Bulls and Heat All-Stars go their own ways


Feb 27

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Kobe Bryant broke Michael Jordan’s All-Star Game career scoring record in Sunday’s 152-149 Western Conference All-Star victory. Blake Griffin threw in a bunch of dunks, eight in his nine field goals. Dwight Howard had a quiet game with nine points and 10 rebounds in what could be his final All-Star Game in a Magic uniform.

There was a record for points in a half and points in a regulation All-Star Game.

But the story of Sunday’s narrow West win was perhaps less the East’s comeback from a 20-point deficit with 8:19 left than the story lines that will present themselves in the post season.

Can the Bulls serious, economical approach prevail over Miami’s flair and self indulgence? LeBron James had 36 points and seven dunks, including several powerful rim shakers, and Dwyane Wade had a triple-double, just the third in All-Star history after James and Jordan.

But both James and Wade made crucial turnovers in the last 1:19 when the East had a chance to tie or take the lead. Both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng sat out the fourth quarter, preferring to concentrate on the games that matter.

James and Wade danced onto the stage in the pregame introductions, while Rose walked on respectfully and Deng proudly displayed a t-shirt with a picture of Africa.

Derrick Rose

“I know with my back injury or whatever it was I didn’t want to play that much,” said Rose, who had 14 points and was the only starter under 30 minutes at 18. “He (coach Tom Thibodeau) played me I think a decent amount of minutes. Of course, at the end of the game I wanted to be in. But they were playing great. (My back) felt good. I think he was just worried. You know this is not my game at all.”

It was the kind of game for Kevin Durant, who was named MVP with 36 points, and teammate Russell Westbrook with 21 points and his own powerfully angry driving dunk late in the game.

Asked if the All-Star game with Durant and Westbrook going shot for dunk with James and Wade down the stretch was a Finals preview, Durant, at least for now, was holding off.

“You’re taking it down the line, man,” Durant said. “It’s too early for that. We’re trying to take it a game at a time, a day at a time. I know in Oklahoma City we look forward to getting better every day, and we’ll see what happens.”

Although there are several teams with designs and beliefs on going to the Finals, including the Spurs, Mavericks, Magic, Knicks, Lakers, Nuggets and Celtics, it’s mostly the Bulls, Heat and Thunder who have separated themselves in the first half of the season.

Miami and Oklahoma City have identical 27-7 records with the Bulls a half game behind at 27-8. Everyone else has at least 10 losses. The Thunder and Heat do it more with style and panache, fond of attention grabbing dunks and antics. The Heat players strut, as they did in Sunday’s All-Star Game, which is an entertainment vehicle, after all, and the Thunder stars mimic to demand their own attention.

The Bulls aren’t like that.

Rose is something of a solitary star. He doesn’t socialize much with the big stars, especially the Heat players, and generally spends time, like he did all during All-Star weekend, with family and friends. Even when all the All-Stars were together, you’d see him more with coaches or team staff than other players.

Deng, the wanna be star with his nose pressed against the window all these years, was the happiest All-Star ever to go scoreless. He played just under five minutes, none in the second half, after taking a fall on his bad left wrist late in the first quarter.

Deng said there was no further injury.

“We planned to play more minutes to begin with,” said Deng. “I knew I was going to play the last six minutes of the first quarter and I was going to play again in the second. There was a play at the end of the quarter as I was backpedaling and I kind of tripped up (over Durant). It didn’t hurt or anything. I fell on my wrist and felt it. He (Thibodeau) said, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘Fine.’ I just said the second half if we could go without and rest it. He had a lot of options. I said, ‘You know what? If it’s something that we can avoid and just get back to practice (Monday).’ But I really enjoyed myself out there. The time, the experience I got to be out there. I just fell on my wrist. It was nothing. I just fell. For me to be selected meant a lot more to me. To be selected and recognized as an All-Star meant a lot to more to me than what I shoot or do tonight.”

You never get that sense with James and Wade, and to a lesser extent Durant and Westbrook. It’s different with the latter with Durant something of the humble star, though much higher profile than Rose and even having a preview of a movie he was starring in here during All-Star weekend. For Westbrook, it seems almost feeling he has to do Durant one better to prove himself. Westbrook attempted 17 shots coming off the bench, which equaled Bryant and was less than only Durant.

For James and Wade, though they’ve toned down the act some this season, it seems almost a need to put on a show and show off, the daily look-at-me routine that was in full force Sunday as they spent much of the game throwing lob passes to one another for dunks.

For the Bulls two All-Stars, it was more a feeling of getting this over with and getting back to the serious job of basketball.

For Thibodeau as well, who had to sit through his team giving up more points in the half than the Bulls give up in full games during the regular season.

“I was feeling for him. I really was,” said Deng with a laugh. “I’m not a flashy kind of guy. I don’t think he’s an All-Star type of coach. Nothing (critical). He got through it. I’m sure, you could see at the end we all wanted the win, but I’m sure for him, he’s more happy than anyone to get back to (watching) tape and coaching the Bulls. The positive out of this is I think he’s going to appreciate us even more.”

And so perhaps it’s a more appropriate statement to begin the second half of the season. Can the no nonsense approach of defense and offensive precision of the Bulls overcome the Heat’s jaw dropping talents who sometimes can’t finish off what seems so close? Or is the league and fans better served with the fabulous athleticism that would be on display between Miami and Oklahoma City?

It’s much of what the second half of this 66-game sprint of a season will be all about.

“You have some of the best competitors out on the floor at the same time,” said James. “Not only me and Kobe, but D. Wade and Durant and Melo and CP 3 and all the rest of the guys.”

Purposeful? Yes, no mention of Rose or Deng. They do it a different way and obviously aren’t part of the club. Now all they have to do is prove it on the court.

There’s not much, really, you can do with All-Star games. The NFL seems on the verge of eliminating its after the recent uncompetitive Pro Bowl. Baseball seems just a four-hour long period of substitutions. And so comes the NBA with its street ball dunk fest. It’s not like these things were hard fought in the 1980’s when they flourished, but there were more fundamental basketball to it. Now it’s a test of dunking without officially putting up the judging signs and just the least bit of obstruction.

“You put that many great players on the floor, you’re in a bind on almost every possession,” said Thibodeau. “Because if you over commit to your help, you’re going to give up a wide open shot. And then you have a second shot, and often times the speed of the game you’re caught cross matched, and you’re giving up lay ups. So you sort of have to figure that out. And then we were small, and so we had to do a lot of switching, and that led to some problems, as well. But you know, both teams put big points up on the board, and usually that’s the case with All-Star games.”

Thibodeau got in some coach speak, and he had to feel a lot better.

“Thibs is very unusual,” said Rose. “I’m happy he did not drive himself crazy this weekend. I know he probably has been looking at film in his room. But around us he’s been keeping it cool. I know it definitely was tough for him watching that game. We got things together at the end, made a run back to try to get the win, just did not get the win.”

There were plenty of sidelights to the game with Howard making the pregame remarks to the fans amidst the constant talk he wants out of Orlando. Whether meant or not, Thibodeau played Howard with Deron Williams at times and they ran some pick and roll that supposedly is being envisioned in New Jersey. It also was the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson’s famous comeback All-Star Game, which also was in Orlando, and Johnson was there for a hearty and loving ovation.

Bryant, who scored 27 points, came out shooting for the Jordan mark with 11 first quarter points and got it later on a dunk with 4:57 left in the third. Bryant passed Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earlier in the game.

“LeBron said it best,” said Wade. “It’s a testament to him being healthy, staying healthy. That record he got, with KD (Durant) in the league, I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

Rose did get one slam, though more gentle than James’, Westbrook’s or Durant’s on a James pass early in the first quarter. But for the East it was mostly Wade and Lebron taking turns throwing lobs to one another.

The West led 39-28 after one quarter and then 88-69 at halftime after Westbrook scored 15 in the second quarter without the least hint of resistance by either team. Westbrook threw one to himself off the backboard while Deron Williams had a dozen in the quarter.

“Well, I don’t know if there was much defense played early on,” agreed Thibodeau. “But it was a great game, and everything that happened you sort of anticipated. The West played very well. They got off to the lead, and I thought our guys got going in the second half. And then it came down to the end, and I thought both teams played extremely hard in the fourth quarter and both teams were trying to win.”

Rose had a nice third quarter playing mostly off the ball with James and scoring a dozen points and hitting all five of his shots, including a pair of threes.

“We knew the first half was terrible where we let them get up by 20 and do whatever they wanted,” said Rose. So we just fought a little bit harder in the second half. Tell Thibs I’ve been working on my jump shot. They were passing me the ball. I was getting it up and tonight it was falling. The beginning of the game I was just trying to feel things out, not trying to be aggressive, getting others into the game. The second half they were giving me shots so I was taking them.”

Still the East team was trailing 124-112 after three as Wade gave Bryant a hard foul and bloodied Bryant’s nose after Bryant made a spin move past Wade and made him look bad. Wade is known to take that kind of shot, and it did stun Bryant, who had just three points in the fourth quarter.

“I obviously didn’t try to draw no blood, but I took a foul,” said Wade. “Kobe fouled me two times in a row, so he’s still got one up on me. But I’m glad that everything was cool and we got back to being competitive and having fun.”

Still, the West team continued to build its lead in the fourth quarter up to 138-118 with 8:19 remaining. It’s generally said, at least in NBA All-Star games, a real game tends to break out the last six minutes of the game, and it came pretty much to form as the East mounted a desperate and almost successful comeback.

There were some light moments first as the players watched Bryant and Andrew Bynum in a timeout video on the scoreboard play a game of password trying to get words that are “things that change.” In giving a clue to Bynum trying to get the word “mind,” Bryant gave the clue that Metta World Peace is sometimes out of his…”

And away they went.

James banked in a 20 footer and Williams, who had 20 points and four threes, made a three to bring the East within 138-128 with 6:17 left. The East players began to play some defense as James had another three, Carmelo Anthony got a three point play and James hit still another three among his record tying six to bring the East within 144-141 with 2:57 left. The mostly indifferent crowd before was chanting defense, and it was a game for a few minutes.

Durant answered with a floater and Westbrook had that angry, powerful slam dunk to make it 148-143 with 1:57 left. But the East was not done. Howard slammed a pick and roll pass from James, Durant threw a lazy pass in the backcourt to Williams for a turnover and score and the East was down one with 1:41 left.

After a Bryant miss, Wade lost the ball on a runout all alone with a chance to take the lead. Griffin then finished a wild West sequence off a pair of offensive rebounds and a put back slam dunk for a 150-147 lead. Wade got it back to one on a pair of free throws after rebounding an Anthony miss, but with less than 24 seconds left. The East fouled Bryant, and with Paul Pierce taunting Bryant from the bench, Bryant missed one to put the East down 151-149 with 16.3 seconds left.

Thibodeau declined to put Rose back in and called a play for Williams, who missed. He got the ball back, passing to James. But James inside pass was stolen by Griffin. He made one of two free throws and Wade then missed a desperation game ended with a second left.

“Yeah, he (Bryant) was telling me to shoot it,” James admitted of that last pass that was stolen.

That’s right. Even in the All-Star game he didn’t seem to want that last shot.

“I seen my teammate open for a split second,” said James. “I told him I seen him open the first time and I didn’t release the ball. When I tried to throw it late, that’s what usually happens and it results in a turnover. Definitely wish I could have that one back. I can’t turn the ball over like that. I let my team down, but overall it was a great weekend.”

A critic could smile saying LeBron passed on the big one again. Yet, he also had seven assists and six rebounds and was in the middle of every big play.

“LeBron is playing at an MVP level,” said Wade. “I think he’s adjusted now, and more comfortable now with the team and just in Miami, period. It was very tough last year. It was a different situation, but I think he’s doing a great job, and he’s playing like LeBron James that won back-to-back MVPs. We didn’t come here trying to get a co MVP. It could have been one of those kind of moments, but maybe next time. Man, do you see the minutes I played?”

Yes, Thibodeau might have gotten them there with the two Miami stars playing more than 32 minutes each, though if Pat Riley is steaming Thibodeau insisted it was all discussed and agreed upon.

“I asked all those guys, and when you look at the history of the All-Star Games, the most minutes are usually around 30,” said Thibodeau. “I asked beforehand if they wanted to play that or if they wanted to play less. I did that with all the guys in order to try to get a read. Some guys were nicked up a little bit and wanted to play less, and some guys were fine with the 30 minute mark.”

Obviously not his guys.

“Going in we had talked about not playing a lot of minutes,” Thibodeau admitted about Rose and Deng. “We wanted to limit what Derrick was doing and also Luol. So we just wanted to play it safe. Then at the end the guys that were playing well, we stayed with those guys.”

Which was fine with Deng, who seemed to be enjoying it all having long changed into his sweat suit in the second half. Deng had opened the night with his own statement, wearing a t-shirt with the continent of Africa on it, a departure from the hip hop intros of some of his teammates.

“Wearing that T-shirt meant a lot to me. I’m sure a lot of kids back home (in Africa) saw that and had smiles on their faces. I just felt like it was the right time. I wouldn’t do something that is negative. If you look at the shirt, it’s not a logo of anything. I’m not advertising anything. I just felt like where I came from, it’s something I always wanted to see as a kid.”

Deng said the NBA athletes from Africa primarily were big men like Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon.

“I felt like with them both being big men and me being a perimeter player, which hasn’t happened before, for the kids to see me here, I wanted them to remember where I came from (and they could, too) and to get something out of this,” said Deng. “It wasn’t a statement, just a positive message. Just something I felt like doing at the time. I’m sure my parents if they saw it would be proud.”

It’s not saying Deng is right with his focus on gratitude for just being a part of the All-Star weekend and being able to be an inspirational symbol to his native continent. Or that Rose, talking about meeting fans at his autograph signing at a show store Sunday and dining with his family were the weekend highlight. Compared to the glitzy all night parties Wade and James sponsored here this weekend.

It’s just different methods and styles. Then come spring they are expected to clash again in the East, and we’ll see which method of living prevails.

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