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Bulls triumph and once again Washington loses
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 30
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Yes, that was a cute little group of players the Bulls had coming off the bench last season. Even gave themselves a whimsical nickname and sold some t-shirts.
But how about having a real, productive group of reserves, players who actually average double figures, which no Bulls reserve has done the past two years. How about 13 of the Bulls’ 17 fourth quarter points being scored by the reserves in Saturday’s 87-77 win over the Washington Wizards?
How about going down the stretch and shutting out the Wizards the last 4:47 with Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler leading the way?
“I feel good,” said Belinelli, who led the Bulls in scoring with 17 points, including eight in the fourth quarter with a pair of crucial threes. “When you play and feel confidence from the coach and the staff and your teammates, that makes you feel good. I’m happy because we won the game. I think we can play much better, but it was important for us to win this game.”
Much more so because it was the team with the poorest record in the NBA, the Wizards who fell to 4-24. It’s one thing to lose to streaking, tough teams like the Bulls did to the Hawks and Rockets before the Bulls got their snow day off against Indiana Wednesday. But you lose to Washington and then there’s panic. Instead, the Bulls remained tied for fourth in the East with Indiana and Milwaukee at 16-12.
So Saturday’s was a pressurized game given the opponent, who was in the second of a back to back while the Bulls were off three days. And the Wizards’ record is somewhat deceiving as the Wizards have been getting some players back from injury and do have a strong front line. Emeka Okafor had 11 points and 18 rebounds, Nene added 10 points and nine rebounds and Kevin Seraphin, whom the Wizards drafted with the pick from the Kirk Hinrich trade in 2010, banged inside for 12 points.
The Wizards pretty much beat up the Bulls on the boards, 56-49 and 16 to 13 in offensive rebounds, both usually Bulls’ strengths. The Wizards also outplayed the Bulls in second chance points, also generally a Bulls staple. The Wizards make a few more shots and they steal this game.
And then, uh oh!
But the Bulls defense remained strong as Belinelli and Jimmy Butler off the bench closed the game along with Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. That group with key plays all around pulled out the win after Okafor tipped in a missed free throw with 5:19 left to bring Washington within 79-76.
The Wizards didn’t make another field goal the rest of the way as Belinelli hit a bigtime three on a sharp assist from Hinrich with the Wizards within three. Nene then made one of two free throws, but Boozer back in the game as the Bulls’ offense sputtered, made a short bank shot on a Noah pass and Butler pretty much closed it out offensively with an 18 footer as Hinrich found him in the corner.
“I thought Marco was terrific,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He has been playing well for a long time. He hit big shots and made big plays. I thought Kirk did a great job running the team. When you are new to a team (like Belinelli), I think he was trying to fit in. He was trying to learn the system. He has already proven to be a good player in this league, so it was a matter of time. Once he had a better understanding of his teammates, and they had a better understanding of him, he is very good. He can score a lot of different ways, catch and shoot, pick and role, make plays, score in transition. We are trying to use him in a lot of different ways. He is a lot more comfortable, therefore he is a lot more aggressive. Jimmy gave us some energy. Right now we are playing low energy. I thought energy was what we needed. His defense was very good. Nazr (Mohammed with eight rebounds in 13 minutes) was terrific. Nazr and Jimmy gave us a lift. We needed their energy. Both those guys were huge for us.”
Now, you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Something’s missing. What is it?”
Oh yeah, where’s Lu? Tight game, Bulls having seen an eight-point fourth quarter lead shrink to four with 6:41 left. So out goes Deng not to return. And the Bulls pull away. I can’t recall having seen that since Thibodeau became Bulls coach.
“That is just the way the game was going,” said Thibodeau. “I thought Luol played well. It was just the way that group was going. I wanted to keep Jimmy in there.”
Actually, it was kind of a struggle for Deng, who shot four of 13 for 11 points but with six rebounds and four assists.
Deng had sustained an ankle injury against Houston and was uncertain about playing against the Pacers.
But Deng said his ankle was not a problem.
“It was good,” said Deng. “I’m glad to be back on the court. The win was huge after losing those two. It was a good bounce back for us. After those two games we played we needed that. Hopefully, the next one we’ll start rolling. I did not mind (not closing). I thought the guys did a good job.”
So did Thibodeau. Deng’s playing time has been a frequent subject of talk the last few years as Deng leads the league in minutes played and is the only player in the NBA averaging more than 40 minutes per game.
But it was perhaps a breakthrough moment for the Bulls as Deng sat more than half the fourth quarter and the Bulls pulled away to a win. There’s been much discussion about this new bench group compared to the one of the last two seasons which had become a fan favorite.
However, it’s difficult to meld as a group and produce if you don’t play much, which was often the case with these role players. But Belinelli and Nate Robinson now are averaging double figures scoring; Butler came in and made big plays down the stretch, giving Deng a rest on a night where he appeared to not have his usual bursts of energy. And Thibodeau got a solid performance from Mohammed on the boards against a team that was giving the Bulls difficulties with their size and strength.
“We are still concerned with our rebounding,” Thibodeau acknowledged as the Bulls have fallen to 14th in the league and have been outrebounded six of the last eight games. “That is a problem now. We have to get that straightened out. Every time we got a double digit lead, it seemed like we could not secure a rebound. We were doing a lot of tipping and we need to get back to fundamentals with our rebounds. We’ve got to rebound with two hands. We have got to go after the ball. Right now we are getting our hands on it but we are not securing it. We have to go back to snatching, two hands, pursuing and our guards have to get in there. We are not getting to long rebounds we’re not getting to the ball. We’re giving up free throw rebounds. We have to correct it. We got away with it tonight, but it is a big concern.”
Whatever the case, it should improve as Thibodeau used his roster more liberally.
The big return Saturday was Richard Hamilton, who’d been out a month with a foot injury.
Hamilton had nine points in just under 15 minutes, and he said he’ll remain on a limited minutes routine for a bit more. But Hamilton looked good moving and shooting, enabling Belinelli to return to the bench and give the Bulls a desperately needed scoring twosome at that position as they combined for 26 points and three of five threes.
“I felt pretty good,” said Hamilton. “It was sore, but I told the trainer the adrenalin of just being on the floor would make it easy for me not to think about the pain. I was able to get to my spots on the floor. That was the biggest thing I worried about, change of direction. But the guys did excellent jobs finding me in spots were I should be. It was surprising how good I felt the second half. The biggest part for me is stopping and going. With my style of play, I like to get under the basket, bang a little bit and go one way and change direction and go the opposite way. I knew I’d be able to shoot.”
As for Belinelli, Hamilton says they can be especially productive.
“I’m going to put pressure on him to continue to play that way,” Hamilton said. “When you (are preparing) for a team and go to the scouting report you may put a lot of effort into the guy who starts and maybe relax with the guy off the bench. But we want it where you have to worry about the both of us.”
Which raises a question some have had while Hamilton was out.
Hamilton started Saturday, but when asked afterward about he and Belinelli, Thibodeau said, “I am not sure yet. We are going to go back and forth with that. Rip was good today, taking everything into consideration and the amount of time that he has been out. I liked him particularly in the second half. He got a good rhythm going. He created separation and moved extremely well without the ball. That was a big plus. We need his minutes, we need his shots, and we need his points.”
My guess is Hamilton remains in the starting lineup, though Belinelli is emerging more as the closer. He’s come to the Bulls as something of a proxy for Kyle Korver, but Belinelli does much more with the ball, driving and finishing. And Belinelli now seems to feel comfortable taking risks on the floor thanks to being able to play the last month with Hamilton out.
In fact, before Hamilton was hurt, Belinelli had gotten a did not play/coach decision and had played eight minutes or fewer four of the nine games before that. But with Hamilton out, Belinelli averaged 37 minutes per game and scored in double figures all but one game.
“I remember the first couple of weeks of the season I was a little bit nervous,” Belinelli admitted. “Not too much confidence in myself. This is different. When there are plays for you, pick and roll, floppy, where you can create for your teammates. I feel real good right now, confident. The end of game, I like to play. I want to play a lot. Everyone wants to play. Tonight was good we won and want to keep going.”
To do so will require a lot from Belinelli as the Bulls continue to struggle to score. They rarely produce many fast break points and play primarily in half court sets. They don’t get many of those easy points that get a team over 100. So they have to defend like few others in the league, and they do. The effort Bulls players regularly put into games is impressive. Though when Thibodeau can go 10 deep with his roster, like he did Saturday with 10 players playing double figure minutes, it should help in producing the energetic play that was lacking in the recent losses to the Hawks and Rockets.
“Right now, we’re not playing our best basketball,” said Joakim Noah, who had nine points, 11 rebounds and five assists. “But we just found a way. It was a good win for us. We still have to do a better job on the boards, but the ball was moving pretty well (24 assists on 34 baskets). We’re a grind it out team and we’re happy got back on winning track.”
It was a tough start for the Bulls as the Wizards led 26-22 after one quarter. Though it was promising to see Hinrich scoring with seven points and converting a three. But Boozer didn’t get a shot attempt, which made it all the more interesting that Thibodeau brought him back down the stretch. And Boozer then produced on both ends, leading the Bulls in rebounding with 12–he and Hinrich combined for eight of the team’s 15 fourth quarter rebounds to hold Washington off–and coming up with a key steal and block late.
Though early Seraphin and Nene were having success inside, which suggests Washington will be much better as injured players continue to return. Noah did draw an early second foul, giving Mohammed a chance. And it was probably his best game. He was scoreless, but had a season high eight rebounds in his second longest stint and only one playing during crucial times. Similarly with Butler, Thibodeau gave him playing time when the game was in doubt and Butler produced.
The Bulls began to get some control of the game to open the second quarter with a group that included Belinelli, Mohammed, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson. I can’t recall ever being around a player like Robinson with this relentless activity and animation. But he makes shots off the dribble as well as threes, which is vital for a team like the Bulls that finds it so difficult to score without Rose.
Robinson made a nice bounce pass to Boozer for a score and then hit a three in the second quarter as the Bulls pulled ahead 38-33 and led at halftime 45-39, Boozer closing the Bulls scoring with a strong move past Okafor for a three-point play.
The Bulls looked for a bit after halftime like they were going to grind down Washington. And you know the team representing Washington had to be a bit distracted with the fiscal cliff negotiations. How can you ask them to concentrate on basketball!
Boozer had a pair of scores early in the third quarter, Hamilton added a three and then Boozer came strong again and was fouled, making two to give the Bulls a 60-47 lead with 6:53 left in the third. But the Wizards continued to pound the Bulls on the boards for second shots, the Bulls doing a lot of tipping instead of grabbing, which has been infuriating Thibodeau. Noah said Thibodeau instituted several new drills to avoid the tipping. But it appeared not to be working quite yet.
Late in the third, Hinrich added a three and Belinelli worked well with Hinrich for a pair of scores as the Bulls went into the fourth leading 70-63. Then it was Belinelli coming up with the big scores early in the fourth.
And then when the Wizards got within three and looked like they might steal one and give the Bulls as bad a loss as they would have thus far, it was the reserves getting the majority of the playing time and holding the Wizards to 23.8 percent shooting in the fourth quarter and Boozer with four points the only starter scoring in the fourth quarter.
“It was not pretty,” said Noah. “Both teams shot a low percentage (under 40 percent). Our defense was pretty good. There’s still a lot of things we need to do better.”
But maybe the Bulls also found some things off the bench that will help.