Bulls shut down Knicks for third straight win


Dec 9

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Maybe Saturday’s Bulls 93-85 victory over the East leading New York Knicks wasn’t quite as good as it gets, but it was as good as it’s been this season for the Bulls.

Not only was it just the second victory over a team with a winning record. But it was the team coming off a blowout win in Miami and hottest in the East. And though Carmelo Anthony was out for New York as he was against Miami, it was the finish of four games in five nights for the Bulls with the Knicks in Chicago the last two days, the Bulls not only without injured Richard Hamilton, but Taj Gibson ejected in the second quarter with two technicals and Kirk Hinrich unable to play the second half because of an elbow injury.

Luol Deng

So it was left to Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli to play the entire second half after they’d all played 40 minutes or more Thursday in Detroit.

And there was Deng, the only player in the NBA averaging more than 40 minutes per game, fighting off J.R. Smith with a 21-footer after Smith brought the Knicks to 83-80 with 2:42 remaining. And there was Belinelli, sharing high scoring honors with Deng at 22 each, making a crucial 22 footer after the Knicks got back within 85-82 with 1:56 remaining on two Tyson Chandler free throws. And then there was Noah, battling through fatigue after his historic 30/23 double/double game Thursday, rolling down the lane after a screen and taking a pass from Belinelli to make it 89—82 with 56.1 seconds left and effectively end it for the Knicks.

“They were playing great, feeling great about themselves. They’d just beaten Miami pretty good,” acknowledged Deng about a game few believed the Bulls should win. “It was a tough one for us with Rip not playing, Taj ejected, then at halftime finding out Kirk was not going. Guys stepped up. Marco was great. I thought Jimmy (Butler, teaming with Nate Robinson for a sharp side pick and roll basket with 4:03 left) was great and Nate came in and did a great job.

“And four in five nights,” added Deng. “But last night we fought hard and are starting to get it done. It takes awhile for a team to understand how hard we have to play. I think we’re getting there. The Indiana game we lost, but I thought we played hard. We know we’re going to be in those kinds of games a lot. Guys are getting the idea of how to compete and win those games. Even though we’ve lost those games (to winning teams like the Clippers and Thunder), that first year (with coach Tom Thibodeau) I think we were 9-6 (actually 9-8 before going on to 62 wins). It takes awhile for a team to get together. I’m not saying we’ve figured it out and got it down, but we were a lot better tonight that we were at the beginning of the season. As long as we stay and continue to do what we are doing, we’re going to get better as the season goes on.”

And why not after it was the Bulls players, who should have been weary, combining to score in eight of the last 10 possessions as the Knicks were dramatically frustrated and faded with individual play and frustration over a Bulls defense that thwarted their offensive success most of this season and held the Knicks to a season low 32.1 percent shooting.

It really was a terrific plan by Thibodeau, especially considering it was coming off a Friday night game with little time to prepare other than a so called “walk through” of the Knicks tendencies at the United Center before the game.

Obviously, being without Anthony was crucial for the Knicks. But they beat Miami without Anthony, and the Bulls are without a big scorer as well. No, not Hamilton. The Knicks do seem for real with depth, especially when Amar’e Stoudemire and Marcus Camby return from injuries. Under coach Mike Woodson, who played a dull isolation system in Atlanta though with success, the Knicks have been excellent in spreading the court for three point shooting with good spacing, essentially running middle pick and rolls with Ray Felton and Chandler for penetration to attack the basket or pitch for the threes.

Felton led the Knicks with 27 points, though shooting just nine of 30. And if he were a show for Bulls fans it would be Everybody Loves Raymond for the way he continued to hold onto the ball and seemed determined to get the best of Robinson.

“Ain’t nothing they did that was so special,” Felton said afterward. “They just took away the threes. I got inside the paint like I wanted to, but at the same time, they took away the threes and didn’t let us get good shots.”

That seemed pretty special as the Knicks were third in the league in scoring, third in three-point percentage and averaging an astounding 29.7 threes per game and 12.1 makes per game, three more than the second most team.

There’s no doubt every team talks about taking away threes from the Knicks since it’s their game. But it takes not only a plan, but players willing to make the effort. The plan essentially revolved around Noah, who finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. The Knicks are relentless running pick and rolls to trigger their offense, perhaps 60 or 70 according to Thibodeau’s estimate.

Essentially operating on defense with Robinson the second half, Noah had to both string out the guard coming off Chandler’s screen but then also get back in front of Chandler to counter the dive to the rim. Chandler finished with 14 points and 18 rebounds, but the thinking was he won’t beat you, that the threes do. So Noah had to show for the ballhandler, Felton, but then get back in front of Chandler. It takes a heck of a lot of work and movement, and Noah was up to it.

“I loved Jo’s mental toughness,” said Thibodeau. “You’re asking him to defend the pick and roll, get to the rim, rebound the ball, run the floor and then play make. He did all those things and made big plays down the stretch.”

Understandably, Noah was tired afterward, though clearly satisfied.

“I was really tired out there,” said Noah. “I was tired, but it’s all worth it right now. We’re growing as a team. We need everybody. We were shorthanded, but we’re fighting. It’s all you can ask for. As long as we’re fighting, the city should be proud. Only NBA players can tell you how it feels, four in five nights no joke. But it makes winning that much sweeter. This is what you fight for. It’s always a great feeling when you’re tired and come back into the locker room and you can share with your teammates that feeling of winning a basketball game.”

Noah’s lighthearted approach to life sometimes belies what a serious competitor he is.

But he has been prepared for this season in which he ranks second to Deng among the league leaders in minutes and added 44 Saturday night.

“I really didn’t care much about Lu’s minutes last season, to be honest,” Noah laughed. “Now I have a whole new respect.”

But it’s not like Noah came in unprepared, which is to his credit.

There’s been mention of Noah having worked with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar this past summer on a hook shot, inside scoring and approach to the game. But Noah also sought out leaders in their fields for counsel and wisdom to enhance his own play and knowledge.

One Noah said he went to train with was surfer Laird Hamilton.

“My main focus this summer was getting my ankle right,” Noah said. “I was also training with different people from different circles. I was able to train with Laird Hamilton, who is a surfer. It was really interesting in the pool to work out under water with weights. He taught me to paddle surf. It’s pretty good for ankle stability. I learned so much from him in recovery, the way he trains. Talk about mental toughness. He surfs these 60-feet giants. You can go under two or three minutes. I was doing jumps under water with him. He can do 10. I can do three. But for your lung capacity I feel that’s really helped me in being able to do these pool workouts. It’s about being open minded.”

Noah said he also learned about yoga for flexibility and recovery with Abdul-Jabbar. Noah also took it upon himself to expand his potential leadership abilities and study the game more and thus spent time with others, including former Bulls coach Phil Jackson.

It’s shown up this season in relentless play far beyond minutes Noah ever has played. And again Saturday he was in the middle of the scheme, thus allowing the Bulls defenders both to run the Knicks off the three point line and so called “stay home” with the shooter and not allowing those three point shots. Taken away, the Knicks don’t have the kinds of players who will score off the dribble in starting former Bull Ronnie Brewer, who was scoreless with five shots in 16 minutes and once got stuffed by the rim, fellow former Bull Kurt Thomas with six points on mostly mid range pop shots and Jason Kidd, who had six points. Without Anthony, the Knicks other big shotmaker is J.R. Smith, who is erratic and when challenged will take the bad shot. He was four of 14 for 15 points with five turnovers. The Knicks also had been leading the league in fewest turnovers with 11 per game. But deprived of their perimeter game they too often dribbled into trouble and committed 15 turnovers.

The Bulls had 19 turnovers with Noah making nine. But you can excuse him given the incredible effort he provided in wrecking the Knicks’ interior plans.

“We played a little out of control with our offensive execution,” said Woodson. “Give the Bulls credit, though. Their defense was just solid tonight. They played great defense coming down the stretch run. I thought they made the hustle plays that they needed to make in order to win the game, and we didn’t. The Bulls didn’t leave guys tonight on defense. That meant that we had two guys with our pick and roll game with Ray and Tyson. Ray had great looks. I’ll take that anytime when he is making shots. We didn’t shoot the three pointer well. (Steve) Novak didn’t get the looks that he usually does tonight. Just give the Bulls credit.”

It also was a game that Thibodeau began to gain even more confidence in Belinelli, whom he wasn’t playing much early in the season. But with Hamilton out several weeks with a foot injury, Belinelli has shown he can shoot and he is a three-point threat.

Belinelli made four of six threes Saturday, including a 43 footer at the buzzer to end the first after Rasheed Wallace knocked in a three with 3.5 seconds remaining in the opening quarter. That shot gave Belinelli 15 points for the first quarter on six of eight shooting and helped persuade the Bulls this was a game to get against the Knicks, now 14-5, after winning the last two.

Generally with a four in five like this and with players out, a team feels good about a split. And the Bulls, now 11-8 with three straight wins, seemed to come out that way falling behind 6-0. They recovered thanks to Belinelli’s shooting to lead 26-23 after the first quarter.

“I was hot in the first quarter,” noted Belinelli. “After that I feel they closed on me. So I tried to create something for my teammates. It was a good night.”

It also raised the question of whether Belinelli playing with Hinrich is a better fit to open games than Hamilton with Hinrich. Though Thibodeau basically never changes starting lineups and once Hamilton returns he surely will start. Though that may not be until late in December.

“This is not my first year in the league,” Belinelli said, trying to remind fans he can shoot. “This is my sixth year. I don’t want to be just a three point shooter. I want to be a complete guy. Tonight, we played offense and defense, rebound, ran. That’s the way we have to play.”

With a change to the reserves in the second quarter, the Bulls offense stumbled a bit and you could almost see the Gibson ejection coming. He’s been frustrated with his declining offense this season, and early in the quarter argued with officials after it seemed he was banged hard going for a score. Though Robinson was playing more under control, which would be vital.

Later in the second with 3:40 left and the Bulls ahead 37-30 after a pair of Carlos Boozer scores (he finished with another double/double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in just 21 minutes), Gibson got two quick technicals from referee Derrick Stafford and was ejected.

Gibson said afterward he was shocked and didn’t curse or was rude in any way.

“I thought I handled it the right way, “ said Gibson. “I asked him a question. He teed me up. I went and sat down and he teed me up again. I called him by his name. I said, ‘Derrick, those were tough calls. Watch the physical play.’ He teed me up. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ He teed me up again. I did not curse or anything like that. I said, ‘Are you serious’ and went and sat back down. But I felt like I let the team down. I wanted to be out there to play D.”

That episode unhinged the Bulls some as the Knicks scored nine straight before Deng and Belinelli closed the half to put the Bulls ahead 43-41 going into the second half.

Nate Robinson

It was a surprise then when Robinson started the second half at point guard. But he would end with 14 points and eight assists along with just two turnovers and clutch free throw shooting down the stretch. The Bulls later disclosed Hinrich suffered an elbow injury in the first half and was being listed day to day, as is basically everyone. The Bulls play the Clippers Tuesday in the United Center.

Deng had a pair of tough scores in the third retrieving his own shot block for a score and a strong isolation drive, which he’s much better at this season. But the reserves, Butler and Robinson, were very good as Robinson had a three, and fighting to get a loose ball he threaded to Boozer for a score. Butler added six points in just four minutes. It enabled the Bulls to lead 67-65 after three. The Bulls then finished with Deng and Noah combining for 18 of the Bulls 26 fourth quarter points. Noah and Deng scored all the Bulls points in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter before Butler’s layup to give the Bulls an 81-77 lead with 4:03 left in the game.

From there the Bulls thwarted a seemingly out of control Felton determined to take advantage of former Knick Robinson, but without much success. Noah constantly met Felton at the rim. And then there was Deng turning the corner on a Noah handoff and being fouled. He made two for an 85-80 lead with 2:18 left, and then it was Belinelli hitting that tough 22 footer on a pass from Deng to maintain the 87-82 lead.

Since the Knicks play small with three or four guards most of the time, Boozer never got back into the game in the fourth despite playing well. Novak then missed and Robinson stole the rebound, leading to a terrific Belinelli pass to a diving Noah on a pick and roll which left the Knicks seven behind with under a minute to go and basically done. Belinelli then deflected the Knicks subsequent inbounds pass from Kidd after a timeout and it went to Robinson, who made both free throws for a 91-82 lead with 55.2 seconds left.

“In the NBA you can find an excuse every night,” said Thibodeau. “Back to back, four in five, injuries, late start, early start, no injury, too many guys, not enough guys. The bottom line is you have to find a way to get it done.”

The Bulls did impressively on Saturday.

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