Bulls take the sting out of the Hornets


Mar 8

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The Bulls played a very good game Monday in beating the New Orleans Hornets 85-77. Unless, of course, you saw the game.

It was a brutal, slow, plodding type game—like the old line about watching laws and sausages being made—between one team coming off a five-game road trip and another, the Hornets, finishing up a five-game road trip and without two starters, Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza.

“This was a grind it out game,” agreed Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Both teams emphasize defense, so we were going deep into the shot clock.”

And not doing much with it as the Bulls were the sharper offense, shooting 38.3 percent to 36.3 percent for New Orleans. Actually, it was a game where the Hornets more imposed their style as without Paul their best chance to win was to lure the Bulls into a slower game in which the Bulls might stand around some and fire up threes.

Gotcha! The Bulls were four for 20 on threes, though Derrick Rose, who carried the Bulls through a desperate second half stretch scoring or assisting on every score for more than 12 minutes but also making his share of mistakes, finally made a three after running his miss streak from long range to 19.

So it wasn’t artistic or desperate like against Miami Sunday. But this was the kind of game the Bulls would have lost basically every season since the late 90’s.

Lost in indifference and ennui, the Bulls with Thibodeau’s urging rallied themselves after the Hornets tied the game at 77 with 3:19 left to shut out the Hornets the rest of the way. New Orleans went zero for five with two turnovers against hustling, aggressive, lock down defensive plays. That while Joakim Noah followed a Rose drive for a put back and Luol Deng got a tough screen from Kyle Korver to find a lane to the basket and get fouled, making both. As the Bulls scrambled the Hornets into late, forced shots, the Bulls got another pair of free throws to close it.

“We could not get a rhythm to our offense, but our defense and our rebounding were good,” said Thibodeau. “A good team finds different ways to win.”

The Bulls may be making that good team thing official.

The Bulls raised their record to 44-18 with their 10th win in the last 12. They now have the fourth best record in the NBA, a half game ahead of the Lakers and just two and a half behind the Celtics for the best record in the East.

Hornets coach Monty Williams said the Bulls could be the league’s best all around team, and since losing to the Magic and Celtics back to back in early December, the Bulls are 10-0 against the top seven teams in the NBA, the Spurs, Mavs, Celtics, Lakers, Heat, Magic and Thunder.

“Absolutely!” said Carlos Boozer, who had 19 points and nine rebounds, his third highest scoring game since the end of January, about the goal being going for the best record in the East. “Why wouldn’t it be? We’re right there. We can feel it.”

The Bulls still draw more skeptics than believers. Until you do something in sports you haven’t done anything, and so far the Bulls are first round playoff victims. Of course, Michael Jordan was a loser until he wasn’t.

Yes, they pay me for that kind of crack analysis.

The Bulls just keep on winning and doing so in so many different ways. On the road in Florida it was on national TV against the preseason favorites in the most difficult of circumstances. Monday, it was back home out of the national spotlight in a game that was supposed to be easy without Paul.

Those games never are, especially the way the Hornets drew the Bulls into their pace. You can say the Bulls have a fatal flaw in the inability of their offense to create easy baskets these days.

“Sometimes we need to score more,” said Thibodeau.

But, instead, the Bulls held their seventh consecutive opponent below 90 points, which is hardly a great accomplishment when in five of those games the Bulls failed to reach 90 and scored 93 in another.

So like it will be in the playoffs, it comes down to making the big plays and big stops when called upon, and the Bulls had just enough of them in a game that may well have slipped away at another time.

Rose had 24 points and nine assists, though he was eight of 21 shooting. Ronnie Brewer had an opportunistic stretch off the bench with 10 points in 20 minutes while Omer Asik had another strong effort rebounding with eight and two blocks in just under 14 minutes. He’s still a bit hesitant when he gets or retrieves the ball, but his defensive fundamentals may be the best among the big men. The Bulls were up two when he entered late in the third quarter and up eight when he gave way to Joakim Noah with 7:54 left in the fourth.

Noah had his usual active game with 13 rebounds, five offensive, and two blocks as Noah did an exceptionally good job on David West, who shot four of 17 facing Noah’s long arms and harassing game. Sometimes Noah in his haste will run out at shooters and get ball faked and beaten, which Asik is good at avoiding. Though you take the occasional over exuberance with Noah as it also creates havoc for the opponent as West was long mumbling to himself.

“I just couldn’t get in my offensive rhythm tonight,” said West. “Noah’s length bothered me some, but it was just a tough game for me tonight. Without Chris, we did what we came here to do and that was have a chance to get one. We defended Rose well and took them out of their sets. The big difference is that we couldn’t convert.”

The Bulls had something to do with that, though they have to clean up the transition by putting a bit more speed into their offense and continue to work to find Boozer. With so few reliable scoring options, it is vital the Bulls get more from Boozer, who was averaging just over 14 points his last 10 games before Monday. Thibodeau said he was not concerned and it was more a function of Boozer drawing a double team and the Bulls being too impatient about not reposting to give him another look or finding him in transition. Of course, Boozer running some in transition would make that easier.

Still, it was a hard earned win even with a now surprising off game from Luol Deng, who had 10 points on two of 10 shooting. As I’ve often said, I’m always a bit suspicious of that +/- stat of how the team does when you are on the court. Though perhaps it has some validity with Deng as he’s rarely off the court. Despite those poor statistics, Deng’s +/- was by far the team’s best followed by Keith Bogans and Asik.

Now, no one is saying Bogans is responsible for winning, though he hurts less than many suggest. And he made one of the more encouraging plays of the game when he chased down a loose ball after a Boozer steal in the third quarter, diving head first to get the ball and get it to Rose for a score to make it 55-53 Bulls. As someone mentioned to me, what was the chance Tracy McGrady would even think to do that as so many fans lobbied for a player like McGrady to play shooting guard.

That in many respects is the success of this Bulls team, guys playing unselfishly and intensely even at times when the skills, the ones they have, fail them.

The Hornets, 37-29, did a nice job slowing the Bulls with changing interior defenses as West and Emeka Okafor took turns defending Noah and Boozer and switching often, and then moving in and out of zones at times. It all worked to make the Bulls hesitate enough to fall into the trap of shooting more threes than they usually do. Or should.

Rose finally made a pair and was two of six, but Korver was unusually off and missed all four, most uncontested looks.

But when the Bulls needed to score with the game tied at 77, it was Rose and then Deng attacking the rim and Noah right behind to clean up, the formula that has been making a big difference.

It was a fairly loose first quarter as the Bulls led 26-23 after Boozer got going nicely following several offensive duds of late. Thibodeau stayed mostly with the bench in the second quarter as it sent the Bulls into halftime tied at 43. The starters combined for four second quarter points.

Rose got it going at the end of the third quarter with a slashing drive for a three point play and laser pass to Taj Gibson for a dunk to give the Bulls a 66-60 lead heading into the fourth quarter. But Thibodeau, like always, would complain about a lack of energy as the Hornets nestled into a tie with just over three minutes left.

It’s another reason I like him so much as a coach. He doesn’t make excuses. Sure, he likes to build up every opponent. But he believes every game can be won and there is a reason why you lose the game. We know the other team can beat you, but it always seems Thibodeau feels his team could have done more, usually energetically.

So while the Hornets maintained pace, the Bulls began to more admire their three point missing.

Bang! Timeout! Game tied, three minutes to go.

Winnin’ time, though I doubt this game was what Pat Riley had in mind when he popularized the phrase.

Rose had a pair of misses down the stretch as the Hornets did a good job cutting him off. But the Bulls’ defense stiffened and the Hornets couldn’t get anything but some long jump shots that mostly were short. The Bulls went to 12-4 in the second game of their near league high number of back to backs with another later this week culminating in the 20th anniversary celebration of the franchise’s first championship.

Anyone book Grant Park yet? The Bulls are making it harder and harder not to believe.

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