Bulls avoid a mugging in New York


Feb 3

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Derrick Rose could smile this time.

“I finally hit the damn free throw,” Rose was saying in the Bulls locker room after the Bulls escaped with a 105-102 victory over the New York Knicks that Rose made a bit more interesting with one of two free throws with 5.3 seconds left to give the Knicks a last chance for a tie. “That’s what I’m happy about. I hit one. So, hopefully next time I’ll hit both of them.”

That, of course, was in reference to his pair of missed free throws at the end of the loss in Miami that began this four games in five nights stretch. Rose was disconsolate and near tears afterward despite 34 points. But he was enjoying a light moment late Thursday night after earlier being named a starter to the Eastern Conference All-Star team and putting on a show worthy of Broadway for the New York crowd.

My Fair Derrick.

“He was great from the start,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

Rose had 32 points and 13 assists, including 15 points with a pair of threes in the fourth quarter to hold off the Knicks, who trailed 99-92 with 3:38 remaining.

But the Bulls were running on fumes the rest of the way, more reminiscent of Dean Smith’s old four corners offense the way they pretty much held the ball and tried to run out the clock, which isn’t a great idea with only 24 seconds per possession.

The Knicks began to strangle Rose with aggressive double teams to get the ball out of his hands. He tried to force in a drive lefthanded which missed, and then Oak Park’s Iman Shumpert got inside for a score to make it 99-96.

I thought Thibodeau did a marvelous job mixing and matching lineups as he searched for defense with Carmelo Anthony overwhelming Ronnie Brewer, who had a tough week trying to defend LeBron James and Andre Iguodala before Anthony.

So Thibodeau went most of the fourth with rookie Jimmy Butler, who did an excellent job on Anthony, who was just one of six in the fourth quarter. The strain of playing without Luol Deng certainly is showing, and although there was no official word there were hints around the locker room Deng might give it a try in Milwaukee Saturday.

C.J. Watson

Though because Butler could be a reluctant offensive player, Thibodeau was alternating with Kyle Korver, using C.J. Watson with Rose in a two point guard tandem to try to take pressure off Rose and back and forth with Taj Gibson, struggling offensively of late, and Carlos Boozer, who did have 16 points and nine rebounds.

“We were small in the backcourt,” noted Thibodeau. “It allowed us to do some switching. I liked the way that group was functioning together, so I ran with it.”

And it would pay off eventually.

With that small group, Butler came up to set the high screen for Rose instead of Joakim Noah. But the defense pretty much let Butler go. Rose passed to him, but Butler missed.

“It wasn’t so much, ‘Leave him,’” said Butler. “They respect Derrick so much. He’s so clutch you have to take it out of his hands.”

Thibodeau would make 14 substitutions in the last two minutes.

With the Bulls ahead 99-94, Amar’e Stoudemire, who had a season high 34 points and 11 rebounds, picked up a Butler block on Anthony and put it in to bring the Knicks within 99-96 with 2:08 left.

Rose then missed a runner, but Noah got a big block on Anthony inside leading to Butler’s first big play as a pro.

With the defense overplaying Rose again, Butler did a hard dribble from the left wing and pulled up for a 13 footer for a 101-96 lead with 1:08 left.

“The crazy thing is I’m not that person,” said Butler of looking for the shot. ”When I walked over to the bench Lu was like, ‘Shoot the ball!’ Lu always says good things happen when you shoot the ball. The first one I missed, but Booz got the rebound and scored. (I’m thinking) I don’t want to miss and they go down and make a layup. But I know I can make that shot. Derrick’s told me plenty of times, ‘Don’t worry. Shoot the ball. The easy play is not always to put the ball on the ground. Sometimes it’s to shoot.’ So I came off one dribble and pulled up. It’s the shot I like.”

It was sweet and the Bulls were looking safe, ahead 101-96 with 89 seconds left. But Anthony, who had 26 points, though on a wild 10 of 26 shooting, got it back to three with a minute left with a 14 footer.

Jimmy Butler

The Bulls ran off 20 seconds again before Rose tried a short one inside that Tyson Chandler kicked back. Anthony then drove, but Taj Gibson stayed with him and answered with an impressive block. The Knicks got the ball back, but with just 28.5 seconds left and trailing 101-98. Stoudemire then found Landry Fields, who had 17 points, for a score to bring New York within one with 23.4 seconds left. The Knicks had to foul. Brewer got the ball as the crowd reacted: Foul that guy! But the Knicks still had a foul to give. The Bulls called timeout and got a play to Kyle Korver, the team’s best shooter but just 73.9 percent on free throws this season.

“Those are supposed to be my shots,” said Korver, who continued to shoot well once again after a slump with 16 points and three of five threes. “But I haven’t been especially good at the free throw line this year. You can shoot as many as you want in practice. But until you are making them in the game it’s different. I haven’t gotten a lot of free throws in general, and I haven’t shot them especially well. I went through my little check list and shot and made them.”

That made it 103-100 Bulls with 13.7 seconds left. The Knicks called time and came out, I thought surprisingly, with Stoudemire popping out to shoot a three for the tie.

“I knew we had a lot of time left,” Stoudemire said. “But the coaches said if you were open to shoot it.”

Gibson got the rebound, and was fouled, heading to the line with 9.3 seconds left and all the buddies of the Brooklyn native he’d gotten tickets for now taunting him to miss.

“It was a little nerve wracking,” Gibson conceded. “They’re in the stands trying to talk to you. It was like playing at Rucker (Park). The crowd went crazy when I missed the first. I’ve got friends behind the goal screaming for me to miss. They love the Knicks. New York’s cold blooded, man.”

Anthony then was fouled with 6.3 seconds left and made both to bring the Knicks within 104-102. So why the heck were the Bulls fouling up four?

“That was a mistake,” said Thibodeau. “It was a miscommunication on my part with Ronnie. Up four we want to stay down and not react to a shot fake. That was on me.”

I actually thought Thibodeau was covering for Brewer, who just had a brain cramp, but that was nice of the coach.

Then Rose was fouled, ooops, missing the first but making the second to give the Knicks a last gasp with 5.3 seconds left but no timeouts. Anthony went down the right side and had a three on line. But it came up short.

So the Bulls salvaged a 2-2 start of the nine-game road trip and a tough four in five nights. The schedule breaks some now with no more back to backs until Feb. 28/29 and a five game homestand before All-Star break after this trip ends with a national TV game in Boston Feb. 12.

But you can see this Bulls teams wearing down as they’ve had to use the bench extensively in front line roles, thus diminishing the reserve strength and leaning more on the great Rose.

It was Rose’s fourth game of at least 30 points in the last five as his scoring average has topped 23. He’s shown no indication of his sprained turf toe injury and it’s a good thing as Brewer, Gibson and Noah have struggled on offense. Watson has come on, thus having to play with Rose, which diminishes the backcourt size and defense. And Korver has had to be on the court more to balance the offense as Thibodeau now has been using Butler more, and he’s admitted a reluctance to shoot.

Noah did have a good effort with 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks and even holstered his shooting pistols like in Miami after a jump shot. It’s still not getting anyone to guard him. So Thibodeau continues to scramble for balance, though it’s somewhat easier against a defensively deprived Knicks team.

I know there’s much criticism of Boozer’s defense in Chicago. But you should get a look at Stoudemire and Anthony, who look like they’re waving bon voyage to those going on a cruise the way they defend the lane. That leaves the emotional Chandler running all over the place, and it’s difficult to see Baron Davis helping that. So the Knicks fell to 8-14 while the Bulls went to 19-6.

It also continued a remarkable streak for the Bulls of not having lost two straight since last February.

“It says a lot about our team,” said Thibodeau. “For the most part this team plays hard every night. It was a disappointing game in Philly. But I loved the resilience, the resolve, the bounce back ability. We’ve got great leadership. We’re looking at four in five. You can give yourself that excuse or find a way to win.”

Though it hardly answers the Bulls issues yet with the scoring and defense that presumably will improve dramatically with the return of Deng and Richard Hamilton. Of course, it should be remembered when Deng returns it’s to see if he can play. There remains the possibility he cannot with that wrist fracture.

Meanwhile, it was a wonderful show Rose put on in Madison Square Garden, and one thing you can say about a New York basketball crowd that when they are finished picking your pockets they will appreciate looking at some good basketball.

“I love playing here,” said Rose. “The crowd really loves basketball, knows basketball. I love the energy. They talk about you. They love their team. I love it.”

I actually think they hate their team, especially Anthony as there was considerable booing just before halftime as the Bulls ran out time and again after one on one Knicks’ jump shots, two nice ones from Noah beating the whole Knicks team to the basket.

As I’m from New York I can venture into the crowd and talk New Yawk. And only a few guys asked me what I was looking at. But what I heard plenty of is they can’t stand Anthony’s brand of individual play and did I know they won a title here in 1970.

Rose wasn’t exactly passive to begin, but he was looking to move the ball, finding Korver for a pair of threes and a couple of runners of his own for a 29-25 first quarter lead and then 55-44 at halftime.

The Bulls were having trouble with Stoudemire as Thibodeau mostly kept Boozer on him, which was a bit of a surprise as Noah usually gets the high scorer. But Noah had difficulties with the 76ers perimeter power forwards Wednesday and rendered mostly ineffective. So Thibodeau kept him with Chandler and Noah had four blocks and did a good job protecting the middle.

The Knicks came back behind Anthony in the third as he was wearing out Brewer and closed within 77-75.

“We had a tough time stopping them toward the end,” said Rose. “They were hitting some great shots. We were just trying to hold onto that lead. Last night was a terrible game. We were just trying to redeem ourselves.”

So it was Rose to the rescue after a Boozer jumper made it 88-83. Rose had the New Yorkers up and cheering with an “oh my” spinning drive, a pull up three, some incredible floaters again and a jumper for a 95-88 lead that enabled the Bulls to have just enough to hang on for the win.

“We try not lose two in a row,” said Gibson. “We always try to come back harder after a loss. It’s the mindset we have as competitors. Guys want to work and help one another. We’ve got a lot of guys on this team ready to step up and who are not afraid.”

It’s still working, but the margin of victory is narrowing.

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