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Bulls come back to defeat Orlando
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 7
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There are great nicknames and slogans over the years for NBA teams. There was Showtime, the Bad Boys, Run TMC and who knows how many Big Three.
For this 2012-13 Bulls team it’s beginning to look like, “Just finding a way.”
On Tuesday in the United Center it was overcoming a seven-point third quarter deficit for a 99-93 Bulls victory over the Orlando Magic to go to 3-1 on the young season.
It was another eclectic fourth quarter lineup: A pair of iron men, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, a hard hat, Taj Gibson, a Butler who usually seems invisible named Jimmy and a chatterbox of a little man named Nate Robinson putting together one of the Bulls best quarters of the season, including eight successful jump shots in 12 possessions to turn a slight fourth quarter deficit into a 10-point lead and have just enough margin to finish.
“Just found a way,” said Joakim Noah, who played more than 40 minutes for a second consecutive game and had 20 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and four assists, including three jumpers and three blocks in the crucial fourth quarter run. “Just finding a way. We fought hard at the end. Jimmy gave us a great spark. Nate hit some big shots. It wasn’t pretty, but we just found a way.”
Deng led the Bulls with 23 points while Gibson and Robinson combined for 23 off the bench as the Bulls reserves outscored Orlando’s 29-14. Bench Mob II? Not quite as Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed didn’t see much time.
Kirk Hinrich played well, making the Bulls only two three pointers in what has been a miserable start to the season shooting threes for the team. They are 11-42 overall, but locked down a feisty, high scoring Magic team in the fourth quarter that made eight threes overall led by Arron Afflalo with 28 points.
But for the second straight game Robinson played just about the entire fourth quarter as the usually structured Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau continued to labor with the rotation and matchups.
“The guys we had in, Taj and Jimmy, They gave us a big spark,” said Thibodeau of the close. “Nate also was really good out there. I thought in the second half we played a lot harder.”
Just enough to get by, as it turned out in handing the surprising Magic its first loss of the season. Picked by most to be the league’s worst team after losing Dwight Howard, this hard playing Magic team is reminding some of the fellow surprising Magic team that got rookie coach Doc Rivers the Coach of the Year award in 1999-2000. Perhaps Magic coach Jacque Vaughn is the next, though he doesn’t jump up and down like Rivers.
And it wouldn’t be surprising to see this Bulls team with all sorts of ups and downs this season.
“This was one we needed to win,” said Deng. “We didn’t want to lose two (straight) having Oklahoma City coming in.”
Thus the Bulls get their first so called measuring stick game Thursday against the defending Western Conference champion Thunder, effectively the first playoff team from last season the Bulls are seeing considering the departure of Howard.
And it looks like thus far Thibodeau has Deng, as expected, and Noah as his core. Carlos Boozer after a good start and strong driving dunk late in the second quarter, went cold with his jumper and finished with 12 points on six of 18 shooting and eight rebounds. He sat out the fourth as did Richard Hamilton with little used Butler was doing a good job defensively on J.J. Redick.
The one time free agent guard whom the Bulls tried to lure away from Orlando — and who is a free agent again this summer — had 10 points and seven assists, but was just one of five shooting in the fourth quarter.
“I feel if I just go out and play hard and talk on defense I’ll be able to help,” said Butler, who was playing shooting guard after basically only substituting for Deng previously.
Butler also made a pair of clutch free throws with 31.3 seconds left with the Bulls then hanging onto a five-point lead.
“Before I even got the ball, Taj said, ‘It’s what we do every day,’” related Butler of Gibson’s little pep talk. “We shoot so many of these in practice, just cool out and shoot the ball.”
Butler swished both, and though Afflalo hit another jumper there wasn’t enough time for the Magic any longer.
“We just feed off each other,” said Gibson. “Guys kept encouraging each other, telling each other to take the looks, not to worry about the crowd. Just dig in. It’s going to go our way eventually. Play hard. I’m happy to get this win.”
But again it was a struggle, as most will be, perhaps more so than the clichéd so called “ugly” game that becomes shorthand for some imperfection. It actually was a rather efficient game for the Bulls. They committed just nine turnovers and had 27 assists on 40 baskets with four players having at least four assists each. They had seven steals and seven blocks.
The shooting finally came around. And just in time in the fourth quarter with primarily Gibson, Deng and Noah combining in the almost five-minute sequence midway through the fourth quarter when the trio connected on seven jump shots in eight possessions.
“We made shots,” said Deng of the departure from the Saturday loss to New Orleans. “It’s the start of the season. Eventually, the shots are going to get right. I was happy to see some go early.”
It was also interesting to see the bulk of the jump shooting coming from the front line players and not the guards. Yes, the Bulls have versatile big men, which is a major reason for the success of their defense. Especially late in games, Noah and Gibson can switch on just about anyone, including guards. It can produce mismatches and occasionally players gambling for steals, which Thibodeau hates. But few teams are ready for the versatility and it was another reason the Bulls thwarted the Magic down the stretch along with Butler’s defensive play. Though it’s tough to make many threes with big guys shooting all the jumpers.
“You can’t measure Jimmy statistically on how well he played,” said Thibodeau. “He was tremendous.”
It also opened the way for Thibodeau to consider Butler playing more at shooting guard, though the issue is offense. Butler is a better defender than Hamilton or Marco Belinelli, but he is a more reluctant shooter. It’s been another reason for the mixing and matching by the coach, and the Bulls did get to the verge of 100 with the defensive oriented lineup finishing the game.
There was a bit of humor with that since home fans get a free Big Mac sandwich when the Bulls win and the team scores 100 points. With the game pretty much put away, Hinrich was fouled and shooting free throws with 10.1 seconds left and the Bulls ahead 99-93. He shockingly missed both to the groans of the fans, and later admitted with a laugh it felt like more pressure than winning the game. The Bulls rebounded the miss, and it seemed to me, though others disagreed, the Magic would foul again. Instead, Noah hoisted off a three with 3.8 seconds left that missed wildly. It was perceived by some among the Magic as an attempt to show up the team, one of those many, hidden unwritten rules about not taking those last shots. Noah afterward was apologetic.
“I regret it,” Noah said. “I got caught up in the moment. It wasn’t a good shot. You have to respect the game because you never know what can happen in a game, I just got caught up in the moment and I was trying to get the people a Big Mac. They really wanted a Big Mac and I felt like, not only did I take the shot and miss the shot, we didn’t even get the Big Mac. Next time I won’t take that 3-pointer.”
So the Bulls could breathe a sigh and smile about this one in the end, though it didn’t look like that for most of the game.
They started well with a 21-13 lead as Hinrich moved the ball impressively with four first quarter assists and added a three. But Redick and later Afflalo got going, and the Magic took a 24-23 after one. The game drifted back and forth in the second quarter as Thibodeau battled with some of the issues he’ll face with Robinson. Robinson said after the game he had a minor groin issue that would be fine. Though minor groin issues usually are someone else’s.
The Magic went into the post against the smaller Robinson, forcing rotations like the ones that hurt the Bulls against the Hornets. So this time as soon as the Magic tried with East Chicago’s E’twaun Moore, Thibodeau signaled for Hinrich to return to the game. As soon as Hinrich got up, Robinson obviously noticed and dribbled into two shots. He made both to bring the Bulls within 37-36. Thibodeau prefers defense, but he knows he needs offense when it’s going with this Bulls team. So he told Hinrich to sit back down and the Bulls trailed 48-45 at halftime.
“We take a lot of pride,” Robinson said of the reserves. “Our first team pushes us a lot. We are pushing them to be the best they can be. When we sub in for them, we come in and we have a great deal of energy. We just play together and pick up where they left off. It’s been working for us and hopefully we can continue to do that throughout the season.”
I can also see Thibodeau using Robinson more with Hinrich as Hinrich can defend shooting guards well and it would give the Bulls more offensive options given they don’t really have many players who can create off the dribble. Having two ballhandling guards would help and might create more space for three point shooting with penetration. What’s been happening at times now is the offense bogging down and getting stagnant. Then the forwards try to make a play on their own, which is not a strength. Though the Bulls offense features movement, there’s been a bit more of guys trying to do it themselves when shots aren’t going down. Finally, late in Tuesday’s game they went.
Hinrich had a terrific sequence midway through the third with a three to get the Bulls back on top at 55-52, another jumper and then forcing a turnover that helped the Bulls hang in down 70-68 after three quarters as Afflalo continued to befuddle the Bulls with his slashing and shooting, eventually forcing Hamilton from the game.
“Afflalo tried to will us this win with his play,” said Vaughn. “He got to the basket a lot for us.”
Yes, Afflalo was hot shooting. But Noah had the pistols out, his pantomime when he made a pair of jump shots and threw in a left handed sort of hook/runner/flip in that Bulls run of rare, excellent shooting that was pivotal in the fourth. Noah also helped close it out with 39 seconds left when the Magic had suddenly cut that 10-point deficit with 2:35 left to 93-89 with 1:15 remaining. Gibson then shortarmed a baseline jumper for an air ball. But Glen Davis with Afflalo hot ignored everyone and fired a wild three pointer that Gibson rebounded. Noah then snuck a slick bounce pass in from the elbow to Gibson, who dunked it and was fouled for a three-point play. That put the Bulls ahead 96-89 with 39 seconds left before Butler’s free throws. Both Davis and Nik Vucevic had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Magic.
“Jo was big,” said Thibodeau. “He’s similar to the way he started the season two years ago. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, doing a lot of different things, running the floor, posting, defensive rebounding, playing with a lot of confidence. It’s his all around play. He played 40 minutes and did a great job.”
I thought that was a good observation about Noah. The best he’s probably been consistently with the Bulls was that first month of the 2010-11 season before he fractured his thumb and seemed headed to a sure All-Star game spot. Noah’s looked back to that form, leading the team in scoring, if just barely at 16 per game.
“I feel pretty good right now,” Noah said of some soreness he’s experiencing. “It feels better when you win than when you lose. But you feel it more in the morning. It’s not really at this point when you really feel it, but it’s the next day.”
Deng is barely behind at 15.8, and it seems with Rose out those are the two Thibodeau is going to rely upon to carry the offense.
“Luol provides whatever you need,” said Thibodeau. “If you need rebounding, he’ll do that. Scoring, playmaking. The guy’s a winner and a complete player. We can count on him.”
And so the Bulls move on to get a look at the league’s elite for national TV on TNT Thursday.
“We need to play better,” said Noah. “This isn’t going to cut it against the better teams in the league. We’ve got to keep fighting. But it’s a good win for us.”
Yes, whatever it takes. Or whatever they have, at least for now.