Bulls with spirited win over 76ers


Mar 18

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The C.J. is for Charles Jr. I looked it up for the first time after the Bulls’ 89-80 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night in which Watson led the Bulls with 20 points and four of eight three pointers.

I’m getting the feeling the way things are going we better get to know Watson a little better as he might be the starting point guard for a bit more than expected. Now, no one has said anything to me and I haven’t asked, and the Bulls say Derrick Rose remains day to day. But just watching Rose, who missed his third consecutive game with a groin injury and 13th this season, I wouldn’t be surprised not to see Rose playing for a few more weeks.

Hey, everyone was worried Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t resting Rose enough. Well, he’s getting plenty now.

This is just speculation on my part, but you get the sense the Bulls are going to be in a lot more of these grinder games like they were against the 76ers in which they just don’t have enough offense and have to win with defense, rebounding, second shots and teamwork.

Joakim Noah had 13 points and 11 rebounds, and three other Bulls had 11 points, including reserves Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver.

“Obviously when Derrick is on the court the game is very different,” said Noah. “There’s a lot of pressure and emphasis on trying to stop him. We get a lot of open looks off Derrick getting double teamed, or Derrick getting blitzed or something like that. We don’t really have other players (who get that treatment). The game is different, but the constant is we’re rebounding the ball and as long as we play with an edge we can beat anybody when we are right.”

Ronnie BrewerNoah then paused and looked sternly.

“We know we need those guys to get to where we want to get to,” he said. “And that’s something that needs to be emphasized.”

So, yes, the Bulls, 37-10, can win regular season games at home against even improving teams, like the 25-20 76ers. It wasn’t a particularly good effort from the 76ers as Jrue Holiday had 30 points. But he threw up 27 shots, 17 more than anyone else, putting the team oriented 76ers into an uncomfortable isolation and perimeter shooting game. But the Bulls also had a lot to do with that, especially Noah, Gibson and Omer Asik in choking off the middle as the guards forced their 76ers opponents to the wings and to help.

It was a terrific Bulls defensive effort, not only after a brutal finish to the Friday loss to Portland when the Bulls were three of 23 shooting in the fourth quarter but an 11-point first quarter Saturday after the Bulls fell behind 11-0 to open the game.

So who was up early at the local taverns for St. Patrick’s Day?

“I don’t think I reached them in the first quarter,” quipped Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, now one win from 100 and fastest to that number in NBA history. “They were great and I knew they would be (in not losing back to back in the regular season since Feb 5-7 2011). The thing that I like is that we were struggling, especially in the first quarter. Everyone hung together and worked our way out of it. I think the bench came in and really gave us a big lift. The second quarter was very good. Defense was good. The ball moved side to side. We had some shots that didn’t go, but instead of hanging our heads we kept playing defense. Once again rebounding was the story. That is how we won the game (53-39 overall and 17-9 on the offensive boards). The starters came back in the third, and I thought they played terrific. Jo was big down the stretch. We had a lot of guys contribute.”

Especially on offense Watson, who continues to play with a bad ankle that cost him five games earlier this month.

“I’m just trying to pick my spots,” said Watson. “I know I can’t push off or have the speed I want to. I’ve just got to pick my spots and use the angles they are giving me.”

Watson is probably the toughest guy to get to know or talk to among an unusually open group of Bulls players. Watson is quiet, not saying much when outsiders are around, soft spoken, direct and succinct. He is polite, always cooperative but short on elaboration. The secret is he is a cutup with his teammates. He’s said to be an outgoing and clever wit, though sometimes that sneaks through.

So with points so difficult to come by not only for Rose’s scoring but the defensive attention he gets which opens the floor for everyone, Watson has had to take a more forceful offensive role.

Especially now with Luol Deng, three of 11 Saturday and 15 for 51 (29 percent) his last four games as defenses not only are banging his aching left wrist but forcing him to his left hand, which isn’t much good for dribbling. Andre Iguodala often gives Deng trouble, anyway, and early when the Bulls were stumbling to start Iguodala forced Deng left into a turnover and Deng reverted to more perimeter shooting thereafter. The Bulls are missing his driving penetration and playmaking off the dribble.

“That (right side drive) is taken away,” said Deng. “But I was expecting that. We still have around 20 games. I need to just keep working in practice and keep seeing how people are playing me. It’s fine. I really believe that. It’s going to come. Finding ways to change my game a little bit. I think I could do enough, even with this.”

Philadelphia coach Doug Collins, one of the game’s best strategists, recognized all this and had his team sagging back in the lane, thus forcing the Bulls into taking a lot of jump shots.

“They were going under (screens) and making a point of trying to clog the paint,” said Noah. “When they do that you have to hit shots. They were backing off me, backing off Ronnie (Brewer), backing off C.J, going under screens. When they do that the game tells you shoot the ball.”

That really is the Bulls offense now, and they are fortunate to have such unselfish and hard working players. No offense, but the offensive talent is not there with Rose and Richard Hamilton out and Deng limited. So the Bulls shoot when the defense sags, which creates open shots. And the Bulls have the unusual advantage of big men who pass well, the extra passes also creating openings for shots that Rose might have previously.

Gibson and Noah led the Bulls in assists Saturday.

“The game tells you who will make the plays,” says Thibodeau. “If they’re blitzing the pick and roll, the ball is coming back to your bigs. And we’re fortunate we have bigs who are very good decision makers. So we can run our offense through our bigs. I’d like us to get more easy baskets and run the floor more and when we do that everyone has assists. When the ball gets hopping that’s when you’re hard to guard.”

Although the Bulls didn’t have an extraordinary number of assists Saturday, it was timely ones Saturday that broke the game open after the Bulls led 65-63 early in the fourth quarter. Also huge at that point was Omer Asik with an offensive rebound for free throws (though the Bulls were a poor 21-31), then a strong pick to free Kyle Korver for a jumper with Asik fouled on the screen and making the free throw. Then Gibson got the ball from Watson and moved it on to Korver for a three as the Bulls were racking up more of those hockey assists with multiple passes for scores. That seemed to unhinge the 76ers defense as well as the 76ers, who drew a pair of technical fouls for complaining (Thibodeau also had one), one from Evan Turner after he wanted a foul and stopped to complain and the Bulls ran out on a two on one for a 74-65 lead with 8:52 left.

The 76ers eventually got it within four with about three minutes remaining. But Noah with that big finish rebounded a John Lucas miss and slammed it home. The 76ers then stayed way off Noah, who hesitated and drove and was fouled making both, and then after the 76ers missed a lob connection with Thaddeus Young, usually a Bulls killer whom Noah mostly guarded despite his quickness, the Bulls screened Iguodala enough for Deng to get an open lane to the basket and 85-77 lead with 1:59 left and the 76ers never got closer.

“Derrick is the key to the team,” agreed Deng. “We definitely miss him. We’re finding ways. Just got to find ways to win the game. Portland, we didn’t do that. Tonight with the bad start we just got back to playing hard and doing what we do. I think it’s the will to win with us.

“Whether we’re making shots or our defense is struggling, it’s just how quick we get out of it,” said Deng. “We’ve gone through a lot this year in terms of injuries. If our defense is not great or not making shots, we’ve been able to just find ways to win games, which is a sign of how good we’ve become as a team. In the past we’d be struggling at one thing and allow that to beat us, have one guy go down and it’s a totally different team. We got an MVP go down and we’re still capable of playing with any team in this league.

“I know he’s (Watson) in pain, but he played great tonight,” said Deng. “It’s been that type of season. Everyone has something going on. You’ve just got to hang in there. We’ve got enough to do the little things to win.”

Yes, Watson. He wasn’t moving all that well, and had to defend a pair of whippets in Holiday and Lou Williams.

“I was thinking before the game I have to guard him (Holiday) and Lou Williams on a bad ankle is not what I pictured,” offered Watson with a slight smile. “I just tried to stay in front of them and force them into the bigs, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.”

There’s this understated pixie to Watson that you know something is there but you never quite can get to it. Noah calls him “Speakington,” though I’m never quite sure why Noah calls anyone anything. I suspect it has something to do with Watson’s dual personalities. And sometimes the fun ones sneaks out. Like when he was asked about having to do more with Rose out.

“If he was playing I probably wouldn’t be playing, so they wouldn’t need me,” Watson said, not angrily but matter of fact.

Everyone laughed. I tried to interrupt and say that’s not what anyone meant.

“Just being honest,” Watson said with a playful shrug.

“Even though I’m not as healthy as I want to be, I’m just trying to pick it up where I can,” Watson added. “Our offense is a point guard offense. If the point guard is not aggressive our offense doesn’t really do anything.”

You kind of like the guy, but the door never much opens more than a crack.

Still, the Bulls are going to need him if they are going to break into the offensive columns enough.

It’s difficult watching the Bulls in some respects because there are so few places to go for offense you wonder how they can win any games. And yet it is rewarding to watch a team that is so fundamentally grounded, moving the ball to move the defense, the so called little things that tire a defense for late. The Bulls don’t rush up shots early in the clock, like, say, Oklahoma City does with their multiple isolations. Despite that talent, it’s difficult to see them as a champion the way they play. The Bulls play that right way, but especially without Rose.

Oh, yeah, Carlos Boozer, who had 11 points and six rebounds in just under 25 minutes. As good as Boozer’s shot was Friday, it was that off Saturday as he opened one of four. He only played 11 second half minutes, and probably that much because Gibson was zero for four shooting after halftime and Thibodeau kept looking for offense.

Gibson, Asik and Korver made an earlier than usual appearance late in that first quarter as the Bulls trailed 24-11 after one. But the reserves behind Gibson, Asik and Lucas got the Bulls back in during the first part of the second quarter. Asik had seven rebounds in just over 15 minutes and kept the 76ers outside with his size and positioning. It’s a weapon the Bulls likely will use more often, though, again, the balance with offense keeps Thibodeau guessing.

The Bulls pulled within 44-38 at halftime as Brewer infuriated Collins with a driving basket at the buzzer, and then after Boozer missed a pair of early third quarter jumpers even he turned hard to the basket on a drive for free throws and a score over an ineffective Elton Brand. The Bulls will need to see a bit more of those Boozer drives and fewer of those fadeaway jumpers, though it’s difficult to change when he’s basically been doing little but that on offense as a Bull.

The Bulls went small later in the third to match the 76ers with Lucas playing with Watson, though it was the big men making the difference as Noah had a great interior pass to Gibson for free throws, Gibson found Korver for a three and Asik closed the third with a tip in of a Lucas miss to put the Bulls up 64-59 entering the fourth after trailing by 14 early in the second quarter.

Yes, there just seems more of an intangible “refuse to lose” mentality than trying to figure out just how they are going to win.

“We’re a team that has really good character,” said Noah. “We take losing very hard. Thibs isn’t the only person that takes losing hard. All of us take losing hard. We’re an emotional team.”

It was at that point Noah was asked about Thibodeau needing that one win to set some NBA history, and certainly shattering Phil Jackson’s win record with the Bulls.

“That’s probably something Thibs can look back on when his career is over and say, ‘That’s big, that’s huge.’”

But Noah offered a knowing smile and then went into his best Thibodeau imitation, hoarse voice and calling for more throat lozanges: “’The next game. That’s all that matters. We’re not worried about the past. We’re not worried about what’s going to happen in two weeks. We’re about Orlando and that’s it!’”

But it’s a much bigger picture.

“It gets you wondering,” said Brewer, “how this team is going to be when everybody’s healthy.”

The question is looming of whether we’ll find out this season.

* * * * *

Hey! I have some other stuff.

Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said before the game that former Bull Andres Nocioni was in the process of a buyout to make him a free agent.

“His official status is that I don’t know if the paperwork is done, but we’ve worked out a deal with him to allow him to either go on with another team maybe, or if not, I talked to him last night, go to Argentina and get ready for the Olympics,” Collins said.

So Noce back to the Bulls? Deng said he’d love to reunite with his old buddy, and Deng has those injury issues. But Nocioni as he’s gotten older has morphed into more of an undersized power forward than a wing player. The Bulls do want to add a player or perhaps two who gets released, but I get the sense they are trolling for larger fish than someone like Nocioni, namely a more productive player or another big man since it was clear earlier in the season they were pursuing size when they went for Joel Przybilla. I don’t expect Nocioni to return to the Bulls. Maybe someone like Derek Fisher, whom you’d think can play with Rose and make big playoff shots, and Ronny Turiaf with perhaps more players to come by this week’s deadline to be eligible for the playoffs if you’ve been playing.

Also, Collins gave a pitch for his son, Chris, the longtime Duke assistant and former Illinois Mr. Basketball, to coach the University of Illinois men’s basketball team.

“He’d be very interested,” Collins said. “He played high school basketball here (Glenbrook North), was Mr. Basketball. He has recruited in this area. He has gotten some of the best players in Illinois to go to Duke. Again, I just think he’s going to be a terrific young (head) coach. That’s sound like a proud daddy, and I am. He’s been raised in basketball since he was a little kid laying on the couch and when I was coaching the Bulls. Throughout his life, he’s lived and died it. He’s been around the best people. I’m talking about the coaches and the people he’s been around. He’s paid his dues. He’s been a long time assistant and he’s ready. He’s ready for the right situation.

“He’s very happy at Duke,” Collins added. “I talked to him today about it. Everybody at some point in time wants to put their fingerprints on a program. That’s what we all want to do. There are a lot of assistant coaches in this league that want to be head coaches. From Chris’ standpoint, he wants it to be the right one, so he has a chance to do it right. I’ve watched the responsibility that Coach K has given him. I’ve watched him with the U.S. Olympic basketball team. I’ve watched him grow.”

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