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Bulls close preseason 5-2 with victory over Indiana

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Oct 26

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Who says the Bulls couldn’t finish third in the Eastern Conference without Derrick Rose? Well, they just did. Oh, right. Preseason. But the Bulls finished a good one for them with a 97-90 victory over the Central Division favored Indiana Pacers at the University of Notre Dame Friday night.

“It was great to play a really good team,” said Carlos Boozer, one of five starters in double figures with 13 points and six rebounds. “It was good preparation for us moving into the regular season. We all know us being without D. Rose we’ll probably be the underdog in every game we play. That’s all right. We’re ready for that challenge. We’ll be ready to play every game.”

The Bulls were against a Pacers team they pretty much dominated all game, 50-37 on the boards and scoring their second most points in the preseason with 97 as Nate Robinson playing for the injured Kirk Hinrich led with 21 points, eight assists and just one turnover.

“I thought the Bulls beat us to the punch early,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “They hurt us on the glass most of the game.”

Hinrich sat out after what was called a “tweak” of his groin Tuesday against Oklahoma City. He is expected to play the regular season opener Wednesday against Sacramento, though perhaps the way Robinson is playing he’ll get more minutes off the bench.

Nate Robinson“That’s what I’ve been doing my career and I’m happy with it,” Robinson said of his reserve/emergency role. “I’m here to fill in; guys do gown, I’ll be ready. Tonight we just had fun; it flowed. Overall, it was like kids in the playground, just hanging out having fun. As long as we bring energy and we play defense we’ll be OK.”

Someone asked Robinson if the team feeds off his energy and Joakim Noah sitting to the side of Robinson smiled and shook his head.

“I got way more energy than Joakim,” Robinson retorted catching Noah’s movement. “I’m taking that this year, so he’s got to work to get back on the bus.”

And with that the Bulls headed for the bus for the trip back to Chicago. As preseason Central Division champion at 5-2. The 76ers and Raptors finished with better records.

Hey, it’s something. Sort of.

It was a good finish to the preseason for the Bulls, who obviously had to answer some questions playing without Derrick Rose. Their rebounding remained strong and they showed they can score pushing the ball and moving.

They opened with a 28-point first quarter again, knocking the Pacers backward with 15 first quarter rebounds. It enabled the Bulls to lead the entire game, mostly in double figures until the Pacers got within a three pointer with 1:09 remaining.

Closing games without a bigtime scorer could be an issue for the Bulls as well. But they got a big basket from Richard Hamilton off an inbounds with 52.2 seconds left and then Robinson closed it out with a desperation fadeaway with the shot clock expiring with 18.6 left.

It could be anyone down the stretch with this team without Rose, but Hamilton is a good choice. And he was anxious to get the shot.

“I’ve been doing it my whole career,” said Hamilton, who had 12 points, six rebounds and five assists. “It’s nothing I shy away from. It’s something I’m used to, comfortable with because I’ve been in that situation practically my whole life.

“I was telling him (coach Tom Thibodeau) to run ’42’ on that last play. I wanted to redeem myself I was so wide open I hit the (side of the) backboard (with 1:26 left and ahead 93-87). We were going to run another play, but I was looking at him thinking like, ’42, 42.’ And he ended up calling it.”

And so the Bulls come through the preseason mostly healthy and improving.

“I thought the starters came out and set the tone in the first quarter both ends of the floor,” said Thibodeau. “And the bench came in and was solid (led by Taj Gibson with nine points and 11 rebounds). It was an improvement, but there’s still a lot we have to work on
(like keeping turnovers to 13 or fewer).

“I liked the shots we got (at the end),” Thibodeau said. “Our defense wasn’t good (late), so we have to clean that up. The fourth quarter is different. You’ve got to be careful threading the needle (on passes). The intensity is different, decision making is different. So we have to be aware of that.

“The general approach and attitude has been good,” Thibodeau added. “I think we’ve improved, but we are nowhere where we need to be. The turnovers have gone down, the rebounding has been outstanding since the start of camp. The defense overall has been pretty good. And offensively, as the ball moves and the players move if we sustain our spacing we have very unselfish bigs. When the ball hits the paint and we play inside/out, we should be able to get good shots. Our bigs are very unselfish. If you cut and are open they’re going to hit you and that’s what we have to continue to do.”

So as the Bulls prepare to open the 2012-13 regular season, here’s a look at how the regulars have done:

– Joakim Noah: He got his second technical foul in the last two games coming off the court Friday after his second foul. He’s ready and had 12 points and nine rebounds Friday. We haven’t seen much change in his offensive repertoire, which probably is no surprise. But he’s been very good running the court, active diving at the basket with a terrific play early in Friday’s game when Nate Robinson split a double team and hit Noah diving to the rim. He’s been good quarterbacking the halfcourt defense as he’s involved calling out sets and switches. The Pacers coaches were saying they hadn’t seen a defense like the Bulls this preseason and weren’t ready in falling behind in the first half. Noah has a chance to average a double/double without Rose with the Bulls needing to play a ball movement game.

– Carlos Boozer: It’s the best he’s looked in preseason. His shot generally is good. But it is clear he did get in better condition in the summer and is more active, making aggressive moves to the basket. He had back to back 24-point efforts going into Friday averaging more than 10 rebounds in fewer than 30 minutes the previous three games. He’s probably not going to be the go to scorer minus Rose. But he looks like he’ll fit well with a starting group that can score with activity and movement as they opened with a 28-16 first quarter Friday. More typical of this preseason was a hard cut he made in the third quarter, taking a pass from Noah for a layup that sent the Pacers into a timeout trailing 67-52 in the third.

As an aside, the Pacers are obviously the team being picked to win the Central Division. Since 1991, the Bulls have won the Central eight times, including the last two seasons. The Pacers have won it four times in their history, the last time in 2004 before their infamous brawl in Detroit which led to the breakup of that team. You got the sense with the spirit among the Bulls starters to open the game, they believe they are not being taken seriously enough against teams like the Pacers without Rose. Their defense clearly bothered the Pacers’ starters Friday.

– Luol Deng: He’s the constant for coach Tom Thibodeau and had another almost unnoticed 17 points and seven rebounds Friday. There’s almost no question about that wrist injury that was supposed to sideline Deng this season. But he’s embraced his role as the team leader with Rose gone. I’ve talked with him about this and he said he’s always done his part to lead and play his game. But he agreed this is the first time in his Bulls career he is the veteran leader and as much go to guy as the team has given being overshadowed earlier by Ben Gordon and then Rose. Deng said he feels confident in a very competitive Bulls team. He’s the player Thibodeau is using with the first reserve group and seemingly never wants to take off the court. Which obviously cuts the time for Jimmy Butler. But without much renown Deng has quietly become an NBA elite player.

– Kirk Hinrich: He sat out Friday’s game with that relatively minor groin injury and should be ready for the opener Wednesday against the Kings, though perhaps a little cautious at the time. Which would be too bad as his energy and fury has been impressive on both sides of the ball. He averaged 9.4 points and 5.6 assists in about 25 minutes in the preseason with usually impressive defense. His presence is vital, though Nate Robinson, whole not a great distributor, has been an effective spark plug and good in short stretches. Hinrich hasn’t shot great overall as he never has been a classic finisher. But he’s been solid from three at about 38 percent and has benefited from the first unit employing good ball and body movement for offense.

– Richard Hamilton: He’s been the Bulls leading scorer in the preseason and done it rather effortlessly. He’s not shooting many threes, but his midrange game is all that was advertised before arriving and taking much of last season off. It left many, including Thibodeau, down on him. But it’s clear he worked his way back to good condition and we’ll see about health. He took a few hard falls Friday in going to the basket and popped up quickly. But there’s no reason to believe he’s more vulnerable than anyone else given his history of being one of the league’s more active players on offense. He’s also one of those guys who can carry the ball up as the Bulls will use a number of guys to make plays in the halfcourt. He’s shown he is moving back into the conversation among high level shooting guards.

– The Bench, which isn’t quite a mob, anymore. The conventional wisdom is they haven’t been as good as the previous two years and lacking some. I actually think they’ve done OK for such a short period and Thibodeau said Friday he’s been pleased with their play. Although his shooting is erratic, I’ve liked Robinson and he was very good again Friday for Hinrich. Though having a reputation for being shall we say iconoclastic, Robinson is one of the tougher 5-7 guys you’ll come across. He’s got great push with the ball and even if he doesn’t always find the right guy, he has been making plays. The Bulls have been getting the ball up court faster in preseason and shooting quickly before the defense sets, which will be vital to their scoring. Nate has been good with that concept. He’s was responsible with the ball Friday, and when he is can be very effective, like running into a jumper late in the third and then pushing to find Luol Deng with a three on the next possession that gave the Bulls a 78-65 lead after three quarters. Of course, Nate also drew a technical with the Pacers shooting a free throw with a second left in the third and that airplane he was flying after that earlier jumper had lost an engine. It is the Wild World of Nate. Take a ride if you dare.

– Nazr Mohammed has been the surprise of preseason. He’s still averaging about his career seven points, but he’s been an offensive option more like Kurt Thomas and quicker defensively than expected. Thibodeau has been using him more as the backup for Noah after the notion was Taj Gibson would assume the backup minutes at center and power forward, which suggests how well Mohammed has done.

– The Bulls haven’t been getting much from Marco Belinelli, though he hit his first three of the preseason Friday and a nice baseline turnaround jumper. He seems to want to put the ball down more and shoot rather than simply a catch and shoot. He had his best half of the preseason and I suspect has more been pressing as he obviously wants to do well knowing the popularity of Kyle Korver. “Tonight I tried to be more aggressive,” said Belinelli. “Maybe that was important for me. I tried to do that tonight. In different seasons, I make a lot of three point shots easy. Tonight it was a crazy shot (at the shot clock buzzer). I didn’t think too much. Maybe that was one of the reasons. This is a great time. I just want to be the best player I can be. I was really pissed off, especially when a shooter can’t score the ball, it’s terrible. At the same time I try to be positive, work a lot on my shot and be ready to score.”

– Jimmy Butler had a terrific left handed follow slam dunk, but is obviously going to have difficulty with minutes replacing Deng. He played just under seven minutes. Vladimir Radmanovic got in for a few seconds but seems out of the rotation.

– Taj Gibson has been pretty much as expected. He’s not delivering much offense, but he is difficult to contain on the boards and easily would average double figures if he played 30 minutes. Replacing Boozer in the second quarter he rebounded in traffic over Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough. He had three offensive rebounds in the first half while the Pacers totaled four.

– And then there’s Marquis Teague, who looked a bit better Friday in an early stint against the Pacers and 10 minutes overall. He was scoreless, but Thibodeau felt more confident with the ball. He’s apparently been told not to look for his offense much as he’s more a scoring guard. He played somewhat less hesitantly in substituting for Robinson Friday and while he’ll mostly be an injury replacement, the half court offense slowed substantially when he replaced Robinson in the fourth quarter and the Pacers got back into the game after trailing by double digits throughout. Robinson came back in quickly after the Pacers cut it to 82-75.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Boozer. “We’re getting better every day, but we have a lot of work to do. I think we had a good preseason. Our bench was much better tonight. That was awesome to see. I thought our cutting game was great and our rebounding won us the game. It was a whole team effort and it was great to see.”

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