Previous ArticlesBulls wilt against the Heat
Rose returns as Bulls defeat Mavs
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 22
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It’s all about the seeds now, and the Bulls saw some of their most important growth in their 93-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.
Yes, the Bulls are on the verge of clinching the No. 1 seed and thus home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs with their win and Miami’s loss that leaves the magic number at one. But the Heat also appear ready to rest their key players as all three, after Dwyane Wade dislocated a finger early in the loss to Washington Saturday, didn’t play. Plus, the Bulls have two games remaining, including a closer at home against woebegone Cleveland.
The first round opponent remains in question as the 76ers won in Indiana. They are tied with the Knicks at 33-30, though the Knicks have the tiebreaker. The rumor is the Knicks would rather face the Bulls than Miami, so perhaps they would give up a game or two down the stretch while the 76ers, though, on the road, play three non-playoff teams, including ninth place Milwaukee, which is three games behind. As it stands now, it’s the Bulls opening the playoffs against the 76ers, who lost two of three to the Bulls this season.
That also would mean if the Bulls win a second round of the Boston/Atlanta winner. And the Heat is said to prefer avoiding Boston, who beat them twice recently. So the top seed isn’t necessarily the best draw for them. And while they match up well with Indiana, which is their likely second round opponent as the Pacers appear locked in to play Orlando, the Bulls have had heated battles with the Pacers.
But for the Bulls’ ultimate hopes and dreams to truly sprout, they’ll need the bloom and growth of star guard Derrick Rose, who carefully returned to the starting lineup Saturday after having missed 16 of the last 19 games, including Thursday’s loss in Miami, with groin, ankle and foot problems.
Rose had 11 points and eight assists in one of his more humble performances in just under 32 minutes. He was tentative at times, short on his jumper early and cautious, not trying to explode past or over anyone.
Still, it was a vital step forward for the Bulls and Rose given Rose having missed 26 games and much of the last two months.
“It was throbbing a little bit,” said Rose. “But the great thing was we got the win. Now we get a couple days off to get treatment. (I’ll) stay off my feet and hopefully it will get better day by day.
“A little bit of pain,” Rose conceded about his balky ankle. “During the game I was trying to pace myself and not do anything that would reinjure it. Just taking the game easy and playing smart.”
It was just barely enough to beat a Mavs team resting both Jason Kidd and Jason Terry with Dirk Nowitzki going about 32 minutes and leading Dallas with 17 points. But it’s a Dallas team with no relation to its last season champions without Tyson Chandler as well and seventh in the Western Conference.
But it also was hardly a Bulls team that struck the pose of potential champions with still another relatively passionless effort. There were moments, sure, like Taj Gibson grabbing some tough rebounds in traffic, Joakim Noah back to his sharp passing against the traps of Rose and Richard Hamilton with an aggressive start in the Bulls 21-8 first quarter and even a borderline Hamilton cheap shot on Nowitzki when the two got tangled after a screen.
I know, but why not against the Heat Thursday? Maybe next time.
“He (Rose) looked good,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Taking everything into consideration, I think he played a very controlled type game. He was taking care of the ball, running the offense and just trying to get a feel for being out there again. I though it was a good first step. Overall I thought he played very well. We had a great first quarter and the second quarter we gave up 30 points. We just did not play well in the second quarter. It is a little choppy right now. We have to try to get some rhythm. We will figure that out as we go.”
The Bulls get a nice pre-playoff break now with three days off before finishing up in Indiana Wednesday and at home Thursday against the Cavs. Miami has Houston and Boston before then with Houston still trying to get into the playoffs and Wade indicating he’ll sit out now until the playoffs. But even if the Heat win those two and their finale at Washington, the Bulls need just to beat the Pacers, who are locked into the No. 3 seed, or the Cavs at home. They’ll probably just watch with curiosity what happens between the Knicks and 76ers.
So perhaps the three-day break will help revive the Bulls’ passions if not also their legs. It’s the conclusion of one of the most difficult seasons ever, a 66-game, 124-day race from Christmas Day to April 26 because of the labor dispute. The Bulls have pushed hard all season, as is their custom under Thibodeau, and that’s accounted for the goal of the top seed and a league best 48-16 record.
But for the last several weeks they’ve lacked that so called “edge” Thibodeau talks about, the relentless play on offense and defense that has made them the league’s winningest team the last two seasons. Perhaps it’s this unusual, travel oriented season and the injuries to key players like Rose and Luol Deng that has required more playing time from the reserves. They weren’t very good again Saturday other than Kyle Korver with 11 points and three of five threes.
In fact, Thibodeau benched Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik for the second half after they made various errors in that second quarter when the Mavs rallied from 15 behind to get within 44-38 at halftime.
Asik fouled Vince Carter shooting a three and Brewer was too often out of position. Brewer likes to roam the baseline on offense, and it pays off occasionally with back door scores. But at times he’ll be caught too far back after a miss. It compromises the Bulls defense as Brewer, who did make a nice steal and a basket one time as he intercepted an inbounds pass, is trailing after a possession change and he can be signaling for someone to get his man. The Mavs took advantage with some transition scores in that second quarter as Nowitzki got going and Dallas drew within 34-30.
Rose did close out the half with a pair of jumpers as he began to get his legs, if not completely his lift.
Perhaps it’s the Bulls with the league’s toughest early schedule finally seeing the regular season finish line and taking a breather, though Luol Deng was back after missing two games with sore ribs. He led the Bulls with 22 points and made four threes in 43 minutes. Hamilton added 19 in just under 28 minutes.
“At the end we held it together and got a win,” said Deng. “It was good to have Derrick back. We know he’s not 100 percent. We’re not looking for him to do too much. We just want him to get his rhythm.”
The entire team is trying, actually, as the regular starters were back together for just the 14th game this season. They are now 12-2 and did have a strong opening, though Dallas helped settling for a lot of early jump shots.
Hamilton was scoring in transition with his shot before the Mavs could set their defense as was Carlos Boozer with his jump shot looking good.
So maybe the rest is what the Bulls need, those three days to mend bodies and minds a bit. Though it should also be remembered the players wanted the 66-games as well because after missing the first two months in negotiations they didn’t want to lose any more salary. So both sides agreed to the condensed schedule. The result has been a late season filled with teams resting valuable players to get them ready for the playoffs, which begin in unusual fashion as well just two days after the end of the regular season.
So for the Bulls it’s crucial they regain that intensity since they are the classic greater-than-the-sum-of-its parts team, especially given how many games Rose, the reigning MVP, has missed along with Hamilton. The team’s passion and precision has carried it, though more so falling over the finish line the last few weeks.
The Bulls win with an alchemy of sweat effort on the boards and defending that produces the precious metal of success. But it’s a process which requires relentless attention given the Bulls don’t exactly have the most brilliant raw materials, especially without Rose, their diamond.
That he was back was encouraging. That he was relatively ordinary remained a slight concern. You got the sense he was just being extra careful given the events of recent weeks. Perhaps the test is in these next few days as after recent games Rose hasn’t felt that good afterward. So perhaps we won’t know for sure until the Bulls next practice, Monday. The Bulls certainly need him as C.J. Watson struggled with his shooting again, missing all his threes and going two of eight. Thibodeau did take a look at Watson playing with Rose in the fourth quarter, an offensive wrinkle that frees Rose some off the ball. Though Thibodeau again sat Hamilton the fourth quarter and went basically with Korver even though Hamilton was playing well.
The Bulls held the Mavs to 39 percent shooting, though Dallas shot 45 percent after the first quarter as the Mavs took a quarter to figure out they could get to the basket. Yes, Joakim Noah with eight points, eight assists and 14 rebounds, and Gibson did a good job at the rim. But like against Miami Thursday, the Bulls perimeter was allowing way too much penetration off the dribble. And though Rose did return, he didn’t have his usual defensive quickness as he clearly didn’t want to make quick moves on his ankle.
“We settled for some shots and we had poor floor balance at times,” said Thibodeau. “I really liked the way (Deng) played tonight. I don’t think he forced anything. He just let the game come to him. Joakim was terrific. His play making against the zone was fantastic. His rebounding effort was really good. Our starters got us off to a good start. Rip Hamilton was very good and Kyle hit some timely shots in the fourth quarter. We got a look at different things. We looked at one unit where Luol was at the four. Then we looked at another unit where C.J. and Derrick played together. There a lot of things that you want to get a look at and a lot of things we need to clean up. But it is good to have everyone back,. We can start to figure out what our rotation will be.”
Though that also will be a question, a tough one for Thibodeau. The Bulls could well have the top seed clinched by the time they play their next game, in Indiana Wednesday. Rest guys given the way the team has come wheezing down the stretch at 8-6 since March 26? Play guys given how little they’ve played together? But then risk fatigue and injury? There really is no right answer. Though Thibodeau hasn’t guessed wrong much so far in two years.
After that 21-8 first quarter during which the Mavs took 12 of their 19 shots outside 20 feet, Dallas closed as they employed their two/three zone they use more than any NBA team. The Bulls won’t see much of it in the East, and likely given the Bulls rank third in the league in three point shooting percentage.
“They just do a good job finding the shooters,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. “They have a bunch of guys that can get the ball off quickly. Deng and Korver hit big ones for them.”
The Bulls, though, curiously remain 27th in free throw shooting and were eight of 12 Saturday.
Noah was brilliant in almost getting a triple-double with sharp passing to find the shooters in the corner as the pressure release when the Mavs ganged up on Rose. I also thought the Bulls did the best job I’ve seen them do this season breaking the zone with quick movement to the middle and then fanning the ball out for open shots.
But they got a little sloppy with the ball in the third quarter as they didn’t’ do a good job getting to Delonte West’s left hand as he always goes back that way. He hit four jumpers as the Mavs actually went ahead 56-55, though perhaps the Bulls feared being too close after his self proclaimed “wet Willie” last week when he stuck his wet finger in the ear of a Jazz player. That will get you dancing.
The Bulls closed the third strong with a nice Hamilton floater, a Gibson jumper and Watson finding Deng at the buzzer for a three and 66-56 lead after three. It was midway through the third that Hamilton drew that technical foul for pushing Nowitzki, and the Mavs did go then from trailing 55-49 to taking that 56-55 lead with three minutes left in the quarter.
The Mavs closed again early in the fourth as Thibodeau decided to stick mostly with his starters and brought Rose back about five minutes in. The Mavs finally realized Korver could shoot, but Korver pump faked and stepped into a couple of shorter shots, which he doesn’t always do.
Thibodeau did let Noah have it good once when he failed to react to a Brandan Wright tip in to bring the Mavs within 75-72 with 5:53 left. Thibodeau came out of the timeout with a nice play having Korver deliver a skip pass to Watson, who made a 20 footer. And then Noah relentlessly battled and put back a Korver miss for an 80-76 Bulls lead with 4:10 left. Rose then hit a half hook cutting across the lane and Korver made another three for an 85-76 lead with 3:13 left. The Bulls were able to close it out from there with Deng adding another late three. He and Korver combined for 17 of the Bulls 27 fourth quarter points and overall the Bulls had a sharp 29 assists on 38 baskets, more a return to the ball movement they’d had previously.
So yes, it was vital to have Rose back as it also opens up the offense for others. And the Bulls will need that big scorer for big games. They’ll also need a little more energy and urgency. We should get a better idea soon. One more week until the playoffs and then we’ll see if the Bulls have grown.