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Bulls overwhelm Bucks to conclude successful first half
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 23
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The Bulls concluded their first half of the 2011-12 season Wednesday with a dominant 110-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in which Joakim Noah had his first ever triple-double with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, the first triple-double for a Bulls center since Artis Gilmore in 1977.
Call it “party time,” as Noah left with his teammates to celebrate his upcoming 27th birthday, which is Saturday, with his teammates.
Carlos Boozer said Noah has been playing “like a man-child,” which generally also describes Noah’s insouciant approach to life.
“It’s going to be fun tonight,” said Noah.
It was fun for the Bulls against the Bucks with Boozer leading with 20 points, a self-proclaimed pain free Derrick Rose with 16 points, every starter in double figures and the Bulls with a double digit lead the entire second half and as much as 22.
“I loved the way the ball moved,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of 32 assists on 43 baskets. “Our inside guys were good to start. Carlos got established in the post. Jo was terrific at play making. Ronnie (Brewer) and Kyle (Korver) played very well (combined 12 of 18 shooting with both in double figures). I was just pleased with the way (Noah) played. They did a good job with Derrick against the pick and roll and took the ball out of Derrick’s hands. Jo ended up being the guy who got the ball and he made big plays. That is a unique skill set that he has, his ability to get the ball in the middle of the floor and make good reads and create easy offense for you. I liked the way we’re playing offense. I like the way we are playing offensively in terms of our unselfishness. The ball is moving freely. Overall we are making quick decisions. The unselfishness is very good guys are conscious of making the extra pass, hitting the open man.”
And so they get to exhale.
Rose and Luol Deng head for the All-Star game as the first Bulls teammates since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1997. The Bulls coaching staff led by Thibodeau will coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars, the first Bulls staff since Phil Jackson in 1996.
Rose said before the game his back feels fine with no pain, and the team expects Richard Hamilton to return from his groin and thigh issues against New Orleans next Tuesday after All-Star weekend.
And so at 27-8, second to Miami in the Eastern Conference, it’s a pretty, pretty, good first half. Boozer was the only starter to play every game, some irony there given Boozer’s injury history, while combined the team had 58 injury games missed with Rose 10, Deng seven, Hamilton 23 and C.J. Watson, out again Wednesday with a concussion, 11. The expected starting lineup has been together just five games and is 4-1.
Though much debated, the lineup with Noah playing with Boozer in the regular season now is 49-13, just short of an 80 percent success rate. Boozer is averaging 18.9 the last eight games and has improved in scoring and shooting each month this season. Noah is averaging 11.2 points and 10.8 rebounds on 54 percent shooting this month, and that’s with that zero against the Nets last week.
The Bulls are tied with Miami for the best point differential, 9.2 per game, which generally distinguishes the best teams. While the Bulls have slipped somewhat from last season in opposing field goal percentage and opposing three point percentage, third in field goal and seventh in three point, their defensive and offensive efficiency, which takes in pace of play to equalize the statistics, has them No. 2 in the league in both categories. They rank No. 1 in assists and No. 2 in rebounding, though No. 1 in rebounding differential.
So the statistics say this is a better Bulls team than last season.
“Are we better than last year? I would say yeah,” Rose told reporters after the game. “We find ways to win. Last year was new to everyone. This year I think we’re more comfortable with how Thibs wants to play hard and together all the time.”
I’m not convinced yet.
I think Hamilton is the key to this potential championship secret passage. If he returns and then has to go out again there is going to be a question about how much you can count on him. That will be something to watch closely. Brewer had his second consecutive double digit scoring game Wednesday with 15 points. But he had not had more than seven points in 10 of the previous 11 games. Plus in Brewer having to start for Hamilton, it’s weakened the Bulls bench, which fell to seventh in the efficiency ratings, according to Hoopstats.com.
Omer Asik had perhaps his best game of the season with eight points and four rebounds, including a strong sequence early in the second quarter when he blocked a Beno Udrih shot and then rebounded a Deng miss for a putback on a reverse and three point play. He also caught a pass from Deng without having to gather himself and went up strong for a dunk, efforts that have been missing this season.
For the Bulls to have playoff success, he’s going to be important and will have to come on in the second half like he did last season, which also means more playing time. Perhaps as well for Jimmy Butler, who rarely has played in the first half, similar to Asik’s fate last season. Butler has shown signs of being able to come in and play hard defense for five minutes, which could also be helpful against tougher playoff teams. Not to diminish what the Bulls have accomplished of late, but they’ve played small teams with the Bucks without Andrew Bogut and Drew Gooden, Atlanta without Al Horford, the Nets without Brook Lopez and Boston without Jermaine O’Neal. Though it’s not like Miami is throwing seven footers at you, either.
The Bulls have played 20 road games, most in the Eastern Conference. And as for those daytime game problems, most were road games with key players out. And the Bulls have finished their nine games in 12 days set and nine straight road games in 16 days. They have eight back to backs left and road games only in the Eastern and Central time zones.
So you’d say it’s a strong first half based on the factual evidence.
And even with the injuries, you’d have to say it’s a healthier season than last year when Boozer and Noah rarely played together until March.
Still, there’s the shooting guard spot, where Keith Bogans did help the defense, enabling Brewer to be a bench energizer. Noah has played well of late, though it was a sputtering start that likely cost him a chance at being an All-Star. He didn’t seem particularly upset Wednesday. Taj Gibson’s offense hasn’t been as sharp as last season. Asik has had issues as well, likely from a long recovery from being hurt in last season’s playoffs. They Bulls had to go into the D-League for guard help, and Mike James has helped. And while he finally made the All-Star team, Deng is playing with a torn wrist ligament. And, of course, Rose has never had as many injuries in his life with ones that seem worrisome in turf toe and back issues. Rose said he regularly is visiting a chiropractor now. And he’s 23.
So is this Bulls team ready to make a serious championship push?
It looked like it Wednesday, though the Bucks are an unusually small team now. The Bulls took advantage with a staggering 49-29 rebounding edge as no Bucks player had more than five rebounds.
“At halftime, our bigs had two rebounds in 48 minutes,” lamented Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “You can’t do that against this team. They’re are just too good of a team to play like that. We just gave them too many opportunities and played from behind all night. To beat this team, you have to have a superior effort in all aspects. You have to shoot the ball well, rebound, and take care of it. We didn’t do that tonight. Jo played really well tonight. We didn’t body up on him or jump with him. You can’t do that against him because he can dribble and pass the ball so well, which is how he hurt us all night.”
That was the Bucks plan after Rose had 26 points and 13 assists when the teams played earlier this month in Milwaukee and the Bulls blasted the Bucks with a 23-point halftime lead.
The Bucks came out trapping Rose off the pick and roll, meeting him with a double at midcourt at times, defenses which the Bulls have seen before and which Noah moves into the pressure release role for Rose at the free throw line. Against those defenses, Noah gets the ball in basically a four on three alignment and attacks. He had five first quarter assists in his best role, the unusual big man — which he is in many respects — who likes to dribble the ball and make plays.
“They were trapping Derrick,” agreed Noah. “So I just got the ball and found my teammates.”
Against a Bucks team with little interior size and thus no real shot blocking threat, the Bulls were able to attack inside, getting 16 of their 30 first quarter points in the paint for a 30-23 lead. Among the highlights was a Boozer slam dunk on a Noah pass, a John Lucas drive deep and pull up and runouts by Boozer and Brewer. Gibson, who had nine points and 10 rebounds, five offensive, got on the boards for a score midway through the second as the Bulls began to pull away. And Rose then relieved the doubts with an explosive drive, going high in the air and softly cradling in the ball left handed off the glass for a 46-37 lead.
Boozer took the opportunity against backup Jon Brockman to produce out of the post, which is something the Bulls need to see more of in the second half not only from Boozer but Rose. The Bulls seem to forget about Boozer in there are times, especially with mismatches. There was much preseason talk about Rose playing out of the post more. But that’s been curtailed by his health issues. But in the playoffs in the halfcourt game that is a weapon the Bulls have to employ. For Gibson as well, who’s struggled more from the perimeter this season. Though the offense measures well now, these same kinds of points don’t come as easily from the perimeter in the playoffs.
Rose added another supercharged drive for a three point play late in the second quarter and the Bulls went on to lead 64-53 at the half.
Early in the third quarter with the Bucks mostly reduced to jump shooting, Noah had a beautiful drive and kick for a Boozer jumper, his own tip in of a Boozer miss and then later in the quarter a dunk on a slick Deng pass for a three point play and the rare big bird triple double.
Only Tom Boerwinkle, Nate Thurmond and Gilmore have accomplished the feat among Bulls centers as Noah recorded his career high in assists.
“I have to thank Luol Deng for blessing me,” said Noah, who exited the game soon after that Deng assist. “It feels good. It feels even better to have this break right now. We got the W, it’s my birthday in a couple of days, there’s going to be a team function tonight with all the Bulls players, so it’s going to be fun. Obviously this is a very humbling accomplishment, but we are playing for more than that. It’s good, but we’re definitely not satisfied. We know that after the break there’s a ton of big games coming up. We know that we’re definitely not playing our best basketball and we’re hoping that the second half of the season we can turn it up another notch.”