Previous ArticlesBulls hope to slow down the Nuggets
Bulls heating up and now heading to Miami
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 22
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
Now is as good a time as any for the Bulls to test themselves, coming off Friday’s most one-sided win of the season, 117-89 over the Denver Nuggets for their fifth consecutive win and season-best four games over .500. It’s not only a nice time to get out of Chicago to Miami, but perhaps the best time this season to be playing the two-time defending champion Miami Heat Sunday on national TV.
“Our mindset is really good,” said Joakim Noah, who had 14 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. “I think we’ve got a hungry group. Everybody is playing at a high level right now. Everybody is playing for each other.
“It’s going to be a good game on Sunday,” Noah added. “They’re the back to back champions. We want to play against the best just to measure yourself against the best. We feel like we can compete against them; we’ve beaten them before. They’re playing at a high level right now, really good basketball. They are locked in. But we’re locked in, too. We’re confident we can go out there and get it done.”
Time to get it on.
There remains a question whether LeBron James will play after suffering a broken nose in Thursday’s Miami win in Oklahoma City. And Jimmy Butler is day-to-day with a bruised rib after getting injured late in the first quarter with the Bulls running up a 20-point lead.
It was a game in which the Nuggets never led and never much contested.
The Bulls again got off to a big first quarter lead, averaging an 11.6 margin per game the last seven games after the first quarter and averaging nearly 30 points in the first quarter in that span despite being the league’s lowest scoring team. The Bulls now are 24-5 and 16-0 at home when they lead after the first quarter.
After the starters pulled away to the big lead, D.J. Augustin off the bench led the Bulls with 22 points and eight assists, five of seven on three, and Tony Snell playing for Butler had a career-high 20 points with three of four from three-point range. The Bulls scored a regular season high in points, won by their largest margin of the season, had a season high 65 bench points and season high 69 points at halftime in leading 69-46. The Bulls led by double digits all but one minute of the last 40 minutes of the game and by as much as 37 to go to 29-25.
“We are also playing together as a team,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Our decision making is getting better and better. We are sharing the ball, hitting the open man and back to making the extra pass. That goes a long way. Also the defense and rebounding were huge for us. It was well balanced, strong on both sides of the ball.”
The Bulls are by far in their best stretch of the season at the most telling time of the regular season.
Coming out of the All-Star break is when teams declare themselves as contenders or pretenders, when the teams with aspirations separate themselves from the teams lacking inspiration.
You can see that when it becomes hard.
The Bulls make it hard on teams, especially with their defense. They fight over screens; they help when a teammate is beaten or trailing the play. They box out and apply force in the lane, which they close down. Eventually, opponents get tired of fighting so hard and back off.
The Bulls did that to the Nuggets Friday, and their coach, Brian Shaw, vilified this team for backing down. The Bulls are a team that can make you do that. Sure, they lack the brilliant individual scorer without Derrick Rose. And their highlights focus more on beating their man in transition. They produce frustration, and another opponent committed a flagrant foul, Kenneth Faried slamming down Snell. Timofey Mosgov objected to Nazr Mohammed giving a hard foul. The Nuggets preferred looking nice. The Bulls settled for a hard screen.
The Bulls so overwhelmed the Nuggets that Shaw was embarrassed for them.
“Guys decided they weren’t going to play tonight; they weren’t going to put forth any effort to get the job done,” said Shaw in a brutal post game review. “It’s unfortunate. It’s a nationally televised (ESPN) game. And as a staff we have to beg guys to give effort when they play. I told our team I wish that pay checks were predicated on night to night performance. So if you play like a star on a given night you get paid like a star; if you play like an uninspired player, then either you don’t get paid or paid like an uninspired player. You can’t just pick and choose when you want.
“Last night we played Milwaukee, who is obviously down players; they have injuries; they’ve been struggling all season long and we act like the big bad wolf against Milwaukee,” noted Shaw. “Then we come in a nationally televised game against the Bulls and we tuck our tails and we hide, basically. We don’t defend at all from the onset to the end. Thus another 30-point loss for us on the road.”
It’s the story of this last segment of the NBA schedule. There are the teams that are checking the Cancun weather for late April and the teams checking the scouting reports for May.
The Bulls of late are playing like one of those teams that believes it can do more than most believe or that even they imagined just a month or two ago when everything seemed worthless with the loss of Rose and then the trade of Luol Deng. But with the All-Star level brilliance of Noah, the shooting and playmaking of Augustin and a resurgent Kirk Hinrich and the interior post play of Taj Gibson with 15 points and 10 rebounds and Carlos Boozer with 10 points, the Bulls are in fourth in the Eastern Conference and beginning to gain some separation.
It came quickly Friday with that fast start again, Hinrich making aggressive drives and Augustin coming in after Hinrich’s second foul seven minutes in and hitting a pair of threes and Boozer with a slick left handed laser pass. Butler then converted a twisting three-point play, though in going hard into Mosgov he hurt his rib. That gave the Bulls a 29-12 lead with 1:38 left in the first quarter. Butler stayed in after the time out to hit a three for a 20-point lead. But he winced as he shot and soon left the game after eight first quarter points.
Snell, who would start the second half, picked it up with 10 second quarter points and a tough drive and bump for a three-point play after the Nuggets behind Randy Foye, who had 23 points, cut the Bulls lead to 41-32. The Bulls then went on a 21-3 run that included a Noah lob to Gibson for a score and Augustin lob to Noah for another — both players preferring layins to showtime look-at-me dunks—and the Bulls were just making it too hard for the Nuggets, who are currently out of the playoff race, to care all that much anymore.
The Bulls led 94-69 after three as Faried knocked down Snell with a flagrant late in the third and Noah and Aaron Brooks got technicals for some pushing. Noah had to protect his rookie. Because they are in this together and who knows where it could take them.
“It’s exciting,” said Gibson, averaging 15.9 points the last 15 games. “We’re excited every night to play. We feel we’re playing at a high level. Our defense is phenomenal, I think. We’re playing off each other.”
It’s been a big run for several Bulls with Noah averaging 13.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists the last six games and Augustin shooting 59.4 percent on threes with 19 of 32 the last seven games. The offensively challenged Bulls are averaging 97.6 points per game the last seven games while holding opponents to 88.9 and under 90 points in seven of the last 12 games.
“I’m happy we’re playing good ball now,” said Gibson. “We’re setting the tone early, letting them know we’re here to play, letting them know it’s going to be a long night. That’s the kind of style of basketball we are accustomed to playing. We’ve been playing like that the last couple of years. It kind of got away from us early this year. I think we’re in a good rhythm. We’re going to our strong suits, hiding our weaknesses and it shows. Everybody is smiling; everybody is having fun.
“I felt the injuries to some of the guys early took the wind out of us,” Gibson admitted. “Look at how hard we played last year. We understand you have to play hard every night. But nobody expects to lose a teammate like we did. It hit us. But Thibs built us the right way. He said he believes in us. Look at what we did last year; look at what we’re doing this year. How big a deficit we were in early. We believe we can win. Fighting for one another. Like Thibs said, ‘Nobody is going to give you a chance.’ It’s all about what we think in the locker room. That’s what we believe; it’s about us. We ride for each other.”
And now they ride into Miami.