Previous ArticlesBulls enjoying a season-high win streak
Bulls continue late season climb; move to 3rd in East
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 12
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Taj Gibson usually sits next to Derrick Rose on the Bulls bench. The fourth quarter was about to begin Friday, and though the Bulls had worked back from an 18-point halftime deficit to the Detroit Pistons, they still trailed by 10 and were being hammered on the backboards with Andre Drummond on the way to a game of 26 points and 26 rebounds.
“In four minutes this can all change,” Rose was saying to Gibson, who’d had just six points and no rebounds through three quarters. “Watch,” counseled Rose. “Give it four, six minutes.”
It was something of an epiphany for Gibson, but also a realization of what the Bulls have been and perhaps what they can become.
“It reminded me how we used to play when we had Derrick in the Eastern Conference finals (in 2011),” said Gibson. “No matter how much we got down, we knew we had a chance to win; guys kept believing and I felt that in the fourth quarter. Guys didn’t shy away. We kept pushing forward and we were right in the thick of things.”
And beyond as the Bulls, led by Gibson and D.J. Augustin—whom coach Tom Thibodeau called the team’s “most efficient scorers”—totaling a combined 23 fourth quarter points, rumbled by the misfiring Pistons for a 106-98 victory.
“We remember no one was on our bandwagon at the beginning of the year and how that felt,” said Gibson, who finished with 17 points while Augustin had 24 and is averaging 20.8 points the last five games in fewer than 30 minutes per game. “We just believe in ourselves.”
There may be a lot more believers trying to get on that wagon given the sweet string music this group of Bulls has been playing.
With the victory, their seventh straight, the Bulls are 47-32. They have the best record in the Eastern Conference since January 1 and the most wins. If the season started this way, critics might be talking title. No one is quite yet, and certainly not these one-day-at-a-time energizer vitamin players. But the Bulls did move into third in the Eastern Conference ahead of Toronto, potentially setting up a playoff bracket without the Heat and Nets, considered the dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference. That’s all still to be settled. But more than any other team in the conference, the Bulls are playing at a consistently high level.
“We’re just trying to finish strong,” said Augustin, now with at least 21 points in four of the last five games. “We don’t want to go into the playoffs playing terrible or making mistakes, not focusing. That’s the main thing we are trying to do every game, focus down the stretch and play hard.”
Slowly, but inevitably to the surprise of most, the Bulls have become not only an efficient and high scoring offense, but a dominant fourth quarter team. This for the team last in scoring most of the season. That was then; they can score now.
This is the fifth game in the last seven the Bulls have scored more than 100 points, averaging 101 in this seven-game winning streak.
They again had six players in double figures with only Joakim Noah among their now Magnificent Seven failing to score in double figures. Noah did have 12 rebounds and 10 assists and added yet another milestone to a season in which he’s almost certain to be among the top five in league MVP voting.
Noah became the ninth player in NBA history with at least 400 assists and 100 blocks, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Garnett, Sam Lacey, Alex English, Alvan Adams, Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. It is another of those questionable sorts of records, however, as the NBA didn’t count blocks before the 1973-74 season when the greatest shot blockers in history, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, played. But it’s also been an uncommon kind of season for the Bulls with the loss of both Rose and Luol Deng. Yet it now exhibits this extraordinary close to the season and a quiet promise of greatness with Indiana and Miami stumbling to the close.
“To start the playoffs having the third seed would be big for us,” said Noah. “But there’s games left; there’s a big game Sunday. You can’t look forward; you can’t think about the playoffs now. We’re playing against a Knicks team that’s going to be really hungry to make the playoffs (one game from elimination). It’s going to be playoff atmosphere in the Garden. And if we want that three seed it’s going to be an exciting game, good preparation for the playoffs. That’s what it’s all about.”
No one’s accomplished that quite like the Bulls, and as Gibson suggested, it is starting to feel like other seasons when the winning came in bigger bunches.
It wasn’t a brilliant effort Friday as the Pistons are 29-51. But you let a team out of the playoffs get going and you can be a loser quickly. It happens plenty late in the season with the guys out of it free flowing and making shots and perhaps with something to play for you end up playing a bit too carefully.
It seemed that way to start as the Pistons took a 10-3 lead and 28-17 after one quarter.
“That was a concern right from the start,” Thibodeau said about Detroit on the boards as Drummond alone had 19 by halftime and the Bulls had 17 as a team.
“That’s a big boy,” said Noah with a shake of his head. “I don’t know what to tell you. When a guy has 26 rebounds that’s hard to keep him off the glass.”
“Drummond was dominant right at the beginning of the game,” Thibodeau added. “I thought we were real low energy at the start. Badly out rebounded, not making effort plays, not back in transition, not running back on defense. That is not us. We are not a low energy team. We have great energy.”
Drummond was dominant on the defensive boards, curtailing the Bulls usually aggressive second chance play. And guard Rodney Stuckey was bulling his way to the basket on the way to 22 points.
The close of the season also can be curious with these non playoff teams.
It did appear the Pistons were trying to win the game. But they are one of those teams with the unusual draft situation. They surrender their draft pick to Charlotte unless they are in the bottom seven. They are currently eighth. Drummond did go out for a vital stretch in the fourth quarter, though he did play 42 minutes. But Stuckey played just 31. Of course, Augustin played 28 and Gibson 27. And the Bulls were playing to win.
But Pistons interim coach John Loyer made a trenchant observation about the Bulls.
“Augustin and Gibson, it’s like playing against seven starters,” said Loyer. “Those two guys, Augustin is their leading scorer, and Taj Gibson is as athletic and active as any power forward in the league. They do it against a lot of people.”
And Loyer noted it’s becoming a lot more difficult to hold on down the stretch against the Bulls for a variety of reasons.
“The Bulls in this building, it’s a 48-minute war,” said Loyer. “That team competes on every possession. You’re going to have to come in here and compete. You get in a stretch where you are up (but) you can’t take your foot off the pedal for a second. It’s a great atmosphere here to play a game. They feed off that.”
Though the meal would come later, as well as the 100-point Big Macs for the hungry audience.
Drummond continued to dominate the rebounding and the five Bulls starters had just 16 points combined at halftime in trailing 56-38.
No panic; what them worry?
“Overall, I thought we showed a lot of resiliency. Good word, eh?” Noah asked playfully.
It’s become a confident group; not arrogant and not reading their media reports. Instead, it’s a team in the fullest sense with offense coming from opportunity and everywhere, making them more difficult to defend. On defense it’s the usual energy, emotion, enterprise and ethic.
“We’re a confident group,” said Noah. “We never feel we are out of games.”
The Bulls came back in the third quarter with 32 points on 59 percent shooting as Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy made shots, the ball “hopping, as Thibodeau likes to say, and Kirk Hinrich with several jumpers after crossover moves and spins that had fans seeing visions of that Kansas comet of a decade or so ago.
It’s been a winning formula that has made all seven offensive options with what scouts following the Bulls have called the best ball and player movement in the conference. Hinrich, meanwhile, is averaging 15.2 points this month and shooting an impressive 47 percent on threes since the All-Star break with every regular averaging in double figures the last two months.
Heck, the offense has been so impressive even Thibodeau liked it.
“I thought we made a big switch in terms of intensity in the second half,” said Thibodeau. “I thought particularly in the fourth quarter when our best was needed we were very good. D.J. got going. Mike had a great stretch in the second half that got us moving in the right direction. Carlos was very good at scoring early on. Jo started slowly and finished strongly. You have to win games different ways. Obviously the rebounding and defense wasn’t there, but I loved the offense. I thought we shared the ball well, low turnovers.”
It’s the winning formula, and this time it was Gibson and Augustin.
It’s been the beauty of the Seven. They’re not quite the 70’s Knicks with offense coming from every starter, the Phil Jackson ultimate model. Phil, obviously, won the other way, with the scoring stars. These Bulls don’t have those guys. So they actually play a purer form of the game: Go to who has the favorable matchup, shoot if the ball comes to you, everyone able, everyone ready and willing.
“Fourth quarter is winning time,” said Augustin. “Nothing after that.”
It felt like ’11 again as Jimmy Butler with 13 and his routine 44 minutes opened with a jumper, Dunleavy added a three, and then Gibson absolutely took over the game with a searing aggression that stunned the Pistons.
It was a stunning five-minute sequence when the Bulls went from trailing 83-75 to leading 92-86 with then about five minutes left in the game.
“When you make effort plays like that, and those were big time multiple effort plays, block shots, the offensive rebounding in traffic, the range, going from one side to the other to get it, finishing, that does nothing but inspire your team,” said Thibodeau. “That sort of ignited us.”
Gibson blocked a Kyle Singler jump shot leading to an Augustin 20 footer and then blocked Jonas Jerebko also on a jumper as he tried to maneuver inside and fade away. Gibson then ran out on a Pistons miss with Augustin pushing and Gibson finishing for a three-point play and then a powerful slam dunk in traffic after Noah grabbed a miss. Augustin added a pretty ball fake and reverse layup, and then Gibson produced yet another of those angry slam dunks with Pistons scattering like bowling pins. It gave the Bulls a 100-90 lead with 2:26 left and the Bulls on the way to their 21st win in the last 23 against Detroit and third place in the Eastern Conference.
“The game in the Garden (Sunday) is going to be poppin’,” said Noah. “I like it when it’s poppin’ in the Garden.”
Just another place for this surprising group to continue to bloom.