Bulls beat Hornets; finish 3-2 on road trip


Feb 13

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It wasn’t Easy, but it was Big.

The Bulls Saturday came back from a 12-point second half deficit to defeat the fading New Orleans Hornets 97-88 to finish their almost two week Western Conference trip 3-2 and return to 20 games above .500 at 36-16.

The Bulls now have just one more Western Conference road game—in Minneapolis—and are a remarkable 19-8 with Joakim Noah out with a broken finger. Noah will miss just two more games as the team expects him to play Wednesday Feb. 23 in Toronto after the All-Star break.

Plus, James Johnson will return to the team Tuesday when the Bulls come home to play Charlotte after Johnson’s impressive eight game stint in the D-League. Johnson finished up Saturday with 12 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks in a 90-82 Iowa win as the team was 6-2 while he played there. Johnson finished averaging 19.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.5 blocks and with the third best player efficiency rating in the league this season and best for anyone who’s played more than three games. Given his athletic ability, he could be useful to the Bulls.

Also useful Saturday was Omer Asik, with another strong defensive third quarter when the Bulls turned the game around. Asik finished with a career high 11 rebounds in 14 minutes while Kurt Thomas matched that total in another strong effort as he mostly battled the higher scoring David West.

“Good win,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I thought our bench was great. It allowed our starters to get rest and finish the game strong.”

Keith Bogans with 11 points had his first double figure scoring game since Nov. 13 and was in the middle of all the crucial scoring early in the third quarter after the Bulls fell behind 61-49.

Bogans, much condemned this season for his lack of offense, hit a pair of threes in that stretch and scored on a rare driving layup, splitting the Red Sea Hornets defense that allowed 64.5 percent shooting in the second half.

The Hornets, losers of seven of their last nine, were led by Marcus Thornton’s career high 24 points off the bench, which should quiet suggestions the Bulls could pry him away from the Hornets. Though rookie Hornets’ coach Monty Williams seems to use Thornton badly despite Thornton being the team’s best perimeter shooter.

That second half, by the way, was a clinic for the benefit of Chris Paul put on by Derrick Rose, just as Rose had schooled Deron Williams, another point guard formerly regarded as the league’s best.

“Every night, there’s a good point guard in front of him and he’s been geared up to play every one of them,” said Carlos Boozer. “He carries us offensively, and on the defensive end he locks up. He’s a monster. I keep telling people, when it’s all said and done he’s going to be the best one.”

Rose had 13 second half points among his team high 23 as Paul didn’t hit a second half field goal against Rose’s bothersome defense, Rose now having badly outplayed Deron Williams and Paul in their buildings back to back.

No word yet on whether Paul has told coach Monty Williams to hold a press conference to “retire.” Like Deron Williams, Paul likely will be leaving town after next season unless the NBA implements some form of franchise tag that binds players to their teams for a certain period.

As an aside, I sure hope the NBA does as this trend of top players threatening to leave their cities and form super teams is bad for the game and competitive balance, as well as the general spirit of competition. Doesn’t anybody want to beat those guys instead of joining them?

The Bulls did an impressive job of beating those guys from the Big Easy after a rough first half, especially in the second quarter, when the Hornets went small with three guards. The Bulls never matched as Luol Deng, who finished with 14 points, got caught trying to chase down Thornton. The result was an 11-0 Hornets run to close the half. It was aided by a pair of fortunate bounce threes from Paul and Thornton that hit the rim, bounced up and back in. That run enabled the Hornets to take a 53-42 halftime lead.

And then it was nice to see the much maligned—by fans, anyway—Bogans play a key offensive role, both scoring and then assisting on a Thomas basket in pushing the Bulls back into the game.

His middle drive and then a pull up three from Rose concluded a 21-10 Bulls run to open the second half. That got the Bulls within 64-63 six minutes in.

The Bulls got 30 points and 20 rebounds from the bench, and that even without Kyle Korver shooting well. Asik was big again after the Bulls took a breath and fell behind 73-67 with 2:42 left in the third.

Asik tipped in a Taj Gibson miss, thwarted Jason Smith on a roll to the basket and then rebounded a Rose miss and went up and was fouled, actually making both as the Bulls were a surprising 21 of 22 on free throws. The Hornets in a choppy game marked by numerous questionable stoppages of play with odd foul calls, shot 26 of 39 from the line, which in large part led to their demise.

“No excuse for missing 13 free throws in your building,” said Monty Williams.

The Bulls then put the game just far enough out of reach in the fourth quarter as Thibodeau rode the reserves most of the first eight minutes of the fourth with C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer, who combined for 16 points on six of 10 shooting, each making key defensive plays in the stretch. The Hornets scored 35 points in the second half, 14 in the fourth quarter.

It just was a harder working team as Thomas did a good job overplaying the high scoring West, often fronting him in the post and forcing the Hornets away from their primary scoring option. The Hornets are a relatively poor shooting team, and the Bulls also finally began not running so hard at bad shooters, like Trevor Ariza, who’d been pump faking and driving earlier.

Thibodeau demands hard closeouts on the shooters, which is not easy for a relatively unathletic team like the Bulls. Which is why I’d like to see Johnson get some minutes. So when you have to close like that and you aren’t a natural, you can bite on the ball fake, which the Bulls were doing earlier. They began to play smarter, laying off the shooters and watching Willie Green, Marco Belinelli, the two (alleged) shooting guards, and Paul combine for one field goal in the second half.

Plus, West got just three attempts in 20 second half minutes.

“We have to give them credit,” said Williams. “They didn’t change anything. They just jacked up their defense.”

Seven of New Orleans’ last nine field goal attempts in the third quarter were jump shots while the Bulls turned that around and began going to the rim after a leisurely first half admiring jump shots.

That’s the not so easy part, which Thibodeau has done a good job disguising with Noah out. So forget the Hornets complaining Emeka Okafor was out and former Bull Aaron Gray had to start. Other than losing a pregame race with a jar of molasses, Gray was adequate with five points and six rebounds and even beat Deng to a ball on the floor with a half gainer early in the game. And he got up!

The disguising part for Thibodeau is with Noah out he cannot put Boozer on the higher scoring inside player. So Kurt Thomas had to open on West and play him much of the game. Boozer, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, generally plays the non scoring inside guys, Gray this time. But before you go too all non defensive on Boozer, his summer free agent counterparts, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire and David Lee, all are poor defenders, and I had to laugh the other day when Stoudemire ripped the Knicks for a lack of effort after a loss to the Clippers and he had five rebounds, just like he did a few days before in a loss to Dallas and the ferocious Tyson Chandler.

Boozer was brought in to score, and he’s been doing that.

Boozer got the Bulls off to a good start with a drive and baseline reverse against West, another indifferent defensive power forward. Actually, Gray had more effect bothering Boozer as Boozer does have difficulties with size. And in Gray’s case, width as well.

Paul had a fast start with eight of his 15 in the first quarter. But Rose made the play of the quarter after a Paul miss. Rose got the Thomas rebound on a handoff and took off with Paul in pursuit, Paul losing ground to Rose, who went all the way and dunked two handed, a bit, seemingly, out of frustration from a poor shooting start.

That evened the score at 14, and Rose closed the quarter to get the Bulls ahead 24-22 with a fancy teardrop as he was going away from the basket and pushed it back in.

Meanwhile, you watch Paul and you know he’s not the same guy. He doesn’t have the quickness he did to beat anyone into the lane and then make the play. It seems obvious he’s not fully recovered from his knee surgery and doesn’t quite impact the game like he did.

“I’m missing everything I shoot at the rim,” said Paul. “I’ve got to somehow, some way, find a rhythm and find a way to get some easy baskets.”

He’s also annoying the way he always lets the inbounds pass roll to halfcourt before picking it up, as if those extra three seconds on the clock will do more for that gruesome New Orleans offense.

The game see sawed to open the second quarter, though I have issues with Watson hitting a jumper to give the Bulls a 30-26 lead.

It’s part of the chance of sport, especially basketball.

Boozer had gotten good post position, but Korver was a little slow to clear. So Watson couldn’t get the post pass in because the guard trailing Korver was too close now to Boozer. So Watson pulled up and made the 18 foot fadeaway. It was a bad shot. At least, he should have waited and reposted. But he made it. Good shot!

Though the Bulls began to lose control of the game with a curious clear path foul call with New Orleans leading 36-35 with 5:25 left.

Deng lost the ball to Thornton and seemed to run beside him fouling him on a break. The officials decided it was a clear path/breakaway foul, so Thornton got a pair of free throws and then the ball and scored on a drive.

That four point play sent the Hornets on a 17-7 run to close the quarter and that 53-42 halftime lead as the Bulls never did adjust to Deng being beaten by Thornton as the Hornets played both Paul and Jarrett Jack.

It hadn’t been a good stretch for Brewer, who’d been having trouble with Thornton. Boozer was now taking a shot on David Andersen, and fortunately for the Bulls he through he could shoot. Boozer was losing him, but Anderson was firing long jumpers, one with Boozer 10 feet off him and yelling “Oh, crap” so loudly they could hear it in the balcony.

But it was that sentiment for the Bulls to close the first half as the Hornets were again having some success also using the quicker West to go at the slower Thomas, who regained energy from who knows where to shut that down in the second half.

Rose has played well on defense this season even as Portland’s Nicholas Batum made those critical comments earlier in the trip. So Rose then made the defensive play of the game against Williams in Utah and Saturday stopped Paul on a two on one break when Paul got back the pass. Rose turned and held his position and seemed about to block Paul’s layup attempt when Paul pushed off and was called for an offensive foul, which had to be obvious in a game the Hornets shots 17 more free throws.

“I contested all his shots and just tried to make him work,” said Rose.

That play kept New Orleans from going ahead 69-63 in the middle of the third, and it was interesting when Boozer scored on a drive moments later and was immediately replaced by Taj Gibson. Boozer walked very slowly off the court and would be out for Gibson for the next 11 minutes.

The Bulls had pulled within two to open the fourth, and then took an 80-79 lead, their first since midway through the second quarter, on a strong drive by Deng.

We know Deng isn’t great off the dribble, but he has been better this season. The principal reason is he’s not athletic in the classic sense with an upright posture. But he’s worked hard at it this season and in pregame drills I’ll watch him for 10 minutes dribbling two basketball simultaneously with an assistant, often Rick Brunson, walking around trying to steal one of the balls and Deng keeping both dribbling and moving at the same time. It’s pretty impressive to watch, and it seems to have helped his flexibility and ball handling.

With the score tied at 80 with 8:40 left, the Bulls took control. Brewer had a terrific block on a fast break runout by Thornton, which the Bulls turned into a three for Watson. Watson then stole a pass from Gray, drove full court and scored. The Bulls then forced the Hornets into shot clock violation and Brewer converted Thomas missing short with a rebound and layin for a 87-80 lead.

It was classic to watch Thibodeau down in almost a four point defensive stance with Gibson and Brewer catching Thornton in a sidecourt trap and Thibodeau bouncing around and urging them to close.

There was 5:45 left, but Thibodeau left Rose and Boozer on the bench as he’ll go with the reserves if things are going well.

“They’re the reason why we won this game,” said Rose said of the bench players.

Paul missed a long, bad jumper, though for some reason Thomas ran it down with it going out of bounds and touched it. But Paul would miss again with Rose in his face. The Bulls came back with a terrific interior pass from Korver to Gibson, who’d set a brush screen and then rolled in for a slam dunk and 89-80 lead with five minutes left.

Watson then made a lazy crosscourt pass Ariza turned into a breakout to bring the Hornets within 89-84 with 4:14 left, and Thibodeau immediately called time and brought back Rose and Boozer.

After a Boozer air ball, the Hornets missed their last real chance with a Green miss with Korver playing good defense. Rose then hit a rolling Boozer for a layup. Then Thomas stepped up on Paul going over a screen to draw a charge. Thibodeau made an emotional charging call on the sideline, though the one from the referee counted more. Rose then closed it out, in effect, when he retrieved the ball after seemingly losing it and blowing by Paul and scoring on a floater that bounced around and in for a 93-84 lead with 2:27 left.

Deng and Boozer helped hold the Hornets off with late scores. Chicago, they’ll see you Tuesday. It’s party time, New Orleans!

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