Really, c’mon now. This is getting ridiculous. And I better not hear anyone in the NBA complain about the second of a back-to-back on the road ever again.
In fact, the Bulls’ relentless 93-76 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Saturday could be one of those seminal moments in NBA history, like the first morning shootaround.
Playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road, with three starters out including All-Star Joakim Noah and the East’s leader in double-doubles, Carlos Boozer, and coming off a loss in Brooklyn in which new 6-9 center Taj Gibson played all 48 minutes and new 6-8 power forward Luol Deng played 47 minutes and 56 seconds, the Bulls pulled away from Atlanta after halftime with Deng, Gibson and Jimmy Butler, the latter who played a restful 40 minutes Friday, all playing more than 45 minutes and Nate Robinson playing his second straight game of more than 40 minutes.
Yet, they were the anchors who steadied the Bulls seemingly decaying crew. Deng had 25 points and 14 rebounds, including two fourth quarters threes that gave the Bulls a 78-64 lead with about six minutes left that effectively ended it. Butler would add another about a minute later.
“I thought we played hard last night,” Deng said of the loss to the Nets in which the Bulls appeared to tire late with the surprise setbacks for Hinrich and Noah. “We spoke before the game about how hard we played. We were happy that we played hard. But we just told each other if we play hard and we don’t get the win we don’t get rewarded. So we definitely wanted to finish the whole game, the whole 48 minutes. (Being able to succeed like this is) the character of the guys on the team. We’re good guys. None of us is trying to demand or ask for the ball. It lets guys play freely, with confidence. We all encourage one another, which builds a bond where everyone can just play the game.”
Deng also had five assists, four steals and two blocks. He later drove the bus, taxied the plane out of its gate spot and suggested a lemon scented detergent for washing the uniforms.
Gibson playing center for Noah had 19 points and 19 rebounds and three blocks, coming out dunking the ball once again to open the game for the Bulls and outplaying the bigger and more famous Atlanta big men, Josh Smith with 19 points and 13 rebounds and Al Horford with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“The effort tonight just symbolizes the way Joakim and Carlos play,” said Gibson. “I bang with them in practice every day; it’s how we play. I just went out there and did my job. The other guys just talk to me about tendencies of the other team to help me out, and then I just go out and try to execute. The guys believe in me. They know what I can do. I did this when Carlos and Jo went down in the past. I’m exhausted. They kept giving me electrolytes on the bench. But I just kept wanting to play. Last night I kind of ran out of gas, but I didn’t want that to happen tonight. So I had to go out there and just play a little harder.”
Butler had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Robinson after a poor shooting game in Brooklyn had 20 points and eight assists with four threes, including 12 points in the third quarter when the Bulls broke from trailing 44-43 at halftime to a 69-60 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“As far as my shot tonight, I just try to get the ball up to its highest peak,” said Robinson of his eight of 16 effort. “That’s the way my father taught me. I think every time I shoot it I can make it. I was kind of down (after Friday). I missed a lot of easy shots I should have made. I’ll continue to relax and play (and shoot, obviously) no matter how many I miss or make.”
The Bulls moved to 29-18 to hang onto third in the East this week going into the big makeup game in Indiana Monday. So the Bulls, obviously, didn’t want to come in off a pair of road losses and with questions about whether they could win with so many starters out, though Boozer could return Monday. Sure, coach Tom Thibodeau always says the team has enough to win with and everyone’s an NBA player and next man in line and everything runs like a Deere and reach out and touch someone. OK, maybe he doesn’t always say all those things, but they seem to run together at some point.
But what else can a coach say?
Perhaps other than Nuggets coach Doug Moe to open the 1987 playoffs famously saying, “We’ve got no shot to beat the Lakers (they were swept),” coaches repeat the no excuses mantra, though perhaps not as habitually as Thibodeau. But when you lose games under those circumstances no matter the brave face everyone shows, the doubt has to exist no matter the character and experience.
After all, you’re essentially going with a reserve unit you were criticized for bringing in to replace last year’s favored reserve team. And not only do the Bulls win, but on the road and having arrived in Atlanta well after midnight on game day and Nate not having enough time to ride the Magic Mountain roller coaster at Six Flags Georgia.
They beat a Hawks team that not only had been off since Wednesday, but which has been a challenger in the Eastern Conference and now is 26-20. We don’t make much of one game during the regular season, unless, of course, the Bulls lose and Thibs played Deng too much and left Nate in too long and what the heck was Boozer doing in there and fire him!
But this has to be a devastating loss for the Hawks. OK, you can lose. But not at home by that much and to a team basically using six players (Nazr Mohammed and Marquis Teague combined for about 12 minutes), four of whom are regular reserves.
“We got totally outplayed tonight from start to finish,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew. “We played against a very competitive team. Regardless of who showed up tonight, I told our guys we had to bring a playoff game. It had to be a playoff mentality. We had to bring our ‘A’ game. Because this Chicago team, minus the guys who didn’t play tonight, are still going to come out and play at a high level. If you don’t compete at that high level along with them, they’ll run you right out of the building. From a physical standpoint, they absolutely manhandled us. They had 18 offensive rebounds (53-45 rebounding edge with Atlanta shooting 39 percent).”
Really, it shouldn’t have been difficult to beat this Bulls team on Saturday. It’s the easy plan: They’re tired, so run them, outwork them, jump on them. Make them say “Gritz!”
“I think one of our goals was to kind of wear them down,” said Kyle Korver, who was three of five on threes. “They had a couple guys that played a lot of minutes last night. It was a tough back-to-back, but they kind of took it to us. The Bulls just played really solid basketball. There’s nothing super flashy, but they execute well, they play good defense, and they play really hard.
“I (also) think we got confused on a couple of plays,” Korver continued. “They ran a couple sets just over and over again, and we weren’t able to rotate correctly. They also had a couple of guys really get it going. Nate Robinson hit some tough shots. Luol got hot. They crashed the offensive boards. It felt like all five of them for a while.”
It’s a simple observation, but, as usual, astute from Korver.
The Bulls don’t overwhelm you with a game that needs a nickname like Showtime, the Big Three, Run TMC or Lob City. The run pick and roll, they cut, roll to the basket, hard screen, ball reversal, again, back across, bounce pass, back cut, attack the board, rebound, and start all over again.
“We made a lot of good plays, the ball was moving, and our bench did what we needed tonight,” said Thibodeau, though they pretty much all started. “When you’re on the court, sometimes you have to do things for the benefit of the team that won’t benefit you. You put the team first, and you’ll be successful.”
Yet, they win the game even with an unusual of late shooting guard flameout as Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli combined to shoot four of 22. Which basically means four guys, one of whom idolizes Peter Pan, knocked out a bigger and stronger Hawks team.
“You have to give them credit,” said Horford. “They played last night. They came out and just imposed their will the whole game. They dominated both ends.
“They threw us off with four guards,” added Horford as apparently no one in Atlanta has the NBA package and failed to watch the Nets game. “They had a lot of movement. Deng is tough to guard. They just did it in different ways. When we were going to help, they were tipping in shots. They were by far the more aggressive team. They really took it to us tonight.”
Doesn’t seem right that a team should fake. And then try to take advantage. Somehow doesn’t seem sporting.
So Noah is out with plantar fasciitis, Hinrich with an elbow infection and Boozer with a sore hamstring. Who exactly did Horford think was going to play? Erwin Mueller? Wallace Bryant? Heck, Thibodeau did give even Vladimir Radmanovic, who has had some back spasms of late, a brief look.
But after that quick start and the Hawks coming back in the slower kind of game the Bulls wanted, it was the Bulls making the big shots with the livelier legs after halftime, holding Atlanta to 33 percent shooting, outrebounding them by 11 and almost doubling them in points in the paint with Deng leading the way with 10 fourth quarter points and four fourth quarter steals and wondering why games are just 48 minutes. Gibson added six rebounds and two blocks in the fourth.
“Taj is not used to the minutes,” agreed Deng, “but he’s just got to keep playing.”
It’s what the Bulls do.