Bulls get a magical win in Orlando


Apr 16

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This Bulls team never quite has been the fancy Ferrari or Lexus or Corvette, the dynamic machine that exudes grace and style with extraordinary speed.

It could motor, especially when Derrick Rose was at the controls. But it’s been mostly reliable and strong, perhaps a little lumbering like a Volvo or Buick. But effective, nonetheless, until lately with some sputtering finishes the last few weeks with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson out injured along with Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich at times.

But as the NBA Playoffs approach this week, the Bulls finally are riding out of the shop looking sleek, the latest Monday a 102-84 hard driving victory over the Orlando Magic in one of the team’s most complete games with its most complete roster in months.

“We’re a team that has people for certain reasons and that’s why our team works,” said Carlos Boozer, who led a runaway victory with 22 points on 11 of 15 shooting. “It’s like having a car that’s missing a couple of pieces. It’s not going to run as smooth. But once we’ve got everybody back out there, once you’ve got the parts on the car, it runs pretty good. It’s great to see Jo and Taj out there and healthy and hopefully we’ll go to the playoffs healthy.

Carlos Boozer

“Our chemistry is amazing,” said Boozer. “We play really well all together. That’s one of our strengths. We’ve been depleted. We play hard and grind and we’re a good team. Healthy, we can be a great team. We’ve shown that with all the guys and all the pieces to the puzzle.”

The Bulls were cautiously optimistic about that Monday with Noah and Gibson coming off the bench after long injury absences, Noah getting six points and five rebounds in 14 minutes and Gibson with 12 points in 21 minutes.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said both could remain on a limited playing schedule when the playoffs begin this weekend, and both were cautiously optimistic of taking those first unsteady steps toward recovery for themselves and the team.

“I felt pretty good,” said Noah, who was a bit more tentative than Gibson with Noah’s plantar fasciitis. “(I) felt pretty good and just got one more, and then it really starts. So I’m just happy that my foot held up and just on to the next one. (My wind and timing was) not great, not great. But it’ll get better. It’ll get better quick. I think we’re a pretty deep team. We just need to play together, get our chemistry right, know that the last game is important, stay focused and it’s that time of year, so it’s important. We’ve got a ways to go. But we’re fighters and we’re excited for the challenge. We haven’t had this many guys healthy in a while, so we’ve just got to keep striving for improvement and I think we’ll be all right. I’ll be all right.”

Added Gibson, who conceded he started tentatively, unsure about playing with a knee brace and a bit fearful about mentally getting beyond worrying about a recurrence of his sprained MCL. But he said that disappeared quickly after an early shot block and fumble.

“I was just working my way in, picking my spots,” said Gibson. “The main thing I wanted to do was just play some defense, get our defense back because our defense was really awful the last couple games. Just contesting shots, getting off side help and it was good. I felt good. The brace is real protective. I’ve just got to get really used to it. It’s kind of heavy, but I’ll adjust.”

Yes, it was the 20-61 Orlando Magic. But as the Bulls moved to 44-37, it was as compete and effective a game as they have played for some time even with the recent wins over Miami and New York. The Bulls played smooth and easy, offense and defense effective and less the plodding affairs they’ve needed lately to remain competitive.

The Bulls moved the ball beautifully, making multiple passes to move the defense and then slicing up the Magic’s interior with lasers like Boozer’s pass to a cutting Jimmy Butler after a pair of fake handoffs. That was late in the third to give the Bulls a comfortable 72-48 lead in a game they controlled after a 14-3 late second quarter run.

“Obviously they moved the ball well,” said Orlando’s Tobias Harris. “They got us in situations where we had to slide over and help at their shooters on the floor and they were making shots. And they got more physical through the course of the game and we didn’t respond to that.”

The Bulls also played off Boozer well, moving the ball inside and out as they often talk about but don’t always do for 33 assists, four off their season best.

Marco Belinelli

“They made a lot of shots,” noted Magic coach Jacque Vaughn of the Bulls shooting 56 percent and nine of seventeen on threes. “Usually that helps offense and defense. Sometimes the game is really that simple. Shots go in, their defensive sets, we have to go against their set defense every time, and a lot of their shots made were threes. Belinelli hit some shots early, Kirk hit some shots early (they were combined six of 10 on threes) just because of the attention that Boozer, we have to give to him.”

And Boozer could concentrate on his specialty, offense, with the Bulls finally getting back their defensive interior and help defenders in Noah and Gibson.

“I thought (Noah and Gibson were) OK,” said Thibodeau. “A little winded, a little rusty. Taj seemed to pick up a second wind, so it was good. I thought both guys were very active. It was just good to have some depth, to have some guys you can play up front. Jo basically has missed a lot since the All-Star break. We sort of managed because Nazr (Mohammed) stepped up and Taj was playing effectively. But then Taj going down forced us to play more small than we wanted to. That’s the real value of Taj and Jo. When teams go small you can stay big, and then you have a rebounding advantage. That’s their strength, their defensive ability. And Taj doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is defensively, but both guys were huge.

“The thing that (their return) did was it put people back into normal position,” added Thibodeau. “I thought Jimmy (Butler, still jumping center with Gibson and Noah coming off the bench) was very effective at the four when we went small. And I think that when you’re more with your normal lineup, when you have two bigs and a normal rotation with your perimeter players, you’re going to be more fluid. When you’re constantly jumping around, moving guys in, moving guys out, this guy is playing, this guy is not playing, it’s going to be choppy.”

It’s hardly a smooth road ahead as Derrick Rose remains out and the Bulls hold their breath on injuries. But they now are looking at fifth in the Eastern Conference. They are a half game behind Atlanta. So the playoff positioning and whether the Bulls open in Indiana or Brooklyn will come down to the final game Wednesday at the United Center against Washington, who defeated the Bulls their previous two meetings. The Hawks play back to back with Toronto and then New York.

The Bulls also got 18 points and eight assists from Luol Deng, 16 points in a comeback performance from Belinelli and 14 from Hinrich. Harris led Orlando with 20 and Nikola Vucevic had 17 points and 14 rebounds.

But what was most impressive was the fluidity of the Bulls offense, moving the ball side to side with rapid precision and then squeezing the Magic on defense as the game progressed, wearing down their opponent as the team’s strength has been in their best of times.

“Overall you’ve got to give their defense credit,” said Vaughn. “They do a good job of really loading to the basketball, make you make extra passes. Overall they’re a very solid defensive team and they make you play on both sides of the floor and when you don’t they have the advantage.”

The Bulls did foul a bit much and were outrebounded with Noah and Gibson playing limited minutes and tentatively at first. But their efficiency and discipline eventually overcame any sluggishness from working in injured players and beginning to stabilize a rotation.

The Bulls began a bit haltingly, though the swift passing was there from the start with Boozer bouncing a pass for a dunk to Butler and Butler then breaking out and finding Deng on the run for a score as Deng had a block, a pair of assists, a three and seven early points.

Luol Deng

“I thought Luol set the tone at the beginning of the game making a lot of good plays,” said Thibodeau. “I thought Kirk ran the team great, Carlos was terrific on the pick and rolls, setting great screens. I thought Taj was very good, I thought Jo had some good minutes. Marco was terrific in short minutes, so we had a lot of people step up and play effectively.’’

Noah and Gibson came in late in the first quarter, Noah drawing a pair of quick fouls mostly in help situations and Gibson getting his first shot stuffed. That enabled the Magic to take a 23-21 lead after one quarter.

The Bulls began to get it together in the second quarter, especially after a stumbling start had them down 28-24. Boozer’s post passing was superb and Hinrich connected on back to back threes, first on a drive and pitch from Butler and then a long cross court pass from Robinson. Deng then fought inside Harris for a rebound and score on a Boozer miss and Butler had a pair of hard drives for free throws as the Bulls took a 49-37 halftime lead.

A word about Hinrich, who played excellent defense as Beno Udrih, who previously burned the Bulls, was just two of seven. Hinrich shot five of eight with four of six threes. It’s not a Keith Bogans watch, and it hasn’t been a great shooting season for Hinrich. But when he’s on, the Bulls win. They are now 13-1 when he shoots at least 50 percent. I happened to be talking to Hamilton about which perimeter defenders gave him the most trouble. He said it was always Hinrich the way he played up into you physically.

“We need everybody healthy and we can be a force to reckon with,” said Butler. “Jo and Taj, the leadership and the energy they bring. You see those guys yelling when a big play happens or the hustle plays that they make, just the way that they lead out there on both ends of the floor. I feel like you can put them in any situation to make our team successful and that’s them guarding a two man. They don’t back down from any challenge. I feel like that’s big. I feel like that’s big for us because we switch a lot with them, they can play multiple positions and they’re a mismatch for any team.

The Bulls came flying out after halftime behind Belinelli, who has quietly been struggling with an abdominal injury while trying to play. But this was as loose as he’s looked in a while as he hit a pair of threes and took an inbounds pass from Hinrich for a layup as the Magic looked like they were watching a roller coaster zip by.

Boozer was clever in handing off to Deng and then rolling in and getting Deng’s pass back for yet another layup, Then Hinrich drove hard from the left side, which he doesn’t often do, for a score. Hinrich found Belinelli for another jumper and then Hinrich made still another three, the quarter opening 16-6 run giving the Bulls a 65-43 lead midway through the third.

The Bulls went on to lead 77-55 after three behind Belinelli’s 14 points in the quarter and then eased the rest of the way as Gibson had a strong offensive quarter with nine points and his jump shot going as he played almost the entire quarter.

And even with his time limited, Noah showed that defensive versatility the Bulls missed as he got the strong and athletic Harris on a switch early in the fourth, stepped up and prevented Harris from getting around and forced him to give up the ball, leading to a stand still miss.

There were positive and hopeful signs for the team even as the stray hope remained about Rose.

“We can’t worry about all that, said Boozer when asked about Rose. “We’ve just got to worry about what’s in front of us. He’s doing his job on what he has to do. We’re doing our job on what we have to do and if he comes back… it would be awesome. If he doesn’t then we got to go with what we got. Even without home court I think we’re a pretty dangerous team.”

They’ll find out soon enough.

“We’re going to have to be at our best in a very short amount of time,” said Thibodeau. “I know in looking at our team we’re a well-rested team. But the question I have is are we a sharp team? We have guys who haven’t played a lot of minutes that are going to be called upon to be at their best. The moment of truth will be here shortly.”

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