Bulls remain undefeated with win over Thunder


Oct 24

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The Bulls preseason, really, their whole season, was to be the story of Derrick Rose’s return from knee surgery and his subsequent play.

That, remarkably, has become something of an ancillary concern with the team’s 104-95 victory Wednesday over the Thunder in Wichita, Kansas and another superlative Rose game. Rose scored 26 points including 13 in the fourth quarter with a trio of three pointers, all in the last four minutes after the Thunder had taken the lead for the first time since early in the game. Rose is now averaging almost 22 points in about 26 minutes per game.

“Derrick showed good patience, I thought,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “His shot wasn’t dropping early. He worked the game and made things happen down the stretch.”

“We’re going to be good,” said Deng. “The question is how good can we be.”

“We’re going to be good,” said Deng. “The question is how good can we be.”

So we know Rose is good.

What about the rest of the team?

Carlos Boozer had his most aggressive game of the preseason with 20 points and 14 rebounds and Luol Deng matched him with 20 points. Jimmy Butler returned to starting shooting guard after missing three games with a knee bruise and had 12 points on four of six shooting.

“We’re going to be good,” said Deng. “The question is how good can we be.”

That’s not a question to answer now even with the Bulls going to 7-0 in the preseason as now the league’s only undefeated team.

But to succeed it took the Bulls going to their starters down the stretch while Kevin Durant left for the night with 22 points with more than eight minutes remaining and the Thunder grabbing a six-point lead. At that point, Oklahoma City was playing mostly third line players the rest of the way and still without the injured Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka sitting out.

Of course, the Bulls were without Joakim Noah, who remained sidelined with his groin strain, and Kirk Hinrich, recovering from a concussion.

That is an issue of its own as Thibodeau earlier in the day sounded pessimistic about both. Thibodeau described Noah as “deconditioned” after having appeared in just one preseason game.

Hinrich, however, said he was progressing well and anticipated playing the season opener in Miami Tuesday. Noah, however, left open the possibility of starting the season late. Noah said he still aimed for playing in Miami, but said the process involved being cautious so early in the season.

“It’s possible,” Noah said about missing the opener. “But I’m not there yet. A groin injury. I just have to be smart. In my mind, I’m playing. I want to be out there as soon as I can. We’ll see when that is.”

The Bulls close the exhibition season at home Friday against the Denver Nuggets.

“I think we’re a championship team,” Rose told the ESPN national broadcast team after the game. “We can contend for a title.”

Clearly the way Rose is playing with another impressive game that included several highlight dashes to the basket, four more three pointers (in eight attempts) and another 10 free throw attempts. Rose now is shooting more than 50 percent on threes in the preseason and better than 50 percent overall and with 44 free throw attempts the last four games since sitting out that one game during the trip to Brazil.

Though there were good moments for the Bulls Wednesday and a strong finish from Rose, it probably was a game they would have lost if the Thunder had not mostly checked out after overcoming an 11-point Bulls halftime lead.

Oklahoma City also got 22 points from Jeremy Lamb, who’d played poorly previously, and 14 from Reggie Jackson, Westbrook’s replacement.

But it was the Bulls being unable to contain Durant, though much of that time in the fourth quarter against Bulls reserves, that saw the Thunder take a lead and Thibodeau driven to some distraction.

Thibodeau takes these games, as we’ve seen, a bit more seriously than most. At least in preparation, which I don’t disagree with for the most part. If you are playing, you may as well try to win. It’s a good habit.

The Bulls have been one of the best defensive teams since Thibodeau arrived in the summer of 2010. That’s due to their effort, activity and Thibodeau’s preparation, even in the games that don’t count. For much, anyway.

The Bulls are not a double teaming defense. But Thibodeau obviously figured that without Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder had nowhere much to go for scoring. So he had the Bulls doubling, usually with a big, against Durant.

But this Durant guy is really good and smooth and a much more sophisticated player.

Durant picked the double apart with passing to his bigs the Bulls were leaving and who were diving to the basket for scores as the Thunder finally got back ahead early in the fourth. Thibodeau called a timeout when the Thunder tied the game at 76 and went back to more single coverage. Durant then hit a jumper to give Oklahoma City an 80-78 lead with 8:24 left in the game. That was just the Thunder’s second lead with the first seconds before since the opening five minutes of the game.

“I thought we got loose when we got the lead,” said Thibodeau. “Our concentration wasn’t where we would like it and I thought we had some foolish fouls down the stretch. So those are things we have to correct.”

Durant was then subbed out for the night and about 30 seconds later Rose returned as Derek Fisher was hitting a 23 footer to put the Thunder ahead 84-78 with 7:18 left. There would be no Durant/Rose duel to the end.

There would be just Rose with a drive and two free throws with 4:32 left to take the lead back for the Bulls, a three pointer after a Perry Jones miss and then a Deng three after one of two Steven Adams free throws for a 92-86 Bulls lead with 3:16 left.

The Thunder really didn’t have enough in the game anymore to produce enough lightning, though rookie Adams played well. Now only if they can figure out how to bench Kendrick Perkins without his stare scaring coach Scott Brooks.

Boozer lofted in an off balanced shot and Rose added a pair of threes for the Bulls to pull away.

“Even when I’m missing shots they’re (eventually) going to fall. You’ve just got to know the reason why you’re missing,” said Rose. ”I was missing short because of my legs. I’ve got to get my legs under me and in the fourth quarter with five minutes left coach put me back in the game. I’m thankful to be playing with a bunch of guys who allow me to perform the way I want to perform with five minutes left. Five minutes left they gave me the ball to see what I can do.”

It seems undeniable now, though the uncertainly elsewhere remains.

Without Noah the Bulls become small. Nazr Mohammed played well starting for Noah again, though more as a space holder than to impact the game. He’s proven much more valuable than expected when signed last year. But he never was in anyone’s plans as a center to play big minutes.

Thibodeau played Boozer and Taj Gibson most of the time together, and Boozer was particularly aggressive. The Bulls opened the game again using him in the post, though with the lanky Jones at power forward that was a mismatch for Boozer. Gibson had eight points and six rebounds, though he played well and made some long jump shots. But their pairing leaves the Bulls small up front. It is true many teams don’t use traditional centers anymore. And those that do often don’t play to their centers. But Eastern contenders Brooklyn and Indiana do, and you cannot count on Rose continuing to crash into bigger men for scoring.

It’s been a productive preseason with the winning streak. Butler’s return was welcomed and he seemed to come out of the game well enough. Mike Dunleavy added another competent performance with nine points and a pair of threes. But as Thibodeau notes, there is work to be done.

Though Rose’s shooting was three of 12 through three quarters, it didn’t seem a big problem because it appeared more that several layup attempts rolled off the rim. But the Bulls were doing a good job to open the game pushing the ball out of the backcourt, throwing ahead before the defense was set for scores.

The Bulls have had a tendency, especially without Rose, to walk the ball out of the backcourt into a halfcourt game. Even with Rose, you’ll see that often. It obviously was something they worked on early with a speedy first quarter and 25-20 lead.

Boozer did that scoring early and even hit Rose on a drive and kick for a three. But Rose continued to be turnover prone with five, one late in the first quarter on a lazy cross court pass the Thunder turned into a break. It’s not unusual for point guards who control the ball as much as Rose to make a lot of turnovers. John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Jason Kidd are in the top 10 all-time in turnovers. Steve Nash goes into the top 10 this season. It’s good company, though Rose has vowed to be more precise.

Rose’s defense continues to be good. He takes a lower and more aggressive stance and does a better job getting over screens. And he retains the highlight gene as with the Bulls ahead 36-33, he split a double team and dashed by Durant at the basket for a score and then drove and found Dunleavy for a three. Rose then crossed over a stumbling Jackson on a drive as his free throws gave the Bulls a late second quarter 11-point lead which Butler pushed up to 14 shortly thereafter with a fast break score on a pass from Rose.

The Bulls defense was looking sharp as even late in the first half with four Bulls up and challenging for an offensive rebound, the Thunder got the ball. But the Bulls retreated so quickly, Oklahoma City had to pull it out and the Bulls retained a 51-40 halftime lead even with Rose two of seven shooting. Butler, though, was four of four.

Durant was somewhat tentative with three fouls in the first quarter. But he began to get more involved after halftime. Rose kept the Bulls ahead 62-55 with a double clutch move on a drive. But Durant began to pick apart the defense and a Boozer 17 footer gave the Bulls a 74-71 lead after three.

If only it were regular season. If only.

Then Rose and Durant might have played out a heck of a finish. But Durant got the Thunder on top, and then Rose pushed them aside as the Bulls headed back home for one more rehearsal before another op’nin’ of another show.

Another season, Cole Porter might have said, you hope at last will make your future and forget your past. You cross your fingers and hold your heart. It’s almost curtain time. And away we go. Soon. Very, very soon.

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