Breaking down the Bulls’ win over the Lakers


Dec 26

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Joakim Noah is adept at making the pithy observation, and so it was as he sat somewhat giddy after Sunday’s dramatic Bulls comeback victory, 88-87, after trailing by six with 54.6 seconds remaining.

“What a way to start an NBA season,” Noah said, a smile spreading across his face. “I feel that’s an understatement.”

It wasn’t so much celebratory in the Bulls postgame locker room as it was satisfaction with not only a victory but how it was achieved.

“What I liked,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, “was the resolve at the end to find a way to win the game. We had a lot of guys dig in and make some hustle plays. Of course, Lu (Deng) with the big steal and Derrick (Rose) with the big shot. And some real good defense on the last play.”

I went into detail on the game, especially the thrilling and unlikely end game sequences, in my earlier story that you might also check.

Though perhaps what stood out more was the intangibles in this opening game gift for Bulls fans as well as the NBA in a game with stars like Kobe Bryant and Rose performing, 13 lead changes and eight ties. It’s that notion you seemed to pick up being around this team already, the quiet confidence and swagger of a group that no longer fears any one or any circumstances.

I figured this would play out more as the season unfolded. It was revealing to see it occurring already, a seemingly hopeless loss turning into a gritty victory after Rose emphasized to teammates with a few minutes left that they now do these things.

I mentioned in the previous piece about how Rose said it was the Bulls, and not the Lakers, who were the experienced team more prepared for this kind of moment. And flashes of that leadership that everyone seemed demanding of the quiet Rose the last few seasons seems unquestioned for now.

“It (stinks) to be down 11 in that situation,” Noah offered. “You’re not happy about it. But at the same time there was no letdown. We kept fighting. Derrick said (in a stoppage of play), ‘We’ve been in these situations before. We’ve been coming from behind. Coming back and winning games.’ We’re young but we’ve been playing together. And Derrick hit that unbelievable shot to end the game.”

It was a terrific moment, though perhaps lost in the headlines again of Miami’s demolition of the remnants of the defending champion Mavericks. Miami made some wonder what the preseason wags were saying: How could anyone beat this team?

The Bulls will have to try again, and if hardly perfect on Christmas Day, they showed perhaps the element they previously were missing.

It wasn’t a particularly good effort, overall, for the Bulls against a team with a new coach, new system (no triangle) of play and Lamar Odom gone and Andrew Bynum out suspended. And, oh yeah, Kobe Bryant with a fractured wrist.

The Bulls played too much to the Lakers’ deliberate style early, though Richard Hamilton getting in foul trouble (and very questionable calls guarding Bryant, I thought) kept the Bulls from showing off their new backcourt duo.

With Ronnie Brewer, who had a hustling effort in place of Hamilton, the Lakers were able to play off early and zone the lane against Rose, keeping him outside.

So early the Bulls got scoring from their bigs, and then after falling behind 18-10 got a nice rush from the reserves to take a 22-20 lead after one. Brewer was in the middle of a lot of it, and C.J. Watson continued to shoot well, though the offense bogged down badly when he was back in after halftime with too much dribbling and jump shots.

“The ball moved great in the first half. We had 16 assists,” noted coach Tom Thibodeau. Then we came out hanging onto it, the ball sticking, dancing with it and when you do that you struggle to score. You don’t get good shots.”

Or points as the Lakers went from trailing 56-49 at halftime to leading 69-68 after three as the Bulls failed to attempt a single free throw in the third quarter while shooting a dastardly five of 23.

“I thought the intent was good. We wanted to win,” said Thibodeau. “But misguided because we weren’t moving the ball like in the first half. We had opportunities to move without the ball, cut. But we were standing and watching.”

Thibodeau had also removed Rose early, with about three minutes left in the first quarter and didn’t bring him back until about five minutes into the second quarter. Rose hadn’t scored yet, but would end the half with 10 and a pair of three pointers as his shot looked good with nine of 13 shooting.

I also think Thibodeau has shown some nice growth as coach. He didn’t panic and return to his starters quickly, riding the bench through long stretches. He’s also already kept the team on a pace to parallel the season with more road off time than last season, though perhaps also because of the heavy early schedule of road games.

Hamilton ended with just six points in 23 minutes, leaving one Bulls fan on Twitter to say the team was now 1-0 when Hamilton scored at least six points. That, of course, was the mark the team used last season to note Keith Bogans’ contributions as a scorer.

But the Bulls will need Hamilton at a high level, and while Brewer was solid he isn’t enough of an offensive threat.

Overall, I thought the Bulls got a solid game from Carlos Boozer, who had 15 points and six rebounds. But he shot more confidently and early on had a sharp interior pass for a Noah dunk.

Noah couldn’t get anything to go after halftime, zero for eight in the second half mostly on missed tips and inside plays. But his increased energy and defense was crucial late when the Bulls pulled out their miracle.

Although Luol Deng was credited with the game saving block on Bryant and the earlier steal to set up the Rose winning floater, it was Noah’s pressure which apparently unnerved Bryant into not holding the ball. And it was Noah’s help defense that forced Bryant to fade back and double pump to where Deng could get to the ball.

“Jo held him up,” said Deng. “He went for a double clutch and I kind of timed it. Jo went up first and I knew he was going to fake. I waited for him to go up and then I jumped.”

Added Bryant to reporters: They’re one of the best teams in the league, and we did a phenomenal job holding them down. “(On the last play) they did a good job with the rotations, and (Deng) came over and made a good block.”

Noah, meanwhile, kept Pau Gasol mostly quiet and it is his relentless defense and rebounding the Bulls are going to need in greater doses.

“Team effort,” said Noah.

Asked if he blocked that final Bryant shot—I actually thought he did—Noah said, “I’m so numb at that point (in the game) I don’t even know. I don’t think I did. I asked Taj (Gibson, helping with Noah) and he said he didn’t get it.”

Gibson, sitting next to Noah, smiled and nodded.

“Somebody got it,” Noah laughed. “The Bulls got it.”

Rose kept it from getting away with eight of the team’s 12 points in that brutal third. And though little noticed, Omer Asik with eight rebounds in just under 20 minutes was a bother to the Lakers with his size and help defense, still among the best on the team.

But Rose finished the game without a single free throw attempt, and I know the Lakers defense is not that good. Rose admitted he is still finding himself and his game with this Bulls team, and he seems to be taking on a Jordan type model of easing off early and coming strong when the need is greatest.

“Last year, I was a little too aggressive,” said Rose. “Certain times of the game I was taking dumb shots. I’m trying to take away the dumb shots and play more efficient.”

He’ll need more from Hamilton and someone off the bench, like Kyle Korver with a slow start to the season, to start producing before Rose can really afford to back off as he’d like to. Most generally agree his scoring should go down this season and assists up, but the Bulls still showed flaws in flow and offense, and not enough defense to create offense.

They showed a promise to run in the preseason, but we did not see it as we didn’t see Rose in the post or at the basket nearly enough as he hit four three pointers. It was a magical victory, but mostly for the tricks the Bulls played at the conclusion. It’s not time to begin celebrating quite yet.

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