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Bulls are bloodied as Rockets are beaten
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 14
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.
It hasn’t been a perfect week for the Bulls, though on national ABC Sunday Joakim Noah’s play overshadowed that of LeBron James in a Bulls overtime win. And on national TNT Thursday, Noah missed a triple-double by one assist in the 111-87 victory over the Houston Rockets and an uninspiring Dwight Howard.
Mike Dunleavy came back from a 10-stitch gash to score 18 third quarter points to break open the game while James Harden matched a season low with eight points and Chandler Parsons was held to a season-low two points.
That is not to suggest Noah is better than James and Howard or that the Bulls are better than the Heat or Rockets, both considered serious championship contenders.
But it should mean something.
“I think we’re playing some confident basketball,” said Noah, who had 13 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and two steals in making his latest statement that valuable players can come in all different forms and with all sorts of shots. “It shows when we have that edge collectively we’re a tough team.”
The Bulls continue to demonstrate that, moving to 36-29 with their 12th win in the last 16 games. Over this stretch they’ve defeated Miami, Houston, Golden State, Dallas and to open their Western trip last month San Antonio.
“We have this mentality,” said Taj Gibson. “We look at teams like the Spurs, Heat; we try to have that same mentality. We got beat by a good team from the West (San Antonio Tuesday). We played another top team from the West and wanted to send a message.”
No one is saying this is a title team without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. No one makes predictions like that one way or another. Though players talk more about great aspirations once Rose is playing again. But this is a Bulls team as resilient as any in the NBA with just one two game losing streak in the last three months, 27-13 in that stretch since just before Christmas when the Bulls lost to the Rockets and Thunder back to back.
The Bulls play the Thunder Monday, and Thursday they evened the season series with the Rockets, who have been one of the best teams in the NBA, winning 15 of their last 18 and now 44-21.
But the Bulls outplayed them at every position, though, of course, not individually.
“Just make everything tough, challenge every shot and try to make him finish over the bigs at the rim,” Jimmy Butler was saying about guarding Harden as Butler continues to rank among the league’s best perimeter defenders in relentlessly taking on the league’s top scorers. “He’s a heck of a scorer. I think we did a great job containing him. The bigs are always there and I’m hedging. There’s always five guys guarding whoever I’m guarding. Keep him out of the lane and off the free throw line. That was one of the major keys and we did that.”
The Bulls’ defense again was terrific, holding the high scoring Rockets, third in the league in scoring and fourth in shooting, to 87 points and 35.4 percent shooting. Jeremy Lin off the bench led Houston with 21 points.
For the Bulls, Dunleavy had that toughest-guy-in-the-room game with a team high 21 points. Kirk Hinrich added 19 while also taking turns on Harden, and combined with Dunleavy made nine of 12 threes. The Bulls made a season best 14 threes in leading the entire game and by at least 19 points after four minutes into the third quarter.
The Bulls had a season most 35 assists on 43 baskets (16 for Houston) with just eight turnovers while Bulls pressure led Howard to seven of his own. Earlier at Rockets’ shootaround, coach Kevin McHale said he was so impressed with Noah’s play that he believed Noah deserves to be Defensive Player of the Year. That’s the coach who has the three-time winner.
And then Noah showed he was deserving in harassing Howard into a mostly feeble effort, stripping Howard going up for a dunk one time, fronting him and outworking Howard, causing Howard to travel on a few occasions and eventually Howard quietly leave the game late in the third quarter with the Bulls leading 83-55.
“They kicked our (backsides) in every aspect of the game,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They kicked our (backside) up one side of the court and down the other.”
But it was the Bulls bleeding and bruised.
At least physically; it was more emotionally for the stunned Rockets.
Toughness and heart are very much overused words in sports, though they can neatly be employed as symbols. So it was for the Bulls Thursday when Dunleavy, who by far leads the team in charges taken, set up in front of a driving Parsons.
As Parsons began to lift toward the basket, his left elbow hit flush with Dunleavy’s right eyebrow. Dunleavy went down, but he did get the charge.
As Dunleavy lay there, blood began to spurt from a long gash.
“Somebody to be hit the way he was hit. I never seen anything like that, to get rocked the way the way he got rocked,” marveled Noah who was going into the game for Dunleavy at that point midway through the second quarter. “It was really coming down hard; 10 stitches and to play the second half the way he played. I like that.”
Dunleavy is the most taciturn among the Bulls.
Noah often said he marvels — and doesn’t believe — how Dunleavy says he takes all games the same. Dunleavy’s the anti-Noah in some sense, but Dunleavy doesn’t take games off. He’s languid, but plays relentlessly and subtly severe. The Bulls host Sacramento Saturday, and it was in a Bulls loss there last month Kings center DeMarcus Cousins called Dunleavy names out of frustration. Even after winning.
“He’s been taking hits like that all year and getting up,” said Gibson. “He may be quiet, but he’s one of those guys, he’ll let you know he’s here. Don’t take him for granted.”
Dunleavy’s probably the most inexcitable regular, but with a playful and wry sense of humor.
“The hit was pretty hard and knocked me back,” Dunleavy offered. “No point hanging around the court getting blood everywhere.”
So Dunleavy got up and holding a towel to a flood of blood, he was taken back to the locker room. The team announced his return doubtful. But he was back in the starting lineup to open the second half with the Bulls leading 50-42.
“I knew once they got the stitches done I was coming back,” said Dunleavy. “It was a pretty tough hit. My neck is sore; little bit of whiplash. Probably the hit knocked a little bit of sense into me. Just kind of sitting back there bored, getting stitched up. I wanted to play. You get stitched up, you come back, you play. It’s part of the deal.”
So 60 seconds into the second half, Dunleavy got in front of a charging Harden to, yes, take a charge after Noah stole a lob pass intended for Howard and Butler found Dunleavy cutting for a layup.
“The doctor told me I should have waited a little longer to do that (take the charge),” shrugged Dunleavy. “I said, ‘I’ll test out your job right away. See if you’re any good.’”
Dunleavy then proceeded to make three three pointers, seven of 11 overall in the quarter as a 16-0 Bulls run to open the second half basically ended the game.
“Tough guy,” agreed Hinrich, who knows something about that attitude and made a pair of threes in that second half start. “He got a good cut. He had a pretty good knot there. Maybe we’ll talk to the other team to do it again.”
The Bulls were enjoying themselves after the big win and having some fun with Dunleavy.
“That was very impressive and I think it inspired the team,” added Noah. “He had a huge knot on his head, looking like (Evander) Holyfield, the white version, and just coming out there and putting on a new jersey and gutting it out the second half… it was good for Duke’s street credibility.
Added Gibson: “Like he was in a movie and Rocky was telling him ‘Cut me Mick, cut me.’ Everyone was like, ‘If you get hit one more time Dun, it’s over for you.’ He kept a smile on his face and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to light it up.’
Everyone likes to minimize the regular season, and everyone has the sorts of games the Rockets did Thursday. The Bulls had one Tuesday. Not ready to play, flat, all the usual stuff. It’s a grinding six months. But the playoffs, yes the playoffs.
These national TV games, though, the ABC Sunday afternoon and TNT Thursday night, do mean more. It’s when everyone is watching because there are few other games being played. It’s like Monday Night Football for the NFL players. No one wants to be embarrassed in front of their league. It’s when players unofficially qualify for the post season awards. The whole season matters, of course. But you make a bigger impression when everyone’s watching.
Which Noah especially, but the Bulls as well, have done this week in these wins over Miami and Houston. Any playoff series will be difficult for the Bulls. But you begin to become one of those teams nobody wants to play, the Bulls the unofficial leader in the East and Memphis in the West.
The Bulls showed that again with their kind of overall game, Butler taking on another elite scorer, staying with and in front of Harden and making him take tough shots. Carlos Boozer, who had a strong game with Gibson in foul trouble and 18 points, helped, as did Noah. Noah bodied Howard and the guards came down to help and recover. The Bulls were active defensively, and moving so well offensively the Rockets players, not very good defenders to begin with, were left standing watching open three point shooters. The ball spun around the perimeter and inside as Noah and Boozer combined for 12 assists and D.J. Augustin added eight with 13 points.
“They’re tough, to be honest,” said Lin. “They bullied us off our spots offensively and for them offensively, they had clean looks. They filled the lane, they rotated well on defense. Nothing was really there for us. They shot a lot of uncontested threes.”
Boozer had 10 first quarter points as the Bulls took a 25-20 lead and now are 19-0 at home when leading after the first quarter. The Rockets stayed around the first part of the second quarter. But Noah’s aggressive play bothered Howard, who drew a technical foul for complaining as Noah congratulated himself for several defensive stands against Howard. You could see the Rockets begin to deflate like a ruptured balloon. Someone punched their big kid in the mouth and he began to back off.
Howard did have a couple of dunks after that little run in with Noah. But with Dunleavy being patched up, the Bulls pulled out to that eight-point halftime lead on Augustin’s shooting, Hinrich closing the half with a three on a Noah laser pass. The Bulls then blew it open after halftime behind Dunleavy, and Gibson would later add a big time slam dunk over former Bull Omer Asik, greeting his old practice mate with their familiar message, a loud “holdat,” which has been a team shorthand for something well done.
This has been a season well done thus far for the Bulls. These kinds of weeks suggest there may still be more than anyone expects or imagines.
“There’s a lot of pride in this locker room,” said Hinrich. “When we collectively go out there and play well on both ends we can compete with most teams.”