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Bulls tomorrows looking a bit better with win over Atlanta
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 5
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Watch out. Here they come?
“Look at the East. Anything is possible,” said Taj Gibson, who started for the injured Carlos Boozer Saturday in the Bulls’ 91-84 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. “You get a three game winning streak, four and you’re in the hunt for a good playoff seed. It’s all about getting hot at the right time.”
It’s just two in a row for the Bulls with Mike Dunleavy’s 11 fourth quarter points of his game-high 20 and Gibson, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah all with double-doubles. But maybe something’s coming in the Bulls’ own West Side story.
The Bulls, though just 14-18, have won five of seven since that collapse of 12 losses in 15 games after Derrick Rose’s season ending knee injury. They’ve moved up to third in the NBA overall in defensive efficiency and second to the Pacers in fewest points allowed per game. They’ve held five of their last seven opponents under 90 points and in that stretch have a plus-four margin of points for versus points against. And now with just one sub 40 percent shooting game in the last seven.
“It was a defensive battle, which happens a lot when you’re here to play,” said Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer. “Their defense is so good that you wonder if you’re going to score 50 points.”
Could it be? Maybe it could. Something coming. Something good?
“It’s getting to the point in the season where we’ve got to make a move,” said Dunleavy, who outshot shooting star Kyle Korver, though Korver did make a three in his 103rd consecutive game. “Everybody’s antenna is up; everybody is playing better and trying to string some wins together.”
It’s been especially helpful that Dunleavy has been playing better with another strong game. In the last three, he is averaging 14.7 points in 25 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 18 of 29 and five of six on threes.
But just as important is that Dunleavy thinks offense, which generally doesn’t seem a prime priority on this Bulls team. Dunleavy isn’t the rebel, but he’ll look for his shot on the break rather than pulling the ball out and running a play as the Bulls too often do. Not quite J.R. Smith, but sometimes you do need to free lance and speed up the game.
Still, it’s probably appropriate to maintain the defensive emphasis as this Bulls team wins with defense. Especially of late as players have returned from injury. For two games, anyway, as Boozer went out Saturday with a sore knee. Coach Tom Thibodeau said it was not likely a long term injury. So Gibson started and had 12 rebounds and three blocks and finished a lob slam dunk on a pass from Noah that gave the Bulls a nine-point lead with three minutes left and effectively clinched the win with their defense.
“You can’t say enough about Taj,” said Thibodeau, who continued to. “He is tough as nails. Whatever you ask him to do he does. You can start him, bring him off the bench; he guards everybody, he rebounds, gives you great effort, pure heart, plays for the team, plays to win, disciplined, practices every day, practices hard.
And then perhaps in Thibodeau’s medal of honor compliment on Gibson: “He is a great practice player.”
There is no higher praise from the coach.
It was a feel good game all around as Deng had 17 points, including a 50-foot heave at halftime to give the Bulls a 50-45 lead, 11 rebounds and three steals. Deng’s steals were game breakers as he stripped a probing Jeff Teague with 4:54 left and the Bulls ahead 82-79. That led to a Gibson run out slam dunk and a breathing room five-point lead in the crucial segment of the fourth quarter when the Bulls defense saved the game.
On the next Hawks possession, the Bulls chased them around long enough until Korver fired up a three that was good. It was later reviewed and taken off as coming after the shot clock expired.
“It was a big deal,” said Korver. “I guess I should have shot faster.”
Dunleavy then put back a Noah miss for an 86-79 Bulls lead with 3:52 remaining. Then DeMarre Carroll was called for an offensive foul for kicking his foot out into Noah on his shot and falling down. The officials have finally been getting that call this season, the old Reggie Miller move. The Hawks were called for it several times during the game, belying their reputation for Southern manners and moral behavior.
Noah had switched onto Carroll as the Bulls are one of the rare teams that can switch big men on pick an roll, which is perhaps the most effective part of their defense. Noah and Gibson are particularly good at it. And late in the fourth quarter with the Hawks desperately trying to come up with something to get closer, Gibson was terrific in staying in front of the speedy Jeff Teague on a switch, forcing Teague eventually to give up the ball after numerous attempts to get by Gibson or get a good shot. That led to a pass back to Paul Millsap, who hurried a shot that became an air ball.
“We’ve got a core of guys that understand it (on defense) and are really good at it,” said Thibodeau. “Our guys put forth the effort. That is what it is all about. As a team they are committed to that. We know if we defend and rebound and keep our turnovers down we will be in a position to win. Right now, when you are shorthanded, that is what you have to do. It is also what you have to do in every game, when you are completely healthy.”
The Bulls then came out of the timeout after the Carroll offensive foul with that Noah lob pass to Gibson the Bulls have connected on a few times in recent games. The Bulls set it up with Noah coming up to left elbow. Thibodeau runs very good plays out of timeouts, and this is another. Noah then sets a screen and gets a pass on top from the point guard as the cutter goes by to the corner. Gibson begins to come up along the right side of the lane to where he can get his defender trying to step up and front. The defender gets poised as Noah begins to fake a move. So the defender steps up a bit to protect or front Gibson and then Gibson spins behind and goes up for the lob.
It gave the Bulls that 88-79 lead with just over three minutes left.
The Hawks are the second highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference to Miami, though not against the Bulls. Still, Atlanta wasn’t done as they’re also one of the top three-point shooting teams. Mike Scott, getting playing time with Al Horford out for the season, made a three and the Hawks cut the Bulls lead to 88-84 with 2:41 left. D.J. Augustin then missed a three as Thibodeau in juggling his lineups masterfully of late, both limiting minutes and expanding his rotation, has begun to play Dunleavy and Augustin more down the stretch because of their three point shooting. Thibodeau would bring Kirk Hinrich back late for defense once the Bulls had a lead.
“The core of the Bulls team is mentally tough,” said Korver. “With the loss of Derrick again, it creates a lot of drama. They just play through it. I have a lot of respect for them, the way they practice, approach games and work so hard. I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I really appreciated my two years here.”
It was Deng again with another big defensive play. The Hawks like to push the ball, and they ran out after Augustin’s miss. With Carroll driving the ball, Deng intercepted a pass inside to Scott, knocking it away and then saving the ball as it was headed out of bounds. The Bulls then went into their offense with the clock going to two minutes. Dunleavy bounced a nice pass to Noah on a drive and he was fouled. Noah argued with his hands when he was unable to finish the play and he made one of two for an 89-84 Bulls lead.
Scott missed a runner and then getting back the ball, the Hawks went to Korver, who missed an off balance shot. It was all defense at that point. The Hawks would not score again with Thibodeau going back to Jimmy Butler and Hinrich for defense and Gibson playing defensive back and picking off a lob pass to Millsap in the Hawks last real attempt with about a minute left. Noah then grabbed a Deng miss on the next Bulls possession to run out most of the last minute.
“They were crashing the offensive glass and being aggressive,” said Carroll. “They made it a physical game and we just didn’t match their physicality.”
It’s that way against the Bulls, who make beauty in the eye of the Thibodeau.
“We are going to defend and rebound and we are getting better offensively as the weeks go by,” said Dunleavy. “Tonight was not great, but we are getting there.”
It was a better start for the Bulls, though not as much offensively until Thibodeau made the first substitutions and got Dunleavy in. As tough as that regular starting group is, they lack a true shooter. It’s an issue they’ve faced all season, though in varied forms as it was the 13th different starting lineup Saturday.
The Bulls hit the Hawks with an 8-0 run late behind Gibson and Dunleavy to lead 26-18 after one quarter.
“Mike Dunleavy really had a heck of a second half,” said Budenholzer said. “Many of the shots he hit were well contested well, tough, difficult shots. Give him credit for making them.”
Like Dunleavy’s three on a quick outlet to put the Bulls ahead 40-30 in the second quarter as Noah was all over the paint, blocking five shots. Butler did his part with five steals. But the Hawks run an excellent drive-and-kick game with Teague similar to what the Spurs, where Budenholzer worked under Gregg Popovich, do with Tony Parker. It was the kind of offense Scott Skiles ran well with the Bulls.
The Hawks got within 47-45 late in the half after a Korver three when Deng dribbled the ball up for that halfcourt shot that went in.
“It was great to get it back,” said Dunleavy. “We had just given up a three with a second or two left. So to get it back was huge for us, to get us a little cushion at halftime. You always want to shoot those shots. A lot of guys like to hold it and save it for the stats. They don’t want to have a field goal miss. But give credit to Lu. He put it up there and it went in.”
It is true that you’ll see players hang onto those end of quarter shots and shoot a fraction late to save the shooting percentages. Of course, you could joke they aren’t worth protecting with this Bulls group.
The Bulls had what is becoming their regular third quarter malaise, evidenced by zero assists in the quarter and another of at least three three-on-one or two-on-one fast breaks missed with no score. But the defense saved them as the Hawks failed to shoot 30 percent as well.
The Bulls hung on to a 67-64 lead going into the fourth quarter and then got big shots from Dunleavy throughout the fourth quarter: a three when Atlanta tied it at 67, a jumper with the Hawks within 76-73 and a putback with Atlanta trailing 78-75. Then there was another jumper coming off screens in the play Korver ran often for the Bulls to make it 82-79 with 5:20 left before Gibson had the two slam dunks, one from Noah and another from Augustin. And the Bulls defense rested the Hawks for the evening.
The Bulls are now sixth in the East and the Hawks, 18-16, are third.
The air is hummin’; could something really be coming?