Bulls try to stay sunny in beating Phoenix


Apr 6

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The goal is to win the game, and the Bulls did Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns, though just barely, 97-94, after having a 22-point third quarter lead.

“You’re not going to win by 30 every night,” offered Joakim Noah. “That’s the way it is.”

And he’s right. Just win, baby. The Bulls did in pushing their record to 57-20 in this idyllic season that gets a lot more interesting Thursday in likely the Bulls last big game of the regular season, a national TNT broadcast against the Boston Celtics.

“Playoff atmosphere,” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 19 points and the last two field goals after the Suns closed within 91-89 with 4:21 left.

“It’s going to be a zoo in here,” added Noah. “All the Bulls fans are going to be excited. We are excited. We realize it’s an opponent we can see down the road. It’s going to be great.”

It would be a chance to effectively close out for the best record in the Eastern Conference with Boston three games behind the Bulls with five to play. Miami is two and a half behind, though the Bulls have the tiebreaker with the Heat. The apparent advantage is the Nos. 2 and 3 teams meet in the second round if there are no first round upsets. So if the Bulls can hold onto No. 1, they wouldn’t have to beat both Boston and Miami, regarded as the preseason East favorites, to make the Finals.

But that’s looking way too far ahead. Yes, the Bulls did win Tuesday, and, yes, coach Tom Thibodeau often can see the glass half broken if not crushed to millions of shards. But the 37-40 Suns, out of the playoff race in the West, not only gave the Bulls a rough finish. But they once again exposed some Bulls flaws that have been mostly overlooked, though not by Thibodeau, amidst the joy of 16 wins in the last 18 games and discussion—clearly not among players or coaches or reasonable thinking people—about tiebreakers for the Finals.

Though winning, the Bulls have hardly looked like a championship type team in giving up more than five points more per game than their season average to four losing teams in the last five games and being outrebounded three of the last five games.

Sure, you can say it’s difficult to maintain that level of commitment the Bulls have played at all season with the top seed virtually clinched, and Noah just back after missing three games with a sprained ankle. And he’s the team’s best rebounder.

Yet, this has been a team all season not about excuses.

“The win is important,” agreed Thibodeau. “You never want to lose. We did not play tough with a lead. Our shot selection hurt us. Our defensive transition hurt us. We were fortunate in the end to get the win. We have to do a lot better. We have to clean up a lot of things. You have to think about where you are going as a team. We have to change things. We have to do things a lot better. We have Boston coming in and they looked like they played a good game (beating the 76ers by 17 Tuesday). We have to play a lot better against them.”

Everyone will say in about 10 days all teams are 0-0 as the playoffs begin.

But you also don’t want to go in having lost to the Celtics and having lost the season series. Statements. Messages. They don’t generally mean all that much. But you also figure Boston, which has been routinely dismissed of late, will summon some pride for this one, and Thibodeau has been extra on edge in all the games this season against the Celtics, where he was co coach the last three years.

And if there are some concerns for the Bulls, the Suns pointed a few out well.

Though there has been debate of late about whether Noah and Carlos Boozer can coexist with Boozer scoring better with Noah out (Boozer had 12 points with Noah back Tuesday), debate which Boozer dismissed as “cute” by the media, Noah had just four rebounds in more than 28 minutes. Yes, he was defending the perimeter oriented Channing Frye, and not doing that great a job as Frye hit a big three late to keep the Suns in the game when Noah again was late on a close out. But Noah’s ankle after the game looked swollen and fairly ugly as he maneuvered slowly out of the locker room.

Thibodeau clearly was concerned as Noah has missed 34 games and Thibodeau seemed to feel it’s becoming awfully late to still be trying to get him comfortable with Boozer.

“Offensively I thought, (Noah was) pretty good,” said Thibodeau as Noah had a dozen points, eight early in the third quarter when the Bulls seemed to blow open the game with that 69-43 lead after a rare for these days Noah jumper. “Defensively, you could see it was not quite there. He is hurting a little bit. I am concerned he is not able to get in rhythm because he has missed so much time. He has missed almost half a season. He was just coming back and he was getting his timing back and he sprained his ankle. Nothing you can do for that except rehab. He’s still rehabbing. Hopefully he will get better each day. We need his rebounding. To be the team we want to be, he has to rebound big.”

Noah doesn’t rebound big that much anymore. He’s had double figure rebounds twice in his last seven games. Since 16 and 17-rebound games in his first three after returning from surgery Feb. 23, he hasn’t exceeded 13. That’s a lot, but the Bulls have been accustomed to big games from Noah, multiple efforts on the offensive boards, getting loose balls all over the court, being sure handed. But Noah has been fumbling rebounds regularly, often out of position and troubled some on offense as several times Thibodeau or Rose had to wave him to the other side of the court as he’d moved in the way of a formation.

He and Boozer combined for three offensive rebounds Tuesday in more than 63 minutes. Heck, Vince Carter, who led the Suns with 23 points off the bench and has the international “No” symbol across a rebound as a tattoo (kidding, but he could), got three offensive rebounds himself.

The Suns, 24th in rebounding, outrebounded the Bulls 43-41, led in second chance points 17-13 and 50-40 in points in the paint. That’s not the Bulls team we’ve seen this season.

And it wasn’t the Rose the Bulls were accustomed to, even as he bailed out the collapsing offense down the stretch. Yes, again. First with a three point play, which the Suns were fuming at and were saying was a bogus MVP foul call for Rose with 1:52 left to give the Bulls a 94-89 lead, and then a 19 footer over Grant Hill for a 96-92 lead with 33.2 seconds remaining.

As an aside, it was a sad night for Chicago’s reputation as Hill apparently was spit on and cursed at as he left the floor and attempted to go after the spectator. That’s right. They treat you better and with more respect in Arizona.

Carter, meanwhile, then took a dribble hand off and made a tough, running bank shot over Luol Deng to bring the Suns within 96-94 with 26.7 seconds left. The Suns then messed up the finish. They were out of timeouts and when Kyle Korver got the ball they didn’t want to foul as he’s an 88 percent free throw shooter. But he hadn’t shot a free throw all game. He handed to Rose, but the Bulls got the ball back to Korver and he finally was fouled with 13.1 seconds left. But he missed the first and barely made the second.

So the Suns had a chance for a three point shot to tie. The Bulls messed up a bit as well as they had a foul to give and the Suns with no timeouts, but they didn’t give it. Still, it played better as the Suns got the ball to Steve Nash, of course, with Rose on him.

The play was for Frye to set a screen and pop, but the Bulls big men are versatile defenders and Thibodeau allows them to switch even onto guards. It’s been one of Thibodeau’s strengths with this team, So Noah switched to Nash and stayed in front, moving well, actually. Frye fanned out right, but Rose stayed close and the Suns got caught bunched to the left of Nash. So Nash drove and tried a handoff inside to Marcin Gortat with the perimeter covered. Gortat, however, shot instead of trying to pass out for a three, and even if he had hit the Suns would have lost by one. Yes, an escape, though this hasn’t been easy against the Suns all season. When the teams met earlier this season in Phoenix, the Bulls won in double overtime after trailing by 23. The Bulls finished the season 23-7 against Western Conference teams, and 14-1 at home.

But the Suns also applied the strategy to Rose I think the Bulls will see more in the playoffs and which was effective Tuesday.

Obviously, Rose has seen just about every defense, though once you are in a series it tightens up not because teams plays harder but they study you more. Rose’s improved shot has made defending him more difficult, though the plan still remains to try to keep him out of the lanes to the basket. Much easier said than done.

What you want Rose doing as an opponent is going so called east to west, meaning across the court instead of at the basket for layups and free throws and collapsing the defense, which opens up shots and easy passes to teammates for drives.

The Suns were very good at it after trailing 53-40 at halftime.

Every team blitzes Rose off the pick and roll. But what the Suns did was soften the blitz a bit, coming up later and working to string out Rose. Yes, he could take shots off that. But it’s not the best option, and the Suns also played quite a bit of zone after halftime when they cut that Bulls lead to 81-70 after three.

The Bulls’ zone offense has been better of late with quicker ball movement, though they sometimes get hung up and after shooting 20 free throws in the first half the Bulls attempted just four after halftime, and two late on that intentional foul on Korver.

“They made sure I didn’t drive the ball,” said Rose, who was knocked off a bit as his handle was unusually unsteady. “They built a wall. They stayed inside until I got the ball in my hands. I’ll look at film. I’ll learn from it.”

Boozer, of course, saw all this as a positive.

“We’re No. 1 in the East, chasing San Antonio (for best overall record and one and one half games behind),” said Boozer. “And we’re still getting better, guys. Ain’t that exciting!”

Well, it should be on Thursday.

It didn’t look like it was going to be Tuesday after the reserves in the second quarter, as is the case often these days, carried the starters with a brawny sequence which gave the Bulls a 45-34 lead midway through the quarter.

It was the only quarter the Bulls outrebounded the Suns as Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson were all over second shots, Brewer with four offensive rebounds in eight minutes. C.J. Watson hit a pair of threes and Thibodeau rode the reserves longer than usual as the ball movement and interior passing was very good.

“The bench was playing really well,” said Thibodeau. “We were searching in the second half. The bench not so well (in the fourth quarter. So we) came back with the starters a little bit earlier than we would have liked. But I felt we had to do it then.”

The Bulls did put six players in double figures with Deng adding 18. And Boozer, despite limited scoring again with Noah, though Gortat was tough for Boozer to shoot over, said he and Noah are fine.

“I’ve never played with a player like Carlos before and I don’t think he’s ever played with a role guy like me, either,” said Noah. “We both have the mindset this is going to work. It’s good; it’s exciting.”

“You guys are so cute with this me and Jo thing,” chided Boozer, though he was smiling. “We were making mad paint passes to each other tonight. He plays off me, I play off him (Boozer did have seven assists). Everyone’s got to pick on something. Nit pick this, nit pick that. Me and Jo know what we’re doing even if you all don’t.”

The Bulls didn’t look very good doing any of it after that 16-5 open of the second half. Carter, again, of all people, kicked the ball loose from Rose twice and the Suns got out for a fast break three point play from Hill and a lob dunk to Hakim Warrick that had Thibodeau storming into a time out.

Carter then hit a pair of threes early in the fourth, the second a four point play when Gibson fouled him, and suddenly the Bulls were in a fight to the finish.

All good, said Boozer, while the Suns were pounding the Bulls on the boards in the fourth, 13-,7 with six offensive rebounds. On one late possession the Suns got three offensive rebounds and failed to score.

“Even though tonight we did not play our best basketball, we won when a lot of teams would not have,” said Boozer. “A lot of teams would not have had the mental toughness to win a game like that. We had the mental toughness to win. I’d rather win and get better than lose and get better. We can play better and we absolutely will.”

Thursday would be a good start.

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