To the outside observer, all is well in the world of the Chicago Bulls after another effort-driven home victory, this time over the New York Knicks on the team’s “Noche Latina” (latin night). The win was Chicago’s 10th in their last 11 games, and moves them a half-game further ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat for the NBA’s best record. Even more impressive than that is the way the Bulls have accrued their 35-9 record. They’ve spent most of the season playing shorthanded with different injuries to Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, C.J. Watson and Taj Gibson, who have missed a combined 63 games. Chicago has also played more games (44) than any other team in the league so far, and is tied for the most games on the road to date (24). Despite all of those factors working against “Los Bulls,” they still not only have the best record in the NBA by a game and a half, but they also have the highest scoring margin in the league, beating teams on average by just over 9 points a game (Miami is the only team even close at +8.9).
Things sound pretty rosy for the reigning MVP and his team, don’t they? Not from head coach Tom Thibodeau’s perspective. After the win, Thibs had some positive things to say, but also mentioned that, “We have to get better. We are not playing well.” For a coach who claims to only be worried about winning, he doesn’t seem satisfied with his team while they are doing just that. While I won’t argue with Thibodeau that the team can play better than they have in their recent games, including nail-biters with the Knicks and Bucks and a loss to Orlando, I feel that many of the team’s woes will be cleared up if and when the Bulls finally get healthy. The biggest struggles for Chicago have been playing consistent defense for all 48 minutes, not becoming stagnant on offense when Rose doesn’t have it going, and not turning the ball over quite as much. A healthy Luol Deng helps in all 3 of those areas and a healthy Rip Hamilton would help in at least two of them, with the defense being the question mark. This Bulls squad, even while playing shorthanded, is a special team. This Bulls team at full strength is a wrecking machine. As the playoffs draw closer, it’s time for this team to get back to full strength.
Coach Thibs wasn’t the only one with some frustration from the Bulls’ side on Monday night. For the first time that I can remember in his career, Derrick Rose vocally expressed frustration over the officiating he’s seen. He threw down a monster dunk midway through the fourth quarter, and when asked after the game why the slam seemed so violent, he explained, “I was just mad. I wasn’t getting the calls. I’m just tired of it.” Carlos Boozer was quick to defend his point guard and explain what the officials are seeing: “Let me break it down. So D-Rose makes a move, jumps, and then everybody gets in awe of how long he’s in the air. He just hangs in the air for 3, 4 or 5 seconds. I think sometimes the refs get caught watching him and miss calls. He gets hit every time he jumps. That’s my opinion.” Given the way that Derrick finished the game, he might be an even better player when he’s angry, and the Bulls might be better suited if the refs continue to not give Rose the calls that a player of his caliber should command.
Despite the lack of calls, D-Rose managed to put up a game-high 32 points to go along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds. Ronnie Brewer did an admirable job filling in for the ‘glue guy’ Luol Deng with 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting , 7 assists, 7 boards and a handful of hustle plays early on to get the Bulls going. The real story of the game was the way that the Bulls overcame some serious foul trouble in the frontcourt in the first half and dominated the offensive boards down the stretch. Boozer, Gibson and Asik all finished the first half on the bench with 3 fouls, but they all managed to avoid fouling in the second half. Taj exploded in the latter stages of the 3rd quarter and throughout the fourth , scoring 8 points and ripping the heart out of the Knicks with one big offensive rebound after another. The Bulls missed 14 shots in the 4th quarter, and managed to secure the rebound on a whopping nine of them (5 by Gibson). As a result, the Bulls tallied 8 second chance points in the final frame and demoralized the Knicks. “We played well for long stretches, but the second chance points got us,” lamented Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni. “You can’t give them 20 more shots like that.”
Kyle Korver iced the game from the foul line and sent 22,000+ fans at the United Center home with a free Big Mac. Taj ended up with 15 points and 13 boards (8 off.), while Noah tallied 12 and 10 with 5 assists. After his foul plagued first half, Boozer scored 11 after the break to help the Bulls’ offense find its legs after a shaky first half. The Knicks were paced by their stars, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, who scored 21 and 20 points, respectively. Stoudemire scored 15 of his points after the half to help the Knicks keep the game tight until the late stages. Carmelo and Tyson Chandler helped stake the Knicks out to a slim lead early on, combining for 12 points and 8 defensive rebounds in the first quarter. They helped the Knicks own the paint in the opening frame as the team notched 5 blocked shots. Chandler finished with a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. As for “Linsanity,” New York’s point guard sensation had a modest game, with 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting, 8 assists, 3 steals, and a surprising 3 blocked shots. He did a decent job limiting his turnovers, only coughing the ball up 3 times. The Knicks played well enough to beat most teams in the NBA, but the Bulls are not most teams.
Monday’s loss marks the 6th in a row for the Knickerbockers, and drops them into a tie for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Cavs and Pistons aren’t all that far behind either. The Knicks are going to have to turn it on soon if they want to avoid a dogfight down to the finish for a postseason berth. The Bucks are coming together now that Ersan Ilyasova has found his groove and Drew Gooden is back in the lineup, and the young Cavaliers are coming along as well. That isn’t good news for a team that has recently had their fighting spirit questioned by their coach. On the plus side, they did show some fight against the Bulls Monday, albeit in a losing effort. This team has got to find some chemistry quickly, before they find themselves chasing Milwaukee and Cleveland. Now would be a good time for the “Linsanity” craze to catch a second wind.
There’s no second wind necessary in the windy city, but time is running out for this team to hit full stride. With the trade deadline Thursday fast approaching, it may be tough for GM Gar Foreman to stand pat and feel confident that Rip Hamilton will be healthy and available when the Bulls need him in the postseason. Rumors have been swirling that the Chicago would like to swing a deal for Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol in order to pair a second star with Rose, but both deals seem unlikely. There have also been rumors of the team trying to pick up another wing scorer, possibly Kevin Martin, to fill the role that Hamilton is supposed to be filling. All in all, it seems like a long shot for any deal to be made, and that might be just fine for Derrick Rose and company. When asked why teams like the Bulls seem to have more success than teams with 2 superstars like the Knicks, Rose responded that, “It’s the confidence we have in each other. We hold each other accountable when we’re out on the floor.” Who would hold Dwight Howard accountable? The Bulls would be much better served for now and the long-term to just stand pat and hope for the best with Rip’s injury concerns. Chicago welcomes the Miami Heat to town on Wednesday night, and we should get a pretty clear picture of what to expect if the Bulls have to face the Heat without Rip in June. If the Bulls manage to come out with a win in that matchup, just imagine what they can do if they are in wrecking machine mode come playoff time.