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Bulls put on a show for 1991 champions
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 13
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All that was missing was the shrug. Sorry, wrong year.
It was the 20th anniversary celebration Saturday in the United Center of the Bulls’ first championship, and 2011 looked a lot like the 1990s with a 68-point first half in which the Bulls led by 30 points and equaled an all-time NBA record with thirteen first half three pointers made on the way to a wire to wire 118-100 victory over the Utah Jazz.
So, of course, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was depressed and morose.
“Fools gold,” Thibodeau complained about all the first half threes attempted. “The defense in the second half was poor, to be honest. The first half we did a lot of great things to build that lead. I was concerned at halftime (ahead 68-41). We were making a lot of threes. I thought we started with the three instead of establishing inside/out. What that led to was transition, so they were able to make up ground.”
Yes, the Jazz eventually did get as close as trailing 102-89 with 5:44 left.
And then Kyle Korver made a three, another of a team record 18 (of 32) the Bulls converted in a night that paid tribute to the 1991 Bulls as much as did a thrilled and enthusiastic sellout crowd.
The current Bulls did so with as energetic and electric first half as we’ve seen all season from this vastly improving team that now is effectively tied with Boston—just percentage points behind—for the best record in the Eastern Conference at 47-18.
And this was no easy assignment, the fifth game this week and second back to back with the anticipation of the welcoming back halftime ceremony of the 1991 champions.
But led by Derrick Rose and Luol Deng each with 26 points and hot Korver off the bench with 17 along with C.J. Watson with 16, the current Bulls were so impressive they even impressed the man who has done it all, Michael Jordan.
Jordan’s rare appearance at the United Center was greeted by gasps of wonder from the supportive crowd. And Jordan, taking time to honor the memory of former broadcaster Johnny Kerr as well, was effusive and complimentary about this current Bulls team, almost unctuous for him given his natural competetitive nature.
He told the crowd in a brief halftime address after Scottie Pippen also talked that in Rose the Bulls have the league’s MVP, which he’d mentioned when the Bulls were in Charlotte earlier this week, and added, “You guys (fans) are in store for a lot of other championships. You look at this team tonight. Don’t be surprised if you don’t have six more coming.”
It was a gracious statement from a man who tends to be sparing in praise, especially to opponents, and the Bulls are one as Jordan is owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. But Jordan, speaking to reporters after the halftime comments, said in watching the first half with his former teammates in the owners’ suite he told John Paxson the Bulls could win the East playing the way they’ve been playing.
“Everybody is talking about Boston and Miami and Orlando,” Jordan offered. “But people tend to forget about getting by Chicago. You can have a lot of work on your hands.”
Jordan, 48, also was reflective in offering, “I wish we could turn the clock back. That’s how I feel. Father Time is coming, touches everybody. I miss it.”
It was humbling comments for the Bulls players from the man generally regarded as the game’s greatest player, though Thibodeau’s reaction to the events on the court, and the players welcoming and endorsing it later in the locker room, suggest this is a Bulls team that should be taken seriously.
I’ll admit it’s been difficult at times for me to do so with the seeming hole at shooting guard, injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, the latter out with a sprained ankle, and not quite fits backing up Rose and Deng.
But the Bulls simply buried a Jazz team that does appear to be fraying with the resignation of Jerry Sloan trade of Deron Williams. Paul Millsap was out for them as well as Mehmet Okur. They were led by Al Jefferson with 33 points and 18 rebounds and 24 points for Devin Harris, though most after the game had long been decided.
That really occurred in a remarkable first quarter display of shooting before the home crowd more anticipating the appearances of Jordan, Pippen and the group.
But Rose came out firing making five of six threes in the first quarter alone. Then Watson in arguably his best game as a Bull with 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 17 minutes as Utah went small late, hit three of three second quarter threes as the Bulls set first quarter and first half three point shooting records and season highs in points for the first quarter and half.
Their energy, understandably, could have been drained some by the extra long halftime for the ceremony, which the players came out to watch.
Utah outscored the Bulls 59-50 in the second half and shot 51.4 percent after halftime, and it is only human to be caught up in the events of the night and having such a domination of the game that with four minutes left in the third quarter the Bulls still were leading by 25.
“In the second half we were fouling them and taking the ball out the net so that slowed transition,” said Thibodeau. “We had 118 points and that was more than enough. The defense (was the problem). We were going to a drive and kick game and passing up some open shots. We tried to create and their defense was sitting on those passes. We ended up turning it over and then we became tentative. And once you do that you’re back on your heels. You have a tendency to relax. Keeping your focus in critical. I knew going in it would be a tough game. We came off back to back and a lot of games in a week. I loved our energy in the game. I thought we were ready to play. In the second half, we just did not play well. We did enough to close it out.”
But it is the element that’s been missing with this Bulls team and a lot of teams around the NBA. They aren’t satisfied to be where they are, which is Star Trek like it being where no man thought they could go.
“I knew they had a solid core,” said Kurt Thomas, starting again for Boozer and with nine rebounds and some of the hardest screens you’ll see in the NBA. “When Booz signed and Tom Thibodeau did, I felt this was the place for me. But this team last year was basically a .500 team. They barely got themselves into the post season. New faces, a new coach. I wasn’t thinking anything like this.”
But the Bulls are right there with their 11th consecutive home win and sixth straight overall. Their next four games all are against sub-.500 teams starting with Washington Tuesday with 10 of their final 17 against losing teams. While Boston has a stretch of seven road games in nine coming up, though Miami is just two and a half behind and coming hard. It still figures to be a three team race to the finish line in the East, but the Bulls are right there to the surprise of everyone.
“Everybody sees we’re a team that can compete with anybody,” said Joakim Noah, who had 16 points and nine rebounds in his most active offensive effort since his return from surgery last month. “But for us, it’s all about what we think. What people think does not help you win basketball games.
“When you have a player like Michael giving us love like that it feels great,” said Noah. “At the same time after he said that we did not have a great second half. We still have to go out and play the game and stay hungry and understand all this happens because of hard work.”
And Noah is among those continuing. We finally started to see some of those aggressive left handed driving layups he had been getting so good at before breaking his thumb last November. Noah admitted he’s been reluctant to try much offense as his timing and conditioning still are not where he needs it after more than two months off.
“I’m just playing on instinct now,” said Noah. “I feel I’m getting better offensively, but I’ve got to work on my game. I still feel I’m not where I need to be conditioning wise and my timing isn’t good. I’ll keep playing and see what happens.”
So really you have the Bulls doing this with Boozer out and Noah not yet at full strength.
I thought Thibodeau was a bit quick with the hook on Omer Asik, but Thibodeau likes Thomas’ defense. Jefferson did have a big game against Thomas after Thomas had done a tight job limiting Al Horford in Friday’s win over the Hawks.
Though smallish, Jefferson gets his shot off fast, and the late coming Jazz finally settled into their offense in the second half as Jefferson took advantage of the guards’ penetration with Thomas having to step up and the Bulls rotations slow on the back side.
Utah kept running that play in the second half, and the Bulls also were a bit balky against the Jazz zone in the fourth quarter. Few NBA teams use a zone much. But the Bulls have had trouble attacking zone and usually waste several possessions getting in position. It happened again Saturday, but with such a big lead Deng, Korver and Watson were able to find some open spots to close it off. The Bulls were so secure Rose didn’t have to score in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Bulls on offense when things are clocking, as they were in the first half, are wonderful to watch. The ball sails around with terrific side to side movement, which thwarted the Jazz’ early lazy defensive effort. New coach Ty Corbin is trying, but it’s tough to replace Jerry Sloan.
The Bulls move and replace with precision on offense with drive and kicks, reversals, replacements, skip passes and continued motion. It was only later in some halting moments against the zone the movement wasn’t electric.
“We love our bench,” said Korver, who was seven of 10 shooting and had six assists. “We love playing with one another and we play with a little chip on our shoulders, like we have something to prove. And it shows.”
Korver is a very underrated passer, and the Bulls take advantage with a curl play they run constantly for him where he comes off a down screen and then as the defense closes hits the screener rolling to the basket.
He doesn’t play that two man game as much with Thomas, who may set the hardest screens in the league. I know Kevin Garnett is a good screener, but Thomas sets those stand you up screens that helped in getting Rose going.
“Derrick hit some threes early and we go as he goes,” said Korver. He came out early and we followed his lead.”
It sent the expectant crowd into paroxysms of joy in a 17-2 start.
“I’m old school,” said Thomas. “I know the importance of setting a screen and getting guys open. I just do my job.”
Certainly in the first half everyone did as Watson’s shot was tight and Korver’s was meticulous. The Bulls bench outscored the Jazz’ for the game 41-16 and the Bulls had 19 fast break points. And you knew this was the Bulls night not only with their Hall of Fame looking on but late in the second quarter with Rose and Noah fighting for a loose ball. It somehow flew out to the corner where Deng was observing. Deng picked it up and nonchalantly dropped in a three to make it 62-34.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Deng, who continued his inspired play on his bruised thigh. “We’re not where we need to be and not close to where they (Bulls of 1991) are as a team, but we are trying to get there.”
Someone mentioned to Deng that Jordan also had said Deng is the “deciding factor” in a team winning a championship. “Great,” Deng said with a laugh, not caring to hear more of that.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said of being tied with Boston. “We play Washington next. That’s the main focus.”
The kind of focus, actually, eventually can produce something special as those old timer Bulls once did. To borrow a nickname from Cliff Levingston, it’s good news.