Bulls moving through Florida like a hurricane


Mar 5

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Forget trading Joakim Noah for Dwight Howard. You might not even want to trade Omer Asik for Howard.

OK, let’s not get carried away. But the Bulls backup center from Turkey stood tall and stared down the game’s elite tough guy center Friday on the way to a career-high 13 rebounds and a pair of blocks as the Bulls beat the Magic 89-81.

“I just try to do my job,” Asik said in a brief stop before leaving the locker room.

Because he’s uncertain about his English, though to me he seems to speak and understand it very well, Asik rarely talks to reporters. But after some gentle prodding in also playing a career-high 31 minutes, Asik stopped to talk a bit.

“This is the best center in the league,” he acknowledged about Howard. “I just (tried) to take the rebound. The team needs me in that position. I try to do my job.

“He’s really big, big shoulders,” Asik said with his usual half laugh.

Asik’s actually very likeable and always seems to be positive and outgoing. He smiles often and seems to enjoy the locker room banter, even if he rarely joins in.

“I try to stay strong,” said Asik. “When the team needs me, I am ready.”

And the Bulls needed Asik in a big game Friday after the loss in Atlanta—certainly some front court help—as the Magic came out going to their two forces who forced their big comeback over Miami, Jason Richardson and Howard.

Richardson hit a pair of jumpers and the Magic found Howard for lobs and went over the top against Joakim Noah, who always has had difficulty against Howard’s strength and bulk.

But this time Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t hesitate. It’s taken Thibodeau awhile to accept Asik’s defensive abilities as when Noah returned from his broken finger Thibodeau used Kurt Thomas that first game as the primary backup. Not for long.

Now it’s Asik, and the gentle Turk, though only in manner, got the call with 4:40 left in the first quarter after the Magic had taken a 17-11 lead. Thibodeau also replaced Carlos Boozer, who’s been somewhat passive of late and had 12 points and nine rebounds on five of 17 shooting Friday.

And Asik and Gibson, though impressively Asik against Howard, went to work.

First, though, it was Luol Deng with three big scores, all on aggressive drives, that steadied the Bulls stalled offense.

Deng finished with 16 points and six rebounds, but that first quarter run to match Orlando was vital in preventing the Magic from running out to a big lead.

Instead, the Bulls gently crept into a 21-21 tie after one quarter with Rose getting 10 points in the first on the way to a game high 24.

But the biggest factor was Asik standing up to Howard and fighting off the Magic center, who would grow so frustrated late in the first half he swung his elbows at Kyle Korver, earning a 16th technical foul on the season for what will be a one game suspension.

The Magic cried about how difficult it was for poor Howard and how everyone fouls him all the time.

“It’s very frustrating and there’s only so much that somebody can take when people are grabbing you, holding you and slapping you in the face, sometimes you are going to retaliate,” Howard said. “I’ve just got to try to not get so emotional.”

Yet, Asik played what seemed like nearly perfect defense on Howard in several of the eventual six fouls he’d draw. Howard despite all the whining from he and the Magic gets a huge amount of protection from the referees, who generally allow him to run over defenders.

He did so to Asik several times. Howard did get the occasional offensive call, and on one Asik, not exactly busting with muscles yet, lay flat on his back trying to get the license plate number of that truck.

But Asik kept getting back up and holding off Howard where Noah cannot, playing the angles well so the post passing is difficult and the penetrators–the few on the Magic–have difficulty getting to the basket.

I can see Asik because of his intelligence and brilliant defensive instincts becoming one of the top defensive centers in the league in the next few years.

Houston knew that, which was why they offered Courtney Lee. The Bulls knew that as well, which is why they hung up.

“Omer gave his all,” said Rose. “He gives us extra possessions (five offensive rebounds), and that’s what we need from him. Gar (Forman) even before he got here told me we’ve got a guy coming who is aggressive and I see it. He’s giving up his body and for a seven footer and a rookie, it’s (impressive). He’s going to be a big piece for our team.

“They’re a team, especially with Dwight, that tries to bully you inside,” said Rose. “We competed. We knew how important this game was and we wanted to come out with the win. I was playing against Omer when he was in Turkey (for USA Basketball). He was aggressive, doing what it takes. Kind of dirty, but he’s playing well for us now. He’s doing the same thing, playing aggressively, rebounding, chasing down loose balls and playing smart on the inside.”

And Asik was doing it so well, Thibodeau pretty much forgot about Noah, who played just 16 minutes with two points and seven rebounds. Hubie Brown on the ESPN broadcast of the game was raving throughout about Asik in something of a coming out party for the mostly overlooked rookie.

And Magic coach Stan Van Gundy could only point to a 50-30 Bulls rebounding deficit and 23-6 on second chance points despite having the game’s resident tough guy who played virtually the entire game, more than 43 minutes.

“Twenty-three second chance points to our six, ball game over,” lamented Van Gundy. “Everything else even. We couldn’t get a rebound. That’s what the game came down to. It came down to one area, Boozer, Noah and Asik had a great night. They were all over the glass and they crushed us. That was the ball game. Not saying we didn’t do some other things poorly too, but the two teams were fairly evenly matched other than they just absolutely dominated us on the glass. It’s really the way they beat us in Chicago, a few weeks ago. Same thing, dominated us on the glass, out rebounded us by 14 in that game, by 20 tonight, that’s the ball game right there.”

And the race in the Eastern Conference?

The Bulls pulled ahead of the Magic 2-1 with one game left and lead Miami 2-0 with one game left, Sunday at noon on ABC.

The Bulls moved percentage points ahead of Miami into second in the East at 42-18, though remain three games behind Boston for the top seed. The Bulls also lead the Magic by three and one half games with now the Knicks and Philadelphia fighting over the sixth and seventh seeds.

Plus, ESPN put up a statistic during the game saying the Bulls have the sixth easiest schedule the rest of the season.

“We have a ways to go. We can’t really count on Boston to lose a lot more games,” said Korver, who had a big finish with three fourth quarter threes to hold off the Magic among his 10 points. “It’s going to be a huge game on Sunday. I think we are finally healthy. We were missing some guys who missed some big chunks of time throughout the season. We finally have everybody and we are jelling together pretty well. I think our defense has gotten a lot better over the last month.”

It was sharp, and so much so even Thibodeau seemed to like it.

“The second half the rebounding was great,” said Thibodeau. “I thought we closed hard to the three point line (Orlando shot just six of 23 on threes). Offensively, I thought we had good balance. Omer was great from individual post defense to rebounding to shot blocking. He sets great screens, he gets you extra possessions. He and Taj play well together. Kyle comes off the pin downs and usually gets double teamed and makes the right play every time.”

And, of course, there was Rose, still a bit off on his threes as he was zero for five. But his mid range shots went down and his penetration absolutely unsettled the Magic defense with Howard constantly having to step up and the Bulls getting a put back or someone open on the baseline.

I hadn’t heard this comparison much for Rose, but it was interesting as Van Gundy mentioned Allen Iverson in his prime.

“I was talking to the ESPN people before the game,” said Van Gundy. “(Rose) reminds me of when Allen Iverson was playing in Philly and was shooting 38, 39 percent, but was really a great player and one of the things he did for them, is always penetrating, breaking down the defense. Your bigs would come and then they would clean up on the glass because of his penetration. We’re small and other than that, our other guys didn’t rebound. I thought Brandon (Bass) played hard, but he plays 32 minutes, gets three defensive rebounds. We didn’t rebound. They have three guys with five offensive rebounds and we don’t a guy with more than five defensive rebounds. We didn’t get the job done on the glass and so we all deserve a lot of blame there.

That’s where the entire game was decided. We hung around, to not get blown out but they held control of the game.”

The Magic isn’t done quite yet, but they will rue in all their deals losing Marcin Gortat as they have no one to give Howard a break now and are small and relatively unathletic around him. When they go to the bench with the likes of Gilbert Arenas and J.J. Redick, the defense suffers badly and Howard still has to stay in to save the defense.

The Bulls reserves outscored their bench 32-13.

The Magic rely on the three, which was how they fought back against Miami Thursday. Bulls players said they watched Thursday’s game against Miami and saw how Orlando rallied with the three. Though Korver also laughed in describing the Bulls almost 90-minute shootaround Friday morning of Thibodeau going over every offensive and defensive scheme they have. Korver said he didn’t know if it was to initiate Rasual Butler or Thibodeau was just mad over the Atlanta loss. He decided it likely was the latter.

Against the Magic, the Bulls do a good job in not doubling Howard. But when he puts the ball on the floor, the Bulls will dig with a defender off the wing as Howard doesn’t pass well on the move. Otherwise, the Bulls are able to stay with the perimeter guys, none of whom but Jason Richardson really can beat you with the dribble. And Richardson basically chooses to be a shooter. It’s difficult to see where they can go as currently comprised.

The Bulls took control in the second quarter with Thibodeau sticking to his rotation and going with the second unit and staying with Asik well into the period. The Magic went almost five minutes in the middle of the quarter without scoring as the Bulls took a 40-27 lead and led 49-35 at halftime.

The Bulls maintained a 65-57 lead after three, and the turning point against the Magic probably was with the Bulls hanging on midway through the fourth up 72-65 when Asik blocked a wide open Jason Richardson trying a reverse and Rose ran out for a layup and three point play for a 75-65 lead with 6:25 left.

Plenty of time, sure, but that seemed to stunt the Magic momentum. Howard missed two more free throws, and then Rose went up in the air to pass, hung and found Korver for a three and 78-67 lead with just over four minutes left. Korver would actually add two more threes, though Orlando never made another serious run and only hit a few late jumpers to get past 80.

“Sunday’s game is big,” said Rose. “Not because we play the Heat but because it’s the next game. That’s how we take it.”

To borrow one from the Spurs Gregg Popovich: Just pounding the rock. You keep working and you’ll get there. The Bulls seem to be figuring that out very well.

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