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Bulls stun Hawks and those seeking artistic basketball
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 4
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The kid did it again.
Yes, it was 26-year-old Luol Deng once again with the game winner, this time Tuesday in the Bulls latest unlikely victory, 76-74 over the Atlanta Hawks after trailing by 19, 14 in the fourth quarter.
“I’ve had so many (game winners),” Deng said with a laugh afterward. “I’ve got to go back and watch the tapes. Go back and see which one was my favorite.”
Yes, it was Deng with the deciding points, a beautiful game winning play that fooled the Hawks with Joakim Noah making a high post pass to Deng cutting in for the winning layup with 3.7 seconds left as Derrick Rose was smothered on the outside by the Hawks.
Oh, yes, that kid. Well, he had a bit to do with it all as well, including what looked like his second game winner of the season, a power drive with 9.9 seconds left in a classic finish that saw three lead changes and a tie in the last minute. Rose went between his legs twice and high off the backboard over Josh Smith, who’d already rejected a pair of Rose drives in the fourth quarter.
That basket had come about 50 seconds after still another Rose drive from the top of the key and all the way and through Smith at the rim to give the Bulls a 72-71 lead with 57.8 seconds left in this remarkable fourth quarter, if not game.
Rose would finish with 30 points, 17 in the fourth quarter, and seven assists. Deng, who along with Rose played 44 minutes and the entire second half, finished with 21 points, 13 in the fourth quarter, and eight rebounds.
“Derrick was sensational down the stretch,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He made big play after big play. And, you can’t say enough about Luol. He does everything. He rebounds, he defends, he cuts, he is active and tough and smart.”
And Thibodeau gets a nod as well for the well crafted final play. Noah as well for seeing Rose double teamed and finding Deng cutting from out of bounds as Joe Johnson, and the rest of the Hawks, eyed Rose.
“We contained him the first three quarters, but there is a reason why he is the MVP,” said Atlanta’s Al Horford, who led them with 16 points. “He made plays for his team. Not only him but Deng and the bigs stepped up and made big shots. I felt like we played a great game. We were right there with them. We dominated them for most of the game. Just Derrick Rose happened.
“We all assumed the ball was going to come back to Rose and we were going to trap. That was a great play by them, by their coach, to take the pressure from Rose and hit Deng on the backdoor,” said Horford afterward. “We didn’t expect that at all.”
It was an artful finale, the second for the Bulls in their 5-1 start after Rose’s runner stole the opener in Los Angeles after the Bulls had trailed by 11 with 3:44 left.
These kinds of wins can be looked at two ways, and we’ll know which was correct after the season. Check back with me. You can say this kind of victory demonstrates a toughness and relentless spirit that makes a team inured against the vagaries of bad luck and bad play and doesn’t allow them to relent. Perhaps the sort of vitality a team needs during the boiling and pressurized cauldron of the playoffs.
“There are going to be pretty ones and ugly ones,” said Deng, who did have game winners twice over Miami last season. “With the ugly ones you find ways to win. The best thing is we have a group of guys, most have been here last year, they are familiar with each other and what to do at the end of games and what to bring. We’re not going to give up. There’ll be games we’re down a lot and we’re still going to play hard.”
It’s a fabulous trait and will enable a team to win games it shouldn’t, especially in this unusual, 66-game season and in the playoffs.
There also is the other way to look at it, that a game like this, still another for a team that should be 3-3, exposes the weaknesses of a lack of offense and enough scoring to compete with the truly elite teams. Rose is remarkable. But with Deng going awry early with two of seven at halftime, the Bulls struggled badly to score and had just 42 points through three quarters.
Richard Hamilton missed his second consecutive game with a groin issue, though he is expected to play in his return to Detroit Wednesday. But going on 34 in February with more than 34,000 minutes under his hood you wonder whether like his former teammate, Chauncey Billups, also missing some games already, whether Hamilton can sustain. The Bulls surely missed him Tuesday with Atlanta’s athletic defense ganging up on Rose and throwing in some zones that befuddled the Bulls.
C.J. Watson also remained out with his sprained elbow and was still in a sling coming to the game. So it hardly seems he’d play this week even as both are listed day to day, Heck, who isn’t.
Also, Noah and Carlos Boozer, the interior tandem expected to carry a major scoring and rebounding responsibility for the Bulls, were again benched for the fourth quarter with Noah coming in just for that last play in what would be the game winning assist.
Noah was in foul trouble again even with no huge Hawks interior force and played just 16 minutes with four rebounds. He is averaging just seven rebounds this season, half as much as he was the opening month of last season before he was hurt. Boozer, coming off a strong game against Memphis, was out the last 15 minutes after tallying 11 points and nine rebounds. Omer Asik filled in impressively as the Bulls best big man with nine rebounds and three blocks in playing all but that four seconds in the fourth quarter as he, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver played the fourth with Rose and Deng.
“We were very flat and we were searching,” said Thibodeau. “That group got some momentum going so we were staying with them. I felt they got us out of a hole so they deserved to finish it. I was going to come back (with the starters). But that group was making their run. There was a lot of ground to make up. I felt at that point you couldn’t afford to have another lull. I felt they looked like they were fine and it looked like they were picking up their energy. Derrick and Lu are accustomed to playing big minutes, so I thought they were fine.”
So you might commend Thibodeau for not sticking with guys who weren’t producing, showing players no matter who they are and how much they make if they aren’t playing to the appropriate level they’ll be benched. That’s fine, but you do need those guys to play much better if the Bulls, as they so often say, get where they want to go.
“I have to do a better job being able to be more productive on the court,” said Noah. “I need to rebound better. Do better defensively. I’m happy we won, but at the same time I want to do better. When you shoot as poorly as we shot (33.8 percent and won), that’s pretty bad. When you do that and win you should be happy, but at the same time you have to be critical about the things you can do better.”
So perhaps they aren’t satisfied, which would be appropriate following a game that somebody had to win — those are the rules — but no one should have. The Hawks shot 35 percent and were leading 38-26 at halftime. If someone had to stand on a ladder to get the ball out of the peach bucket it couldn’t have been much slower and less interesting than the first half. This was the kind of game when you wish the lockout had lasted longer.
The Bulls scored 34 points in the fourth quarter. They didn’t reach 34 points until midway through the third quarter.
“It was disappointing the way we started the game,” said Thibodeau. “I thought we were playing a low energy game. I give Atlanta a lot of credit. They played great and we caught a break. This was the second night for them, a back to back. They were more aggressive to start the game. When we play without pace, we struggle. I think we had five fast break points in the first half. We did not start running until midway through the third.”
Not that any games are easy, but the Bulls were coming off an off day and the Hawks had flown in well after midnight after winning an emotional game in Miami Monday night. This would be their sixth game in eight days.
So they weren’t very good. It’s just unfathomable how bad the Bulls were to start with three turnovers in the first seven possessions, Boozer shooting one off the side of the backboard, no one protecting back as Deng opened with a drive and the Hawks ran out for a layup and the offense mostly in half court mode.
“Nothing was going our way,” said Deng. “Our offense was not looking too good. The first half we stood and did not move much.”
Yes, that first quarter wasn’t very good as the Bulls fell behind 23-15.
Then they missed 19 of 21 shots and shot 9.5 percent in the second quarter. Noah was wide open on the baseline virtually at the basket and passed. Ronnie Brewer, who shot two for eight, hesitated on wide open jumpers. The Hawks showed a zone and the Bulls were baffled. Several teams have tried that against Miami with nice success and you wonder if the Bulls will as Thibodeau is much against zone principles.
“Their zone bothered us,” admitted Deng. “This is the most zone we’ve seen this year. The next practice or tape session we’ll be talking about zone offense a lot.”
So the Bulls slumbered into halftime down 38-26 with staff checking for record lows.
The Bulls fell behind 56-37 with under three minutes left in the third quarter — really, they weren’t playing the old North Carolina four corners — though Boozer got a little going and Asik had a strong drive and finish as the Bulls were heading into the fourth quarter trailing 56-42.
And so Rose would awaken.
“I was saying something the whole game, cursing and everything,” Rose said when asked if he offered any pep talk like he had in the Lakers’ game. “We got things together at the right time.”
Rose hit a pair of three pointers, Deng ran out for a score after he pick pocketed Zaza Pachulia, Rose hit another three, got fouled on a shake and bake move and made a pair of free throws, and then Rose penetrated and passed to Deng in the corner for a three pointer and with gallant defensive effort on the other end, it was suddenly 62-62 with 6:20 remaining.
“Unbelievable,” said Noah. “I’m watching from the bench and it was just crazy. The beauty with Derrick is he keeps attacking. Even with shot blockers. He’s good at getting it up there and he’s either going to make it, get fouled or we’ll be there to clean it up.”
Joe Johnson, who had a miserable shooting game with three of 17, hit a three to put Atlanta back up. But Gibson followed a Deng miss for a score after Horford scored on a lob. The Hawks continued to run similar lob plays successfully to Horford and Smith, the last one to Smith with 43.6 seconds left for a 73-72 lead. Thibodeau was in a rage screaming as he saw the play developing, but that group had been in all quarter and wasn’t about to stop everything.
Meanwhile, after the Hawks regained their footing ahead 69-64 with 4:08 left, Deng ran himself into five of six free throws after Hawks misses, Deng’s fourth quarter production a revelation this season.
“The first half I stood and did not move much,” he said. “I wanted to get more movement, more cuts.”
Deng’s last free throws moved the Bulls within 69-68 with 2:57 left as the United Center crowd was in a spring, playoff like thrall over the comeback and the efforts.
Smith, with 15 points and 14 rebounds, then scored on a high arcing jumper before the Bulls fought through three offensive rebounds before Rose missed. The Bulls were still down three with just over a minute left when Smith missed a 20 footer.
Korver then got stuck with the ball, giving it up to Gibson who found a cutting Deng in the lane and Deng sort of hot potatoed the ball just over the front rim to bring the Bulls within 71-70 with 1:17 left.
Asik then made a huge play in overplaying a pass into Horford and knocking it off Horford. It originally was ruled off Asik, but changed on review. That led to Rose’s first of two late drives for the 72-71 lead with 57.8 seconds left. Smith then got loose for that lob slam dunk from Marvin Williams when Smith lost Gibson on a screen. That put Atlanta ahead 73-72 with 43.6 seconds. Rose then missed a short jumper when the play broke down and he got the ball late and pushed up an eight footer with 20.9 seconds left and the Bulls trailing by one.
The Bulls had to foul, but Jeff Teague missed both free throws (Atlanta was 14 of 25 from the line), giving the Bulls hope and the crowd life.
Rose made that spectacular drive, effectively willing himself over all the size at the basket to give the Bulls the 74-73 lead with 9.9 seconds left. Deng then got caught in what seemed a questionable call when he tried to go under a Horford screen. Horford stepped into Deng and fell and Deng was called for the foul with 7.7 seconds remaining. Thibodeau offered a “no comment” about the play.
But Horford made just one of two for the 74-74 tie, and then came the play.
“We had multiple options on the play,” said Thibodeau. “Obviously, we were trying to get into Derrick. They did a good job of taking away the first and second options. Derrick set a great screen and Jo made a great pass and Lu made a great cut. It was a terrific pass and a great screen.”
If you watch the play carefully, Rose circles toward the ball off a Noah screen with the taller Smith the primary defender on Rose and Johnson following. Rose looks to take the ball from Deng, but Deng hesitates as he sees two defenders about to pin Rose to the sideline. I initially thought Rose faked wanting the ball, but it did look like he expected it. He was supposed to set a back pick, but kind of curled back to get the ball.
“We run it after practice every day,” said Rose. “Lu was able to get open and get an easy basket. Actually, I did break the play a little when I ran to the ball. Lu did not throw it to me. So I went down and ran the play. I was supposed to set the back screen for Lu. It was supposed to be a handoff. Joakim threw a great pass to Lu.”
It was. You could see Noah, who is the team’s best passing big man, look toward Rose and then see Deng slashing at the rim uncovered.
“Derrick was having such a good game in the fourth they just have him too much attention,” said Noah. “They put two on him and Lu was naked at the rim.”
The Hawks had one last chance, but the Bulls smothered Johnson into a wild miss.
It was a memorable game, but you can understand why the Bulls weren’t celebrating afterward.