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Bulls celebrate Christmas with fifth straight victory
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By Sam Smith | 12.26.2014 | 2:35 a.m. CT
Could it be? Who knows? Something’s coming, something good? You’re not sure what it is, but it could be great. Yes, there could be a heck of a West Side story developing in the United Center.
“The good thing I feel when you look at the Chicago Bulls, there’s a green arrow,” Joakim Noah was saying after the Bulls delivered a 113-93 victory over the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers on Christmas Day. “The green arrow is up; that’s all I know now.”
Yes, things are looking up and ready to go for the Bulls, who won their fifth straight and eighth in the last nine games to raise their record to 20-9. Pau Gasol, uneasy and admittedly a bit nervous facing the team with whom he won two NBA titles, led the Bulls with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Jimmy Butler added 21 points, six rebounds and five assists while Derrick Rose had 20 points, his third straight game with at least 20 points after returning from the flu.
Sure, it was the 9-20 Lakers, and without Bryant, who passed on the game with what he variously described as age related miseries, soreness and a need to reduce his playing time and reconsider how he can return to being a higher level player.
The Bulls, meanwhile, continue to march on in their best run of the season after wins over top teams like Memphis, Toronto and Washington in this streak. They’ve gotten inside scoring from Gasol, energy on the boards from Noah and Taj Gibson, the latter with five offensive rebounds and nine points in less than 20 minutes, decisive scoring from their explosive backcourt and another strong bench contribution. Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic each scored 13 points as the Bulls reserves had a 39-26 edge and the team leaders in plus/minus on the floor were Brooks. Gibson and Mirotic, the rookie barely behind Butler.
“I think we’re very, very talented and I think we still can get a lot better,” said Noah, who had at least 12 rebounds for the third straight game. “I think we’re very deep. I think we have work to do; have to stay humble, stay hungry and find ways to get better.
“The beauty of this team (is) we have a lot young guys, a lot of vets as well,” added Noah. “It’s definitely a good blend. I think right now there’s a belief more than there was a couple of weeks ago. Having that belief of when we’re on and we’re competing nobody can mess with us and that’s the feeling we are starting to get. As an NBA player there’s no better feeling than that.”
Got a feeling a miracle is due?
It’s obviously early in the season and a long and difficult journey ahead for everyone in the NBA with winter just arriving. But it’s a June hot Bulls team that is starting to win in so many different ways with so many different contributions.
On Thursday, it began with an ambitious Rose scoring the first seven points on a 22 footer, a floater and a three.
“I thought Derrick was real aggressive early, which was important,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Then he got into the flow; I thought he was solid throughout.”
Nevertheless, it turned into a shaky first period as the Lakers, especially Ed Davis, beat the Bulls on the offensive boards. That would change drastically as in the last three quarters as the Bulls outrebounded the Lakers 46-22.
“Not so great in the first quarter,” agreed Thibodeau of the Bulls eking out a 27-24 lead after trailing 17-16. “The way the game started, we were outrebounded 17-11 in the first quarter and then the game changed after that. I think our guys did a great job turning that around. We had a number of guys step up and play well. Pau was terrific, Jo was good with high energy, Jimmy was Jimmy; the bench played really well. I thought the start of the fourth quarter they helped to build a lead give us a cushion.”
A big part of that was Gibson, who has seen his playing time decline with the development and effectiveness of Mirotic. Which, at least for the team, is the sort of problem you want to have. But Gibson was excellent on the boards, snatching rebounds and going up strong for dunks, the most aggressive among the inside players.
“Taj is an ace on this team,” said his buddy Noah. “He’s a very important piece and we know we are not going to be able to get to where we want to get to without Taj Gibson.”
Still, the contributions from the reserves have been coming in waves with Brooks the team’s leading sorer in the fourth when an 83-77 margin to start the quarter soared to 14 four minutes into the fourth and then Bulls then pulled away.
“He has a lot of toughness; he’s real smart,” Thibodeau said admiringly of another of his successful mini guards. “His speed is something that is hard to deal with, creates easy scoring opportunities. He has all the tricks for a guy that’s small: He can finish under the basket, knows how to use the board, extend, get the ball away from his body to prevent the shot blockers from getting to it. And he’s not afraid. He has great courage to get in there and he’s tough. He is going to battle and compete. He’s a hard guy to post. He’s just tough, the guy’s a winner.”
Complementing him and again earning vital fourth quarter minutes, and making a three when the Lakers made a brief fourth quarter run to get within 96-86 with 6:58 left was Mirotic. In just under 15 minutes, he had 13 points, seven rebounds and two assists, adept both with his long distance shot and clever interior passing.
“I see somebody growing as a player,” Noah said of Mirotic. “I feel every game he’s getting better.”
In addition, E’Twaun Moore again was savvy and confident with Kirk Hinrich still out with a hamstring strain.
Still, it was the main guys in the starting lineup, and another big game from Gasol, who admitted to anxiety about meeting up with his former team with whom he had so much success.
“It was weird,” said Gasol. “It was an emotional game. You find yourself on the opposite side of a team you played with for so many years and been through so much. Weird, difficult at first to get going. But once you start playing you are playing the game the best way you can.”
Gasol did it well after that faltering first quarter, though he did make his second three pointer of the season in consecutive games in the first quarter. Gasol did have a nice run late in the second quarter with a terrific pass to Noah for a slam dunk, a left hook for a score and then scoring on an inbounds play after the reserves led by a pair of Mirotic threes had given the Bulls a 45-30 lead.
“I came here with a positive mindset and ready to do whatever it took and worked my butt off to give my best shot to this opportunity,” said Gasol of his painful departure from Los Angeles. “I think my game complements our style of play well and puts me in positions where I am effective and I’m just trying to make this work.”
The classy and urbane native of Spain then headed off, telling reporters, “Merry Christmas. I appreciate your time.”
Winning does have a nice feel.
The Bulls would close the half leading 58-47 on a highlight Rose drive going left with a right handed runner and Butler with a post up fadeaway to close the half that had you thinking Michael Jordan and Bryant. Butler has talked about watching all those Bryant and Jordan tapes all summer and practicing, and you see the resemblance with his team best 21.6 per game scoring average.
Noah was sort of a team post game spokesman as most of the players had family around and dressed quickly and left. With three players with at least 20 points, Noah wasn’t expecting the verbal role and stayed longer than usual in the trainers’ room after the game with Carlos Boozer stopping by. He quickly apologized noticing media waiting longer for him.
“We’re scoring a lot better,” Noah agreed of the team’s 12th plus-100 point game in the last 15. “Jimmy got a lot better. You add Pau, you add Niko, Aaron. You add those guys, we’re going to score the ball. Now it’s on us to make sure we don’t get complacent. Just because we can score the ball doesn’t mean defense isn’t important. We’re going to have to count on our defense when the block gets hot.”
That defense did suffer a bit to open the second half as the Lakers attacked Gasol inside, getting within 66-64. The Bulls edged ahead as Gasol closed the third quarter with one of those sweeping and graceful long armed drives that look like he’s a swan extending its wings and you wonder why he doesn’t do it all the time. But Gasol, so skilled, also was almost unerring with his jump shot and the Bulls were not much threatened after a 9-3 start to the fourth quarter.
The Lakers were led by Wesley Johnson with 19 points while former Bull Boozer had a nice game now coming off the bench with 14 points and five rebounds in just over 17 minutes. There were scatterings of boos for Boozer, who was greeted warmly by his former teammates after the game in the locker room. Which was a joyful place as Butler had his country music, which is fairly uncommon in NBA locker rooms these days, on high volume while Noah tried to conduct interviews.
So Noah took time out for rhetorical remarks in the middle of one of his answers to say he still doesn’t always understand Butler. Noah has talked in previous days about watching Butler last summer practice shots off one foot and asking him why and that he couldn’t use them in games, and Butler then been making those as well. So Noah noted that Butler now packs his knees in heat after games instead of ice.
“I’m like ‘No, Jimmy, it’s ice after games.’ He’s trying to explain to me why it’s heat. It’s crazy. (He’s saying), ‘No it’s for when you have inflammation (you use ice).’ That’s what his answer was. Someone tell him it’s ice after games.”
No matter what the proper treatment, it’s becoming heat during games for the hot Bulls.
“We’ve beaten some pretty good teams,” noted Noah. “When you beat the top teams in the league in a row, back to back, it’s human nature. When you play against the best and get wins it builds your confidence. I think we’re definitely on the right track.”
The air is humming. Maybe something great is coming.