Bulls turn hot in Minnesota


Mar 31

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C. Booz is back—by the way, I love when I can use their hip hop nickname names—but is that because Jo is gone?

Yes, it was on Wednesday an impressive comeback domination for the Bulls after Monday’s loss to the 76ers, a one sided 108-91 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves during which the Bulls led by double figures for all but 33 seconds of the last 41 minutes and never trailed.

Of course, this didn’t stop Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau from upbraiding the team with a timeout a minute into the fourth quarter after a breakaway dunk cut the Bulls lead to 20.

“The ball was hopping from the start of the game,” said Thibodeau of the Bulls 30-19 first quarter with eight assists on 11 field goals (31 of 41 for the game). “I thought the extra pass made a big difference. I thought our rebounding was terrific, and overall our defense was pretty good until the fourth.”

Which is not to say it ever was bad as the 17-58 Timberwolves shot 41 percent and were dominated on the boards 50-34 for the game despite being the league’s leading rebounding team.

Derrick Rose had 23 points and 10 assists with one turnover after 10 against the 76ers Monday. LeBron James even appeared to cede the obvious to all but South Florida and some ESPN hosts, the MVP to Rose, in telling reporters before the Heat’s win in Washington he thought Rose was the leading MVP candidate. C.J. Watson, his shot looking better the last few weeks than all season and continuing to play aggressively, had 13 points off the bench, and Carlos Boozer had his best game in more than two months and first 20-point game since Feb. 23 with 24 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and his second most free throw attempts in a game this month.

“We did a great job,” said Boozer, who was hearing the whispers about his declining statistics and promising better things. “We played off Pooh (Rose) and let him get busy. Then we made the secondary passes and made plays from there. I thought we did a great job spreading the floor. Our spacing seemed better, I thought we did a good job of trying to hit the open man. We did a good job rebounding and a good job protecting the ball, a good job playing D. I thought overall we did a good job.”

Though Boozer’s comments about spacing seemed the most intriguing.

Boozer was what the Bulls expected and hoped he would be on Wednesday, a postup threat, clever with the ball passing, drawing a double team and opening the offense. With Luol Deng’s 13 points, that is what kind of offense the Bulls envisioned with the signing of Boozer.

And perhaps not so coincidentally it was on a night when Joakim Noah was not able to play with a sprained ankle. The Bulls came into the game 19-5 in games Noah and Boozer have played together, which is superior to their overall winning percentage. So it’s not like their pairing is a detriment.

But there has been a gnawing and unspoken question this season about how well they complement one anther since Boozer and Noah are viewed as the team’s front court of the future.

Boozer was basically at his best playing without Noah this season, averaging 20.6 points and 9.7 rebounds in December when Noah went out with thumb surgery and 19 points and 10.9 rebounds in January, those months comparable to Boozer’s career numbers.

Boozer then averaged 16.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in February before Noah returned after the All-Star break and 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds after with Noah, basically a wash. But also below his career numbers in both cases as Boozer’s sprained ankle also played a part in him being unable to establish his position all the time.

This month, Boozer has averaged just 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds, raising questions about his effectiveness. Thibodeau indicated it was physical issues with the ankle and didn’t seem concerned. Plus the team was barreling toward the East’s best record. So what was the big deal?

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but with Kurt Thomas starting for Noah the court was spread a bit more, especially with Thomas hitting a pair of jumpers in the first five minutes as the Bulls rushed ahead 17-8. Thomas added another late in the first while Rose took it upon himself to end that run of slow starts with an unusually aggressive—for him—first quarter with 13 points and five assists.

Rose tends to lay back early to accommodate his teammates and try to get them going. But it hadn’t been happening of late, so Rose made sure the Timberwolves had some Rose dust to eat.

“I think we came out, jumped on them, kept the lead for the whole game and just kept it going tonight,” said Rose. “We looked at film. We knew that the ball was stopping. Tonight, we just made sure that we made the right passes. Guys took the right shots and the game is going to tell you what to do.”

Same with Boozer. Thomas is primarily a pick and pop player as his strength on offense is his shot. So he’ll come off picks and fade to a spot for a shot. He made three of four for the game, all in the first quarter. But the defense has to be aware of his shot and his defender tends to inch out toward him.

Not so for Noah, who doesn’t shoot much and much less frequently since his return in late February. He had been developing a reliable (for him) left elbow jumper before being hurt. But he’s been loath to attempt it much this season. So the defense sits back on him when he comes off a pick, thus clogging the lane more. It’s made it difficult for Boozer as defenses also have consistently put a seven footer on him, thus having size and bodies hanging back thwarting his interior moves.

It didn’t happen as much Wednesday, and Boozer was particularly aggressive, especially in the game breaking third quarter when he had a dozen points and all of his free throws. It also earned him the full 12 minutes on the floor, which has been rare this season as Thibodeau has been more cognizant of riding the hot hand than earlier in the season.

“I thought Carlos was very aggressive, and that set the tone that allowed us to establish an inside game, played inside/out,” said Thibodeau. “He was on the board. Kurt did good job stepping in, starting, and our bench play was very good. CJ, Ronnie, Taj, very good energy. I think for Carlos, the last two days he’s practiced really, really well. I think he’s starting to get healthy. When he’s healthy and practicing hard, he’s going to play well. He’s proven that, so we’ve just got to keep building that as we move forward.”

It’s hardly a crisis. But it is something to ponder, that fit between Boozer and Noah. Thomas is hardly in the Bulls’ future, and Omer Asik is much less offensive threat than Noah. So will it inhibit Boozer playing with Noah? Or will it push Noah to just be more committed to refining his outside game?

It’s hardly that Thomas is a better choice given Noah’s rebounding ability and aggressiveness running the floor. It’s crucial to the Bulls. Though Thibodeau has done a good job preparing the Bulls to be a better playoff team.

Many, including me, have talked this season of the need for the Bulls to get in the open floor more for scoring given the offensive limitations of Noah and Keith Bogans. But Thibodeau has quietly made the Bulls into a half court team that executes well, a must for the playoffs when teams work to limit your transition.

It’s one big reason Cleveland’s offense with James failed in the playoffs along with previous uptempo teams like the Nets of the early 2000’s. And though the Lakers had that “Showtime” reputation, they were a much better halfcourt defensive team than they ever were given credit for being.

Spacing, a favored coaching word, is vital for a half court offense, and Thibodeau, the defensive guru, has implemented a beautiful halfcourt offensive system predicated on ball movement and swift passing.

The Timberwolves are a relatively poor defensive team, last in points allowed and 20th in shooting defense. But you’ll see this Bulls team work into fundamental half court offensive advantages no matter who plays.

I think Watson has been running the offense much better in his sequences, and I loved one play early in the second quarter when the Timberwolves forced Watson toward the baseline on the pick and roll. So Taj Gibson adjusted into the slot near the right elbow. Watson stepped more toward the baseline so he’d get a better angle for a bounce pass between the doubling defenders and a wide open shot jumper for Gibson.

It can make a team player jealous, especially one from a losing team.

“They’re all on the same page,” marveled Kevin Love with 16 points and nine rebounds in his return from a groin injury. “When they break from the huddle, everybody’s in. You can tell everybody has the utmost respect for each other and they’re all in it to win it. I envy that. I salivate for that.”

Not exactly your most ringing endorsement of your team.

But the Bulls can be impressive in a game like this.

“It looks like it is a lot of fun playing like that,” said backup Anthony Tolliver. “When we do play like that we do have a lot of fun. We just don’t do it on a regular basis.  That shows you the difference between a team that has a lot of veteran guys.  They have a lot of good players that have bought in.  They are turning into one of the best teams in the league.  They have all the tools to win everything.  They can win everything if they get rolling at the right time.  They are one of the few teams that have a chance to win it all.” 

With the victory, the Bulls moved to 54-20 and a two and a half game lead over the Celtics and Heat for best record in the East. The Bulls have the tiebreaker with Miami, so they eliminate them with a 5-3 finish. Boston can get the tiebreaker with the Bulls if they win the April 7 game in Chicago. Conference record is the next tiebreaker if the Bulls win and Boston has a half game edge now. If the Bulls get No. 1, the Pacers are eighth now, a game ahead of Charlotte but also with the tiebreaker. The Bulls close with six of their last eight games against teams with losing records.

The next one is in Detroit Friday, where the Pistons in an extended halftime ceremony will retire Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 jersey. The Pistons are well out of playoff contention in a dysfunctional season, though we’ll see if the current groups retain any of the animosity that obviously still exists between the former adversaries.

Minnesota assistant Bill Laimbeer on Chicago ESPN radio said the Bulls acted unprofessionally in personal attacks during the famed 1991 sweep that justifiably led to the Pistons’ premature walkoff. A column in the Detroit News this week by Terry Foster, who covered the team back then, commended the Pistons for the walkoff because of the alleged unprofessionalism of the Bulls and noted recent comments by Scottie Pippen to the Chicago Sun Times that the Pistons were a “classless organization… and team.” While Isiah Thomas was quoted saying he regretted the walkoff incident, John Salley noted the old Bulls still can’t get the Pistons out of their heads and, “All I know is at the end of the day we beat them more times than they beat us.”

Ah, those were the days.

Salley, of course, later went to play for a Bulls championship team along with Rodman and James Edwards.

Not that the Timberwolves aren’t an NBA team, but the Bulls’ biggest opponent coming into Wednesday’s game was themselves. Would they jump into the game?

They did as Rose scored the first six points, fouled at the three point line by Love and then getting a nice return setup from Boozer for a three. Boozer can be a good passer, and his passing was often uncanny Wednesday as he was able to work from the middle of the lane or elbow area  more. He had a softball like underhanded pass to Ronnie Brewer for a score midway through the second quarter that would have made Jenny Finch gasp.

“They move hard, they cut hard, they set good picks, they move the basketball,” said Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis. “Ball movement is a way to let your teammates know you care about them. It’s how you communicate on the offensive end of the floor. It’s one of those binding components of teams. In a lot of ways it’s just blindly, unselfishly moving the basketball because you know your teammate’s going to have a better look than you. Teams of high quality recognize that. They understand that and they know how important it is to success.”

See, he knows the game, at least when he sees it played.

The Bulls played a beautiful game and a rare high level shooting game, better than 50 percent field goals, more than 40 percent on threes and 90 percent on free throws.

From that fast start they laid it on the Timberwolves, who also were outclassed physically. Though Love has those huge rebounding numbers, they aren’t a tough team. Rookie Wesley Johnson was scoreless. He’s got potential and the Bulls even were willing to help. Minnesota management asked and was given permission to have Pippen tutor Johnson as Pippen is Johnson’s role model. If Pippen has, it’s not working yet.

Minnesota was where Thibodeau started his NBA coaching career under his mentor, Bill Musselman, and Thibodeau has remained close with the family and met with a grandchildren of Musselman on the trip. Thibodeau even still uses a statistical system devised by Musselman.

Not that he was into this game any more than any other, constantly shouting defensive and offensive instructions, like Rose coming up court to end the first quarter and yelling “flat” as Rose’s teammates retreated to the baseline to give Rose more space to beat Jonny Flynn on a pullup three for a 30-19 edge.

The reserves returned to form with 39 points, another good sign, especially for the playoffs. It’s generally a rule in the NBA your reserves perform well only at home. But Thibodeau has developed a regular rotation and stuck with the second unit and another good road performance was an indicator.

Watson seems so much more self assured on his loose jumper and seems to have silenced doubts about his ability to run the team with Rose out. Not that the Bulls were trying to give the Timberwolves a handicap, but Taj Gibson tipped in a Flynn miss trying to rebound while the reserves pretty much maintained the double digit lead in the second quarter. The starters came back without losing their edge, a Boozer/Deng give and go basket along the baseline a classic for a 51-39 lead.

The Bulls led 57-44 at halftime on 55 percent shooting with 17 assists on 22 baskets. They pulled away in the third with Asik recovering on a Love drive to reject him from behind in a wonderfully athletic play for a big man, and around Boozer with a beautiful inside pass to a cutting Deng for a score. Deng repaid the favor for a Boozer dunk to make it 86-62 late in the third and give Rose and Boozer off the fourth quarter, though Thibodeau never rested.

So the Bulls never did after that quick timeout early in the fourth with a renewed display of running shooters off the three point line, physical play with a 20-plus point lead and a even a heated bit of Thibodeau advice for Thomas coming off the floor midway through the fourth quarter after a lob closed the margin to 19 with about six minutes left.

The Bulls aren’t going to let up, which suggests they’ll get that top seed. Though there still are going to be questions. Or else it wouldn’t be this much fun, right?

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