Bulls get a rare win in New Jersey


Mar 18

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So here was a game Thursday the No. 2 seeded Bulls were about to give away to the No. 12 seeded New Jersey. You know those 2-12 matchups can always be…

Oh, right. Not the NCAA tournament. These were players with skill, though not always on this night. 

Though among the most skilled this season, the Bulls had just allowed those troublesome Nets to tie the game down the stretch in the fourth quarter and now were coming out of a timeout leading 71-69 with 3:57 left.

Perhaps the Bulls were blinded by the light.

Time for Derrick Rose to do some dancing in the dark.

Rose, who led the Bulls with 21 points, got over a weak screen from Brook Lopez, who specializes in those. Rose stayed attached to Deron Williams, who passed to a rolling Lopez. Kurt Thomas slid nicely in front of Lopez, who pushed off a wild runner long that Joakim Noah batted around and the ball ended up with Thomas.

That’s a stop!

On the next Nets possession, Williams lobbed a cross court balloon that Rose picked off and ran out and scored on for a 73-69 Bulls lead with 3:18 left.

Stop and go!

Three point specialist Anthony Morrow then took a pass in the deep right corner. But Luol Deng closed fast, blocking Morrow’s view of much besides the upper deck and his shot missed wide and went out of bounds. Stop!

The Nets got a call on the rebound. But Williams couldn’t shake Rose and passed to Kris Humphries, who went up but with Noah closing hot potatoed it back outside to Morrow. It was constant defensive motion. Morrow apparently wanted no part of another contested jumper and passed to Sasha Vujacic, who never met a shot he wouldn’t take and airballed one over the rim that Lopez couldn’t run down.

Stop, again!

The Bulls got an illegal defense call with Lopez guarding no one but eying Rose constantly along with Williams and, well, every Net. Kyle Korver made the free throw, 74-69 Bulls.

Rose had so worn out Williams on both ends as Williams shot one of 12 with Rose blocking two of his shots and blew by Williams constantly, the Nets put D-Leaguer Sundiata Gaines on Rose.

Rose beat Gaines with Lopez and Kris Humphries coming out. Rose’s runner bounced off. But Noah, back from missing the Washington game with the flu, tipped the ball in over the always hustling Humphries for a 76-69 Bulls lead with 2:08 left.

And then with under two minutes left, the now beleaguered Williams had his path blocked to the basket by Rose and Noah. He passed back to Lopez, who missed a free throw line jumper.

Stop, you’re killin’ me!

And by the time the Nets scored the next time with just over a minute left, they were down five and trapping out of desperation.

That opened the court, where Luol Deng found Korver open for a three that effectively clinched the Bulls win with a 79-71 lead with 1:16 left. The Bulls went on to an 84-73 victory that brought them to 49-18 and back a half game ahead of Boston for the East’s best record.

Perhaps born to run, but satisfied once again just to stop the other guy from doing so.

And while one regular season game doesn’t have enduring or propitious meaning, the Celtics came into Newark earlier this week and saw the Nets pull away after halftime. And this isn’t that 22-44 Nets team, but one that was working on five straight wins coming into Thursday. So the Bulls basically pitched a defensive shutout down the stretch, another crucial element for playoff basketball. And while it was the Bulls eighth straight win, more importantly, it was their eighth in the last 10 on the road, and done with defense in a game in which the offense wasn’t exactly uplifting with Carlos Boozer still out with a sprained ankle.

“This is what we’ve been doing all year, playing defense,” said Rose. “If our offense isn’t going, and that rarely happens, but if it’s not, we’ll rely on our defense. That’s what we did tonight, make it tough on them. At first the Nets were getting everything they wanted. Then we just closed down the paint and rebounded the ball.”

Simple as that, but not so easy.

The Bulls got a career night from the improving Omer Asik with 11 points, 16 rebounds (nine offensive) and two blocks as they pounded the Nets inside with a 46-22 edge in inside scoring.

That’s the formula, simple as it seems and difficult enough that only the best and most committed can achieve it: Protect the interior, close on the shooters, rebound, get over the screens, drive the pick and roll down to the baseline, help, help, help. Everyone in the league knows what to do. It’s those teams that commit who separate themselves, and the Bulls are doing that. It’s the stuff that prepares you for the playoff battles.

Again, it’s difficult to see lately where the Bulls will have enough scoring. Especially with Noah, though he was weakened some from the after effects of the flu Thursday, not regaining his offensive game since returning from surgery.

He had five points, 10 rebounds and six assists Thursday in his usual active effort. But he’s almost completely abandoned the left elbow jumper that had become fairly reliable and is somewhat hesitant with that driving bank shot down the left side that had been working. Forget the nascent post moves and faux sky hook he was working on.

“That’s the beauty of this team,” said Noah. “We have a lot of weapons. Omer Asik is somebody who lives in the gym, improving his confidence. He’s getting better and better.  He’s understanding how he can score in the offense.  He’s playing at a really high level and we need that to do what we want to do.  I like playing with him.  He’s big and he can contest a lot of shots.  Everybody on this team brings something different to the table and that always helps.”

No, it wasn’t a particularly proficient effort from the Bulls. But you are probably not going to see that many of those, anyway, as their offense isn’t getting them that far, especially as they really haven’t figured out how to play in transition often enough. I know many fans feel Rose is wearing down with declining statistics across the board the last few weeks. But he gets more defensive attention than any one player in the league and Thursday the Nets were even trapping him at times in the backcourt, a rarity in the NBA.

Still, his defense on Williams was terrific, and, frankly, hardly anyone runs with him in transition. He’s too fast. And no one lets you in the playoffs, anyway. So best to get accustomed.

The now ever reliable Deng had 19 points and what was the tiebreaker with a 20 footer to break the 69 tie with 3:57 left. Korver had a dozen with seven in the fourth quarter. But the Bulls shot 40.7 percent and four of 20 on threes, their new favorite toy. And without Boozer, there really is no post play, and certainly little threat.

Still, this was a state of confusion for them where they’d lost against even some bad teams 19 of their last 21 games since 1998.

So the Bulls effectively and impressively ground another one out. Asik stood up strong. He shows no fear. And though he still tends to gather himself a bit much on a catch or rebound instead of going straight up, he holds onto the ball and powers up with it. While he won’t shoot—I think he can and eventually will—he has figured out how to score by chasing Rose to the basket and getting those tips and follows when the defense collapses on Rose.

Asik also made a couple of terrific passes, one to a driving C.J. Watson for a score and a beauty of a no look bounce pass to Taj Gibson, on which Gibson was fouled going in.

Asik is technically a rookie, though he played in Turkey and for the national team. He has a wonderful feel for the game and on defense seems positioned as well as any of the Bulls inside players.

The Nets got off to the quicker start, ahead 16-9. They mixed in some zone, and though Keith Bogans made his first three after five against Washington, he then apparently forgot what he said he was with the Bulls for as he missed his next six.

But Asik came in for Thomas, who was having early problems with Brook Lopez. Lopez finished with 22 points and eight rebounds and made it difficult for Thomas at times as Lopez plays more from the perimeter. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau initially kept Asik with Gibson as Thibodeau likes to keep second unit players together.

But Asik did get some time with Noah, which is a lineup you’d think could provide some opponents with defensive problems in the playoffs. You’d then probably have Korver on the court, which wouldn’t compromise you on defense as you’d have those two seven footers at the basket. And you’d seemingly still have enough of an offensive threat.

Thibodeau gave that duo a look and it helped hold the Nets to 34.9 percent shooting and three of 19 on threes. The 73 points were a Nets low for the season.

“We just couldn’t score points tonight,” said Humphries, a Most Improved candidate with 13 points and 16 rebounds. “We held them to a good amount of points and we just needed to turn it up offensively. But we weren’t able to do that tonight.”

The Bulls pulled ahead 24-20 after one as they closed with an Asik putback and Rose attacking for free throws and a putback of his own miss. He sure doesn’t act tired.

The Bulls nudged ahead 43-36 at halftime in making everything difficult for the Nets. Williams tried the tired trick of falling into Rose as Rose kept getting up in his face on shots, but even the officials wouldn’t buy it this time. The Nets moved in and out of zone and tried several three guard looks, though Deng burned Anthony Morrow when they went small.

The Bulls looked like they were going to put it away in the third quarter with an 8-1 run to open led by Rose that put the Bulls up 51-37, the last score on a running floater over Williams that he should have paid for a seat the way he watched it go. But the Bulls then got jumper happy with four straight misses that stopped their momentum and enabled the Nets to stay within 60-50 after three.

Late in the quarter, Rose had another of those classics as he dribbled on top with Gaines on him. Nets coach Avery Johnson mercifully got Williams off Rose. Humphries came up to double on a Gibson screen, so Rose threw the ball between Gaines and Humphries and jumped between them to get the ball. Rose then blew by Williams sliding over and was up for the layup before Lopez could get out of his defensive crouch.

The Nets got off fast in the fourth with a pair of Travis Outlaw jumpers, though the Bulls still were ahead 62-56 with nine minutes left when Thibodeau went back to Noah and Thomas. Thomas had trouble again with Lopez, who popped out for a pair of jumpers and then slashed by for free throws and an offensive rebound score, and suddenly the crowd was in that “defense, defense” chant and it was 69-69 with 4:36 left.

And the Bulls obviously thought the fans were urging them on. The Bulls made it a 12-2 run over the next four minutes and how do you say, “Back in first place?”

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