Previous ArticlesBulls sing the offensive blues in Memphis
Bulls have triple the fun in defeating Celtics
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 19
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
You don’t figure much that happens in the first three to five minutes of an NBA game is going to matter all that much or be worth repeating. It’s supposedly that last five minutes that matters.
And in defeating the Boston Celtics Tuesday 100-89, the Bulls weren’t even leading in the first five minutes.
They basically blew open the game to start the fourth quarter with a 16-5 run that featured three Nate Robinson three pointers and Robinson then happily skipping back on defense after the third, which gave the Bulls a 20-point lead with about six minutes remaining.
“The last couple of games I hadn’t shot the ball well,” said Robinson, who had 18 points off the bench to support Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer with 21 each. “So I told myself, ‘I’ve got to get back to my whole Peter Pan theory: You cannot fly without happy thoughts.’”
I think that’s officially the first time in NBA history a player compared himself favorably to Peter Pan, the mischievous little boy who can fly and who never ages. To say nothing of seeking out happy thoughts. However, I intend to check the NBA Encyclopedia as there were some very happy guys playing in 1949, I’ve heard.
Still, those first few minutes stood out.
Boozer opened the scoring with a layup as Joakim Noah fired a baseball pass to Boozer diving to the basket. Then Deng sprung open at the baseline and Noah pitched over for Deng’s 15 footer. The Bulls were having their own issues, as most everybody does, controlling Rajon Rondo, who finished with 26 points and eight assists.
But back to the Bulls trailing 7-4. Noah faked a handoff to Marco Belinelli, and then threw over the top as Belinelli moved past and toward the basket, the pass from Noah settling in his hands for a layup. Noah then began to dribble himself into the lane. The Celtics came, and Deng went back door down the baseline where Noah found him for a layup.
I assume it’s happened before, and Wilt Chamberlain may have done it. But I can’t recall seeing a game open with the team’s center assisting on the first four baskets, and not only that but passing on the move, off ball fakes and screens.
“Noah’s terrific,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He’s such a great passer. Without (Derrick) Rose, we consider him their point guard. He makes their decisions. He bails them out. I bet 10 times in the first half with a late clock he flashes to the ball and makes a play either by scoring or assisting. He’s just an extremely high IQ basketball player. I’ve said it for four years now, and it’s getting higher and higher.”
Noah is something of an iconoclast with a wardrobe that bounces between Paris fashion and resale shop rack items.
But on the basketball floor he’s more an energetic whimsical savant with an unusual feel for the game.
Noah finished with the second triple-double of his career with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. He added three blocks and got a warm ovation from the sellout United Center crowd when he left the game midway through the fourth quarter.
“It feels great to play well and to win,” Noah said. “Everybody’s happy right now. I always tell people I’m a point/center anyway. I always feel like I can pass the ball. I feel more comfortable with the offense, and we have a lot of people who can score the ball in different ways. Lu is a great cutter, Carlos catches almost any pass. I can throw it almost anywhere and he’ll catch it. I think it was a great team effort and we just got to keep it going.”
It was for the Bulls one of their more impressive victories of the season, especially coming off the season low scoring loss in Memphis Monday. And returning to face a Celtics team that had been in Chicago two days. Though that’s not always restful. So maybe a little assist to Rush Street.
But the Celtics are one of the Eastern Conference teams most predicted would finish ahead of the Bulls this season. And they won the first game between the teams last month. But the Bulls went to 14-10 with the victory and the sagging Celtics back to .500.
“I think we have the right group,” said Rivers. “We’re going to keep searching. But this (Celtics) team is not a good team right now. This is who we are, a .500 team. They played hard, moved the ball, took us out of everything with their effort. They cut harder. They were clearly the tougher team, more physical team. It wasn’t even close.”
The Bulls shot 50 percent and had 28 assists on 37 baskets. They outrebounded the Celtics 43-35 after being outrebounded the last three games. They dominated inside, 48-36 as the Celtics play small with no true shotblockers. And the Bulls had a 16-8 edge in second chance points. Plus, the Bulls carried the action, getting 24 free throws and making 21 for 87.5 percent. A poor free throw shooting team almost every season, the Bulls rank third in the league at more than 80 percent, which would be an alltime franchise record.
So, no, you really cannot categorize this Bulls team without Rose. They are strong on defense, certainly, though it remains an ever shifting offense in which the starting point guard, Kirk Hinrich, was scoreless with two assists and the center tied a career high with 10 assists, two more than the league leader playing for the Celtics.
“Jo was amazing,” added Boozer, who had his 13th double/double and fifth 20/10 game of the season. “Great passer. He’s probably the best passing big man in the league. Underrated, plays hard and has great court vision. He’s like a point forward for us because we run a lot of plays through him to get other guys shots. You see how efficient he is. Every game he’s getting five, six assists. Tonight was just an awesome night where he ended up getting a triple double. He’ll have a lot more games like that in this system because a lot of our stuff runs through Jo, especially with D-Rose being out.”
It, of course, remains an adventure without Rose, as it was Monday in Memphis. Though Bulls players were not particularly distressed by that loss.
“I feel we’re getting better as a team,” said Noah. “Even against the elite teams in the NBA, we feel like we’re competing against everybody. Yesterday was a hard fought game. Memphis is a top, elite team. We felt like we were right there. If we’d rebounded a little better and scored in transition… But we weren’t able to finish. There haven’t been too many times this season when a team blew us out. I think it’s only happened one time. We’re a work in progress, just holding it down until Pooh (Rose) comes back.”
The Bulls did that well Tuesday in a game in which one could see from the start they were so much more determined.
The Bulls led 28-23 after the first quarter as Deng was going hard to the basket, accumulating eight free throws and 14 points. Deng was all over, grabbing a ball amidst a scramble late in the quarter and fouled and feasting with his slashing game as Noah’s target.
It’s truly rare to find a big man with that sort of feel and confidence. Sometimes it becomes cockiness as Noah will try to complete passes in extra tight spots that result in turnovers. But it’s also Noah’s energetic play combined with that lack of fear and confidence in his feel that makes Noah unique.
“Jo plays hard,” said Robinson. “I feed off his energy every time I’m out there with him. He’s an energy guy. It’s just something a lot of coaches would love to have a guy like Jo. He had a hell of a game, a triple double. I was teasing him in the game. I was like, ‘Jo, you need to two more assists. Come on, man. Pass me the ball. I’ll get it for you.’”
But Noah didn’t need much help with seven assists by halftime.
The second group led by happy Nate, as we could call him this time, began to outwork the Celtics as well. They ran up a 13-point lead with Robinson hitting a pair of three (the Bulls were five of nine overall, all by Robinson) and Jimmy Butler with some more acrobatic plays at the rim. Still, the Celtics closed the half well behind Rondo’s shooting — yes, shooting — and the Bulls led 55-48 at halftime.
“I thought we showed a lot of toughness,” said Thibodeau. “I thought we played really hard last night, too. We moved the ball a lot better tonight and I thought that made a big difference in the game. (The reserve unit) was great, great, and we needed everybody. Even the short minutes that Marquis (Teague) played in the second quarter, I like the way that group matched up with their quickness. And having Nate and Marquis in there together was good. Jimmy Butler gave us hard playing and toughness, which we needed. Taj (Gibson with 13 points) was terrific. He defended multiple positions. Allowed us to do some switching. He made a lot of tough plays for us.”
Gibson tweaked his ankle a bit, but he said he’d be fine as he shot the ball as well as he had all season. Thibodeau even tried rookie Marquis Teague and Robinson with Robinson as the shooting guard for a bit as Boston often plays small guards. It was surprising to see Jason Terry have so little impact, though the Bulls guards played his well.
It’s also unique the way the Bulls big men, particularly Noah and Gibson, can switch pick and rolls and stay with guards. It’s truly one of the secrets to the Bulls’ defensive success.
“We wanted to get more toward the basket,” said Thibodeau about the Bulls aggressive offensive play. “That also allows you to set your defense anytime you get to the line. I like the way the ball was moving tonight, the way it was moving side to side. Our guys were unselfish. (and) 28 assists is very good. Luol got us going early, especially drawing fouls, and Joakim and Carlos running the pick and roll was very effective. “
Boozer and Noah do have something going the way both can pass and have become more adept at finding one another inside, though Noah has found a spot as a high post center with a keen feel.
I asked Noah whom he likens himself to as a player in basketball history, and he said he always enjoyed watching and playing like Vlade Divac, one of the great passing big men. Noah also said that teaming with Brad Miller helped him develop his feel and confidence for the game.
“I used to love watching Vlade play in Sacramento,” said Noah. “He’s cool, and he had that beard. And Brad (Miller) when I came here. I started understanding playing out of the pinch post. Brad, he’s probably my best friend in the NBA, he came in and knew I could pass a little bit. I was kind of struggling at that time. He told me he never was in the post. He taught me angles, guys coming off for a fake handoff, back door. He really took the time to show a young guy, which not a lot of veterans do. And I’m a hippie and he’s a red neck.”
Though Noah added that the perfect interior pass isn’t quite his favorite moment.
“It’s probably getting a rebound and dribbling up court,” said Noah. “But Thibs really doesn’t like it when I do that. I like doing it, but I’m not really supposed to and I get in trouble.”
The Celtics looked like they were going to make it another of those cliffhanger games in the third quarter when they pulled within 70-67 with 3:40 left in the third quarter. Boozer had a strong slam dunk off a Noah pass earlier and Boozer scored following a Marco Belinelli miss. But the Bulls were losing Rondo, who had 13 in the quarter.
And though the starting point guard margin was 26-0 in favor of Rondo, Thibodeau said he was satisfied Hinrich played the team game he required.
“I was impressed by his toughness and how he runs the team,” said Thibodeau. “That is how I evaluate him. He competes, he came up with the long rebound, he makes people work and sets the tone for the team. The thing that I think gets overlooked with Kirk is the shot distribution. He knows what he is trying to get to. Your primary scorers are going to get pretty good looks. He will get back in rhythm. Prior to his injury, he was shooting the three pretty well. He just needs to get his timing back.”
The Bulls retained their timing at that point as Gibson scored on a jumper when Hinrich penetrated and found him and again on a Noah pass. That helped the Bulls close the third leading 79-70, and then it was Robinson opening it up with his three point shooting in the fourth and even trying a running slam dunk from the wing later. Robinson was trying about everything but throwing a waste basket of confetti into the crowd.
“I don’t want to say I got fouled,” said Robinson. “I don’t get those type of calls. Hopefully, I get a dunk soon. I know the fans are waiting.”
We’re all waiting in a way as this Bulls team always seems a moment away from a surprise.