Moments and memories from a season in transition

In many respects, it was an eventful season even if the biggest event, Derrick Rose’s return, never quite materialized, writes Sam Smith. Not yet, anyway.

Who had 82 in the pool for Derrick Rose games missed this season? Not many, though with the Bulls preparing to close the 2012-13 regular season Wednesday in the United Center against the Washington Wizards with a chance for a 45th win, this season ends up not that unexpectedly.

It never was clear, despite the speculation that Rose might return anytime after the All-Star game, that Rose would play in the regular season after his ACL injury in last season’s playoffs. Back last fall as training camp opened the possibility was broached with and eight-to-12 month initial recovery Rose could miss the regular season. Rose conceded that, though he said he hoped to be back during the season. I always felt based on what he and the doctors were saying it was 50/50. Though Rose has declined to rule out a return for the playoffs, which could start for the Bulls in Brooklyn this weekend. A Bulls win over Washington Wednesday or Atlanta loss to the Knicks would leave the Bulls in the fifth spot with a first round series against the Nets.

Joakim Noah and Luol Deng

Noah and Deng become the first Bulls players selected to the All-Star team by coaches’ votes in decades.

So we’ll see about Rose. At least it should make the major TV networks afraid to miss a Bulls playoff game.

In any case, most predictions had the Bulls winning anywhere from 42 to 50 games and finishing from fourth to eighth in the Eastern Conference. I’m not sure how those predictions mix with reality. But the Bulls team that most believed they’d see became the Bulls team they saw, a 44 or 45-win fifth or sixth place team. I don’t know if anyone would have made that optimistic prediction knowing Rose would not play at all, Joakim Noah would miss 16 games, Taj Gibson would miss 17 games, Kirk Hinrich 22 games, Richard Hamilton 32 games and Luol Deng would miss seven games.

I had the Bulls in what was viewed as an optimistic prediction for 47 wins. I based that on coach Tom Thibodeau’s penchant for preparation and that the Bulls have so many good, if underrated, defenders. You can make the case Hinrich, Deng and Noah are top five at their position defensively and Gibson and Jimmy Butler are elite reserve defenders.

So how many would they/could they have won healthy?

Better not to go there.

In many respects, it was an eventful season even if the biggest event, Rose’s return, never quite materialized. Not yet, anyway. Thibodeau agreed to a four-year contract extension, which he signed later in the season. On the eve of the opener, Taj Gibson signed his own four-year contract extension.

Whatever happened to Deng’s wrist? Before the season, many were saying Deng should have wrist surgery and sit out the season and come back with Rose in 2013-14. Others criticized his decision to play for the Great Britain Olympic team instead of resting because of his wrist problem. What wrist problem? Deng became Kobe, leading the team in minutes played for the third consecutive season and leading the league in average minutes per game. Luol Deng is officially now one of the NBA’s tough guys.

The other big issue entering the season was the horror of losing the famed Bench Mob of reserves. And, yes, Omer Asik went on top Houston with a chance to be the league’s Most Improved player. But the new reserve group has proven competent with Nate Robinson outperforming John Lucas, Jimmy Butler easily replacing Ronnie Brewer and Belinelli averaging more points per game than Kyle Korver. Korver is on an all–time three-point shooting streak in Atlanta, but he has started this season. Plus, Hinrich was brought in as an emergency replacement for Rose and will move to the bench as an upgrade over C.J. Watson. Brewer has been out of the rotation in New York and Oklahoma City all season, Lucas plays only sporadically in Toronto and Watson’s scoring average has dropped about 30 percent from last season with his minutes down with the Nets.

Joakim Noah

Noah turned in one of the greatest statistical performances in NBA history on Feb. 28 with 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks in a win over the Sixers.

Deng will finish the season the Bulls leading scorer for the first time in his career, though currently at 16.6 per game it will rank as the second lowest in franchise history for a team leading scorer. Eddy Curry led in 2004-05 at 16.1 per game.

Carlos Boozer will have arguably his best season as a Bull. Joakim Noah will lead in average rebounds per game. But Boozer will lead in total rebounds and currently ranks fifth in the NBA and second in the Eastern Conference in double-doubles. Robinson is the team’s third leading scorer at 13.1 per game. He once averaged more than 17 for the Knicks. But he is having his best ever three point shooting season at 40.5 percent and by far leads the team in three pointers made. Hinrich will lead the team in assist average for the sixth time in his career and first time since the 2007-08 season. But Robinson will have more total assists. Yes, Nate Robinson will end this season with more assists than anyone on the Bulls as only Robinson and Butler have played in every game. Anyone have that one in the preseason predictions?

Here’s a look at the best times in a transition season that mostly played a deliberate style, the super 20 moments and memories from the 2012-13 regular season.

  1. The March 27 Bulls 101-97 victory that broke the Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak and resulted in not only LeBron James complaining about being roughed up by the Bulls—yes, one of the world’s strongest men—but James losing his composure to commit a dirty foul against Carlos Boozer out of frustration. Boozer never budged and told James he was picking on the wrong guy. Luol Deng had 28 points and Boozer added 21 points and 17 rebounds as the Bulls dominated the Heat on the boards even with Nazr Mohammed starting for the injured Joakim Noah.
  2. The Jan. 4 win in Miami, 96-89. The Bulls crushed Miami on the boards, 48-28 and 19-4 on the offensive boards, again raising the question of whether the Heat is a true championship favorite as the league’s poorest rebounding team. Miami began using bigger lineups after that loss as Joakim Noah offered, “I don’t know if that small ball is going to work against us.” Carlos Boozer continued his renaissance season with 27 points and 12 rebounds.
  3. Joakim Noah’s third triple-double of his career in one of the most amazing single game performances in franchise history with 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks in the Bulls' 93-82 win over the 76ers on Feb. 28. It also wasn’t lost on Noah how fans applauded in Philadelphia during last season’s playoffs when he sprained his ankle and couldn’t play the rest of the series. Noah became one of six players in league history with a triple-double in those categories. It also was a game in which Luol Deng had his teeth jarred and loosened and was not missing any time despite long and painful dental visits to come. It also was only the second triple-double in Bulls franchise history with at least 20 in two categories.
  4. The Noah diving out of bounds save that led to Marco Belinelli’s driving winner to beat the Pistons 85-82 to go 25-16 in Game 41. It wasn’t a vital game given it was against the rebuilding Pistons. But the play in basically completing a 17-point comeback was symbolic of the game effort and determination against unlikely odds the Bulls showed all season. The game should have been over; all the Pistons needed to do was get one rebound, box Noah off the ball. But he went diving over Brandon Knight, flying out of bounds to throw back to Belinelli for a driving three-point play. It was so good the usually laconic Thibodeau called it “incredible” three times. Noah also had 18 rebounds and played the entire second half, yet still had the most energy on the court. Jimmy Butler starting for the injured Luol Deng continued his breakout with 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 46 minutes.
  5. The streak busting Bulls stop the Knicks 13-game winning streak with a 118-111 win led by Nate Robinson’s 35 points, the most points by a Bulls in a regulation game all season. Carlos Boozer scored the most, 36 against the Raptors in a Jan. 16 overtime win. Jimmy Butler adds 22 points and defense that let Carmelo Anthony to shoot 13 of 34. It gave the Bulls a 4-0 sweep of the Knicks even as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson were out injured while Tyson Chandler didn’t play for the Knicks. Anthony also complained the Bulls played too hard and too physical.
  6. The absolute domination of the Knicks in three early season games, two in New York as the frustrated and fouling Knicks in their December 21 home loss saw Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and coach Mike Woodson all ejected. The Bulls’ physical play continued to frustrate the Knicks, who have a pattern of fouling constantly like the old Pat Riley teams in hopes of the referees tiring of making calls. But the Bulls beat the Knicks about every way possible, in Chicago Dec. 8 93-85 in the fourth in five nights behind 22 from Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli, in New York Dec. 21 behind 29 and 13 from Deng as Anthony got himself ejected unable to match Deng, and January 11 in New York with Deng scoring 33 and Woodson incredibly complaining about Ray Felton being out.
  7. Again against the Pistons on Dec. 7 and it’s Cleveland Noah doesn’t want to visit, not Detroit, though no one has asked him. But in a 108-104 victory, Noah had one of the most impressive games in franchise history, which means something when you play for the franchise that featured Michael Jordan. Noah had 30 points, 23 rebounds and six assists. In the last quarter century in the NBA, only Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett have produced games with similar totals.
  8. The game is supposed to be fun, and it was the most rollicking time in the United Center in the Jan. 21 95-83 win over the Lakers. Noah with 13 rebounds and six blocks outplayed Dwight Howard, who was left complaining afterward about how few shots he got, Pau Gasol was upset about not starting and Kobe Bryant could only praise the Bulls and the defensive game on him by Butler as Bryant was seven of 22. Kirk Hinrich scored 22 points and crossed over Steve Nash a few times. It’s always fun to beat the big guys no matter their record.
  9. Lu’s the man. And who said the Bulls don’t have a closer without Rose? Deng drove, pushed off a bit like Jordan in the 1998 Finals, and made an 18-foot winner in overtime to beat Toronto 107-105 in what would be the first of three straight overtime games. Deng in previous years had been blamed for not being a fourth quarter player, though plays never went for him. The Bulls called his number and he rang up the winner while Carlos Boozer had 36 points and 12 rebounds.
  10. The most unlikely of finishes as Belinelli makes a falling down 14 footer in overtime Jan. 18 to beat Boston after Hinrich’s 15-footer with two seconds left in regulation tied the game. This after the Bulls tied up Paul Pierce for a jump ball to give the Bulls a chance to even get to overtime with Noah winning the jump.
  11. Marco Belinelli’s third game winning shot of the season, a three pointer with 5.9 seconds left to beat the Utah Jazz 89-88 on March 8. Joakim Noah rebounded Belinelli’s first miss and got the ball back for the winner. In the Bulls ever increasing injury list, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton were out.
  12. The Bulls are denied still another double digit streak bust when Joakim Noah’s tip in at the buzzer is waved off in a controversial offensive goal tending call. The Bulls have their starting backcourt out along with Taj Gibson as Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli play a combined 96 minutes. Noah makes a run at a quadruple double with 14 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and six assists and what looked like it was the play of the season when he appeared to put in Belinelli’s miss at the overtime buzzer.
  13. Jimmy Butler officially introduces himself as Kirk Hinrich makes seven threes in a 103-87 victory over the Golden State Warriors. Though it was Hinrich’s season-high game, Butler had 16 points and a career-high 12 rebounds and was averaging almost a double-double in four starts for the ailing Luol Deng. If not for a limited start to the season, Butler would be a top candidate for the Most Improved award and a starting job with the Bulls next season.
  14. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng become the first Bulls players selected to the All-Star team by coaches’ votes in decades. Noah has eight points and 10 rebounds and Deng 10 points as both play fewer than 20 minutes. But it’s worth the price to enjoy the joy written all over Noah for a lifetime achievement that few imagined possible, especially Noah growing up as the last kid off the bench in the game in New York City. His presence becomes an inspiration and testament to hard work and an acknowledgement that you can work your way to your dreams.
  15. The Bulls get a 3-1 season edge on the Brooklyn Nets with a 92-90 comeback win from 16 down on Nate Robinson’s winning floater and a game saving block from Nazr Mohammed. Carlos Boozer ends with 29 points and 18 rebounds while Jimmy Butler has 16 and 10 as the Bulls pounds the Nets on the board despite playing without Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, among others.
  16. The Bulls grind-it-out 97-92 win over the Indiana Pacers to salvage one games between the teams this season. Again, Joakim Noah was out. But Nazr Mohammed holds off Roy Hibbert with 11 points and seven rebounds and Luol Deng has 20 as the Bulls outrebound the leading Pacers and hold them under 40 percent shooting in a struggle between two of the league’s toughest defensive teams.
  17. The great Nate comes off the bench for 18 points in a Dec. 18 100-89 win over the Celtics. Robinson wasn’t even playing on a guaranteed contract yet and had been a figure of ambivalence with erratic decision making shots at times. But his scoring bursts off the bench have helped push aside concerns of the departure of the Bench Mob. Robinson did a lot of skipping in that game along with his airplane maneuvers after threes following a bit of a slump. Said Robinson: “I told myself, ‘I’ve got to get back to my whole Peter Pan theory: You cannot fly without happy thoughts.’” Just another NBA player.
  18. So there’s Taj. After signing a contract extension on opening night and then suffering through an indifferent beginning, Gibson emerged in an emergency starting role with first Noah and then Boozer going out and then Noah in late January, the first time Jan. 2 in Orlando as Gibson had 21 points and 11 rebounds in a 96-94 victory while Boozer continued his near All-Star play with 31 points and 11 rebounds. Gibson also had the team’s game saving block on Jameer Nelson with about 10 seconds left. “Huge, huge, huge, huge,” Thibodeau repeated about Gibson afterward.
  19. The Bulls Jan. 30 104-88 runaway win over the Milwaukee Bucks to avenge the Bulls’ 27-point blown lead to the Bucks earlier in the season. It would turn out to be the high water mark for the Bulls on the season before injuries hit as they went to 11 over .500 in a rollicking game in which former dunk contest winner Nate Robinson got his first Bulls dunk and had 16 second quarter points while Jimmy Butler back where he played collegiate ball added 18 and a breakaway late dunk when the Bucks threatened.
  20. It really would be the start of something big. It was Halloween night to open the season at home, and scary with the first opening night in five years without Derrick Rose. What kind of team could this be, what kind of season. But Noah came out with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five steals in a 93-87 win. It was a combination not reached by a Bull since Jordan retired.