Bulls worm their way to win over Pistons


Apr 2

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It sounds like one of those April Fool’s jokes.

You know, telling people there are two weeks left in the NBA season and with Joakim Noah out yet again, this time missing his 33rd game with a sprained ankle, with Carlos Boozer having a pair of such sprains himself and missing eight games to add to the 15 in missing the first month of the season with a broken hand, with Keith Bogans, yes, still starting at shooting guard, the Bulls with Friday’s 101-96 win over the Detroit Pistons pretty much wrapped up the best record in the Eastern Conference and suddenly have a chance for the best record in the NBA.

The mighty Celtics lost again, falling three back of the Bulls with seven to play. The super Heat are two and a half back, though with three more losses and the Bulls holding the tiebreaker. The invincible Lakers have the same record as the Bulls after winning 17 of their last 18, and the seemingly untouchable Spurs with six straight losses now lead the Bulls for best record in the NBA by a game and a half.

April fools?

It’s no joke.

“Destiny is in our hands,” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 27 points, 13 in the first quarter in his latest mandate to have the team avoid slow starts. “We’re just trying to finish the season strong.”

The Bulls, at 55-20, are closing with a rush with 14 wins in their last 16 games, even with an uncertain performance against the Pistons in which a 12-point fourth quarter lead shrunk to three with 2:39 left.

But the Bulls came out of a timeout with Rose slipping the ball to Carlos Boozer for a goal tended layup and three point play, Boozer with another strong game with Noah sitting as Boozer had 22 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Despite a choppy overall effort, the Bulls again moved the ball with alacrity in getting 28 assists on 38 field goals.

“He makes us a different team,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said about Boozer. “You have Carlos in the post and Derrick off the dribble. The pick-and-roll creates a lot of offense for you. The one thing about Carlos, if you cut and you’re open he’s going to hit you every time. I think our players know that because were doing a better job searching him out. We have to keep him in rhythm. He’s doing a better job running the floor and getting deep in the paint. He’s playing very well right now and we have to keep him going.”

The Bulls defense closed inside, forcing a turnover as Kurt Thomas broke up an inside pass. Luol Deng gave it back with a similarly errant pass, though the Bulls remained ahead 93-87 with 1:36 left. It should not have been this much of a struggle, though it was hardly one of the Bulls’ better efforts as they were outrebounded and gave up 52 percent shooting.

“We have to do a better job with our defense,” said Thibodeau “I’ll take a win any day. Any way we can get it. It’s fool’s gold, too. We have to make the corrections. The three things we always look at on the road is the defense, rebounding and turnovers. We didn’t rebound well, we didn’t defend well and we turned the ball over.”

But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, the play…

Richard Hamilton, back starting in the wildest rotation anyone ever has witnessed, was fouled and made two free throws as he was to go on to a game high 30 points.

You had the sense the Bulls always would win this game, but it was four points with 89 seconds left.

Kyle Korver, who never got it going with two points on one of seven shooting, missed a three. But Thomas, playing almost 37 minutes, got the miss and got it to Korver, who drove and handed off to Thomas for a short jumper and 95-89 lead with 57.7 seconds left.

Thomas did make some big plays down the stretch, and if Noah were healthy you assume he’d be playing. But Thomas also cannot protect the rim very well, which is one reason Detroit shot so well.

Tayshaun Prince then drove and scored against Luol Deng, which gets me to thinking about Prince. He is an unrestricted free agent and the talk is he’ll resign with the Pistons. Though I think he’d be a perfect addition for the Bulls as he and Deng are good enough on defense and with range to alternate at shooting guard and small forward. Still, all that stuff is a long way off.

Rose then made the backbreaker against the Pistons, a  jump pass finding Ronnie Brewer inside for a layup to reclaim the six-point lead with 34.7 seconds left. Hamilton hit a three, though with 24 seconds left and the Pistons had to foul and the Bulls wrapped it up with free throws.

“We didn’t play our best basketball tonight, but we will take the win and we will move onto tomorrow for a team that is waiting for us in Chicago,” said Boozer about the home return to face the weak Raptors.  “They had a couple of days off there in Chicago, so we have to come into tomorrow with some intensity and get that win. We aren’t thinking about anyone else but ourselves right now.  I’m not trying to be selfish, but we need to focus on us, getting healthy and getting our team back and be playing our best basketball, tightening our screws on offense and defense, and getting ready for the playoffs.  Each day we are trying to get better and not worry about the other teams.”

Yes, that’s for fans and media, and you can be sure the coaches and players as well as the standings always are posted in the team locker room.

It also was sort of a poetic symmetry Friday as it was announced that Rose and Kobe Bryant were named March players of the month by the NBA, and the coaches of the month were Thibodeau and Phil Jackson. Bulls/Lakers Finals 20 years to the season after the Bulls first title in Jackson’s final season of coaching with Thibodeau and Jackson maybe now running one/two in coach of the year with the Lakers perhaps overtaking the Spurs to win the West and maybe Rose and Bryant the top two for MVP?

Though a first round playoff win would be a big step for a group that rarely has seen any playoff success. With the Pacers win over the Bucks, Indiana now leads Charlotte by two for the eighth spot and matchup with the No. 1 seed.

But all that is a long way off, and, frankly, the Bulls do have some intriguing questions to consider.

Boozer, for one, seems to have come back to life offensively the last to games playing without Noah, Boozer’s first back to back 20-plus games in more than two months. Are they a bad fit? They better not be as they seem to be the future front line.

Thibodeau obviously had the most trust in veteran Thomas with Noah out.

But playing Thomas with Boozer basically leaves the Bulls’ middle weak with no threatening shot blocker. Taj Gibson relieved Boozer late in the first quarter after a brutal defensive sequence that enabled the Pistons to tie the game at 21. Rose then exploded for the last eight points of the quarter to give the Bulls that 10-point first quarter lead.

In some respects, the Bulls won the game in the first quarter in actively playing the passing lanes to force seven turnovers they turned into 15 points with a 12-0 fast break edge.

Thereafter, the Pistons played them relatively even as the Pistons kept getting to the basket and Thibodeau kept calling early timeouts in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, Gibson, with another block, played just 13 minutes.

Thibodeau likes to balance the offense, and with the offensively challenged Thomas playing Thibodeau feels he needs to leave Boozer out more and not replace him for defense with Gibson. Similarly with Omer Asik, who played just under 10 minutes and had three rebounds.

But going with Thomas and Boozer, the Bulls give up their threat and protection at the rim, which is why the Pistons were able to get to the basket constantly without fear and shoot 52 percent on the No. 1 field goal defense team.

There also is another issue with Noah, who missed his second straight game with that ankle sprain. Rose, by the way, sustained a season-flashing-before-everyone’s eyes turned ankle in the third quarter when Boozer, of all guys, stepped out on a shooter and Rose crossing stepped on Boozer’s foot. Rose was limping noticeably, but continued to play and did make that big pass late. But those things usually swell overnight, so the Bulls will see Saturday.

As for Noah, perhaps the Bulls should consider just shutting him down for the rest of the regular season to get that ankle right if it’s an issue. Noah, clearly, has not been the same player with three double digit rebound games in his last eight. If his ankle, which he only recently sprained, is more of an issue, then perhaps he should get it right because the Bulls will need his manic offensive and defensive aggression for the playoffs. As solid as Thomas has been, he’s not someone to rely on for big playoff minutes or to give the Bulls that interior defensive threat.

Still, are they supposed to win every game?

This wasn’t the kind of game to be much in sync anyway with a long halftime ceremony as the Pistons retired Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 jersey, which rookie Greg Monroe said Rodman told him he could keep, anyway.

Bulls fans know Rodman from hating him with the Pistons as one of the baddest of their boys and then were most fond of as the erratic, iconoclastic Bull during three championships seasons.

Rodman also let it out he will be among those announced Monday going into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

There is not much so called normal about anything involving Rodman, though this was fairly close for him as little did anyone know he had a real family with a wife and son sitting by. Rodman even quipped that “people didn’t know I have a family.” You could have knocked us over with a wedding gown. So what did she wear at the ceremony? They looked nothing like Rodman, though few can. He wore jeans, a baseball cap and dark glasses and had piercings in his lips, ears and nose.

I don’t really judge anyone’s looks or choice of clothing, though it seems curious to me why more people don’t wear vests and saddle shoes. Comes to think about it more people look like Rodman than look like me. I’m going to have to give that one some more thought.

I don’t want to ever get into analyzing Rodman, never one of my favorites, though he was a superb rebounder and defender, however more so when he was with the Pistons in their two title teams. For all his bombast, you could always see how shy he was and how he rarely, if ever, talked to many of his Bulls teammates. He came across vulnerable when not acting out, and I’d see him more often talking with the ball boys and kids working the locker room.

A large group of former Pistons were there, including Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, John Salley, Rick Mahorn, James Edwards, John Long, Vinnie Johnson and Jack McCloskey. Rodman mentioned how much he missed owner Bill Davidson, coach Chuck Daly and media chief Matt Dobek, all of whom having died recently, and Rodman honestly seemed humbled by it all. He offered a few profanities, but at what somber occasion doesn’t everyone?

It was mostly a semi bizarre stream of consciousness, though, for Rodman, reasonably touching.

The Bulls seemed to take control of the game after that long halftime and a courtside drink spill that took another five minutes or so to clean. Time to wipe the floor with the Pistons?

Bogans hit a pair of threes with first Rose and then Boozer finding him, and then Boozer even picking off a Monroe pass and sprinting full court as Noah used to and finishing with a layup and score as the Bulls would go on to lead 77-62.

“We were flat to start the third,” said Thibodeau. When we got the lead we played loose, but we didn’t play any defense and that was a problem. Rip was able to get to the line and made up ground on us. Our rebounding was poor so we had to scratch for it at the end. They had the same halftime and they came out with a lot more energy than us.”

Well, eventually.

Hamilton didn’t get going until the end of the third quarter as the Pistons closed with a 10-3 spurt to draw within 80-72 after three. Rose did have a brilliant crossover and fade back move on Austin Daye for a score in that sequence.

The Pistons, with team mutiny and unusual rotations and clashes between players and coach all season, have been a mess, now 26-49. But it can’t be worse than it’s been for former Bulls scoring star Ben Gordon, who was the last player off the bench. He scored five points with not a single play run for him all game and basically no one ever looking for the team’s best shooter. He’s buried deeper than ever with Hamilton back.

The Bulls actually got a break with the curious Pistons lineups as using Boozer and Thomas late, Thomas had to play the angular and much quicker Daye. But the Pistons with Hamilton obviously working on his own trade value never involved Daye much to take advantage of the apparent mismatch. And Thomas doesn’t have the kind of game to go at Daye, even with Daye weighing likely 115 pounds.

The Bulls still seemed in control early in the fourth. But in going to Korver as Thibodeau does in the fourth, Prince went at him and the Bulls went back to Brewer for defense. Also, earlier they went back to Bogans late in the second quarter despite Bogans usually not playing after his first quarter starting minutes.

Clearly, Thibodeau was struggling with the lack of a force inside and trying to make up for it elsewhere while the coach clearly isn’t that comfortable with Asik quite yet.

So with Daye hitting a runner away from Thomas, Hamilton and Prince adding jumpers and Will Bynum stripping Rose for a turnover and fast break layup, it looked like the Pistons might steal one getting back within 90-87 with 2:39 left. Boozer and Thomas with big scores helped keep the Pistons from getting any closer, but that hardly seems a formula for ultimate success.

For right now, though, it is plenty good enough, and good enough to continually surprise just about the entire NBA.

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