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Bulls hang on against Kings to win opener
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 1
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Yes, it was Halloween night. Joakim Noah was wearing his stocking cap pulled down low over his ears as he sat in the sweltering Bulls locker room after the team’s gritty (we’ll hear that a lot this season) 93-87 opening night victory over the Sacramento Kings. Noah’s colorful pants hung baggy and loose, though it all was no costume. Just a Jo look.
Like the hustle, effort, relentless and opportunistic play that enabled Noah to finish with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five steals, a combination not reached by a Bull since Michael Jordan, and then close the game converting all four free throws in the last 24.5 seconds to assure victory.
“It’s Halloween and he had a monster night,” said Carlos Boozer, who was clutch in the fourth quarter when the Kings cut a 14-point deficit to three with a team high seven fourth quarter points. “A monster night. Big game scoring, got to the free throw line and he got us in the bonus almost all by himself. At the end, huge free throws for him. A lot of blocks, a lot of rebounds, a lot of steals. He was all over the place tonight. He was playing like Joakim Noah.”
If that’s Joakim Noah, then the Bulls are better than anyone imagined.
“It was a good win, but we can play better,” said Noah, though it doesn’t seem likely he can play much better. “Every game is different. Today, they got in foul trouble early and we made them pay. Everybody has to contribute whether Derrick (Rose) is here or not. To be a team everybody has to be into it.”
It’s pretty much what this Bulls team needs while Rose recovers from knee surgery. And Wednesday was a good starting show.
Noah and Luol Deng were all over the boards with five offensive rebounds each as the Bulls totaled 14 and created 21 turnovers that led to 25 points.
“This team creates turnovers,” said Kings coach Keith Smart of the Bears, err Bulls.
“They are a great defense team,” said Tyreke Evans, who led the Kings with 21 points but was forced into a pivotal five-second inbounds violation turnover with 35.6 seconds left and the Bulls leading 87-83.
The Kings then fouled Richard Hamilton, who had 19 points in a sharp, spirited offensive effort and he made both for an 89-83 lead with 32.9 seconds remaining. Aaron Brooks then drove for a score and having to foul, the Kings got the guy they thought they wanted to shoot, Noah with the sideways spinning tornado ball.
“I’ve been working a lot on free throws,” said Noah. “I was in a good rhythm, I felt comfortable and knocked them down. They weren’t letting Rip or Nate (Robinson) get the ball. I’m the third option on that. My teammates have confidence in me and they’ll throw me the ball.”
And Noah swished all four to seal the game.
Boozer finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and a beautiful assist to Deng slashing to the rim for a dunk with 4:05 left and the Kings within five. Earlier in the fourth quarter after the Bulls led by nine in the fourth and 14 late in the third, the Bulls looked for Boozer when the Kings pulled within 75-72 and Boozer hit a driving six footer. Later in the fourth with the Kings hanging within five, Boozer cleared a Noah sort-of-hook, held off Chuck Hayes with one arm and grabbed the ball and went up, scored and was fouled to give the Bulls some breathing room at 85-78 with 2:46 left.
“Most games are going to be like this,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “You have to be able to grind them out. We have to find different ways to win. Getting to the free throw line was big and we had some timely buckets from Carlos and Joakim late in the game. I thought (Noah) had a good all-around game and he has played well all preseason. Joakim put a lot of work in and he is playing with a lot of confidence right now. His defense was good and his energy was good. He just does so many different things and his conditioning is significantly better. I think we have to continue to search (Boozer) out (inside). There are so many good things that happen for us when we throw the ball into him.”
With the Kings playing small guards, the Bulls got a nice boost from Robinson with seven points and five rebounds and late in the game playing in the backcourt with Kirk Hinrich. It was clear Thibodeau still was experimenting with rotations, generally going according to matchups, which is his style. Though Hinrich didn’t shoot well, he had seven assists and pushed the ball effectively early when the Bulls opened with a 25-23 lead after one quarter.
“Like I keep telling people, it’s not going to be one guy for us to be successful,” said Boozer. “We all have the responsibility to step up without Derrick. Every game is going to be a grind out game. Jo was hitting his free throws and was phenomenal. Rip was hitting big shots. We do a good job of playing and using each other and playing to each other’s strengths. We had lot of guys rebounding and if we rebound like that we are going to win a lot of games.”
It’s not a walkover playing the Kings, who do have a lot of athletic talent, likely more than the Bulls. DeMarcus Cousins can be tough, but he pretty much does an imitation of Derrick Coleman at his worst. Despite being bigger than stronger than anyone on the court and with unusually quick moves for someone that size, he generally stands outside shooting 22 footers or makes a wild drive into the lane. The result with the Bulls active defense was seven turnovers.
Former Bulls James Johnson starts at small forward, but he still can’t shoot and was one of eight. The Kings play a lot of one-on-one and no one had more than three assists despite four point guards in the rotation. The Bulls had trouble with Evans, especially early as the Kings had the former point guard and occasional small forward at shooting guard and Hamilton couldn’t stay with him.
Thibodeau gave Jimmy Butler a run at Evans in the second quarter, and Butler helped. But the coach finally went to Deng on Evans after halftime as the matchup made sense to use Hamilton on Johnson since Johnson isn’t an offensive threat.
But Hamilton got the Bulls off to a good offensive start with six points and two steals in the first quarter and clearly is a different player than last season. Boozer hit all three of his attempts in the first quarter as the Bulls came out playing to Boozer and Noah and pushing the ball to Hamilton on the break. Coming out of timeouts in the first half, the Bulls also were running plays for Boozer.
“Early on I thought Rip and Luol did a great job of running,” said Thibodeau. “Kirk and Nate did a good job of creating spacing and keeping the ball moving. Those were all things that help us. We got a little disjointed at the end of the third quarter. We were able to withstand it and play tough in the fourth quarter. The big thing with Rip is his health. He put a lot of work into getting his body healthy this summer. I think it has paid off for him. Whenever he plays he is effective. The problem was missing 38 games. He never really got into a rhythm. The first time he played an extended stretch for us was in April. It was a tough year. That got his attention and I thought he did a great job this summer putting a lot of time in.”
Thibodeau early went with Deng with the reserves and later kept Boozer out with the reserves, both to have a starter with the reserve group and to keep enough scoring on the floor, which will be an ongoing issue. Noah isn’t likely to average 20.
The game slowed with the reserves in the second quarter and the Bulls led 44-40 at haftime.
Robinson was penetrating well and on one occasion found Marco Belinelli for a three. But Thibodeau yanked Belinelli when he was late getting to Marcus Thornton on a pair of jumpers. Later, Hamilton had difficulty with Thornton as well when the Kings in the third quarter drew within six going into the fourth after trailing by 14.
Belinelli showed good court sense with the ball and made several nice passes for scores as he moves the ball well off the dribble. He had three assists in just 11 minutes.
It appeared the Bulls were going to take the game midway through the fourth when Noah with 10 points in the third quarter along with three blocks and four rebounds tipped in a Deng miss and was fouled, enthusiastically signaling the “and 1.” Noah made the free throw for a 60-46 lead with 5:53 left in the third.
But the Bulls just do not have enough overall offense or one big scorer to put a game away, and they fought off the Kings down the stretch to hold on for the win.
“The first game is always tough,” said Deng. “It’s finding a way. When they made a run it was maturity, not breaking and not letting them get the lead. We stayed ahead and got the win.”
Just trying to keep it simple.