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Bulls have the answer for the Nets
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 25
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Practice! Yes, Tom Thibodeau was talking about practice after the Bulls ruined the Brooklyn Nets’ Christmas Day with an inspiring 95-78 victory and perhaps the birth of a new attitude.
Yes, Thibodeau was talking about the game in which Taj Gibson was dominant with 20 points, eight rebounds and two blocks back in his native Brooklyn, Jimmy Butler had 15 points and a crushingly effective defensive job on Joe Johnson and D.J. Augustin continued his spirited play with 13 points and five assists.
Plus, Augustin teamed with Kirk Hinrich when the Bulls first took control in the second quarter with a 10-0 run that gave the Bulls a 41-38 halftime lead. Then it was as good as the Bulls get, a 23-6 tsunami the last five minutes of the third quarter with the Bulls pushing the ball in transition, defending, helping with élan and building up a festive 77-58 lead after three quarters that left Brooklyn looking like the Dodgers had left again.
“Like a nightmare,” said Deron Williams.
But it was something of a rebirth for the Bulls, who had six players in double figures, a 16-5 edge in fast break points for their usually stagnant offense that seems to have been awakened by Augustin, 48.6 percent shooting and 51 percent in the second half, suffocating defense with Hinrich able to play 20 minutes because of substantial relief, and coordination and pace of play that lately has too often been missing.
“It’s coming around,” said Thibodeau. “It’s good to get guys back. I thought our starters were very solid and then our bench guys came in and did a terrific job. I thought Taj was super. D.J. gave us a good lift. I like the combination when D.J. and Kirk were in together. I thought Jimmy was phenomenal for a first game (back from his sprained ankle). You’ve got guys who are hard to guard and it requires great concentration and effort and he did that.”
And then Thibodeau offered one of the great “practice” soliloquies since Iverson’s post season rant a decade ago about when, “…we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last but we’re talking about practice man.”
It’s a Christmas gift to us all.
For in the glow of a holiday in Brooklyn, someone wondered if having a few days off before the Brooklyn game was a tonic, and off Thibodeau went. He’s not getting a tattoo!
But that passion for practice and play also is a reason while the Bulls are just 11-16 you also know if they remain healthy they won’t be giving in or giving up and why they may have more efforts like Wednesday’s.
“You can’t play well in this league without practicing,” Thibodeau started. “The teams that win big, they go hard; they practice hard, they get themselves ready, they build rhythm. It’s cohesion. “
He was rolling now.
“It’s how you practice, too. It’s not just practice. But it’s how you practice,” commanded Thibodeau. “When you get into a game everything is done with great intensity. It’s important to try to practice like that so when you are in the game and you are making those decisions you understand how to make these decisions. It’s not an individual sport where you just worry about yourself. It’s you in unison with four other guys. Moving on the fly to the ball, not just defensively but offensively, as well. Offense is timing and spacing. Everyone has be tied together; defense the same thing. If one guy is not there, anytime you put two on ball if that weak side doesn’t react at the appropriate time you are giving up a layup or wide open three. The only way to get that is through practice; build the right habits.”
Though we may joke about it, that’s as good a look into a Thibodeau practice as you are going to get as well as the way the Bulls play that has generally made them a greater collection than the sum of their parts. It’s doing those things, especially on the defensive end that were so apparent against the Nets, helping, overplaying, forcing mistakes and taking advantage. Sort of the anti-Nets game.
“For us,” Thibodeau continued (I admit I love this stuff), “the challenge becomes building winning habits each and every day and hopefully in the end we can be healthy and playing our best and that’s what every team strives for.”
It was appropriate to mention Gibson, who had a big day and 24 hours as he conducted a toy drive in his old neighborhood just north of the Barklays Center Tuesday afternoon after the Bulls arrived and then had the early wakeup game. And Gibson as much as anyone put the Nets to sleep with some highlight plays, a rare lob dunk on a slick one handed pass from Noah coming out of a dribble and then in the waning minutes a follow up one handed slam dunk after a Butler miss that had Williams actually ducking.
“I’m just happy to be back and represent my family and my neighborhood,” said Gibson.
Gibson is having a career best scoring season averaging 11.7 points and shooting a career best 70 percent on free throws. His 6.5 rebounds per game is the best since his rookie year. And he’s the teacher’s pet this season. He’s arguably worked harder than anyone from the opening of camp, becoming Thibodeau’s poster child for what basketball is about.
And then someone asked about Gibson right after Thibodeau’s practice oration, and there he went again.
You could barely contain Thibodeau from yelling, “See, see what I told you!”
“Taj is playing great because of this,” Thibodeau said. “He worked incredibly hard all summer. He’s by far our best practice player, comes early, stays late, practices hard. I’m not surprised one bit he had a great training camp, a great preseason and has gotten off to a terrific start.”
The Bulls did play well after a bit of a shaky start when both teams apparently had too much thin crust pizza the night before and were just a little logy. It made for a 23-21 Brooklyn lead with 11 combined turnovers. The Bulls would clean that up well in the second half with five turnovers, but zero Nets points off them after 10 in the first half.
“We got off to a little bit of a slow start because of the early start, but we were able to lock into what they were doing,” said Hinrich. “Some of it was they kind of had an off night. We feel like we just got into the game and were able make stops. It seemed like we played with a lot more tempo and we are excited to have the win.”
There were signs when Augustin came in with about five minutes left in that first quarter to join Hinrich with the Bulls trailing by six. Augustin has made nine of 17 threes the last three games, averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 assists The Bulls went on a 10-2 run at that point.
“It’s fun,” Augustin said of the combination with Hinrich. “Kirk is a great player; we both can see the floor. So it’s fun playing with him. We can both push it. Either one of us can play the one. And on defense we can switch pretty much any pick and roll. I (also) feel pretty good playing off the ball, just spotting up, just read the floor and see what everybody else is doing. It’s just playing basketball. It doesn’t matter who you are out there with. Basketball is basketball. It’s just being smart and making the right decisions.”
Bringing in Augustin, who was cut by Toronto, obviously was a big one so far for the Bulls.
The Nets, a stumbling 9-19 and regularly being called uncompetitive of late by coach Jason Kidd, pushed ahead 31-27 early in the second quarter when Hinrich subbed in for Snell to join Augustin in the backcourt and the Bulls got a boost again. In related New York news, the also 9-19 Knicks did the Bulls a favor with a 29-point home loss to the Thunder that surpassed the previous record Christmas Day home loss, the Bulls; by 23 last year to Houston.
Gibson converted that lob from Noah, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and three assists, starting the Bulls on a 12-0 run that included a pair of Hinrich jumpers and Gibson battering a Williams drive into the stands and scoring on a half hook down the other way for a 39-31 Bulls lead. The Nets would come back a bit behind Williams, who led them with 18 points, to trail by three at halftime.
But Williams remains an enigma. He’s had ankle problems for a few years, so perhaps he’s hurt. But he plays seemingly more to look good than to have his team look better. Short on scoring with Brook Lopez out for the season and both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce ineffective, Williams seems to play in only occasional spurts, mostly dribbling around and between his legs. Garnett and Pierce were three of 15 combined for 12 points and Pierce complaining afterward it’s difficult to play well when you are a fourth option and not playing much. Who’s idea was this trade?
One classic difference between the teams was in the pivotal third quarter stretch when it was still a game with the Bulls leading 57-52 with five minutes left. Williams began dribbling around long enough for the Bulls to collapse around him. Hinrich wrestled the ball away leading to a Mike Dunleavy score on a fast break as Williams lay on the floor looking helpless.
“Chicago is not a team that scores a lot of points, but in that third quarter they scored 36,” noted Kidd. “That’s the carry over of missing shots and not giving an effort. The big thing is when we don’t score the ball we tend to hang our heads. If we miss a shot, turn the ball over or try to make a play for someone, we don’t get back. I think a lot of times you look at the make up of the team and we got guys that can put the ball in the basket. Those are offensive minded guys and we are trying to get them to play the other side of the ball. I think as we go forward, I took the five out that gave up the two lay ups. At the end of the day the coach can only hold you responsible for energy and effort.”
One of them was Williams, who went out shortly thereafter and didn’t come back until the Nets were trailing by 21 in the fourth quarter.
In New York, they’ve tried to blame a lot of this on Kidd because he is inexperienced as a coach. Of course, this lack of competitiveness was also supposedly the reason they fired P.J. Carlesimo last season after the Bulls first round playoff win. Perhaps it is D-Will Not. One question many did have when they made the summer moves for Garnett and Pierce was who was going to set the picks and do the dirty work and little things with all those scorers and former All-Stars. The notion was it would be Garnett, but he’s slowed considerably. Even when he opened the game with a score on a ball fake on Carlos Boozer and drive to the basket, you could have timed him getting there with an hour glass.
Meanwhile, Dunleavy was truly impressive in that decisive third quarter stretch, if, as usual, not with highlight material.
“I don’t want to overlook what Mike Dunleavy does to contribute to winning,” said Thibodeau, happily going back into coaching clinic mode. “He makes good, winning basketball plays whether it’s a quick second pass to the weak side to get the ball moving, keep the defense running (little things warning here)…He knows how to come off screens; he’s great feeding the ball into the post. It takes a lot of things like that to win.”
Dunleavy had another fast break score with Hinrich pushing the ball. Hinrich then helped force a 24-second violation that led to Augustin finding Boozer deep in the post for a score. Butler, who must have felt like the pajama tops it looked like the players were wearing the way he was so close to Johnson, then scored on a fast break with Augustin pushing again. Butler got a three-point play for a 66-52 Bulls lead with 2:57 left in the third.
This is what Kidd was talking about the other day about the Nets accepting losing, and he seemed prescient.
Pierce fired off a three that missed, but he got the rebound and was fouled and made both. Boozer matched that with a score and then when Shaun Livingston threw the ball into the backcourt in what would be a turnover, Butler beat Reggie Evans to the ball and ran in and scored. Evans then chased after Butler and pushed him down. Butler stayed down a while and then went to the bench. But he seemed OK and returned to the game in the fourth quarter. It’s all injury scares for the Bulls now as Luol Deng remained out with an Achilles injury.
The Bulls closed the third quarter and the Nets’ day with Augustin making a three and Snell a driving floater in which the Nets parted like someone was driving pilgrims through the Red Sea. And then that ocean of boos began to swamp the guys who used to play in the swamps.
“I always say this: The magic is in the work,” reiterated Thibodeau. “If you work and you practice well, you will play well.”
It is the Answer.