Bulls continue their revolutionary ways over Bobcats


Jan 22

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It mostly was an exercise in speculation and imagination, though Luol Deng didn’t much like it. I used to come up with various trade scenarios involving Deng. They weren’t unpopular.

After averaging 18.8 and 7.1 rebounds in the 2006-07 season when the Bulls won 49 games and swept defending champion Miami in the first round of the playoffs, Deng was looking like the team’s star. The Bulls let a chance to get Pau Gasol pass because they didn’t want to lose Deng. After all, he was as productive as Gasol and his team went farther.

But injuries and changing coaching philosophies dimmed Deng’s star and even his view of the game and himself. He became moody and remote and his game lagged.

Fans sometimes ask me why I don’t have as many Bulls trade proposals as before, and a 15-3 Bulls team after Saturday’s 95-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats is one major reason.

But the other is the seemingly irreplaceable man, Luol Deng, who was once again, as coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say, the glue that holds the team together even when Derrick Rose is playing. But now with three of the team’s top six players sidelined, Deng takes on in a fashion the role of the team’s George Washington, the indispensible man.

He doesn’t grab the headlines with genius, like Thomas Jefferson did. He doesn’t shock with innovation like Benjamin Franklin. But in times of crisis with a steady hand needed, it was Washington and it is now Deng.

The Bulls went into Saturday’s game adding Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and John Lucas to their injured list with Rose out a fourth straight game with his toe injury. Thibodeau listed all day to day, which basically means none need amputations at this point.

Deng had his own battle scars afterward with a sprained left wrist. X-rays were negative, but Deng was going for an MRI Sunday. It’s not like the Bulls can afford to be without Rose. He’s the genius who answers your dreams.

But to make the thing work there’s Deng, and Saturday’s game was a magnificent example.

Although C.J. Watson was point guard, the Bulls opened the game playing through Deng, who assisted on an Omer Asik slam dunk, a Carlos Boozer jumper and Richard Hamilton backdoor layup right after Deng’s own three point play.

Deng would finish with 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists to go with a team high 23 points from Carlos Boozer and 20 points from Richard Hamilton. Starting at center, Asik grabbed 15 rebounds, and D-league callup Mike James came off the bench for nine points and 10 assists in less than 17 minutes in his best game in more than three years.

But it was Deng, who later throughout the game went to power forward as the Bobcats used smaller lineups. And who went out with 5:25 left and the Bulls ahead 91-76 who had to come back two minutes later as the Bobcats cut their deficit to nine.

“He’s very experienced,” observed Bobcats coach Paul Silas. “He knows how to play this game. He knows exactly when he has a shot. He knows how to defend. He’s a hard worker. His attitude is ‘I’m going to be successful every night.’ He goes out and does that. He comes up with big threes when they need them. When they rotate the ball around to him he constantly scores. He just kind of breaks your heart.”

The Bulls did that Saturday efficiently and impressively to a Bobcats team coming off three days off while the Bulls were in yet another back to back, their eighth already in less than a month. But the Bulls went to 7-0 at home while having played the most road games in the league. And still they hold the NBA’s best record despite more millionaires doing nothing than in Mitt Romney’s family.
Gibson was limping around the locker room still before Saturday’s game following his ankle sprain Friday. He is expected to be out a few more games. Noah expected to play, but decided just before the game he wasn’t right and sat out.

“I did everything I could,” said Noah. “But I had no push in my ankle. I think it will come back quick. When I woke up this morning it was pretty bad. I went to get treatment, iced four times, saw the massage lady, came here and wanted to play. I didn’t have any push in my leg.

“But this shows our depth is the biggest strength on this team,” said Noah. “Guys really step up when given the opportunity. We all know what we bring to the table. We all have different roles. But we know we need Derrick to play at 100 percent, Taj. So we also understand the big picture.”

Though he thought he’d play after his groin ouchie Friday, Lucas couldn’t go, either.

So Omer Asik got his first NBA start and had those 15 rebounds, five offensive with a pair of blocks. Boozer began lobbying for Asik to be in the All-Star weekend rookie/sophomore game.

“I tried to play my game,” said Asik. “I just try to do my job to help the team win. I tried to do defense. I have to be better (on) offense. I need to play much better than this. I don’t feel I played good on offense.”

I try to speak with Asik as much as I can. His English is not great, but he does communicate in four languages well. I’m fairly proficient in one. He’s also got this wonderfully dry wit, actually a fairly common trait of many of the European players, and he has a very high IQ for the game. He is regarded among the coaches as the team’s best help defender, and commentator and former coach Jeff Van Gundy said on the Bulls/Celtics broadcast a week ago Friday Asik was the league’s second best defensive center.

His backup Saturday was Brian Scalabrine, who got in so early (1:30 left in the first quarter), fans didn’t even have time to begin chanting his name. Yes, the Bulls backup center was Brian Scalabrine, and though they were outrebounded for just the second time in the last 15 games, Scalabrine had some nice moments, including a steal and breakaway that led to a wraparound pass to Kyle Korver for a layup as the Bulls led 27-23 after the first quarter.

“I thought Scalabrine gave us good minutes,” said Thibodeau. “I was going to go back to him at the end when they went to a smaller line-up, but I wanted Omer’s shot blocking out there. Those minutes from Scalabrine were quality minutes. He made a couple of hustle plays, he made a nice pass and he played defense.”

So Scalabrine is the backup center, and one of the big stories of the night was the play of James, who was an emergency stopgap when Rose hurt his toe while Watson was still out and Lucas was the only point guard.

James was basically out of the NBA after having played for 10 teams in nine seasons. The 6-1 combo guard wasn’t even listed in this season’s NBA register of every player in the NBA, meaning the league didn’t expect him back. But he went to the D-league at 36 with all those kids traveling around in vans and happened to get the call from the Bulls because most of the guards were in the D-league Showcase in Reno when the Bulls needed help. James had left and was back with his team in Pennsylvania, so he was closer and could get to the Bulls fastest.

And called upon Saturday, he was terrific when the Bulls began to break open the game in the third quarter with assists to Hamilton, Boozer and Deng, on consecutive scores, and then three more straight to Boozer, assisting on six consecutive Bulls baskets that ended the third quarter with an 18-12 Bulls edge that gave the Bulls an 80-69 lead heading into the fourth quarter after Charlotte had stayed close much of the game.

“James’ play tonight was kind of strange,” said Silas. “Here’s a guy who has not been around with this ball club, but he did great tonight. He gave them energy and passed the ball well and hit a lot of floaters. They didn’t really miss their point that much.”

No, we’re not going there.

James was surrounded by reporters afterward as is the custom when the unknown does the unexpected. He said all the predictable stuff about staying ready and having been around the association a long time.

But he offered some interesting observations that we’ve began to hear also from Hamilton, and James was on that 2004 Detroit Pistons team with Hamilton that won an NBA championship. Interestingly, it was credited with its non star lineup against the multiple star format favored so much around the NBA.

“Everyone wants to win,” said MJ (Mike James). “It’s not about individual stats. That’s a championship locker room, a championship team. That was one thing when I played with the Pistons I haven’t felt with other teams. When the starters are in game, the bench cheers. When the bench is in the game, the starters cheer. It’s one unit. I felt that here.”

Added Hamilton: “You see all the time guys playing for different reasons than winning basketball games. Guys in this locker room really like one another. It’s fun when you know your teammates have your back. Guys are hurt and cheer for guys on the floor. In the NBA, that’s hard to find.”

The Bulls took that early lead, 13-6, behind Deng’s playmaking and Hamilton taking little Kemba Walker into the post and scoring. Hamilton quickly ran him out of the game, and the Bobcats speedy little backcourt, which might have been an issue with Rose out, was held to two of 11 shooting and seven points combined.

Gerald Henderson had 22 and Byron Mullins 17. But the Bobcats never had nearly enough to sustain. Former Bull Tyrus Thomas had six points and seven rebounds.

“Not having all their players I thought we had a legitimate shot,” said Silas. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Deng held off the Bobcats in the second quarter with nine points and five rebounds, hitting a rainbow jumper as the shot clock went off, slashing hard from James for a three point play, grabbing his own rebound for a score and closing the first half to put the Bulls ahead 50-43 with a put back slam dunk on a Korver miss as Deng maneuvered for perfect inside position, sealed his man and scored.

“I try to play the game the right way,” says Deng. “Knowing every night the way we play I’m not trying to step out of who I am. I play the same game and it works.”

With his contract extension delayed a year and talk of being traded for Gasol and then Kobe Bryant, Deng’s game did stray. He tried to prove himself the one on one scorer, which isn’t him. But he also worked hard on his dribbling and his flexibility, and now you’d be hard pressed to find five better small forwards in the game, perhaps even fewer given what he does for his team. Deng’s not the talent of, say, a Carmelo Anthony. But Deng does so much more which leads to winning than someone like Anthony, a ball stopping scorer and matador defender.

Boozer continued his strong and consistent play with a monster third quarter with 15 points, rolling hard to the basket for a three point play, following that with a stepback jumper as the defense sagged for the drive, rolling in left handed on the pass from James and two more jumpers to close the third with that 11-point lead. Boozer is now averaging 24.3 points and 9.7 rebounds the last three games in just about 33 minutes per game.

“Carlos has been playing at a very high level for us for a number of games,” said Thibodeau. “He is in rhythm, he’s walking into his shots, he’s got great balance and he is mixing it up. He’s hitting jump shots, post moves and rolls to the basket. I think his defense has been very very good.”

Thibodeau has generally been pleased with this continued remarkable Bulls play with so many injuries and games, saying once again the offense was great but the defense wasn’t much to look at.

“Our defense was very poor tonight,” said Thibodeau. That’s something we’re going to have to clean up.”

Thibodeau generally smiles broadly when he says that. He loves to clean up defense. After all, how good can a defense be that gives up any points. To the credit of this Bulls group they believe. Actually, I thought the Bulls defense was very good as the Bobcats mostly relied on jump shots and made just two of 11 threes. I think Silas, one of the league’s toughest defenders when he played, agreed.

“They rotate very well. They know exactly what they want to do on the pick and roll. Their rotation helps them,” Silas admired. “Anyone open, there’s always a man there and then someone is picking his man up and they contest shots. So it’s very difficult for you to score on them.”

I think what Thibodeau was upset about was that the players weren’t always rushing out to shooters with a hand up, though as Thomas lined up for jumpers I thought it was best to let him shoot. Same with sixth man Matt Carroll, bombing them up at 28 percent this season.

The Bulls then spaced it out to open the fourth with James hitting a three and a nice driving finger roll off a sharp Deng screen. That gave the Bulls an 85-71 lead with about 10 minutes remaining. The Bulls moved it up to 19 midway through the quarter as James hit a runner, Boozer a fade and Deng a nice step in on a pass from Korver. The ball spun around again with the Bulls getting 26 assists, 10 from James and nine from C.J. Watson.

And so this impressive start continues and you begin to wonder if you can have the league’s most valuable player while someone else is more valuable to the team.

“He really is the glue to our team,” Thibodeau said of Deng. “There’s nothing that he doesn’t do well.You can post him, he cuts, he moves without the ball, he can shoot. He slashes, plays great defense, guards multiple positions, playmakes, plays to win. He’s smart, knows how to read things. You can’t say enough about what he does and brings to winning.”

In some respects, it’s revolutionary.

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