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Bulls have some fun in Cleveland once again
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 6
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Joakim Noah offered one of the classic bits in NBA history with his riff in the 2010 playoffs on the lack of people choosing to vacation in Cleveland.
Perhaps it wasn’t completely a day at the beach for the Bulls in Cleveland Wednesday. But the Bulls’ relatively one sided 95-85 victory in which they trailed for only 42 seconds was a welcome respite from the harsh winter that likely looms ahead.
“I thought the first quarter was huge in getting off to a quick start,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of the Bulls taking a double digit lead about eight minutes into the game and carrying it almost throughout. “I thought Marco (Belinelli) was terrific, Kirk (Hinrich) running the team was outstanding. And we had a number of people step up. Jo (Noah) all around, Carlos (Boozer) had a very solid game.”
It added up to a welcome relief after a tough loss at home to Indiana Tuesday and a difficult schedule looming after Friday’s game in Detroit.
So it was perhaps vital that with Richard Hamilton out for probably a few weeks with a torn plantar fascia, Belinelli had his breakout Bulls game with 23 points, including 10 in that first quarter. Noah battled Anderson Varejao to a virtual standstill with 13 points and 15 rebounds while Boozer had his eighth double/double in the last 10 games with 10 points and 12 rebounds. And Hinrich had one of his best games of the season with 11 points, just his fourth double digit scoring game of the season, and eight assists along with two big jumpers to end the third quarter when the Cavaliers had made the only serious run on the Bulls all game.
The Bulls moved back above .500 to 9-8, while the Cavs fell to 4-15 and routed twice by the Bulls.
The Bulls, though, did see an 18-point lead wither to five, and we know this Bulls team can blow bigger leads than that. But after the Cavs got within 64-59 late in the third, Noah, also with five assists again, made a 16 foot jumper and then blocked an Alonzo Gee drive to the basket. The ball was tied up, and Luol Deng tracked down the tap and fired to a running Hinrich, who was fouled and made both.
Donald Sloan, who off the bench led an anemic Cavs offense without Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters with 14 points, scored on a drive and short push shot. But Hinrich responded moving behind a Noah screen to convert an 18 footer. The Cavs answered with another from Sloan. But with the shot clock off for the end of the quarter, Hinrich walked up into a 17 footer and hit it to give the Bulls a 72-63 edge heading into the fourth quarter.
Those Hinrich scores — as he seemed to have changed his shot some by getting his elbow in and with more extension — and an earlier driving left handed slam dunk by Boozer, I thought, were the momentum breakers for the Cavs and enabled the Bulls to avoid the pressure of a close game.
Yes, as the Pacers’ game showed, you need a closer down the stretch who can manufacture a shot and take control of an offense. The Bulls’ guy remains in rehabilitation. So perhaps as much as any team, especially those supposedly playoff bound, the Bulls have to rely more on varied contributions.
It’s most noticeable when a great player carries a team down the stretch to win a game. But what the Bulls also miss with Derrick Rose out is the player in the third or early in the fourth who can stop an opponents’ run so the game doesn’t come down to the last, anxious minutes.
The Bulls got that this time from Boozer and Hinrich, and it was Belinelli finally getting the opportunity — he had been averaging four shots a game this season — and coming up big and just four points shy of his career average.
“Marco has been playing well,” said Thibodeau. “He had extended minutes (just under 40). That was about the biggest difference. He played hard, got to the free throw line, posted up, catch and shoot and I thought his teammates were searching him out, too, which is playing smart.
“We wanted to get our ball movement going,” said Thibodeau. “He (Belinelli) is very good at catch and shoot, so we wanted to play off that some. He’s proven (he can score). It was just a matter of time. Each day and each game he’s gotten more and more comfortable. Tonight, he played very, very well.”
It’s been no secret around the team how much Belinelli seemed to be pressing to impress with his new team after five years playing with mostly losing teams in Golden State, Toronto and New Orleans.
He got his first start Tuesday against the Pacers, but played just 24 minutes with none in the fourth quarter and just five shots. And that after not even getting in a week ago against Milwaukee.
Which was disappointing as Belinelli was an important addition for a relatively poor Bulls three point shooting team. But Belinelli never registered disappointment and seemed to be patiently waiting. The players seemed to feel he was a hard worker and character player, but it’s been a blur for most everyone in Thibodeau’s mad scientist rotations in the first month with the seven new players.
You could sense teammates rooting for him to get going, and it was a fast and encouraging start with Belinelli getting a spot up three on a Hinrich pass (Hinrich with seven first quarter assists to get the Bulls moving more quickly), Belinelli coming up off a downscreen for a 17 footer from Hinrich and then taking advantage of the small Cavs starting backcourt by backing down Daniel Gibson and scoring over him as the Bulls raced out to a 19-8 lead less than eight minutes into the game.
Even Thibodeau seemed thrilled and relieved as he left Belinelli in the entire first quarter and took out Deng late in the quarter, which he rarely does.
“Marco, I thought had a pretty good rhythm going,” said Thibodeau. “He had the hot hand.”
Which is the never ending search for this Bulls group, whose defense rarely slips with another fine effort as the Cavs shot 36.5 percent. Though with the active Varejao, who had 11 points and 15 rebounds, the Cavs got 14 offensive rebounds and a 22-13 edge in second chance points, an area where the Bulls usually excel.
“They play great team defense,” agreed Sloan. “They’re quick to the ball and load up in the paint. They have a lot of length and height, which has a lot to do with their defense.”
So the problem really for the Bulls is they let the other team bat. If only you only had to play defense. But we knew this was going to be an offensively challenged team in a lot of close games without a closer, not a formula for great success. But if they could get a few more easy baskets, which the Bulls finally did with 20 fast break points Wednesday, and hold onto the ball better with not so many highlight play passes, which the Bulls were a bit better at with 16 turnovers but for just 11 points, then they wouldn’t have to face so many of those late game sundowns which turned only into darkness for them.
“The part of the game we could have done better was the end of the second quarter,” Thibodeau said of an 8-0 Cavs close to bring them within 45-35 at halftime. “Other than that, we had a good rhythm and pace throughout and the defense was very good.”
High praise, indeed, from the 48-minute man.
The first quarter was about as good as the Bulls could do it with a 27-11 edge, Belinelli making shots, the defense forcing the Cavs into jumpers and the Cavs melting into a zone to try to stop the onslaught.
Going with more reserves in the second quarter, the Bulls run continued in leading 45-27 as Boozer and Noah worked well together on passing to one another. But behind Sloan the Cavs got themselves back into it at halftime down 10.
Though Noah has been a rock of security for the Bulls this season, sometimes he just works too hard. Playing against Varejao, who is leading the league in rebounds, was something of an audition for All-Star center. If Noah has an issue on defense, it’s he does too much. He tends to help everywhere. And while the Cavs and everyone else lays off Noah’s jumper, which is much improved, Noah kept jumping at Varejao’s shot fakes, losing him sometimes on drives. You hire a limo to drive Varejao to the game if he promises to shoot jumpers. But Noah chased them, nevertheless. But how do you tell someone going 100 miles an hour to slow down when you need that energy so badly?
The Bulls maintained their edge after halftime as Boozer drew a double and fired to Deng for an open three. And Noah with one of several ball fakes and drives he would make and Belinelli going hard to the basket and both getting free throws, eight in the game for Belinelli. That put the Bulls up 58-44 a few minutes into the third.
Free throws are considered one of the three easiest ways to score in the NBA along with the layup and corner three. Which obviously has made it difficult for the Bulls, whose three point shooting has been limited and who tend to pull up for jumpers more than attacking. But the Bulls did attack better after halftime, and then again late when Hinrich scored those six crucial points in a row.
“Kirk was terrific, terrific,” said Thibodeau of his cold shooting point guard. “His defense sets the tone for the team. He keeps us organized, which is huge. That’s what a point guard does.”
Hinrich also contributed a couple of steals that added to that fast break total for the Bulls and some of that fresh air of a victory without that much sweat.
The fourth opened curiously with Noah getting his fifth technical foul of the season to tie for the league lead as he erupted over a foul called on Taj Gibson.
“We can’t afford fourth quarter technical fouls,” Thibodeau lectured. “We just can’t. It’s too hard to make up. We have to clean that up. It’s an emotional game and he’s (Noah) an emotional player. But we have to control our emotions particularly late. There is an appropriate way to make your point to an official and that is something we have to learn, as a team.”
But Noah really is playing hard, and testing the limits of his own unknown endurance as he played more than 44 minutes with Nazr Mohammed proving a limited reserve and Taj Gibson struggling this season. It was the 10th time in 17 games Noah has played at least 40 minutes along with three other games at 39 minutes. Noah last season played 40 minutes three times in his 64 games. The previous season, Noah played 40 minutes or more seven times, all before missing 30 games with a torn ligament in his thumb. Noah played at least 40 minutes eight times in the 2009-10 season when he suffered from plantar fasciitis and in the 2008-09 season at least 40 minutes just three times.
So a guy is entitled to get a little touchy at times.
The Bulls, as has been the custom, got an immediate lift early in the fourth from Robinson with fast break drive and a nice bounce pass to Deng for a score to make it 83-66 with under nine minutes left. Robinson dribbled himself into a miss, and was still on the floor with more than seven minutes left coming out of a timeout. But when Robinson went on a circuitous dribbling route and then threw a pass at Noah’s toes, Thibodeau got Hinrich back in immediately with the Bulls ahead by nine.
Noah again did a terrific ball fake and turned down the lane, finishing strong for a layup. Though Noah will dunk it when gathered the rim, he tends to lob the ball up too much on drives and it was important for him to finish hard like that. Maybe it was the technical. Thibodeau had called that play for Noah with five seconds on the shot clock.
Deng, who had 22 points and seven rebounds, then slipped inside Varejao for an offensive rebound on a Boozer postup miss, grabbed the rebound, scored and was fouled, the three point play making it 88-74 with 5:08 left and about over. Though not to Thibodeau. That blown lead against the Bucks isn’t being forgotten by Thibodeau this season.
Noah then ball faked on the other elbow and drove left, shooting too hard. But Boozer followed for the offensive rebound and was fouled, making both as the Bulls were up 16 with under five minutes remaining and not having to do much more for a 10th straight win over the Cavs.
“It was huge,” Noah said of Belinelli’s play. “He started off hot, hit some big shots, got his confidence going and played great. Even in the beginning of the year, he’s somebody who works really hard on his game and never got discouraged, just kept playing hard. I’m happy that it’s paying off for him.”
This Bulls group needs every little bit if they hope to go anywhere beyond Cleveland.