No Valentine’s Day massacre for the Bulls this time


Feb 15

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I know the Bulls love to talk about having enough to win no matter who is out. It’s coach Tom Thibodeau’s mantra, and it’s been one of the best things he’s done. So there are no excuses, no feeling sorry for yourself, showing that all things are possible no matter what anyone says. It may be the biggest reason the Bulls led the league in wins last season, and why they lead the Eastern Conference again, which Tuesday was enough to assure Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will coach the Eastern Conference at the Feb. 26th All Star game in Orlando.

The Bulls, 24-7, demonstrated that resolve again Tuesday in outlasting the Sacramento Kings 121-115.

“We will take them any way we get them,” said Thibodeau. “We found a way to win. Over the course of a season, you’ve got to win different ways. Obviously, our defense needs a lot of work.”

It’s been American Basketball Association retrospective month in the NBA, which the Bulls haven’t participated in with Chicago not having an ABA relative. But the game resembled a night where you could feel the ghosts of Wendell Ladner and John Brisker.

Tyreke Evans had 27 points and Marcus Thornton 23 as the Kings backcourt dominated Bulls starters, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson. DeMarcus Cousins had 28 points and 17 rebounds as it had to seem at times to Joakim Noah, with a season high 22 points along with 11 rebounds and four blocks, as if he were battling Ric Flair and Roddy Piper in a steel cage match. The 10-18 Kings outrebounded the Bulls 46-40 with an overwhelming 25-13 edge in second chance points.

Somehow the Bulls took a 19-point lead early in the fourth quarter only to see the Kings, 3-13 on the road, get within 115-112 with 19.8 seconds left before Kyle Korver closed it out with four free throws.

“That’s a team with a lot of raw talent,” noted Korver. “We got kind of got trapped in a game where they’re scoring, we’re scoring, and that’s not the kind of game we want to get into with them.”

It’s not generally the Bulls kind of game, and certainly not what we’ve seen under Thibodeau as it was an opponent season high and the most scored against a Thibodeau Bulls team in regulation since early December of last season. And though everyone talked afterward about the potential effects of the return after a long road trip, the Bulls won this game because they are smarter, better coached and unselfish. Not more talented.

The Bulls had 33 assists on 44 baskets and shot 52.4 percent against a poor defensive team that generally got out of the way at running attempts at the rim.

Luol Deng, unlike Sunday in Boston when he was effectively frozen out by overdribbling by the Bulls guards, had 23 points, a career high 11 assists and seven rebounds in an appropriate All-Star level performance.

“His play making was huge for us,” agreed Thibodeau. “You can count on his defense every night. Some nights he is going to score more than others. Whatever your team needs, he provides. If we need more scoring, he gives you that. If we need more play making, he gives you that. His defense is a constant and his rebounding is always good and his leadership is terrific.”

Thibodeau, though, realized after watching Sunday’s tape that he had to make Deng more of a point forward. Though C.J. Watson has been playing very well this season, he sometimes tends to over dribble and shoot late in the clock, which happened against the Celtics, whom the Bulls host Thursday in a national TNT game. Watson Tuesday had 10 points, but just two assists. He did hit a clutch three on a Deng drive and kick with 1:43 left for a 111-102 Bulls lead. But Thibodeau yanked him 20 seconds later after an off balance driving heave into the defense. John Lucas was playing late with Watson. But they were getting overmatched by the bigger Kings guards, and there weren’t many options for Thibodeau with the reserves having to play so much for the starters. The Bulls needed Deng badly.

“Coach put the ball in my hand a lot more,” said Deng, “He put in a few (new) plays. The Boston game we were not getting the shots we wanted. I took a couple of shots that were not my shots. So we talked about it as a team. Right now with all the lineup changes every day we have to find different ways to win. Coach is doing a good job. Even though we’re missing Derrick (Rose), we’re winning games. It’s huge. But for myself and everyone else, he makes the game so much easier. When he’s not there you’ve got to work so much harder.”

And though Thibodeau appropriately credits the team’s depth and unselfish play, it’s difficult to imagine the Bulls can go on much longer with a limited or missing Rose. Rose told a plague of reporters (often seen as locust) before the game he’s improving from his back spasms and hopes to play soon.

He’d probably like to play Thursday as Rajon Rondo with his big triple double in Sunday’s win, according to some Bulls players, wasn’t exactly a sportsman throughout.

“At the end of the day, we got a good, quality win tonight,” said Noah. “We were not satisfied with our quality of play. We’ll go to practice tomorrow, watch the film and come ready to kick some (butt) Thursday.”

Doing so without Rose and Richard Hamilton, who returned to the team Tuesday but is not ready to play, will be difficult. Ronnie Brewer seems to be wearing down as Thibodeau sat him most of the fourth quarter. Again, it’s been a complicated mix and match, which I feel Thibodeau is handling deftly. The issue for the Bulls is having a lot of one dimensional players, though their teamwork and unselfishness masks their deficiencies. Brewer, Omer Asik, Taj Gibson and Noah usually can’t be counted on for much offense. Korver, Carlos Boozer, Watson and Lucas aren’t as much for defense. Against the Celtics Sunday in trying to balance his lineup to provide enough offense, Thibodeau had to alternate with Boozer and Korver, using Lucas with Watson at times. But Tuesday, Thibodeau went more with Korver who came up big with 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, including the four clutch free throws in the last 14.2 seconds.

“We did enough to win,” agreed Korver. “We’ll take the win, but we know we’ve got to play better Thursday.”

Still, it was a celebratory evening with the win clinching the All-Star coaching berth for Thibodeau and his staff. The only other Bulls coach to coach the All-Stars was Phil Jackson twice. Thibodeau acknowledged it was an honor, though, of course, he wanted to talk more about the next game. He’s been there previously as an assistant with Boston and New York. Bulls players joked that Thibodeau might never take Deng out of the game, and Deng said he thought it would be a good idea for Thibodeau to play LeBron James and Dwyane Wade all 48 minutes and practice them hard.

“It’s a great honor,” Korver said, getting serious. “We have an incredible coaching staff who put in a lot of time and effort. I don’t think there is a team out there better prepared for every game. It’s very well deserved.”

“The whole coaching staff works so hard,” added Deng. “Any time you want to go to the gym and get shots up those guys are there for you. I’m happy for them. They deserve it.”

Actually, I thought the Kings were well prepared as well, though their players are not nearly as savvy as the Bulls’ players. Cousins has calmed down some, though he contorts his face at just about every call or non call, and they don’t worry about passing much. But I thought their game plan was strong. They obviously watched how poor the Bulls played in transition against Boston Sunday without Rose and opened the game running out and speeding up the game.

“We’re trying to take you back to the ABA,” Thibodeau joked afterward as the Bulls 27-24 first quarter lead was their fewest points scored in a quarter in the game. “They were pushing the tempo to start the game. We feel we can play a lot of different ways. We want to try to get as many easy baskets as we can and run late. We know we have to do a lot better offensively. To be successful, ultimately we have to be good on offense and defense.”

Cousins has about 40 pounds on Noah and is a remarkable athlete and even made a three pointer in rhythm with 45 seconds left to bring the Kings within 115-110.

“They were tough, very physical,” said Noah. “They’re big up front, very physical. We needed to do a better job containing them from crashing the boards. Our defense has been mediocre at best the last two games.”

If anyone can ever really get Cousins to learn the game, he could be a special player. He was tossing Noah all over the place, though Noah hung in impressively on the defensive boards, especially without much help as Boozer had five rebounds and Gibson just two. Gibson had a more active offensive game with 15 points, though his rebounding has been poor. He’s by far a career low 4.1 rebounds per game this season. Asik had seven rebounds in just over 11 minutes, but his offense is so spotty that Thibodeau remains unwilling to play him much.

In addition to pushing the ball, the Kings came out doubling Deng on the pick and roll, the tactic usually reserved for Rose. They clearly recognized where the Bulls had to go for playmaking with Rose out, though Lucas pitched in with nine assists. He had a big second quarter finding Boozer, who had 16 points in 24 minutes, running out for easy baskets. Korver also came in shooting playing the entire second quarter. But the Bulls could not shake the Kings, who trailed just 56-52 at halftime behind 16 and 10 from Cousins.

“He has been on a consistent tear since I have been here,” said Kings coach Keith Smart.

The Bulls looked like they’d pull away late in the third quarter on a terrific sequence in which the ball was popping, as Thibodeau likes to say, with Deng to Gibson for a jumper, Gibson to Brewer for a slam dunk, Deng to Gibson for a slam dunk and Gibson to Deng for a three to put the Bulls up 88-77 heading into the fourth.

The Bulls then opened with Korver getting a block on a Donte Greene shot and hitting a three on the other end. After a Deng fast break against a spectator Kings defense and Gibson getting a nice pass from Asik for a layup, the Bulls led 97-78 with nine minutes left. It should have been over.

But the Bulls couldn’t contain Evans and Thornton, who combined for 20 fourth quarter points. Though Rose doesn’t get much credit because of his offensive game, when he’s been out Rondo, Steve Nash, Mike Conley and Deron Williams all have had big games against the Bulls.

The Bulls still led 111-102 after that Watson three with 1:43 left. But Evans drove for a three point play. Watson missed, but Noah grabbed it and was fouled making it 113-105 with 1:25 remaining. Thornton beat Brewer for a short jumper, but Noah got a nice pass from Lucas for a score off a pick and roll. Cousins then hit that unlikely three among some unexpected shots he takes. Lucas then dribbled out the clock and launched an errant three, but the Bulls then fouled Evans, who made two to bring Sacramento within 115-112 with 19.8 seconds left.

Thibodeau had been doing offense/defense substitutions with Korver, and got him back in and Korver swished four free throws for the final margin.

Coincidently, I was having a long conversation with Korver, who is really a very charming and clever guy, before the game about free throws. I’d watched Blake Griffin miss a bunch the night before and was asking Korver about how he shoots them under pressure. He said he has a series of keys for a combination of relaxing and form.

He first wipes his sneaker to make sure he won’t slip. Then he slides his toes all the way to the free throw line. He says he makes sure to get a good look at the rim before going into his regular three dribbles. Then he takes what he calls “two bounces,” sort of flexing his knees for rhythm. Then he makes sure he brings the ball straight up in front of him. Then he gets up on his toes and leans forward. Korver said that is to make sure he doesn’t leave them short, which happens more often with shooters. He says he cuts any motion in his body, then flicks his wrist and finishes high like a golfer.

And down goes the Kings! Down goes the Kings! But it’s getting more difficult by the day without Rose and Hamilton.

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