Bulls get the boot from Denver


Mar 27

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So let’s take a look at the matchups between the team with the league’s best record, the Bulls, and the Denver Nuggets, who are tied for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Denver has Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo in the backcourt compared with C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer. So make that huge edge for the Nuggets as the Bulls failed to acquire Afflalo last offseason and then signed Richard Hamilton. JaVale McGee at center against Joakim Noah, and McGee is certainly more athletic and it’s not like Noah is a better offensive player. Luol Deng’s an All-Star, but he is playing with a torn ligament while Wilson Chandler is a terrific athlete who can outdo Deng in the open court. Carlos Boozer and rookie Kenneth Faried, and you have to give that to Boozer, though Faried is scary.

Andre Miller, still probably a top 15 overall point guard coming off the bench, against John Lucas? Al Harrington, one of the league’s premier reserve scorers averaging almost 15 per game against Kyle Korver.

How the heck do the Bulls have any chance of beating a team like that without Derrick Rose playing?

Oh, right, they pretty much shouldn’t, and they didn’t Monday as the Nuggets easily pulled away from the Bulls after halftime for a 108-91 victory.

“We’ve proven we have more than enough to win,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We count on the guys who are here. We did not play the way we should have. Derrick had nothing to do with that.”

I can’t say I agree with that, though my thesis hasn’t looked very good compared with Thibodeau’s given the Bulls league leading record. But now with a third straight loss…

It sure felt like it if you watched the last three games.

But, no, it actually was a first straight after the Bulls turned two losses against woeful Toronto into unlikely victories. It’s clear, and there’s no shame in admitting it, the Bulls badly miss Rose even as they still are 12-5 without him. They miss Hamilton even if they basically still don’t recognize him given how much time he’s missed. And if they think they are all that, they are not the way they got beaten down court repeatedly Monday, pounded once again on the boards, and that’s against McGee, Faried and Mozgov, a firm that generally makes the law nowhere on the NBA boards.

“We didn’t have it tonight,” said Korver, who had 14 points and made all four threes.

Actually, the Bulls were an impressive 13 of 20 on threes with Korver and Lucas each making four, and they still lost by almost 20. Imagine how badly they played given they shot so well.

“Not making excuses,” said Korver. “We’ve shown that whomever we put out there can win. But it all starts with playing hard. We just didn’t have our edge tonight.”

Yes, the Bulls did beat Miami without Rose, so there has been something to the way they play, both this season and last season. But I thought Korver’s use of the word “edge” was significant.

Because that’s one of the principle intangibles that has enabled the Bulls to win a league high 62 games and again this season have the league’s best record, now 40-11.

But pretty much since that Miami game almost two weeks ago, the edge the Bulls mostly have seen is where the cliff ends toward Eastern Conference mediocrity.

“It was really from A to Z,” said Thibodeau. “Defensive transition, dribble penetration, closing out on shots, not containing the dribble off close-outs, allowing the ball into the paint. We had a lot of (bad) things going on. We got to change it.”

Any bright spots? Thibodeau was asked.

“Not that I saw,” he said. “No.”

Of course, you can say it’s the long and short of this long, short and erratic lockout season.

Miami lost its second straight game Monday. Amar’e Stoudemire went out indefinitely with a back problem. The Clippers are trying to keep Vinny Del Negro from getting fired. Go figure.

“I was concerned right at the start of the game even though we started 8-0,” said Thibodeau, who’d been condemning the team for slow starts. “That was not our type of game (“Hey, guys, not that fast!”). It was up and down, free and easy. We let our guard down and you can’t do that.”

Actually, the Bulls let the Denver guards go just about anywhere they liked, and it wasn’t a fair fight.

Lawson and Afflalo combined for 49 points to 22 for Watson and Brewer. And the best all around point guard on the floor was probably Miller, who had 12 points and a game high 10 assists off the bench. Watson did have a good line with 17 points and eight assists and was just about the only one making shots when the Nuggets pulled away after halftime. And while Lucas had 14 points in about 20 minutes, with the guards the Bulls have playing now the offense begins to slow down and stop because they generally don’t look for or find players as they are seeking out their own shots.

Both Watson and Lucas are nice reserve scorers for energy. But you see the influence when they continue to have to play big minutes on what becomes a numbing offense with less movement.

“The thing is you have to get some baskets in transition,” said Thibodeau. “Once their defense is set, they have McGee who is very athletic and long. You have to move their size and get them out of the lane and look to attack them. We were standing around holding the ball. They were fronting the post and we were holding on to it. We need to keep the ball moving and make quick decisions.”

Watch out for McGee now that he finally is in the NBA. Maybe it takes a while to get Washington out of your system, both Congress and the Wizards. But McGee’s a super athlete with a reasonable touch who could lead the league in shot blocking easily.

Meanwhile as for Thibodeau’s request for easier scores, you also have to rebound to get those baskets in transition. And the league’s leading rebounding team suddenly is getting squashed on the boards by open court teams like Denver and whatever the Raptors are. Though I do know they don’t have a center.

Noah has gone back into a funk with two points and five rebounds in about 23 minutes. He hasn’t had doubles figures in points or rebounds the last four games, though he only had his cameo Saturday before being tossed just before halftime with two points. Omer Asik has been terrific protecting the middle with eight blocks over the last two games in less that 40 minutes combined. But the Nuggets played well off him and he’s remained hesitant to go to any offense.

The signs were ominous in that the Bulls again failed to shoot many free throws, meaning they were standing around taking jump shots. And that’s twice in a row at home where they were outhustled by being beaten on the boards. They turned the ball over and got outrun with the Nuggets getting 23 fast break points and a 54-24 edge in the paint, which means the Bulls kept shooting long jump shots. They’re averaging almost 22 threes a game the last six games, five more a game than they averaged last season and six more than this season. It’s part of having Watson and Lucas playing bigger minutes as they tend to pull up and shoot long jump shots instead of challenging the defense. And we all know long jump shots lead to long rebounds and then fast breaks.

And rebounds equal rings, and threes equal playing golf in early May.

It seemed like the proverbial track meet with Nuggets players flying at the basket, an uncomfortable style of play for the Bulls. Really, more a Nuggets style, of course.

“The main thing was we were able to control the tempo of the game,” said Miller.

“When the ball came off the rim we were running. Even when they scored, we were trying to run it right back down their throat,” said Ty Lawson, who led Denver with 27 points.

He also had a game high nine rebounds, and let’s say he sees eye to eye with John Lucas, literally.

Yes, it may be fun to play that way by shooting long and running. But it hasn’t been the recipe for Bulls success, especially given the Bulls usually are on the short end when it comes to athletic play. For the Bulls, it’s generally about controlling the pace to make it more a defensive game, getting the boards, playing smart and unselfish (Watson was the only starter with more than two assists) and having that relentless edge Korver referred to.

It’s been about playing harder and not stopping, effort and activity making a mockery of raw talent. This Bulls roster isn’t supposed to be elite, but it has been to its credit. It got that way with relentless, unrestrained effort, and that’s been inconsistent of late.

The Bulls aren’t beating you going one on one, especially without Rose, and isolating to take advantage of matchups. Though Lucas and Watson scored well with Watson high at 17 points, Denver also did a good job going after them with matchups. Where the Bulls have survived that has been with defensive help, which also has been more sporadic, and defensive efforts through an entire shot clock. We don’t see it as much anymore. Now when a Bulls player has his hand up it more often is signaling to the inbounder after a made basket.

“We never got established defensively,” agreed Thibodeau. “Our rebounding effort was poor from start to finish. When we started missing some shots, we had nothing to fall back on. We have to correct that.”

This sort of thing happens, and yes, Rose remains out. Have I mentioned that?

It seems he’ll be out at least the rest of this week. And the team still hasn’t lost back to back in over a year. What, me worry?

There’s no real reason to. Yet, you also get a sense with this Bulls team of late they’re collecting a bit of that fool’s gold. They’re winning, so it suggests to them they can win no matter how they play. And that perhaps sets one up for a rude shock when the playoffs come. Suddenly with this Bulls team instead of the all out play we’ve seen it’s more they’ll play to the level of the competition. That didn’t get them 62 wins last season and the league’s best record this season.

But guys can be tired. Deng clearly isn’t as sharp as he has been, and now shooting below 41 percent for the season. He was three of nine Monday with four turnovers and seems to be disagreeing with the officials more. There actually was a lot of that among Bulls players, which also suggests perhaps a mental fatigue about the season and the spate of injuries catching up. It’s a question that long has hung over this Bulls team: How long can you keep up playing like that? They’re only human. Scal, too.

The Bulls jumped out to that fast lead and looked pretty good behind Boozer, who scored the first six points in hitting all three of his shots. He didn’t get another shot the rest of the quarter and only nine for the game in about 26 minutes. Though sometimes you have to take the lack of help on defense when you barely can find offense anywhere else.

The Bulls only led 27-25 after one quarter as Afflalo, coming off his one game suspension, had 11 for Denver in the first quarter.

“Ty, Andre, and our bigs did a good job finishing in the paint,” said Afflalo.

Not something we hear often from Bulls opponents.

The Bulls got themselves into a three point shooting jamboree in the second quarter with Korver and Lucas combining for five of six threes in the quarter. But the Nuggets shot 56 percent in the quarter and led 54-52 at halftime.

It was a good omen for getting a hamburger with 100 points, though not so much for the win, which was also required.

“They are a team that normally shoots a high percentage and they score a lot of points,” said Thibodeau. “If you let them get going, they are a hard team to slow down. You have to get your defense established in the first quarter. Once they got going, it was very difficult. The second half was a lot worse.”

The Nuggets got running after halftime and the Bulls got a little goofy. Brewer threw up a wild running, off balance drive looking for a foul that no self respecting official can bail you out on. Then the Bulls began running into McGee and looking for calls. Hello! The guy hits his head on Michael Jordan’s retired jersey when he jumps. They were starting to beg and give the Dwyane Wade diva stare. Meanwhile, the Nuggets were battering the Bulls on the boards to the point you thought the Bulls gave up.

Denver, hardly a defensive juggernaut, had a 17-9 edge in rebounding in the third quarter, including seven offensive rebounds. The Bulls — sit down for this. OK, stand up — didn’t have a single offensive rebound the entire second half. Thus Noah equaled his production from Saturday when he was ejected just before halftime.

Put it this way. I was tied with Noah and Gibson in second half offensive rebounds. Of course, so was Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Lawson had a three pointer to give Denver a 75-62 lead midway through the third quarter. And if you were watching on TV you probably couldn’t find Bulls defenders in the picture they were so far off as the Nuggets moved the ball like a team from Chicago we saw do this once.

It was less bad than surprising. Deng, normally a savvy player, had the ball stripped from him from behind as he dribbled casually, Asik had the ball ripped from his hands. The Nuggets kept taking away the Bulls candy and making them cry (to the referees). The Bulls trailed 81-68 after three.

The Bulls cut the deficit briefly under 10 a few minutes into the fourth when Asik and Gibson got clear inside and Lucas lobbed in a long three. But Chandler scored on a tough, driving move inside and when Lucas missed a long jumper Afflalo got open for a three and even Mozgov finished a lob dunk for a 15 point lead with about five minutes left and the Bulls were tender. The Nuggets ran down court for a few more layups seemingly for the exercise.

And what do you know, the schedule now gets tougher with seven of the next eight games against teams with .500 or better records, including Oklahoma City and Miami with the second and third best records, the hot Atlanta Hawks and back to back with the Knicks, whom the Bulls barely beat when they admittedly weren’t playing defense so they could get their previous coach fired.

Do the Bulls have enough to win? We’ll begin to really find out. Have they lost their edge? This should be a good test.

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