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Bulls philosophical about loss to Celtics
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 12
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The great philosopher Thibs often says, as he did Sunday after the Bulls were vanquished by the Boston Celtics 95-91, that every game presents the good and the bad.
Or as Descartes once explained it, perhaps at a clinic to Thibs: “I think therefore I am.”
So let’s think about just where the Bulls are after 30 games: A conference best 23-7 record with a staggering 20 road games, by far the most in the NBA with the regular starting lineup together for just five games as Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton were both again out Sunday. That’s good. Of course, the bad part is the Bulls continue to beat up on the teams who won’t be in the playoffs. That while they are 6-6 against winning teams and lost on this nine-game road trip to the only three teams with winning records.
Talent, we know, hits a target no one else can hit. Genius, the sporting version of a championship, hits a target no one else can see. Schopenhaur observed that without benefit of ever seeing a slam dunk, as it turns out.
And so in witnessing the good and the bad in Sunday’s national TV matinee, I thought Thibodeau was unusually philosophical. Perhaps it was because even without Rose, who’ll see a back specialist in Chicago Monday (see my previous blog), the Bulls came back from 14 points down with just over five minutes left to have a shot at a tie coming out a timeout with 27.6 seconds left.
C.J. Watson, who had 22 points starting for Rose but on eight of 23 shooting, missed a quick “what the heck!” attempt for a tie in which he was fading away and actually standing on the line for a two pointer. It seemed curious to go for the tie with so much time left, though the Bulls were out of timeouts after Thibodeau had to call so many previous time outs to stop runs.
Rajon Rondo, who had an impressive triple double with 32 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds, grabbed the Watson miss, was fouled and made two free throws for a 93-88 Celtics lead with 21.5 seconds left.
Watson then drew a foul, making one of two free throws as Rondo rebounded the miss to get his triple double and not only went on to wrap up the win for the 15-12 Celtics but show why he certainly is no Derrick Rose.
Rondo generally does not play well against Rose, trying vainly to stop Rose and so caught up in that he wanders around fairly aimlessly and ineffectively. But with Rose out, Rondo jumped all over Watson, who has become a reliable backup and nice complementary player with Rose. But left to run the team he can be a bit lacking and shot happy, and the Celtics took advantage of that early to set the tone for the game with an 18-7 start and 12-2 first quarter fast break edge and ridiculous final margin of 33-7. Yes, your grandfather’s Celtics with a 33-7 margin in fast breaks. That’s usually a month total for them.
And then after putting up the huge numbers on national TV in a game the Celtics were calling perhaps their biggest of the season, the mercurial Rondo kept local Boston reporters waiting one hour after the game. Then he sent word he didn’t feel like talking to reporters.
As Voltaire would have told him, judge a man by his questions and not his answers. And the question would be, “What the heck’s with that guy?”
As for Thibodeau, who knows it’s not about seeing the perfect person but learning to see an imperfect person perfectly. At least on this particular Sunday, it seemed.
“That’s the way the play is set up,” Thibodeau said of the Watson supposed three. “That’s the first option. If you get a good look at it (shoot). I wanted him to be aggressive with it. It didn’t work out. C.J. makes those shots. I’m not going to second guess that. I want him to be aggressive when he comes off. If it’s not there, there’s another option. I didn’t have a problem with that.”
Actually, it could easily have been a one point game in what was looking like an amazing steal of a game. On the previous Bulls possession, Watson drove from the right side, got too deep and missed. The Celtics rebounded, but with Paul Pierce trying to make a play he lost the ball and it was recovered by Carlos Boozer. Anticipating that, Watson took off and was basically alone. But Boozer, who also had 22 points, didn’t look up and called time for what became that errant Watson three.
“He didn’t see it,” Thibodeau said, half smiling at the possibility the Bulls were looking at being one down at that point. “Safety first. You don’t want to be careless, make sure you’re getting a shot. Those are the breaks. Sometimes it happens. Like every game, there’s good and bad. I’m disappointed in some things, defensively the way we allowed them to get easy baskets. But I liked the way we fought at the end to put us in position.”
This is about the most relaxed I’ve seen Thibodeau after a loss, especially in Boston. He often gets prickly when his strategies are questioned, but there was none of that. He seemed comfortable and relaxed. It was as if he saw the Bulls playing without their starting backcourt, playing pretty poorly all around, and still with a good chance to win the game despite never having a lead.
“We gave them a cushion, (they) played from a lead and that’s tough tying to do against a quality team,” Thibodeau said. “That team is experienced and playing at a high level. You can’t keep climbing out of holes and we didn’t have enough to finish at the end. We gave them easy baskets. We never really forced them to go against our set defense.”
It really was a poor Bulls effort all the way around.
Getting beaten 33-7 on fast breaks is unprecedented for this group, which suggests fatigue. Did I mention 33-7 on fast breaks? After all, this was the final game of a 6-3 16-day road trip, the last big one of the season. Thibodeau did worry about that in the sense the community (read: media) would believe the rest of the schedule will be easy, and he, of course, says no such thing. “Everyone says the schedule is changing, it’s going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy,” said Thibodeau.
Certainly not with Rose and Hamilton out, probably at least both for this week’s three games. Maybe even the five games up to All-Star break. You get the sense with his groin/thigh issue and not having played since Jan. 29 in Miami, Hamilton could be out through the All-Star break. Knowing Rose, he’ll probably try to play as soon as he can, though he was walking stiffly Sunday and hardly seemed close to a miracle cure. I suspect he really wants to play in the All-Star game, but could sit out a week until then.
While the Bulls are much celebrated for their depth, it’s not so great when two reserves have to start. And especially when scorers like Rose and Hamilton are out. I thought Thibodeau did a terrific job mixing and matching to keep enough offense on the floor as the Bulls bench isn’t particularly offensive and keep the Bulls with a chance to steal one.
There often is much whining among fans and media about Boozer and his defensive deficiencies. And that is likely what Thibodeau was referring to about being disappointed about the Celtics getting to the basket too easily. When the Celtics needed a basket, you’d often see them put Boozer in the pick and roll. Like when the Bulls pulled within 89-86 with 1:43 left, thus plenty of time to steal this game.
Boston, which runs precise offense, had Kevin Garnett screen, picking off Luol Deng, who played Pierce well. Boozer tends not to come out hard in such situations and Pierce pulled up for an open 15 footer with 1:32 left for a five-point lead.
“I thought we did a good job weathering the storm and fighting back into the game,” said Boozer. “It seemed like we were a play away from taking the lead all game long. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
It’s easy to fault Boozer on defense. But the Bulls likely would have long been out of it without his offense. Taj Gibson seems to have taken a step back offensively and was one of six for three points.
Thus when Watson starts, the bench lacks much punch and John Lucas was high with eight points. The Bulls also played Ray Allen well for most of the game as Allen only had 11 points on three of nine shooting. But because he plays similarly to Kyle Korver and knows all those plays, Korver had difficulty finding shots. Korver had just three points on one of five shooting.
And then if Thibodeau goes with Korver, Boozer and Watson for offense, the defense is lacking. He can put in Omer Asik, but his offensive game needs practice and repetition to develop, and this season there is little of that. Deng had a few long jumpers spin in and out early, and he never really got into the offense, shooting three of 12 for 10 points. Without Rose and Hamilton, that’s not enough.
“They’re a good defensive team,” said Deng. “I had some good looks that normally go in for me that didn’t. The way the game went, I know I’ve got to be more aggressive. But I wasn’t trying to chase or hunt down shots. The second half I tried to get going. A couple of shots I feel I forced to get into it. They know our plays well. They are good defensively. Give them credit. We did a bad job in transition. The coach said it.”
Joakim Noah probably played the best with 16 points and nine rebounds in a game he relishes as the Boston fans continue to boo him. Noah, being the born again patriot he is, would tell you Ben Franklin once said, “He that is good at making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”
So Noah didn’t want to hear anything about road trips and road games and scheduling.
“There’s no excuses,” said Noah. “We’re 6-3 on this road trip. We want to be a championship team: 6-3 is OK, not great. Obviously, we’re not playing with our MVP. But definitely we had enough in this (locker) room to win this game. I feel like we got outcompeted. I think we could definitely have played better. I feel like overall they played harder than us and they deserved to win. I think we played at their pace. We slowed down, but then they beat us down court. It’s a great environment. We had a good chance to show what we had and we let it slip away.”
Which makes the close conclusion confounding.
The Celtics were without perhaps their top two big men, Jermaine O’Neal and Brandon Bass. They had been dominated on boards in their previous two losses by the Lakers and the Raptors. OK, you can understand Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. But Aaron Gray?
Yet with Garnett and Chris Wilcox starting inside and rookie JaJuan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma off the bench, the Celtics inexplicably outrebounded the Bulls 44-42. Garnett was game high rebounder with 12. You can’t get paper under him anymore when he jumps. The Bulls had a huge 20-6 edge in second chance points, but with their big height advantage they should have been able to power inside. Though that’s a problem with the Bulls offense. Noah and Asik aren’t postup, offensive players, Gibson has been struggling on offense and Boozer tends to fade away for jumpers, though he did make several early moves inside for scores.
It was Rondo’s quickness which was too much as Rondo got to the free throw line 13 times, which he doesn’t do when Rose defends him. The rest of the Celtics shoot jumpers, but the Bulls weren’t able to create enough inside to slow the Boston runouts and get in position to cover back. Boston ran out on Watson’s misses as Ronnie Brewer tends to try to work the baseline and thus often is out of position to protect the backcourt. Defense is also about court balance. The Bulls were strikingly imbalanced much of the game.
And yet in position to win. Go figure.
And so the Bulls finally return home for Sacramento Tuesday and there was generally mixed views about the trip. Most of the players said 6-3 on the road was good, and they did go down to the conclusion in Miami and Boston. The 76ers were more trouble, but this wasn’t the Rose in bloom for really any of the trip. And no Rip as well. But this season always has been about the playoffs, and hitting the first half off the 66-game sprint this week seems a good way to start.
It wasn’t Sunday as the Celtics opened with an early dunk-a-thon and that 18-7 lead. The Bulls put up 10 straight mostly behind Boozer. It actually was Boston’s maligned bench which was superior with Purdue rookie Johnson the aggressor. Journeyman Chris Wilcox made the Bulls look bad in transition, which was stunning, and Watson shot a bit too much off the dribble. He’s much better with his feet set.
The Celtics’ defense held the Bulls to 32 percent shooting in the second quarter not having to worry about Rose’s penetration, and Thibodeau went more quickly back to the starters after what remains of the reserves were sloppy with the ball early in the second. Still, the Bulls trailed only 48-43 at halftime.
Rondo got it going again, this time even hitting jumpers in the third quarter. Watson said the coaches told him to go under all the screens, which everyone does on Rondo. But this time he made a few. Still, it’s worth the risk. The problem was the Bulls again were slow to retreat, perhaps understandable at the end of a long trip, as Boston had an 8-0 fast break edge in the third. The Bulls just weren’t sharp. Even Noah, who passing out of the high post missed Deng wide open cutting for what would have been an easy layup. As the teams went into a timeout, Deng and Noah talked quite a bit, but the plays weren’t much there this time as Boston led 72-66 after three.
It seemed over when Boozer committed consecutive turnovers among his team high four, leading to fast break lob dunks for Johnson and Wilcox. We thought it was assisted living city in the TD Garden. Not lob city.
Anyway, with the Celtics leading 86-72 with 5:08 left, Boozer hit a fade, Watson a three and then a drive high off the backboard. Boozer made a nice dive on a pass from Watson for a score and added a fast break layup after Brewer stole a Rondo pass to bring the Bulls within 89-83 with 2:22 remaining.
In a game like this the Bulls needed Boozer to score. You can’t count on holding every team below 70 points.
Watson added a 15 foot pullup in the lane after a Garnett miss with just under two minutes left and the Bulls, remarkably, were back in it. Making shots, they were able to set their defense, and Deng was terrific on Pierce with Noah everywhere to help.
And then when there was that final chance, Watson took the three. I might have tried for the layup to extend the game and see if I could get a free throw miss (Rondo is there to foul) and maybe a better look at a three with Korver.
Or as Thibs probably was thinking afterward as questions about the choices were fired at him: Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools because they have to say something. So maybe that was why Thibs was smiling.