Bulls stop Bucks in Milwaukee


Mar 27

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Maybe the way Derrick Rose makes those boasts, with his soft, determined style, is why we don’t take him seriously enough. Like when everyone laughed at first before the season at his rare personal swag, as Joakim Noah might term it, that he could be the league MVP. Sure, kid.

I took that, frankly, about as seriously as when late last season after a brutal home loss to Milwaukee and double overtime loss to lowly New Jersey that Rose said the 38-41 Bulls would win their last two road games and at home against Boston to make the playoffs. Sure, kid.

But now, after Saturday’s again Rose inspired win, carrying the Bulls down the stretch once again, this time to 95-87 win in Milwaukee, I’m no longer ignoring his comment from last week of the Bulls running the table to win the East.

That was four games ago, the last two with the Bulls mostly outplayed until being saved by Rose, who scored or assisted on every basket the last four minutes Friday against Memphis and Saturday against the Bucks. And now with 12 wins in the last 13 games and a two and a half game lead over fading Boston for the best record in the Eastern Conference, I’m not doubting anything the 22-year-old says.

Rose finished with 30 points and a career high 17 assists while making 12 free throws for the second straight game. His 30 and 17, according to Elias Sports, enabled him to join Michael Jordan and Guy Rodgers as the only Bulls ever to get at least 30 points and 15 assists in a game and the first since Jordan in 1989. Jordan did it three times and Rodgers twice.

It wasn’t until his slashing drive as he changed direction in the air to avoid a charge with 1:53 left that the Bulls led for the first time in the game, 89-87.

Rose then completed the Bulls’ 8-0 run to close the game with a teardrop runner from the free throw line, a short jumper from about 15 feet and a pass to Ronnie Brewer on a fast break after the suddenly lock down Bulls defense stripped Andrew Bogut and left the Bucks without a field goal for the last five minutes of the game.

“His (Rose) will, the pace, making plays, scoring, whatever we needed he provided,” agreed Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau once again.

“Derrick’s game was unbelievable,” added Joakim Noah, who came back with a more active effort with 12 points, 11 rebounds. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger, and when your point guard is playing like that it gives you confidence as a team. You realize how hard he’s going out there and you just want to go out and do the same for him.”

For the amazing Rose, it was just another day at the park, havin’ fun, ballin’.

The only time the Bulls lost since March 2 was overtime last week in Indiana when Rose tied a career high with 42, including 19 in the fourth quarter to carry the team back. Afterward in the locker room, players said they tried to get Rose to acknowledge despite the loss having such a game. Rose just shrugged.

Like Mike’s company said, just do it.

Just win, baby!

And the baby continues to amaze.

With a 53-19 record and 10 games left, six against teams with losing records, the Bulls just might run the table. It sounds ridiculous to finish like that. But If Derrick suggests it’s possible, who am I to question. After all, he’s the one who’s been right just about every time.

I know there’s been this debate about the MVP award, which Rose likely will receive. I’ve voted in these the last few decades, and there is no criterion. But generally the tiebreaker is team record if the guys are close. It’s some amalgam of the player having the best season for the best team. If the Bulls do win the East, it likely would be a lock for Rose.

Of course, there always are doubters and detractors, and, hey, Jordan didn’t win every year. But this is historic stuff we’re seeing with this kid. You don’t realize it’s historic when you are part of it, or watching it on a laptop, for example.

Few in the midst of history declare it. It’s way too presumptuous. But we’ve never seen a point guard doing these things with these abilities, the driving explosion shredding good defensive teams, the incredible will and desire matched with a soaring talent.

I had mentioned in my write up after the Memphis game Friday night that there wasn’t anything Rose couldn’t do. Someone contacted me and said Rose wasn’t a good interior passer.

Oh, yeah!

Not that I told Rose. But Rose once again saw the paint filling like a rush hour El platform, the Bucks overplaying, employing lane denying defense that he’ll see for the rest of the season. And from a pretty good defensive team in the Bucks with coach Scott Skiles.

Rose made some brilliant interior passes, late in the first quarter for a dunk by Luol Deng to get the Bulls within 25-21 after one and a pair of beauties after the Bulls had fallen behind by 15 in the third quarter, one of several to Carlos Boozer, who had a big effort slipping screens, and another to Noah as the defense once against stepped up at Rose’s penetration.

The defense isn’t going to let him shoot? OK, he’ll pass. This was the kid who wasn’t supposed to be able to shoot. So now he’s among the league leaders in three pointers made. So then he didn’t have those gaudy assist numbers. You know. He’s a scorer, not a passer. So defenses overload to him the last four games and he’s averaging more than 10 assists and still top 10 for the season. Can’t get to the free throw line? Can’t draw contact? OK, Rose is averaging more than 10 free throws per game the last five.

After a shaky start with just two points in the first half and getting the ball stripped or unable to get shots off as bigger guys closed on him, Boozer got the pick and roll working with Rose after halftime and finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, though he still didn’t get to the free throw line. Boozer has attempted just four free throws in the last 85 minutes. But despite his career average close to 20/10, he’s never been prolific in getting to the free throw line, averaging barely more than four attempts per game in his career. He’s been a little shaky since returning from his latest sprained ankle, but he still does draw double team attention on defense, which opens things up a bit for Rose as well.

Of course, he’ll have to produce to continue that sort of coverage.

The Bucks, like the Grizzlies Friday night with Tony Allen, primarily played off Keith Bogans, thus having another perimeter defender drop toward Rose. That was big for Milwaukee in its major run of the game, 12-1 after halftime to take a 60-45 lead after Bogans missed two wide open threes.

But Bogans, who had eight points in 16 minutes, recovered nicely and didn’t back off, hitting a pair of threes which were crucial in enabling the Bulls to recover the rest of the quarter and trail just 74-69 going into the fourth. Bogans even took off on a drive for a score, a rarity from him this season.

The Bulls are going to see plenty of that sort of coverage in the playoffs. And Bogans seems up to it. He’s shooting 37.2 percent on threes this season, the second highest of his career. And since the beginning of December, he is shooting 42 percent on threes, which ranks among the best in the league. That’s right, Keith Bogans. So give it a rest.

Thibodeau has worked into a nice rotation with Bogans opening the first and third quarters, generally replaced by Brewer, who had an active game with 10 points, and finishing with Kyle Korver, the team’s best three point threat, but who was dry Saturday night.

Still, it’s a rotation that seems to work well as Brewer doesn’t have the shooting range to open the floor enough for Rose, but is a good defensive energizer along with Taj Gibson, the latter pushing Boozer with his aggressiveness when he comes off the bench.

Saturday’s win gave the Bulls a 4-0 season sweep over the Bucks, who fell two games behind Indiana for the last playoff spot in the East. Charlotte is one game behind and any of the three could get into that final place. The Bulls have a game left with Boston, April 7, and trail the season series 2-1. If they end up tied, the tiebreaker would be conference record, which Boston leads by 1.5 games. The Bulls swept Miami 3-0, which is the first tiebreaker with the Heat three games behind the Bulls now.

The second place team likely gets the Knicks and the third place team likely gets the 76ers. The first place opponent seems open among the Pacers, Bobcats and Bucks.

But as everyone around the Bulls knows despite this wonderful season, this core group of Bulls with Rose, Noah and Luol Deng, who never got involved offensively with six points and five rebounds, hasn’t won a first round playoff series. And now in the last week there is a loss in Indiana, a desperate comeback to beat Milwaukee and similarly a strong finish to hang on and get by Memphis, all teams eighth in their conference or poorer. As good as the Bulls have played, they still have some proving to do around the NBA—and perhaps to themselves—as a playoff team.

It wasn’t particularly encouraging Saturday as the Bucks jumped out 15-8 with Noah and Boozer getting beat on help side again, and early the two having little huddles to perhaps ask, “Where the heck were you?”

“We’re still not where we need to be,” said Thibodeau. “We dodged a bullet. We trailed most of the game, that’s two games in a row. Defensively we’re very poor in the first half, so we’ve got to change it.”

Salmons, with a team high 25, was having his way with Bogans, and Carlos Delfino, who added 23, was losing Deng in screens and making five of seven threes.

The reserves, as they’ve been doing lately, rallied the team back into the game to open the second quarter with a nice Gibson reverse and a Brewer jumper. Thibodeau has been subbing Boozer and Noah out early, and generally now has been going with Kurt Thomas in the first quarter so he can keep Omer Asik with the second group, which has performed well.

Noah did show a bit more offensive aggressiveness Saturday, though he remains hesitant on his elbow jumper. He did run out ahead for a layup, which he’s done little of lately, generally his specialty and edge over the stronger centers. But on the defensive end he still isn’t really being a blocking force at the basket like he has been at times and the Bulls generally now are best that way with Gibson playing.

The Bulls evened things up midway through the second with Rose making a classic move on Brandon Jennings, Jennings going to his left in one of those “Where did he go” moves with Rose reversing to Jennings’ right, then down the lane and past Andrew Bogut for the layup.

The usually big Chicago contingent in nearby Milwaukee exploded, though it’s always fun to watch the Bulls bench with players miming Rose’s hip or shoulder move and shaking their heads over what they see and still find remarkable.

Rose closed the scoring for the Bulls in the first half with a drive past the weary Jennings and through Bogut and Larry Saunders at the rim as the Bulls opened the court, a formation that seems to make Rose virtually unstoppable with him getting foul calls now. But the Bulls defense again was a step slow and the Bucks scored twice in the last 22 seconds for a 48-44 halftime lead.

Salmons came out overpowering Bogans to open the third with the Bulls falling into that 15-point hole. But Bogans answered with those threes and Boozer finally began to find some space in tandem with Rose, rolling for a score to get within 69-59.

Though the next Bulls possession was also a classic with Rose going behind his back to lose Jennings. And then with Luc Mbah a Moute, Sanders and Keyon Dooling all  stepping up to intercept Rose, Brewer slipped behind along the baseline. Rose then rifled a lookaway Magic Johnson like pass to his left to Brewer cutting in for the basket.

Really, as good a passing and ballhandling exhibition as you’ll see.

Yeah, from that guy who scores.

The Bulls reserves evened the game at 76 with just over seven minutes left on a C.J. Watson three as the backup point has been playing with more assertiveness.

But after Boozer slammed in a pick and roll pass with just over five minutes left for an 83-79 lead, it was all Rose, and all defense for the Bulls as Deng helped hold Salmons scoreless in the fourth quarter.

The Bucks in many ways remind me of Skiles’ Bulls. They don’t have a take charge star like Rose, though few do. And they have a bit too many jump shooters. So they tend to stagger to the close and lose leads down the stretch when defenses tighten and the shots stop going. Which is exactly what happened as the Bucks missed their last seven field goal attempts while Rose put on a highlight show:

Driving for a pair of free throws;

Handing off to Boozer for a score on a pick and roll;

Driving again for two more free throws as he made all 12 after 12 of 13 Friday;

Throwing ahead to a speeding Noah for a slam dunk;

Driving for a score;

Dropping in a 13-foot floater;

Fading back against Jennings for a foul like jumper;

And hitting Brewer for a final score on a two on one after shaking the ball loose from Bogut.

That made it scoring or assisting on the last 16 points over the final 4:09.

“We just have to keep this going,” said Rose.

Who am I to suggest otherwise?

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