Cavs show Bulls they can win without their point guard


Feb 27

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Are the Bulls, who lost their seventh in their last 10 games Tuesday at the United Center to the Cleveland Cavaliers 101-98, worn down from the demands of the season with so many injuries?

Were the players, even like the fans, too anxiously awaiting the return of former league MVP Derrick Rose after the All-Star break, as many speculated before the season?

But now with the Bulls in such a slide — outrebounded by a Cavs team without Anderson Varejao, a Cavs team that shot 52.6 percent in the second half and just under 50 percent for the game — is it even more risky for Rose to try to return when he may be leaned upon even more to come to the rescue at a time when his knee and body may not be ready for that much responsibility just nine months after ACL surgery?

Kirk Hinrich

Do the Bulls desperately need Rose to return as they fell to 32-25 and sixth in the Eastern Conference with suddenly two games with Toronto in one week in April now shaping up as vital to even make the playoffs?

But does that make it even more questionable that Rose should return with the Bulls’ lockdown defense suddenly vulnerable to even the weakest of teams and the turnovers continuing to rise, signs both of mental and physical breakdowns.

These are just some of the questions being posed around the team as it heads into the stretch run of the NBA season with a long road trip starting next week.

Back in the 1990’s for the Bulls, it wasn’t always so smooth, especially on offense. Frankly, none of the starters among Bill Cartwright, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and John Paxson were known to be able to regularly create their own offense. It’s one reason the triangle offense was so important. But it wasn’t like defenses couldn’t counter. So then, as Bulls assistant Johnny Bach famously would say, the Bulls would turn to their Archangel offense.

That’s right, someone good from above, from the Air, as it were.

As the Bulls joked back then it was the Archangel, Michael Jordan, to save us.

Rose after serious knee surgery last May is hardly in position to do so, and it might be even more uncertain to try to return when the team may be in such a stage. Though if he is cleared to play, who knows and why not. They are the same questions that have been hurled at the team and players all season.

And it seems coach Tom Thibodeau understands.

“You get what you deserve in this league,” said Thibodeau. “We’re getting what we deserve right now. Until we change that, we’re going to have problems. We’re shorthanded (now Taj Gibson could now be out two weeks with a knee sprain). When you’re down a player, you have to collectively play hard. We were doing that for a long time. Now we’ve exhaled and the results are not going to be good. We’ve got to correct that. We’re looking for mental toughness. We’re facing some adversity. You’ve got to dig down deep, get dirty.

“We’re not the only team that’s played this amount of time,” Thibodeau went on. “Every team in the league has. This is what separates teams. The teams that can get it done when they are maybe not feeling their best and still being committed to doing the job and getting it done. Those are the teams that have success. There are no shortcuts.”

This group of Bulls players is hardly a shortcut, indifferent group. In many respects, they are the league model for competitiveness, preparation and consistency. They’ve created something of a template for how the game should be played and attacked: with effort, intelligence, commitment and sportsmanship. They’ve been a marvel for excelling despite players injured for three years now, their big men in 2010-11, Rose last season and this one. In Luol Deng and Joakim Noah they have two players in the top 10 in minutes played, Deng still the league leader in average per game. Noah continues to play with plantar fasciitis and Deng with a bad left wrist from last season that many believed would require surgery. Kirk Hinrich returned from missing 10 of the last 11 games with an elbow injury that likely will be problematic the rest of the season and had 11 points and 11 assists and was three of five on threes with his elbow obviously not healed.

Nobody in this Bulls team can be accused of taking a shortcut or not having the back of teammates. But they are not machines, and sometimes there’s only so much there. Yes, the Bulls have two All-Stars in Deng and Noah as selected by the Eastern Conference coaches, and Carlos Boozer is having a renaissance season among the East leaders in double/doubles.

Carlos Boozer

Tuesday, Boozer stepped in for Gibson’s absence with 27 points, though he had just five rebounds and obviously could not match the defense Gibson generally provides as the Bulls’ top reserve. Deng added 26 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

And even after the Bulls found themselves trailing 93-86 with 4:46 remaining, they were in position to tie trailing 98-96 with 29.1 seconds left and about 15 on the clock after the Cavs deflected a pass out of bounds and the Bulls called their final timeout.

Though the Bulls mostly rode Boozer in two-man schemes with Hinrich to get back into the game in the fourth quarter, the Bulls ran Deng along the baseline in the play they usually run for Richard Hamilton or Marco Belinelli. Deng came up over a double screen with Boozer and Noah, though Noah’s was more a brush screen as he rolled into the lane. Boozer faded toward the left corner baseline. But Walton, a smart player who’s had serious injury problems, made a clever move to come out and contest Deng’s fading 20 footer. It hit the front rim, the Cavs rebounded and made two free throws. And then with a final chance with 15.1 seconds left it was Walton again, this time deflecting a lazy inbounds pass from Boozer, going after it and then throwing it off Hinrich to effectively end the game.

“Some guys came in and did some good things with Kyrie (Irving) out of the game,” said Cavs coach Byron Scott. “We knew it was going to be tough. I thought guys stepped up big time, especially Luke Walton. To me he deserved the game ball, if we were giving out one.”

Though Walton’s late plays perhaps more symbolized a weary effort from the Bulls, making the kind of mental errors we rarely saw this season. It’s oddly been often at home as the Bulls fell to 15-14 in the United Center with home losses now to with current records 18-38 Cleveland, 20-38 New Orleans, 13-43 Charlotte and 18-39 Phoenix. Those who have seen the Bulls ask how they can beat New York three times, win at Miami, Boston and Atlanta and lose games like these. It’s not so much playing down to the competition as it’s a Bulls team that generally plays beyond its own limitations and the sum of its parts. Very few had the Bulls better than a .500 team this season, and they may yet be that kind of team. But given the loss of Rose and players in and out of the lineup with the turnover of the bench and loss of Omer Asik, the margin of error became increasingly small. Adding the drain of the season to that has to have an effect.

“Tonight, I think the offense was fine,” said Thibodeau. “The defense was terrible. Their bench crushed us.”

Quick, name two Cavs bench guys.

Give up. OK, Walton. Gave you that one already. But Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights and C.J. Miles. Alonzo Gee, Tyler Zeller, Shaun Livingston, Dion Waiters (with 25 points) and Tristan Thompson were the Cavs’ starters. Yes, two rookies, an eight-year vet on his seventh team, a second year forward with no field goals after halftime and Gee, the poor man’s Bruce Bowen.

Joakim Noah

“We’re going to have to figure it out quickly, quickly,” said Thibodeau. “We can’t play one side of ball, offense one night, defense the next night. Then play one quarter. Until we get the level of intensity up and play with high energy at both ends of floor, play 48 minutes, then results aren’t going to good.”

It’s a speech we’ve heard many times this season, and anyone who has seen this Bulls group play knows they’ll try. But just how much do they have to give?

“Life is a mental grind,” Deng said with a small smile as players were repeatedly asked if they’d broken down mentally. “I’m a believer that things are not always going to go right. You don’t want to press. Things are not always going to go your way. When things don’t go right you cannot break down. As long as you get in the gym and do what you are supposed to do things will turn back around. That’s how it always is. We’re mentally tough. I don’t think that’s the issue. The problem is learning how to be at our best. We’ve shown we can do both (offense and defense). We’ve just got to get it right at the same time.”

It appeared to start as if this one wasn’t going to be that difficult with the Bulls playing inside/out, going to Boozer successfully and taking an 11-2 lead. Hamilton quietly plays a nice two-man game with Boozer the way Boozer will seal his man and Hamilton throws over the top, and Hinrich was making his threes.

Clearly, the Cavs saw how the Thunder played the Bulls Sunday, which was clog the middle, overplay the passing lanes and dare the Bulls to make long jumpers. The Cavs are not nearly as quick to get outside to drive the Bulls off the three point line like the Thunder was. But even as the Cavs behind some aggressive board work from Thompson got within 22-19 after one quarter, it seemed the Bulls had a nice pace and control to the game with Waiters having little effect and being removed early for defensive lapses.

Thibodeau clearly tried to limit Hinrich’s time. But the Cavs with the much taller Livingston went right into the post against Nate Robinson almost every time as Robinson ended up playing just 14 minutes.

Hinrich was back early in the second and energized. He had a terrific run down block on Miles and then followed that with a three to put the Bulls back on top. But the offense began to bog down some against the Cavs tight zone-like defense. Hinrich and Belinelli made threes to put the Bulls ahead 38-37 midway through the second quarter, but it was fool’s gold of a sense as the Cavs packed it in and the Bulls settled for fewer inside scores as the smaller Cavs worked up a 26-18 edge on inside points by halftime.

It was the first of several worrisome and untypical signs for the Bulls as the Cavs were getting the loose balls, more offensive rebounds and more times at the free throw line, all red flag indicators of greater aggression by the Cavs.

“We know we’re capable of much better,” said Noah. “We’ve got to find a way to win these games. No questions (it’s a mental grind). “We’ve got to find a way to play with more urgency. It’s disappointing right now. We’ve been in a long stretch where we haven’t been playing great basketball. The defense was not very good, a lot of layups, disappointing.”

Noah had a burst late in the quarter, faking and spinning for a driving dunk as the teams were tied at 48 at the half. Noah finished with nine points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks, though his play seemed to come in spurts.

The third quarter was an offensive clinic given these two teams. The Bulls shot 68.8 percent in the third, yet were outscored to go into the fourth quarter trailing 75-71. With Hinrich back the ball moved better as the Bulls had 33 assists on 39 baskets in the game.

But the Bulls could not corral Waiters off their simple pick and roll as the big men didn’t respond out. That’s where Gibson was missed most as he’s excellent with quickness and size in switches and guarding smaller players. Robinson had a nice drop off pass to Noah for a slam dunk late in the third, but the Bulls got just one free throw attempt in the quarter. And frustration was setting in as a wide open Ellington ended the third with a three, Noah slamming the ball down in response and getting a technical foul.

Then Waiters and Miles had it going with drives to open the fourth, basically no inside help and poor reaction from the Bulls on defense.

“You can’t get away with making an initial, singular effort,” said Thibodeau. “If you are not committed to making multiple efforts and playing with great intensity all you are doing is trading baskets. You are not going to be successful in this league like that.”

But, really, I think they are trying.

After getting behind 87-78 with 7:33 left, the desperation returned and it was almost for long enough before the Cavs would break an 11-game losing streak to the Bulls and three losses this season by an average of 22 points.

After a Belinelli three, Boozer scored four consecutive baskets, three on Hinrich assists. And then Hinrich made a tough 18 footer going left to bring the Bulls within 93-92 with 2:57 left.

“They played hard and they played well,” said Hinrich. “We need to get back to where we were and start finishing games and make no excuses. Every team has injuries; injuries are a part of the game. I felt good tonight. I was a little winded. The elbow felt ok.”

Waiters then hit a 17 footer over a high screen that cut off Hinrich with interior help failing to come out, Deng missed a three and the Bulls couldn’t convert the offensive rebound before the Bulls defense couldn’t keep the Cavs from getting a Gee miss and Walton on the way to his season high eight points with another jumper. That left the Bulls trailing 97-92 with 1:21 left.

Though it was hardly like the Bulls weren’t competing, certainly not now as Deng, who played considerable power forward with Gibson out, ran down Gee on a breakaway with Cleveland ahead 93-88, forcing him to look around and kick the ball out of bounds for a turnover. But the Bulls just couldn’t make one more play this time.

“That’s will,” Thibodeau said about getting those loose balls. “We’re facing some adversity. We have to dig down, get dirty. If the commitment is there and we do the right things the results will be good.”

But sometimes the mind and spirit are willing and the body, even these greatest of athletic bodies, cannot respond.

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