Bulls buck losing ways and beat Milwaukee


Nov 25

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Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton may need new nicknames the way they led the Bulls Saturday with 22 points each in a 93-86 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.

How about “the Boozinator,” and “Ripcord.”

Because Boozer also with 19 rebounds and his fourth double-double in the last five games effectively terminated the Bucks hopes with a powerful followup slam dunk of a Joakim Noah miss to give the Bulls an 89-85 lead with 29.8 seconds left. And Hamilton helped save the Bulls with the clinching free throws to close a season high scoring night and 10 of 10 free throws to lead a shocking–for the generally poor free throw shooting Bulls–25 of 26 free throws.

“I thought Carlos was terrific,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He played hard, made great effort on the boards. Rebounding was a huge. I thought Rip got in the post and ran the floor hard. He made great effort in defensive transition. He did a really good job.”

Carlos Boozer“I thought we had more effort on the boards and some timely offensive rebounds,” said Thibodeau of a monster 54-40 Bulls edge in rebounding, 20-10 on the offensive boards, including five in the last four minutes, and 25-5 in second chance points. “Jimmy (Butler) had a big one. Carlos had several. Jo (Noah) kept several possessions alive. And Kirk kept us organized.”

But perhaps what was most significant, even though Thibodeau is hardly likely to admit or acknowledge, is he may finally have found a rotation that makes sense. Oh, Marco Belinelli didn’t get much time, and that needs to change at some point as the Bulls three-point shooting remained at the bottom of the league with four of 16.

But Thibodeau got two of his best offensive threats, Boozer and Hamilton, back on the court to close the game. He gave Nate Robinson a good look, but did not extend it. And Robinson was at his best with an important jumper to break an 81-81 tie with 4:45 left. Thibodeau didn’t ride Robinson too long and then brought back Hinrich, who still shot erratically at three of 10. But Hinrich made several big defensive help plays on a Bulls team which hasn’t been very good proving help and closing the lane this season.

It’s no secret Thibodeau doesn’t care for the defense of either Boozer or Hamilton. And Thibodeau is a defense first coach. You can afford to be when you have someone like Derrick Rose to bail you out of prolonged scoring slumps Obviously, this Bulls team lacks that luxury, which contributed to the three game-losing streak coming into Saturday’s road game. The Bulls now are 6-6 with the Bucks in the United Center Monday.

But the way Thibodeau cleverly maneuvered the personnel Saturday seemed the best template for team success. Yes, Noah and Deng have to play a lot, again both more than 41 minutes. But with a regular season that has typical days off they have shown they can handle it with only a rare off game, and almost never for Deng.

Yes, you’ll get the occasional offensive stinker from Boozer, like his four points and three rebounds against Portland. But try as Thibodeau might, he’s not going to be able to pull out many of those games. It seems pretty clear going into a fourth season now that Taj Gibson isn’t going to be a big scorer. He’s valuable the way he defends, attacks rebounds and can guard so many positions. But you are not throwing the ball to him.

Deng didn’t shoot well, rimming out several. But he worked his way to 14 points and eight rebounds, and he had an amazing tip in of a Hamilton miss to make it 87-83 with 2:12 left.

It seemed clear Bucks coach Scott Skiles, who coached several of these Bulls, has his team aware of Deng. But Deng, who doesn’t have quite the ability to find open spaces like the wily Hamilton, is hurt by the Bulls abominable three point shooting, a league worst 28.5 percent with also a league low in attempts.

If the Bulls need anyone, it’s a three point shooter. Or Belinelli.

As a result, teams are collapsing on the Bulls, crowding the inside and making movement more difficult with poor Bulls spacing as a result. It’s difficult to run an offense like that. And though Hamilton isn’t a three–point threat, both he and Boozer have a knack of either finding open spots or being able to get off good shots. They know how to exploit mismatches, like Hamilton did with smaller guards. It sounds easier than it is because it also means smarter shots, i.e. shots with a teammate in position to get back, with a teammate in position to rebound, the kind of shots the Bulls weren’t taking the last few losses in the chaos of those last few minutes desperately seeking success.

It also creates opening for teammates and perhaps someone might even make a three off them. Remember one of the great passes of last season, Boozer finding C.J. Watson for that three against Miami. It’s those little things everyone talks so much about, but they are just as easily overlooked if you don’t have someone who knows where to look for them.

Boozer and Hamilton aren’t always going to deliver, and Hamilton shot just six of 18 Saturday. But they are veteran players who have been there and know how and when to take shots. They don’t do it as well as they once did given their ages and various injuries in their careers. But they can do it, and they remained professional following the game when reporters tried to press them on sitting out recent fourth quarters.

“It was nice to be out there and help this team get a win,” said Hamilton. “I thought tonight we really understood time and possession. We got away from the quick shots in the fourth quarter. We were able to get the ball in the paint and when we get the ball in the paint good things can happen on offense. It was a game we needed to win.”

“You don’t know if you’re going to go back out there in the fourth quarter. Me and Rip talked about it before the game,” said Boozer. “(We said) just be aggressive while you’re out, see what happens. We were hustling tonight and that was the key to getting a lot of our second opportunities. I just go with the flow. It’s his (Thibodeau’s) show. He runs it.”

Though there’s been plenty of public debate about who should be playing and when, you have to credit both Boozer and Hamilton for never having said a public word.

Not that they should, but this is the NBA and guys always seem to have an opinion whether asked or not. It’s one reason we love them so much.

Hamilton has a title as his team’s leading scorer; Boozer has played for an Olympic gold medal winning team. Both have been All Stars. You’d hardly have been surprised if they wondered aloud what Robinson was doing out there for them. You don’t reward guys for doing the right thing. But it’s also good to see, a credit to the respect Thibodeau gets from the players and to Boozer and Hamilton for being about team.

It seems obvious they give the Bulls the best chance to win down the stretch because they have made plays down the stretch and know perhaps better than anyone about playing down the stretch. You might see Boozer late on a coverage or help and Hamilton being beaten by a quick guard off the dribble, as Monta Ellis was doing to him for 17 points while Brandon Jennings had 23 before spraining his ankle late in the game.

But you probably have to live with that given what they can give you to win a game, which the Bulls needed as much as you can in the 12th game of the season.

“If we are going to give them 20 offensive rebounds and have that kind of free throw disparity (26-10), really the only way you can make up for that is by knocking down threes and we didn’t do that either,” said Skiles. “So it was kind of a grind it out game (as all the Bulls’ will be) and when it really came time to grind it out, they did it to us. They got all of the boards and pushed us around, they took it from us.”

It also seems clear though the Bulls give it lip service, they are going to remain a half court team without Rose. They often were with Rose. But they really are going to be now. Noah several times seemed to try to speed up Hinrich out of the backcourt, but you could see Thibodeau calling half court sets. And if that’s the case, the Bulls probably should run more two-man game with Boozer and Hamilton. Both can shoot and both are good passers. The Bulls run a lot off Noah, who is a good passer, though sometimes too daring as he’ll tend to squeeze passes in. Yes, Hamilton had a half dozen turnovers Saturday, but he generally passes well and is a good enough shooter defenses have to react compared to sagging back into the lane now.

It seemed Thibodeau had the ideal mixture down the stretch with Boozer and Hamilton getting shots while Noah, Deng and Gibson pounded the boards with an assist from the ever aggressive Butler. It’s an eight-man rotation, which probably is a bit soon for that, though after three losses it was important to get a win and close this road trip with a reasonable 2-3 record coming home for six of the next eight. Plus, none of he next six teams has a record of better than one over .500.

“Hanging in there really,” Boozer said of the win. “They did a good job in the beginning (leading by seven early). We caught up to them and tied it up at the half. Second half our defense played better. We had a couple stops when we needed to. In the first half, they shot 55 percent (51.1); second half they shot a lower percentage. That’s why we won the game. We play them again on Monday (the Bulls have won nine straight over the Bucks). It’s almost like a playoff series when you play them one game, a day off, and play them again. We have to get in the lab and get a little better. And do some things better, especially in the first half, to give us a better chance to win on Monday.”

It’s really never going to be easy for this Bulls team, and it’s mostly a credit to them that they’re in just about all the games. The Clippers’ loss was an aberration as the front line seemed overwhelmed by the Clippers’ athletes. But otherwise even with slower guards and no true big time go to scorer, the Bulls stay in games with a chance to win. With Rose, it was a much better chance.

Again Saturday, it looked like the Bulls might be overwhelmed as the Bucks pushed the ball to start behind Jennings’ hot play, pressured the Bulls guards and bolted ahead 13-7. But Hamilton continued to work against Ellis, getting five free throws, Deng hustled to the boards getting himself a pair of followup baskets on a poor shooting night and the Bulls pulled within 30-28 after one.

It seemed more the pace of the game than the Bulls defensive lapses with Jennings making some remarkable and quick shots. The Bulls staggered some to open the second quarter as Thibodeau tried four reserves again, though didn’t go with them long as he took out Belinelli and Robinson less than three minutes in trailing 37-30.

The Bulls recovered as Butler sealed Ellis for a score on a nice pass from Noah and then Boozer rolled inside on a clever pass from Hamilton. The latter two combined for 15 of the Bulls 24 second quarter points and the Achilles quarter didn’t rupture the Bulls again and they were tied at 52 at halftime.

Yes, opponents will put Boozer in the pick and roll and take advantage, though it seemed clear Thibodeau talked with him at halftime and Boozer was coming out to help more aggressively on the Bucks pick and roll. Skiles made some curious changes, starting the lumbering Joel Przybilla for Samuel Dalembert and barely playing John Henson, who had 18 rebounds against Miami in the Bucks last game. Boozer took advantage of Ersan Ilyasova in getting deep position, and the Bulls took a 72-69 lead after three with Butler flying in for a follow score and Gibson with a score on a nifty assist from Deng.

Hinrich also made a terrific play to close the quarter, one which avoids the box score. With Jennings flying in for a score after a switch, he stepped back across the lane to help and drew a charge as Jennings’ shot went in. Though Hinrich’s shot looks like he’s trying out for fifth grade and is really nervous, he made several of those defensive plays that enabled the Bulls to be leading coming into the fourth. It’s also where the Bulls have stalled of late in trying to find offense and a personnel mixture that fits the moment.

Hinrich and Butler clanked early threes, and the Bulls gave up two offensive rebounds leading to a Beno Udrih 16 footer early in the quarter. But the Bulls maintained an edge after a 12-4 run with Hamilton swinging the ball to Deng for a three and Boozer fading at the elbow to make it 81-78 before Ellis tied it with five minutes left. This was where it had been falling apart.

But Robinson came through with a 17 footer after just a few dribbles to the elbow and Boozer had a big tip in on a Deng miss that was tapped back out by Noah to make it 85-81 Bulls. Though Noah doesn’t grab that many, he keeps balls alive and that befuddled the smaller Bucks.

Boozer did a good job stepping up on defense and helping Robinson as Jennings went past him on a screen. But the Bulls this season aren’t, as Thibodeau likes to say, tied together very well, and Larry Saunders got a dunk when Boozer didn’t get backside help as the Bucks rotated the ball. It was Bulls by two with 3:46 left.

But again the Bulls were all over the boards, which has also been missing at times. After misses following two offensive rebounds, Hinrich forced Jennings into a wild miss on an attempt to tie the game with 2:30 left. Deng did a great job sealing Mike Dunleavy off the defensive board and jumped over him to put back a Hamilton miss for that 87-83 lead with 2:12 left.

Dunleavy then scored on a drive, Hinrich missed, Noah rebounded but Hamilton missed. Noah then made another of those rare defensive plays that few big men can make. The Bulls have the unusual advantage of being able to switch pick and rolls late because Noah and Gibson can defend guards. Noah got the swift Ellis over a screen, tying up Ellis and forcing him into a bad miss.

Boozer then made the play to save the game as Hamilton drove in and lost the ball. Noah, not always the greatest finisher, picked it up and shot it too hard. Boozer came in, dunking it two handed and hanging on the rim, though not long enough to shatter the backboard.

With a four-point lead and under 30 seconds, the Bulls only had to make their free throws, and for a change they were.

It helped to have veteran old hands taking them. And old hands being able to make plays when the teams needed them. You assume they’ll be back, baby.

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