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Bulls in San Antonio to “Remember the Defense”
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 30
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It’s one win and all that, but it was a pretty darned nice one for the Bulls in San Antonio Wednesday, 96-86 over the second ranked team in the Western Conference.
It marked the Bulls’ seventh win in their last eight on the road and 14th in the last 20 overall. With an 11-4 record, they are the winningest team in the Eastern Conference this month.
Sure, they’re just 23-22 and with five games to come in this Western Conference road trip that stops next in New Orleans Saturday. But there’s a growing confidence and defiance among these Bulls, shutting out distractions and doubters to the point that even coach Tom Thibodeau is allowing some forward looking optimism to leak out.
“The last 20 games or so, this team has played very hard and very well,” said Thibodeau. “I love the spirit of our team. We’ve got a great fight to us. I see a lot of possibilities for this team, a good fighting spirit. Playing hard, playing together, playing for each other. That goes a long way in this league.”
It went long enough for a rare Bulls win in San Antonio with seven Bulls in double figures led by Jimmy Butler with 19 points, three steals, two blocks and perhaps a dozen deflections and floor burns. Butler played probably his best all around game of the season, not only disrupting the Spurs offense with plays that led to fast breaks but a scoring stretch of eight points in two third quarter minutes that began to space out the game for the Bulls. That Butler spurt put the Bulls ahead 68-61 after three. And strong offensive play from Taj Gibson to open the fourth quarter with three baskets led the Bulls to a 76-63 lead with 10 minutes left. The Spurs only got the deficit under double digits for about a minute the rest of the way.
Plus, and perhaps even more impressive, Butler did probably the best defensive job anyone has done on star guard Tony Parker in years. Parker had 20 points, but just two when Butler defended him for long stretches and just one of six shooting when Butler was chasing him. The Spurs were missing Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. But a team missing Derrick Rose for two years, having traded Luol Deng and unsure an hour before the game whether Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich would even play doesn’t brook excuses.
The Spurs weren’t offering any. They were beaten.
“All that matters is the win or the loss and we lost our defensive consistency there in the third quarter,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “They went up and we couldn’t get it back.”
Joakim Noah, with as he said a little help from the “basketball gods” for a last rebound to end the game, finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for his 17th consecutive game with double digit rebounds. He is expected to be added to the Eastern Conference All-Star team Thursday when the substitutes are announced. Carlos Boozer with a hot start of eight points and seven rebounds to get the Bulls an early 21-12 lead finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds. D.J. Augustin and Gibson each had 15. And Hinrich playing with Augustin down the stretch added 11 points, all in the fourth quarter, to hold off any Spurs run.
“We believe in ourselves in this locker room,” said Hinrich, who returned from missing four games with a hamstring injury. “We feel like we’ve been playing well lately and want to keep it going. I felt good out there. I felt like my second stretch of minutes was better. We’re very happy with this win. Tough team. The first game of a trip is always important, especially down here against Spurs team.”
No, it wasn’t the same Spurs without Ginobili and Leonard. But Tim Duncan with 17 points and 12 rebounds was a presence and Parker was burning the Bulls early. Plus, former Bull Marco Belinelli, who has been leading the league in three point shooting, finished with 11 points. And it was Spurs team contesting for the top of the conference and on edge coming in losing two straight. But it was the Bulls who were the tougher and more aggressive after the Spurs took an eight-point lead in the second quarter.
“A lot of people sleep on us,” said Butler. “But we have a really talented group of guys that do so many things well. When we play together and just play as hard as we can, I think we can win a lot of games.”
We may as well quit doubting, as well, as they somehow continue to find ways to win.
This time it was with spirited and inspirational play, especially from Butler, who has been in perhaps the worst offensive slump of his career, shooting 32 percent and 19 percent on threes this month. It lowered his season average to 36 percent, the lowest of his career. But he kept talking about how he was letting his teammates down. Still, his defense was active and he parlayed that Wednesday into seven of 11 shooting and one of two threes in addition to thwarting Parker.
“I think Jo is facilitating,” Thibodeau said about improved ball movement and offensive play with Noah back from missing a game ill.
Thibodeau even joked after Noah said at shootaround he felt like pooh pooh, that, “We all know Jo’s not a morning person.”
“As a team, we are making quicker decisions and Jo is a big part of that because the ball goes through him so much,” Thibodeau said. “And then when you have those hustle plays. Jimmy’s defense really got us going. That inspires your team. It gives your team energy. And Taj, the same thing. He had a couple of great hustle plays. The way he was patient in the post, got the ball, read the defense, let everyone cut, get out of the way and went to work and got a quality shot every time. And he’s become very good when the help comes. Taj and Jimmy give you great energy. (Butler is) guarding a point guard. The steals he had for to get us into the floor, easy baskets. You need stuff like that. Hinrich, loose balls. First to the floor. That’s big; that’s what you have to do to win.”
To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the defense, stupid.”
Even Wednesday, Thibodeau harkened back to Monday’s loss against the Timberwolves. The Bulls had been outplayed all game without Hinrich and Noah. Yet, Thibodeau in talking about the Spurs went back and said the Bulls were five down with 90 seconds left and couldn’t get and a defensive stop, which was disappointing to him. Defense, defense, defense.
The Bulls showed plenty of it Wednesday once again in this amazingly relentless effort. It’s remarkable in some sense because they don’t have many great athletes. Butler is one and Gibson is another. Hardly anyone else can dunk. Yet, they continue to win the boards and win the loose balls.
“Winning feels good,” said Noah, “because it is hard.”
The Bulls got off to that fast start. And while we always talk about NBA games determined in the last few minutes, the coaches know how important are quick beginnings and winning that first quarter. The Bulls are almost unbeatable when they lead after one quarter. They particularly are not a great comeback team because of a lack of individual offensive players. But once they have a lead they can grind you down with those long offensive possessions, thus also setting their defense to get back. Parker is one of the best in the league in getting into the paint to score. He had just one basket that way Wednesday as the Bulls doubled the Spurs in the paint, 52-26.
Gibson made a bit of a mistake late in the first, shooting with 16 seconds left with the shot clock turned off. It enabled the Spurs to get a three and within 21-15 after the first quarter and allow Gibson to hear Thibodeau’s outside voice.
That seemed to set back the Bulls as the Spurs got on their best run of the game to take a 33-26 lead midway through the second quarter with the Bulls a step slow. That led to fouls as Hinrich admitted he was somewhat rusty and trailing too many plays. But with Gibson hustling down a loose ball for an Augustin score, Butler running out for a score after forcing a turnover as he would do several times and Boozer closing the half with a nice bank shot off a Mike Dunleavy pass, the Bulls went ahead 40-36 at halftime.
They took control in that third quarter with Butler looking like a Super Bowl defensive back slapping away passes constantly and turning them into runbacks for scores. It’s often said getting scores that way can get a player going, and it did for Butler. He made a spot up three on a nice feed from Boozer to make it 56-54. Butler later converted a back door cut and pass from Noah for a score as the Bulls pulled ahead 68-61 after three.
“Once you start seeing the ball go in, layups, midrange, three, you start to gain confidence,” said Butler, back home in Texas and dressed up in native apparel as the Bulls were staying over for the night before leaving for New Orleans. “I’ve just got to keep getting out in the open floor and getting layups. I think (defense) is where it starts for me. Mike James is definitely always telling me ‘Let your defense create your offense.’ Whenever I do that and I don’t think about offense, the offense comes.”
James, by the way, has his 10-day contract set to expire Friday.
The Bulls then opened the fourth quarter with five straight scores, Noah bouncing a pass to Gibson for a basket and Gibson going into his favorite left block spot for a pair of scores as the Bulls gained control of the game. Gibson, really, more than anyone with career highs in just about every category, has made the greatest jump this season of anyone on the team. Hinrich then was all over the floor in a strong defensive group to close with Gibson, Butler and Noah that overwhelmed the Spurs.
“It’s very visible,” Noah said about Gibson’s improvement. “He’s making better plays. His aggressiveness in the post, his demand for the ball. When he comes in, he’s our No. 1 option. I’m really proud of the way Tagy is playing. He’s one of the leaders of this team. Hard hat. He represents for real.
“It’s not about what people say,” Noah continued. “It’s about what we think. Not about what anyone else thinks. It’s about what people in the locker room think. Keep grinding. I think were going to get a lot of good experience and it’s going to be a very positive year for Chicago.”