Rose back vs. the Hawks and so are the wins


Feb 21

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For the last two weeks, the story with the Bulls has been Derrick Rose’s back, which kept him out of the last five games and with other maladies 10 overall on the season, nearly a third of the team’s games. But Monday the story was Rose being back, and it was a relief for the Bulls in their 90-79 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

It was President’s Day, so it was the Bulls’ indispensable man, their Washington, who rode to the rescue.

“We came out slow again,” noted Carlos Boozer, who had 16 points to complement Rose’s game-high 23. “Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) called a great 20 second timeout and we just picked the pace up. Next thing you know, Pooh was driving to the bucket, and-ones, free throws, jumpshots. It was awesome to watch. He did the same thing in the second half. He was real aggressive. His scoring ability, getting everybody in the right spots, his poise down the stretch. He gives us a great calm out there.”

Rose provided the extra that enabled the Bulls to avoid a two game losing streak again. They did raise their record to 26-8 to tie Miami for best in the East. But it still didn’t seem the same as that feeling you got watching the Bulls awhile back that this was a team that could compete for a championship. They again Monday shot below 40 percent for the fourth game in the last five, failed to score more than 95 points for the sixth game in the last seven and failed to lead in fast break points for the fifth consecutive game. They are blowing big leads, allowing the Hawks to take a 21-point deficit down to five with 5:07 left, and they no longer are the defensive monolith they were last season when they led the NBA in the two pivotal defensive statistics, field goal defense and defense against the three point shot. This season they’re seventh overall in shooting defense and 10th against the three.

The record is great, but the play doesn’t quite seem at this point to translate to playoff excellence, and the Bulls sense it. Which is why Luol Deng, who had 10 points and nine rebounds on a poor shooting night, says Wednesday’s final game before the All-Star break, against Milwaukee, is crucial.

“We know we played bad against New Jersey,” acknowledged Deng of Saturday’s 97-85 loss. “We won tonight, but at the same time we know we can play better. We did not play that well. Our record is great, even though we always want to do better. You win them however you can, but we want to win it right. The next game before the All-Star break, if we don’t win it right, when we come back we’ve got to sit down and say, ‘There were periods during season we were playing great basketball. Let’s get back to that.’

“Because,” said Deng, “We know we are not playing as great as we did when we were beating teams (a month ago). Our defense has to get better. Defense suffers without practice, the rotations, different scenarios. Last year, defensively we did have a lot of practice. This year it’s tough with the schedule.”

Luol Deng

Deng alluded to this theory some have that defensive teams are going to suffer more in this kind of season. The thinking is defense is much harder to sustain than offense because of the intricacies of the teamwork on defense. Great offensive teams, like Oklahoma City, for example, can just have their great individuals attack the defense, which comes naturally. Yes, the Bulls have a guy like that, but just one. Teams like the Thunder and Heat have at least two.

The Hawks were without their main guys with injured Al Horford, Marvin Williams out for personal reasons and Joe Johnson going out in the third quarter hurt. But they got themselves back into the game behind a three jamboree from former Bull Jannero Pargo. He made three three pointers in the last 2:26 of the third quarter to cut the Bulls lead to 73-64 entering the fourth quarter. That was just after the Bulls began to get a bit casual with that 21-point lead, Thibodeau exploding into a timeout after no one got back on a Zaza Pachulia basket on a full court Josh Smith pass to make it 70-51. Thibodeau has a unique way of getting on his players the way he’ll be in the face of guys, which he did several times Monday. But then he’ll get composed immediately and the eruption seems to be gone as quickly as it came.

The Hawks had their chance then as the Bulls had a weak offensive group out to open the fourth with Joakim Noah, a cold Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, John Lucas and Mike James. They combined to miss their first five shots of the fourth quarter before Lucas, with 10 points off the bench hit a three. He was playing with C.J. Watson out with what was called concussion symptoms.

But the Hawks also went cold, missing six of seven, their chance gone availing. The Hawks were brutal from the free throw line, 10 of 21, which effectively doomed them. But even then they had one more shot in a game the Bulls should have long put away.

It was 85-79 Bulls with 3:25 left after a fifth Pargo three as he led the Hawks with 19. Rose, defended by Kirk Hinrich, tried to go over a Carlos Boozer screen for a drive. But Pargo reached in and stripped the ball and began running for a layup. But Rose reached out and was able to flick the ball toward Deng, who hit a three for an 88-79 lead with three minutes left and just enough time to hang on for the victory.

“You have to play tough with a lead,” said Thibodeau. “Especially with the three point shot. A guy like Pargo, if you let him loose in a minute he can make three threes. I know you guys think all leads are safe. But in a minute, three threes can erase a 10-point lead. It’s funny. Every time I see him I think about it, particularly when I’m coaching against him. I’ve seen (Tracy) McGrady score 13 points in 35 seconds. That always sits in the back of your mind. You can never relax against a good NBA player.”

This, by the way, is why Thibodeau never will rest his players much, especially his starters. Deng, for example, played almost 44 minutes Monday, though Rose played about 35, his season average. The game Thibodeau was referring to was the famous game in December 2004 in Thibodeau’s first season in Houston. It was on TNT and the Spurs were leading Houston 76-68 with 35 seconds left when McGrady scored 13 points in the next 33 seconds to win the game, 81-80. Whenever anyone brings up to Thibodeau taking players out at the end of games with a lead he points to that game. Likewise, you know Monday with Pargo firing like that he wasn’t taking any chances as Rose and Deng played the last nine minutes.

Rose looked good in his return, hitting a pair of threes in the first quarter when the Bulls took a 35-17 lead, going hard to the basket in the second quarter when the Bulls went ahead 51-30 and 55-37 at halftime, one time taking a hard shot from Pachulia and finishing left handed for a three point play and later in the third quarter going down hard after going high over Smith. But Rose bounced up and made his free throw.

“You don’t want him to change who he is,” said Thibodeau. “That’s the nature of the game. Guys are going to be aggressive and attack. You’re always concerned about health. But a guy could get hurt in practice or shootaround. Those things happen. That’s part of the game. He’s done a good job with his rehab. We felt comfortable. As long as he’s pain-free and feels 100 percent, we felt good with him playing. He had to feel ready. He met all the criteria that we were looking for him to meet before he played again. So we’re good with it. His explosion was there. His drives were there. Conditioning wise, he’s not where he normally is. But that’s to be expected. Overall, I’m very pleased. The big thing was making sure he was 100 percent and pain free. Then he had to be cleared medically. Then he had to feel very good about playing, that he wanted to play and could play and wouldn’t be any problems. We went step by step with him. He did his rehab. Then we did non contact stuff. He didn’t have problems with that. Then we went to contact and he didn’t have problems with that. Who we’re playing didn’t have anything to do with it. He felt he was 100 percent and could go. He was cleared medically. We’ll just go from here. He said he felt real good out there.”

Rose told ESPN after the game: “Me feeling good (which was why he played). The whole week I was seeing a great chiropractor, Stuart Yoss. He did a great job of getting me back. Teammates was waiting for me to come back, fans were. I’m just feeling good. I was just trying to play the way I normally play, be aggressive. My teammates found me. The coach did a great job with the game plan and we just came out and tried to execute it. It (back) feels good. I’ve got to put a little ice on it, but I should be all right.”

Rose didn’t speak to reporters in the locker room after the game, which was rare for him. A friend said Rose was just distracted and upset with himself the way he played, shooting five of nine on free throws and committing four turnovers. Nothing more than that.

But Sunday a report surfaced from Spain and later Monday on a U.S. web site that Rose had contacted the Bulls to let them know he’d like to play with Pau Gasol, who is rumored being traded. It turns out the reports were false, that the teams haven’t talked trade and Rose didn’t contact management, even through third parties.

Deng, who has a history with trade rumors, laughed about it.

“Someone has always got to write about something,” he said. “I guess it’s interesting. Whoever wrote it has done a great job because we’re talking about it right now. But I haven’t heard anything about it. None of us in this locker room are like that (recruiting players). We leave that job for the guys upstairs. We believe we’re good enough and we believe we can win with everyone here. None of us is ever going to speak out about wanting something or something being changed.”

Deng continued to get peppered with questions, which was rare for him as well. Finally, he looked up and laughed.

“Derrick must not be here because you guys are still hanging around me,” he said.

Yes, it was reassuring to have Rose back, though it still doesn’t seem quite a complete team, despite Deng’s belief. The Bulls were 7-3 without Rose, but most of the wins against poor teams. The Bulls still are missing Richard Hamilton, which can make a major difference as he’s expected to return from lower extremity problems after the All-Star break (I’m tired of writing thigh or whatever it is).

Joakim Noah had a big rebounding game with 16 as the Bulls had a 51-41 edge on the boards. He also had some fun with old buddy Pargo, who visited the Bulls locker room after the game. Noah, noting Pargo’s tailored outfit, decided it was a “metro” look, which is sort of Docker’s style, I’m told. Pargo, who was one of the great locker room jokers for the Bulls, went back at Noah, who then began asking how an NBA player could wear a medium sized shirt. Noah appeared to be guessing. Yes, it was a much sunnier side than after Saturday’s rotten egg. But the sky had brightened. A Rose was blooming again.

“We’re not going anywhere without Derrick’s play,” agreed Noah. “It was good to have him out there. He looked pretty healthy. I’m sure he’s sore. Taking two weeks off and coming back to play an NBA game is not easy. Having him aggressive like that opens things up for a lot of us. It was a sloppy game, but overall I feel we played hard and found a way. I was not happy with the way I played (Saturday). I’m just happy we won. I do feel we have to do a better job dealing with what’s being thrown at us.”

Though players and the coach always point to the defense, the Bulls continue to struggle trying to score. You talk to scouts who come in regularly to watch the Bulls and they say you can always come back on the Bulls because they have limited offensive options.

It should change with Hamilton, but typical is watching Rose, who had six assists. He makes these wonderful cross court skip passes off penetration. But then the guys standing in the corner for threes are Deng and Ronnie Brewer. Deng has gotten better shooting from distance, though it is not his specialty. Brewer isn’t what you’d call a classic perimeter shooter. The Bulls really only have one in Korver, and because of that defenses tend to jump the screens and control his attempts. He got just four in 12 minutes Monday and missed them all.

So Thibodeau mixes and matches, and he’s done it well. But there are too many non-scoring options who don’t draw defenses too far from the basket, thus making it difficult to drive. There aren’t many like Rose who could get in there, nevertheless, but he’ll continue to take hard shots as well.

Which is not to say the Bulls cannot ultimately succeed with what they have as defense is supposed to be what wins championships. The Bulls are best with that, and after the All-Star break they’ll have more practice time than they’ve had all season. So they can clean things up, though another shooter also might help.

“We’re not in rhythm right now,” said Thibodeau. “It’s real choppy. Part of it is not having the repetitions you’d like to clean that up, your timing, spacing and screening. We have to correct that. These guys have played well together at times. Would you prefer to have the same group (for every game)? Yes. But we’re capable of doing a lot better and we’ve shown that. We have to be careful not to be taking shortcuts. We have to execute, make the extra pass and do it for 48 minutes.”

Unless there’s overtime, of course.

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