Bulls Stampede

Pistons give it a battle, but Chicago flexes muscle in 16-point win

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Chicago’s defense was a stifling force, especially early when the Bulls seized control. Lawrence Frank called the Bulls a “dominant defensive team” earlier in the week, and the guts of that defense is Derrick Rose’s tenacity at the point, sealing off lane penetration, and the smothering frontcourt presence of Joakim Noah and reserves Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, plus Luol Deng’s length and mobility on the wing. It doesn’t hurt that the guy pulling the strings, Tom Thibodeau, was for years regarded as among the league’s shrewdest defensive minds as an assistant at several stops, including Boston before taking over in Chicago prior to last season. The Pistons did well to finish with a .409 shooting percentage in their 99-83 loss to the Bulls, off to a 6-1 start despite playing five of their seven games on the road.

BLUE COLLAR – Damien Wilkins got thrown in cold off the bench in the second half of the New Year’s Eve win over Indiana and responded immediately with a number of good defensive plays. He’s since cemented his role as primary backup to Tayshaun Prince. Wilkins was steady as usual on the defensive end against Chicago, but he also gave the Pistons a spark of offense when they needed it. After being limited to 14 first-quarter points, when they shot 23 percent, Wilkins came on to contribute eight first-half points on 4 of 5 shooting. He finished with 10 on 5 of 7 shooting and four rebounds in 30 minutes.

RED FLAG – There’s an obvious link to the quality of the opponent’s defense and the number of open shots available over 48 minutes, and the Bulls smothered the Pistons in exactly the fashion they’re capable of doing. But when the Pistons did manage to find open shots, they didn’t knock them down. The starters shot a combined 7 of 26 in the first half – 4 of 19 in a 14-point first quarter – with Tayshaun Prince (1 of 7) and Ben Gordon (1 of 6) having an especially frustrating time. One more red flag: Rodney Stuckey walked to the bench grimacing late in the first half and was shut down with a sore groin. No definitive word, but the Pistons have four games in five nights starting Friday – that would be a tough stretch for him. Lawrence Frank used some Will Bynum and some Wilkins to make up for Stuckey’s loss.

The high praise Lawrence Frank accorded the Chicago Bulls this week was more than flowery coachspeak. The Bulls look every ounce a legitimate NBA title contender and the biggest roadblock this season to LeBron James notching the first of the multiple championships he promised South Florida.

Playing suffocating defense to start the game and establish a lead, the Bulls protected it late by executing with a surgical precision offensively, MVP Derrick Rose orchestrating with controlled fury to lead an offense that racked up an eye-popping 31 assists on 40 baskets.

But you want an encouraging sign? The Pistons didn’t shrug their shoulders afterward and concede Chicago’s greatness. There was an undercurrent of keen disappointment, bordering on disgust, in their locker room for not winning and making a bold statement, never mind putting up a better fight.

“I thought we just played terribly,” Ben Gordon said, ever so bluntly. “You’ve got to give them a little credit, but I thought we just had a horrible effort overall. No disrespect to their defense, but I thought we could have done a better job.”

A few stalls down, Jonas Jerebko sang the same song.

“We could’ve played a lot better,” he said. “We didn’t play like we should. They came off a back-to-back with more energy and that’s not acceptable. We wanted a third win and we didn’t get it, so it’s very disappointing. We know we can beat these guys.”

Lawrence Frank wasn’t in any brighter mood, rattling off the ways Chicago made the Pistons pay for defensive lapses.

“I’m not questioning the effort,” he said. “I was just disappointed in our execution on both ends. They had 27 points in transition, they had 27 points off the pick and roll, 18 on the side; they had 15 points off catch-and-shoot situations. Our effort was there; we’ve just got to get getter with our execution. They played better than us tonight. It just shows you the amount of time we have to put in. It’s a good opportunity for us to say, all right, this is where we are right now. They’re one of the top teams in the league and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Pistons shot 23 percent in a first quarter that ended with Bulls up 22-14. The Pistons never led. And as their shots kept clanking off the rim, even though Chicago wasn’t running away from them, their frustration grew.

Tayshaun Prince ended the first quarter 1 of 6, Ben Gordon 0 of 4. As a group, the starters were 4 of 19 in the quarter, Jerebko going 1 of 4.

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Jerebko said. “I felt like the ball just didn’t bounce our way, but we can’t blame it on that. We’ve just got to go play some defense and then get some easy buckets instead – and we didn’t.”

Frank had to improvise when Rodney Stuckey walked to the bench grimacing five minutes before halftime, never returning. The word is a strained groin, which could put Stuckey’s availability in jeopardy with a brutal stretch – four games in five nights against 2011 playoff teams, including a Monday rematch with the Bulls followed by a Palace visit Tuesday from reigning NBA champion Dallas – starting Friday in Philadelphia.

Damien Wilkins continued his steady play off the bench, even chipping in 10 points and knocking down 5 of 7 shots on a night the Pistons could only make 41 percent. Frank used him as Prince’s primary backup, but also at shooting guard to supply some size in a backcourt that relies on Stuckey to match up with opposition shooting guards. Will Bynum, limited to three mop-up minutes at Boston last week since a 13-minute stint in the opener when Stuckey got in early foul trouble, went 16 minutes and provided 10 points.

Those two were on the floor in the fourth quarter when the Pistons whittled away nearly half of Boston’s largest lead (20), forcing Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau into two timeouts. The Pistons got within 11 at the midway point, but Rose’s direction of the offense allowed Chicago to keep answering every mini-charge.

Greg Monroe battled Chicago’s deep frontcourt to finish with 19 points and 13 rebounds and Jerebko added 13 points. Rose had 17 points and 10 assists for the Bulls, led by Carlos Boozer’s 19, while Rip Hamilton scored 14 in his return to The Palace.

“It was fun, man,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t wait for the ball to be thrown up. I was like, ‘Man, please don’t start crying or anything,’ but hurry up and the ball get thrown up so I can get out there and play.”

“They’re an outstanding team, well oiled,” Frank said. “We wish we would’ve played a whole lot better, but they had a lot to do with it.”