Not many people saw this coming. Why would they? It was easy to get caught up in the narrative that had been sweeping through the Windy City since January. After a horrible start to the season, complete with another D-Rose injury and the Luol Deng trade, fans in Chicago were treated to a rag-tag team that embodied the blue-collar, hard-working identity that the city prides itself on. The Bulls battled their way out of the depths of despair, and rode their gritty play to an Eastern Conference best 36-16 mark after January 1st. Despite a lack of a superstar player and offensive firepower, the city embraced and started to really believe in this Bulls’ team again. When the playoff seeds were finally set, it was hard to look at the bracket and not see a pretty clear path for the Bulls to get to the Eastern Conference Finals for another showdown with the Miami Heat. They avoided the red-hot Brooklyn Nets in the 1st round, and were set to face the crumbling Indiana Pacers in the 2nd. There was just one key fact that people were overlooking, or were just unaware of: the Washington Wizards are a really good basketball team.
Chicago entered their first round series as an overwhelming favorite despite it being a matchup of a 4-seed vs. a 5-seed. The Wizards’ guards were too inexperienced. Nene would struggle to score against the Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. They just didn’t have the mental toughness to out-will the Bulls at the end of games. It took just one game for the Wizards to dispel those notions. Beal and Wall were terrific for all 5 games, Nene was almost automatic inside, and the Wizards consistently showed more fight and energy than the Bulls throughout the series. It was jarring to watch for Bulls fans. “I think they knew what we were facing,” said Wizards’ coach Randy Wittman about his players after closing the series. “I told them, if we want to have a chance, we have to be the more physical team.”
“It’s disappointing,” lamented Kirk Hinrich. “That’s the word, disappointing. It always ends too quickly. We did not expect this to be the end. Give them credit, though. They outplayed us in this series.” Mike Dunleavy echoed his teammate’s sentiments: “We couldn’t secure a rebound to win a game. It was like that all three games here. They just beat us down the stretch.” It says a lot about how far the Wizards have come that they’ve been poised and mature enough to finish off games the way they have. “A couple of years ago, with the guys that were here, we never could have won a game like this,” said Coach Wittman after game 5. “Now this team believes in defense, what we do, and how we do it. That is how we won this game. Offensively we were not stellar. We pulled it out, we grinded it out. I’m really proud of those guys.”
Most pundits will point to the Bulls’ shooting woes and offensive droughts as the reason they were bested in this series, and there’s at least some validity to that, but their field goal percentage was only about 1 percent below their regular season average. They did suffer long scoring droughts in just about every game, and struggled with bad turnovers, but the biggest reason for the Bulls early exit was their slow starts. They let the Wizards get out in front in every game and dictate the tempo. It makes it very hard to win when you have to dig out of a hole in each and every game. “I thought for us that was the difference,” asserted Coach Wittman. “In all five games, we had really good first quarters, which got us into the game. We gained control in a lot of the games with the way we played in the first quarter. Tonight was another example of that.” The Bulls trailed entering the 2nd in all 5 games, twice by double digits and were down by 8 in game 5. “When you get in that type of hole, you spend so much energy trying to get out of it,” explained Thibs after the game 4 loss in D.C. “The important thing is to play from a lead, and we did everything you don’t want to do. You get down 14-0 [or substitute scores from games 2 & 5], and you’re giving them great confidence. Then it takes a lot to slow that down.” The Bulls weren’t able to correct their slow starts, and it led to the demise of their season. Just like that, the entire city had its aspirations of a deep Bulls playoff run washed away and replaced by the bitter taste of disappointment, but were our expectations actually realistic? Should we really be disappointed?
For all of the grit, effort, hustle and toughness the Bulls played with this season, they might be the least skilled offensive team in the league. Without Derrick Rose, the only rotation guy really capable of getting his own shot is D.J. Augustin, and that goes out the window when you defend him with length or a double-team. The best scoring big on the roster is Carlos Boozer, who prefers to shoot 12-15 footers rather than go into the post, and when he does go inside he’s as soft as pile of blankets. I’ve never seen a guy with his size and strength be so weak going to the rack. The rest of the team is riddled with offensive shortcomings, from Jimmy Butler’s inconsistent shooting to Joakim’s lack of touch around the rim. The point is, it’s a minor miracle that the Bulls were able to put together the regular season record they did. They lost what many believed were their best two players early in the season. They were forced to turn Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy, guys who wouldn’t see 20 minutes per game on most teams, into starters. They pulled D.J. Augustin off the league scrap heap. On paper, this isn’t a playoff team. If you told me in October that this is the roster the Bulls would finish the year with, I doubt I’d have expected much more than 30 wins. We were spoiled by what the Bulls did this season, and we shouldn’t let a premature exit from the playoffs dampen our view of how special this season really was.
“I’m proud of the team,” said a reflective Coach Thibodeau after the series concluded. “I thought they gave us everything they had. There was nothing left. That’s all you can ask for as a coach. This team has climbed out of a lot of holes all year long. We were 12 and 19 and they didn’t make any excuses. They fought as hard as they could and they came up short in the end.” When asked what he’ll take away and remember most from this season, Thibs had this to say: “How they wouldn’t quit. We took a couple big hits the last couple years, actually the last 3 years. The lockout year, Derrick missed half of that season, we fought like crazy that year. He missed all of last season and this season, and then with the trade of Luol…we were 12 and 19, you’re sitting there saying, ‘what are we going to do?’ These guys fought like crazy to make sure we had a good season. When a team commits to playing as a team, playing together and playing for each other, and give you everything they have, there is nothing more you can ask for. A lot of people would have just laid down, and our team didn’t do that.” It’ll be difficult for Bulls’ fans to appreciate the regular season the team put together while the sting of the playoff defeat is so fresh, but the players should leave the season with their heads held high and no regrets.
The Bulls will undoubtedly look different when next season rolls around. There are a number of different directions they could go in. D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich are both free agents. There’s talk of making a run at Carmelo Anthony in free agency, using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer, and trying to persuade Nikola Mirotic to come over from Spain. Whatever moves the front office makes, the culture that has been built in the Bulls’ organization has them poised for success. “Obviously we were shorthanded this year, but I think we’re positioned well,” asserted Thibodeau. “How we surround Derrick will be critical, and not only Derrick but also Taj and Joakim. We’ll see how things unfold, but I think the foundation is in place. We have great character on our team, and that’s a huge plus. I think that goes a long way.” Hopefully, watching the Wizards advance to the Eastern Conference Finals spot that they had their sights set on will only cause the Bulls’ to come back with more fire and hunger next season. You can be disappointed in how the season ended for Chicago, but don’t lose faith in the Bulls. Their championship window isn’t closed; far from it. It might just be opening.
One missed free throw. That’s what game 2 between the Bulls and Wizards came down to. After 53 minutes of wild momentum swings, befuddling calls by officials, and crazy loose ball scrambles, it was one missed free throw by Kirk Hinrich that put the final nail in the coffin and put the Bulls down 2-0 to the Wizards in their first round series. It was a fitting end, for a team that couldn’t score a point for a stretch of 7:38 in crunch time, to lose because they couldn’t put the ball in the basket when they needed to. The Bulls suffered offensively late in game 1 as well, scoring just 6 points over that game’s final 5:58 as they blew a 13-point second half lead, but they sunk to new lows in game 2. The Bulls were outscored 14-4 over the final 6:58 of regulation to force overtime, and then allowed the first 6 points in the OT session. They just weren’t able to recover in time to pull out the win. It was a game the Bulls had to have, and one it looked like they were going to have, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way.
“It feels like we’re a fingernail short every time,” lamented Taj Gibson. “A couple loose ball plays here and there, a couple of tough calls, but you’ve got to just play through it.” For most of the night, the Bulls did play through it. They came out flat to start the night as the Wizards scored the first 7 points and jumped out to a 17-point lead late in the first behind Bradley Beal and John Wall, but Chicago kept fighting and managed to get within 7 by halftime. D.J. Augustin hit several clutch shots as the gap closed and had 14 points by the half. Chicago finally got over the hump and took their first lead of the night with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd, and it looked like they weren’t going to give the lead back as they built it up to 10 points, but then the bottom fell out on the offense. Bradley Beal hit a few clutch shots on some scramble plays late in regulation, scoring 11 of Washington’s final 16 points in the 4th. “He made some big shots for us,” mentioned Wizards coach Randy Wittman after the game. “I was asked before the game if I was worried with what he shot in game one. I always tell our guys: If you’re taking the right shots, I never worry, make or miss. You have to continue to take that shot and take it with confidence. He was very confident tonight. He stayed aggressive and made some big plays for us down the stretch.” Beal rebounded from a 3-of-11 shooting performance in game 1 to score a game-high 26 on 9-of-19 shooting in game 2. Despite his strong finish, it was a Beal missed free throw that set the stage for the most controversial sequence of the night.
With the game knotted at 91 with 53 seconds left in regulation, Beal missed a free throw to start the Bulls’ final possession before the extra frame. Hinrich missed a long jumper with 32 seconds left, but Gibson corralled the offensive board. With just over 10 seconds to go, Augustin missed from 11 feet, and it was Gibson again chasing down the loose ball, this time sprawling out on the floor near the sideline to come up with it. Taj wrapped up the ball, looked up at referee Bennie Adams and yelled “Timeout!” 3 times as Wizards’ forward Nene jumped on top of him and wrapped his arms around reaching for the ball. Adams blew the whistle, and then put his thumbs in the air signaling a jump ball. The crowd was in shock, but not nearly as much shock as Gibson. Things got worse on the actual jump ball. As the ball was tossed up, Nene grabbed Gibson by the arm, held him down and then pushed him out of the way before going up to tip the ball to a teammate. The whistles stayed silent. Even a day later, Gibson is still shocked by the no-call. “He just pushed me out of the play,” explained Taj at Wednesday’s practice. “I didn’t know you could do that. Can you do that? He took my whole arm and just threw me. I didn’t know that was legal. You look at the film and he hits [referee] Joey [Crawford] in the face while he does it, so I don’t know what to say.” If Nene had been whistled for the foul, it would have put Gibson at the line for 2 free throws in a tie game with 10 seconds left, and also would have sent Nene to the bench with 6 fouls. Instead, it was the Wizards who had a shot to win in regulation, but Beal missed a fade away jumper on the baseline at the buzzer.
In the extra session, it was pretty clear the Bulls were rattled by the way they finished the 4th. Their offense was rushed and their shots weren’t dropping. The Wizards scored the first 6 points in OT, and seemed to have the game won when John Wall knocked down 2 free throws to make it 101-95 with just 42 seconds left, but the Bulls made one last push. A quick bucket by Joakim and an offensive foul by John Wall on the ensuing inbound gave Chicago new life. Noah nearly had a 3-point play opportunity on the next play as he was fouled going to the rim, but his shot was just off the mark. He did hit both foul shots and the Bulls had trimmed a 6-point deficit to 2 in just 8 seconds. The defense clamped down at the other end, got a miss from Beal and called timeout to set up the final play. On that final play, Kirk Hinrich found a lane to the basket and managed to draw a foul on Nene with just two seconds left, but like Noah moments earlier, he narrowly missed connecting on the shot to set up a 3-point play. Needing both free throws, the air went out of the building when Hinrich missed the first one. He missed the 2nd on purpose, but the Bulls were unable to secure the rebound and the buzzer sounded. “I went up there thinking I was going to knock them down,” commented Kirk. “Tonight, I just couldn’t do it. However, I really felt like I should have made the layup.” Hinrich was a 76% free throw shooter during the regular season.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Augustin. “It’s a tough loss. I feel like we played hard and I think we all left it out there on the court, and just not to get the win really hurts you.” It’s a tough pill to swallow for Bulls’ fans, but the team now has to head to Washington for 2 games trailing in the series 2-0. It would be easy to blame the loss on the officials, especially with the way Nene assaulted Taj on the jump ball, but that would be a cop out. The Bulls lost this game because they couldn’t score when it counted most. The Wizards’ defense was surprisingly stingy, and they showed some real grit and mental toughness to not fold when they were down by 10. “I think we did a great job staying calm and composed,” mentioned John Wall. “Early in the season, we would get rattled and guys would try to make plays one-on-one on their own. Tonight, we trusted in our offense like we’ve been doing.” If the Wizards aren’t going to get rattled on offense, the onus will be on the Bulls to find ways to keep scoring. They won’t be able to just build a lead and rest on their defense, which is what it feels like they’ve been trying to do.
The Bulls spent all season relying on their offensive balance to keep defenses guessing, but the Wizards haven’t been fooled. When the Bulls offense is humming, they usually have 6 or 7 guys in double-figures and a high assist number. In game one, they had 7 guys with 10+ points but just 13 assists. In game 2, the assists came up (23), but the balance disappeared. Only 4 Bulls reached 10 points, and bench guys Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin were the top 2 scorers, at 25 and 22 respectively. Augustin was the only Bull putting pressure on the Wizards’ defense, but Washington found a way to slow him down with Trevor Ariza late in the game. “He’s so long,” mentioned D.J. “It was tough to score on him, even to get open. I think it was a good strategy by them.” Thibs and the Bulls didn’t find a way to counter Ariza in game 2 and it cost them dearly. They’ll have to make adjustments in game 3, or this series might not make it back to Chicago. The problem with that is that Thibodeau seems stubbornly committed to his closing group. When asked how to fix the late game offensive woes, Thibs made no mention of personnel: “The fourth quarter and overtime are going to be different. The intensity of the game changes during that time. You’ve got to be ready to respond. You’ve got to screen better, you’ve got to make quick decisions, and you’ve got to make plays.” One reporter asked if he’d consider changing rotations for the next game, and Thibs was noticeably bothered by the question. “We look at everything,” he answered and then muttered loudly to himself “Unreal.”
Thibodeau’s attitude at the postgame presser makes it pretty clear he doesn’t plan on mixing things up as far as the rotation goes. It’s going to fall on the usual group to play better. The biggest key to game 3 might be how Jimmy Butler plays. He was a non-factor in game 2, and can’t be again in Washington if the Bulls want to win. Butler played all 53 minutes and scored just 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting and struggled to contain Beal down the stretch. That won’t cut it next game. Carlos Boozer had a brutal game on Tuesday too, but he doesn’t play nearly as many minutes as Butler, and he doesn’t play much if at all in the 4th. The pressure will be on Jimmy to step it up. He’s capable, but with the amount of minutes he plays, who knows how much extra juice he has in the tank.
The Bulls are in a position they’ve been in before. They’ve been through a ton of adversity over the past couple years but they’ve shown an enormous amount of resiliency along the way. They’re down and just about counted out, but they’re not going to throw in the towel just yet. “It’s the playoffs; it’s a twelve round fight,” asserted Gibson. “Nobody’s really knocked out right away.” Coach Wittman knows the Wizards still have some work left to do to make it to the 2nd round. “Nothing is guaranteed,” mentioned Wittman. “We’ve got 2 wins, you’ve got to get 4. We have to continue to understand why we won these games and how we went about doing it. In game 3, we have to play harder and with more intensity.” It’s easier to say that when you’re up 2-0 than to actually go out there and do it. The Bulls will be fighting for their playoff lives on Friday night at the Verizon Center. It’s always tough to match the intensity of a team that desperate, especially one with as much playoff experience as the Bulls have. It’s going to be a dogfight, and one I expect both teams to be ready for. “We understand going on the road and playing with that ‘dog mentality,” commented Taj, “and now we have to go and play with that same ‘dog mentality that they came in here and played with. First things first, we’ve got to go get one.” If they don’t get that one, it’s going to be a long summer for Chicago.
If you asked NBA fans a month ago how the Eastern Conference Playoffs would play out, most of them would have had the same answer: It’ll end up in a showdown between the Heat and Pacers. While the Pacers and Heat are now locked into the 1 and 2 seeds, their clash in the finals is no longer a foregone conclusion. Both teams have stumbled to the finish, with Indiana going 9-13 since March 4th, and Miami not much better at 11-13 in the same stretch. Their struggles have cracked the door open for the Bulls, Nets and Raptors to spoil the party and upend one of the top seeds. There is still one tiny wrinkle: We don’t know who’s playing who yet. With one day left in the regular season, the 3rd-7th seeds in the East playoffs are still up for grabs, and the uncertainty has caused some teams to put up less than their best efforts to dictate their playoff matchups.
Tanking has been a big problem around the NBA over the past couple years. Just ask fans of the Bucks and 76ers how much fun their teams were to watch this year. Now it seems tanking has spread its way to the playoff teams. The Heat essentially punted the one seed by sitting LeBron James and Chris Bosh in an embarrassing loss to the Wizards on Monday, and the Brooklyn Nets are doing everything they can to lose their way to the 6-seed. The Nets have dropped 3 out of 4 and have talked about sitting several rotation players in their final game. Why are these teams making sure they get lower seeds than they could? They don’t want to play the Bulls. The Nets don’t want to face them in the 1st round, and the Heat don’t want to in the 2nd, but they might not have a choice if the Raptors lose to New York on Wednesday. The Bulls, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about what the rest of the East is doing. They don’t care who they play, they just keep grinding and keep winning. “We’re not changing,” mentioned Coach Tom Thibodeau on Monday night. “I think we’re playing very good basketball right now, so we’re not changing our approach.” That successful approach was on full display on Monday night.
The Bulls continued their strong April by handling the Orlando Magic 108-95 on Monday to improve to 8-1 over their past 9 games. They played without point guard D.J. Augustin, who was away from the team for the birth of his child, but it didn’t matter. Jimmer Fredette stepped in almost seamlessly to Augustin’s role and tallied 17 points in just over 30 minutes. “To come out and deliver like that without having played in such a long time, it just shows what kind of worker and professional guy [Jimmer] is,” commented Joakim afterwards. “He’s a hell of a player.” Jimmer was one of 6 Bulls in double figures in the game while Taj Gibson added another 8 points. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah tallied double-doubles (almost another triple-double for Jo at 18-10-8), and 4 of the Bulls 5 starters dished out at least 4 assists. That offensive balance is what makes the Bulls a real challenge to defend. “I thought the ball movement was terrific,” explained Thibs after the game. “I thought everyone was making quick decisions, high assists, low turnovers and everyone involved… Offensively, I love what we’re doing.”
The Bulls would like to ride this wave of momentum into the playoffs, but they still have one more stop in Charlotte to face the Bobcats on Wednesday. A win in Charlotte paired with a Toronto loss would put Chicago into the number 3 seed. A loss or Toronto win would put them into the 4 spot. Either way, their first round opponent will be Brooklyn or Washington, but the Nets and Wizards aren’t locked in to their seeds yet either. To the outside observer, there’s little benefit to winning the 3rd seed. The Bulls might still have to face off with the very talented and experienced Nets in the first round, and then battle the East favorite Miami in the second round. With the 4-seed, their second round foe would be the unraveling Pacers. The 4 seems to be the path of least resistance, but the Bulls’ players don’t seem too interested in that. “However the chips fall, it’s the playoffs, everybody’s good,” explained Taj Gibson. “We just take it one step at a time,” added Carlos Boozer. “We let everybody else do all the assuming they want to do. We’ll beat Charlotte on Wednesday, see who we match up with, and go from there.”
The one thing the Bulls do know is that they are playing some pretty solid basketball lately. If you had suggested that this team would approach 50 wins when they were 9-16, you’d probably have been laughed at, but they’ve rallied back all year. “We’ve got a good rhythm with our starters and our bench guys, and with guys like Tony and Jimmer, we’ve got guys we can go to if something happens,” explained Thibs. “You need everybody, and I love the makeup of our team. I think we have the right type of guys. They work extremely hard each and every day and they help the group move forward.” That makeup is a big part of why the Bulls aren’t concerned with their playoff matchups. They want to go out and beat whoever’s in front of them. “We’re not worried about anybody,” quipped Boozer. “I don’t think my teammates worry about whoever we match up with.”
Wednesday night will undoubtedly clear up a lot of the uncertainty surrounding the East playoffs, but there is no uncertainty with the Bulls. They know who they are and how they have to win games, and everyone is on the same page entering the playoffs. “We’re just focused on ourselves,” said Gibson, “Just getting ready to play some tough-nosed, rugged basketball. We understand the stakes. We understand what it’s about.” The Bulls aren’t burdened by the same expectations the Heat and Pacers face, but they aren’t concerned about that. “Expectations don’t help you win basketball games,” asserted Joakim. “We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities, and we believe…whoever we play, we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give ‘em hell. We’re hungry. We want this.” That attitude is why nobody wants the Bulls, but at least one team isn’t going to have a choice. I don’t envy that team (or the one who gets the Bulls after).
The calendar has turned to April, and in the NBA, that generally means the focus has turned to the playoffs. The Bulls, however, still have some business to take care of in the regular season. They’ve successfully turned their season around, but they’ve spent much of the last couple months attempting to chase down the Toronto Raptors for the East’s 3-seed behind East juggernauts Miami and Indiana. The road to get to this point has been a perilous one. There have been tough losses along the way to teams like the Spurs, Thunder, Nets, and most recently to the Trailblazers on Friday. Despite those L’s, the Bulls finally managed to pull even with Toronto by sweeping a home-and-home series from the pesky Boston Celtics.
The Celtics come out of the two games with a measly record of 23-51, but they didn’t make things easy on the Bulls. In game 1 in Boston, the Bulls needed just about every one of D.J. Augustin’s career-high 33 points to fend off the C’s 107-102. Joakim Noah played the role of distributor, dishing out 13 assists as the Bulls squeaked out the win. Game 2 on Monday night didn’t play out exactly the same as Sunday’s, but the results were the same. Noah took on more of a scoring load with 19 in the 2nd game while D.J. scored just 4 a night after his career-best game, instead sharing the ball and racking up 11 assists. The Celtics were down just 1 entering the 4th for the second straight night, but again it was the Bulls who performed best when the chips were down, outscoring the Celtics 23-10 in the final stanza to pick up a 94-80 win. Mike Dunleavy scored 22 to lead the Bulls in the victory.
Considering the drastic swings in statistics, it was clear the Celtics made some adjustments to not get beat by D.J. again, but the Bulls showed just how adaptable they are to different defensive approaches. “I don’t think you go into the game thinking about what’s going to…You don’t know what’s going to happen,” explained Noah. “Every game is different, and it’s all about finding ways to win, so we just try to be as versatile as possible.” It also helps when you have one of the league’s top defenses to fall back on in the 4th quarter of a tight game. “Nobody can get easy offense against Chicago,” lamented Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens after losing to them for the second time in as many nights. “They’re obviously, along with Indiana and another handful of teams, the elite of the elite defensively in this league. It’s as good a defense as I’ve ever coached against.”
Monday’s game was just another demonstration of just how tough the Bulls can be in the fourth quarter. “Our focus is different in the fourth quarter,” mentioned Augustin. “We just have to lock in, and the fourth quarter is winning time, so that’s what we pretty much do, just lock in.” The group they finish games with is exceptional on the defensive end and versatile on offense, and it’s been driving opponents nuts. Coach Thibs expounded on the matchup problems his finishing group (Joakim, Taj, D.J., Hinrich & Butler) can cause after the win: “That’s the advantage we have with the finishing group. We can put 2 point guards out there. We can put the ball in Jo’s hands, and we can put the ball in Taj’s hands. The job of those guys is to read what’s going on in the game, how we’re being defended. If someone has a hot hand, we’re going to try to go to that. If someone has a match-up, you try to go to that. If we can get 2 on the ball, we have to make the right play. Basically, that’s what we are trying to get accomplished.” Considering that the Bulls are 30-14 since the calendar turned to 2014, I’d say they’re getting that accomplished.
While the Bulls were busy dispatching of Boston on Monday night, the Toronto Raptors were taking some lumps from the Heat in Miami. With the Bulls’ win and Raps’ loss, both teams sit at 42-32 with just 8 games left to play. I think it’s safe to say that both teams want to get to that 3rd seed considering what’s happening with the rest of the East playoff picture. “I think it’s very important,” offered Mike Dunleavy on Monday. “We want to try to get as high as we can, not only with home-court advantage but also avoiding the first seed in the second round, if we’re fortunate enough to advance. We just want to get as high as we can.” With the way the Pacers are crumbling down the stretch (losers of10 of 16, including their last 3), they seem like the ideal second round matchup for any team with hopes of making the East finals. The Pacers are a shell of the team that started 46-13, and nobody wants to go through the Heat to get there. It would also be helpful to not have to play the red-hot Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Nets have won 14 of 18 and have a boatload of playoff experience. The Washington Wizards would present a much more favorable matchup to both the Bulls and Raptors, but only one can have the luxury of facing them.
The schedule over the final 8 games seems to favor the Bulls despite having 5 road games left to Toronto’s 3. The Wizards are the only team left on the Bulls’ slate that currently boasts a winning record (38-36). Minnesota and Charlotte are close to .500 at 1 and 2 games under, respectively, and the Bulls also get Atlanta and New York down the stretch, the 2 teams battling for the East’s final playoff spot. It doesn’t help matters that the 5 best teams the Bulls have left are the 5 they get to play on the road, but Chicago should be favored in every game they have left. Toronto, on the other hand, has to square off with Indiana and Houston in their next 2 games, both of whom are at least 25 games over .500. Even with those games at home and Indy’s swoon, winning one or both of those will be a daunting task. The rest of the schedule for Toronto is pretty favorable, as they draw East bottom-feeders Philly, Detroit and Milwaukee (twice), but they also get two with the resurgent Knicks. I think the 3-seed is going to come down to which team slips up against a team they shouldn’t, and I think that team will be the Raptors.
You could say that over the next 8 games we’ll get a lot of insight into what the Bulls are made of, but don’t we already know what they’re made of? Hasn’t this team showed its resiliency and overcome enough adversity for us to know to not pick against them or count them out? I tend to believe they have, and that’s why I fully expect Chicago to enter the playoffs at seed number 3. They’ve got the right edge, the right mentality and the right focus to do what needs to be done for these final 8 games. “We’ve got a bunch of games coming up. None of them are going to be easy,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “We’re going into Atlanta, they won tonight. They’re fighting for their playoff life. None of these games are going to be easy, they’re going to come down to will and determination. We’ve got to get ready for this push.” If the Bulls’ play continues to live up to Coach Thibs mantra of ‘One game at a time,’ and they continue to play with their grinder mentality, the 3rd seed will take care of itself. After that, the real fun begins.
The NBA regular season is a grind. It’s grueling. The games keep coming, all 82 of them, and it doesn’t matter what time of day they start, if they’re back-to-backs, or how good the opponent is. In the NBA, if you don’t come ready to play, you can get beat by anyone. The Chicago Bulls, like many teams, have learned this the hard way. They’ve played much of the season short-handed with their best player out with injury and their second-best player shipped off to save money, and have seen on several occasions this year what can happen if you don’t play with the intensity level you need to. “When you’re playing short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” explained Coach Tom Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.”
What happens when the Bulls don’t come out with that readiness to play? They lose to Dallas by 22, or to Sacramento by 29, or to Miami by 14, or most recently, to San Antonio by 8 in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score. “We got our asses kicked,” lamented Joakim Noah after the Spurs game. “Every time we lose, Thibs always blames himself, but I don’t think it’s his fault. It’s everybody. We’ve got to be ready to play. I’m disappointed that they came out with the better edge tonight, usually that’s us.” Over the course of 82 games, these types of games are going to happen. Nobody goes 82-0, but what really has me excited about this Bulls’ team is how they respond to these bad performances.
Since the Bulls started turning their season around on December 19th, they’re 13-1 in games following a loss. They don’t let one bad game turn into 2 or more. After losing badly to Dallas, the Bulls went into the Grindhouse and beat a really good Memphis Grizzlies team. After the Sacramento loss, they won in Phoenix, and after the San Antonio loss this past week, the Bulls throttled the Houston Rockets, who had won 15 of their previous 18 games, by 24. “There’s no question we’ve got a resiliency to be able to do that,” mentioned Mike Dunleavy after the win Thursday. “We took a tough loss on Tuesday night, and to bounce back the way we did is great.” Dunleavy himself had a game on Thursday that really felt like a microcosm of the Bulls’ season.
Early on in the second quarter, Dunleavy took a really hard charge from Rockets’ forward Chandler Parsons. The contact not only drew a whistle, it drew blood…lots of it. Dunleavy had a gash above his right eye and blood just running down his face. He may as well have been making another remake of “Carrie.” He went to the locker room, got 10 stitches to close up the wound, and came back into the game to start the second half. The Rockets probably wish he hadn’t. Dunleavy didn’t score in the 1st half, but he set the nets on fire in the 3rd quarter, scoring 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-4 from 3), and grabbed 5 rebounds in the frame as well. Mike’s resilient performance had his coach singing his praises after the game. “He’s a consummate pro. He plays hard every night and gives himself up for the team,” gushed Thibs. “That is the price of winning. He came back after the stitches and took another charge. When you talk about toughness-that’s toughness. You have to have mental toughness and physical toughness, and he has it.” It sounds almost as if Thibs could be talking about the whole team.
The Rockets took notice of Dunleavy’s second half as well. “He got hit by Chandler, and he just came back with a different attitude,” mentioned Dwight Howard. That’s exactly what the Bulls do. They take a hit, and they come back with a totally different attitude the next game. They play with a chip on their shoulder and feed off of each other’s toughness and intensity. It’s usually Joakim that sets the tone, but Jo was happy to let Dunleavy do the honors on Thursday. “It shows a lot about the character of this team,” commented Noah. “I’ve never seen anything like that. To get rocked the way he got rocked, blood really coming down hard, getting 10 stitches, and then play the second half the way he played? I dig that sh*t.” He also jokingly added that, “It was good for Duke’s street credibility.”
All jokes aside, it’s the culture of the Bulls’ locker room that has really built their toughness and resilience. The players may take their cues in terms of intensity and attitude from Joakim Noah, but there’s no dominant alpha dog in the Bulls locker room. “We’re a team full of leaders,” explained Jimmy Butler. “Not one guy, not two guys, everyone has to hold everyone accountable.” That’s the mentality of a championship locker room. The league has seen plenty of great teams in terms of talent never really get over the hump and win a title because they don’t have that mentality. Are the Bulls a championship team in terms of talent? Probably not, but having that championship attitude in the locker room can really take them a long way.
As the season winds down, there’s no question in my mind the Bulls will continue to be a resilient bunch and keep grinding for the best seed possible for the playoffs. Their mental toughness is ingrained in their DNA at this point. Coach Thibodeau mentioned on Thursday that “every game is a test,” but the real test will come in the playoffs. The Bulls should be able to dispatch of anybody in the East not from Indiana or Miami, but the Pacers and Heat are different animals. In terms of talent, they are championship-level teams who can run them off the floor. I rest a little easier knowing that if the Bulls do get throttled in a playoff game by Miami or Indy, they’ll take that hit and come back with a different attitude and a sharpened up edge for the next game. “This team doesn’t take anything for granted,” explained Noah. “Just because you usually do it doesn’t mean that it happens. You’ve got to go out there and do it.” With Noah and company playing with that mentality, their showdowns with Miami or Indy in the postseason will be must-see TV.
Coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are doing it again. They aren’t just surviving without Derrick Rose, for a second straight season they are thriving without him. Joakim Noah is playing at a near MVP level, Taj Gibson is garnering mention for sixth man of the year, D.J. Augustin is enjoying a serious career renaissance and Jimmy Butler is on the brink of becoming a star player. The team just throttled the Knicks on Sunday for their 9th win in 10 games and Joakim Noah just became the 3rd Bull ever to have 5 triple-doubles in a Chicago uniform (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are the others). The Bulls’ season is really picking up steam. Somehow, though, the topic picking up the most steam in Chicago is the rampant rumor that the Bulls will target Knicks’ superstar Carmelo Anthony in free agency this summer. The Knicks are a mess this season, sitting at 21-40 and in 11th in the miserable Eastern Conference. They don’t have a 1st round draft pick in the June draft and they don’t really have much cap space to add better players around Melo if he were to return to the team next year. It’s not hard to see why Carmelo would want out of New York. The question is: Should the Bulls want him here?
On paper, adding Carmelo seems like an obvious choice. He’s been an elite scorer for his entire career, averaging 25.3 points per game (28.0 this season) and won the league scoring title in 2012-13 with 28.7 points a game. He’s a 6-time All-Star and a guy who’s been the best player on winning teams his entire career. In fact, 2014 will be the first time he’s missed the playoffs in his entire 11-year career (assuming the Knicks don’t miraculously make the playoffs). He’s even improved his game in the past couple of seasons, becoming a better 3-point shooter and rebounder. In order to make room for Anthony under the salary cap, the Bulls would likely have to shed the salaries of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Most people are expecting the Bulls to use the amnesty clause to release Boozer this offseason regardless of what happens with Carmelo, so you’re basically talking about swapping Taj for Melo. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that Taj Gibson is a better basketball player than Carmelo Anthony. We’re talking about a 6-time All-Star versus a 6th man. Like I said, on paper this decision is an easy one, but the games aren’t played on paper.
It’s easy to look at the raw numbers and project Melo as the scorer who can complement Derrick Rose (assuming he returns healthy, of course) and take some of the defensive pressure off him, but the raw numbers won’t tell you how Carmelo will fit in with this Bulls’ team. The chemistry the Chicago Bulls have right now is something special. They pull for one another, they trust one another, and they have a ton of confidence. They have a great work ethic and they hang their hat on how hard they play, especially on defense. “For us, when you are short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” asserted Coach Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.” How much of that description of the Bulls sounds like it could also describe Carmelo? He has a ton of confidence. That’s about it. Rather than pull for his teammates, Anthony is more often questioning their effort. Bulls’ players Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson joked in the locker room after Sunday’s game that they overheard Melo during a 1st quarter timeout ask his teammates, “What’s wrong with y’all?,” and Boozer quipped, “Of course he’s not blaming himself. ‘Not me. What’s wrong with y’all?’” Melo claimed earlier this season that he accepts that fans are going to blame him for the team’s struggles, but it’s hard to believe that claim when he points fingers everywhere but at himself in team huddles and with the media.
“It’s getting harder to keep coming up with excuses about why this team’s struggling,” mentioned Carmelo Sunday. “At this point, I don’t have any answers towards it. As a team we have to have some sense of pride to go out there and compete. We’re just not getting it done. I’m sick of making excuses about this and about that. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing.” Carmelo isn’t the only Knick who’s fed up with the way things are going. J.R. Smith questioned the effort of some of his teammates last week, and when asked about Smith’s comments, Knicks’ forward Amare’ Stoudemire didn’t pull any punches. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror before we make statements,” retorted Amare’. “We’ve got to make sure that we are playing hard first. Take care of yourself, then others will follow suit. We’ve got to lead by example.” When was the last time you heard a Bulls’ player make excuses or point fingers at teammates? Even when the team was flailing to a 9-16 start, no one was blaming the struggles on Derrick’s injuries or anyone else in the locker room. They just kept working and striving to get it fixed. The Bulls’ locker room wasn’t exactly a happy place when they were dealing with their struggles early on, but there’s a difference between a downtrodden locker room and a dysfunctional one. The Knicks’ locker room is dysfunctional, and you can bet Carmelo Anthony isn’t exactly faultless in it getting that way. Granted, Carmelo might change his tune if he were on a winning team, but I’m not sure his style of play would be a great fit in the Bulls’ system.
Carmelo has developed a reputation over the years as a ball-stopper, meaning the ball stops with Melo. He’s only looking to shoot, not pass. His numbers back that up. Carmelo is averaging 2.9 assists per game this year and 3.1 for his career. When you draw as much defensive attention as Carmelo does, you almost have to be trying to not find open teammates to have such a low average. Of the league’s top ten scorers this season, only Melo and Blazers’ power forward LaMarcus Aldridge average fewer than 3 and a half assists per game. The Knicks as a team have a real problem with ball movement, and it’s something that’s frustrated Amare’ Stoudemire since he arrived in New York. “If you think about the top teams in this league, they all move the ball very well,” explained Amare’. “For us, we’re not quite there yet. Until we get there, it’s going to be a struggle. I’ve been saying that for years, so it seems like we’re not serious.” The Knicks are currently dead last in the NBA in the percentage of their field goals assisted on (52.7%), and they are a full 2 and a half percent behind the 2nd worst team. The Bulls on the other hand are 2nd in the league at 64.46%. Sharing the basketball is a big part of Chicago’s offense and it’s something Carmelo would have to improve on.
Melo hasn’t ever garnered much attention for his defensive game either, something that would have to change under Coach Thibs. Defense has to be a priority to play in Chicago. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson learned that last year, as have Tony Snell and D.J. Augustin this year. More importantly, we just haven’t seen much of an evolution to Carmelo’s game. He’s never shown the ability to make his teammates better, and he really hasn’t improved much since he entered the league except in his ability to score. All in all, Carmelo would have to remake his game in a lot of ways to really mesh with the Bulls and be a good fit in their system, and I’m just not sure it’s something he can do after 11 years in the league.
The Bulls’ have really found a great mix as the team is constituted right now. Every player has a well-defined role, and everybody contributes. 7 of the Bulls’ 8 regulars scored in double figures in the win over the Knicks. “The balance has been big,” explained Thibs. “They know what to expect from each other. They are playing to their strengths and covering their weaknesses. They are sharing the ball, making quick decisions and playing strong defense. If you do those things, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.” The players really sense how well the team is clicking too. “That’s the makeup of our team,” commented Boozer. “We just keep grinding, whatever’s in front of us, we just take on the challenge. The great thing about us is our attitude. We’re not reading your [the media] newspapers, we’re not reading all the good stuff about us, we’re staying hungry.” Joakim Noah echoed Boozer’s sentiment on Sunday: “We’re still not satisfied. We feel like we’re the hungriest team playing in the NBA.” I just don’t think adding a player and person like Carmelo Anthony into this mix would be beneficial.
In the end, it’s likely that Carmelo’s talent will win out. The Bulls are probably going to pull out all the stops to try and get Melo to Chicago. They vowed when they dealt Luol Deng that any money saved in that deal would be put back into the team, and Melo, at least on paper, is the logical way to do that. Who knows, maybe playing in a structured system like Thibodeau’s will be just what Carmelo needed to shed his ball-stopping reputation. Maybe Joakim Noah’s strong personality will help keep Melo in line in the locker room. Maybe Carmelo really can provide that second scorer the Bulls need alongside Derrick Rose to be able to get past the Heat. I tend to believe there’s a reason Carmelo Anthony is 23-43 in the playoffs and 3-10 in playoff series. The biggest problem isn’t Carmelo’s supporting cast. It’s his “me first” style of play. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Carmelo Anthony will ever win an NBA title, and for that reason, I don’t want him in Chicago. I’d rather have Taj Gibson, who unlike Carmelo, believes in his team: “There’s no ceiling to what we can do.” Doesn’t that sound like a guy you’d want on your team?
For a long while this season, it really wasn’t fun to be a Chicago Bulls fan. The season was spiraling out of control in the wake of yet another season-ending Derrick Rose injury, and to compound the problem, the front office decided to ship off franchise cornerstone Luol Deng for no immediate return. Things were really getting bleak as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games in November and December to fall to a dismal 9-16 mark. Other names surfaced in trade rumors; talk of tanking was rampant from local sports fans and pundits, and the team failed to score 80 points in 4 out of 5 games during one particularly ugly stretch. Out of the despair surrounding the franchise, however, the Bulls have reemerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 18-9 since coming out of their early season tailspin, and a shockingly strong 13-7 since they jettisoned Luol. How have they turned things around? They’ve done it by leaning on their bigs.
Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are playing at levels that we just haven’t seen from them in their careers, and it’s their improvement that has buoyed the Bulls’ season and has the team entering the All-Star break at 27-25, good for 4th in the East. That duo has been getting better as the season has progressed, and their impact was on full display this past week as the Bulls made mincemeat of Eastern Conference playoff contenders Atlanta and Brooklyn. Taj lead the team in scoring in both games (one that he didn’t even start), and Joakim had a ridiculous triple-double against Atlanta (19 pts., 16 reb., 11 assists), and nearly duplicated the feat against the Nets (14-13-7). It’s one thing to dominate the defensive end the way Joakim and Taj do, but this season it has been their impact on the offensive end that’s making the big difference. “When those guys get going down low, guys have to double-team,” explained point guard D.J. Augustin, “and it leaves me and Kirk wide open for threes, makes us able to penetrate, and opens things up for the whole team.”
There are plenty of Bulls’ fans who would say it was Augustin who was the catalyst for the Bulls’ turnaround, and there’s a case to be made for that. D.J.’s averaging 13.8 points per game, 5.7 assists, is shooting 42.4% from beyond the arc, and seems to knock down a big 3 down the stretch of every close win. He’s been a big piece of the resurgence to be sure, but it’s the balance provided by Noah and Taj that have made his strong play possible, not to mention the pressure Noah can take off the point guard as a ball-handler and playmaker. When asked why he and Noah play so well off one another, Carlos Boozer responded: “I just play off Joakim, our point-center, and go from there. He’s just a great passer. With Jo, when he gets the ball, if you can get to an open area he’ll find you. He has the mindset of a guard. He really does, and that’s why he’s always knocking on triple-doubles. He wants to be a playmaker and make plays for all of us. When we get the ball to Jo, our offense runs a lot smoother.” Joakim’s ability to play ‘point-center’ allows Augustin play off the ball more and find those open 3-point opportunities.
Statistically there’s no denying Joakim’s having his best season yet. He’s averaging career-highs of 11.9 points (tied with last year), 11.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. He had a career-long streak of 18 straight games with double-digit rebounds, and he also has 26 double-doubles thus far, just 7 behind his career best with another 30 games to play. I think he’ll set that mark as well. The reason Jo has taken it to another level this season: his health. “Last year, around this time, I was in a lot of pain,” mentioned Noah. “My feet were hurting. I felt like my body was breaking down. I’m healthy right now. I couldn’t be happier about that.” His coach couldn’t be happier about it either. He shared his center’s opinion as to why he’s playing his best basketball.
“He’s healthy, he’s gotten into rhythm,” asserted coach Thibs. “I think missing training camp set him back offensively. Defensively he’s been terrific all year, then offensively, I’d say the last 25 games or so, he’s been in a great rhythm. He’s doing a lot of great things for us and making plays. He’s comfortable on the perimeter; he’s comfortable in the post, dribble-handoffs, the pick-and-roll. [He has] the ability to make a quick decision, to read what the defense is doing-where’s the help coming from, where’s the open guy? So he’s making quick decisions and it forces the defense to run, and when you do that you’re going to get good shots. So, he’s running the floor and he’s playing great basketball right now. He and Taj have been terrific up front.”
The numbers support the coach’s assertion about Noah’s hot streak. Since the team hit rock bottom at 9-16, Noah has averaged a ridiculous 12.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists over 26 games. Those are All-NBA 1st team type numbers for a center. Handling Joakim is enough of a handful for most teams, but when you throw in the way Taj Gibson is playing this season, the Bulls’ frontcourt just becomes overwhelming. Taj has always been a nightmare to deal with on the glass and as a defender, but the quantum leap he’s made on the offensive end is astonishing. Gibson’s numbers have been excellent. He’s averaging 12.9 points per game, almost 4 points better than his previous career-high (and with just 8 starts in 52 games), and he’s shooting 72.5% from the foul line, easily the best mark of his career. The numbers don’t do him justice though. When you watch him play, it’s obvious just how far his offensive game has come.
“I’ve come a long way,” ceded Gibson after the win over the Hawks. “It’s tough when you come from college to the NBA; guys are really physical. I had to add a lot of weight to my body. I worked on my post game and my jump shot. There are things that you need to work on in the NBA, but the main thing is confidence. You can work out 100 hours a day, but without confidence it’s nothing.” Coach Thibodeau and the Bulls have helped build up Taj’s confidence, and it’s paying major dividends for the team. At this point, it’s hard to argue that Taj shouldn’t be starting ahead of Carlos Boozer. In his 8 games as a starter, Taj is averaging 19.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.8 bgp, and is shooting 49.6% from the field. Although Thibs isn’t ready to make Taj his starter, he couldn’t help but heap praise on Taj as he explained why Boozer will continue to start:
“For us to achieve the things we want to achieve, we need Carlos and we need Carlos to play well. He’s a huge part of our team. With our depth up front, we really have 3 starters, and they all have to sacrifice for the team. That’s one of our strengths. That’s also the value of Taj. I know Taj can play great as a starter and I know he can play great coming off the bench. It doesn’t take him 5 minutes to get going and get adjusted. As soon as you put him in his motor is running and he is ready to roll. Taj can play short minutes or he can play long consecutive minutes. He’s in great shape and has prepared himself well. You can’t say enough about all the things he’s doing for us. He’s hitting his jump shot; he’s posting with strength; he’s commanding the double-team; he’s hitting the open man; he’s guarding every position on the floor; he’s making great effort; he plays for the team. Did I leave anything out?”
I can’t say that I agree with Thibodeau’s decision to continue to start Boozer over Taj, but I do think he’s well aware of the impact Gibson has had on the team’s fortunes. There have been contributions from just about everyone on the roster, from D.J. to Hinrich to Butler to Dunleavy to Boozer, but it’s the play of Joakim and Taj that have made the difference. The inside presence they provide opens the game up for everyone else. It’s why the team has had such balanced scoring, and it’s why they’ve gotten back to their winning ways. The second half of the season won’t be easy. The team is still short-handed, and won’t be getting back Derrick Rose or Luol Deng any time this season, but just like the past couple Bulls’ teams under Thibodeau, this group doesn’t seem to want things to come easy.
“We’re enjoying the grind,” mentioned Noah. “I like our mindset going into every game. There’s a toughness about us and I’m proud to be a part of that.” If they can keep that mental edge, the Bulls will be just fine in the second half and should find themselves comfortably in the top 4 teams in the East. I’m not delusional enough to think that this team is going to beat Miami or Indiana in the playoffs, but I have no interest in writing off this iteration of the Chicago Bulls just yet. With the way these guys play for each other and battle through adversity, anything is possible in the postseason. That’s why they play the games. It’ll take everyone if the Bulls want to shock the world, but without the exploits of Jo and Taj, we’d still be talking tanking.
The Bulls 2013-14 campaign has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride thus far. There have been some pretty excruciating lows with the injury of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland, but Monday night’s game against the L.A. Lakers was certainly a high point. The teams battled back and forth all night and seemed destined for double-overtime, but Taj Gibson and the Bulls needed just 0.9 seconds to change that destiny. Coach Thibodeau drew up the perfect inbound play and Mike Dunleavy was able to find Taj Gibson headed straight to the basket for a game-winning layup that left his hand a tenth of a second before the horn sounded. “They drew up a great play,” commented Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni. “It was designed well and they executed it well.” After hitting the biggest shot of the night, Gibson was predictably all smiles. “Thibs just wanted me to attack the basket, try to dunk it or try to get fouled,” explained Taj. “He told me ‘use your left,’ and they [the team] always try to crack jokes on me in practice about trying to use my left and today I proved them wrong. It was my first buzzer beater and it feels good.”
The Bulls’ 102-100 victory was their was their 8th win in 10 games since the calendar turned to 2014, and it got them back to a .500 record (20-20) for the first time since November 27th. The Bulls’ season seemed to be spiraling out of control after D-Rose’s injury as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games after he was injured (counting the game he was hurt in). Luckily, they managed to find a dynamic point guard to replace Marquis Teague as the backup and help get the season back on the rails. D.J. Augustin spent much of the last season and a half riding the pine in Indiana and Toronto after a promising start to his NBA career in Charlotte. The Bulls took a chance on D.J. after he was waived by the Raptors last month, and the move has paid big dividends. After some predictable growing pains in his first few games as a Bull (Chicago lost first 4 games after acquiring D.J.), the team and Augustin have really hit their stride of late.
D.J. entered Monday’s tilt with L.A. averaging 16.2 points, 7.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals over his past 5 games, and he had his biggest game of the year on Monday. Augustin set a season-high with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting (5-of-7 from 3), and chipped in 4 assists and 4 rebounds. He hit several clutch 3’s down the stretch and his recent play is a big part of the reason the Bulls’ season has turned around. When D.J. was asked why he’s played so much better in Chicago than he did in Toronto, his answer was a simple one: “I’m getting an opportunity. When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years in Indiana and Toronto, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I get an opportunity, I think I play pretty good.” As long as Augustin keeps playing the way he’s been lately, the opportunities will continue to come, but he wasn’t the only Bull who was really impressive on Monday night.
Monday was the final day for fan voting for the NBA All-Star Game, and Bulls’ center Joakim Noah made a pretty strong case for himself to anyone who was voting at the last minute. Noah was already having another standout season, but the way he controlled the paint against L.A. was a joy to watch. Jo ended the game with 17 points, 21 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. He also smothered Pau Gasol in the overtime period and forced him into 1-of-4 shooting and 2 turnovers in the extra session. “Joakim battled the whole game,” gushed Thibs after the game. “Gasol is such a tough matchup and the Lakers spread you out with their shooting. Jo is doing a lot of different things. You’re asking him to make three, four, five efforts and then get back into the post. You can’t say enough about what he’s doing for our team.” I think an All-Star selection would be a good start. Noah clearly has earned it.
The Lakers came out shooting well early against Chicago, connecting on better than 50% of their first half field goal attempts and 43% of their 3’s as they built a 3-point halftime lead. In the second half, the game turned into more of a slugfest. Neither team ever really took control of the game, but the Bulls seemed to be in position to win in regulation. They were up 3 with the ball but turned it over out of bounds with 10.7 seconds to go. Nick Young managed to get fouled by Joakim Noah on a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left and hit all three from the charity stripe to force the overtime period. In the extra frame, the Lakers built a 5-point lead early on, but D.J. Augustin hit a 3 to tie it up with 2:33 to go. In the closing seconds of OT, it appeared that Nick Young had again extended the game with a baseline jumper to tie it up with 6 seconds left, but all he did was set the stage for Taj’s game-winner.
Gibson finished the game with 12 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks. Mike Dunleavy scored a quiet 12 points, and Jimmy Butler did a nice job stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and a block. The only thing the Bulls didn’t do well on Monday night is shoot the ball, knocking down a paltry 38.2% of their field goal tries. If they had shot the ball a little better, they likely would have won comfortably. Nick Young paced the Lakers with a game and season-high 31 points. It was the second straight game that Young set a season-high in points after serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch at a Suns’ player (Goran Dragic). Young scored 29 on Sunday against Toronto. Pau Gasol also had a strong game for L.A. despite his shaky overtime performance. The tall Spaniard finished with 20 points, 19 rebounds, 5 blocks, 3 steals and 5 turnovers. Most of the turnovers were costly though, with 4 of them coming in the game’s final 10 minutes.
For the Lakers (16-26), the loss was nothing new. Los Angeles has dropped 13 of their last 16 games after a 13-13 start. The problem has been health. L.A. has been playing without Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake, which leaves them with a rotation featuring Pau Gasol and a bunch of kids. Nick Young and Gasol are the only regulars over 26 years old, and Young is 28. The Lakers have certainly shown more fight over the past few games, but until the vets get back it’ll be all about developing the youngsters for L.A. The recent addition of Manny Harris from the L.A. D-Fenders of the D-League could provide a spark. Harris was averaging 30.6 points per game for the D-Fenders in 13 games.
Unlike the Lakers, the Bulls’ recent strong play seems sustainable. They’ve finally dug themselves out of the hole created by the post D-Rose slump. The addition of Augustin and his rapidly increasing chemistry with the rest of the team have the Bulls looking like a team to be reckoned with again. I’m not saying that they can hang with Indiana or Miami in a playoff series, but I don’t think there’s any other team in the East that they aren’t capable of beating. If they hadn’t traded Deng, they might even have been able to give the Heat or Pacers all they could handle. It’s finally becoming fun to watch the Bulls play again this season, because let’s face it, Bulls games were pretty ugly for a while there. I’m excited to see how the rest of the season plays out. There might be a couple more deals coming next month at the trade deadline, but I doubt the Bulls do anything drastic. Speaking of Bulls’ deals, Chicago heads to Cleveland Wendesday night to take on Luol Deng and the Cavs.
It’ll be the first time that Deng will play against the Bulls in his career, and you can bet there will be some emotion involved. Many of the Bulls looked to Deng as a friend and mentor, so facing off against him will be a different experience. “I love Lu,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “I’ve learned so much from that guy. It’s going to be a weird feeling looking at him in the opposite jersey.” It might be even tougher for coach Tom Thibodeau, who hasn’t been shy in the past about heaping praise on his now former star forward. “I know how fierce a competitor he is,” explained Thibs, “so I know he’s going to be trying to beat us, and we’re going to be trying to beat him, and then after the game we’re going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him, all the stuff he did for us, what he did for me personally, but that friendship aside, we’re coming up there and we’re going to be ready.” We’ll find out Wednesday just how ready the Bulls are to face Lieutenant Deng. It should be a good one.
The group of men who have been chosen first overall in the NBA draft is an elite fraternity. They almost always walk into a broken down team with an entire franchise and city’s hope resting squarely on their shoulders. Not everyone has lived up to the expectations that come with the territory. For every LeBron James there’s a Greg Oden. For every Allen Iverson there’s a Kwame Brown. Monday night at the United Center, two men who have thrived as top overall picks squared off for the first time in their burgeoning careers. Any hype swirling around Monday’s Bulls-Cavs game focused on the showdown between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, but both players struggled to make their impact felt. It was the Bulls’ defense that took center stage down the stretch in a 96-81 Chicago win.
The strong finish was a welcome sight for Bulls’ fans, who have watched the team be badly outplayed down the stretch in losses to Indiana and Philadelphia. It’s safe to take your finger away from the panic button now that the team has pulled back to .500 at 3-3. Rose certainly ended up with the better statistical night of he and Irving, but the real hero of the matchup was the Bulls’ team defense on Kyrie. Irving ended with a respectable line of 16 points and 4 assists, but he shot just 5-of-19 from the floor and committed 3 turnovers. He didn’t make his first field goal until the final minute of the 3rd quarter. “Every time I’ve played against the Bulls, Coach Thibodeau just does an excellent job of corralling me into a little bit of space,” explained Irving, “and they do a great job of loading up and making it tough on me.” Derrick Rose echoed that sentiment, mentioning that, “It’s really not me going out there and trying to play him a certain way. It’s the team.”
Despite a somewhat lopsided final score, Chicago really struggled to put the Cavs away in this game. They played from ahead for the majority of the game, but every time it seemed like the Bulls were on the cusp of breaking it open, the Cavaliers would do just enough to stay in striking distance. In the first quarter, the Bulls got up by 6, but C.J Miles drilled a triple in the closing seconds of the quarter to cut it to 3. In the 2nd quarter, the Bulls pushed the lead all the way to 12, but Dion Waiters cut it back down to 7 with back-to-back buckets in the final minute of the half. A Jimmy Butler layup at the buzzer pushed it back to 9 at the break. The 3rd quarter was more of the same. The Bulls came out hot and got in an offensive rhythm, building up a 13-point lead 4 minutes into the half, but the offense sputtered after that, allowing Cleveland to creep back in once more. Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum got going with 10 combined points on a 16-8 Cavs run that cut the lead to 5. The spurt carried over into the 4th with Kyrie Irving heating up, and Cleveland got within 1 at 68-67 with 10 minutes to go. They were never able to get over the hump and take the lead, however.
Cleveland had 2 chances with the ball down just 1, and failed on both opportunities. First it was a Kyrie Irving miss from 6 feet, then an Anderson Varejao offensive foul that stymied the Cavs’ efforts. That was the last chance the Cavs would get to pull ahead. Carlos Boozer knocked down a midrange jumper to open the lead to 3, then after a Chicago stop Mike Dunleavy managed to get fouled on a 3-pointer and knocked down all three shots from the charity stripe. The next couple minutes turned into the Rose and Dunleavy show. Rose made 2 explosive layups and Dunleavy knocked down a couple big shots including one from beyond the arc and another 2 shots from the free throw line as the lead ballooned to 11. Rose’s second layup sent him to the bench with a tweaked hamstring, but it didn’t matter in this game. The damage was done. The Bulls managed to hold on for a 15-point win.
The Bulls’ 4th quarter dominance came in 2 areas: on the defensive end and on the glass. They held the Cavs to just 6-of-19 shooting for the quarter and outrebounded them 14 to 6. They also turned 4 Cleveland turnovers into 8 points. The shooting of Dunleavy was a big plus, but the Bulls simply smothered the Cavs on the defensive end. This is exactly what Bulls’ fans are used to seeing. The defense dominates one end of the floor, and Rose dominates the other. One out of two isn’t bad while Rose rounds back into form, and he doesn’t seem that far away. Cavs’ coach Mike Brown wasn’t pleased with the way his young team handled Chicago’s defensive pressure. “When we hit adversity tonight, we didn’t handle it well,” lamented Coach Brown. “Chicago got up in us. They tried to take us out of our stuff. We hit a little bit of adversity and we didn’t do a good job of handling it. Mentally and physically they just did what they wanted to with us.”
For the night, the overall numbers weren’t all that lopsided aside from the final score. Both teams shot around 41%, the Bulls were +3 on the glass and both teams scored 16 2nd chance points. The one area the Cavs were demolished was in turnovers and points off them. Chicago scored 29 points off 20 Cleveland turnovers, and the Cavaliers scored just 9 off of 11 Bulls’ TOs. “We just didn’t execute,” mentioned Cavs’ guard Jarrett Jack in reference to the turnover struggles. “We need to learn like in baseball to hit singles and not go for homerun passes all the time.”
Tristan Thompson led the way statistically for Cleveland, tallying 14 points and 13 rebounds. It was Thompson’s 5th double-double in 8 games this season. Kyrie Irving did lead the team with his 16 points, but it was Thompson’s play that kept the Cavs in the game in the 3rd and into the 4th. 2nd year guard Dion Waiters was the worst offender in terms of turnovers with 6 on the night, but he did add 13 points, 2 boards, 2 assists and 2 blocks. C.J. Miles scored 9 points off the bench and Anderson Varejao scored 5 and grabbed 6 rebounds. Matthew Dellavedova scored his first 2 NBA points in the game, and struggling number-1 pick Anthony Bennett was left on the bench in this one. Bennett has made just 1 field goal thus far in his young career.
The biggest surprise from Cleveland on Monday night was the play of Andrew Bynum. In a little bit of gamesmanship on the part of Mike Brown, Bynum wasn’t announced as a starter until right before tipoff, and Cleveland tried to get him going quickly. They fed him in the post early and he scored 7 of their first 10 points, but it was clear that his knees are still a bit of an issue. He was limited to just 21 minutes for the game, and didn’t play at all in the 2nd or 4th quarters. Bynum ended up with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists, but also committed 3 turnovers, 2 of which were bad miscommunications in which he threw the ball to no one. It will take some time for him to get adjusted to playing with his new team. “We just don’t know how to play with a guy like that yet,” commented Brown. “Every time he touched the ball on the block, something good happened. When they double-teamed, he kicked the ball out for a 3. I’d love to establish him down low, and that’s what we wanted to do tonight.” We’re just 6 games into the season, so the Cavs have time to adjust to the big man, but it will all hinge on the health of Bynum’s knees. He did say he was contemplating retirement a couple weeks ago.
The Bulls were paced offensively on Monday by Carlos Boozer’s 17 points. Boozer has been much more consistent on the offensive end than Bulls’ fans have been used to, averaging 18 points a game (his highest mark as a Bull). He shot 7-of-11 for the game and added 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Luol Deng struggled with his shot but still scored 12 points and added 5 boards and 3 dimes. Joakim Noah was limited by foul trouble, but still wound up with 10 points, 6 boards and 3 steals. The bench made a big impact in this one as well. Taj Gibson (9 pts, 8 boards, 3 blocks) and Kirk Hinrich (6 pts, 3 boards, 7 assists) made several clutch plays, but the bench star in this one was Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy scored 15 points (10 in the 4th), grabbed 4 rebounds and dished out 2 assists. His big shots in the 4th were the key to Chicago blowing the game open, and it was fitting since his college coach (Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski) and his Duke players were in the building watching. Boozer and Deng also played their college ball at Duke. Dunleavy seems to be finding his niche with this team quickly.
As for the Derrick Rose, his stat line wasn’t overwhelming. He scored 16 points on 8-of-21 shooting, but he had a season-high 7 assists and more importantly, a season-low zero turnovers in the Bulls’ victory. He was starting to flash the speed and explosiveness that make him the star that he is when his night was derailed by a tweaked hamstring. Rose was pulled with 3:15 to go, but it seems to be more of a precaution. Coach Thibodeau said that “it appears to be minor,” and Derrick agreed in his postgame comments. “Just a minor sprain, nothing serious,” explained Rose. When asked if he expected to be ready to play Friday, Derrick answered: “I should be. It’s really not that big at all.” The injury took a little bit of the thunder out of the D-Rose vs. Kyrie matchup, but they will certainly square off again.
Cleveland appears to be on the right track as a team. In a very top-heavy Eastern Conference, they should be able to find their way to a playoff spot over some lackluster competition, but the key to getting there will be integrating Bynum and keeping him healthy. It’s amazing that this team might not need much of a contribution from the number 1 overall pick to make the playoffs, but that is the case right now. Kyrie and Dion Waiters are an imposing backcourt, and when they go small and bring in Jarrett Jack along with those 2, it’s very difficult to match up with. They also have great versatility in the frontcourt with Thompson, Varejao and Alonzo Gee along with Bynum, but it all depends on health. Varejao missed most of last season, Irving has had his own injury issues, and Bynum’s struggles are well documented. One thing the Cavs aren’t short on is confidence, at least as far as their point guard is concerned. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” asserted Irving. “We’re all basketball players here. It’s what we get paid to do, so we’ve got to figure it out, and we will.” I agree with Kyrie and fully believe the Cavs will still be playing beyond 82 games.
As far as Chicago is concerned, it’s nice to get back to .500, but that is obviously not the goal. Everyone in the locker room was spitting out the same company line about improvement. “The big thing is to concentrate on our improvement,” mentioned Thibs. “We’ve got to just keep improving,” claimed Joakim. The Bulls are never satisfied after a win, and that’s a good thing. They managed to clean up the turnover issues that have been plaguing them, even if only for one game, but in order to keep piling up wins they know they need to continue to work and to get better. The upcoming schedule is daunting, with 7 of their next 9 games on the road. Things are starting to come together, but they need to show an ability to put together a full 48 minutes of good basketball. They played Indy even for 3 quarters before getting crushed in the 4th. They were dominating Philly into the 3rd before falling apart. They were crushed by Miami in the 2nd quarter. They have to start playing more consistently from start to finish in each game.
“We’ve just got to stick with it,” mentioned Dunleavy when asked when the team would be able to put together a full 48 minutes. “It’s not an easy thing to do, probably the toughest thing to do in this league. There are a lot of great teams, so to think you’re going to go out and put it on people for 48 minutes every night….You’d like to do that, but it’s not maybe realistic. We’ve just got to keep grinding at it, keep thinking we’re going to do it. We will.” With drill sergeant Thibs in charge and Derrick Rose rounding into form, I’d expect the Bulls to start putting full games together sooner than later. The league better take their shots at the Bulls while they can. The D-Rose revival tour is coming. Soon.
In case you haven’t been watching, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat don’t like each other very much. Chicago, still down Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose, is severely outgunned by the defending champion Heat, but they haven’t backed down. They play with what Bulls’ TV announcer Stacy King likes to call heart, hustle and muscle to win games, and it’s allowed them to be competitive when they shouldn’t, but it wasn’t enough to win on Friday night. The Bulls battled Miami all night, but Miami was able to hit shots down the stretch and pull away for a 104-94 victory and 2-1 series lead. LeBron James scored a game-high 25 points, but it wasn’t his best outing as he shot just 6-for-17. The real stars for the Heat were Chris Bosh who put up 20 and 19 rebounds, and Norris Cole who scored 18 points off the bench on 6-of-7 shooting. Carlos Boozer led the way for Chicago with 21 points, but every Bulls’ starter scored at least 15. “Tonight we didn’t play particularly well,” asserted Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, “and a lot of that had to do with Chicago, but in the 4th quarter we just found a way. Even if it wasn’t the prettiest way, just found a way to get this win.” Spoelstra was right that it wasn’t pretty. In fact, this one seemed like it was teetering on the brink of an all-out brawl.
There’s always been tension between the Heat and Bulls, going back to the Eastern Conference Finals 2 years ago, but it’s escalated to new heights in this series. During the regular season, the Bulls ended Miami’s franchise record 27-game winning streak, and league MVP LeBron James took exception to Chicago’s physical play, commenting that some of the fouls weren’t “basketball plays.” That physical play continued to frustrate King James and company in game 1 as the Bulls stole the series opener in Miami. In game 2, however, the Heat decided to get physical themselves. Udonis Haslem set the tone on the game’s first play, practically tackling Nate Robinson in mid-air as he drove in for a layup. Miami started to use the passion that the shorthanded Bulls have to play with against them, using cheap shots and hard fouls to bait the Bulls into technical fouls and ejections as the game spiraled out of control on the scoreboard. In total, by the end of game 2, there were 9 technical fouls (6 on Chicago), 1 flagrant foul (Chris Andersen), and 2 ejections (Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) as the Heat dealt Chicago a franchise playoff worst 37-point loss. It was an embarrassing showing for the Bulls, and they vowed to keep their composure and deliver a better performance in game 3. That composure lasted for about 1 quarter.
In the closing seconds of the first frame, Chris “Birdman” Andersen took his time getting off of Nate Robinson after a hard foul by Andersen sent both to the floor, so Joakim Noah decided to help him out. Noah grabbed Birdman by the arm and threw him off of Robinson, and Andersen responded by attempting to kick Noah in the leg but whiffed. Both teams rushed in to separate the two, and Joakim was hit with a technical foul, but the bad blood didn’t end there. Early in the 2nd, an Andersen block started a fast break for Miami, and Bulls’ backup center Nazr Mohammed wrapped up LeBron in the open floor to prevent an easy bucket. LeBron didn’t like it and threw Nazr off of him. James was instantly T’d up by referee Joey Crawford, but before he could even react to it, he was shoved to the ground by Mohammed. The Bulls appeared to be unraveling again. Nazr was ejected, but after the dust settled, Chicago was finally able to get focused back in on the game.
For all of the theatrics, the actual game was riveting. The storylines practically write themselves. The depleted Bulls, missing 3 of their team leaders, continue to go toe-to-toe with the big bad Miami Heat and their 3 superstars. Even Hollywood would have a hard time crafting a better underdog story. The difference is, in Hollywood the underdog usually wins. For three and a half quarters Friday night, the Bulls answered every punch Miami threw at them, and they were within 2 points with 4 minutes to play. In those final minutes though, a couple of dicey calls and two clutch 3-pointers helped the Heat put Chicago away. Noah was whistled for a loose ball foul that looked extremely questionable on replay while going for an offensive rebound with the team down 5. Instead of a chance to cut the lead back to 2 or 3, the Heat opened it to 7 at the free throw line. The Bulls answered with a Belinelli 3, but moments later LeBron hit a ridiculous fade away 3 as the shot clock expired, and Norris Cole splashed in a 3 on the next possession, and that was all she wrote. The Bulls missed their last 3 shots and LeBron put the game away at the foul line.
Despite the very competitive game, all the talk afterwards was about the Nazr push and the officiating. “From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop,” mentioned Coach Thibodeau about the push. “I don’t think it warranted an ejection. A flagrant foul, I understand that, but an ejection, no. I watch some of the plays with Haslem and Andersen, and I just don’t get it.” The coach said after game 2 that his team needed to show more composure, but when asked if he was upset with Nazr and Jo for their technicals in game 3, he didn’t give the response I’d expect: “No. I see how things are going. I watch very closely, and what I’m seeing….We’ll adjust accordingly.” For his comments, Thibs was fined $35,000 by the NBA, but he did take the focus off Nazr, who wasn’t suspended or fined for his push. Nazr did take the blame for his actions, but he agreed with his coach that he shouldn’t have been ejected: “I’m disappointed in myself because I let my teammates down, I could have been out there to help. Disappointed in myself also because my son was probably watching the game and I don’t want him to see that kind of behavior on the court, but I’m also disappointed that they went to the ejection for something like a push. I mean there’s so many plays that have happened already in this series, guys jumping on Nate’s face, guys tackle Marco Belinelli out of bounds, a guy takes out Nate on the 1st play of the game. There have been a lot of plays that didn’t get ejections, and a push shouldn’t get an ejection.” When pressed about how hard the push actually was, Mohammed was careful with his words. “You saw the play,” he responded. “You know the answer to that. You want me to say it.” He didn’t say it.
Miami’s conduct on the court wasn’t any better than Chicago’s, but since they won, it was much easier to take the high road off the court. Coach Spoelstra referred to the extracurricular activities as “inconsequential” to the game. “Out there (in the media), it will be more theater than it is reality,” commented Spoelstra. “Both teams are very competitive. It’s physical basketball, but no one wants to put on the gloves and turn it into anything else.” That may be the case, but from where I’m sitting, Miami’s goal seems to be to do just enough that the Bulls do want to put on the gloves and settle it like men and then act appalled by it. It’s worked pretty well for them in the last 2 games.
The Bulls have been walking a fine line in the first few games of this series. To be able to compete with Miami with such a short rotation, they have to play with great passion and energy. Unfortunately, playing that way makes them vulnerable to the emotional flare-ups that have resulted in technical fouls and ejections. The have to find a way to keep those emotions in check without losing that passion and competitive fire. Miami will continue to try and goad the Bulls into a fight, so Chicago needs to show how mentally tough they are to have a chance to stay in this series. With an 8-man rotation, ejections cannot happen, especially over things done by Haslem and Andersen, two guys who aren’t that critical to Miami’s chances.
If the Bulls are able to show a little bit more composure and focus down the stretch, they really have a chance to win game 4, and they need to. They did everything else in game 3 that you have to do to have a shot to beat Miami. They moved the ball exceptionally well all night, they limited their turnovers and Miami’s points off of them, they defended the paint well, and they frustrated LeBron into a bad shooting night, but down the stretch, they spent much of their energy arguing foul calls rather than finishing the game off strong. If they can correct that in game 4, there’s a chance for a happier ending. “We’re not worried about what the refs say or what they (the Heat) say,” asserted Nate Robinson. “We’ve just got to focus on playing Chicago basketball, which is hard, gritty and together. It’s (Game 4) a must-win for us, so we’ve got to continue to play. You can’t count us out because we’re going to continue to play hard, no matter what, and we’ll do whatever it takes to win.” The season hangs in the balance Monday night. Luol, Kirk and Derrick are probably not going to be on the court, so the underdog narrative remains as strong as ever. Hopefully game 4 provides the proper Hollywood ending that was missing on Friday.