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Bulls make some history and have some fun
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 20
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It really was historic stuff for the Bulls in their 85-59 domination of the Orlando Magic Monday. Sure, there was the official history of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau setting the alltime NBA record for fastest to 100 victories in his 130th game as Bulls coach.
“I think it speaks to the job he’s done,” said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. “Look, there’s a lot great coaches in this league, and a lot of people have done great jobs. But nobody — nobody — has done a better job than Tom has.”
Thibodeau, whose Bulls reached 38-10 despite Derrick Rose missing his fourth straight game with a groin injury and now 14th of the season, got to 100 one game faster than Avery Johnson. Following Johnson was Red Auerbach with the dynasty Boston Celtics, John Kundla with the dynasty Minneapolis Lakers in the league’s formative years, Les Harrison of the dominant Rochester Royals of the late 1940’s, Pat Riley with the Lakers and then that Jackson guy with the Bulls. No offense meant, certainly, but in the league’s modern era there’s little doubt Thibodeau is operating with by far the least talent.
It’s why Thibodeau also has moved in line for another NBA first, perhaps a second straight coach of the year award as the Bulls have the league’s best record despite their starting backcourt out likely for at least another week with Rose’s troublesome groin and Richard Hamilton’s shoulder injury. Plus, Luol Deng clearly has slowed from his bothersome torn left wrist ligament.
“Tom has been great since we all got together last year,” said Carlos Boozer, who had one of his best games as a Bull with 24 points, 13 rebounds and four steals. “It is a great system and we will continue to get better. He puts so much work into it. He almost looks exhausted everyday watching film. He is one of the most detailed people I have been around.”
The Bulls also got 20 points and a career high four three pointers — three in 45 seconds in the first quarter — from John Lucas and 14 points from Deng.
But it was a classic all around effort as the Bulls defensive play was relentless, their passing precise and repeated and their movement baffling to the Magic, who were really never in the game and led by Dwight Howard with a harmless 18 points and 12 rebounds.
“They played harder than us,” said Howard. “One through 15, whoever stepped on the floor just played harder than us.”
The Bulls have 14 players on the roster, and Rose and Hamilton unable to play, though with their obstinacy on defense and stubborn perseverance to make the right play it had to seem to Howard the Bulls always had extra players on the floor.
The Bulls now have beaten Miami and Orlando, the second and third top teams in the Eastern Conference, in the same week without Rose. It’s a testament, really, to simplicity rather than intricacy. The Bulls merely complete all the elements the coaches talk about, moving the ball and your body, playing defense throughout the shot clock, always looking for someone with the best shot, hand up on defense and always ready to anticipate what comes next.
And it’s not like the Bulls overwhelmed Orlando, or anyone for that matter, with talent or extraordinary play. The Bulls shot 44.3 percent with the starting backcourt of C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer a combined one of 12. The Bulls had 16 turnovers and attempted just 11 free throws.
What this game felt like was a Mark Buehrle perfect game, a guy who you can’t figure out how he gets anyone out getting everyone out. Here’s Lucas, who had much less NBA interest than Jeremy Lin, knocking down those three first quarter three pointers to erase Orlando’s last lead of the game and give the Bulls a 22-14 first quarter edge.
“I just feel like it opened up for me,” said Lucas, who made eight of 13 shots and outscored the Magic bench on his own. “The first three felt good. The fast break pull up three I felt like it was one of those nights. Coach Thibs says to always stay ready. ‘Cause I’m paying doesn’t mean we’re going to lose (Lucas is averaging 10.2 points in games Rose sits). It shows the organization picked out (the right) players and the coaching staff did the research on everybody.
“They (Magic) made adjustments on me (actually taking him seriously) and it opened Joakim for a dunk, or Luol for the jumpshot or the cut through,” said Lucas. “I am just reading the game as it comes to me.”
Boozer, who’s basically been under siege among Chicago fans since being signed, was terrific both shooting the ball, stripping with quick hands on defense and using a variety of step in moves. Although fans generally prefer Taj Gibson, he cannot do those things and the Bulls will need Boozer. Because without Rose and with Deng severely limited on offense, there aren’t many options for the Bulls. But they find ways with unselfish play and attacking the boards again and again, Monday with a 48-38 rebounding edge against the game’s best rebounder.
“That’s a great basketball team,” said Van Gundy. “They play through injuries, they believe in what they’re doing, they play extremely hard and they play with great energy.”
Great with a center no one guards? A scoring forward who can’t get to the basket now? A non shooting shooting guard in Brewer? A gimpy Watson with a bad ankle? And Boozer, whom the fans want released?
Which speaks as loudly as it can to team.
The way these Bulls play, and with Rose as well, is perhaps reminiscent of some of the best pure groups in league history. Not the best teams because the best teams had the biggest stars. These Bulls aren’t the 60’s Celtics or 80’s Lakers or 90’s Bulls.
They are like the 1970’s Knicks, for example, romanticized for their lack of individuality, if not talent. Basically everyone made the Hall of Fame, though less on any personal ability.
There’s the SuperSonics of the late 1970’s led by the likes of Jack Sikma, Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson to back to back Finals. The 1977 Trail Blazers, who had Bill Walton in the season he may have been the best center ever, though with more supporting players than standouts. Many will mention the 2004 Detroit Pistons and maybe even the 1976 Celtics, who were summed up more by Dave Cowens’ hustle than the talent of the 60’s. There are a lot of 1970’s teams on the list because of the way the ABA in that era skimmed off so many of the stars that teams that were deep and competed together rose to the top. And don’t forget pass-oriented teams like the 2001 Sacramento Kings with Chris Webber.
The Bulls are doing it now, though they’ll certainly need Rose and Hamilton for the playoffs.
Which also raises the question about this week and whether the Bulls can help themselves with players being bought out and able to sign with new teams. The list includes the likes Derek Fisher, J.J. Hickson, Andres Nocioni and Ronny Turiaf. The Bulls all season have mostly looked for a big man, like the prior recruitment of Joel Przybilla. So the only one among those five they’d probably pursue would be Turiaf. But the word around the NBA is his advisors are pushing him to Miami.
The problem the Bulls have, if you could call it that, is they are too deep. Say they pick up Fisher, who is such a poor defender the Lakers let him go to upgrade there. Then whom does Fisher play ahead of? Watson? Lucas, who has earned his way with several 20-point games? Hickson is said to be a bit of a problem and consider that the Kings let him go despite giving up Omri Casspi and a No. 1 pick. Nocioni has barely played for almost two years. Is he playing ahead of Taj Gibson? Jimmy Butler? Plus, when you get to the playoffs the rotations shrink. Not increase.
The Bulls’ issue is not having enough stars. They have plenty of role players.
The great appeal, if not also the success of this Bulls team and one great positive they have for the playoffs is their continuity. This group has basically been together for two years. It will be enough to work in one player, Hamilton, who can hardly be considered having played this season. This isn’t fantasy basketball where you plug in statistics. Those passes and help on defense aren’t an accident. They’ve been doing it together for almost two seasons. It’s fairly inconceivable that a, let’s say, square peg like Hickson could fit in with the sort of rotations the Bulls run.
I liked the little post game defensive primer Thibodeau offered. Yes, it was venturing into coach speak at a time the media mostly wanted to know how it felt. But it also was an opening into what the players hear from Thibodeau and how they perform.
“I thought overall our defense was very good, that we made the effort to challenge shots,” said Thibodeau. “And then offensively, when we kept the ball moving and made quick decisions I thought we were able to get decent shots. When he (Dwight Howard) rolls down the lane you have to pull in, you have to help, you have to protect. He has great post up on his roll and when you do that, now you have to buy time to get back out to cover the line. It requires a lot of effort from guys. A single effort is not going to get it done. You’ve got to make a second and third effort against this team and you have to have the ability to do it over and over and over again and they have the ability to make a full step beyond the three. You can’t close short against these guys.”
That was Thibs Defense 101, and the Bulls carried it out to near perfection, though the Magic did score 59 points. It did set a Bulls’ franchise regular season record, though, for fewest points allowed, and, really, who are the great defenders? Not Boozer, we are told often. Watson? Brewer? OK, he’s good, but I haven’t seen any all-defensive mentions. Yes, Noah and Deng are all league types. But what about Lucas at about 5-10 or Kyle Korver? We’re not talking the 1989 Pistons here.
Which makes it wonderful to watch because this Bulls team does make you proud of the NBA. As good as Noah is defensively, and actually Omer Asik plays Howard better and more physically, defenses barely guard Noah. Few coaches have as many one-side-of-the-ball talents as Thibodeau does. So he operates much like a modern NFL coach with offensive and defensive teams.
I actually wondered midway through the first quarter with Boozer going so well both scoring and facilitating about why Thibodeau was taking out he and Noah with about four minutes remaining, though Boozer had just missed badly on a fadeaway.
But Asik and Taj Gibson and shortly thereafter Lucas came in and the Bulls took off. Howard got a second foul as Asik drew a charge and had to leave, and the Magic was reduced to long jump shots with Lucas making his.
Noah always has had problems defending Howard, though not that most don’t. But Asik, though with a wiry frame, is surprisingly physical and bothers Howard. Asik tends to stay up close to Howard and has the size to annoy and distract Howard.
With Howard out to open the second quarter, the Bulls were pounding the offensive glass with offensive rebounds on three consecutive possessions. Gibson put back a Korver miss and then Deng, constantly moving despite his obvious handicaps, recovered a blocked shot by Glen Davis and scored.
Davis, by the way, is one of the Magic’s many issues. He was a player Howard wanted and is not nearly as valuable as Brandon Bass. Howard complained the Magic didn’t listen enough to him on personnel, but Davis’ presence suggests they listened too much.
“We went out to Chicago (March 8th) and we beat them with Derrick Rose,” Davis said. “Tonight, you saw a team out there playing without their star player, and did what they needed to do to win. And they beat us. They beat us with no problem. I wish they would have had Derrick Rose in a sense.”
Better watch out what you wish for.
The Bulls plan on Howard wasn’t unusual. There are two: Double him and let the perimeter shooters hit or miss. Play him straight up and stay on the shooters, which more teams generally do as when the Magic perimeter guys aren’t making shots they generally don’t get much into defense.
The Bulls mostly played Howard straight up though Deng or Brewer might dig from the outside and recover. Asik tends to do a reasonably good job fronting Howard or playing him three quarter to deny the entry pass. But the Bulls have been a rare team to mostly limit Howard while getting back and making the perimeter shots difficult.
“The real story, honestly, is our defense,” said Boozer. “That was probably one of the best performances we’ve had this season. It was fitting because they kicked our butt in Chicago. For us to come back and do this, it’s a big win for us.”
The Bulls began to stretch it out with Deng hitting a three to make it 35-22 midway through the second. Orlando then called a timeout and TV cameras caught a rare in game smile from Thibodeau in talking with Deng. Is Tom getting soft?
“I am glad it is him (Thibodeau for the record) because he works so hard,” said Deng. “I have never seen anybody work as hard as he does. We all believe in him. As hard as he works and when he comes up with a game plan we buy into it because we know how much effort he puts into studying every opponent. Most of us didn’t even know (about the record). No one even
said anything before the game about it. It is just the type of guy that he is. He is just focused on tonight’s game. That was it.”
Boozer, by the way, found Deng for that three and two things often overlooked about Boozer are his patience on offense in finding teammates and watching plays develop and his hands on defense to dislodge balls. It was his second game with four steals in the last seven.
“He was great,” said Thibodeau. “He played with energy the entire game.”
The Bulls led 48-33 at halftime as this was an ’85 Bears goal line stand all game. The Magic got a few passes through to Howard deep, but mostly he was cut off and they were firing contested threes awry.
“Our offense was pathetic,” said Van Gundy.
The Magic made their only run of the game to open the third as Howard began to overpower Noah. Which is another of the rare and wonderful things about this Bulls group. Noah didn’t go out and pout despite leaving four minutes into the third. Instead he was up cheerleading for Asik, who was helping the Bulls hold down Howard and the Magic scoreless for six straight possessions as the Bulls scored six straight behind Boozer and Deng to get the lead back to 57-43. Boozer even added a fancy face up drive and score along the baseline as the Bulls closed the third ahead 60-48, already with more points than the Magic would score for the rest of the game.
The Bulls then ran away in the fourth as the Magic pretty much gave in. It effectively ended with 6:54 left in the game when Noah got a bounce pass from Lucas and rammed Davis to the ground with a slam dunk and three point play for a 72-52 lead.
“I know he is going to say it (coaching record) doesn’t mean anything but I think it is a great accomplishment,” said Noah. “He is the hardest working guy I have ever been around. He deserves it. Thibs is always the same, high energy, going crazy on us. He’s the most passionate person when it comes to basketball I’ve ever been around. Whether we’re up 20 or down 20 it doesn’t change. Our defense was great. This is a great win for us especially with not having our team fully healthy. To come out and play the way that we did was a great team effort. We just have to stay focused. It is the final stretch now and obviously we have bigger goals.
“I think our energy was the difference tonight,” Noah added. “It is one game at the end of the day. We felt it was one of our best defensive efforts of the year. We just have to keep it up and keep learning from what we were doing well. We need to stay humble and stay driven. Hopefully we get the good thing at the end.”
And that’s where Rose comes in. It doesn’t seem like he’ll play this week as the team now is being very conservative with his groin injury. Rose confirmed earlier in the day he hurt it when Jeremy Lin blocked his shot against the Knicks and he may have exacerbated it by continuing to play.
“They say with an injury like this they don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Rose said. “I thought I was going to be back sooner. I haven’t been able to run. I felt a pull (on that blocked shot). I thought it was like a charley horse or something. When I went down, I tried to stretch out but there was pain there. I wanted to play through it and I think I made it worse. After the game, I remember walking back into the locker room and I told the trainers immediately that I wasn’t feeling right.
“This is the most I’ve ever been injured in my life,” added Rose. “The biggest thing is just staying strong mentally. We’re playing good right now. It’s definitely hurting me but I’m keeping a positive attitude.”
So are the Bulls. They hope to have everyone healthy by early April and then have three solid weeks leading up to the playoffs. Until then you can be sure they’ll continue to compete, which remains one of the great stories in sports today.