Bulls magically return to victory in Orlando


Jan 3

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It hasn’t been the best of times, this 2012-13 NBA season for Taj Gibson, at least on the basketball court. Off the court, well, that was different as Gibson agreed to a $33 million contract extension. But in some sense that made it even worse. Because Gibson does care. Gibson has been a lifetime overachiever, right up to his contract extension, the lowest draft pick from 2009 to be rewarded.

But on the court, it’s been another story, and not a happy one for Gibson or the Bulls. The hyperactive forward has been in a sort of sleep mode. For one thing, it seemed the Bulls had decided to pay Gibson as they let Omer Asik escape in free agency. And Asik has excelled playing All-Star level basketball while Gibson has been at career lows in scoring and rebounding. Gibson was supposed to be the guy to fill in the gap left by Asik’s departure with additional play at center. But Gibson has been so inconsistent even his playing time decreased.

Taj Gibson

But that may have all changed Wednesday in Orlando at perhaps the most vital time for the Bulls. With Joakim Noah missing his first game of the season with flu, Gibson got his first start in more than a year and came through so impressively in a 96-94 Bulls victory that coach Tom Thibodeau was stuttering praise.

“Huge, huge, huge, huge,” Thibodeau repeated after the Bulls’ narrow escape that included Gibson coming across to make a game saving block on Jameer Nelson with 11.3 seconds remaining.

“Played big minutes, battled, played the five all night,” Thibodeau went on about Gibson with season highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds to go along with four blocks. “Just did a great job in all areas. Blocked shots, rebounding, scoring, executing, played a great game. He’s been playing very well as of late, too. So he’s starting to get into a pretty good rhythm.”

Which would be a huge, as Thibodeau might say, relief for both Gibson and the Bulls given how much the Bulls were counting on Gibson this season and how little he’s delivered. He hadn’t had a double figure rebounding game all season and his scoring high was 13. You knew with his character he wasn’t an NBA player to take the money and stop running. If anything, he felt grateful and was trying to show he deserved the faith the Bulls showed in him. But it wasn’t showing up much where it mattered.

Until Wednesday, and in a vital game for the now 17-13 Bulls as they play the defending champion Miami Heat Friday.

“Thibs told me this morning at shootaround to prepare the right way and focus on who I was going to guard and try to frustrate him,” Gibson said not only about starting, but matching up against former USC teammate Nikola Vucevic, who was coming off a 20-point, 29-rebound game against Miami. Vucevic had 20 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday. But Gibson held him down early, to five points and three rebounds in the first half as the Bulls were able to get control of the game with a 54-46 halftime lead.

“It was big (win),” agreed Gibson. “We were down a lot of guys and we have guys banged up. We just have to come together as a whole and try to take each game one at a time. The way we got it done in the second half and in particular the last quarter speaks volumes. I thought Jameer was going to make that layup. I am starting to feel way better. The ankle injury was nagging me, but I am feeling much better. I am just feeling more active again.”

Which would be huge, to use Thibodeau’s adjective, given the Bulls’ shortcomings on the boards of late. The Bulls have been one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA the last two seasons. They were outrebounded Wednesday 36-35, the eighth time they were outrebounded in the last 10 games. But they were much tougher and livelier against the Magic.

Carlos Boozer

Carlos Boozer had a team season high 31 points to go along with 11 rebounds and Luol Deng added 23 points as the Bulls frontcourt starters outscored Orlando’s 75-30. The Magic were led by a career high equaling 32 points and six threes from Nelson.

But the Bulls controlled most of the game, taking an 18-point lead late in the third quarter and holding off a Magic run up to a tying shot attempt in the last 25.2 seconds.

That sequence was symbolic of the Bulls effort, one that perhaps put behind the lethargic and passive efforts of recent days.

Thibodeau put in Jimmy Butler for defense late, and Butler would make a subtle but vital contribution. He hasn’t had many offensive opportunities even as he’s started to shoot the ball better. But he hasn’t let down on defense.

Nelson first came in hard from the right side. Gibson left his man, coming over to block Nelson’s layup attempt with 11.3 seconds left. The Magic loaded up again, but first Kirk Hinrich and then Butler drove Nelson and Redick off the three point line as the Magic was going for the win and Butler helped force Nelson into a runner that missed. Deng rebounded and made two free throws with 4.2 seconds left to offset Nelson’ meaningless layup at the buzzer.

“The shot was for J.J. coming off the corner,” said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn. “Jimmy Butler made a great play of coming off of Jameer and getting in J.J.’s vision. (He) still had time and kicked it to Jameer and tried to shoot something off the glass and just a little

And so perhaps the Bulls are finding their way back from a bit of a holiday funk and some illness as Noah was improved and expected to play Friday in Miami.

“Our defense is still not good,” said Thibodeau, who never is quite satisfied. “I thought offensively we played with a lot of energy. I thought the ball was hopping (an impressive 27 assists on 36 baskets). Guys were making the extra pass to each other, playing with high energy. So that was good. We had good offensive energy, and not the necessary defensive energy. It was better, but we still have to do much better than we did tonight.”

You’ve got to start somewhere, and this was as good as any after the brutal home loss to Charlotte and duds the previous week against Atlanta and Houston and Asik. The only win was a squeaker over Washington, and who knows what would have happened if Emeka Okafor wasn’t so concerned with the fiscal cliff.

The Bulls seemed to be heading off a cliff of their own making. But they got back to swift ball movement as Hamilton and Hinrich combined for 17 assists, Hamilton leading with nine as the Magic was blitzing him coming off screens. So Hamilton deftly found Boozer cutting to the basket and scoring as the two veterans were in sync on numerous two man plays. Hinrich, though he didn’t shoot well coming off missing a game with a sore knee, was vital in moving the ball and spacing the court along with Hamilton as Thibodeau stayed with Hamilton over Marco Belinelli.

“I thought Kirk battled the whole game,” said Thibodeau. “I thought he ran the team great. We had great shot distribution. I thought Rip made a number of good plays. Our primary scorers got their shots.”

That was Boozer this night as he had 13 in the first quarter with the Bulls nudging ahead 29-28.

“I thought Carlos was terrific,” said Thibodeau. “That set the tone for us. He had a huge first quarter. Carlos got going early. Rip and Kirk recognized that. When Kirk is running the team that is usually what happens. He (Boozer) gets 15 to 17 shots and if he gets that you put that in the book. If he gets the shots he’s going to score. He’s shown that throughout his career.”

Though Boozer often gets tough treatment from fans and media, he is the team’s most productive player on a 48-minute averaged basis. Boozer averages just under 30 minutes per game. But extended out to 48 minutes, Boozer leads the team in rebounding and is second among the regulars to Hamilton — and less than a point behind — in scoring.

The Bulls were getting that boost from Boozer early, but they weren’t stopping the Magic, which was Thibodeau’s issue. The Magic is in rebuilding after the Dwight Howard drama of last season. But they have good scorers in Nelson and Arron Afflalo. And Vucevic, a developing young center, has been impressive. Orlando plays primarily a drive and kick sort of game, trying for penetration and then jump shots. As a result, they don’t get to the free throw line much (the Bulls had a 25-14 edge in attempts), but they can get hot. An untypical one of eight shooting game on threes from Redick surely helped the Bulls cause.

There also were an unusual number of shots that hit the rim, bouncing up and around and then rolling in. Although everything about the equipment is supposed to be uniform, that sort of action with shots suggests the Magic could have adjusted their rims some to, in effect, soften them. Because they shot more jump shots they’d likely prefer softer rims so misses don’t shoot out long and lead to fast breaks. Now, no one is saying they’re doing anything wrong. But you don’t often see that many shots bounce around and stay on the rim.

Thibodeau rode Gibson hard with Noah out as Gibson played just under 45 minutes. Gibson also worked two-man games well with Boozer, which is something Thibodeau said he’d hoped to do this season but may be able to more now with Gibson’s improved play.

“He did it at the end of last year,” Thibodeau said of pairing Gibson with Boozer. “At the end of last year, he and Carlos played extremely well at times. It was something we wanted to get into this year and I’m hoping it’s something we can go to now.”

The Bulls led 54-46 at halftime, and then looked liked they had complete control.

The passing was as good as it’s been all season, especially on the interior, Gibson was going strong and dunking like we’d seen him in recent years and after Gibson found Boozer, who was fouled and made two with 4:39 left in the third, the Bulls led 76-58.

“We haven’t been playing well and we had guys out,” noted Hinrich. “We knew we had to be there to pick each other up. We knew it was important tonight to stay the course.”

The Bulls lost the hot Nelson some after that and Orlando closed to within 82-71 at the end of three. But Vucevic, whom Gibson would battle in USC practices, got going and Nelson continued to have the range. And suddenly the game the Bulls felt they needed to get on this trip with Miami ahead looked doubtful.

“They are a good home team and they can make shots,” noted Boozer. “They made shots. They came back and played a good game. I think we did a good job of getting stops at the very end when we really needed to. We had a nice lead. But this is the NBA. Jameer hit some tough shots. Give them credit. They fought back and we did a good job of holding them off at the end.”

The fourth quarter, in which the Bulls would finish with just 14 points, was looking like it would spoil the Bulls’ best game in a few weeks. Hinrich and Deng were a combined one of eight, and with Nelson on the outside and Vucevic on the inside, the Magic were poised to steal the game back closing within 86-84 on a Vucevic tipin with 5:20 left. Plenty of time.

But the Bulls this time strengthened.

Gibson got a dunk on a marvelous pass from Deng. Hinrich stole a Nelson pass, running out and was fouled, Boozer got a terrific pass from Hamilton for a score and after another Hinrich steal from Nelson, Hamilton made a short jumper for a 94-84 Bulls lead with 3:35 left.

The danger for the Bulls seemed passed. Seemed, it seems.

Redick came back with his only three and Vucevic got open on a missed switch and Nelson found him for a dunk. Meanwhile, Deng, Hamilton and Hinrich were all missing and getting shots off a bit too quickly. When Afflalo bounced in a three with 46.3 seconds left, the Magic had narrowed their deficit to 94-92.

But that’s when Gibson stood tall again and made that investment look pretty good.

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