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Bulls exhibit enthusiasm in first exhibition win
by Sam Smith
Posted on Oct 10
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First place, baby!
OK, perhaps it’s a bit too soon to celebrate being undefeated after the Bulls sweat-it-out 92-88 win Tuesday at the United Center over the Memphis Grizzlies in the preseason opener.
“Choppy,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau offered about a stuttering start and then a big third quarter before a group of regular irregulars shot one for 21 in the fourth quarter as a 16-point Bulls lead melted to one with 31.9 seconds left.
But Nate Robinson, who showed off his fixed wing aircraft takeoff after making a three, hit a pair of free throws and the Bulls held off a couple of three point attempts to hang onto the game.
“We’ve still got a lot work to do,” said Luol Deng, who led the Bulls with 18 points in just 23 minutes of “What wrist problem?”
“It was good to play against other guys,” said Deng. “These games are big for us to get to know what everyone does and how to use each other.”
For the most part, the starters were effective, particularly Deng and Richard Hamilton, the latter with 13 points in just under 20 minutes. Hamilton was moving well with his usual uncanny feel for the court and where teammates are. He clearly was a better player than when he came to the team last season.
He and Deng looked like the best scoring options with Carlos Boozer having a quiet night with six points in just over 19 minutes.
“Last year, I don’t now what that was,” Hamilton joked about the truncated season both for the NBA and him with his injuries. “I was just finding my way. It’s been good to have camp and an understanding of what the coaches want instead of learning on the fly in the season. This year I’m more prepared. Now it’s more playing than having to think.”
Perhaps the biggest question facing this Bulls team without the injured Derrick Rose is the ability to score, whether they’d have to play slow and defend to keep the games close and whether they could find a go to scorer.
Thibodeau clearly was feeling out Boozer and Joakim Noah and then Taj Gibson when he came in for post up possibilities, but no one got much going.
“Thibs said he wanted to go to me, Carlos and Jo in the post,” said Gibson. “But early we were forcing a lot of shots, trying to do too much. It’s getting back to basic basketball. But we were happy to be back on the court for the first game.”
I expect Boozer to eventually get more involved offensively. Both Noah and Gibson got inside position several times or got the ball rolling off screens. But they both have a tendency to put the ball down to gather themselves and found themselves getting stripped or losing the ball, Gibson with four turnovers.
They need to finish stronger in one motion, and Gibson does show some possibilities for that.
But what the Bulls did best was what you expected, playing hard, pressuring the Grizzlies to create turnovers with 17 steals and seven blocks. The result was runouts for baskets, a 32-15 edge in fast break points. But it was more than that.
With Gibson getting more minutes at center and Marco Belinelli, who didn’t shoot well, and Hamilton, they have more players who can handle the ball out of the backcourt and fire into the fast break more quickly.
Kirk Hinrich, who had five points and seven assists in his return to the Bulls, did well in pushing the ball, too.
So it became more like an old time Chicago Bears game with the defense pushing the offense off the floor so the team could score. And everyone trying to strip the ball. Thibs loves Belichick, but he may be channeling Lovie’s game.
“We did get a lot of points,” noted Deng. “We’re going to be able to score throughout the season. We focus on defense and that wins us games. We got stops and thought we did a good job of running the floor.”
The other big question was the new reserve unit, and the statistics weren’t very good in addition to the flat fourth quarter. Jimmy Butler seemed to be aiming and pressing and shot one of 11. Belinelli was one of seven and overall the team shot 35.7 percent.
Nazr Mohammed made a nice return to his native city with 13 points and 12 rebounds, seven off the offensive boards as he showed a light shooting touch and nice activity around the basket. Other than Mohammed, the reserves were a combined six for 36.
“It’s all about timing,” said Gibson. “That (previous bench mob) had great timing. But one thing I’m excited about is putting in the effort, guys going 100 miles per hour out there. I was excited to be on the court with new teammates. Things happen and you make mistakes, but if you go 110 percent it’s a lot easier. We have to see where we need to improve. It’s a new group and we need to take our time.”
As for time, Vladimir Radmanovic didn’t get much with five minutes and rookie Marquis Teague had a shaky three minutes with a pair of misses and a pair or turnovers. Kyrylo Fesenko got three minutes and barreled over a defender for an offensive foul and Marko Jaric got just two minutes. Ryan Allen, brother of Memphis’ Tony, got in briefly and Memphis brought Tony in the same time, which was nice.
The Grizzlies had played Saturday, so they didn’t play any starters the fourth quarter and Marc Gasol and Tony Allen didn’t play after halftime. Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph played just three second half minutes each. None of their starters scored in double figures.
In the first quarter when the starters were mostly playing, Memphis held a 28-26 edge.
Hinrich had a nice, hustling weak side block on Gay and the Bulls were moving the ball briskly on offense but missing shots. Hamilton had a terrific slashing drive and Gibson a sharp offensive rebound he took back up for a score.
The Grizzlies went right at little Robinson every time he was in there, though the Bulls saw that plenty with John Lucas and didn’t have big problems. Robinson is constant energy, once boxing out seven foot Jerome Jordan and diving into piles of players on the floor every time there was a scrum.
After the Bulls fell behind by eight late in the second quarter, the starters returned and had their best stretch of the game. They cut the Memphis lead to 52-49 at halftime as a Deng steal led to a Noah fast break score and Hinrich found Noah for a score before they blew the game open after halftime.
“I thought Hinrich did a really good job running the team,” said Thibodeau. “I thought Rip and Lu played well. Jo was terrific to start the third quarter. His touch passes got us running. Overall, I thought the guys ran the floor pretty hard. I liked the way our starters played the end of the second quarter and start of the third.
“The second unit, I thought they held onto the ball too much in the fourth quarter,” said Thibodeau. “I didn’t think they were sustaining the spacing and making the right reads.”
Meanwhile, Thibodeau was encouraged by the play of Mohammed, taking over for Omer Asik.
“Nazr always has been an excellent offensive rebounder,” said Thibodeau. “He’s very capable of being a 15 foot shooter. I think that opens things up and he’s a good screener. I thought he played extremely well. I like his size at the rim.”
That group of starters playing most of the third quarter built up that 81-65 lead after three with Mohammed coming in late to get on the offensive boards for a pair of baskets and eight points overall in the quarter. Though Mohammed isn’t being counted on for a major role, it will be a bonus to the Bulls if he can provide that sort of offensive production as Thibodeau likely will use Gibson more inside except against bigger reserve centers.
“I’m pleased I didn’t play horrible,” Mohammed laughed about his return to play at home. “But I’m real critical of myself. I made a couple of mistakes I don’t normally make on the defensive end. They are things that can be corrected. I love our team. We have some great guys. It’s a joy to come to work.”
Butler did seem to be pressing a bit as he is fighting for time as we know Thibodeau doesn’t take out Deng much. The Bulls seemed to have trouble finding spots for Belinelli to shoot and were just two of 14 on threes.
But when the popular Bench Mob formed two years ago, there wasn’t a lot of coordination among C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Asik, Kyle Korver and John Lucas III. It took some time. As it likely will again.
“They’re capable of doing a lot better,” said Thibodeau.
The Bulls hope they are as well, though it was a reasonable opening act. The Bulls play the Cavs in Champaign Friday and in Minnesota Saturday before returning to the United Center Oct. 16 to face the Bucks and Oct. 19 the Timberwolves.
“Anytime they’re keeping score,” said Thibodeau, “it matters.”