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Bulls looking to roast Rockets on Thanksgiving eve
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 20
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It’s been an uncertain start to the season for the 5-5 Bulls, though hardly unexpected without the rehabilitating Derrick Rose. So after one game recently back on the team plane, Joakim Noah, averaging a career high 38.8 minutes per game, was looking for some relaxation and distraction. Noah eyed his favorite backgammon set.
And then he thought, “Where’s Omer?”
“He was a great guy to play backgammon with on the plane,” sighed Noah. “I saw the backgammon set and I thought, ‘Damn, my guy.’ I do feel like Omer is a big reason we went really far.”
But it was Bulls reserve center Omer Asik who ended up going really far. Far from Chicago, that is, to Houston, where the Bulls close the Western Conference portion of their road trip Wednesday playing the Rockets and their new star center Asik.
“I’m really happy for him,” said Noah, whose play effectively kept the seven-foot Asik off the floor. “He’s really playing well. I’ve been following him. They’ve got a good thing going in Houston, so it’s going to be a battle. He’s a big boy. He’ll be a handful. But it will be fun.”
It’s a bit awkward for the Bulls given how well Asik has been playing, averaging 10 points and 12.3 rebounds in 32.3 minutes per game, which is more than double the minutes he averaged in two seasons with the Bulls playing behind Noah. Asik is third in the league in rebounding. But Noah is tied for 10th and also averaging a double/double at 14.8 points and 10 rebounds.
The loss of Asik as a free agent to the Rockets has been much discussed among Bulls fans given Asik’s strong start, which included a 19-point 14-rebound game against Miami. Asik is even shooting 63 percent on free throws. Though it’s clear he never would be anywhere close to the minutes he’s playing with the Bulls still having Noah, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer.
And the way the collective bargaining agreement allowed a deal to be structured for second round pick free agents like Asik, who originally was drafted by Portland from where he grew up in Turkey, the Bulls would have had to pay him $15 million in the third year of his deal. That would be while Noah, the presumed starter, was making $12.2 million. Also meaning virtually half the team’s salary cap would be spent on one position. And neither guy can shoot a true jump shot.
Though much of that tends to get overlooked with uneven play of late from the new Bulls reserve core. Of course, much forgotten is how long it took the so called Bench Mob to develop after coming together in 2010 with Asik playing infrequently. In his first 50 games, Asik played fewer than 10 minutes more than 20 times and still hadn’t had a double figure rebounding game.
“I always knew he would be that good if he just got starters’ minutes,” said Gibson. “He did not really play too much with me and Jo and Carlos. He’s a walking double/double if he gets his hands right.”
The Rockets have gotten more right with their big offseason additions of Asik, Jeremy Lin and the preseason trade for James Harden. In a sense, it was their version of the Bulls 2010 free agency. The Rockets had made bids in previous seasons for top free agents and were spurned, like the Bulls were with LeBron James. So Houston broke it up again last summer and now is going ahead with its new core around Harden. Though Houston is 4-7 and one of the poorer defensive teams giving up more than 100 points per game, they do have a potential offensive star in Harden and thus someone to build with. If they aren’t a title contender yet, they at least are entertaining and improved, so it’s finally been a positive offseason for them.
For the Bulls, it’s settled into a struggle after a fast start with mostly home games. They’ve lost three of four, giving up at least 100 points in all four games and almost 50 percent opponents’ shooting the last two games. It’s not the formula the Bulls have used for success under Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Rockets are 27th in opponent scoring and 20th in opponent shooting, but they are a relatively high scoring teams with Harden fourth in the league in scoring at 24.2 per game.
I’d expect Kirk Hinrich Luol to defend him even as Harden plays as much point guard for the Rockets as Lin. And probably Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng as well. Thibodeau went more with Butler at shooting guard in the loss to Portland Sunday. And I’d expect that to be one of the subtle changes in the rotation.
The Bulls haven’t figured out an effective second unit rotation yet, though it’s partly understandable as Thibodeau has experimented more than usual with rotations. Thibodeau is a coach who likes set rotations and substitutions. But he clearly is feeling his way with seven new players of the top 12.
But it was particularly troublesome after good starts the last two games when the reserve group in the second quarter playing with one starter sent the Bulls into deep holes from which they basically couldn’t recover. Thibodeau indicated he’d made changes in that rotation. I’d expect Gibson to get Nazr Mohammed’s minutes, especially since Houston’s front line other than Asik isn’t big and not scoring oriented.
Both Marco Belinelli and Hinrich have shot poorly on the trip. They are a combined five for 27. But Richard Hamilton has shot well, 18 of 32. Though for defensive purposes, Thibodeau has left him sitting late. The Bulls could use his scoring and shooting, though Harden or even small forward Chandler Parsons would be a tough matchup for him. The Bulls would hope to get into a weak Houston bench, though their starters aren’t out much.
Butler, meanwhile, has quietly been a much more effective offensive player than given credit for. He’s nine of 14 shooting on the trip thus far, and he could be taking Belinelli’s minutes with Belinelli not shooting well of late. Though regarded as a defender, Butler was nearly a 40 percent three point shooter in college.
And it would be a good game to get Boozer going again after he averaged 25 points and 13 rebounds the first two games on the trip and then had four points and three rebounds in just 22 minutes against Portland. Houston plays Patrick Paterson at power forward backed up by Marcus Morris. They’re two relatively inexperienced players Boozer should be able to challenge.
Though the story on the surface is the Bulls going up against Asik, whom they know to be one of the league’s better interior defenders.
“I’m happy for him,” said Boozer. “He’s been playing great. He looks in great shape and is running the floor. I saw one game he was like eight for nine. He’s a guy who puts in so much work to get better. We tried to keep him, but that contract was very rich. He deserves it. I knew his offense was only going to get better.
“He was a great defender for us,” said Boozer. “He was a wall. You came in the paint, he jumped straight up and blocked shots. But he was playing behind an All-Star, or a guy who should be an All-Star. If he got the time, you knew his numbers would go through the roof and you’re seeing that in Houston.”
So it will be left to the guy who kept him on the bench, Noah, to show he was the right one to keep.
“I had no question (he’d do this),” said Noah. “Anybody who knows the game could see the way he rebounded the ball was impressive. He’s playing that pick and roll with Harden like I do a lot with Derrick. It demands so much attention and Omer just goes from there.”
And though Asik doesn’t get quoted much given his hesitancy with English media, Gibson says he knows the man from Turkey is going to be enjoying this Thanksgiving eve game.
“I know he’s looking forward to it,” said Gibson with a laugh. “He always had to hear Thibs yelling at him. So I know he looks forward to playing us.”
And maybe having the last laugh. Or a Thanksgiving feast.