Bulls overwhelm Cavs to start 2-0


Nov 3

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We know the Lakers are not going to win 70 games. But what about the Bulls?

It’s 2-0 now with Friday’s dominating 115-86 win in Cleveland. And it’s now five consecutive home games ahead with the Hornets Saturday, without rookie sensation Anthony Davis after he suffered a mild concussion Friday, rebuilding Orlando Tuesday and then a national TNT game against the Thunder before hosting the Timberwolves without Kevin Love and the winless Celtics.

“Just having fun,” said Nate Robinson with 16 points and 12 assists to lead the bench ballers. “We are playing together and that is what basketball is all about. Everybody is getting a piece of the pie. This is my happy place.”

Gibson and Belinelli defendCleveland has been a happy place for the Bulls—if not Joakim Noah—with the team’s ninth straight win over the Cavs and a near perfect performance Friday.

Richard Hamilton and Carlos Boozer led with 19 points each with the Bulls blowing out to a 28-point first half lead and not leading by fewer than 20 points the rest of the game. It was such a rout that Luol Deng only played 30 minutes, though coach Tom Thibodeau put Deng in during the fourth quarter, apparently out of habit.

“I thought the team’s readiness to play was very good,” said Thibodeau. “Our play was very good. I thought our defense was very good to start the game. We ran the floor well and we played inside out and we shared the ball.”

But perhaps more significantly, the Bulls showed not only the difference of a veteran team playing a young team, but a team whose professionalism dictates relentless and spirited play constantly. It’s often said that sort of competing attitude can steal a team a lot of games during the season. But if a team is in the habit of playing like the Bulls did Friday perhaps it can surprise the observers and regulars (don’t dare call them experts).

“I told them before the game, I told them after the game and I told them at halftime: You have to come ready to play and you have to play hard from the get go, especially against good teams,” said Cavs coach Byron Scott. “Chicago is a great basketball team, especially at the defensive end. I don’t think we matched their intensity from the start of the game until the end of the game. We can’t play that way against teams like that.”

No one is predicting the Bulls are a championship team without Derrick Rose. Other than in some of my mail.

But when professionals compete with unyielding perseverance and purpose, as simple as it seems and as obvious as it should be, they can achieve more than they are supposed to and perhaps more than even they expected.

“We put the work in and do the right things and we will be intense,” said Thibodeau.

The Bulls were intense—to use the cliché–from the start in a game in which they never trailed after taking a 7-0 lead to open the game. The Cavs briefly pulled within one at 11-10. But about five minutes later in the game it was 28-15 and pretty much over, though because of the way the Bulls not only were playing, but the way they do play.

Scott suggested his team was cavalier, as it were.

“I thought we were just going through the motions,” Scott said. “You can’t play the Chicago Bulls going through the motions.”

That’s what you say when your team gets dominated. I thought the Cavs were playing hard, or as hard as the Bulls would let them. They were on the offensive boards with 11 for the game and four in the first quarter. That’s not a lack of effort or indifference. But what the Bulls do it take you out of your game with defensive interference. And this is where Kirk Hinrich will be such a valuable addition.

It was obvious with Derrick Rose’s injury the Bulls would need a point guard replacement. The only way the Bulls could acquire free agent Hinrich under the new labor agreement rules was to employ the salary cap exception for teams under the luxury tax. To get under, they had to drop the bulk of their bench players, the beloved “bench mob.” Many asked why C.J. Watson couldn’t do the job. Didn’t he play so well with Rose out last season? And backed up by John Lucas III.

Hinrich, who had a modest nine points and six assists in 17 minutes and playing little after halftime with foul trouble, showed how valuable he can be to this team with Rose out. If you checked the box score for leaders or watched the scoring plays in the first quarter when the game effectively was decided, you appreciated Carlos Boozer with another strong effort and back to back scoring dunks on the run and Hamilton finding his range and some favorable matchups, especially in a 14-point third quarter.

But I thought Hinrich set the tone for the game. Not only pushing the ball out of the backcourt on offense, but moreso with his smothering effort on Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving.

The reigning rookie of the year is very good. He did lead the Cavs with 15 points, and he shot the winner in their opener against the Wizards. But Hinrich’s pressuring not only forced Irving out of his comfort zone, but it pushed the Cavs out of their offense and the game.

“We didn’t match their intensity and just didn’t have it tonight,” said Irving. “Their defense is very good. If you’re not executing offensively, it’s hard to score on them. Losing tonight was a learning experience against a good Bulls team.”

It was more than that for the Cavs. It was a lesson against a better prepared team that understands how you win in the NBA. It was one of the specialties of the champion Bulls of the 90’s. No one is making that comparison, though they only started 2-0 in two of the six title seasons. But Phil Jackson always practiced the theory of cutting the head off the snake. In the later years, I think Rodman then ate it.

They did it against those great Cavs teams in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s against Mark Price, and it was a tried practice throughout. You pressed the primary ballhandler and playmaker. You made someone else make plays. It’s essential against this young Cavs team. Irving is their leader, and he will be a star. But they start a rookie shooting guard in Dion Waiters and a journeyman small forward in Alonzo Gee. They really don’t have another playmaking guard on their roster.

So you take out Irving, which isn’t easy, and you limit what the Cavs can do.

Hinrich did so to near perfection.

The Cavs shot 30 percent in the first half with seven assists with the Bulls shooting 67 percent. The Bulls had 13 first half fast break points and a whopping 32-14 edge in points in the paint, forcing 11 turnovers with four by Irving midway through.

Hinrich, who has had epic battles with Hamilton when he was with the Pistons and Dwyane Wade, played Irving physically. He bumped him and pushed him. He denied him his spots and made his passes difficult. He took his lunch and made him walk home. Hinrich dropped inside to help, then would bolt back out to Irving. It was a wonderful defensive effort with Hinrich late in the first quarter bolting across the lane to get in front of Tyler Zeller for a charge, something this Bulls group doesn’t do that much.

“When you look at intensity you have to understand where it comes from,” said Thibodeau in a philosophical moment Phil Jackson would be proud of. “It comes from concentration, being prepared and your effort. When you put those three things together you’ll be at your best. It doesn’t come from emotion. We put the work in and do the right things and we will be intense.”

That described what Thibodeau demands from this Bulls team, but also what they bring to the game. He is one of the most prepared coaches, and the Bulls are an industrious group willing to carry out the coach’s plans.

On the offensive end, Hinrich is better than Rose in one aspect of pushing the ball up court quickly. Of course, Rose can run it up quicker than Hinrich can pass it. But great players tend to want to dribble into scoring or playmaking position. Hinrich isn’t great, so he follows instructions: Get the ball out fast and up court, and thus the Bulls had Boozer making it 15-11 and then 17-11 getting out running and, yes, dunking.

I often get fans sending me these highlight videos of Boozer from Utah with him dunking on the run, hanging on the rim and exulting. Why, they ask, doesn’t he do that for the Bulls. Well, he hasn’t been in position to as much in two seasons with an offense more directed around Rose’s brilliance. Without that, by the way, you don’t compete for titles. In Utah, Boozer was the No. 1 offensive option. They looked for him, especially Deron Williams on the break.

Yes, Boozer seems lighter and swifter this season, and is making more aggressive moves to the basket in the halfcourt. But it also comes with being featured more. Luol Deng didn’t go from good under Scott Skiles to bad under Vinny Del Negro to good under Thibodeau by accident. Vinny forgot to include him and told Deng to stand in the corner and he’d think of something.

So it was according to plan a Bulls team pushing the ball out of the backcourt to start, getting shots up quickly before the defense could set. This isn’t a Bulls team to beat you in the half court without Rose. As Thibodeau has emphasized, they have to get easy baskets. They talked about it a lot last season, but didn’t do it as much. They have to this season per force.

And they did Friday in taking a 32-16 first quarter lead with Hinrich closing the quarter with assists for a Taj Gibson dunk, a Deng runner and his own drive by a flat footed Irving, Hinrich with four first quarter assists to match the Cavs’ team total.

From there the rout was on as the Bulls went into Gibson in the post with an obvious mismatch on Luke Walton. The Bulls used that to open up a 39-16 lead early in the second as they were very good identifying mismatches and taking advantage. They always haven’t done so as Thibodeau likes to script a game in some sense and has a lot of plays he works. But he was good seeing the Gibson opportunities and after halftime Hamilton getting hot.

“Rip is going to hit the open man,” said Thibodeau. “If he’s open coming off a screen, he is going to shoot. When the second defender is there he is never going to take a tough shot. He is always going to hit the open man. That is the mark of a winning player. (And) when a guy got hot we searched him out a little bit.”

Thibodeau also was quick Friday to recognize the necessary switch in defensive assignments. While Hamilton has been very good moving and shooting thus far, he doesn’t have the same defensive sprint he once did. Which is hardly a surprise going on 35.

The Bulls got burned with that early against the Kings in the opener when Hamilton started against shooting guard Tyreke Evans. Thibodeau quieted that switching Deng onto Evans after halftime. So Friday, Thibodeau started Deng on shooting guard Dion Waiters, who had 17 points in the opening win. Deng obviously is the Bulls best perimeter defender, though he doesn’t often play small guards. But he is good enough to do so, and he bollixed up Waiters as the rookie finished with seven points and had difficulty even getting shots off.

“Chicago is a great defensive team,” said Waiters. “I thought they did a great job tonight.
I didn’t try to force anything and I tried to let the game come to me and stayed patient on the offensive end.”

With little choice, as it turned out. Though this was a game Waiters should have been aggressive given the way Hinrich was bullying Irving. But Waiters was unable to make plays to help him as Hinrich and Deng neutralized the backcourt, which is the scoring element of this Cavs team.

Deng threw in a classy spin move for a score to make it 43-20 early in the second and then Robinson closed the first half scoring by rebounding, which he does remarkably well for his size, and going all the way for a layup, and on the next possession hitting a three off a nice Hamilton pass.

Robinson had 12 assists, but that’s somewhat misleading. His strength was what he did at the end of the second quarter to give the Bulls a 60-35 halftime lead. He’s a rocket pushing the ball and with his enthusiasm. He played most of the third quarter when Hinrich drew a fourth foul seconds into the second half. He had to leave later when the game was effectively sealed after being hit in the face on accident by Zeller.

Asked after the game if Robinson was OK, Thibodeau deadpanned: “ I think he’s all right. I heard him.”

It’s rare when you don’t as Nate has a lot to say and says it often and loudly even if it doesn’t always make sense. Though it usually sounds OK.

The third quarter was left to Hamilton, who is a subtle master of getting himself open. He and Ray Allen are probably the best at it in the NBA today, a trait Reggie Miller was so good at. Sometimes it’s with a slight push, but often it’s just finding the angles and the openings. Hamilton got going after a Noah slam on a pass from Boozer as they continued to work so well together. Boozer equaled Hinrich with six assists each as the Bulls has a sizzling 34 assists on 44 field goals with elegant teamwork. Their aggression also yielded another 30 free throw attempts.

Again, the Bulls identified the mismatch and it was Hamilton scoring five baskets in about four minutes during the third quarter, all on jump shots between 14 and 20 feet. This time it was Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, who still may be looking for Hamilton. Robinson did a good job being patient, basically watching Hamilton find his way off down screens and cross screens, running sideline to sideline, across the base line, then curling over a screen into one of his spots.

I do credit Robinson for being willing and waiting for Hamilton’s moves, though Robinson still does dribble the ball a lot. Which is fine because that’s who he is. But he is trying, and that should help the Bulls.

As Hamilton has been now that he’s healthy. And motivated by a blow to his pride, apparently.

“It was one of those games where early in the game I was just trying to get guys involved and it might not be my night,” said Hamilton. “In the third quarter, I tried to be a bit more aggressive. Some guy in the crowd called me “Old Man Rivers” and that woke me up.”

Yes, that Rip must know something because he just keeps rolling along.

And so are the Bulls.

They led 83-56 after three quarters and pretty much turned it over to the reserves for the fourth quarter and even continued to build their lead.

Now, it’s the Hornets Saturday. And it will be a shame not to be able to see Chicagoan Davis, an exciting rookie. With Eric Gordon also out, the Hornets are much less than full strength, though they did win Friday without Davis in the second half. But as Thibodeau preaches, it’s how the Bulls perform. And it’s been a bravura show thus far.

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