Bulls No. 1 again after only 13 years


Apr 8

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Well, the Bulls officially are No. 1 with Friday’s 93-82 snoozer of a victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers to clinch the best record for the 2010-11 NBA season in the Eastern Conference.

Everyone raise your foam fingers!

Go figure. The Bulls zeroed in on the magical 60-win season going to 59-20 with their sixth straight win, 18th in the last 20, ninth in 10 on the road. And my favorite stat of all the ones we’ll be considering in upcoming days while anticipating the music of the basketball soul and the synthesis of art and achievement is the 11-0 since early December against every team in the NBA with a winning percentage better than 70 percent.

It’s somehow become a season of feeling great truths and telling them.

This kind of basketball drives me to verse.

This Bulls team appears to be for real.

Now on to Indiana, or as Joakim Noah might say, “No one wants to vacation there, either.”

Nah, Jo didn’t say that and isn’t angry with Hoosiers. After all, it was LeBron he didn’t like. He just knew it first. Then the rest of the world figured it out.

Though no one among the Bulls considers their journey complete, this is a good location to pause and consider both the improbable and the hopeful.

The Bulls enter the playoffs next weekend favored, certainly in the first round, for the first time in more than a decade and the precocious darlings of the NBA. They aren’t quite the most popular yet because they’re making everyone look bad.

Tom Thibodeau is a rookie coach who doesn’t communicate. Derrick Rose is a shoot first guard who can’t shoot. Keith Bogans is a backup journeyman. Carlos Boozer is injury prone. Luol Deng is underachieving when he is not injury prone. Joakim Noah really cannot shoot. Bad teams didn’t want Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson. Who the heck is Omer Asik?

Yet, this alchemy of talent and tenacity led by a reticent young virtuoso continues to insist the skeptics believe through the only undeniable proof, success.

“No. 1 and now we’re going to the sun,” said Noah about heading for Orlando for Sunday’s game against the Magic without the suspended Dwight Howard. “We are the No. 1 seed and we have home court advantage and we are not satisfied.  We’re trying to catch up to San Antonio (for league’s best record and one game behind) and we’re focused on our next opponent and that’s it. The growth has been formidable. Last year we qualified on the last day and today we are the No. 1 seed and that feels pretty good.”

It really looks remarkable.

I remember a year ago today, the Bulls losing a double overtimer in New Jersey, coach Vinny Del Negro stepping in it again by sitting Noah in his minutes limitation, this time when it seemed playing him was necessary and appropriate.

The season seemed over.

No problem. Rose said they’d win out and make the playoffs.

Just as he said in the summer he’d make threes and then he’d be the MVP and…

Stop questioning a 22-year-old.

Rose Friday had just 11 points and eight assists in 33 minutes as Thibodeau is subtlety cutting back the playing time of the starters.

“Tibbs, man, is the coach of the year to me,” Rose said after the game.  “He’s just been honest, holding everyone accountable every time we step on the court.”

And that’s after Rose got yelled in a timeout early in the third quarter when the Cavs pulled within 58-52 on a Ryan Hollins dunk for his only two points on a lob from Baron Davis. Thibs hates lobs almost as much as a day without game film.

The Cavs got a three from Alonzo Gee after that to get the closest they would be, trailing 58-55 with about nine minutes left in the third. But the Bulls defense tightened. Keith Bogans was again good, as he was against Ray Allen Thursday, and stripped Anthony Parker, and the Bulls went on a 10-0 run with Rose pushing the ball for a Luol Deng breakaway and Noah hitting Deng on an interior cut as the ball movement was wonderful. The Bulls would have an amazing 30 assists on 39 field goals.

“I loved the way we passed the ball,” said Thibodeau.  “I thought we were very, very unselfish and the ball was hopping, so I loved that part of it.  I thought our defense was up and down.  The second half was a little bit better and I thought Jo was real active in the second half, blocking shots. Taj (Gibson) did a good job, Carlos (Boozer) was very efficient offensively and Ronnie (Brewer) gave us a good lift off the bench.  I liked our bench play tonight and Omer (Asik) did a good job and we did what we had to do to get the win.”

Boozer led the Bulls with 24 points and 11 rebounds and the reserves contributed 34 points with Brewer and Kyle Korver in double figures.

It was the kind of game that will give those anti-Rose MVP guys fuel, but the kind of game Rose loved.

Everyone had fun.

Rose didn’t score his first point until there were about five minutes left in the first quarter. It wasn’t a great start for the Bulls, leading 29-26 after one, though they were somewhat uncertain after the big win over Boston Thursday. The defense was spotty, especially Boozer on J.J. Hickson, who went for 22 points and 15 rebounds and looked like that untouchable the Cavs always said he was. Thibodeau switched Noah onto Hickson in the second half as the Bulls pulled away in that third quarter 10-0 run. They led by 15 after three quarters and were never truly threatened, though the Cavs brought it down to 89-80 with 2:21 left.

Thibodeau did have another mad timeout then, and Boozer followed a Korver miss for a putback to put the game out of reach. Deng added nine rebounds with 11 points and six assists while Noah looked the best he has since his ankle sprain with 11 points, eight rebounds and six blocks. He’s still not getting the huge rebounding numbers, but he is protecting the rim better and not being caught wandering around helping quite as much and then unable to get back.

Thibodeau did go a long stretch with the reserves in the second quarter as they racked up a 50-36 lead that the starters let slip some in the last three minutes back to 54-46 at halftime.

That looks to be Thibodeau’s plan to ease minutes these last few games, though it does appear he is going for the three wins, less to tie Paul Westphal’s record of most wins for a rookie coach than to go into the playoffs with confidence. With Howard out Sunday, you can see more of the reserves, though with the Knicks playing well and having beaten the Bulls twice I can see Thibodeau pushing the regulars for that win before the home finale against the depleted Nets Wednesday.

“We’re just looking at the next game,” said Thibodeau.  “We want to stay consistent with what we’re doing.  You want to put as many things in your favor as possible.  It doesn’t guarantee anything, but that’s how you have to approach it. In the second quarter, they (reserves) were playing so well I wanted to extend their minutes.  I thought it would be good for the bench and good for the starters.  I probably knocked the starters out of rhythm a little bit, but they were playing so well.  I thought, defensively, they were doing a very good job. On the teams I have been with, that’s the way we’ve always approached it (playing the starters to the end).  I think you look at your team, look at the makeup of your team, and you determine how to pace your team.  I think that’s one of the biggest things you think about all year long and you do that when you are planning for your season.  We want to develop the right habits.”

I happen to agree. I never like what occurs in the NFL where teams with nothing to gain in the standings play reserves and often end up losing. Losing creates doubt no matter who is playing. Better to win. Even if you don’t, you make the effort.

Asik got a longer stretch, though he continues to have difficulty catching and gathering the ball instead of going straight up, and I can see once the playoffs begin his time going to Kurt Thomas more. I thought Korver shot the ball well again, and was especially good on that baseline curl play where he comes over the screen and if he gets the double he’ll slip the ball to the roll man, this time Gibson as the Bulls moved ahead 39-32 on a Gibson slam.

Gibson continued to play with renewed vigor with a jumper and runout on a Ronnie Brewer assist as the Bulls took that 11-point second quarter lead. Brewer, by the way, was exceptionally active stripping the ball, once missing in the backcourt but pursuing the play and then practically being given a handoff by an unsuspecting Ramon Sessions. That, in some ways, characterizes that bench group as it’s hustle often makes up for its anonymity.

Noah still has been hesitant to shoot, though he threw in a 35 foot hook to end the first half that was a bit late. Maybe that’s his shot.

That second half began erratically, though Boozer was making those long, high arcing jumpers. And then the Bulls blew it open late in the quarter with several beautiful offensive possessions: Boozer rolling on a terrific Bogans feed, Brewer slicing in for a basket and foul, Boozer finding Brewer running the baseline for a reverse and Noah taking a lob from Rose after saving the ball from going out of bounds, the ball movement and body movement too much for the Cavs, who too often settled for jumpers of the sort of team playing out a bad season.

That stretch gave the Bulls a 78-63 lead after three, and they nursed it much of the fourth quarter with Noah again sitting out the fourth quarter and the main starters playing about half the final period as Boozer held off the Cavs, his first team, with eight points and five rebounds down the stretch.

So now it’s the Pacers with the No. 1 seed assured and a second round series for the Bulls-Pacers winner against the Magic-Hawks winner. The Pacers are 37-43, but they are the only Central Division team to beat the Bulls this season and now have won five of their last six, seven of 10 and 10 of 15. They’re averaging almost 110 per game their last six with Mike Dunleavy back from injury and Danny Granger playing more controlled and point guard Darren Collison coming off back to back double/doubles.

And nobody better call it nap-town.

But that’s for next week, though with this Bulls group you can be sure there are no celebrations going on now.

Shhhh. They’re No. 1, but whisper it.

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