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Bulls get 29 and 10 from Rose to defeat Boston
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By Sam Smith | 1.17.2015 | 2:33 a.m. CT
One of the great teams in NBA history was the late 1980’s Los Angeles Lakers. When they won the NBA title in 1987, they gave up the 12th most points in the league. When they repeated in 1988, they gave up the 11th most points and were ninth in shooting defense.
Welcome to the 2014-15 Bulls: Showtime II?
“The bottom line is winning,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was saying Friday after the rockin’ and rollin’ Bulls pulled away to a 119-103 victory over the Boston Celtics behind Derrick Rose’s 29 points and 10 assists. “What I like to do is when we go against teams (is ask), ‘What do they average? Is it a team that averages 110? Are you holding them to 100? Are you putting yourself in position to win?’ We’re minus two starters and a rotation player. The biggest thing is we can’t lose sight of how hard we have to play to give ourselves a chance to win. We’re down a lot of guys. That’s our reality and we have to deal with it.”
That’s as close as I’ve ever heard Thibodeau come to making an excuse. But perhaps more significantly—though Thibodeau never will acknowledge that—the realization that he doesn’t have a defensive close down team anymore.
But that’s OK; the wins still count. There are many ways to win, and now halfway through another injury plagued season with starters Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy out Friday, the Bulls hit the halfway mark of the season at 27-14. According to NBA.com, basketball reference and synergy stats, that equates to a 54-win season. Which is pretty good considering all the explanations we have heard thus far.
“Give us 10, 15, 20 games more game and we should have a consistent way of how we’re going to play and how we’re going to win,” said Rose, who was terrific as he is now 11 of 17 threes the last two games and averaging 24.5 points on 53 percent shooting the last four games. “Just playing the way that I normally play, taking the same shots and my teammates were getting me the ball. They’re just going in; I worked on it before practice, after practice, days off. I’m just trying to pick and choose to play the way I normally play.
“It was great to win, to tell you the truth,” Rose acknowledged. “You can feel the energy in the locker room now. We’re heading in the right direction. In the Orlando game, we played a terrible game. Washington, we improved for one half, lost the second half. This game in the fourth quarter we found a way; we’re seeing improvement and that’s the only thing we can worry about. We can be very dangerous; we all know that.”
But perhaps no longer in the way they were; which is OK.
Great coaching is using the talents you have to the best of their abilities, and the realization seems to be settling in on Thibodeau. The Bulls with Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks in the regular rotation now have perhaps more good offensive players than defensive players. Thibodeau said Rose played his best defensive game of the season Friday, though Rose is known for his offense and his moves, which were breathtaking again. It was Rose pushing the ball at the Celtics to start and filling the Boston Garden with all sorts of flowering wonders, from his lily of the valley Dream Shake to his Gervinesque floating orchids, his Earl the Pearl tulip spins and his own blooming Rose.
Wow, was that a stretch.
But it’s no stretch to see however hard the Bulls try anymore, they’re becoming a team that is going to need to put up the points. Which they can do. And they did a better job of it Friday by finally abandoning that brutal slow pace and pushing the ball, especially on long rebound misses that led to 18 fast break points.
The Bulls in shooting 53.9 percent also got 22 points and six steals from Jimmy Butler and 20 points and 11 rebounds from Pau Gasol. Taj Gibson starting for Joakim Noah, out with a sprained ankle, had 13 points while Aaron Brooks added 15 points off the bench.
Butler is a prime example. He’s generally regarded as the Bulls best perimeter defender, and six steals would back that up. But he routinely gets beat back door these days. What he’s prone to do now is cheat, playing the lane for steals. It’s no indictment. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade did it all the time, and it led to two Heat titles in four seasons. Michael Jordan always did it, though he had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant or later Dennis Rodman to back him up.
Yes, Gibson and Noah are there, though not always inside as both have had to play a lot of long distance shooting power forwards. So that tight defensive shell in the painted area the Bulls featured in recent years isn’t as impenetrable. Mirotic, for example, had just five points on one of five shooting and had all sorts of trouble with Brandon Bass and later Kelly Olynyk. But Mirotic was terrific leading the break out of the backcourt, connecting with E’twaun Moore, who passed ahead to Butler for a slam in one of the best fast breaks in a 31-17 fourth quarter that won the game.
The Bulls led just 88-86 starting the fourth quarter and blew out Boston with 11 fourth quarter points from Rose and 67 percent shooting. So it wasn’t really done with defense as the Bulls played three guards throughout the fourth quarter, first Butler with Brooks and Moore and later Rose and Kirk Hinrich with Brooks. That’s not exactly your defensive formula, though Hinrich and Moore were much better stunting and helping on defense, which has been spotty this season. Which also was likely why Tony Snell didn’t play as Moore had nine points and was three of four on threes and very attuned to defensive positioning and help.
“I thought we played with a lot more energy tonight, throughout the game both on offense and (defense),” said Thibodeau. “They’re a very good offensive team and I thought we challenged shots well. I thought our pressure was good. We didn’t rebound the ball as well as we would like (45-36 for Boston and 11-8 on the offensive boards), but I thought we did a lot of good things.”
Most of those were on offense as the Bulls trailed 58-55 at half with Boston shooting 60 percent.
“We can be very dangerous; we all know that,” said Rose. “It’s on the defensive side. We can score all we want, but if we are going to let teams score 100, 105 points every game it’s going to be a tough game. If our shots are not falling at the end it will be tough; defensively is our whole key.”
It just may not be possible like it was, which is not to say the defense cannot improve. But without getting too technical, one formula for winning is scoring more points than the opponent (success shares). Many of the great teams in NBA history were not the best defensive teams at the time like the Bulls of the 90’s. Moses Malone’s great 1983 76ers were seventh in points allowed, Larry Bird’s 1984 Celtics were fifth. None of the 2000-2002 Lakers teams was top five in points allowed and the 2001 champions were 23rd and 10th in shooting defense. You don’t have to be the best defensive team in the playoffs, either. You just have to be good. And score a lot. The Bulls can do that. It’s their brave new world, as Thibodeau suggests. Their reality?
That reality also is Rose, who is steadily returning to the high level All-Star of his pre-injury days. He shot well again, but also displayed daring and dervish in getting the Bulls off to a better start, 15-12 before going out and Boston closed with a run for a 24-22 first quarter lead.
“I thought he was so aggressive from the start,” said Thibodeau. “Dribble penetration, making the right play, passing the ball, breaking the defense down, forcing them to react; I thought that was by far his best defensive game. When he does that it’s huge for us. What you are seeing is Derrick getting stronger and stronger; he’s gaining confidence. He’s getting that competitive edge back. When you’ve been out as long as he has been out you miss that part, also. You can start to see it’s coming.”
But you can see other things with the Bulls as the Celtics took a 52-46 late second quarter lead scoring in nine of 10 possessions and 58-55 at halftime. The Bulls were committing a lot of fouls, reaching and out of position on defense. They were cheating for those steals, thus allowing so many of those layups we’ve seen of late. Mirotic does some beautiful things on offense and has a wonderful feel for passing. But playing power forward bigger players easily bump him out of the way, and teams are bringing in big guards to post up Brooks, who nevertheless remains a magician with his shots. Again, so many nice things offensively; not as many on defense, though they do try. Everyone can’t do everything. This isn’t the ’96 Bulls.
“We started the game off pretty well until the second quarter,” said Gasol. “We kind of let the pressure down and allowed them to get more comfortable. We went into the half giving up 58 points and them shooting 60 percent from the field, which is not something we like at all. In the second half, we did a better job defensively, getting into them, contesting more shots; rebounding was shaky tonight, too many opportunities for them in the offensive glass.”
Though the Bulls only led 88-86 after three, it was in the third quarter the Bulls began to take away the game.
It was mostly with an excellent pick and pop game as the Celtics began to send two and three defenders on Rose’s drive, leaving Gasol open. He made jumper after jumper for 14 third quarter points. Butler began to get those steals and run outs, Mirotic dribbled out for a break, Rose pulled up for a three and closed the quarter with a crossover drive and scoop for score. It wasn’t crucial, but Noah got into the fray in Boston Garden, as he likes, with a technical from the bench defending his buddy, Gibson, given a tough call on a Jared Sullinger shot. The Bulls had eight fast break points in the quarter behind Rose, Mirotic and Butler, and you could see the Celtics slipping away.
Moore and Brooks made the big shots to open the fourth quarter and Mirotic had that connection with Moore and Butler for a slam dunk. Rose and Hinrich on their return to the game had a nice defensive stand with the Bulls ahead 103-94 after Butler’s slam dunk, and then Rose made three three pointers in a three-minute span to turn it into a late blowout.
But that was the 13-25 Celtics. The best team in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks, winners of 11 straight and 25 of 27, are in the United Center Saturday night. The Hawks run and they shoot, and if the Bulls are serious, it’s a chance to measure given a pair of losses to the Washington Wizards last week.
“Overall a much better effort defensively,” said Gasol, not unaware of what’s ahead. “Which is what we need and what we’re going to need tomorrow night critically against the Hawks.”