Bulls win title for first time since 1998


Mar 10

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It should have been a night of celebration with the Bulls Wednesday beating the Charlotte Bobcats 101-84.

With Indiana’s loss to Minnesota, the Bulls won the Central Division for the first time since 1998. Raise the banner. Did they give out those locker room hats and t-shirts?

Hey, I want one! When the Bulls won their first title in 1991, it was just the second division title in franchise history. They used to hang up those banners.

But this is what winning the division means as far as the playoffs: Virtually nothing.

You are assured a top four seed, but not home court. If the No. 5 seed has a better record than No. 4, the No. 5 has home court. Also, the top four is by record. So if you win a division but two teams in another division have better records, then you would be the No. 4 seed. Though with the Bulls record, unless something major occurs regarding an injury, they should not need the division title to assure one of the top four seeds and also home court in the first round.

The Bulls became the first team to clinch its division. The Pacers can tie the Bulls if they win all their games and the Bulls lose all theirs, but the Bulls have the tiebreaker. No one else in the Central can reach the Bulls’ 45 wins.

The Bulls also officially clinched a playoff spot. And with the Boston loss the Bulls moved 1.5 games behind the Celtics for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston holds a 2-1 lead in the season series with one game left and the edge in the tiebreaker if the Bulls split the season series by having a better record in the conference.

But it all was tempered by a late game sprained ankle suffered by Carlos Boozer when Kwame Brown committed a flagrant foul against him coming over to help. Boozer was going to dunk or lay up the ball with 4:24 left and the Bulls ahead by 17.

The Bulls announced after the game X-rays on Boozer’s left ankle were negative and he would be reevaluated in Chicago Thursday.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what type of swelling he has,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I know he came down pretty hard.”

Boozer missed 15 games with a broken right hand and three more with a sprained left ankle earlier this season.

Given the way Boozer came down and the way he left being unable to shoot the free throws, my personal guess with zero medical expertise and not even staying at a Holiday Inn Express is he’ll be out for at least a week if not longer.

That would put Taj Gibson, who was playing an aggressive game with 14 points and six rebounds in 21 minutes and mostly with the starters as Boozer was in early foul trouble, back in the starting lineup. It probably will mean Kurt Thomas getting playing time again after not playing since Feb. 23. It also would mean the first activation for Rasual Butler since his signing last week as Boozer likely would be inactive. I would not expect the Bulls to add another player.

Mostly because with the win the Bulls moved to 45-18 in this most improbable season with their 11th win in the last 13. With the Celtics losing at home to the Clippers and Boston with a tougher closing stretch with seven of nine on the road starting March 18, it suddenly seems reasonable for the Bulls to make a run at the No. 1 seed in the conference.

The No. 1 seed figures to have a big first round playoff edge likely avoiding hot New York or Philadelphia with fading Indiana, Milwaukee and Charlotte likely in the mix for that final playoff spot.

A year ago, the Bulls didn’t make the playoffs until the final game of the regular season.

At this point it’s looking like Atlanta and Orlando in the 4/5 matchup. Even with Miami’s struggles of late, you probably want to avoid them in a playoff series with the potential with their All-Star players. The No. 1 seed would play the 4/5 winner.

But as usual, Thibodeau isn’t looking much beyond Atlanta Friday. Or, more likely, his film session on the plane ride back to Chicago.

“For our team, we don’t want to skip any steps,” Thibodeau said “We’re just focused on improving each and every day, get ready for the next game.”

Thibodeau made his comments in response to a question that Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf was quoted in the Chicago Sun Times saying the Bulls if they remain healthy have a chance to win four championships.

“What I do like is we know we have great ownership with Jerry, championship ownership,” said Thibodeau. “Our team management is outstanding.  I think it’s championship caliber. I think we have an excellent group of assistant coaches and we’ve got a great group of players. And we’re hoping to be a championship-caliber team. That’s what we’re striving for. And we feel we have all the pieces necessary to move in that direction.”

Thibodeau also got some support in the highest of places as ESPN Boston reported that members of the Celtics met President Obama Tuesday and Obama praised the Bulls’ hiring of Thibodeau.

“He actually thanked us for giving him our guy,” said Ray Allen. “He was like, ‘How’d you guys let that guy go?’”

I’d say the bigger issue the Bulls may face now is Thibodeau’s next contract.

Though it’s possible if they don’t say anything he’ll already have made game plans for the next eight years.

It actually wasn’t all that great Wednesday, though the Bulls just had too much talent for the Bobcats, who traded away Gerald Wallace and still had Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas out injured. Dante Cunningham and D.J. White were the first guys off the bench.

And yet the Bulls trailed by seven midway through the second quarter after losing twice to Charlotte already this season.

But Kyle Korver was as aggressive as he’s been in weeks with 20 points in less than 17 minutes and Derrick Rose had 20 points, six assists, three blocks and two steals in just over 31 minutes while sitting out the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter.  Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, a former Bulls player, told reporters after the game he felt Rose should be the league MVP. Of course, many felt Jordan should have been MVP in 1993 and 1997 when the Bulls won championships but Jordan lost the MVP vote to Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.

“He will see how I felt a lot of those years,” Jordan cracked of Rose possibly not winning.

“I didn’t like our defense at all (in the first half when Charlotte shot 52.3 percent),” said Thibodeau. “You go into a game you’ve got to be ready to play and you’re not quite sure who they’re playing. Kwame Brown got off to a good start on us. They played hard and unselfishly.

“We’re confident in our bench,” said Thibodeau of 51 bench points. “We feel we have five quality bigs, all of whom have started before and when they get extended minutes they know how to handle those. Taj has been playing at a very high level for a long time. Omer (Asik) offensively made some really good plays and his rebounding was excellent. He had six in 15 minutes. Omer and Taj have played extremely well, and we’ve got Kurt sitting there and we all know what a great job he did when he filled in for Jo (Noah with 12 points and 13 rebounds).

“The first half I thought we were just trading baskets,” said Thibodeau. “I didn’t think we challenged shots well. They were rising up and getting good shots off and we were nowhere in the picture. We had to pick it up and get into the ball and challenge shots and once we did we got back.”

Boozer finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in just over 26 minutes as he played just two minutes in the first quarter. So he pretty much played with the reserves because of the foul trouble.

I actually think Gibson was better as a result.

Although Gibson is the ultimate team player, it seems clear he plays better with bigger minutes. With Boozer playing 35 minutes, Gibson’s time is limited and he doesn’t seem to impact the game nearly as much as we saw the last two seasons. He’ll come in and play hard, but doesn’t stay long and then often might not get a longer second run because Thibodeau will opt for an offensive lineup late with Boozer and Korver.

Thus it was not surprising to see Gibson coming in two minutes into the game right away with a jumper, a tough offensive rebound and slam over a small Charlotte front line without any real shot blockers and 10 points in the first quarter. The 14 points was Gibson’s most productive game in more than two months, and, to me, it was no coincidence that it came when he knew he was going to get big minutes in the game with that early substitution.

The Boozer situation is actually something of a conundrum for the Bulls.

The Bobcats went right at him, as most teams do, even with Brown, who had a pair of postups and a jumper in the first three minutes. Though Brown missed both postups from point blank range as he’s such a poor finisher.

The Bulls need Boozer’s scoring, especially his postups which can sink the defense and open the floor. But defensively he gives something away and I can see lineups now with Noah playing with Asik, though the Bulls would need to have Keith Bogans out then and balance the lineup with another shooter, like Korver.

With Boozer out, the Bulls switched matchups and Gibson took Boris Diaw with Noah on Brown, negating Brown’s size and sending Charlotte looking for other places to score.

Still, Charlotte stayed in the game behind Gerald Henderson, who led them with 20 points and eight assists after being freed following the coaching change. The Bulls had issues with D.J. Augustin in their two losses to the Bobcats but Rose did a good job defensively this time and Augustin had an ineffective six points in 30 minutes, though Henderson often played Rose defensively with Augustin taking the offensively limited Bogans.

After Noah had switched onto Brown in the first quarter, Brown hit a jumper. And while Noah hasn’t shot his jumper much since returning from his thumb surgery, I noticed he tends to shoot mostly when his man scores on him. He was doing that against Al Horford in Atlanta last week, and again Wednesday after Brown scored. Noah made one 18 footer for a 15-8 lead and then airballed his next try.

The Bobcats stayed with the Bulls and trailed just 52-49 at halftime as Korver broke the tie with a late three.

Korver was particularly aggressive for a change. He tends to be cautious too often with his shot, making sure he’ll catch and set. Often by that time a defender will reach him and he’ll pass off. But Wednesday he was looking for the shot coming right out of his cut or off the screen, and his shot was beautiful. When he’s like that I’d get him 20 shots. As it was, he made seven of 10 with four threes.

It actually was a rare three jamboree for the Bulls as they were 11 for 23 with Rose back with four of six three pointers and Ronnie Brewer quietly hitting two of three as he rarely ventures out that far to shoot.

Still, the Bobcats hung in shooting the ball well in the second quarter and Henderson beating Bulls to the ball, a rare occurrence. His hustling three point play after Asik had a shot blocked led to a 41-34 lead with about seven minutes left in the second quarter.

The Bulls responded with a Brewer driving dunk, a Korver three and a classic Noah play with Noah just running full bore after his man, White, missed a shot. The ball was kicked around and fell into Noah’s hand and he slammed. Like the old saying goes, the harder you work the luckier you get.

Noah got another dunk when three Bobcats went to Rose on a penetration and Korver even caused a travel by almost blocking a Cunningham shot before Korver’s three to close the first half scoring with that Bulls three point lead. Hops, too!

Charlotte hung in halfway through the third quarter behind Henderson. But the Bulls began to space it out some after a Rose power drive on a crossover and beating two Bobcats at the basket that the TV cameras caught Jordan shaking his head and smiling in apparent admiration.

Luol Deng had just seven points and zero rebounds in a rare such game now for him. It appeared Deng was hurt early in the third quarter when Henderson went up on a drive to pull the Bobcats within 59-55 and seemed to knee Deng in the thigh. Deng had a three late in the third quarter, but that was his only score after the collision. Thibodeau said Deng was OK and could have returned after playing just the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. But he could have quite the bruise as well.

Rose, thus, had to take over once again, though with a huge boost from Korver this time down the stretch. Rose scored the last five points of the third quarter on an 18 footer and a three. And Rose kept the Bulls ahead 75-69 after three quarters when he blocked a Cunningham three attempt as the quarter ended.

Fans always look for nicknames, and how about Touchdown Tom for Thibodeau?  I love while the Bulls are playing defense that he always has his two hands up in a football touchdown signal to urge his players to keep their hands up in the face of shooters. With the sparse crowd in Charlotte, you can hear him and he’ll be calling out the opponent movements, like once you heard him yelling “handoff” on a play.

The Bulls tightened defensively as the roster depleted Bobcats also began to wear down and the Bulls opened the fourth quarter with a 9-2 edge after another Korver three with five minutes gone.

Korver was smokin’ now, adding a jumper and a three among his crucial dozen fourth quarter points for that 17-point lead before Brown’s flagrant that took out Boozer. Korver shot the free throws and the game was pretty much over as Boozer headed to the locker room with his head down, soon to be followed similarly by the Bobcats.

Now we’ll soon find out whether there’s joy in Bullsville or whether the mighty Booz will be out again.

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