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Bulls do some howling in Minnesota
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 11
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The Bulls keep moving on, their 111-100 victory Tuesday over the Minnesota Timberwolves increasing the team’s record to 9-2. Now whether Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer will join in remains to be determined.
The essence of the Bulls front line was again on the bench in the fourth quarter as the Bulls came back from losing a 24-point lead behind the timely shooting of Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer and a brilliant performance from Derrick Rose, who scored 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter after Minnesota pulled within three early in the period.
Rose did so with a recurrence of a turf toe injury he suffered late in the first quarter when the Bulls looked like they were going to go early ice fishing with the Timberwolves their bait with a 33-17 first quarter lead.
Rose went to the locker room after Anthony Tolliver fell on the back of his foot going for a loose ball. Rose had 14 to that point as he was slicing up a Timberwolves defense that was playing him unusually soft with no blitz or much show on the pick and roll. Given the smothering defensive attention Rose had been seeing this season, it had to be like a playground game with your little brother and Rose was driving through to the basket and pulling up for jumpers relatively unimpeded.
But when he returned, he was more tentative as the Timberwolves also played him more aggressively after halftime as they tied the game at 70 late in the third quarter.
But it was the shooting of Deng, with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Brewer, with 17 points and a team high six free throws, who carried the Bulls through desperate time until Rose regained his boldness.
“I was just trying to pace myself through the game and pick my spots,” Rose joked.
“Just activated my turf toe, but I’m fine,” Rose said. “I finished the game. Towards the end I didn’t feel it. Took an advil and I was good. I’ve had turf toe since my second year. So, I’m fine. They just wrapped it up and took care of it. It didn’t have anything to do with my ankle.
“The first five minutes of the morning usually aren’t too much fun,” Rose said about the Bulls having now played six games in the last eight days and eight of their 11 on the road. “But we’re all still pretty young, We’re all right. Besides the second quarter we played all right. Guys are very conscious of our schedule and they do a good job of taking care of their bodies: A lot of cold tubs, a lot of treatment. I think Coach (Tom) Thibodeau has been doing a good job of pacing us.”
Thibodeau had to go deep with Rose and Deng Tuesday, though both had fewer minutes the last two games with the Bulls losing badly in Atlanta and winning easily against Detroit. So Deng played almost 43 minutes, much at power forward in the fourth quarter, and Rose played 42, and the Bulls needed all of it with both Richard Hamilton and C.J. Watson still out with their injuries.
It’s been unfortunate for the Bulls as Hamilton was to be the additional piece to open up the offensive spacing and scoring at shooting guard. However, he’s rarely played with a groin problem. And Thibodeau elected to again bench Noah and Boozer for the fourth quarter as both had difficulties at times, though the Timberwolves played a small, athletic lineup with two point guards and no center most of the second half.
As a result, the Bulls dominated the boards, 47-30, and got back to better ball movement with 24 assists. It also looks better when you make 11 of 20 threes, as the Bulls did. Rose was four of eight and Kyle Korver three of three with 13 points. Korver is now 53 percent on threes for the season, including hitting 13 of his last 20.
Though it wasn’t easy as Minnesota got back all of that deficit behind 22 points from Luke Ridnour and 13 points and 12 assists from Ricky Rubio, who is becoming one of the rare better-watch-or-you’ll-miss-something players in the NBA.
Late in the first half with the ‘wolves closing the quarter with a 15-0 run to get within 53-47 at halftime, Rubio was dribbling down the right side after a Deng miss. Looking away and not pulling up his dribble, he underhanded the ball in mid dribble and tossed it up above the rim on the other side of the floor to a running Anthony Randolph who dunked the ball.
It was Magic Johnson/Pete Maravich/Earl Monroe type stuff the way Rubio passed the ball in the middle of a dribble. Rubio also keeps his dribble alive like Steve Nash does, making the defense play longer through the possession, which the Bulls are one of the few to do. I don’t mean to put Rubio in the Hall of Fame because he’s not those guys. He’s not going to score like those players, for one, but he can shoot, which was questioned in Europe, and he’s a passable defender. He started the second half with Ridnour and you can see the Timberwolves going more toward that as starters Wayne Ellington at shooting guard and Darko Milicic at center were ineffective and played little.
“I think they’re really, really good,” said Thibodeau of Minnesota.
Minnesota is just 3-7 and that was their third game in three nights, becoming the first team in seven to lose that third one. The Bulls play their third in three nights Wednesday in the United Center against Washington, trying to become the only team other than Oklahoma City to sweep those three.
The Timberwolves also posed a curious problem for the Bulls that I wonder whether more teams will try to exploit. They had success after halftime going with a smaller team, making it difficult for Boozer and Noah to defend and stay in the game. Kevin Love, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds but shot five of 18, played center. Noah thus had to chase outside, and the athletic, long armed Anthony Randolph was difficult or Boozer.
The book on Boozer is to play him with length, which forced him outside for jumpers. They were falling Monday against the Pistons and early Tuesday, but he cooled off and finished with seven points and six rebounds. Noah had eight points and 11 rebounds, though almost half the rebounds in an active first quarter.
I thought (Noah’s) rebounding was good,” said Thibodeau. “He went after it a lot more. The more he does that he will get more into rhythm.”
Noah’s had an irregular start to the season, and he again had difficulty finishing around the basket, not able to grab passes and go up. Rather, he’s had to gather himself and jump, giving the defense time to react and it’s limited his scoring, though he was three of five Tuesday.
It’s also continued to prove problematic with Boozer and Noah playing together, though it wouldn’t be different with Omer Asik, who played the entire fourth quarter. Boozer is a smallish power forward, maybe 6-8, which is why he fell to the second round when he was drafted. To his credit, he made himself into an offensive force. But in Utah he played with a center, Mehmet Okur, who shot threes and drew the defense away from Boozer. With the Bulls playing with Noah or Asik, it becomes more crowded at times and Boozer finds himself fading away for jump shots more often.
The Bulls do run a side pick and roll for him like he had in Utah, and he did make several of those moves to the rim in his excellent effort Monday against Detroit. But the Timberwolves began to zone the middle more and Boozer’s shot wasn’t falling. Then when he couldn’t keep up with the athletic Randolph, who had 18 points off the bench, the Bulls went with their smaller lineup.
Taj Gibson had just four points and three rebounds. But he had three blocks and was terrific in help defense as he and Deng are similar in size and have the quickness to switch often. It helped close up the middle to Rubio’s penetration and enabled the Bulls with Rose driving the middle and finding Brewer and Korver — and even Asik one time — to overwhelm the Timberwolves down the stretch.
“I like that we got the win,” said Thibodeau. “I didn’t think we played tough with the lead, so I didn’t like our defense. They went on an 18-2 [run] in the second quarter. Then we were trading buckets for a long time. But I like the result to hang tough and pull it out in the end. We had the resolve to hang tough with them coming at us pretty good. It was a strong team effort.”
It was interesting watching Love, about whom I’ve gotten a lot of mail from Bulls fans after there were internet rumors he might not resign with the Timberwolves. I assume he will, but he’s not a maximum salary player to me. He puts up numbers, but he’s not worth paying because he’s not good enough to win for you. That should be what maximum pay is all about. I assume Minnesota will give it to him because free agents don’t go there and who else would you pay? Well, Rubio, for one.
The NBA game has taken on a lot of the elements of the European game, so a shooting big man can have success. Love is a very good three point shooter, and he hit a pair late in the second quarter when it was 51-29 to begin the Minnesota comeback. Then he head faked Noah coming at him and drove and was fouled. That’s more his game, and I’d play him like teams used to play Dirk Nowitzki with an athletic small forward like Shawn Marion. Deng did a better job on him later in the game.
Still, it made for difficult matchups for the Bulls and you wonder if teams will copy that as the Warriors used a similar formula to defeat the Bulls earlier this season.
Certainly, the Timberwolves traditional lineup to start the game was no match. The Bulls were leading 13-11 and went on a 16-0 run with Rose and Deng hitting threes, Boozer with a nice postup against Love, Noah with his running lefty hook and the Bulls defense pressuring everything. The Timberwolves were playing Rose soft without much pressure on the pick and roll, and you were looking for 40 when Rose had 14 until that late collision that sent him to the locker room.
Still, the Bulls led by 16 and increased that to 51-27 with 5:21 left in the second quarter when Rubio had a beautiful two handed bounce pass on a two on one for a score and Love hit threes. Meanwhile, the Bulls were pulling up for jumpers and Rose was tentative.
The Timbewolves’ small lineup effectively chased Boozer, who made a pair of turnovers, as Rubio pushed the Timberwolves into a faster game. It was 61-60 Bulls midway through the third quarter with the momentum and home crowd was with the Timberwolves when Deng hit two clutch jumpers and then a three that seemed to hold off Minnesota.
“I thought Ronnie played extremely well,” said Thibodeau. “Lu hit some huge, huge shots. The game was in the balance and Lu hit three shots in a row that were huge for us.”
They actually kept the Bulls in it as the Timberwolves were charging and tied it at 70 with 3:46 left in the third on a Ridnour three.
The Bulls had some nice mismatches with the small lineup, and Brewer got a postup on J.J. Berea and Korver a transition three, though Rubio would strip Rose on consecutive possessions late in the quarter as the Bulls led 79-74 going into the fourth.
Berea drove for a score to open the fourth. But Korver got a three with Berea chasing him and then Rose made the drive of the night with a twisting scoop between four defenders to give the Bulls a 10-point lead with about 10 minutes left.
“He’s great,” Rubio said of Rose. “It’s hard to defense him. Maybe he’s one of the best, if not the best, player I’ve ever played against. It’s hard to guard him. He’s the fastest guy I ever played.”
Rose then took over, accounting for 22 of the Bulls 32 fourth quarter points with 14 points and four assists. Minnesota hung in behind a big game from Ridnour.
But Rose scored on two fanciful drives to make it 99-90 and 103-95 before Rose found Brewer for a corner three as the defense closed hard toward Rose. That made it 106-97 Bulls with 1:44 left.
Brewer is an amazing seven of 11 on threes this season after coming into this season shooting about 25 percent on threes for his career. Brewer also stepped across the lane to draw a big charge on Derrick Williams with the Bulls hanging onto a 97-90 lead with 4:38 left after a big defensive rebound between three ‘wolves by Deng on the previous possession.
That Brewer three on the Rose pass made it 106-100 Bulls after Love scored on a drive and nice three point play. But Asik gathered in a Deng miss and passed to Rose for a three to effectively clinch the game with just over a minute remaining.
“He’s going to take a lot of hits,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “He’s got to get through all of that stuff. He’s shown how tough he is. That’s all part of the game. It’s a tough physical game.”
And Rose and the Bulls remain up for it as with Miami’s loss in Golden State they have the East’s best record.