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Bulls have trouble with Big D — Dirk
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 31
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Sometimes the other guy is just too good and he gets you as Dirk Nowitzki did to the Bulls Saturday with a phenomenal shooting performance, 14 of 17 mostly tough shots for 35 points in an unlikely 100-98 Dallas Mavericks comeback win.
“Contested, off balance, off one leg,” muttered a dejected Jimmy Butler. “He’s a really hard person to guard. You’ve got to challenge every one and make it as difficult as possible.”
The Bulls did, though it ended stunningly with 15 Nowitzki fourth quarter points, including the three-point winner with 2.9 seconds left to finish a 15-1 Dallas run to end the game.
“Dirk was able to free up and took us out,” said Kirk Hinrich. “He’s made a career out of doing that. This was definitely a tough loss. I thought we played with high intensity most of the game. We just didn’t finish it out.”
You can always find fault and second guess with a close loss in a basketball game, and this one was brutal if as unexpected as this Bulls team with its defense rarely loses games this way.
You can note a pair of free throws Butler missed with 15.9 seconds left and the Bulls ahead 98-97, for which Butler took blame for the loss, which was ridiculous. Ironically, the NBA Friday upgraded a Taj Gibson first quarter foul on LeBron James, not the controversial fourth quarter one, because of contact to the head. It was similar to the Vince Carter foul across the neck on Butler Saturday that led to his two free throws. The officials reviewed that one, but they didn’t call a flagrant foul, which would have returned possession to the Bulls with a one point lead after Butler’s misses.
Carlos Boozer made one of two free throws 12 seconds earlier. There was Boozer failing to grab a defensive rebound in and out of his hands with a minute left and the Bulls ahead 97-92. Nowitzki, given a second chance on the out of bounds play, made a three as Boozer and Taj Gibson got mixed up on a switch. You could point to Nate Robinson being beat off the dribble, which led Luol Deng to sink in to help and leave Nowitzki enough space for that winning three. And that was all just in the last minute.
You could point to a 97-85 Bulls lead with four minutes left after consecutive threes by Deng seemed to have wrapped up the win before the Bulls got a bit cautious and tentative with less ball movement and more quick shots and weak finishes at the rim.
“Well, we were up nine with 2:28 left, so, we have to close better,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I thought we missed a lot of layups down the stretch. Missed layups and missed free throws. We do that and then we foul 94 feet away from the basket when we are in the penalty.”
None of which even speaks to Nate Robinson dribbling out the clock on so many possessions the Bulls were left with little time to get shots or move the ball and the players failing to recognize how hot Boozer was and that smaller Shawn Marion was on him most of the time and that Boozer was able to get inside for easy scores. Yet, Boozer didn’t get a field goal attempt in more than seven minutes played in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls got 25 points each from Boozer, Deng and Nate Robinson, the latter seven of seven on three pointers in the Bulls overall season best 12 of 21 shooting on threes. Nazr Mohammed got a pair of blocks and steals and led a fast break and passed to Butler for a slam dunk. Butler, though he shot poorly, played an excellent defensive game all over the floor and helped hold O.J. Mayo to one of 13 shooting.
But the Bulls failed to win their fourth straight after their thrilling Wednesday streak busting win over Miami and fell to 39-32, sixth in the Eastern Conference and facing a potential first round playoff matchup if things stay as they are with Indiana or New York.
It happens. They played good enough to win, did mostly good things, played a strong game on the road avoiding a letdown after Miami and came from behind after the Mavs ran off nine straight in the second quarter to lead by seven.
It was a big win for the Mavericks, who are fighting for that final Western Conference playoff position as they moved to 36-37, though still trailing eighth place Utah and the Lakers by a game and a half. Utah holds the tiebreaker over Dallas and the Lakers are 2-1 with a final game this week. Several Mavs players, by the way, including Nowitzki, have stopped shaving until they get back to .500, and as hot as he was it appeared Nowitzki’s beard actually made two of those shots.
“We knew that they had hit their share of lucky shots during the game,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle of the Bulls. “Robinson hit two or three shots that he’s capable of hitting. If you give in at that point and say, “Hey, it’s just their night,” you’re never going to win a big game. But our guys hung in, hung in and kept battling. When you do that, you get a little good fortune, you get a couple missed free throws, you get opportunities to finish the game. The last play offensively was great because we wanted to save our last timeout in case we needed it. The guys came down and ran an action that got the ball moving, and then they found, obviously, the right guy, Dirk, who was able to hit a three. That’s enormous.”
Sometimes you are the bug even though you were enjoying a balmy strong day.
“I don’t think we ever let down,” said Deng. “It was just great players that made great plays. This was similar to the Kansas (college) game last night (played in nearby Arlington). I felt like we controlled the game and we lost it in the last three minutes.”
Yes, a few missed free throws, which can happen as the Bulls had an uncharacteristically poor game from the line, 10 of 18 overall. There was a questionable late foul which stopped the clock and led to free throws with 1:27 left, the Bulls up six and needing the clock to run. But there wasn’t a meltdown, there wasn’t a choke.
“I’m wouldn’t say I was nervous; I was really confident,” insisted Butler. “I’m supposed to be a good free throw shooter (84 percent). Stepped up… I don’t care what anybody says. I make those two we’d be up three. And then we make them (drive) to the basket. I did not make them. This one is on me without a doubt.”
The free throws just missed, rolled off. Yes, it was home for Butler back in Texas. But he’s been in these situations before. It was hardly the Finals. It happens. When Boozer missed his free throw earlier he’d made a heck of a play to get the offensive board among his 11 rebounds for another strong double-double, his team high 36th. That’s tied for seventh in the NBA with LeBron James. Yes, what else has the guy got to do?
So the view would be the Bulls are simply too inconsistent, beating Miami to end the Heat’s 27-game winning streak in perhaps the most watched game of the season and then blowing a lead to a struggling Dallas team and losing. Though I’d argue the Bulls are very consistent.
Because that’s what a 44 or 45-win sixth or seventh place team does, which is the pace the Bulls remain on. If you win about 45 games you generally are a good team who can beat anyone because you have a significant amount of talent. You play hard, defend and play efficiently you can beat anyone. One game; maybe two. Not a series. Because your flaws will come out, that perhaps you lack a closer or one or two big game players, that you are limited in depth or size or somewhere offensively or defensively. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be on the sub side of 50, which is generally considered the mark of excellence in the NBA.
You’ll have injuries as the Bulls have had all season without Derrick Rose, which limited the projections. And they also were again Saturday without Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli. So you credit the Bulls for another excellent effort despite the player shortage. But just because they defeated the Heat doesn’t carry forward because of who they are, who they have and who they have been this season.
They can’t afford to miss those late free throws, which can happen to anyone. They can’t afford to leave the best player open, which happens when you are so trained to help teammates. They have to play a bit more perfectly than most, and they just can’t often enough.
“It didn’t look good down by 12,” said Nowitzki. “But we made it tougher on Nate and made him put the ball on the floor a little more (doubling him off the screen) and we collapsed and got some rebounds and we had to speed the game up some. I thought Vince (Carter) was big, got to the foul line and when you’re down you want to stop the clock. We were able to get some quick scores and that’s what you need when you’re down.”
Look, Nowitzki was amazing. Yes, the Bulls could have taken better advantage of him defensively, though he gravitated defensively to players like Mohammed, whom the Bulls don’t go to offensively. They could have put him in pick and roll more to get mismatches as with his recovery from knee issues Nowitzki doesn’t move much, not that he ever did. But he is a truly uncanny shooter, one of the best ever at seven feet with an amazing ability to create space that makes him virtually unguardable when he’s hitting. The Bulls aren’t a big double teaming team, and it worked well against Miami. Nowitzki will pass, and later in the game they did bring help. But fading back off that other foot and shooting that high arcing jumper if it goes, and it was going, there was little defense. No matter which side you favored, you had to admire the scoring ability, efficiency of movement even if he can’t move much anymore, anyway, and competitive nature. Too bad the team is wasting his last best years by having broken up their 2011 title team in search of better free agents they are not likely to attract.
“The early games (1 p.m. start) usually aren’t my friend, but I felt good today,” said Nowitzki. “Got up early, had my pasta, squeezed it down at 9 a.m. and it felt good.”
And then left the Bulls feeling like some fusilli. Yes, twisted up like in a corkscrew.
“Unique skill set,” Thibodeau agreed of Nowitzki. “Seven footer, high release, big shot maker. Give him space, he’s going to make.”
The Bulls saw it from the beginning, and it’s not as if Nowitzki’s shot making Saturday was a surprise as he hit a pair of threes in the first minutes while the Bulls had some matchup issues. Boozer usually gets the lesser scorer. But starting again with the less mobile Mohammed, it was Mohammed covering Elton Brand. So Boozer got Nowitzki, and was late coming out on those early threes. But Boozer was paying Dallas back easy as their front line is awful defensively with Nowitzki, Brand and the smaller Shawn Marion.
Though the Mavs play small, Thibodeau stayed with Mohammed and he did produce with some big defensive plays clogging up the middle and stealing an early Mayo pass and dribbling out almost full court to connect with Butler. What do those Bulls centers practice?
Robinson also came on late in the first in his kind of game with Dallas not applying much pressure, going down the middle for a floater and adding his first three as the Bulls trailed 24-23 after one.
The Bulls did have some problems with the athletic Brandan Wright, who was difficult for them on the offensive boards without Noah and the Mavs went ahead 41-34 midway through the second quarter behind Nowitzki again. By this time, Nowitzki was guarding Daequan Cook as the Mavs constantly searched out the least resistance for Nowitzki on defense.
But the Bulls came back with a strong run again mostly behind Boozer and Deng and 70 percent second quarter shooting to take a 56-53 halftime lead. The 22-12 run to end the quarter included Boozer driving inside for another three-point opportunity and in celebratory satisfaction nailing referee Danny Crawford with a right that looked like Tony Zale’s hot poker to Rocky Graziano’s mid section that won the Chicagoan the middleweight title. Boozer’s actually was more glancing blow or Danny is another tough Chicagoan.
“They kept making plays on us,” said Nowitzki. “Boozer was fantastic and Nate Robinson made some shots from half court. Deng got hot, they mixed up pick and rolls and made some shots. I give them credit. They are a team that never quits playing no matter who is out for them. They are going to show up and coach has them playing hard. It didn’t look good there. We were down eight with a couple of minutes to go, but that kind of sums up our season: Never give up, keep plugging. You never know what could happen. We got some good stops and some good runouts and obviously made some big shots.”
The Bulls began to get some space early in the third quarter with a 12-2 run to start the half that included a Mohammed fake handoff and driving score and Boozer getting deep and proving almost unguardable, the Bulls taking a 68-55 lead.
Though the Bulls seemed to ignore Boozer too much, Thibodeau said the Mavs’ collapsing on Boozer opened up the three, which the Bulls took advantage of with élan.
Dallas came back putting Mohammed in some pick and roll action and pressuring a bit more, or some. This also is the issue the Bulls have battled all season with Robinson, which is hardly unusual for sixth men offensive spark players. Hinrich went out with the Bulls ahead 75-65 and the Bulls failed to score the rest of the third quarter as Robinson dribbled around coming out of the backcourt, generally leaving someone a quick shot before a violation.
But then tied to start the fourth quarter, there was Robinson to the rescue with a spectacular shooting run of 14 of the Bulls first 16 points, bailing the Bulls out. Though he now was playing more off the ball with Hinrich. Robinson’s amazing shooting included a 32-foot three pointer as the 24-second clock was running out to give the Bulls a 91-83 lead with six minutes left.
The Mavs then decided to crowd Robinson, which opened Deng cross court, and on his second consecutive three with 4:08 remaining, Deng held the shooting pose and the Bulls had a 97-85 lead. He almost had that No. 1 finger up there. Almost.
Maybe there were a few fouls uncalled as Deng and Robinson failed to finish drives. There were mixups when Wright got his own blocked shot and put it back and when Nowitzki got open. Maybe if the Bulls could make one more play, get one more rebound. They didn’t, and sometimes when you don’t a great player can beat you. Dirk did. Give him a hand.