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Bulls shoot past the Bucks
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 27
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Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t win Saturday’s game against the Bucks, which the Bulls did, 83-75.
Coaches don’t get anything in the box score. But it was one wonderful sequence late in the fourth quarter that guaranteed the game for the Bulls and gave a look at one big reason this Bulls team has responded so positively and performed above everyone’s expectations.
They are now 40-17, on pace for 57 or 58 wins with 12 wins in their last 15 games. And at 12-0, they are on pace to become the first NBA team ever to sweep its division with four Central Division games left, all on the road.
Saturday’s for the Bulls was the kind of game good teams lose: Coming off the win of the season against Miami, playing a rugged, deliberate Bucks team, a humid, wet winter night that makes you feel loggy. And you’ve got to find the energy from somewhere to play on the road, the first of six of the next seven games on the road.
Still, the Bulls are plugging along, Joakim Noah and those fresh legs, if not those expanded lungs beating the Bucks regularly to the ball on the way to 17 rebounds, nine offensive. But the Bucks do a good job of sealing the middle as Derrick Rose was mostly on the outside, held to 17 points.
“It was a grind out game, a division game,” said Carlos Boozer, who had 13 points and just nine shots. “They’re a tough defensive team. We’re a tough defensive team.”
The Bulls seemed to have the game under control with another big third quarter as they broke from a 39-39 halftime slog fest to a 70-59 lead after three behind 11 of Luol Deng’s game high 19 points.
With the Bucks trailing 74-61 with about seven minutes left, bunny-like Earl Boykins energized the somnambulant Bucks with a pair of threes and an 18 footer. Little big man.
So now the Bucks had moved within nine when Boozer tried a postup move from the right block and got tied up with Luc Mbah a Moute, who led the Bucks with 16. They both went down with no call, and in the scramble for the ball Carlos Delfino came up with the rebound on the opposite side and drove out into a fast break.
Kyle Korver had been guarding Delfino, but was caught on the opposite side, so he signaled to Deng to get Delfino and he’d matchup with Deng’s man, John Salmons. Delfino as he dribbled the right side spotted Salmons on top and Korver moved out to Salmons. Salmons threw to Boykins in the left baseline corner and Korver weaved that way. Boykins faked a three with Korver and Noah running at him—the Bulls were excellent in chasing and closing on defense all game—and then threw back on top to Salmons.
Now open Salmons swished a three, and suddenly the Bucks were within six with just under four minutes left.
“Timeout!” Thibodeau screamed.
And then he really screamed at Korver as Korver came toward the huddle. It had something to do with staying with Salmons. Korver tried to explain Derrick Rose had left Boykins and Boykins had just scored eight straight, but Thibodeau was hearing none of it.
So what did Thibodeau do?
He didn’t bench Korver.
He went to him.
Coming out of the timeout, Rose dribbled to the right side above the three point line and Noah came up to set a screen. Rose took the screen and curled around it toward the middle, where Delfino had to come off Korver to stop Rose. Rose threw to Korver.
That made it 81-72 with 3:42 left, and you knew the way this Bucks team plays and shoots there was no way they’d get to 80.
“We got it close enough to force a timeout,” said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “At that moment we just needed a key stop and another basket and we weren’t able to get it.”
The key moment in the game and Thibodeau turned to the guy he’d just bawled out.
It’s a wonderful trait that Thibodeau has and it’s served him well with this Bulls team and helped them bond and dedicate themselves to Thibodeau’s way of play.
Thibodeau will be loud, demanding and even accusatory. To everyone. It was Korver this time, but it could have been Rose or Noah.
But then it’s over and he moves on, and Thibodeau knew Korver was his best shooter. So not only did he leave him in to finish the game, which he generally does, but he called on him to make the play at the most crucial time in the game.
No, perhaps some guys don’t like being yelled at or havng to face the demands at times. But Thibodeau has a way of instilling confidence and, in effect, challenging players to be their best, and Korver responded as we’ve seen players do all season.
Yes, Rose carries them, stops opponents’ runs, creates his team’s momentum.
But the Bulls continue to get a wide variety of contributions, and Saturday it was Korver off the bench with 11 points, Omer Asik for Kurt Thomas again and grabbing six rebounds, three offensive, in just 14 minutes, and half his rebounds in the fourth quarter. Noah also had three blocks and was the best he’s been, active and quick to the boards, since his return earlier this week, and Ronnie Brewer had another pair of steals and has nine in the last three games.
“That’s a good defensive club,” said Skiles. “They do what we try to do. They try to react to the ball. Their bigs were really active tonight. Our perimeter people, you have to give their bigs credit, we couldn’t drive by their bigs. Their defense is really active coupled with the fact that they basically owned us on the glass.”
It was just a professional effort for the Bulls. Not particularly fancy or memorable, just another winter night in another dark, heavy, listless place, the Bulls wearing a coat of assurance as naturally as a Rose crossover.
C’mon, and who said I can’t write crappy romance novels, too.
It was Mark Twain who defined a classic as the book you have to read that no one wants to.
This was that sort of basketball game.
As Skiles said, both teams want to defend first, squeezing the lane closed and pushing you outside. You want to watch that?
Of course, the Bulls have Rose and they have Brandon Jennings, which makes some difference. And though Andrew Bogut got 16 rebounds, Noah was full of more energy early with all nine of his offensive rebounds in the first half.
Quipped Skiles: “The odd plays got us tonight. Noah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that. I didn’t play with Wilt.”
Still, despite Noah’s activity, the Bulls trailed 25-21 after one quarter and were tied at 39 at halftime.
Though Noah would later make a big defensive play on a tentative Bogut. While Bogut is rebounding, his offensive game remains stagnant due to his serious elbow injury from last season. As a result, he’s still reluctant to go strong to the basket, which he only did occasionally, anyway, when he wasn’t hurt. So Noah got to a running Bogut hook in the lane with about five minutes left in the fourth when the Bucks were trying to make that comeback that Korver’s three eventually throttled.
I did enjoy Thibodeau’s sense of the absurd early after the Bucks took an 11-10 lead as Mbah a Moute, rarely a scorer, was carrying their offense. Boozer usually takes the least offensive front court player, which was Mbah a Moute. Who is not considered a good shooter, or even near average. So Boozer was instructed to lay back and Mbah a Moute kept making short jump shots. Thibodeau just shrugged when Boozer looked baffled.
Anyway, with 6:08 left in the first quarter Keith Bogans committed his second foul and Thibodeau immediately replaced him with Brewer as if Bogans had any chance to play in the fourth quarter. But perhaps it was an offering to Bogans that we worry about your fouls, too.
The Bulls were hitting the boards for second shots, ending with a 28-15 second chance points edge, and pulled back into that halftime tie with five second quarter scores after offensive rebounds.
The Bucks can lull you into this kind of game as their ball movement is limited. They had just 12 assists and take a lot of isolation shots. But they retreat on defense and stop the break despite limited athleticism.
Boozer and Rose also got it going in the third along with Deng as the Bulls opened it up with a 15-5 run midway through the third as Deng drove and made a nice feed to Boozer. Then Deng added a three and a pull up in still another sharp game. Boozer drove by rookie Larry Sanders for a score and popped in a long straight away jumper, and Rose had one of those drives through traffic and scoop for a three point play while the Bucks searched in vain for offense.
It was 70-59 Bulls heading into the fourth.
“The Bulls, they’re defense is unbelievable this year,” said Boykins. “The offensive rebounding really hurt us more than anything.”
Boykins then gave them some life. But the Bulls would stand firm and then a chastened Korver scored the team’s last five points.
The Bucks’ 75 points was a season low, and now this Bulls team gets to start counting down some history of its own. The best ever teams in their division were the Boston Celtics in 2008-09, who went 15-1, the Miami Heat in 2003-04 who also were 15-1 and the 1949-50 Syracuse Nationals, also 15-1, though they were the only one of the three to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. No looking ahead for this group, though perhaps a peak of what might be.