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No lakes in L.A. and not many wins

by

Jan 22

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It looks like the Bulls are better than the Lakers, which would have been a good thing in 1987 or before the start of this season.

“We have a good team,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau after a fun night at the United Center with a howling, stomping, dancing crowd that enjoyed more than a 95-83 win over Kobe, Dwight, Pau, Nash and the Lakers. The Bulls — still without Derrick Rose and also Luol Deng, and after losing a 14-point lead and seeing the game tied with 7:26 — left pulling away on the play of Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich, were cause for celebration.

It is getting tougher and tougher to deny, and with the Bulls tied for third fewest losses in the East, now 24-16 and with Thibodeau saying Rose is closing in on joining the team in full practices, the possibilities begin to get a bit more delicious as the team hits the midpoint of the season and All-Star bids for reserves Thursday.

Richard Hamilton

“The road for us is not going to get easier,” warned Thibodeau as he seemed to sense what everyone as thinking. “I don’t want our guys to exhale and start feeling good. This is going to be a tough road. We have to keep battling and concentrate on the improvement.”

Yes, we know, as if that’s a surprise with the ever vigilant Thibodeau, though everyone seemed to be finding their happy place:

– Hinrich led the Bulls with 22 points in easing a shooting slump with nine of 11 shooting, including two devastating crossover moves and scores against Steve Nash, yes, Kirk still has the crossover. Hinrich also had eight assists (the entire Lakers team had 15, though more on their dysfunction later) and seven rebounds, two fewer than the player former known as Dwight Howard;

– Jimmy Butler starting for Deng, who’ll probably be out another week with a hamstring strain, had 10 points, but a terrific defensive game against Kobe Bryant as Bryant was seven of 22 for 16 points and had no real impact on the game. Bryant commended Butler afterward, but clearly didn’t know his name as he called him the “young fellow.” Butler later said he’s glad Bryant didn’t say anything to him as he wouldn’t have known what to say. Butler’s teammates, led, of course by Nate Robinson, who was three of four on threes for 11 points, sang “Kobe stopper” as Butler shyly did interviews;

– Belinelli led the Bulls with eight fourth quarter points, all when the Bulls broke open the game in the last six minutes, 15 overall off the bench as the Bulls reserves had a 30-17 edge, and that was with four-time All-Star Gasol now coming off the bench (“Not too excited,” he offered about that, something you don’t hear much from Bulls players);

– Joakim Noah, who had a season high six blocks in outplaying Howard, 13 rebounds and suppressed the controversy of the last few days when he, in effect, apologized to Thibodeau and admitted not getting back into Saturday’s loss to Memphis had a lot to do with him basically abusing Thibodeau when Noah was substituted after a particularly horrid third quarter stretch. It hardly was revolutionary after that emotional overtime win in Boston and the ever emotional Noah being frustrated with the physical Grizzlies, the officials and probably the traffic on the Kennedy, Phil Jackson’s old favorite. “Thibs would never ever talk bad or say anything bad about us in the media,” Noah started out hesitantly. “That was all me. He took me out. I was emotional about it, pissed off. Probably said some things I shouldn’t have said. You learn from it, move on. So many games I did not want it to keep lingering. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have said the things I said we moved on and got a big win tonight.”

And, indeed, it was a big win as poor as the Lakers record is, now 17-24 and 5-14 on the road for a solid 12th in the West. Though four games out of the eighth spot in the West — and what chance would they have to beat the Thunder, anyway — the Lakers probably need 30 wins in their last 40 games in the tough Western Conference to get that final playoff spot. Yes, it will be tough to happen.

It’s not a good idea to read psychology and concurrence into a post game interview, but Bryant has been as quiescent under the circumstances as I’ve seen him during his amazingly competitive career.

Which is hardly to mean Bryant accepts losing. But my sense is he seems to understand this thing has gone way off the tracks and there’s no fixing it now, hardly by him as he felt behind Kevin Durant to second in the league in scoring.

Bryant said all the right things about having to make changes, being concerned, though in talking about needing to return to more post play stepped into the division existing on the team as coach Mike D’Antoni mostly disdains post play, which, of course doesn’t go all that well with his post players, Howard and Gasol.

Listening to the trio late at night as the NBA wrapped up its great Martin Luther King Day of games, the other great NBA regular season day of the year along with Christmas, not that they were demanding another coaching change, but divergent tenets are on display among very strong, independent, stubborn and mostly successful men. It’s a difficult blend.

Gasol said he wasn’t thrilled about going to the bench, though the way D’Antoni has coached for decades he hasn’t used one post man, let alone two. Typical of the salutary Gasol he said he didn’t want to put himself before the team and wanted to remain a Laker. It seems inconceivable both Howard and Gasol could stay, and certainly one has to be traded if the Lakers are to have any semblance of a team under D’Antoni.

Bryant suggesting changes to post play and half court acknowledges his apparent belief the Lakers erred in not hiring Phil Jackson. For all Jackson did for the Lakers — yes, he was well compensated — they did back out of several apparent promises, including some form of post coaching advising/mentoring position that Jackson could now get if the Kings move to Seattle as he’s close with that new ownership group. Howard, likewise, was repeating quietly and hardly seeming to have any fun that the team had to play inside/out. Yes, like in Orlando. The grass isn’t always greener even if it is a mild climate.

Noah and Butler defend Kobe

It’s not that acknowledged, but the Lakers went to Jackson on the suggestion of Howard’s “people,” whomever they may be. The Lakers had distanced themselves from Jackson because they didn’t believe he wanted to coach, and probably wouldn’t have had a change of heart to try if not for Howard’s suggestion. Though there are conflicting reports of what exactly happened, it is clear patriarch Jerry Buss overruled his management and rejected Jackson’s third return.

It doomed this Lakers’ group, and probably D’Antoni as well as the roster was so ill suited as a slow, aging team for his dynamic style of play. The said they wanted to bring back Showtime, but they forgot to get Magic and Worthy.

Again, you don’t want to read too much into moments in games — though, hey, it’s what we do as after all they are just games — but both Bryant and Howard spent extended times during stoppages of play talking with Thibodeau. Bryant praised the Bulls coach afterward, saying, “Thibs does a great job. Every time he faces me he does a great job. Most of the looks I had tonight were tough shots.”

Howard, separately, spent time talking with Thibodeau and you got the sense both imagined what it might be like with a coach who is half court, post oriented. And perhaps Thibs dreamed some as he really doesn’t have a post player anywhere near the skill level of Gasol or Howard.

And there were some very animated, and not looking so happy, conversations on the Lakers bench between Bryant and Howard, especially after Howard a few times had turned to go to the basket and got hit in the back with a Bryant pass. Howard had five shots in just under 30 minutes. He used to dunk five times on Noah in the first two a half minutes in Orlando.

“Look at the stat sheet,” Howard kept mumbling, though I couldn’t hear all the questions. He wasn’t smiling.

The way D’Antoni plays, it probably would be best to trade Howard. Though the Lakers probably have to try to resign him given Gasol will be 33 this summer and has been getting hurt.

“We’re going to have to look at some things,” said Bryant. “Probably going to have to post the ball a lot more, slow the game down a lot more. That’s just my intuition. I have to take a look at the film again. Very, tough, very frustrating. It’s embarassing… I am a big history guy. Playing here in this arena with these incredible fans, you’re in the house [that] MJ, Pippen, PJ built, to put this kind of brand of basketball on the floor is just not acceptable.”

Oh, do we love to talk about the Lakers.

But this was a Bulls night, and oh what a night it really was given coming off the Memphis loss, Deng out and Thibodeau in several rotations playing lineups I’ve never seen that included no starters and Nazr Mohammed, Robinson, Taj Gibson, Belinelli and Daequan Cook.

“The big thing is that when someone is out, the next guy has to step up,” said Thibodeau in what we hear so often media has asked if he could just record the comments for the future. “Early on, I was disappointed that I could not get more out of the guys who were coming in. That part I feel is my responsibility. The guys coming in now, Jimmy in particular, are doing much better. Nazr’s minutes were significant. Guys are doing their jobs and that is huge. Our starters got us off to a great start. Hinrich ran the team great. Joakim’s shot blocking early on set the tone. It was going to be rim protection. We had a lot of guys do good things. Rip and Marco in tandem were terrific at the two spot. We had a lot of guys really step up. Nate came in and hit a couple of big shots for us. We are going to need everyone. We have to do it collectively. We feel good about the people we have.”

It’s a frequent refrain from Thibodeau, and one that usually gets the eyes rolling. But it’s becoming more difficult to not take seriously as he keeps putting these minimum free agents up against Hall of Famers and… winning.

The Bulls got off to a 27-20 start with eight points from Hamilton, who just delights in playing his old AAU teammates from back in Philadelphia, Bryant, and six from Carlos Boozer. It wasn’t a great game for Boozer, who did score late, but was thwarted and stripped several times by Howard and Ron Artest as the Lakers are hardly horrible. The Lakers did outrebound the Bulls by 10 and shot 23 free throws to 12 for the Bulls. Boozer had 14 points and six rebounds as he was named Eastern Conference player of the week Monday. Yes, best in the East! OK, enough with the amnesty emails for a few days?

Kirk Hinrich

And then there was seven from Hinrich as he absolutely dominated Nash.

“It was a quality win,” says Hinrich, ever reluctant to mention himself. “We’ve been struggling at home. They’re a good team. They’ve got great players, but you can see they’ve got new guys and are trying to figure it out. A big win for us. It’s been tough for me (shooting 35 percent, which Thibodeau attributes to attention to playmaking at his own expense). I’m trying to run the team, do my job. I got a few more looks tonight. Every game is different. A lot of games it seems like we’ve had different guys going. I feel my job as a point guard is to make sure the ball gets where it should be going.”

It was more in the basket this time as the Bulls hit nine of 17 threes, three each by Hinrich, Belinelli and Robinson.

The Bulls kept control of the game, going ahead 47-40 at halftime. Nothing special, just running their offense, floppy, as they’re called, catch and shoot over screen for Hamilton and Belinelli, late post ups, ball movement, endless pick and rolls. The Bulls had 10 fast break points to seven for the Lakers as neither team runs much, and though new starter Earl Clark had 12 points, he’s hardly the floor spacer D’Antoni requires. Robinson did have a pair of threes in the second and flew around the court, but the defense remained good and Thibodeau remained mostly pleased.

“The nine threes are huge for us,” Thibodeau said. “They were the right ones. The ones I don’t like are the quick pullup on the fast break. In transition, if we concentrate on layups and dunks first, then post up second, then the open jump shot on the weak side. If we do it in that order it gets Carlos established inside and when we do that we’re a much better team.”

You do shake your head watching all that Lakers’ talent and not seeing the offense enough, though they are fourth in the league in scoring. But it came in the third with Bryant pushing his way in, though having to serve up seven shots.

“It’s crazy,” said Butler. At one point, I just wanted to be Kobe Bryant whenever I was little. Now I’m guarding him. It was fun, exciting. I was just trying to crowd him, make everything as difficult as possible, contest every shot, box him out, just try to frustrate him. He missed some shots he usually makes. Every time I went to the huddle, everyone was saying something to me about what I could do. My teammates never doubted me. They kept yelling, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’ I’m just playing basketball and hustling.”

But the Lakers began to, also, even as Noah worked relentlessly, fronting Howard to prevent post catches and trying to stay out of foul trouble.

“The way Joakim practiced and they way he came in early in this game I knew he was ready to play,” said Thibodeau. “He was terrific. He is doing a great job for us.”

Still, the Lakers took their first lead late in the third, were tied at 69 after three and you figured here it was coming, Kobe and Dwight and Pau with 7:26 left and the game tied at 75.

But there was Belinelli putting the ball down hard and driving, getting a pair of free throws, Gasol missing and then turning the ball over, Hinrich with a big defensive rebound again and pulling up with a 20 footer, Bryant missing, Butler hitting a catch and shoot and after Nash and Clark scoring, Belinelli, a bit of the actor, posing as he hit a three and then Noah taking the ball away from Artest and finding Belinelli again for another three and 89-79 lead with just over two minutes left. And you’d seen enough of these Lakers you knew they couldn’t score 10 points in five minutes.

“I was ready to shoot the ball,” said Belinelli. “My man lost me, I started to move. I’m not scared about that time. I was ready to shoot the ball. The first two quarters, we run (floppy down), Rip’s play right or left for me; the last two quarters just simple basketball. I was open, so shoot the ball. Everyone wants to win the game. It’s a good feeling when the ball goes in. Good for me and good for the team.”

Indeed, as the Bulls had their largest margin of victory over the Lakers in 10 years. Yes, these Bulls.

“Every time the Lakers come to town it’s a big game, a lot of electricity in the building,” said Noah. “To come and win that way showed a lot of heart. Sometimes you get caught up in yourself, but what we try to do is a five-man rotation. Everyone has to play well. I’m happy for Kirk. I know how hard he’s worked. Jimmy Boy was huge. It makes us tougher to know we have guys like that we can rely on.

“Huge,” continued Noah. “The best part about it is guys stepping up in guys’ absence. Feels great. Some guys don’t get the opportunity to play that much, want to play more, a guy like Jimmy coming in staying focused. Without him we can’t win the game. Being ready, Marco. It’s the sign of a good team.”

Yes, team.

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