Bulls band of brothers dismiss Raptors


Jan 15

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It hadn’t been a great night for Taj Gibson and the men of the Bulls Bench Mob, giving up an early 13-point lead the starters had created against the Toronto Raptors Saturday in the United Center.

The game, featuring two teams playing their fifth game in six nights, which about everyone does in the NBA these days, had emulsified into something barely worth watching as the Bulls were hanging onto a 56-52 lead going into the fourth quarter.

The Bulls, in some respects, have started to resemble those great teams that ease along, all the while knowing they can win the game when they have to. Still, the Bulls remain enough without championship portfolio that they hardly can count on playing that way.

So Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had a message for everyone, though especially Gibson playing against a downsized Raptors lineup. “Thibs understands what makes guys go,” said Gibson. “He said to me, ‘Lock in.’ He told me, “Taj, you’re better than that. Let’s go!’

“He really turned into that mean guy,” Gibson said, smiling and understanding he hadn’t found the exact description he was seeking. “The guy not a lot of people know about. He told us to go after it, and we really stepped up late.”

Especially Gibson, who followed a John Lucas III three pointer that opened the fourth quarter with a slam dunk on a pass from Derrick Rose, a short jumper as the shot clock expired, a steal from Gary Forbes after which Gibson was fouled and hit two free throws. And then after another Lucas three as he was playing shooting guard off Rose, Gibson grabbed a Lucas miss and angrily slammed the ball in with an accompanying scream of satisfaction.

“We have the mindset no matter how many minutes you play, no matter how many touches you get, no one should play harder than you,” said Gibson. “You’re supposed to lay it on line no matter what. That’s the kind of key plays I look forward to. Whatever I have to do help my team. I’ll lay it on line. I don’t want to disappoint Thibs or the team and I’ll do what I can.”

That slam dunk concluded a 17-6 run that effectively broke open the game with the Bulls taking a 73-58 lead and easing the rest of the way to a 77-64 win that raised the team’s league leading record to 12-2.

It also concluded nine games in 12 days, though the Bulls leave in two weeks to play nine consecutive road games, after which in mid-February their schedule breaks considerably.

The Bulls are tied with the Lakers for most games played at 14, though the Lakers have played 10 of those games in the Staples Center. The Bulls lead the league with nine road games played. They moved to 5-0 at home with now a remarkable mark of teams averaging 66.8 in the five games, the lowest in NBA history at home after five games.

Rose led the Bulls with 18 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. He said his sore toe was fine, and he did have a fancy hang time drive for a score late in the fourth before Gibson’s Edvard Munch. Carlos Boozer was steady throughout with 17 points and 13 rebounds while the bench came through as Gibson had 11 points, nine in the fourth quarter, and 12 rebounds. Lucas had eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter.

The Raptors got 15 points each from DeMar DeRozan and Leandro Barbosa off the bench and former Bull James Johnson was having a good game with 12 points in 18 minutes until suffering a sprained ankle. The Raptors were without leading scorer Andrea Bargnani.

As a result, they went smaller and quicker with Barbosa, Linas Kleiza, Jose Calderon and Gary Forbes late. The Raptors also played zone defense much of the game, which slowed the game as zones are the respite for lazy and poor defenders and end up in long clocks and less scoring. To counter, Thibodeau went with Lucas alongside Rose with Richard Hamilton and C.J. Watson still out, and Gibson and Kyle Korver to spread the court and allow switching with Toronto’s limited size.

“I liked the way we started the game,” said Thibodeau. “I thought we got hurt with their speed in the second quarter. When they went small, I wanted to change what we were doing to finish the game. I thought we had to match quicker. They were playing James (Johnson) at four (power forward).
“I thought our team played great in the fourth quarter in all areas,” said Thibodeau of Toronto’s 26.3 percent fourth quarter shooting. “Offensively and defensively. John hit some open shots. I thought Derrick made some great plays. I thought the ball moved. I thought the defense was very good.”

It’s been a tough stretch with all the games and travel, and you see less enthusiasm in the post game locker room than relief. Luol Deng, the mule of the team the way Thibodeau uses him at so many positions and against the best offensive players, actually got off half the fourth quarter for a change as Thibodeau could see him dragging after Deng had played 33 minutes through the first three quarters.

The greetings are somewhat different this season as players see old friends. Gibson said when he met up with former teammate DeRozan before the game the exchange went like this:

“I said to DeMar, ‘It’s a rough season,’” recalled Gibson. “He said, ‘Tell me about it.’”

But as teams and players are brought to their knees, the Bulls find a way to stand tall. And I was reminded again of one of the reasons when late in the game Jamaal Magloire took down Gibson with a hard hit. Lucas sprinted over in what initially looked to official Scott Wall like they were going to fight.

Lucas assured him he had no such intention, and Magloire, about a foot and a half taller, kind of flipped Lucas away. They had been teammates before and are friends.

If you notice, you’ll always see a Bulls player sprint to help up a fallen teammate. Sure, players do that on all teams. But the Bulls players run to help their teammate.

It’s something Thibodeau brought with him and instilled in this one-for-all message the Bulls maintain and which Gibson alluded to. If a teammate is down, that means he’s made a play for everyone, putting his body out there, and you owe it to that teammate to support his effort for the group. It’s a subtle thing, but something you don’t see much around the NBA. It’s just another piece of the intricate, coordinated tapestry this Bulls team is piecing together that appears to be coming into focus as a very appealing design.

There’s not much that stood out early in this game except the rare halftime box score. The Raptors moved into that stultifying zone early while Rose and Boozer got things going for the 23-14 first quarter edge.

I don’t care for zone play, though the Bulls, Thibodeau noted, play a form of that in their defense.

“We have zone principles,” he said. “We’re not a passing lane/steals team. We’re a hard ball pressure type team. But we protect the paint behind the ball (with so many bigs) and basically that’s zone principles. We may play zone (I’d be surprised). I like the concept of it. I (also) think we have all the things you need to attack it. We can put more shooting on the floor, we have guys to penetrate and great rebounding. We have great cutters, Lu can cut from behind the zone and we’ve got guys to attack from behind.”

But it doesn’t do much for scoring.

The bench stumbled and lost Barbosa in the second quarter as Toronto tied the score at 37.

At halftime, the score was tied. Both teams shot 18 of 43, both teams were 0-3 on free throws (nice), both teams made one three pointer, both teams had 26 rebounds, including six offensive each, both teams had eight assists, both teams had three turnovers, and the Bulls outscored Toronto 23-14 in the first quarter while Toronto outscored the Bulls 23-14 in the second quarter.

You could say it was an historic statistical oddity, though I won’t say I was proud to have been there to witness it.

The Raptors didn’t make their first free throw until 7:14 left in the game and were one of seven overall from the line for 14.3 percent. It might have been easier if the Bulls did hack-a-Raptor all game.

The Bulls finally broke loose a few times in the third quarter for easy baskets and got a pull up three from Rose for a 53-48 lead. But former Bull Johnson had a strong close to the quarter blocking a Rose shot, making a steal from Gibson and then running out on his own to score.

“I did not think we played with the type of pace I liked,” said Thibodeau. “We’ve got to do a better job. If were playing defense and rebounding well, we’ve got to throw ahead and run to the rim. Everyone wants to be a running team. But you have to have the discipline and it takes a lot of work.”

But with this schedule?

“The challenge you face if you want to be a quality team, a championship caliber team, that’s what you have to do,” said Thibodeau.

The Bulls have heard it before. Noah, meanwhile, has been playing better and had 12 rebounds.

“We’re winning; it’s great,” he said. “I realized it’s not about me. I can look at what I need to do and feel like I need to do better.
(But) we have best record in the NBA. Obviously, we’re doing something right.”

Noah has had double figure rebounds in three of the last four games and only didn’t play the fourth Saturday because of the matchups. He still isn’t finishing strong on tips and follows, and he got in a gentle nudge, if more musing than message, for Thibodeau.

“Thibs always tries to get the best out of us,” deadpanned Noah as he smiled. “Even though he’s never run up and down the court, ever.”

And so it will continue.

“They keep coming,” Thibodeau said, predictably dismissing the schedule. “We’re not looking back. We’re just looking at the next one (Monday in Memphis with Watson expected to play). We’re not concerned with the aesthetics. We just want the wins.”

Nobody’s doing it better.

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