Bulls hang onto late lead and beat Mavs by 23


Nov 29

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The great Bulls’ reserves melodrama, if likely not over, was benched for a night as the Bulls Wednesday failed to blow a 21-point third quarter lead and beat the Dallas Mavericks 101-78.

Luol Deng led the Bulls with 22 points. But after surrendering a 27-point lead to the Bucks Monday and losing, and then suffering 48 hours of angst and demands that several members of the Bulls bench actually deserve first ballot consideration for the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Bulls reserves outscored Dallas’ 50-34 on the way to the runaway win.

“They (bench) were great,” said embattled coach Tom Thibodeau, whose contract expires in 2017. “The starters got us off to a good start. We need everybody. I thought the defense was good, the rebounding good. Overall, I thought we played a lot tougher with the lead. Jimmy (Butler) has been playing well all along, Taj (Gibson) the last few games has been playing well. Nate (Robinson) has had some very good games and some not so good games. Nazr (Mohammed) is a pro. He stays ready. Because they went big, I thought the matchups were good for him. Marco (Belinelli) came in and knocked down some shots early. Overall I thought the bench played very well.

“It’s not about any individual, it’s about the team. What gives us the best chance to win,” said Thibodeau, burnishing his coach of the year credentials as the Bulls moved to 7-7. “It’s about the groups who are out there and how they are performing. If they go in and are building a lead, obviously they are going to play longer. We know it is going to take some time. My decisions have to be made on what’s best for the team. I’ve always been that way and I’m not going to change. The scoreboard tells you if the group out there is maintaining the lead. If they are, they play longer. If the lead is not going in the right direction, you have to make adjustments. Everything is based on performance. It’s the only way you can do it whether it’s a starter or bench player. That’s the way it has to be.”

And so ends the latest chapter of the perils of Thibs without Derrick. Like the old Saturday serials in the movies — You know I remember. What’s this TV thing you all are talking about? — this one is to be continued, though Thibs isn’t quite tied to the railroad tracks.

That was yesterday.

Which was when Thibodeau was under community assault after the Bulls lost a 27-point third quarter lead at home and lost to the Bucks with the reserves playing combined fewer than 11 minutes after halftime.

This Myth of the Bench Mob circa 2010-12 has been an ongoing theme of this season without Rose. The theory was generally that the Bulls were 18-9 without Rose, so they would win 50 or 60 if the team hadn’t dismantled the former bench in favor of a group of which Thibodeau apparently still doesn’t know their names since he doesn’t call them into games.

The irony, not so gentle as Thibodeau pointed out earlier Wednesday, was that he was criticized in losing three straight on the Western Conference trip for benching the starters, primarily Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton, in the fourth quarter and thus without fourth quarter offense being outscored and losing. The theory became Thibodeau had to ride with Boozer and Hamilton despite Thibodeau’s preference to close games with defenders because without Rose there just wasn’t enough offense to sustain in the inevitable lapses.

So then Thibodeau rides the starters in the second half Monday against the Bucks and the Bulls cough up that big lead, though only Deng played more than 40 minutes. And it turns out he’s bionic, but that’s beside the point.

But it actually was an imperfect storm for the Bulls Monday, more, I felt, of tightening up and panicking when the game went against them than being too tired to compete. Bucks players who had been benched all season for poor play were making shot after shot.

Though what was overlooked was that Thibodeau did have the reserves in when the cavein began against the Bucks. With the Bulls leading by 24 points Monday with 3:28 left in the third, Thibodeau substituted Gibson and Butler, his main two defensive reserves. But they helped allow a 6-0 Bucks run in the last 77 seconds that made it 80-63. That didn’t sound as bad to Milwaukee. Thibodeau took them out and brought in Nate Robinson, and in less than three minutes the Bulls lead was down to six. It was a game, and now Thibodeau knew he couldn’t go back to the defensive guys because he needed to score. So he stayed with the offensive guys, but they were shellshocked and only began to recover once the Bucks tied the game midway through the fourth.

And with two minutes left, the Bulls had a lead, meaning the starters had outplayed the Bucks in that crucial stretch. Kirk Hinrich even made a great hustle play at the end to give the Bulls a chance to win. Hamilton got a decent enough look and the shot went wide, not short, the latter the typical sign of fatigue.

Still, the Bulls lost and we know if it’s bad enough, the coach much be at fault because he is so close to the court.

So Wednesday’s game was a big one for everyone to take the pressure off for now.

It’s not going to change because few figured this for much more than a .500 team without Rose, perhaps a few games better assuming he can return by early March. Which no one knows, by the way. So you have to start somewhere if you are going to lose 35 to 40 games.

And it’s been well stated that without Rose there really isn’t that closer type of player, the player who can get you a basket with a clearout or one-on-one play. So you are relying, as Blanche DuBois would have said, on the kindness of strangers. And that is this streetcar of a Bulls team with seven new players trying to find a spot among the 12 regulars.

Strangers take time before they become comfortable with one another. But forget that if you are blowing a 27-point lead. And it is likely even members of Congress should be able to work together enough with that much of a lead.

So it was important in a one-of-82 way, and credit to the Bulls for taking the lead late in the first quarter and building it basically throughout the game.

Luol Deng

“It was a similar situation to (Monday) night,” said Deng, who started the Bulls off strong, impressively assuming the role veteran leader, with a dozen first quarter points. “We talked about not letting it happen again. As much as that hurt, I think we learned a lot. The talk this year is to try to match this bench with the other. It’s not the same, but there’s still a lot of time. They’re going to get better. We believe that. (You’ve) just got to be patient. We’re not happy how we’ve played some games this year, (but) we work hard. It’s only a matter of time before we turn it around.”

Actually, the reserves have been reasonably good for the time they’ve played. There’s no question the designated leader, Gibson, has been a bit of a drag so far with a slow start. And though his shot still was poor against the Mavs as he’s pulling up for too many longer jumpers, Gibson had eight points and eight rebounds in expanded minutes Wednesday and demonstrated that hustle game that has defined him.

“It was good to come out and forget that last loss and move forward,” said Gibson. “It’s a long season; there’ll be a lot of bumps in the road. We’re sticking with eachother. We understand a lot of people are doubting us. We don’t worry what others think. Tonight (bench) guys got more minutes. Guys want to compete. Jimmy, Marco (Beinelli), guys like that are ready to step in and play well.”

Actually, I thought that was probably the only spot where Thibodeau shorted a guy. You have to stay with shooters longer, and Belinelli was shooting 37.5 percent on threes before his DNP-CD Monday against the Bucks.

But he hit his first shot against Dallas on a nice pass from Robinson that helped the Bulls with three reserves to open the second quarter start an 18-5 run to provide the first and really lasting separation of the game. Belinelli finished with 11 while Butler had a career high 13 and Robinson 14.

“After blowing that 27 point or whatever lead the other night, we knew they would come out with energy,” said Elton Brand. “We started out well (19-11 lead), but their intensity and experience told us they would come back. When we cut it back to 12 (actually 14 midway through the third), we were saying to ourselves, ‘Maybe it can happen again to them.’ However, we just couldn’t get anything going after last night. We just ran out of gas. We also missed (Darren) Collison’s scoring and ball handling.”

Thibodeau agreed the Bulls got a break with Dirk Nowitzki and Collison out (the Mavs announced they were signing Derek Fisher), the Mavs coming off a close loss in Philadelphia Tuesday night and almost half the Dallas roster in their primes seven years ago. Though only I added the last part. Thibodeau called them a great team, I think.

Jimmy Butler

As for the Bulls reserves, Butler has shown signs of helping, especially second effort plays, and Robinson has had some big games mixed in with erratic ones in which he shot a bit much and took fellow reserves out of the game. But Robinson Wednesday was controlled for the most part against Dallas, not even dribbling much before his shots until his minutes expanded later in the game as the Bulls pushed the lead to 29 points.

Butler has been tentative offensively at times as it seems obvious Thibodeau has told him he’d get on the court by defending. And though summer league doesn’t mean much, Butler opened eyes there with his aggressiveness to the basket, something the Bulls generally lack. Thibodeau agreed in his post game remarks, noting the Bulls’ 33 free throws, and that when they shoot free throws it enables them to slow the game better and set their defense. And even Thibodeau said when they can do that they are a tough team to beat.

Butler has that ability, but Thibodeau hasn’t been an enigma. He’s been slow every season to trust newcomers or less experienced players. Still, he also was criticized early in the season for going with groups of four reserves to start the second quarters and the Bulls blowing two games that way by digging such big holes. So then wouldn’t it be natural to rely more on starters? At least early in the season until the reserves began to get in sync more?

Not after a blown 27-point lead.

Everyone was waiting, but not this time.

Those sorts of losses generally do produce stunned hangovers, and the Bulls hung in early thanks to Deng and a late three by Hinrich as the Bulls began showing some life from three with six of 10.

The matchups weren’t particularly conducive early as Dallas starts four perimeter players and Chris Kaman. Carlos Boozer, who was scoreless in the first half, had difficulty staying with Shawn Marion or standing up to the much taller Kaman. But I give Boozer credit for never moping about an early hook and remaining exuberant throughout the game.

Though Nate had a Nate moment goaltending a Belinelli layup that was going in after he created the break with a steal, Robinson was very good with sharp passes for scores and good shooting.

The Bulls defense was active, chasing Dallas’ high scoring shooters off the three point line, and Deng with a nice interior cut for a score, Gibson with a bank shot he meant and Joakim Noah with a driving hook closed the half for the Bulls with a 24-14 edge and 58-42 lead after that Robinson goal tend.

“I’ve been more vocal with Thibs and the coaches,” said Gibson. “They want me to pick up my defense. They said ‘Right now, don’t think too much. We need you to go out and control the defense and let guys know what we need to do.’ I told guys at the end of the third quarter, we have to pick it up on D in the fourth. Even if we don’t score, we have to shut guys down. We have to learn to shut guys down. It’s tough because we’ve been used to the last couple of years being solid on defense, having that tough rugged mindset. That’s one thing I was going hard in practice, just preaching. Slowly we’re getting it and tonight is a start and we have to do it again the next game.”

Noah, with 13 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and some of the continuing most remarkably hard play you’d ever want to see, opened the second half with a rolling hook, passed to Deng for a score and then saw Boozer power in for a basket over Marion in a matchup he had failed to exploit. Dallas did make that little move midway through the third. But Hamilton stopped it with a corner jumper and then Boozer powered inside on a pass from Hamilton to get the Bulls back up 18 as those two continue to work together well. Yes, it was those two starters who hit the big shots when it was most needed, and the Bulls led 77-58 after three.

There would be no letdown this time getting past that vital portion of the third quarter. It was a romp from there with Nazr Mohammed even completing a one handed slam dunk from Marquis Teague to scale the elusive 100-point plateau.

For this time, anyway, it would be no cliffhanger. But stay tuned.

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