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Bulls go to overtime again but lose to Memphis
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 20
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There are many great mysteries of the world, the latest, of course, the tale of the Notre Dame star linebacker and the make believe girlfriend. Though perhaps that really doesn’t compare to the mysteries of the shroud of Turin, the fate of Amelia Earhart, the Bermuda Triangle and the absence of Joakim Noah the last 23 minutes Saturday in the Bulls’ 85-82 overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
So Bulls coach Tom “the open book” Thibodeau was asked after the game about Noah sitting out, especially in the overtime, the Bulls’ third straight in four nights, when Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for seven of the nine Memphis points.
“That’s just a coaching decision,” Thibodeau said.
There was another question, which drew the response, “Coaching decision.”
Was Noah healthy?
“He’s fine,” Thibodeau said.
Then about not playing?
Well, that should clear it up.
In many respects, it was a rare playing rotation for Thibodeau, who generally is accused of running his stars into the ground. But not only Noah, but Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich barely played, either, after midway through the third quarter with the Bulls to that point basically playing one of their poorest games of the season with 47 points through three quarters.
“We probably set the NBA back a decade,” quipped Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, whose team won in a game someone had to as it continues to suffer from new ownership sabotaging them with constant talks to trade high scorer Rudy Gay. “We shot 40 percent (zero percent on threes) and they shot 36 percent, not a very good shooting night for either of us.”
It really was a pretty awful game from both teams.
Luol Deng was out for the Bulls with a strained hamstring. It is not considered serious, but he could miss Monday’s Martin Luther King Day 8:30 p.m. start against the Los Angeles Lakers. Carlos Boozer continued his run with his East leading 23rd double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds, though he was getting back slowly. Taj Gibson also had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds while Jimmy Butler in his first career start substituting for Deng played just under 48 minutes with a spirited 18 points, eight rebounds and three steals and a good defensive game against Gay.
Gay had 16 points on six of 19 shooting while Randolph had 13 points and 19 rebounds and Gasol 19 points and eight rebounds.
“It was a dogfight,” said Gibson, not meaning to be precise. “Guys were stepping up, making tough plays. The effort was there. Just a lot of long rebounds. They just executed well. They made the right plays and they made smart plays. They’re a good team. In overtime we got a couple of good shots. They just didn’t go down. We kept fighting. It was a fight to the very end. I wish we could have had some plays back at the end, but we will learn. For all four years that I’ve been here, when some goes down, another guys steps up. Jimmy stepped up last night and tonight.”
Yes, Butler had a nice finish after a tough start missing nine of his first 10 shots.
But he competed, defended and hustled.
That appeared to be Thibodeau’s point in the changes he made, though the lethargy certainly was understandable after the two dramatic overtime road wins this week, including the exciting victory in Boston Friday night. There’s more than the cliché of energy to play a basketball game. Yes, they are pros, and yes they are highly paid. But sometimes your emotions are just drained and there’s little you can do. That seemed to be the situation with Noah as I saw him several times in the second and third quarter reaching down around his knees after a good first quarter with 10 points, a sign of fatigue.
Noah was running, but it seemed more like Wile E. Coyote spinning his wheels and going nowhere.
Though out of the locker room quickly as Noah made a rare early exit before media arrived.
But who could blame him as he was going to get a bunch of questions he probably couldn’t answer.
The NBA plus/minus statistic isn’t the most reliable because as Stacey King said after being on the court when Michael Jordan scored 69 points that he and Jordan combined for 71. But Noah, who usually is the engine who drives the Bulls, recorded the poorest plus/minus of -19, meaning when he was on the court Saturday the Bulls were outscored by 19 points.
The other significant minuses were Hinrich at -15 and Hamilton at -7. Neither basically played after the third quarter, either, though Noah’s absence stood out more given Hamilton often sits late. Hinrich only played 39 seconds in the fourth quarter and 37 seconds in the overtime in offense/defense switches.
In the second quarter when Noah played 8:33 and the Bulls were outscored 26-12 to fall behind 44-34 at halftime, Noah was scoreless and without a rebound. Then in the third quarter when the Bulls managed a paltry 13 points and shot 21.1 percent, Noah played six minutes and was scoreless, going zero for four. Not that his man was doing much as Randolph had two points. But Noah was being pushed around and beaten to the ball.
Which is hardly to single out Noah as these kinds of games happen, even to the Road Runner of the Bulls. It’s a rarity and an exception, and you could see the frustration overtaking Noah with several angry exhortations toward the officials after halftime. Sometimes you’re tired and you’re just cranky. Even world class athletes.
But it’s not like the Bulls are the deepest team in the league, or even in Chicago.
It was fairly amazing to watch Thibodeau continue to put back in Nate Robinson, who played all but 39 seconds in the fourth quarter and overtime. Robinson, as we know, is an adventure. He can be very good as when he had five of the last six points in regulation, including a banked in three that was fortunate to even hit the backboard. But there also was Robinson back at it in the overtime, missing four of five shots, including three three pointers and adding a turnover.
“It was just their spirit, their fight, guarding people and organized,” Thibodeau said about the mostly reserve group he finished with. “We knew it was going to be a tough game coming in. That’s the way they play, credit to them. You have to stay disciplined and cannot allow frustration to take you away from what we are trying to get done out there. We just have to keep battling and battling and battling In the end, whatever is necessary, that is what you have to do to win. You have to get in the fight. It’s physical and you can’t get thrown around. When you get smacked, you still have to get still be able to your job done.”
That seemed like sort of an explanation for the changes Thibodeau made.
But it was quite an eclectic group that Thibodeau interestingly stayed with of Butler, Boozer, Robinson, Gibson and Marco Belinelli basically playing virtually all the wild fourth quarter and overtime, the latter that included Boozer attempting a tying three at the buzzer after the Grizzlies handed the ball back to the Bulls for yet another chance with a five seconds inbounds turnover.
The irony, of course, is Thibodeau is routinely questioned for sticking with his starters too much and Saturday was questioned about sticking with his reserves too much. Though it pretty much does depend on whether you win.
Still, it’s been a pretty good Bulls run as the team is 23-16 heading into the midpoint of the season this week without Derrick Rose. The Bulls are 12-5 on the road with winning records over Boston, New York and Miami, though now 11-11 at home. Though the last two Saturdays were losses in the third game in four nights with the Bulls playing at home Saturday on the second of back to back three of the last six Saturdays. It doesn’t explain everything, but it is something.
It’s not like the Bulls didn’t compete Saturday as they outrebounded a physical Memphis team. But the panache clearly wasn’t there to start in a fairly horrific first three quarters in which in one stretch they scored seven points in just under 15 minutes. Really, Benny shooting those half court shots backward was making way more than that.
“We had a hard time scoring,” said Thibodeau. “In the second quarter, we got in a big hole. We started the third we couldn’t get organized.”
Speaking of organizing, to say nothing of the mess with the players’ union in which the players found out you either wanted to get a maximum contract or be a member of Billy Hunter’s family.
Yes, those were bad quarters.
So how bad were they, Tommy?
“You name it,” said Thibodeau. “No defense, turnovers, poor execution, floor balance. One thing led to another.
“The hole got bigger,” said Thibodeau. “The group that went in there sort of battled back, and we wanted to ride it out to see if we could climb back into it. We were able to creep back in and have an chance to win it at the end. You’ve got a lot of new guy playing in situations they’re not accustomed to. We have to do better; we are capable of doing better. That being said, all it came down to is that you have to make a free throw.”
Same for them, as it turned out.
This was a game neither team really deserved to win or seemed much to care to. But league rules prevent ties, so they made someone win. It happened to be the Grizzlies, who shot 25 percent in the fourth quarter and then missed three of four free throws in the last 82 seconds when they could easily have clinched the game after scoring the first six points of the overtime.
The free throw Thibodeau was talking about was from Friday’s hero Belinelli, an 84 percent free throw shooter who was fouled on a drive with 31.4 seconds left in regulation and the Bulls trailing 76-75. Belinelli made one of two for the tie and Randolph missed an 18 footer to go into overtime. Presumably that second free throw would have ended it in regulation after the Bulls trailed by 10 with about seven minutes left.
But it was a brutally indifferent Memphis effort with Gay, Randolph and Gasol two of 10 in the fourth quarter. Yes, they were working hard for this one.
“It was just a hard fought battle by both teams,” said Hollins. “We overcame a lot tonight. It was just good for us to get stops down the stretch and in the overtime. They battled back the whole game.”
Yadda, yadda, yadda. Hello, did you watch this game? You scored 32 points in the second half.
Anyway, the Bulls were loping along down 60-47 after three quarters and Thibodeau had seen about enough of most of his starters. He didn’t say, but it seemed like he decided the heck with it can’t be worse and he’s going with some other guys.
Not that they played great, but they played well enough to win the game and were on the verge of doing so. As Thibodeau said, one more free throw.
Anyway, Butler after his tough first half was all over the place. His steal led to a clear path foul, free throws and the ball to end an 8-0 run to start the fourth and suddenly the way Memphis couldn’t score it was a game with the Bulls down 60-55 with 10:24 left.
Robinson turned the ball over, but then dribbled into a jumper, drove twice and missed, but then dribbled around and hit. It was Nate-Mania!
Anyway, it also was 72-72 with 2:03 left after a Belinelli three and Boozer and Butler finishing strong on drives. Then Robinson banked in that unlikely three with 1:33 left for a 75-72 lead and it did look like the Bulls were going to win a third straight overtime game.
To many, Friday’s win in Boston was fortuitous if not lucky with the jump ball call in Boston—Red has to be spinning—Hinrich walking into a loose ball jumper and Belinelli falling down for his. But this one would be amazing given the relative lack of if not incompetence, certainly indifference, displayed.
Mike Conley ran a pick and roll with Gasol, whom Gibson fouled when Boozer lost him. Gasol made both with 1:07 left after Gasol, an 88 percent free throw shooter, had just missed two. Yes, it was like that on both sides.
Robinson dribbled around and missed another, and then Gasol hit a turnaround in the lane for a Memphis one point lead with 34.1 seconds left. But Belinelli could make just one of two.
The Bulls had led 22-18 after the first quarter after the strong start from Noah. But both teams went brutal, long stretches in the second and third quarters without scoring, the Bulls worse, shooting 27.8 percent in the second and 21.1 percent in the third for those 47 points through three quarters.
But there they were again in overtime, and predictably with a a third overtime game in a row they were down 82-76 two minutes into the overtime with a Randolph tip and two Gasol scores. Of course, the question then was where was Noah, though Boozer and Gibson were playing. It seemed the Bulls were out of it failing to score on their first five possessions of overtime. But you apparently never are out of it against this lately dispirited Memphis team.
Belinelli scored on a drive with 1:32 left after Conley shot an air ball. Randolph was fouled, but made one of two for an 83-78 lead with 1:22 left. The Grizzlies got the rebound on the miss. But Conley missed again and Butler ran out and scored on a fast break on a nice outlet from Boozer to get within 83-80 with 53 seconds left. Memphis could certainly blow this.
Randolph went at Gibson and got a call, but he missed both with 39.1 seconds left. See.
Bulls now with a chance to tie.
Hinrich came in with Robinson still in, and the ball did go to Robinson, who dribbled into the middle and lost the ball. Gay got the ball and headed toward the Bulls basket. But Butler made a great recovery and stole the ball from Gay from behind with 22.5 seconds left. See.
Hinrich got the ball in this audition for a playground tournament. The ball went up court to Robinson, who fired a three, of course. It missed. But Boozer rebounded and fired out to Hinrich. He threw to Belinelli, who, oh my goodness, stepped out of bounds with 12.2 seconds trailing by three.
Game over? Of course not. Not with your Memphis Grizzlies.
This really was all happening.
Conley, their most reliable ballhandler, looked, looked, looked, and yes, five-second violation and a turnover to give the Bulls one more chance to tie with 12.2 seconds left.
Hinrich inbounded to, yes, there was Robinson again curling over the top. Robinson made the right play as Conley played him tight and Nate didn’t force a three. He ran in and made a layup to bring the Bulls within one with eight seconds left. But with everyone up to try to steal the inbounds pass, Memphis fired long to Jerryd Bayless, who ran out and dunked: Bulls down three again with 4.8 seconds left.
Robinson ran up and got a three blocked by Gay, but grabbed the ball and threw to Boozer who shot a three that… came up short.
He makes that one and you would have to have considered him for league MVP.
“We had a chance to win this game in the fourth,” said Gibson. “We had a couple of times to take advantage in overtime. We had some bad shots late in the game.”
Early in the game and in the middle of the game, though so did Memphis. It made it interesting, anyway, if also mysterious.