Bulls try to let Raptors take one but they cannot


Mar 25

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The Bulls clearly don’t believe they can lose to the Toronto Raptors. And try as the Bulls might Saturday in being outrebounded, outshot and generally outplayed, the Bulls were right.

They defeated the Raptors 102-101 in overtime for the second time in four days despite trailing badly much of the game and in the fourth quarter both times before Luol Deng caught a blocked C.J. Watson shot and laid the ball in a fraction before the overtime buzzer.

“C.J. drove, the ball came up short and I just tipped it in,” said Deng, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds in just under 50 minutes played. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, steaming after the win, then called practice for Sunday when we assume Deng will scrimmage for two hours.

Luol Deng

“I saw the light after I (let it go), but I still was not sure how close it was,” said Deng. “We always say just find ways. It’s a long season (actually shorter than usual, but who’s counting). So every game is going to be a different story. We stuck with it. Toronto played great, but we just hung in there and found a way at the end.”

I’m not sure Toronto played great, but we’ll stick with that story because it makes the Bulls win sound better after 18 lead changes and 17 ties in the team’s first overtime game of the season. The win also clinched a playoff berth for the Bulls and cut their magic number for wrapping up the East over Miami to 15 with 16 left games for those counting it down.

But the Bulls seemed to really want to lose this one, or make it an even better test as with Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton still out injured — and not looking like they are coming back very soon — Joakim Noah got himself ejected just before halftime for no apparent reason other than perhaps his alma mater losing in the NCAA’s.

Toronto was missing second leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, so it did seem perhaps a charitable act on Noah’s part. It was like putting an overweight jockey on Secretariat. You have to do something to even the playing field with all the questionable plays Toronto makes.

And sure enough there was former Bull James Johnson, who played a good game with 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks including that last one on Watson, making a steal from Watson with about two minutes left in overtime and the game tied and trying to go full court and be a hero one on four against the Bulls defense. Of course, he missed. Just as he would trying an odd reverse layup with under a minute left and the game tied at 100 after rebounding a Deng miss.

Boozer then missed from 16 feet with 32.9 seconds left and Johnson then appeared to get tied up going nowhere again. But he got a late foul call and made one of two free throws for a 101-100 lead with 15.2 seconds left. The Bulls should have lost this one already 10 different ways, and that’s not including the two wide open shots Andrea Bargnani got in the last 10 seconds of regulation and missed both.

This was really a game of mistakes as Deng then slipped inside and went up softly. He got his shot blocked halfway up the mezzanine with 6.9 seconds left in overtime and Toronto up one. The Bulls fouled Gary Forbes, shooting almost 80 percent on free throws, and he gagged both, barely hitting he rim with the second. So one more Bulls chance with 6.4 seconds left.

Watson dribbled across the lane into a bad fadeaway that Johnson got again, only to see it settle behind the Toronto defense, or whatever they call it as Jose Calderon for some reason was guarding Deng, into Deng’s hands. Deng immediately hot potatoed it into the basket for the most improbable of wins and a 40-10 record.

Which, of course, infuriated Thibodeau.

“We were lucky to get that game,” agreed Thibodeau. “They outplayed us from the start. They dominated us. They outrebounded us by 14. They played hard, we didn’t play well. Again, we talk about readiness to play. In the first quarter we gave up 30 points. They dominated us on the boards. We had poor defensive transition, we were not challenging shots. We were poor executing the offense. So it comes back to our readiness to play. You can have a tough game when you don’t shoot the ball well. That’s part of the game. But the other parts you should be able to count on every night: Your effort, defense, rebounding, making the extra pass. Those things you have to be able to count on. You should be able to win when you’re not shooting well and you should be able to play well when you’re not shooting well. I am concerned about that. We had two days off to rest, to practice and to be ready to play. In the end it was disappointing.”

Now could this be a man who had a losing Cuppy Coffee in the Dunkin’ Donuts race?

“Right now, we’re headed down a stretch where it’s about building the right habits and we haven’t done that the last two games,” said Thibodeau. “We have to change that, fast. Things change quickly in this league. We were three for 23 from three. If the three is not going, than you have to drive the ball, post the ball, get some easy baskets. We settled. A big part of that is putting the work into the game. You’re not going to win unless you put the work into the game. We have to get that straightened out. We have to get it straightened out fast.”

This is the good and bad Thibs part when we only finds the answer after the season is over. Is it good that Thibodeau pushes this team so hard and thus builds habits that lead to never giving up and believing in yourself that you find a way to win a game when everything is going against you? That you’ll be in these situations in the playoffs and you won’t crack, like, say a Toronto type team, because you’ve been pushed and push yourself never to give in and never to give up? Or is it bad that even after a win in late March in a relatively meaningless game with a comfortable lead in the conference that you are that concerned and call a rare Sunday practice even at a time when half your team can’t practice because of injuries, and certainly your main players? Maybe only Noah will practice as he played a relatively poor 12 minutes before getting himself thrown out after he committed an obvious foul and complained to the officials and tossed the ball, though I thought he was in one of those Benny the Bull skits.

Noah would later use his Twitter account to record: “Real (poopy) day.”

I’m assuming he was referring to Santorum’s win in the Louisiana Republican primary.

“I did not see what happened, but I was disappointed in the technical foul and then getting thrown out,” said Thibodeau. “We are short handed already. We can’t have that. I thought Toronto benefited from calls and they probably deserved them. They were playing a lot harder than we were. I don’t have any problem with the way the game was officiated. Those guys did a good job. I have a problem with the way we played. It’s everybody. It starts with me. I have to do a better job of having them ready.”

Thibodeau then left the press room apparently in search of a live chicken to bite its head off.

Actually, he is fairly jocular and engaging after games no matter his public demeanor, but we want to maintain that gruff image in case there is another Scarface remake.

Taj Gibson

It wasn’t a horrible game, and actually quite entertaining for the 16-33 Raptors coming in on the second of a back to back. That after the Bulls had two days off for the first time in two months following coming back after slumbering most of the game to beat the Raptors in Toronto Wednesday. It was super John Lucas to the rescue in that one, and the Bulls Saturday did get Deng, Carlos Boozer after a slow start and C.J. Watson all scoring at least 23 points Saturday. With Noah out, Omer Asik had a nice stretch with 10 points and seven rebounds, all offensive, in just under 18 minutes, though Taj Gibson started the second half for Noah. Sometimes you’d like to see Asik, who actually made six straight free throws at one point, get big minutes to see his impact as his defense had a lot to do with the Bulls having a 64-46 points in the paint edge and Toronto late mostly forced into late jump shots with the clock running down.

Maybe, the biggest shot was Watson’s step back three with 52.6 seconds left in regulation and the Bulls trailing 92-90 as Calderon inexplicably left him to double Boozer inside. Watson also tied the game with one of two free throws with 32.3 seconds left before the Raptors botched the last 30 seconds with those two Bargnani misses that started after Asik blocked a James Johnson drive after Watson’s free throw made it 94-94.

In fact, Watson scored 13 of the last 15 Bulls points in regulation.

“C.J. did some good things,” acknowledged Thibodeau. “He hit some big shots, made some big plays. The thing about C.J. is you can count on him even when he does not shoot well.”

Boozer led the Bulls with 24 points and 10 rebounds after having just four first half points, though it was difficult overall with that three of 23 on threes (and they made two of their last five), 39.8 percent overall shooting, having 11 shots blocked, shooting 65 percent from the line and outrebounded 58-44. Now if you can’t lose that kind of game, what about if you just play bad instead of horrible? Perhaps that was the great message from Saturday’s game.

The Raptors got off quickly even after flying in from Toronto with a 30-20 first quarter lead behind James Johnson with eight points.

“We deserved to win tonight, but they made game winning plays down the stretch,” said Johnson. “I forgot about that (getting back at the Bulls for trading him) a long time ago. Gar Forman and John Paxson, I have a lot of respect for those guys. They realized I had talent (picked 16th in the 2009 draft). To play against these guys is just fun. It’s always fun, especially being with them for two years.”

Johnson is an interesting study as he never could find a spot with the Bulls and didn’t work with Thibodeau. He has become a good perimeter defender and is the kind of athlete the Bulls don’t have and could use. But he still continues to make questionable plays and decisions and you wonder whether he still would have gotten much time in Thibodeau’s demanding, responsible game.

The Bulls got back once again, like Wednesday, with the bench providing a stronger second quarter behind the hustle of Gibson and Asik. The Bulls had it even and a 15-0 fast break edge (it would end 23-5) before Noah was ejected with 1:28 left in the first half and Toronto closed the half ahead 55-50. Which made it three of five starters out as I still include Hamilton, the ghost, in that group.

With Toronto being a small team despite their rebounding edge, Thibodeau opted for Gibson to open the second half, and the Bulls made some headway as Boozer had 14 third quarter points to bring the Bulls within 73-71 after three.

I know Bargnani has had some injuries this season. But for a guy who doesn’t do much of anything but shoot, and he was trying in vain to defend Boozer, he cannot make open shots. He was four of 18 shooting and is about 25 percent on threes this season.

It was a tough night for both super John and Kyle Korver as they combined to shoot a Bargnaniesque one of nine on threes and three of 16 overall. Aaron Gray had two blocked shots, prompting a congressional inquiry as I was getting too far along in this column without at least one gratuitous shot at him.

The Bulls went down 84-77 with about six minutes left, mirroring their pattern in Toronto Wednesday. But the Bulls came back with Watson’s shooting that offset Bargnani actually making a shot and a nice play out of a timeout for a lob dunk to Amir Johnson after Watson’s three briefly put the Bulls ahead 93-92.

The Bulls defense was sharper in the overtime with Toronto taking late shot clock jumpers and a big overplay that forced Calderon into a turnover. It was Calderon, with 20 points and 10 assists but six turnovers, also making the crucial error late in regulation of saving a ball under his basket right into Watson’s hands for a layup that tied the game with 1:16 left.

“We had put ourselves in a place to win,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. “We had free throws to make and Andrea had a great look right at the end. It’s just that down the stretch we didn’t make those free throws and he missed a shot that he would make nine times out of 10. Give them credit though. They are a tough team.”

And, then, eventually it would be Deng in the right place at the right time, which seems to be what happens with the better teams.

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