Bulls get through Canadian customs with a win


Jan 17

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It wasn’t supposed to be going like this, not just a few games short of halfway through the season, Derrick Rose still an interested spectator and with a roster of seven new players.

But with Wednesday’s thrilling 107-105 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors on Luol Deng’s pull up 18-footer with 3.3 seconds left in overtime, the Bulls have quietly moved into strong contending position in the Eastern Conference.

“We had a tough end to 2012 (double digit losses to Atlanta, Houston and Charlotte) and we all want to play much better in 2013 and get more wins,” said Carlos Boozer, who had his best game as a Bull with 36 points and 12 rebounds for his conference leading 22nd double-double. “And so far we are doing pretty well in January.”

Carlos BoozerThe Bulls are 6-2 in the new year, now 22-15 on the season on a pace to win at least 48 games. The Bulls have the best record among all East teams in games against Eastern Conference opponents, 18-6, and the best road record among Eastern Conference teams, 11-5 with the win in Toronto. The only teams with better road records are the Thunder and Clippers, who are one/two in the NBA overall. The Bulls have the third fewest number of losses in the Eastern Conference with more losses than only the Heat and Knicks. And the Bulls are 4-0 combined against the Heat and Knicks.

“We keep getting big leads but we are still not playing 48 minutes,” Deng said, noting how the Bulls had to pull out the win in overtime after leading by 19 late in the third quarter. “To get to where we want to get to we need to improve that.”

Dare we say where that is? And Rose is expected to return as his rehabilitation continues on pace as he travels with the team. If they can do all that without Rose, then…

Not too fast.

But then again…

Though the Bulls lost a big lead once again, they got another terrific game from Boozer, who is averaging 22.6 points and 11.2 rebounds the last 10 games and 16 points and 14 rebounds from Joakim Noah, his 18th double/double of the season. He and Boozer combine for 40 double/doubles to lead the East.

And then there was Deng not only with the game winner after suffering a sore right hamstring early in the game, but with, dare we say, a Jordanesque move with a little left arm clearout as he drove against Landry Fields for the winner. The Bulls opened the court nicely for Deng as Boozer faked a screen and then cut toward the basket, giving Deng room to isolate against Fields with the Raptors unable to then send help.

“I’ve been in the league for a while now,” said Deng. “I know what I can do and what I can’t do. When it comes to the last minutes of the game, I’m not as nervous or worried about what I’m going to do as I used to be. There’s a few things that I do well and I’m going to stick to that.”

And it saved the Bulls not only from a potentially discouraging loss, but continued the nice new year’s roll despite a weak effort off the bench with a 66-18 deficit, both Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson fouling out and relatively poor shooting down the stretch with the Bulls shooting 35 percent from the field and 58 percent on free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime combined.

But the Bulls endured with some timely defensive plays, Deng’s winner, his second over the Raptors after putting one in at the buzzer last season, and at least one fortuitous non call, at least according to the Raptors.

After Deng’s shot put the Bulls ahead, the Raptors inbounded to Amir Johnson at the top of the key defended by Noah. Johnson turned right with Noah on him and the whistle blew as Johnson drove toward the basket. The Raptors expected a continuation call and two free throws to potentially tie the game by Johnson. The Raptors actually had a chance to take the lead with 12.1 seconds left in regulation, but Johnson made only one of two. Marco Belinelli, who had mostly a rough game shooting two of nine and missing a pair of key free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime and some defensive breakdowns late, missed a fadeaway runner from about 10 feet with about a second left with the Bulls’ attempt to win the game in regulation.

It even appeared Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau might be going to Belinelli again in the overtime as Thibodeau called a second timeout after the Raptors tied the game on a Kyle Lowry floater with 8.7 seconds remaining. Thibodeau then apparently changed the play to feature Deng. Initially, the Bulls came out in something of a four corners set up with Belinelli inbounding and Deng in the far corner away from the ball. Thibodeau then called that second timeout, redrew an option and had the players set up in a stack at the free throw line.

Deng came over a double screen from Noah and Boozer to get the inbounds pass and face up against Fields. Deng drove to the right elbow, his left arm barred out a bit reminiscent of the clearout the Jazz claimed in the 1998 Finals against Jordan. Deng elevated and swished the shot for what turned out to be the win.

With 3.3 seconds still left in the overtime, Jose Calderon inbounded to Johnson off a similar stack. The Bulls defended it well. Johnson finally got the ball and with Noah playing him tightly, he moved quickly around toward the right as Noah reached across for the ball, drawing an officials’ whistle with a second left. It seemed Johnson would have a chance shooting free throws again.

But the officials ruled the foul on the floor instead of in the act of shooting. It appeared after the foul was called, Johnson took two steps toward the rim. The Raptors got the ball to inbound with a second left. Fields inbounded to Calderon, who got an open look from about two feet behind the three point line and the ball hit the back rim and bounced off.

“I hope the league looks at that,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “That’s all I’m going to say about it because it’s a very questionable, marginal call at the end of the game. We’ll see what the ruling is.”

There will be no further ruling other than the Bulls sixth win in their last eight heading into Boston Friday with the Celtics two games behind the Bulls in the standings.

“January’s been going pretty good for us,” said Boozer. “But we’ve still got room to improve.”

It would be difficult to say Boozer does with him playing his best sustained stretch as a Bull. Boozer scored 17 first quarter points to get the Bulls off to a strong start and early 10-point lead as Boozer continues to provide impressive scoring and interior play to open the court.

“Just hoopin’,” shrugged Boozer who generally disdains talk about his own play.

Which doesn’t necessarily stop his teammates.

“Los is playing at a real high level,” said Noah. “We’ve got to keep searching him out. He has been dominant for a while, playing with a lot of confidence. We’ve just got to keep getting him the ball. All of us probably have more opportunity than we usually do with Derrick being out. Now, it’s all about holding the fort down. Carlos is playing his game. What’s great is he does everything with the system we play. When we play together like that we feel we’re very tough to beat.”

The Bulls appeared that way to the Raptors as the Bulls had early success against former teammate Aaron Gray, who started at center but proved too slow for this game and didn’t return after a short stint.

Deng, who gets the best offensive player on the opponent, took on DeMar DeRozan, who started strong and kept the Raptors within 29-22 after one quarter. The Raptors, however, were having all sorts of problems controlling Boozer, who was making subtle moves sealing defenders and stepping out for open looks.

“Boozer has been doing a good job for us, getting us going in the first quarter,” said Deng. “That was one of his best games. He was big for us. When he gets points in the paint for us like that it makes the game a lot easier.”

Boozer continued the onslaught in the second quarter after a brief rest as the Bulls closed the second quarter with an 11-2 run for 52-44 halftime lead led by Boozer’s 25 points. The Bulls were dominating on the interior, leading 28-12 in points in the paint at the half as Boozer and Noah continued to work together impressively. On one play, Boozer rifled a pass down the baseline that Noah caught for a slam dunk. The Bulls at halftime had 16 assists on 20 baskets with Deng leading with five assists, including a beauty to Boozer on a fast break after a turnover.

The Raptors got a huge boost off the bench from Kyle Lowry and former Michigan Stater, Alan Anderson, who has been a big surprise for Toronto. Anderson finished with a Toronto high 27 points, including four three pointers, and Lowry with 26. But Anderson, who has mostly played around the world and finally is getting a shot in the NBA, was quietly impressed with the subtlety of the Bulls game that is one major reason for the team’s success even with losing Rose. It’s also a reason why it helps to keep the core of teams together, as the Bulls basically have done with their starters.

“The way they all talk on the floor is amazing,” marveled Anderson of the Bulls constant communication about defensive switches and help. “One through five, they talk so good and play so well especially on the defensive end.”

It’s not something that is particularly noticeable, like a LeBron dunk or Kobe three, and perhaps why Bulls players and the team often get dismissed or left off the highlight reels. But it is the kind of thing that leads to wins and the excellence this group has shown the last three seasons.

There was much talk before the season about whether Deng would even play given his left wrist injury from last season. There’s not much talk of that anymore. And then Wednesday when Deng had that issue with his hamstring in the first quarter, he not only hit the winner but played just under 48 minutes.

“I just felt like I could play through it,” Deng said. “Coach kept asking me, the training staff kept asking me how it felt. It’s one of those things. I hope it’s not serious. Hopefully it won’t be too bad tomorrow.”

The Bulls looked like they’d make it an easy one taking a 76-57 lead late in the third quarter after back to back threes from Richard Hamilton as the Bulls finally figured out a zone the Raptors were using frequently. Hamilton had 13 of his 15 points in the third quarter, though he would not return despite some inconsistencies in Belinelli’s play. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau generally prefers Belinelli on defense toward the end of the game. But Thibodeau also has said he’s managing Hamilton’s minutes more after his plantar fascia injury to have him healthy later in the season.

Boosted by Anderson, the Raptors made it a game with a 16-3 run to close the third quarter and get within 79-73. The Bulls briefly pulled ahead by 10 early in the fourth quarter. But they could not control Lowry as Hinrich fouled out and the Raptors began to surprisingly beat the Bulls on the boards, getting seven offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. With Hinrich out, Thibodeau appeared reluctant to allow Nate Robinson to make decisions with the ball. So he was playing Robinson off the ball with Belinelli playing point guard.

“They’re active, they were quick, and they were beating us to the second shot,” said Thibodeau. “You give them credit. They hung tough and they play hard all the time. The second shot, there was some frustration, too. I thought we had some calls go against us. The challenge when a team is running as many pick-and-rolls as they did, you’ve got to keep going and I thought we did a good job with that. The initial part of the defense I thought was okay. But finishing the defense, that’s where we’ve got to be better.”

Lowry got the Raptors as close as they were all game within 95-93 with 2:32 remaining on a pair of free throws. Boozer then went up strong for a score. But the Raptors came back getting a third shot to get back within two. Deng drove and was fouled, making two to give the Bulls a 99-95 lead with 1:22 left in regulation.

“The guys that have been around and seen him play a lot know that’s what he does, whatever you need,” Thibodeau said of Deng. “You need great defense, he does that. You need a rebound in traffic, he does that. You need a big shot, he does that. To me, that’s who he is. That’s what makes him such a good player.”

Lowry then suckered Robinson into fouling him beyond the three point line, but he made two to stay within 99-97 with 1:16 remaining. Belinelli was fouled going over a Noah screen, but made one of two. Lowry then got a switch with the pick and roll they were constantly using and scored over Noah to get within 100-99 with 53.8 seconds left. Belinelli was a bit soft on a drive, missing and then Johnson rebounded a Lowry miss and was fouled, making just one of two for the tie with 12.1 seconds left in regulation. Belinelli then missed the potential winner.

The Bulls took the early lead in overtime on a strong Noah tip in, got a solid move for a score from Boozer and again one of two free throws from Belinelli with 15.1 seconds left to give the Bulls a 105-103 lead before Lowry again tied it beating Belinelli. And then it was left to the veteran Deng.

“They fought hard,” said Noah. “Their bench gave them great energy. Things weren’t going our way. We had good composure out there, stayed together. (Deng) told me even before he hit the shot. He said, ‘Let’s go home. I’m going to hit the shot.’ His swag is crazy.”

Yes, maybe there is something special going on.

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