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Bulls pay back New York and wait for Miami
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 11
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Kyle Korver was the spirit and the soul of the Bulls Tuesday in Chicago’s 98-86 victory over the New York Knicks.
Korver had 11 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter as he also had seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks. But it was his full out dive on the floor early in the fourth quarter when he grabbed the ball away from Baron Davis and whipped the ball to Taj Gibson for a dunk that symbolized the effort that overwhelmed the Knicks.
“Kyle was huge, the way he played, diving for loose balls, blocking shots. He played with a lot of passion. It was inspiring,” said Joakim Noah. “Kyle was the difference maker for us tonight. Not just with his three point shooting. That play I feel like characterized the game for us. Diving for a loose ball and getting Taj that dunk. I didn’t play a lot in the fourth quarter, but just watching that I was pretty hyped.”
But it was Richard Hamilton with a team high 20 points along with five assists who projected the promise and the potential of this Bulls team.
Hamilton scored 18 third quarter points in showing that he, indeed, may be that missing link that could be the difference for a championship. Although Derrick Rose didn’t play again with an ankle injury, though it is not considered serious, Hamilton’s play in also driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line showed the Bulls can have a high powered offensive option in addition to Rose.
“I still missed a lot of easy shots I usually make 90 percent of the time,” said Hamilton. “But it’s coming together. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career (scoring). On this team I’ve got to pick my moments because we’ve got so many guys who can put the ball in the basket. But it felt good (getting the offensive chances again). It was exciting.”
And it’s an ideal time, especially if Rose is able to return Thursday.
That’s because the Bulls play the Miami Heat, who lost again, this time to the Celtics. Miami has lost five of their last 10 and are three games behind the Bulls for the best record in the Eastern Conference. Of course, the Bulls also had it last season and lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. So it doesn’t guarantee anything. But the Bulls win over the Knicks after Sunday’s disappointing overtime loss showed why with the combination of size and depth, which Miami lacks, and a scorer to complement Rose the Bulls see no reason to concede anything to Miami.
“Miami is the team that beat us last year, the team right behind us,” said Luol Deng, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds. “So every time we play Miami is a big game for us and them. I’d be lying to you if I say we don’t (watch what they do). When they lose everyone wants to hit you up and tell you Miami lost. That’s how it should be. They’re the team behind us. We’re always going to be looking back because we want that spot.
“But not just the home court,” said Deng “It’s also a credit to the season. You play so hard you also want the best record. With the injuries and everything we’ve got guys who have stepped up. We want to have that record.”
And that’s a debate that is going around the NBA and has been circulating around the Bulls all season. Should they take their foot off the pedal and relax, rest guys and build toward the playoffs. Or should they push and be the team that is accustomed to winning and keeps doing so.
They have been that team even as Rose missed his 23rd game with an assortment of toe, back, groin and now ankle injuries. Rose wanted badly to play Tuesday and shot and did defensive moves before the game in an attempt to show management and coach Tom Thbodeau he was ready. The Bulls would go to 16-7 without Rose. But Thibodeau also said it was best to give Rose the game off. Rose will continue to be a game time decision until Thursday, but it would seem he would play against the Heat.
“He’s feeling pretty good,” said Thibodeau of Rose, who watched the game from the treatment room. “I just thought it was the smart thing to do in this situation. If we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of caution. He wanted to play and we felt it was best he didn’t. So he didn’t play in this game.”
Still, it was a magnificent effort from the Bulls, which showed why there’s no reason not to consider them the favorites in the Eastern Conference. They dominated the Knicks on the boards 51-33 with an amazing 25-5 edge in second half points. They had 27 assists and just a dozen turnovers, adhering to Thibodeau’s trifecta of rebounding, moving the ball and protecting the ball.
It’s what makes this Bulls team work, one gear fitting in with the next to form the smooth functioning machine.
The ball moves, which leads to open shots as the Bulls hit nine of 20 threes, including three each from Korver and Deng. Because the ball moves, the defense has to shift to follow players, which opens lanes to the basket for offensive rebounders. The Bulls had 18 to five for New York, which was led by Carmelo Anthony’s 29 points.
“When you’re moving the ball and teams are scrambling, that’s when you get offensive rebounds,” said Noah. “The more you go after it the more you get. But when teams are in scramble situation and the ball is moving it’s a lot easier. That’s when you get a lot of offensive rebounds.”
And then when you don’t turn the ball over, the opposition cannot get those easy baskets. The Bulls had a 14-10 edge in fast breaks, and with better ball protection, as the coaches like to call it, the Knicks couldn’t get that fast, early lead again.
The Knicks did take a 25-19 lead late in the first quarter, though we were seeing a different Bulls team against the Knicks this time with increased activity. Deng was hustling after loose balls and Carlos Boozer had the first of two strong dunks in going hard to the basket.
“We get in there, play hard, try to outwork our opponents,” said Deng.
Deng made a three to bring the Bulls within 25-22 after one quarter, and then it was another lively performance from the reserves to open the second quarter that gave the Bulls the separation to stay ahead the rest of the way.
“That’s what the Bench Mob does in the second quarter,” said Korver. “You know what I’m saying. Our second quarters have been good all season. You’ve got Taj (Gibson) and Omer (Asik) back there. They play great defense, two of the best defensive big men in the league. Lots of high energy play, and that carries over to offense.”
I don’t always go for that plus/minus stat, but Asik was plus-9 on the floor, more than any starter. Gibson was plus-16, the most of any Bulls player. John Lucas III also was plus-16, though that was a bit more about playing with Gibson and Asik. Which is why it isn’t a perfect stat.
In Asik’s six second quarter minutes he had one rebound and zero points. And he changed the game.
I’d like to see more of him just as I would of Hamilton, who played just 20 minutes. Though Hamilton said he’s coming along just right after groin and shoulder injuries.
“We’re pacing my minutes,” Hamilton said. “So we don’t rush into it. We’ve got nine games to go, so we want to take our time with it. I don’t ever want to come off the court. I leave it up to the coaching staff. Me and Thibs are on the same page. Eventually, I’ll play more. I’ll stick with what we have right now.”
The Knicks were leading 29-28 early in the second quarter when Ronnie Brewer lost J.R. Smith on a backdoor cut and got a dunk on a pass from Korver. Then there was an Asik block on Tyson Chandler seemingly open for a dunk that led to a Korver transition three, Asik with a crushing pick that opened up Lucas for a three and Asik running Anthony into a poor shot and miss. In that stretch with Asik and Gibson, the Bulls went from trailing by three to leading by nine, 36-27.
“That second quarter is where we lost it,” said Chandler, who had 15 rebounds, but just two offensive after 10 Sunday.
“The defense was good,” said Thibodeau. “I thought the rebounding was outstanding. We took care of the ball. More importantly, the way we started the game was great. Playing from the lead was important. Rip got in rhythm. That helped. We had a lot of guys step up and play well. In the second quarter, the bench guys were terrific.”
Boozer, who had 10 points and eight rebounds, finishing the half strong with a two hand slam dunk on a rebound of a Deng miss and then a nice pick and roll finish from Deng as the Bulls led 47-35 at halftime.
The Knicks, now 29-28 and still in eighth in the East and as of today a first round Bulls playoff opponent, never made a run after that thanks to Hamilton in the third quarter and then Korver in the fourth.
That third quarter of Hamilton’s with 18 points and five of seven from the free throw line is what the Bulls were asking for last season, someone to make offensive plays and make the defense focus on someone other than Rose or Deng.
Yes, the elusive shooting guard. Hamilton was said not to be the prototype because he isn’t known as a great long distance shooter, though he made his only three Tuesday, and isn’t regarded as a player who beats the defender off the dribble.
But Hamilton did that several times Tuesday, particularly in transition when the Bulls broke after long misses or turnovers. They should play faster, anyway, and Hamilton even with his injuries continues to show he is in condition. He’s been tied to this minutes limit even more than Rose, who played almost 39 in his return Sunday. It’s been a bit curious for Hamilton, and he sat out the fourth quarter again Tuesday after that brilliant third quarter.
“He is putting a lot of work in; he is getting more comfortable,” said Thibodeau. “You can see his rhythm coming around. Twenty points in 20 minutes, he was outstanding. He did a lot of things. He was playmaking and he got us into a good rhythm. Right now I’m just going with the flow of the game (on playing time). The game is slowing down a little bit for him. He’s got a better feel for when the shot is there and when to play make. Who’s open, hitting the open man. He’s been out so long. Now he’s getting used to the contact and the intensity of the game. He’s getting back to who he is.”
The Bulls also showed their defensive versatility as both Gibson and Noah ended up in switches on Smith and did well. That in many respects is one of the big secrets of the Bulls defense, big men who are quick. Generally, when a guard sees a big man on him he’ll pull back and dribble to beat him. But it’s not very easy with Noah and Gibson, who are as quick as many guards. So what happened a lot with the Knicks is those Bulls switches lured the guards into one on one play, thus just 16 New York assists and 17 turnovers that led to 19 points for the Bulls.
Hamilton was driving, pulling up, threw in an off balance leaner at the 24 second clock expiration, hit in transition, around screens, so called floppy action, and drew fouls. It was an offensive tour de force that Hamilton shrugged and said it was what he’s done for a decade. The Bulls haven’t seen much of that the last few seasons, and if they can in the playoffs it may be a toxic weapon to any opponent.
“I thought Rip played really aggressive,” said Korver. “We needed him to attack. We needed that from him. It’s been a tough year for him with injuries. It’s still a new team for him, finding his way. He played really aggressive. I though he was back in the flow. He’s a veteran player, knows how to play, make reads. He’s got a lot to his game. He’s savvy. In the playoffs you need those guys. Like the floppy stuff. I’m usually the one coming off. You’re the one being trapped. But if you’re now the one on the other side and you’re wide open, stuff like that is exciting. You definitely see the possibilities.”
Korver can see. He hasn’t played much with Hamilton yet, but when he does and both are running those screens, the defense can’t trap both and with, say, Rose on top it’s going to present a lot of offensive options the Bulls couldn’t have dreamed of in last season’s playoffs.
And then it was Korver taking the baton from Hamilton in the fourth.
It had been a tough few days since the loss in New York even though the Bulls now are 44-14. Korver said the team watched the brutal tape of the game at shootaround Tuesday morning, a glum time.
“It was such a downer,” said Korver. “Shootaround was tough. I thought we came out with a really bad taste in our mouths and wanted to change that. I thought we played great. I thought we played with a lot of energy. We had a lot of guys step up. When Derrick’s out that’s what we have to do.”
It’s sort of a survival instinct. It’s not so much the Bulls play better without Rose as they know they have to play extra hard. Yes, they do perhaps relax a little when he’s playing because they know he’s so good and can bail them out of so many holes. That’s just human nature. But you are a little scared when your best player is missing, and because the Bulls do have an unusual abundance of big men for this era of the NBA and unusual depth they can overcome missing a star when few teams can.
“You watch the film and realize and the coaches say it every day,” noted Korver. “It comes down to a play or two. Games are won and lost by the hustle play or offensive rebound or defensive rebound or blocked shot. I think we all took that to heart. If we’d made a couple of plays the other day we would have won. We did that today.”
It was highlighted by that Korver dive and Gibson slam midway through the fourth for an 81-68 lead. But there also was Korver getting blocks on Iman Shupert and Landry Fields shots, for which Korver took some good natured kidding in the locker room.
“I find if you block shots every once in a while, it’s a big deal,” Korver said with a laugh.
Korver also had a run out and three point play on a drive after a long Anthony miss that pretty much wrapped it up at 89-75 with under four minutes left. The Bulls weren’t going to make anywhere near the mistakes they did in New York Sunday, they weren’t going to miss so many free throws—OK, they didn’t do great on that at 11 of 16—and they weren’t going to fall so far behind.
Which led to a relatively comfortable victory, and the game everyone most anticipates.
“We want to be the No. 1 seed,” admitted Korver. “If nothing else, if there is a Game 7 we want to be at home.”
This doesn’t appear to be the same Miami team with the ferocity that engendered so much fear and concern last season. Maybe they’re cruising and maybe they’re not. Maybe Rose will be back. It should be fun no matter.