Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Bulls with Rose and Hinrich buzz the Hornets
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The Bulls Sunday in a 101-96 preseason win over the Charlotte Hornets finally began to show their hand for the regular season.
And they deserved a hand, as it were, for a strong finish after blowing a 13-point fourth quarter lead as Derrick Rose showed his old form scoring the team’s last six points and Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol combined as a closeout fortress to hold off the Hornets.
“(Rose) played hard throughout the night,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Kirk (Hinrich with a team-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting) obviously played great, too. Pau (Gasol) played very well. We are moving in the right direction. I thought (Mike) Dunleavy played a terrific game as well. The stats don’t only reflect his shooting (one of six), but also his rebounding (nine) and defense was very good. Aaron (Brooks with 13 points in 15 minutes) gave us a big start off the bench. Derrick looked comfortable out there, so we wanted to build him up. He is practicing great now so that is good.
“The challenge that we face is the only way to get to know our team is to get out there and play, especially with Derrick,” reiterated Thibodeau. “The only way he will shake the rust off is to play. We have to get him out there. The other players have to get used to playing with him. That is how you build chemistry with the team. The good thing is when someone is not playing, it opens the opportunity for somebody else. You learn more about those guys and give them a chance to grow. That has been good for us. Nikola (Mirotic) had played more, Doug (McDermott) has played more. We are going to need everybody. We need everyone to put everything in they have each and everyday.”
There are just two preseason games left, so Sunday’s was significant for the Bulls.
They will play the conference favorite Cavaliers and LeBron James Monday on the Ohio State campus. But even though it is James and the Cavs, it probably won’t be as vital. That’s because it’s the second of a back-to-back. So it would seem unlikely the starters would play quite as much given Rose played his first fourth quarter minutes of the preseason Sunday and almost 28 minutes with considerable demands down the stretch. Noah also played more than seven fourth quarter minutes. Plus, Jimmy Butler sustained a sprained thumb in the first half and did not return to the game after playing about 11 minutes. It seems unlikely he would play Monday.
Plus, you don’t exactly want to show your main division rival that much with the Cavs in the United Center Oct. 31 for the home opener.
So the Bulls unveiled and revealed Sunday, and it was a good first look at the hopes for the regular season:
– Rose was the closer. With the Hornets playing their starters down the stretch as well and closing within 95-91 on a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist three-point play with 2:21 remaining, Rose took over. The question after two years out with surgeries and not playing much offense for USA Basketball this summer was whether Rose could do so again. The Bulls went exclusively to isolations and two man games featuring Rose. First, Rose took a screen from Dunleavy, drove, crossed over against Kemba Walker and was fouled and made both free throws for a 97-91 lead. After a Lance Stephenson score, Rose drove and lost the ball as the offense basically flattened out against the baseline. That’s when Kidd-Gilchrist scored another three-point play on the fast break to get within 97-96 with 90 seconds left. Rose then took a Noah screen, dribbled over and in to 18 feet on the left side and nonchalantly pulled up to make it 99-96 Bulls. The Hornets missed with Gasol grabbing the rebound. The Hornets then triple teamed Rose as he penetrated. Rose passed out giving Hinrich an open three he missed. The Hornets missed a long three, Rose rebounded, was fouled and clinched the win with two more free throws. Rose had 17 points, nine in the fourth quarter in his first fourth quarter play in the preseason.
“I want him to be aggressive,” agreed Thibodeau. “I think running the team is important. And so is being aggressive. He needs to find that balance. In the fourth quarter, it is coming down to a different intensity and defense. You have to concentrate on the strengths and weaknesses of the other team.”
– Noah and Gasol finished. It can change based on circumstances, but in the first closeout situation of the preseason with regulars playing regulars, Thibodeau inserted Gasol to replace Taj Gibson with 4:42 left and the Bulls leading 90-86. Gibson had become the regular finisher last season for Carlos Boozer, but with the acquisition of four-time All-Star Gasol, the question was who would be on the floor at the end. It appears for now Noah and Gasol as both also were in pick-and-rolls with Rose down the stretch.
“I like they way it worked out,” said Thibodeau about his use of the big men. “We played a lot of guys tonight. When Jimmy went out, it kind of opened it up for Kirk. That was a positive. Kirk had some tough match ups with Stevenson. He puts a lot of pressure on him.”
– The veteran reserves will have to be the glue for the second unit. Hinrich and Brooks both shot well and were the sparks for the best bench effort of the preseason. Hinrich’s shot has looked much better all preseason. On Sunday, it almost was unerring as he was six of seven with a pair of threes for 15 points in the first half and five of seven for 11 points in the second half, primarily pulling up off screens or in transition. Someone finally clean those goggles?
“He played real well,” said Gasol of Hinrich. “Shot the ball extremely well, was in great rhythm, and he is a guy who plays basketball the right way. He does all the little things, works extremely hard defensively, and he had a great offensive night.”
Overall, the Bulls bench had a 56-34 advantage as Gibson added 10 rebounds to equal Gasol and three blocks. Gasol also had 15 points and two blocks. Kidd-Gilchrist, who also showed an improved shooting touch, and Stephenson, who showed a similar psychological imbalance with various antics, led Charlotte with 14 each as the Hornets showed they’ll be a difficult team with much improved shooting from last season. Neither Gerald Henderson nor No. 1 pick Noah Vonleh has played in the preseason because of injuries.
The worst news for the Bulls was Butler’s sprain as he was trying to make a second consecutive steal in the first quarter. That was following a steal and slam dunk that gave the Bulls an 18-17 lead as Rose and Noah departed with about five minutes left in the first quarter. Thibodeau said Butler, who was leading the team in scoring in the preseason but had just two points Sunday, would be reexamined Monday as the team left for Ohio after the game.
No team can afford injuries to its primary players, but the Bulls are not strong on the wing with Tony Snell the apparent backup shooting guard. Snell played 10 minutes and was hesitant once again. Thibodeau tried Doug McDermott with Dunleavy one time and it was quickly taken advantage of by the Hornets on a Stephenson blow by. Butler has thus become a crucial player because of the lack of depth at that position.
Thibodeau started the second half with Hinrich playing with Rose. But the Bulls know Hinrich isn’t a long term solution there going on 34 in January. His shooting in the preseason has shown his effectiveness with the proper rest.
“We are getting closer to the real deal so I’m assuming we are going try to get our rotations down,” said Hinrich.
The Bulls went to Rose to open the game after playing into Gasol in the post with an offense that was operating more smoothly to start. Gasol even made a three and Noah and Gasol worked the ball well to one another. The Bulls then had a big finish to the first quarter on Hinrich’s shooting, though they won’t want to count on that too often. The Bulls led 35-28 after one quarter on 70 percent shooting. It was encouraging against a good defensive team, though not so defensively against what’s been a low scoring, poor shooting team.
“We have good spurts where we show a high level of play,” said Gasol. “Now it is a matter of being able to prolong those moments a little longer. Last three games there were ups and downs. The two games before we were down 20 both games. This game we were up 20 and then it was a two-point game down the stretch. We will try to be a little more consistent and that will be good for us.”
The reserves had their best effort taking over with Rose and Noah going out and eventually extending the lead to 48-30 four minutes into the second quarter before the starters began to trickle back into the game. Gasol made some nice spinning moves in the post and it appears he’ll be taking up for the offensive drop from Noah as the Bulls are going to him more.
Butler didn’t return then in his regular rotation and was declared out for the game, though he stayed on the bench. The Bulls led 57-51 at halftime and then built their lead to 83-70 after three quarters as Rose and then Hinrich and Brooks outplayed the Charlotte guards.
But the Hornets came back against the younger reserves early in the fourth quarter as Snell, McDermott and Mirotic were in and the Hornets cut the Bulls lead to 87-85 with about seven minutes remaining before both coaches played it serious to close. The Bulls went to 4-2 with their fourth straight preseason win.
Now it’s on to visit the Cavs and LeBron.
“It will be good to get a feel for their team, even if it is a preseason game,” said Gasol. “We will see them in 12 days. That is a game we want to be ready for. Obviously, it will be a good preseason test.”