Bulls win 60th, but no one is dancing


Apr 11

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It wasn’t the most upbeat celebration of a 60-win season Sunday with the Bulls’ 102-99 victory over the Orlando Magic, even though every time in franchise history the Bulls have won at least 60 games, they have won an NBA championship.

Of course, every time they did it was with Michael Jordan. Though Derrick Rose, with 39 points, including 11 of the Bulls’ 22 in the fourth quarter, isn’t a bad 1A for now.

“Derrick was Derrick,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “You can’t ask for anything more of him.”

But Thibodeau can ask for more from the team, and he made it clear he will, even with their seventh straight win and 19th in the last 21.

“We’ll take the win,” said Thobodeau. “Our defense wasn’t very good, our rebounding was below average and we did not take care of the ball. We were fortunate to win. We dodged a bullet in the end. We got lucky.”

Officially, that was Jameer Nelson’s tying three pointer which came a fraction of a second after the final buzzer.

But more so it was another one of those games in which opponents can make the case that this Bulls team can be taken down.

You can say it was a game the Bulls couldn’t have been mentally prepared for with Magic center and scoring leader Dwight Howard out with a suspension. Plus, the Bulls had wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference Friday and it was an early start coming after a lazy off day in muggy, hot Orlando.

And the lobster was a big soggy at dinner and the wine was…

Of course to any such suggestion Thibodeau would growl and eat his game notes, like at halftime when Nelson swished a half court 47-footer at the buzzer with Rose trailing well behind him.

Thibodeau actually bumped Rose coming off the court and was in his face, apparently about his failure to close out on the heave.

“He expects perfection,” Rose said with a half laugh. “Thibs was on me as soon as he hit that. There was nothing I could do. I was going for the rebound (Carlos Boozer miss) and (Jason) Richardson threw to Jameer. I thought Lu (Deng) would step up, but he ended up hitting a tough shot.”

The Magic hit a lot of tough shots, 12 of 24 threes, so it wasn’t anything like a morgue in the locker room. Someone was beating out a drum tune and players were urging the generally slow guys, like Deng and Jokim Noah, to get moving. After all, it was an early game and they were headed to New York City, fun city for just about everyone.

Thibs loves the hotel video machines there for the game tapes.

So, yes, these guys with this kind of season deserve a break and did make the big shots and big plays down the stretch to win the game.

Boozer, who didn’t score through the second and third quarters, though Orlando did a good job with a quick double and the Bulls didn’t do very good rotating and reposting, hit two big free throws for the eventual three point margin with 2.2 seconds left.

“I got a wide open shot,” Boozer said with laugh about his free throws. “I felt great about (shooting). They have me a lot of attention with double and triple teams. When I got to the line it was my first open shot all night. So I was excited about it.”

If Boozer isn’t always that quick, and he and the struggling Noah combined for 11 rebounds, which were matched by Taj Gibson, I thought that was quick thinking.

Orlando, 50-30, took it’s last lead after the Bulls had led by 11 in the second quarter with 1:42 left on a pair of Ryan Anderson free throws. Anderson, playing center for Howard though a perimeter shooter, was terrific with a career high 28 points and 10 rebounds, outplaying the Bulls inside starters.

But after that Boozer got fouled on a pick and roll off the constantly trapped Rose and made two free throws for a 97-96 Bulls lead with 1:26 left.

Nelson then missed a three, but Rose lost the ball on a drive into a crowd in what became one of numerous late game video reviews. Hey, the Masters in on! Let’s go!

OK, perhaps that wasn’t the universal feeling among the Bulls.

Ronnie Brewer, who has been vital in getting steals lately, stripped Brandon Bass driving inside, denying the Magic a second chance to take a late lead.

Then Gibson was fouled after a Rose pass as Anderson stepped up on Rose in a very aggressive trap all game. Gibson made one and missed the second. But Deng got the huge offensive rebound with 12.8 seconds left outmaneuvering Anderson, which the Bulls hadn’t done much of.

“I really wish I would’ve got that rebound,” said Anderson.  “That was the most awkward bounce off of the rim on a free throw I’ve ever really seen. That’s frustrating, especially when it was Loul Deng. That’s a guy I could’ve gotten a rebound over.”

The Magic then had to foul Rose, who made both for a 100-96 lead. With 9.9 seconds left, Nelson missed a three. But Anderson got the rebound as the Bulls, surprisingly, were dominated on the offensive boards 16-5. Then Richardson hit his fourth three to get the Magic back within one at 100-99 with 2.7 seconds left.

No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way without Howard and Quentin Richardson, also suspended.

Boozer made his two free throws with 2.2 seconds left, giving the Magic one last chance, and Nelson almost pulled it off with a three.

“I thought it did (count),” said Nelson. “The ref made a good call. I needed maybe two tenths more.”

He had to pump fake to get Rose to fly by and then the shot was too late.

“I wanted to make sure I contested,” said Rose. “The biggest thing coach was saying is make sure to contest, don’t foul.”

I generally believe in fouling at that point, though the way the officiating has changed I have to agree with Thibodeau now and play those out. For some reason, the NBA now allows guys to pretend they are shooting and give them fouls, an extension of drawing the defender in. It’s one thing to reward a foul on shot. But now the NBA allows players with no clear intention to shoot to jump in the air after a foul and pretend they were shooting. So you almost never can foul now in that situation unless the shooter has his back to you.

“If his back is to the basket, we want to wrap him up,” agreed Thibodeau. “If he’s facing the basket you have to be careful. He can get in the shooting motion and you can put him on the line. We’d rather foul with seven seconds or less. But teams have gotten better catching the ball facing and giving guys that call and he can be shooting three. We’d rather take the foul than have him get a shot up, but you have to be careful.”

It was in many ways an unusual game, and not only because of the absence of Howard.

The Bulls shot 60 percent, including seven of 13 threes and 88.5 percent on free throws. Yet they were in a struggle to hang on in the last seconds.

The Bulls committed 21 turnovers and with the deficit on the offensive boards attempted a staggering 21 fewer shots. But they also had 25 assists on 36 baskets with good ball movement again.

But their inside appears to be weakening, especially Noah, who had four points and four rebounds in 18 minutes and sat the fourth quarter again.

“He’s got to do better and he’s capable,” said Thibodeau. “We need him to play better and he will.”

To be fair, Noah had a difficult matchup with Anderson, who plays most of the game 25 feet from the basket, at least on offense. Though his play may have given Magic coach Stan Van Gundy some ideas for what seems likely to be a second round matchup of the Bulls and Magic (The Bulls open with the Pacers and the Magic plays the Hawks).

The Magic has been using Bass more with Howard, which gives them a smaller front line since the trade of Marcin Gortat, which was likely the biggest loss in that big series of deals around Gilbert Arenas. But Anderson could give the Bulls major issues.

The Bulls Sunday played Noah on him because Noah is more mobile than Boozer. But Noah kept getting caught helping inside as Anderson popped outside on their pick and roll.

With Howard, Noah clearly would have to play him, which never has been a good matchup for Noah. Howard has been too physical for Noah and given him major issues. Boozer then would have to play Anderson, but Boozer is reluctant to chase outside.

For his part, Noah wasn’t easy on himself and has been disappointed with his play of late.

“This is the second time this happened,” said Noah of being beaten by perimeter shooters. “(Channing) Frye also. I’m so used to helping inside and trying to protect the paint. I have to realize when playing against shooters I cannot give any space. I made a lot of mistakes. I’m supposed to run them off shots and I haven’t been able to do that. I wasn’t too good. I feel I should be able to get out and (also get back) to rebound. It’s something I’ve got to get used to. I feel I have to do better. I’m not where I want to be.”

Noah has been hampered by a swollen ankle since missing three games with the sprain. But Thibodeau feels Noah’s larger issue has been the lack of playing time and timing since missing more than two months with his broken finger. So Thibodeau is trying to get Noah playing time as Noah does seem out of sorts trying to rebound and no longer making multiple efforts. He also missed some rebounds Sunday jumping too soon and has virtually abandoned his jump shot after a strong summer of work. So defenders are playing farther off him and closing the lane more.

Which brings the team back to Rose, who has been truly amazing and was so again Sunday with 15 first quarter points in pushing the Bulls off to a 32-24 lead after one as they hit 10 of their first 11 field goals with only a Deng three going halfway down and out.

Rose had a beautiful drive cupping the ball in his left hand in the first, a blinding crossover dribble/drive for a score and a hard drive in which Anderson flattened him.

Rose was down hard at least three times, pushing himself up slowly like a dazed boxer but each time coming back attacking once again.

“This was a hard game,” said Rose. “When the best player is out guys step up and are playing hard because they are playing for an opportunity. They’re very dangerous.”

Like it’s going to be for Rose.

Deng made some big shots and finished with 15 points as Thibodeau went back to playing him 39 minutes and Rose 37. Boozer had just 12 points, but six rebounds and six assists on some nifty interior passing. Boozer does give the ball up when doubled, though there is some debate around the Bulls about whether the team does enough to repost for him or whether he needs to hustle more for quicker post position and early offense.

Beyond that, the Bulls generally search for offense, so they come to depend more and more on Rose.

Against a team like Orlando which likes to push the pace and shoot threes (they had a 16-6 fast break edge), the Bulls can have difficultly finding scoring. Especially like Sunday when the Magic were going at Kyle Korver and Thibodeau used Brewer for defense.

With Howard if the Magic go with Anderson, I suspect in those games the Bulls will use more of Kurt Thomas and limit Noah some. Though that can be counter productive as the Bulls rely on Noah’s full court energy for easy scores. Though there hasn’t been as much of that lately. Sitting Noah for Thomas also isn’t the grand plan for success.

Also, it is always a danger to rely on one player, even one as great as Rose, too much.

That reliance can result in offensive stagnation, and already the Pacers’ Danny Granger told the Indianapolis Star’s Mike Wells at practice Saturday the Celtics seem a more formidable challenge since they rely on more players to produce than the Bulls.

“Boston’s a different monster,” said Granger. “They have four, five guys you have to worry about, from (Paul) Pierce, (Rajon) Rondo, (Kevin) Garnett and (Ray) Allen. Chicago, they go as Derrick Rose goes. If you make a concerted effort to stop Derrick Rose, you have a better chance to beat them.”

Can you do so in the playoffs. Teams have tried all season, but how much can Rose handle?

Still, it’s resulted in the best record in the East for the Bulls and 12-0 against the best teams over the last four months. So it’s not like a lot of teams are solving that. But everyone knows playoffs are different, less so for the notion teams play harder that for the time to focus on one team and challenge or limit their strengths.

The Bulls will need much better production from both Boozer and Noah to have a successful playoff run, and certainly better than they saw Sunday against the Magic.

Which is why Rose wasn’t making any predictions or looking very much ahead Sunday when being asked about the Bulls being a championship team.

“If we get to the second round,” Rose said about a potential playoff  matchup with Orlando. “I’m not looking that far ahead.  We’re not there yet (championship ready). We’re close, but we haven’t proven anything. We’re still trying to get there. We’re not there. Rebounding, turning the ball over, losing leads. Those are things in the playoffs you can’t do, things we’ve got to get better at.”

Sunday’s game didn’t set up as one that would raise so many issues coming into New York Tuesday, and the Knicks perhaps without Amar’e Stoudemire.

No Howard, no problem? Right?

It didn’t look like it with that start and then a nice run from the reserves to open the second quarter highlighted by a fake and baseline slam from Gibson for a double digit lead.

Gibson has been playing much better, Sunday more for Noah against the smaller lineup while usually providing defensive relief for Boozer.

“I’ve been down all year,” acknowledged Gibson, who has had some difficulty adjusting to no longer starting. “But they’ve stuck with me, Thibs, my teammates, and I’ve been staying in the gym. Whenever he needs me I try to go out and calm things down. He uses me in different roles and just tells me to be ready and play hard.”

Though playing time has been brought up at times for the Bulls this season, I have liked the way Thibodeau handles it. He tells the players to go hard in the game and he’ll get them rest outside. And for a first time NBA head coach he’s had a nice hand in doing so with a good number of days off and a mix of hard and easy practices or walkthroughs.

That group got the Bulls a 43-32 lead midway through the second quarter. But when the starters returned with about five minutes left the Magic began to push the pace for fast breaks, get on the boards for second and third chances and got back in down 50-49 at halftime.

“We let them back in the game, gave them confidence,” said Deng. “We could have done a better job taking away their confidence early. We have them extra shots and threes and have to do better.”

Halftime didn’t help as Thibodeau called a timeout 48 seconds into the third quarter as Anderson beat Noah twice for scores, including on the boards.

It was a fairly intense timeout with both Rose and Noah angry and emotional.

“My teammates listen to me. I’m telling them to keep playing, that we can’t keep doing this,” said Rose. “We let them come back and have momentum. We can’t do that f we want to be a special team. I’m getting more vocal. When you show emotion, you shouldn’t take it personal. It’s basketball. Someone yelling at someone, we’re just trying to make each other play better and hold each other accountable on the court.”

But now the Magic was back in the game along with the crowd.

Rose and Deng had big quarters shooting jumpers, but Richardson got going and the Bulls went into the fourth leading 79-78.

Thibodeau went back to Rose fairly early in the fourth quarter and Rose responded with a pull up three for an 87-84 lead.

“He made a huge three,” said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.  “He shot the ball very, very well. And then they shot free throws very, very well. They are not normally a great free throw shooting team, even though he is (Rose was 10 of 10). But Boozer shot them well, Bogans made both of his, Brewer made both of his. They shot them well. Is there more we can do? Yeah, we can probably trap him a little more on the pick and roll, but I didn’t think the pick and roll was really the big problem, he just beat us on drives.”

And hustle. Rose then grabbed his own miss and scored for a 91-89 lead with 4:27 left after a long Gibson jumper as the shot clock went off, Rose’s one offensive rebound tied for the team lead.

“The only people I saw on the boards fighting were the Magic,” said Thibodeau.

But in an entertaining final period with eight ties and four lead changes, Nelson hit a banker to tie. And after a sequence with Boozer committing three consecutive turnovers on an offensive foul, being stripped and a soft cross court pass that led to a Richardson fast break, the Magic led 94-91 with 2:48 left. Richardson finished with 24.

The Bulls hung in with Brewer, though he wasn’t credited, and Gibson, getting steals. And then Rose to the rescue once again and with just enough defense to slow Nelson’s last chance.

But can he get there in time every time?

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