Bulls cannot conquer Brooklyn


Feb 2

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It would have been a heck of a victory.

It’s one thing to have a strong bench as the Bulls have had the past few years. It’s another to make them your starters and go to guys in order to carry you against one of the top teams in the conference, which the Bulls tried to do Friday in Brooklyn in surrendering a fourth quarter lead and eventually losing 93-89 to the Nets.

“This was our second unit,” said Taj Gibson, who played all 48 minutes with 16 points and a team-high nine rebounds. “We played hard with our second unit. It shows we have a shot of winning the East. We kept fighting and fighting. But no moral victories.”

Gibson had to go all the way even with a game coming up in Atlanta Saturday, and Luol Deng went all but four seconds because Kirk Hinrich suffered a recurrence of an elbow injury and left the team to return to Chicago for examination, Carlos Boozer remained out with a sore hamstring and Joakim Noah finally gave in to another developing case of plantar fasciitis and sat out and is now wearing a familiar walking boot.

Noah missed 18 games during the 2009-10 season with the condition in his left foot, which basically requires rest. Noah Friday talking to reporters after the game was optimistic he caught this in time and wouldn’t be out long. But he remained uncertain and said he’d now just concentrate on a recovery, which is a blow to not only the Bulls but Noah as Noah is having his career season averaging 12.1 points and 11.3 rebounds and headed for the All-Star game later this month. It is in his right foot this time.

Although no one is even speculating on a return date—coach Tom Thibodeau is listing Noah day-to-day—it seems reasonable to suspect Noah will be out until the All-Star break, perhaps missing the next six games, five on the road and at home against the Spurs.

Likewise, with Hinrich dealing with a potential infection, he could be out until the break as well. He returned to Chicago to see Bulls physician and accomplished orthopedic surgeon Brian Cole and there is no diagnosis yet.

Boozer worked out before the game and said he was feeling improved. But given the sensitivity and potential for a lingering issue with a hamstring problem Boozer said he was being cautious and it seems unlikely he’d play before Indiana Tuesday.

“My foot is swelling up, bothering me,” said Noah. “The plantar fasciitis is coming back. I have issues with my foot. It’s frustrating, but I’m hoping a little bit of rest I’ll be all right. I’ve been playing through it. It started about 10 days ago. It’s been getting worse and worse. I just knew I needed some rest. It’s frustrating because I wanted to be out there, but I wasn’t able to go today.

“I’m going to take it day by day and keep working with the trainers,” Noah went on. “The most important thing with the plantar is getting a little bit of rest, staying off my feet. I’m hoping to come back as soon as possible. I know it’s hard to come back from. But I’m on it a lot earlier than I was last time. Last time, I tried to keep fighting through it and fighting through it. But this time I’m just trying to be smart about it. I knew if I would have kept playing on it, even today I would have probably have been out for a lot longer.”

Which seems something of a change among the Bulls. Not that these guys don’t care, but there’s a longer view from experience. Luol Deng confirmed the players discussed the epidemic of injuries and came to something of a decision and new tact in which they are going to back off some, not push to return so quickly like the last few years. Instead, this time know how good they are and that health starting in April is more important than any home court or positioning.

“We’ve discussed this as a team,” Deng said. “A lot of guys want to push themselves. We’re at a point now where we want to be as healthy as we can be. The last few years we’ve been able to get the (best) record with guys playing through things. But now with the experience we have and being able to go deep in the playoffs the year before we know if we’re healthy we can play with anyone and that’s the main thing.”

So as the Bulls Friday fell to 28-18, the sudden cluster of dark clouds suggests it could be a long, tough road trip through much of February. No one has said anything regarding Derrick Rose, either. But with fewer players healthy, it’s unlikely the Bulls can have any serious practices and scrimmages. Without that, there is no way Rose can get the proper work with the team. And if players are going to ease back on this three-year throttle they’ve been pushing to get right, then it also indicates that Rose perhaps should as well and begin to consider a return much later as the others strengthen themselves.

Of course, this has to be conjecture, reading tea leaves and signs as it is hardly an official policy. Nor does it attach dates. But it also makes sense. The Bulls are going to make the playoffs. Basically, all you want to do is stay out of eighth place to avoid a first round matchup with the Miami Heat. Though the way Indiana again handled Miami Friday maybe the Heat is no lock on the top spot.

Still, the way the Bulls essentially reserve unit came back from an early 12-point deficit and had the Nets reeling at home is a sign this Bulls group, as we know, retains the resilience and perseverance to maintain a strong position in the Eastern Conference standings. Currently, the Bulls are third in the East, though a half game ahead of the Nets and Pacers. Boston is eighth at 23-23 and the 76ers ninth at 20-26.

“We want them to get healthy,” said Thibodeau. “We can’t wait on them. They have to take care of getting better and the guys here have to get ready for the next game. We had more than enough to win tonight; we didn’t get it done. So we’ve got to be ready.”

It will always be the message and the mantra, as we know from hearing it from Thibodeau the last three years. But it’s worked as Thibodeau got another coach of the month award Friday, this time for January, and the Bulls despite being so short handed were suddenly in position to steal the game after the Nets dominated them early.

But Deng, who led the scoring along with Marco Belinelli with 18, and Gibson seemed to wear down some late against the Nets fresher reserves. The Bulls added six more three point misses in the fourth for a one of 14 night from long distance, and despite doing all they could with Gibson at center and Deng at power forward, the Bulls were outrebounded 40-29 with the Nets shooting 52 percent overall.

Nate RobinsonThe Bulls battled, as everyone has come to expect. Trailing 91-87 with 18.2 seconds left and the Nets inbounding, Jimmy Butler deflected the inbounds pass to Deng for a layup and two-point deficit with 15.9 seconds left. The Nets are a plodding team with Deron Williams at best an average guard these days. They have trouble scoring, and despite Gibson at center, the Nets had to take out All Star Brook Lopez the entire fourth quarter because the Bulls were too quick inside.

Then the Bulls almost got another unlikely jump ball trailing 91-89 with 13.5 seconds left. In fact, the officials initially gave the ball to the Bulls as they trapped Joe Johnson on the inbounds pass after the Deng score. But Butler coming around to complete the three-man trap attempt had his hand on the ball and a foot out of bounds. So the Nets retained possession.

Former Bull C.J. Watson, who had seven points with a fourth quarter three, made two free throws for a 93-89 Nets lead with 11 seconds left and Deng forced a three on the Bulls next possession to basically end it.

But even in the end when with four Bulls playing more than 40 minutes and basically only six guys playing with Nazr Mohammed playing just eight minutes in the first quarter and Marquis Teague six and a half minutes in the second quarter, the Bulls outworked and outhustled the staggering Nets.

“Who knows,” Thibodeau predictably said when asked about fatigue and too many minutes, his least favorite topics. “You can point to a lot of things. We were in position to win. If we choose to use that as an excuse you can. You can say, ‘Guys out, guys tired.’ Whatever. It’s the NBA; you’ve got to find a way to get it done. Whatever the circumstances are.

“I’m concerned we didn’t play defense, rebound the ball the way we should have,” said Thibodeau. “I thought our shots in the first quarter weren’t the right shots. The way we started the game we didn’t set the tone. We gave them confidence early. I thought their quickness was a big factor in getting us in a big hole in the first quarter and I didn’t want to take the chance of repeating because I didn’t think we could get out of it (thus going small). The group in there in the second quarter got us going offensively and our quickness matched up better. You have so many guys in different positions. But we have to handle that, screen, move the ball, sustain your spacing.

“The fight was good,” said Thibodeau. “I thought they scored too easily. I wasn’t pleased with anyone’s defense to be quite honest with you. That’s something we have to correct. When you’re shorthanded it’s imperative to play great defense and play hard. You can’t take any plays off. You’re undersized. You have to fight, rebound, take the right shots. I thought that long three pointer got us in the fourth quarter.”

Thibodeau was vague before the game when asked whether the Bulls might add another player. He said it might be something looked at if there were going to be long term absence problems, which cannot really be known given the nature of the injuries.

“No excuses,” said Gibson, who got pushed inside late by Andray Blatche, who had 11 fourth quarter points as the Nets reserves had 25 of the team’s 30 fourth quarter points. “Just have to get the job done and we came up short. I felt we had a great shot to win it. They just came in and were putting bodies in, played well late, made some tough shots and the ball didn’t bounce our way the fourth quarter. You’ve got to get stops on D. We kept fighting and fighting. (Saturday) We’ve got a team we beat by 50 the last game (Hawks by 39). We’ve got to jump on them early.”

The Nets were obviously thinking the same thing about the limited Bulls. Thibodeau decided to go more traditional to start with center Mohammed. But after Lopez got going early and the Bulls tried to help, Reggie Evans took advantage and the Nets ran out to a 24-14 fist quarter lead. The Bulls were lumbering around shooting just 27.8 percent. And while it was obvious Thibodeau had urged Nate Robinson, who finished with 12 points and 11 assists starting for Hinrich to be a playmaker, Robinson’s offense was suffering and he would be four of 16 for the game.

“I really feel I make a couple of shots I usually make we win,” said Robinson. “We played our hearts out, kept fighting throughout the whole game. They’re a good team, but we know we’re better than that. The bench guys coming in starting now got to be ready. Shots I had were easy. I missed a couple of layups, couple of chip shots I usually make. So it has nothing to do with running the team or legs tired. Just me missing shots.”

The Bulls recovered impressively in the second quarter in the new Nets Barclays Center, the Bulls first game in Brooklyn where the call always was “Wait until next year” for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the way it began the Bulls were feeling more of Vinny Barbarino’s, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”

Thibodeau ran more offense through Belinelli at point guard, in effect, and strong, aggressive play from Gibson with a half dozen dunks in the game, the Bulls began hitting shots. And when Williams went out late in the second quarter with a sprained ankle it looked good for the Bulls with a 42-41 halftime lead.

“I like that with twos accustomed to chasing around screens, catch and shoot,” said Thibodeau of the strategy to play Robinson off the ball.” And now they have to defend more pick and roll. With the ones they’re used to dribble/penetration, the pick and roll and now you put them in more catch and shoot. Nate and Marco can do both. It’s a plus.”

After halftime, Thibodeau came out with his small team with Gibson at center and Deng at power forward. The Bulls also began moving the ball better after it had been sticking on one side early in the game with the bigger, slower lineup. Gibson dunked twice to open the half back in his native city and Butler began to make shots with more movement. Lopez, though, with the size edge kept the Nets close and the Bulls led 67-63 going into the fourth quarter.

About midway through the third quarter, both Thibodeau and Richard Hamilton, the latter with a strong shooting and floor game but just 17 minutes, were called for technical fouls for objecting to some of the Nets tactics. Though the Bulls drive the feisty Reggie Evans out of the game with the mismatches.

Mostly playing three guards in the fourth to match the Bulls, the Nets got a big finish from Watson, Blatche and MarShon Brooks with Blatche pushing inside and Brooks with some timely shooting, particularly a 9-1 run to give Brooklyn an 81-74 lead with 5:29 left on a Blatche pump fake the Bulls kept falling for.

“Blatche was getting deep position on us and we didn’t react the way we should have. The ball got into the paint,” said Thibodeau.

The Bulls fought back behind Gibson and Belinelli scores. But a Joe Johnson late three in the shot clock and a Blatche reverse for a three-point play that looked like it could be a travel with 1:06 left about clinched it.

“MarShon and me and the whole Bench Mob, we come in and try to pick up the team,” said Blatche.

Yes, it appears Watson still is selling t-shirts.

“I thought we played well, played hard, gave ourselves a chance to win the game,” said Deng. “Toward the end when we needed stops we didn’t come up with them. Usually we get those stops. I thought we played as hard as we could. Made mistakes that cost us the game. They had depth. Jimmy made a good play. The ball came right to me.
Unlucky. Jimmy stepped out of bounds.

It’s tough (the size difference without Noah and Boozer),” agreed Deng. “The more you do it you’ll get used to it. This was a sudden thing. Not like we had time to practice. If we have to do it more I feel we’ll be more comfortable. Tonight was just playing as hard we can. We knew we’d be small inside. So it was just battling.”

It looks like it may be a battle for awhile yet.

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