Posted Dec 26 2011 6:59AM
LOS ANGELES -- When push came to shove -- or at least, when trap led to turnover -- the Chicago Bulls knew they had a clear and significant advantage over the other team on the floor Sunday afternoon.
Back finally from the lockout that nearly shut down the entire season, the Bulls went muscle-memory to pull out an 88-87 victory in their 2011-12 opener on Christmas Day. Late better than never, they played to the strengths that got them the league's best record last season: defense, patience and a sense of knowing where they and each of their teammates should and would be in the game's most pivotal moments.
They leaned again on the reigning Most Valuable Player, Derrick Rose, to bail them out at the end the way he bailed them out time after time last fall, winter and spring. They recalled similar situations in the playoffs where they fought back, as well as a few from May that provided always-valuable lessons in what not to do.
Meanwhile, they took solace in knowing that the other guys were relative newbies and could not draw on such vast resources of experience and familiarity. The other guys, after all, were only the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's true. The Lakers are one of the NBA's most storied franchises, with 16 championships, 31 Finals trips and more playoff victories (433) than all but one franchise (Boston) has games played. The Lakers have a still-lethal, all-time great in Kobe Bryant and the most skilled big man in the league in Pau Gasol, as well as a former Coach of the Year orchestrating on the sideline.
But Mike Brown is in his first season as Lakers coach. Like every other coach, he's been able to talk to his players, never mind actually work on the court with them, for less than a month. His system is as new to the players -- who have no more Phil Jackson and no more triangle offense -- as he is to them.
And there are players who weren't around before -- hello Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Devin Ebanks, goodbye Lamar Odom and (temporarily) Andrew Bynum -- which means they have no shared crises with the holdovers.
Compared to these Lakers, the Bulls' full season-and-a-few-days' worth of continuity is the difference between a finely-honed military drill team and yelling "Fire!" at five guys with scatterguns.
And Chicago's best player knew it. Late in the game, Rose reminded his guys which side of Staples owned the savvy.
"I told them, 'We've been in this situation before,' " Rose said, not so long after his floater in the lane with 4.8 seconds left changed everything. "They have a new team. They have new players, new system. I said, 'They haven't been in that circumstance yet. And we've been there.' "
The Bulls were down by 11, 82-71, with less than four minutes left. They trailed 87-81 with 54.6 seconds to go. But from that point, they made almost all the right plays and the Lakers made almost all the wrong ones.
It was a snapshot of where the teams are right now in their development, expectations and capabilities. It was very different from what Laker fans are accustomed to and yet, something with which they might have to get acquainted.
"There were a lot of things that went wrong down the stretch," Brown said. "You name it, whether it was missed free throws or turnovers or unnecessary fouls or blown defensive assignments, we had all of that in a 50-second span. Give the Bulls credit, but we did some things to help them get this [one]."
Funny thing was, the Lakers' two most seasoned vets were in the middle of their meltdown. But then, all the changes have been hard on everyone.
When Deng followed his own miss for a layup, Gasol fouled him to toss Chicago an extra point. After a Lakers miss, Bryant put Deng on the line for two more. Still, with 20.4 seconds left, Los Angeles had the ball, the lead and arguably the game's most renowned closer.
But when Bryant got the ball out near midcourt, by one sideline, Rose and Joakim Noah trapped him -- and did not foul. The Lakers star, who scored 28 points on 11-of-23 shooting despite a torn ligament in his right wrist, looked for a release. He saw Gasol and tried to lob a pass out to him.
"He thought we were going to foul right away," Deng said. "It was a great call by [Bulls coach Tom Thibodea] to trap him. Then when he saw that we were trapping, not fouling, I was the next guy and I knew it was either going to Artest out of bounds or Gasol. I wanted to take out Gasol but I made it look like I was going to Artest."
Said Brown: "In that situation, we know a team's going to foul. The shot clock was off. The ball went into the right player's hands ... I have not asked why he jumped to make the pass. Yeah, we would like for him to hold onto it and then for them to foul him."
Except for that small detail of the Bulls not fouling.
Deng stole the pass and almost immediately looked for Rose, jumping up himself and nearly traveling before shoveling the ball over. The Bulls instinctively went into a late-game offense mode, one they had practiced (and used) many times before.
"It's real hard," Rose said. "You've got to know where everybody's at. At the end, people got to their spots and we were just making plays. We always do that in practice where we have certain places where people go, and you've got to be there a majority of the time."
All Rose has to do is be his MVP self. His teammates have it tougher, fighting the powerful urge to spectate. "Trying not to," Noah said, smiling. "I'm always confident when he has the ball, but I'm always thinking that maybe he'll miss and we'll have to get a tip-in."
Not this time. What Chicago needed to do was even tougher: stymie Bryant from going Hollywood in his house. Thibodeau wanted more denial but Bryant got the ball and drove the right side of the lane. Noah and Taj Gibson discouraged a zig inside and Deng caught up, blocking Bryant's running jumper just before the buzzer.
And so it went in one of the NBA's five Rust Bowl games Sunday. The Bulls did a lot of things they wished they hadn't but did not quit, and found themselves at the end. The Lakers produced game footage that gave them much to build on but couldn't finish what they'd started.
Now all they have to do is cram their improvement into an immediate back-to-back-to-back, with a game at Sacramento Monday and then comes Utah at Staples Center Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, before unwrapping this year's edition of Lakers team, Brown had said it would be "fun" to watch their season unfold. That's one word for it.
"Sixty-six games," he said. "We're going to have to use some of these games as practices. Meaning, we're going to go through some growing pains and we're going to have to learn from them. Obviously, hopefully, we can learn sooner than later. But there might be some times we make some mistakes that hopefully won't be characteristic of what we're going to do at the end of the season."
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