Previous ArticlesJoakim Noah brings defense to East All-Star win
Bulls block out the Raptors in 94-92 victory
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 20
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In Bulls franchise lore, it may become known as, “the Block.”
Or it may not.
But Jimmy Butler’s game-saving block on All-Star DeMar DeRozan with 2.4 seconds remaining Wednesday enabled the Bulls to pull out a 94-92 victory over the Toronto Raptors, Chicago’s fourth straight win to move to 28-25, a half-game behind third place Toronto in the Eastern Conference.
“It was a huge game,” agreed Carlos Boozer, who led the Bulls with 20 points. “Both teams were ready for each other. Jimmy had a great play basically to save the game for us. We needed one stop and Jimmy got it. Game-winning stop right there.”
Game-winning plays generally are cataloged on the offense end, buzzer beaters and winners. But defense, as this Bulls team demonstrates, wins as well. There are two ways to win: Either score more points than the other team; or force them into scoring fewer than you.
It may not be as artistic or dramatic. And it’s much more difficult to sell to a sneaker company. It also doesn’t require the proverbial second star; just hard working laborers. The long time debate is how far it can get you.
But on Wednesday in the Bulls first game back after the All-Star break, it was worth a nice win in a terrific game that reflected the passion of players seeing the stretch run and a belief they can have an impact in the playoffs.
The Bulls and Raptors appear to be two of those teams as they battled through 48 fouls, seven technicals, a pair of sequences that more resembled NFL blocking drills and almost dozen stoppages of play to bandage open cuts. There did not appear to be any sucking chest wounds, however.
“It wasn’t a playoff atmosphere because of the technicals; it was a playoff atmosphere because it was definitely a physical game, high intensity,” said Joakim Noah, who set a career high with 13 assists, the first NBA center in 18 years to have that many assists in a game. “We know what we are playing for; everybody knows what we are playing for and it was a big win for us.”
It was an exceptional game because of the hard play and commitment from both teams. It was one of those games that makes you proud to watch your team, seeing their passion and knowing they want to win as much as you want them to.
The Bulls would have been disappointed to lose, certainly, after leading by 15 points and with another fast start, 31-21 after one quarter. But they also would have known they gave everything they had. As did the Raptors, who finish the season 2-2 against the Bulls and are using the Bulls as something of a model.
“We were going against a tough Eastern Conference team,” said DeRozan, who had 32 points but was denied on the big one. “That’s one of the toughest teams when it comes to physicality, beating you up, holding, grabbing through the whole game. That’s one of the best teams at it.”
There were some classic battles, like Kirk Hinrich, who had 19 points and outplayed Kyle Lowry, in a relentlessly physical confrontation.
“I love playing against Kirk; honestly I respect him,” said Lowry, also one of the game’s most physical guards who uses his toughness to try to intimidate opponents. “I think he’s one of the tougher defenders in the league.”
There was D.J. Augustin going for the first time against the team that released him back in December, the Raptors roughing up the 5-10 Augustin, trapping him with a big man on every pick and roll, a tactic they basically used only against him. Teams have done that more of late against Augustin because of his size. But it seemed even the coach wanted to show the Raptors had reason to made the move.
After a tough first half, however, Augustin scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter with three fourth quarter three pointers, the biggest a desperation heave with the shot clock running out with 2:43 left that gave the Bulls an 89-82 lead. The usually undemonstrative Augustin then shouted to the crowd and pounded his chest without knocking himself out. This was no ordinary February game.
“I don’t know what they were looking at,” said Boozer of the Raptors and releasing Augustin. “But we picked up a gem. He’s been playing as good as anybody in the league since he came to us, in my opinion. Big shot after big shot in the fourth. He’s been doing that since he got here.”
There was Taj Gibson in a wrestling match with Tyler Hansbrough, whose game is a throwback to the Bad Boys Pistons with their push-in-the-back art. He’s not known as “psycho” for his love of the movie. Hansbrough ended up pulling down Nazr Mohammed and Mike Dunleavy, in the latter episode driving Dunleavy back like a football tackling dummy.
And then there was Butler going just under 46 minutes. And though DeRozan got the best of him early with his shooting, it was Butler never backing down and making a defensive play to rank with the greatest dunks you’ll see.
With the Bulls leading 93-92 with 10.9 seconds left, the Raptors flatted the court with four players at the baseline and had DeRozan isolate against Butler for what would be the game winner. One of the givens in basketball is not to try to block a jump shooter because basically no one ever does. The guys leap too high and all it ever leads to is free throws and three-point plays.
DeRozan worked into deep position, pump faked and went up. Only to be met by Butler’s right hand, the amazing block with 2.4 seconds left. Butler got the ball — Bill Russell couldn’t have done it any better — and was fouled. He made one of two and with no timeouts, DeRozan heaved up a half court shot to end the game.
“The scouting report was to make him go left,” said Butler. “I knew he was going to give a pump fake or two. When he left his feet I left mine and got the block.”
“Jimmy has been playing at a real high level,” added Noah. “I think the sky is the limit for him because he is still figuring out where he scores from and he is just getting better every game, getting more comfortable. His D has been crazy; that was great defense at the end. I’m happy because I know there is still more.”
It really was great stuff and keeps going this impossible dream of a season that was a nightmare not too long ago with the fifth win in the last six and now 16-7 since the start of the new year. The Bulls also are 21-12 against the Eastern Conference with the potential tiebreaker over Toronto on conference record. It’s still a long way off to the playoffs. And the Bulls have a tough March schedule with games against the teams with the five best records in the league. But the Bulls also continue to close in on the Pacers for the best defensive efficiency in the league with a more well rounded offense of late.
Hinrich is averaging 14 points on 53 percent shooting the last five games with 45 percent on threes as he was three of three Wednesday. Butler is averaging 13 points on 50 percent shooting the last five games. Boozer is averaging 18 points on 53 percent shooting since his little complaint about a lack of fourth quarter player early on the Western Conference trip.
Boozer again sat just about all the fourth quarter Wednesday and it almost cost the game as the Bulls offense stalled and Gibson would eventually foul out. But Butler was there to block that out.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable tonight, but we have to match their energy,” said Lowry. “We can’t allow ourselves to get down by 15 and try to be a last second shot winner. We got the ball to D (DeRozan), an All-Star. They made a great defensive play; that’s about it.”
Well, there was more to it than that with another strong offensive start for the Bulls. It’s been a pattern of late and truly crucial to their success.
The Bulls are now 23-5 when they lead after the first quarter, and they usually do if they get the ball into Boozer and he goes at the basket. Boozer has been doing that of late, and it was another effective start as he had nine points and six rebounds in the first quarter and, more importantly, four free throws. The Bulls generally will start going to Boozer. But sometime he settles for all fade away jump shots. He has not been lately.
“Carlos got us established in the paint early,” agreed Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
It was more than that, however, as the ball was hopping, as Thibodeau likes to say, and no one was much dancing with it, as he also likes to point out. True, no one knows rhythm and blues like Thibodeau.
Noah got a dunk on a Butler pass and then another on a Dunleavy assist as Dunleavy led the team with 11 rebounds.
“Mike didn’t shoot well but the 11 rebounds are huge,” said Thibodeau. “We need everybody. We got off to a good start, which was important to us.”
The Bulls have had trouble with the Raptors’ depth, and again Toronto cut into the lead in the second quarter with an 11-0 run that made it 40-36 Bulls late in the quarter. Though Hinrich then made a three on a behind the back cross court pass from Noah that sort of trickled over and Hinrich added a nice driving bank shot for a 48-41 lead at halftime. Hesitating earlier in the season with his shot, Hinrich continues to take the open look and drive to the basket. It was his and Augustin’s shooting that kept the Bulls ahead late.
“When D.J. and Kirk got going they went to more trapping,” said Thibodeau. “When they do that we can put Jo in the middle and he’s terrific. He’s going to make the right play, hit the open man. Jo can hurt you in a lot of ways. That’s value of having a guy like that.
“(And D.J.), he’s got a lot of courage,” Thibodeau added. “He’s not afraid, can shoot the ball. His teammates look for him. They know how to get him open. He’s knows how to get open, very clever, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
The Bulls seemed to take control in the third quarter, riding the starters with Boozer scoring nine points and getting to the line, Hinrich adding shooting and Noah with some terrific interior passing as he and Boozer continue to work well together. The Bulls led 68-53 with under three minutes left in the third on a Butler jumper as Butler’s line drive began to get a bit more lift. DeRozan began to drive the Raptors back, but the Bulls still led 70-62 after three quarters despite Hansbrough beginning to foam at the mouth a bit.
Augustin had three pointers early in the fourth even as the Raptors took every opportunity to bang away at him and the Bulls still led 82-73 with 5:50 left in the game.
But the Raptors, though they eschew the interior play, are athletic with strong perimeter scoring and tough defenders led by Lowry. They scored on their next seven consecutive possessions with mostly DeRozan and Lowry making the plays.
Augustin had that chest pounding three in the midst of that run and Hinrich had a clutch 19 footer with 41.9 seconds left to make it 93-89 Bulls. But Amir Johnson gathered in a Hansbrough air ball and put it back up for a three point play to draw the Raptors within 93-92 with 34.9 seconds left. The Bulls got stuck offensively and ran into a 24-second violation. It would be DeRozan, and he’d mostly had his way.
“I don’t think I played any ‘D’ tonight,” Butler was saying after the game. “He had, what, 30 points (actually 32). I take pride in my defense. Thirty (two) is a lot. I have to get better. I feel the game would not have been so close if he did not have (32).”
Butler was tough on himself as he played good defense and DeRozan made some amazing shots. But Butler had three blocks as well as 16 points, six rebounds and six assists.
And because of Butler, DeRozan did not get 34 points. Which was all that mattered for this night.