thought if we could have rebounded the basketball we would have been in it. They had eight offensive rebounds in the first half and we had none. Give them credit. They did what they set out to do tonight.”

Several of those offensive rebounds again were from Omer Asik, who was the Bulls second leading rebounder with seven despite playing fewer than 15 minutes. Those extra possessions are big in any NBA game. Kurt Thomas, playing in his 1,000th NBA game, had six points and five rebounds and looked a bit like it was his 1,000th game. He’s been getting gassed at the end of games, and you hope when Noah returns next week Thibodeau will sit Thomas a few weeks at least to give him a chance to regain his legs and be ready for the vital part of the season.

Also, Taj Gibson was very active defensively again with 11 points and a pair of blocks in 23 minutes in what seems like it’s becoming a bit more of a platoon with Boozer, who played just under 30 minutes.

The Bulls had difficulty in the two losses to Charlotte with Kwame Brown, of all people, who had just two points Tuesday. The Bulls usually start Boozer on the least of the front line scorers, and the Bobcats put Boozer relentlessly in the pick and roll in those games. The Bulls this time put Boozer on Diaw to open the game with Thomas on Brown. Thomas did a good job early in taking Brown out of the game, and Charlotte generally finishes small. They tried to use Diaw to go at Boozer, and had some success. But Diaw is a reluctant offensive player and rarely gets off a large number of shots, even when he seems to have an advantage. Though he made seven Tuesday, he attempted just 11 in 34 minutes.

The Bobcats tied up the game at 39 with just over five minutes left in the second quarter when Boozer got a three point play out of some sharp ball movement and Korver scored three of his five baskets to give the Bulls a 52-45 halftime lead with a 10-2 finish to the half.

The Bobcats got a big game off the bench from Gerald Henderson with 22 and Shaun Livingston was tough on Rose, taking him into the post with his size advantage and finishing with 13 points.

“I liked the way Derrick played,” said Thibodeau. “They were trying to get the ball out of his hand. He made some key passes and some big baskets. Sometimes you beat the press with the pass, sometimes with the dribble and sometimes with the shot. Derrick did a good shot reading what the defense was doing and we had some easy offense off that.”

Rose actually went on an unusually long stretch without a field goal with just two shots in the second quarter. Charlotte was trapping him hard, forcing the ball out of his hands, and at times the Bulls offense stalled. When they passed quickly they got into four on three and three on two and had some easy scores.

D.J. Augustin, who’d given the Bulls and Rose trouble the first two meetings, reinjured his left hard early in the third quarter and left, though Livingston was good. Though Boozer gets criticized for his defense, I liked the play early in the second half when he laid a hard pick and stood up Wallace chasing Deng over a screen and Deng sailed in for the easy layup and three point play for a 55-48 Bulls edge.

Rose didn’t attempt a shot the first five minutes of the third quarter. But he then busted out on a Diaw miss for a layup and foul, then saw the left side open in the halfcourt and blew by Livingston and around Brown at the rim for another layup. Deng then hit a jumper, Rose another runout after a quick Jackson jumper—Charlotte takes a lot of those—and a Bogans three from Rose gave the Bulls a 69-59 lead with 3:40 left in the third and Charlotte was seeing red.

Though not just in the Bulls wearing their red road jerseys at home in what would be a sweetheart of a win.

Being more athletic, the Bobcats began to force the ball at the basket and the Bulls fouled. The Bobcats hit eight straight free throws in the last three minutes of the third and got a Dominic McGuire fast break score after one of Rose’s six turnovers (he had trouble dribbling into traps). That got the Bobcats within 78-73 after three.

Henderson had a huge two hand dunk early in the fourth for Charlotte. But the Bulls defense stiffened and the Bobcats fell into shooting the jump shots that often sink them. Meanwhile, Rose got a foul call and free throws weaving through three defenders to the rim, Gibson got a runout after his own steal and finish, Deng scored after an Asik offensive rebound and Asik even scored getting in deep and pushing the ball over the rim. That sequence with about eight minutes left put the Bulls ahead 88-75, and they did enough the rest of the way to get James Johnson and Brian Scalabrine into the game.

My favorite play late, though, was one of those aggressive traps on Rose, who was pinned near midcourt and the left sideline. Deng was cross court waiting at the midcourt line for a pass, though he probably should have been coming to the ball. Rose went up in the air and Livingston stepped between Rose and Deng for what looked to be an interception and easy layup. But Rose kind of hung there, gave a little shrug as if telling Deng to move up, and hit Deng stepping toward the basket. Rose then got the ball back and got it to Boozer for a slam with the defense shading toward Rose. When Korver drained another smooth three through the barely rippling netting with 2:56 left to maintain the 13-point lead, the fans were about to celebrate free Big Macs and another win.

And as someone said, Don’t get mad, get even. OK, one more to go. Yes, Michael has left the building.

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