It’s the kind of sports story you just love. Guy from the D-League everyone’s overlooked just won’t give up. And because he wouldn’t, the Bulls Thursday were able to avenge a loss in Boston Sunday and defeat the Celtics 89-80.
“I love this,” said Luol Deng with another versatile all around effort with 23 points and 10 assists, including six of nine three-pointers. “Guy not getting respect and coming in and getting it done. I love stories like that.”
Call it MikeMadness as 36-year-old Mike James, on his second D-League callup with the Bulls this season, came in with the Bulls trailing 31-24 and being pushed around by Rajon Rondo and the Celtics. James pushed back, and with the inspired backboard play of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls went on a 22-2 run to regain control of the game and pulled away in the fourth quarter.
You might want to check if Duquesne University alumnae are increasing their gifts and how many mothers last night named their babies Mike. You wonder whose couch he was sleeping on. I’d say it was Thibodeau’s, but that’s supposedly lately filled with game tapes of Mario Chalmers’ high school years. This is crazy. The new MJ.
Hey, look, you’ve got to keep interested with Derrick Rose out.
Rose missed his fourth straight game Thursday with his back spasms and ninth of the season, though the Bulls moved to 25-7 and still the best record in the NBA with the victory. Although listed day-to-day, game-time decision and “Please, Derrick, we miss you,” Rose should be back this weekend, perhaps Saturday or Monday as his back issues supposedly have lessened. Although that’s mostly me guessing. I do not fully feel his pain, however.
And while the Bulls did manage to scrape by the ancient Celtics, now 15-14 and looking like they are headed down, it was still another sputtering effort that was bailed out by Deng’s shooting along with 23 points and 15 rebounds from Boozer and 15 points and 16 rebounds from Noah.
After being run out with 33 fast break points in Boston Sunday, the Bulls got back in transition, stayed on the boards (16 offensive to keep Rondo from running out), and got James into the game when Boston’s guards began pressuring and overplaying C.J. Watson and John Lucas III and Rondo began posting them up.
Though the terrific interior passing, cutting and ball movement carried the evening for the Bulls, it was also James’ aggressive play against Rondo that began to turn around a poor start from the Bulls.
“I thought we came out soft in the first quarter,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “They got us back on our heels. We were not taking it up strong and they are very good defensively. We were being dominated on the boards in the first quarter (15-10). In the second quarter it changed (52-37 Bulls overall edge). I thought our defense got better and our rebounding got better. Our energy got better and we got back into the game. Once we started attacking more, we gave ourselves a chance. We got a lift from a number of guys. I thought Mike James was terrific. Rondo is a load to deal with. In every aspect of the game, pick and rolls, transition and now they are posting him more. I thought Mike battled him well in the post.”
With James fighting off Rondo after a brutal stretch of four straight Bulls turnovers which James stopped with a drive at a retreating Rondo, Deng hit a three on a nice skip pass from Boozer, Boozer went hard at the basket and dunked, Deng made another three and Boozer and Noah scored inside off passes from one another. Their supposed lack of being able to play together was a media issue last season, which Boozer rejects.
But Boozer did say Thursday, “Last year, (we) didn’t have a good chance to play with each other consistently until the playoffs. This year, we’ve played together. You can see how good our chemistry is. We make plays for each other and it’s usually either a dunk or a layup.”
That 13-0 Bulls run led to a 44-35 halftime lead. The Bulls then opened the third quarter strong with a pair of Watson scores and another Boozer dunk. But Ray Allen finally got going after a zero for five first half and Boston drew within 60-59 after three.
The Bulls got threes from Deng and James early in the fourth quarter. Then there was a Bulls 10-2 run with nice cutting movement inside, taking advantage of Boston’s zone which had worked well in the third quarter. That gave the Bulls an 81-69 lead on a Boozer score from Deng with 4:41 left and the Celtics couldn’t get closer than six thereafter.
“I don’t feel we played our best,” said Noah. “But it was good to win.”
It was the Bulls first win over a team with a winning record since early January, and the Celtics were on a back to back after losing to Detroit at home. They were led by Kevin Garnett with 18 points and 10 rebounds after he sat out Wednesday with a hip flexor, which in laymen’s terms means resting for the road trip against a losing team because you are an old guy. Didn’t work, though.
The Celtics are starting their own crucial stretch after having played just 10 road games (20 for the Bulls), the fewest in the East. There seems plenty of tension with the team with Rondo again taking the most shots (he had more than Paul Pierce and Allen combined Sunday), which isn’t exactly Boston’s plan for success.
The Bulls battered the smaller Celtics on the boards, especially Noah’s inspired effort. Though, as Noah noted, the Bulls have their own issues. Noah and Asik again failed to finish numerous times around the basket, and Boozer, though he played as strong as he had in weeks, missed a breakaway he tried to lay in instead of dunking, which got the Celtics back into the game late in the third quarter. James had eight points, though the Bench Mob is more a Bench Assembly of late with a quiet 17 points among five players as Ronnie Brewer added zero with the starters.
“I missed a lot of bunnies around the rim,” agreed Noah, who enjoyed quieting Garnett as the two had their usual exchange of fashion tips. “I’ve got to do a better job of going up strong. Thibs was pretty mad at me about that.”
Likewise with Asik, who has been getting the quick hook from Thibodeau of late. And once again it happened Thursday when the Celtics made up their first quarter deficit with Asik, Lucas and Watson on the floor early in the second quarter.
Thibodeau has been reluctant to leave Asik in the game too long, especially with Rose out, with Asik’s lack of offense and poor free throw shooting this season. And then Boston came out attacking both Watson and Lucas, who played together the first half of the second quarter. Boston’s reserve guards as well pressured the Bulls back court as Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling played them physically, forcing poor shots and even more dribbling than usual. Watson and Lucas were a combined two of 10 shooting in the first half, so Thibodeau went to James, who hadn’t played since returning to the Bulls earlier this week.
The idea was he’d be there for emergency use with Rose still out, though the team figured to get by with Watson, who had been playing well, Lucas and Brewer. But Brewer’s shot has disappeared (he was zero for three Thursday), and Boston began to go to Rondo in the post. That brought double teams for the Bulls, leaving the perimeter exposed and the Celtics began hitting.
Though 36 and not really bigger than Watson, James is tough and has been through a lot, the Bulls being his 11th NBA team. Six years ago, he averaged 20 points starting all season for Toronto. He’s been known more as one of those in between guards. But going back to the D-league after more than 250 NBA starts and more than a decade bouncing around the league shows that he’s not someone to take for granted.
“I always believe in my heart I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” said James. “Being in the D-League was tough for me. I always believed I was an NBA basketball player, still. But if that is what I had to do to prove myself I had to put my pride aside and humble myself and not worry about where I was.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said James. “I was shocked when coach called my name. He said it maybe four, five times. I had to make him say it one more time just to make sure. But it’s about being ready, it’s about being prepared. I always say, ‘It’s better to be ready than to get ready.’ (The D-League) is a young man’s league. Most of the guards who played against me the first quarter are staring me up and down (thinking) ‘I’m gonna tear this old guy up.’ By the end of the game, they want advice from me. You can get exposed in that league. The young guys are so talented and hungry. So a lot of veteran guys choose not to go there. But if I’m trying to get back and that’s what I need to do to show I can still play the game I’m going to do it.
“I’m not going to let no one smaller than me post me up,” said James. “I take pride in my defense. I’m not the biggest guard, but I have some size on me. Guards have never posted me up and that’s not something I’m going to start allowing.”
It was just the right attitude that fit with this Bulls group now, more determination than talent. Taj Gibson continues to be inconsistent offensively, so Boozer’s offense has been crucial in this stretch with Rose and Richard Hamilton out. This time, Deng and Boozer handled most of the offense, which produced 39.5 percent shooting for the winners. The Bulls, after a 33-7 deficit on fast break points last Sunday in Boston with their guards often out of position, kept it to 12-12 Thursday. The Bulls are now 7-2 without Rose, their first win over a team with a better than .500 record without Rose.
“Derrick’s like one of our main soldiers,” said Noah. “We don’t ever want to see him down. It doesn’t give us extra confidence (to win without him). We know we’re not getting where want to get to without that guy. We know we need Pooh healthy.”
Rose with his back healing well is basically certain to play in the All-Star game next week along with Deng. In fact, Deng said he’d like to see Rose win the MVP award of the game.
“But he’s so humble,” said Deng. “It’s not what he wants. Selfishly, I want it for him. But I keep telling him, ‘You have to be smart. Don’t come back unless you’re 100 percent.’ We’re going to try to win until then. But he’s so competitive and wants to be out there so bad.”
In the mean time, it’s been Deng as point forward with a second straight double digit assist game.
“Lu has been huge for us,” added Noah. “He does everything, switch the pick and roll, switch the three/five (small forward and center), guard the post, make plays, shoot big shots. It’s good to have sweet Lu playing at that level even with his messed up hand.”
Added Thibodeau: “With Derrick out, the ball is in Luol’s hands a little more. Luol is a much better pick and roll player than you realize. He has good size, he has vision and he can score on the drive. I like having the ball in his hands.”
It was vital after a slow start with the Bulls falling behind 24-18 early as Rondo had eight points. Though he had that brilliant triple double in Sunday’s win, it’s supposedly a constant battle with his teammates. Pierce and Allen supposedly have been not too happy the way he monopolizes the ball at times, but then will back off late in games because he doesn’t always like to shoot free throws, though he was terrific last Sunday. Many who watch the Celtics believe this is a crucial stretch as if they fall well below .500, there’s a good chance they could make a major move involving Rondo and perhaps Allen. For now, however, coach Doc Rivers says he believes the team will come together and it still does rank in the top five in many of the defensive categories.
Noah loves games against the Celtics given his private war with Garnett, whom he once called a cheap shot bully. Of course, we know Garnett to really be more likely to trash talk to J.J. Berea. Noah also engaged in some debate with Rondo. It bothered Noah badly to lose to Boston Sunday. He was particularly quiet afterward and motivated for Thursday’s game, which showed with a board dominance we haven’t seen much this season. Though Noah along with Deng has been the best of the Bulls with Rose out.
Noah had eight offensive rebounds, two more than the entire Celtics team, including five in the third quarter in trying to hold off the Celtics’ rally behind Allen. And then it was Deng with 13 fourth quarter points, including three three pointers, the last one with 47 seconds left to take away the Celtics’ final hope.
James made a nice drive into the lane, drawing the defense, including the usually aware Pierce, who left Deng. James threw to Deng for the clinching three.
“Mike made a great read,” said Deng. “To be honest, I was surprised Pierce went for that late in the game. I’d told Mike earlier in transition to try to find me because I was really feeling the shot. And he did. I shot the first one to start the game, wide open from the corner and my confidence was up. They played zone and I kept looking for it.
“We did a better job slowing Rondo down,” said Deng. “Mike did not let him post up. He’s not going to get bullied. I loved it. It was like the Lin story.”
Take that, New York. And Boston, too.