Bulls ground Hawks in Atlanta


Mar 29

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Is this 2011-12 Bulls team the second best in franchise history?

I assume they are not, since after losing badly at home to the fighting-for-the-playoffs Denver Nuggets Monday in the wake of a pair of fortunate wins over the barely trying Toronto Raptors, we pretty much decided these aren’t the best of times nor really an age of wisdom for the Bulls.

But with Wednesday’s relatively efficient 98-77 win over the Atlanta Hawks, it’s becoming something of an epoch of incredulity for these Bulls, who now are a remarkable 21-6 on the road and a league best 41-11.

“I think we have the right guys; it starts there,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “The attitude and approach of the team is excellent. These guys, they do a great job of coming ready. Even when we’re not playing well they’re determined the next time to get it right.”

The Bulls haven’t lost two straight since early February 2011, and now are within 11 games of Utah’s all-time record of 95 games without back to back losses.

“When you have guys like that that’s what allows you to improve each day,” said Thibodeau. “I loved the energy of the team. I thought the attitude was great. The game didn’t start perfectly for us (down 13-5), but we worked our way through the start. We kept grinding away and it worked out for us. The team made the game easy with the ball movement (26 assists among nine players). I thought the rebounding was very good.

“The second unit when they came in in the second quarter, I thought, really got it going our way,” added Thibodeau. “The bench was great. I thought Taj (Gibson with 19 points off the bench) and Omer (Asik) did a great job in the second quarter. That really got us going the right way.”

That reserve group that outscored Atlanta 37-23 helped build the Bulls’ second quarter lead up to 18, saw it drop to 12 at halftime, and then the starters in the third quarter behind Luol Deng with 22 points and five of eight threes and Carlos Boozer with 20 points and nine rebounds broke the game open after the Hawks had pulled within 56-52.

Thibodeau called a timeout, apparently explained how this moment of darkness should turn into a season of light, and the Bulls were off on an 18-4 run to blow open the game behind another Deng three, an impressive shooting Boozer and Joakim Noah with a driving score and clever center field catch of a C.J. Watson air ball that Noah put in among three admiring Hawks.

“Luol got us going early and everyone picked up after that,” said Boozer. “Great game. “With D-Rose out, we want to get everyone involved and try to spread it around.”

The Bulls did that remarkably well with a 45-36 rebounding edge after being outrebounded the last two games, a 42-30 margin in the paint as Gibson and Asik did a good job of keeping the Hawks on the outside, 26 assists with no one above John Lucas’ five and nine of 16 threes overall.

“The thing we did tonight was respond well in the second quarter,” said Deng. “We didn’t hold our heads down like we did Monday night. I don’t let missing shots phase me because I know I can knock them down. So I just kept on shooting. Our big guys did a good job on screens tonight and we did a really good job on Joe Johnson (12 points while Josh Smith led with 19 but on eight of 21 shooting).”

It was a complete victory for the Bulls, all the more surprising in its dominance given the relatively poor play of late and that Derrick Rose missed his eighth consecutive game with a groin injury and 18th overall. The Bulls are 13-5 without him. Richard Hamilton missed his 782nd consecutive game… Well, it sort of feels that way, though it was the 36th game Hamilton has missed. The Bulls are 13-3 when Hamilton plays and 28-6 with Rose.

Actually, Hamilton is said to be close to returning with the Pistons next on the schedule Friday. Pure coincidence, of course.

It remains uncertain about Rose as the team isn’t even quite sure at this point, it seems. I’d be surprised if Rose plays in the next Finals preview for the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday in Oklahoma City. My sense is the Bulls want to be extra cautious given it is a groin, and I can sympathize with that. At this point I’d guess April 5 at home against Boston at the soonest.

You’d think the big games for the team now, especially with Amar’e Stoudemire out with a back injury, are April 12 at home against Miami and April 19 in Miami. You’d figure the Bulls would want a healthy Rose and Hamilton for those two, which figure to decide home court advantage in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls now lead Miami by four games, though just two fewer losses.

Though the number that is most remarkable in this curious season is the league best 21-6 on the road. There are just three other Eastern teams that have winning road records.

The measure of excellence in the NBA is generally playing 75 percent at home and 50 percent on the road. That gets you 50 wins in a regular season.

This is a most irregular season, and the Hawks, 30-22, were playing their fifth game in six nights with a four overtime game among them. Yet, everyone has had these odd and extracurricular schedules, and all we hear is it isn’t a season to make excuses. So the Bulls won’t for their wins like this.

But at 21-6, the Bulls have a 78 percent winning percentage on the road, which currently ranks second best in franchise history.

So let’s take a look at the best road records in Bulls history:

1995-96 33-8 .804 Won championship
2011-12 21-6 .777 Collected most mini lotion bottles
1991-92 31-10 .756 Won championship
1996-97 30-11 .731 Won championship
1971-72 26-12 .684 Lost conference semifinals
1990-91 26-15 .634 Won championship
2010-11 26-15 .634 Lost conference finals
1997-98 25-16 .609 Won championship
1992-93 25-15 .600 Won championship
1993-94 24-17 .585 Eliminated by Hue Hollins

It gets to a point where it isn’t a fluke when you win that regularly on the road, now seven straight and 13 of the last 14. Everyone else is playing road games against tired teams and only six teams in the NBA have winning road records. The Bulls are 15 over. Next comes Oklahoma City at eight over, the Spurs at five over and Miami at four over.

This is a truly remarkable statistic and probably shows why Basketball administration director Karen Umlauf deserves so much credit for booking terrific hotel rooms. Or maybe it’s those pilots who avoid the choppy air or maybe even skilled, unselfish, committed basketball players. Could that actually be it?

This was the sort of game Wednesday even with Atlanta’s hectic schedule that seemed like a loss coming in. The Bulls had been awful the last three games despite the two Toronto wins, and the starting guard play was breaking down. And again Wednesday, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson combined to shoot three of 14. The Hawks had been playing well, and Noah was in a four game mini slump with one early ejection for acting like LeBron and believing he hadn’t committed a foul despite the man needing a reattachment of a limb.

And the Bulls quickly fall behind 13-5 with Johnson swishing a pair of 20 footers and Smith and then Zaza Pachulia dunking off Bulls turnovers. Timeout Thibs, who seemed to instruct the Bulls to play better, and it worked. Boozer, who had one of his best playoff games last season in the clincher in Atlanta, was hitting shots again and the Bulls got within 23-21 after one.

“The defense got us going,” said Boozer. “Deflections, steals.”

Boozer as well with a steal and again some nice interior passing along with Noah as the two of them have continued to work off one another well.

The Bulls opened up the second quarter, as usual, going to the bench and Lucas tied the game with a jumper.

It sounds ridiculous, but Lucas could and perhaps should be a contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. I know his overall numbers are likely not good enough to win the award, as he’s averaging 6.7 points for the season, though 9.2 this month with Rose mostly out.

But who really is more improved?

The award shouldn’t be about guys like Kevin Love, who won last season. He was a high lottery pick. He was supposed to be good. Even previous winners like Aaron Brooks, Danny Granger and Hedo Turkoglu. They were first round picks and just needed some playing time. Lucas wasn’t even a twinkle in eyes of the draft top 100 prospects. He played in Europe, China and the D-League. Wasn’t even much there averaging four points in Spain and seven in Italy. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau kept him in the NBA, and Lucas still only played 10 minutes last season. Now he’s coming in regularly for the league’s best team and making big plays and is as close to the Bulls version of lob city as they can get with two more lob dunk assists Wednesday, one to Asik and one to Gibson.

Deng and Lucas hit a pair of threes each with Gibson and Asik controlling the interior, and the Bulls took a 54-36 second quarter lead before the Hawks scored six straight to close the half.

Noah had a beautiful bounce pass for a Boozer score early in the third quarter. And then after the Hawks got a pair of threes, including one from Kirk Hinrich, the Bulls blew open the game with that third quarter run that included Deng picking off a soft Marvin Williams pass. Deng then took off, directing traffic as he drove, and then finding Gibson coming up behind for a slam dunk and 76-60 lead after three quarters.

Neither team could get much going to open the fourth quarter, but then Kyle Korver, who seemed like he had way more than his three assists, found Boozer for a score and then Brewer cutting for a dunk and 89-70 lead with 5:14 left. It was slam dunk rehearsals then with Lucas’ lob to Gibson and Boozer beating Jason Collins for a strong left handed slam.

Lucas’ lob to Asik closed the Bulls scoring and even without Rose and Hamilton for now the Bulls held off any further despair for what can perhaps be a spring of hope.

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