Bulls make Wizards disappear


Mar 16

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This Bulls season, in some respects, is a referendum or perhaps laboratory experiment on how to construct a team, whether to populate it with superstar talents or whether to combine pieces that mesh even if they don’t sparkle.

And while the final verdict won’t be in for several months, thus far the conventional wisdom that you need more stars is losing.

Because with the Bulls 98-79 victory Monday over the Washington (not so much) Wizards, the Bulls took over first place in the Eastern Conference with a 48-18 record. The Bulls’ 12th consecutive home win and seventh straight overall also gave them the second best record in the league behind only the Spurs and at 22-9 the only team in the league winning more than 70 percent of its games against teams with winning records.

“A lot of times people are putting pieces together before they see it,” said Luol Deng, whose 20 points supported Derrick Rose with 23. “We’ve got a good thing going here. We’ve only lost 18, so I think we have a pretty good team. This is all about team.

“You can put pieces together and you don’t know what you will get,” noted Deng, who didn’t compare it to a box of chocolates. “I’ve always said we know what we have here. It’s working out pretty good. We’re winning.

“Once you start mixing things up, and I’ve seen it happen a lot around the NBA, it doesn’t always work out,” said Deng. “It might sound good on paper, but there’s only one ball out there.”

The obvious comparisons are with the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, though Deng was hardly suggesting the Heat is in trouble. In fact, my personal opinion is they will be the toughest playoff out ahead of the lately stumbling Celtics.

And it wasn’t like the Bulls last summer weren’t interested in their own superstar lineup.

But thus far it seems to be working out even better, and even with much maligned (publicly) Keith Bogans at shooting guard.

“It doesn’t frustrate me at all,” laughed Bogans about another question regarding his shaky standing in the community.  “I’m being talked about.”

Among the Wizards as well as Bogans scored a season high 17 points, his second game scoring in double figures since Nov. 13. His 29 minutes also were the most he’s played since then.

“I know my role on this team,” said Bogans, who was five of 10 on three pointers as with Washington in a sagging zone the Bulls were 12 of 32 on threes. “We have a great team. Guys know when one guy goes down someone else has to step in and do more. We understood that after having (Carlos) Boozer out at the beginning of the season.”

Boozer Tuesday missed his third game in a row with a sprained ankle and Joakim Noah was out with the flu.

“I don’t worry about individual stuff,” said Bogans. “I think people overlooked us early in the season and now they are starting to realize how good a team we are, though we still have a long way to go. I usually don’t play as many minutes as I did tonight, so I tried to take advantage.

“They kept clogging up the paint and giving us wide open looks on the perimeter, so we had to take advantage,” said Bogans. “I can score the ball, but that’s not my job here. Being an older guy, I have to play my role, and that’s defense first. Me doing that makes us a better team. If the shots are there, I’ll take them. But I’m not going to force anything. Coach tells us if your shot is there to take it. If I’m open on the arc, he feels that is my shot. He doesn’t care if I miss or make. He wants me to take that shot.

“Our team has three big guys to start the game,” noted Bogans. “I want to defend the best perimeter guy, to slow him down. I wasn’t brought in to shoot the ball. When I came here, we didn’t even discuss offense. We only discussed defense.”

Just a piece that helps make the whole.

And so it was again, someone went out and someone else just filled in.

Taj Gibson stepped back into the starting lineup for Boozer and had nine points and 13 rebounds in just 27 minutes.

Kurt Thomas moved back to center for Noah and had eight points, 15 rebounds and two blocks, and had a good time after the game ribbing Bogans for reporters clustered around Bogans’ locker for interviews in a rare scene  this season.

“Always getting the attention,” Thomas joked.

Brian Scalabrine, who made a surprise first quarter appearance, meanwhile, was announcing to reporters his personal disgust at missing a three pointer with 37.9 seconds left that would have given the Bulls 100 points and free McDonald’s hamburgers for all the fans.

“Make sure to tell the fans I’m sorry. I could have given everyone Big Macs,” Scalabrine announced in the locker room.

He was tempted to take one more shot at it with the fans urging him on in the last 10 seconds with the ball. He turned toward Thibodeau, who advised against it in one of those unwritten sportsmanship rules and Scalabrine looked rueful.

The famed singer Aretha Franklin was sitting courtside for the game and in leaving a bit early she may have been personally devastated by the failure to bring home the free burger.

A seeming lack of respect.

But not so against the Bulls anymore.

They have won their last four by at least 17 points and are first in defending the two point and three point shots and overall rebounding percentage. They are second to Miami in point differential and tied for fifth in most blowout wins. And now going down the stretch of the season, the Bulls face just four teams—Atlanta, Memphis, Boston and Orlando—among their 16 games who have records better than two games above .500. Thus, the Bulls appear to have an excellent chance to win at least 60 games, needing to finish 12-4, a percentage just slightly below their season average.

“Our second quarter was very poor,” said Mr. Happy, coach Tom Thibodeau.  “Our floor balance was bad.  I did not like our defense.” 

So there.

No, this Bulls team won’t be caught looking ahead as it was difficult to get any of the players to even acknowledge they had gone into first place in the Eastern Conference.

I am not sure, but my guess is if they look beyond the next game Thibodeau will enforce some sort of Biblical punishment having to do with locust, boils and frogs.

It once again was a game the Bulls pretty much dominated against a poor opponent, the 16-50 Wizards leading only in the first three and a half minutes before the Bulls started raining down threes on the way to a 31-19 lead after one quarter.

Wizards coach Flip Saunders is one of the few NBA coaches who frequently plays zone, and he said his team couldn’t handle Rose man on man. Rose’s penetration into the paint was too easy and set up too much the few times they tried, Saunders said, so they went zone most of the game.

The Bulls’ three point shooting after setting a franchise record Saturday against the Jazz has been improving, and now they’re 13th in the league. With injuries, the Wizards had nine players, six of them rookies. And it’s not like their so called veterans know basketball very well, either.

So they decided to just settle into what Saunders calls his hyperbolic, paraboloid, transitional floating zone and let the Bulls fire away, which isn’t that bad a strategy. Though the Bulls now move the ball so well and are so unselfish and with their share of good passers, like Kyle Korver and Deng, the zone becomes much less effective than it was earlier in the season when they were struggling to make threes. The Bulls had 24 assists on 36 baskets and 20 fast break points.

Still, after trailing by 17 early in the second quarter, the Wizards got within 50-46 at halftime when Thomas, of all players, closed the half with a three. With Bogans sitting out the second quarter, the Bulls lost rookie Jordan Crawford, who got hot with three threes and 15 points in the second quarter to rally the Wizards. JaVale McGee also began to get into the Bulls heads with three more blocks among his NBA season best 12, the most in the NBA in 10 years.

“He impacted the game,” said Thibodeau.  “I would like to see us pulling up more in an in between game or going to the hoop and laying it off to the big man.  He is a hard guy to shoot over. “

Deng admitted he was flipping the ball up softly as McGee began to swat away shots.

“I came out in the second half with the mindset of driving it into him,” said Deng.

Thibodeau doesn’t usually make big halftime adjustments. It’s usually more a request for a more singular effort, and at halftime the coaches had the statistics written on the chalkboard with the Wizards first half shooting percentage of 48.6 percent and the Bulls eight turnovers circled.

Thibodeau’s strength also is not just noting it, but reinforcing what the team needs to do regarding those numbers, and in the second half the Wizards shot 37.1 percent and the Bulls committed four turnovers.

The defense tightened. Rose went up to block a Wall shot and Wall had to come down still with the ball and was called for a travel. The Wizards helped when in one play you don’t see much Trevor Booker while getting ready to throw the ball in dribbled it inbounds, which is a turnover. Rose also stripped Wall on a drive as the Wizards’ prize rookie finished with a good line of 17 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four steals (also seven turnovers). But in that lineup with often feckless attempts around him, Wall seems to have limited impact on the game and may be developing some bad habits with out of control play.

You can understand why in that situation.

A few things stood out as the Bulls inexorably pulled away.

Late in the game, McGee was getting close to a triple double with the blocks, which he eventually got with 11 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks. He was short three points with 3:51 left and the Bulls leading 91-77.

McGee drove coming out of a timeout for a dunk and was fouled, but missed the free throw, thus one point short.

He then shot a wild spinning jumper, an airball from 12 feet and kicked the ball out of bounds before Saunders called a timeout. Eventually, he would get his triple double on a dunk—“A dunk of relief,” he called it-—with 18.7 seconds left and the Bulls leading by 20. Yes, we may be seeing the seven foot Nate Robinson.

So just about the same time, maybe 40 seconds before, the Bulls are leading 97-77 after Rose made a three pointer.

Crawford was busy airballing a three. Then Rose tried one and missed and the ball began to bounce out of bounds. So Rose began chasing. Maybe you winced about where he was going with a 20 point lead and a minute left. But you just play. Rose cupped the ball going out of bounds and got it back in to a teammate before leaving for the night.

“I was really mad I missed the shot,” said Rose. “It was a chance to get it. If it were someone else on the team, they would have done the same thing.

“Everyone who came in filled their spots,” said Rose. “Keith had a huge night. Taj. That’s what it’s all about, giving your all and playing. (Ronnie) Brewer came out and gave us energy. We’ve got everyone playing well now and playing together. We’ve got 16 more and we’re trying to get them all.”

So who’s doubting them anymore?

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