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Bulls head for playoffs with win over Washington
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 18
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The common refrain, actually a cliché about the NBA, is the playoffs begin a new season and nothing much matters before then. If so, the Bulls will sign onto that as they finished a difficult, irregular and probably their most injury plagued season ever Wednesday with a 95-92 victory over the Washington Wizards.
The Bulls will open the playoffs 7 p.m. Saturday in Brooklyn. Game 2 will be Monday with Games 3 and 4 back in the United Center Thursday and Saturday.
“I like having the problem of trying to decide on a rotation,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as the Bulls will go into the playoffs as healthy as they have been all season with everyone playing but, you’d assume, Derrick Rose. “You’d like to have everyone completely healthy. But I’ll take what we have. I would prefer to have (Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) for 30 plus minutes. But having them back is a big plus for us. Whatever they can give us I feel confident they will get better and better as time goes along. We’re just trying to figure out the best thing in terms of where his (Noah’s) minutes are. We may adjust them as we go. I want to think it through. He (Joakim) didn’t score (against Washington). But I like the way he was moving out there.”
Noah was in his second game back from nursing his plantar fasciitis and played a tentative 14 minutes with zero points and one rebound. He seems to be pacing himself more for conditioning and getting the feel of playing with his foot problem. Gibson was returning from his knee sprain and had eight points and four rebounds in 21 minutes and came on the longer he was in the game. Health, or the lack of it for many players, was the story of this 2012-13 Bulls season. The internal consensus seems to be, especially against a Nets team against whom they were 3-1 despite three to five regulars out in every game, if the Bulls can field a full team even without Rose they can make something of a playoff run.
Of course, if the Bulls were to win the series with the Nets, which they will come in as underdogs with the fifth seed and without the home court edge, they presumably would face the Miami Heat, who play the Milwaukee Bucks. That seems largely the reason the Atlanta Hawks benched virtually their entire team the last two games to lose and get out of the bracket with Miami. Atlanta will open in Indiana.
But first things first, that being a trip to Brooklyn for a Bulls team that Wednesday blew out to a 21-point first quarter lead and then hung on after the Wizards tied the game at 85 with 3:19 left. But the Wizards never did get a lead in the game as the Bulls went on a 7-0 run from there highlighted by a Richard Hamilton lob for a Jimmy Butler dunk, a Luol Deng three and Gibson coming out to block a potential tying three by high scorer A.J. Price with 10.1 seconds left.
“It surprised me that he was able to get out there and get a piece of it,” said Price, who had a career high 24 points. “I thought I had made enough room to get it off. Give him credit for great effort as he got a piece of it and stopped my shot.”
It was a strong sign for Gibson, now wearing a brace to protect his knee.
“We’ve just got to be ready,” said Gibson, who grew up just blocks from the Nets new arena in Brooklyn. “Every year is a different year. It seems it’s always something with this team. I’m hoping we can get guys right and when my number is called get in there. It’s unreal (returning for a playoff game). I’m changing my number tonight. It’s going to be unreal being home around a lot of friends and family. But it’s not a vacation. It’s about going home and playing on front of family and friends and getting a win.”
The Bulls Wednesday in closing the season at 45-37 got 19 points and 15 rebounds from Carlos Boozer for his 44th double-double of the season and an average of 18.7 points and 12.3 rebounds the last 16 games. Nazr Mohammed was a big surprise starting for Noah with a season high 17 points, including nine in the first quarter which he added to Kirk Hinrich’s 10 to get that big lead. Hinrich was seven of nine and the Bulls are now 14-1 when he shoots at least 50 percent. He added 18 points and Jimmy Butler had another solid game with 13 points.
“That was the one plus about Joakim and Taj being out, it allowed Nazr to get into rhythm,” said Thibodeau as Mohammed could have a big role against the Nets Brook Lopez. “He has done a great job all season. He was just working even when he wasn’t playing and how he handled himself and the way he kept working on his game. Then when the opportunity presented itself, he was right and ready. He took full advantage of it and played extremely well. That helped carry us when Jo and Taj went out. They (games against the Nets) were tough hard fought games. Sometimes it’s make or miss. The last game we won, I thought we played well. But they played well, too. Lopez got a good look at it (to tie the game at the buzzer). Make or miss. We’ve got to be ready.”
Given that three of the four games between the teams this season were settled by four points or fewer and the Nets had double digit leads in all the games, it would seem most, if not all, will come down to the last minutes. Though that’s the way first round four/five matchups are supposed to be as those should be the most evenly matched teams. The Nets, though they are in the middle of the league in scoring, have the potential to be a big strike team with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. They all are offensive oriented players, though all like to play isolation and dominate the ball. It thus will be on the Bulls defense to react and help as the Nets’ offense has been coming on strong the last month with the Nets scoring at least 100 points in eight of their last 10 games and six of their last seven. They closed the season winning six of those last seven.
“They are really good,” said Thibodeau. “They are the higher seed; they earned it. We are going to have to be ready. They play hard. You have Lopez is a low post presence and Deron Williams off the dribble, Joe Johnson off the dribble and have a lot of other guys who are very, very good basketball players. To the outsiders there is more stock (in the fact we won the season series), There are a lot of things that go into it in the regular season. Are they on the road? Is it a back to back? Four in five? Do they have guys out? Do we have guys out? There are a lot of variables you look at. I think much more important is how you are playing at the end of the season and who is healthy for you. They are a good team. They hit a lull at the beginning of the season when they had their injuries, but they are tough. They have size and they have quality depth. We are going to have to play a complete game. Deron Williams has been in a lot of big playoff games, Joe Johnson. Its not going to impact those guys. They know what playoff basketball all about. Keith Bogans, C. J. (Watson). You have guys with experience. They’ll be ready; we’ll be ready. That’s what makes the playoffs so exciting.”
So it’s perhaps an appropriate denouement to an unusual and in many respects rewarding season for the Bulls facing so many injuries and the loss and uncertainty regarding Rose all season. Still they had big wins over Miami and New York and big losses to teams like Charlotte, Sacramento and Phoenix. But the team responded with gritty performances and resiliency.
“I’m really proud of the season because it wasn’t easy,” said Noah. “We’ve been through a lot. There were a lot of distractions, a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries. Regardless of what was thrown at us we fought hard throughout it all. I’m really proud of my teammates for that. There were times guys were looking at our team and laughing there were like seven or eight guys on the bench. We never gave up. We weren’t supposed to even make the playoffs. That’s something everybody should be proud of. Now it’s playoff time. Let’s go!
“We’re confident against anybody,” said Noah. “We proved this year we can beat the best; we can lose to the worst.”
Noah said his foot was improved and he was looking toward the next two days for progress.
“Still rusty,” added Noah, who sat out both games in Brooklyn. “These three days will be crucial to get some work in, get ready for these playoffs. I’m just happy that I didn’t have too much pain in my foot. I wish I would have gotten more (time on the court), but it is what it is. I’m just happy my foot didn’t flare up too much on me tonight. We’ll see where it goes. Just doing all my treatments, When the game is over just keep my foot up, rest. It’s a tough situation. It (stinks) to be not at 100 percent, but I’m going to give everything I got every night for the team and it’s what it’s all about. I just got to take it slow and right now there is no time to take it slow, The regular season is just to get ready for the playoffs. Very excited I get to go home and play in front of my family and in front of my friends. I’m cool with whatever (starting or coming off the bench). We know Brooklyn is a hell of a team. We’re excited for the opportunity.”
And so it is time. And in the cauldron of the playoffs, the Bulls feel in some respects this was the kind of season to prepare them. Perhaps not many others do. But they like their chances.
“We had a season where we could have went downhill,” said Deng. “But I thought guys stepped up when guys hurt got hurt. To get 45 wins with all the injuries and different lineups and getting used to playing with everyone I thought we did a great job. That’s a very good, very talented (Nets team). They’ve got home court. So we’ve got to go in with the right mindset and play our best.”