What’s that I’m seeing in the distance, very hazy, faint, just really a speck now?
Yes, that’s it. The Bulls’ playoff hopes.
The Bulls Tuesday suffered a brutal, perhaps playoff fatal 111-105 loss at the United Center to the Phoenix Suns as Steve Nash carved up the Bulls down the stretch, and though the Bulls again were victimized by injury with Kirk Hinrich going out with an ankle sprain, the season long lack of a structured offense and limited use of the depth proved lethal.
“They hit big shots and made big plays and there was nothing we could do about it,” indicted Derrick Rose, who tried valiantly and in vain to save the Bulls down the stretch. “We’re still trying to make a push for the playoffs. But as I said, they executed their plays and that’s why they won.”
It was a terrific, entertaining, playoff like game, and a Suns clinic in late game offense as the Suns won their eighth straight to go to 48-26 and clinch a playoff spot. Playoffs! The Bulls are on the verge of forgetting about them as they fell to 35-39 and one and one half games behind Toronto for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with Toronto having the tiebreaker. And now the Raptors Wednesday host the Clippers, who after being blown out by the Bucks are playing the second in a back to back on the road without injured Baron Davis.
The Bulls probably have to just about win out now to make the playoffs, perhaps with enough room to lose a game or two at the most and playing five teams with winning records not counting the Raptors on the road. And this from a team that has lost 12 of its last 16. Joakim Noah played 27 minutes and had his first double/double since Jan 29. But Hinrich went out in the first half and didn’t return and Luol Deng remained out, but is expected to return for limited play this weekend. It could be too late.
“We have not been able to get over the hump against some of the better teams,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “Give Phoenix credit. They executed when they had to. That is why they have been so successful over the years and lately this year. Players have to make plays down the stretch. We ran some good sets but were unable to convert. We had some turnovers early, but we controlled the turnovers over the last three quarters. It just comes down to getting some stops. Thirty points is too many in the fourth quarter. We did some positive things, we just came up a little short.”
Not good enough this time of year.
But what stood out as the Suns scored in their last six possessions and nine of their last 11 to overcome a four-point Bulls lead with 4:50 left was the way the Suns had something to go to, the old basketball cliché about having something to hang your hat on.
It was Nash not only with 22 points and 10 assists and nine points and four assists in the fourth. But it was what they had going with Nash.
The Suns went to pick and roll with Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, getting Stoudemire rolling or a pick and pop with Channing Frye popping out. Frye had with the big three pointer with 41.6 seconds left coming off a nice down screen to break a 103 tie as the Suns blazed with 14 of 28 threes. The Bulls’ defense collapses into a shell, thus leaving the perimeter generally open.
There was Nash getting mismatches in that screen/roll, Jason Richardson posting against the smaller guards, usually Rose with Jannero Pargo basically having no shot against Nash, and then Nash, as slow as he seems, driving by Pargo for, effectively, the clinching basket and 108-105 lead with 23.2 seconds left as Flip Murray had to come and help, leaving Grant Hill open for the pass and two handed flush.
“I was taking so many meds for my back and cold that I actually felt a little loopy,” laughed Nash. “It helped my back but I was a little dizzy out there. At the end of the game, I just tried to hang in. We had a chance to win and I was fortunate to make some plays when it counted.”
Rose had 23 points and 10 assists to basically offset Nash, but the problem was when the Bulls needed plays down the stretch it was Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose.
They had nothing else going, little movement, no other actions as Rose made some amazing moves and drives as he was the only Bull to score after Brad Miller’s three for that 97-93 lead with 4:50 left.
You can’t ask Rose to do everything, even with the injuries, and then after Hill’s slam, though the Bulls were coming out of a tiemout trailing 108-105 with 23.2 seconds left, they clearly went looking for a three to tie instead of extending the game. Rose missed a wild, quick, forced shot with Hill all over him.
“I felt like I should take it,” Rose said. “I had to adjust.”
The Bulls had plenty of time there to attack the basket and extend the game. Granted, the Suns are terrific down the stretch and great free throw shooters. But you can’t give up like that and go for the quick tie and then give them that much time even if you make it.
Obviously, the Bulls missed Hinrich, who sprained his ankle stepping on Noah’s foot late in the second quarter and couldn’t return. “I think Hinrich is the best on-ball defender in the NBA at his position. That was another injury that hurt them as well,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry.
Hinrich plays Nash probably as well as you can play him, so perhaps Nash doesn’t make every play down the stretch like he did. But what choice did the Bulls have now as they rarely used Devin Brown, a more physical defender, and Acie Law. So when Hinrich couldn’t return, they were pretty much stuck with Pargo, who was five of 15 and zero for four in the fourth quarter.
While Flip Murray was having another huge game with 23 points and nine rebounds and hitting four three pointers. Yet, with Pargo even playing some point in the fourth with Rose, inexplicably, off the ball, Murray was three of five shooting in the fourth quarter. But he didn’t get a shot in the last six minutes after his goaltending score gave the Bulls a 94-91 lead. Again, the Bulls failed to recognize or go to the hot guy while Pargo missed four jumpers in that stretch when Murray never got a shot.
So it was a brutal, disappointing way to conclude a basically well played and good effort by the Bulls, who didn’t quit and aren’t laying down. They had an impressive 26 assists on 36 field goals and a 20-7 edge in fast break points. They were diving for loose balls and delivering hard fouls. The bench was terrific, especially in the second quarter when the Bulls recovered from Stoudemire and Richardson dominating the first quarter for a 36-25 lead.
Stoudemire didn’t so much afterward and ended with 21 points and 11 rebounds while Richardson led the Suns with 27 points. Though Stoudemire, another of the potential big free agents this summer, did get James Johnson for one of those uh oh poster slams early in the game.
Murray in the second quarter exploded for 14 points in hitting a trio of three pointers and a 60 foot hook that swished just after the halftime buzzer. And Noah was his old explosive, hustling self running himself into back to back dunks to open the quarter and beating Stoudemire down the court repeatedly. I don’t know Noah’s pain, but for the Bulls to have any playoff chance at al, he’s got to be back in the starting lineup Friday when the Bulls travel to Washington.
The Bulls got ahead 60-57 at halftime when Noah just before the half got a costly technical for questioning a Chris Richard flagrant foul just before the half. But the Bulls fought off the Suns throughout the third and took a three point lead into the fourth quarter and quickly made it six on a Murray three.
“It was a tough loss tonight,” said Noah, whose energy, as usual, has been contagious. “We had our chances. I thought we played with good energy. It’s just a really tough loss especially when late in the game you have chances to win.”
The Bulls had them against a Suns team currently fourth in the tough Western Conference and playing as well as anyone the last two months.
“We’re a totally different team (from the team the Bulls beat in Phoenix in January),” said Richardson. “Two months ago, we were a team that had big leads that we’d end up giving back. We weren’t focused on the defensive end. This half of the season now we’re really focused on the defensive end and helping each other out. The way we’re playing now is huge. We’re going to need to play like this in the playoffs. With the game on the line you have to come up with stops to get wins.”
Yes, that’s the Suns talking defense and making at least enough plays down the stretch, though they couldn’t really handle Rose, at least at the end. The Suns made a nice defensive switch to have Hill on Rose much of the mid part of the game, giving Rose some trouble with size. Rose would beat Hill late, but the move seemed to make him less aggressive. Thus the Suns were able to rest Nash for the close as he moved to defending Johnson, who did little on offense and committed a crucial late turnover when he eschewed a wide open look and passed the ball out of bounds as everyone expected the shot. He got yanked after that.
The Suns finally wrestled the lead away from the Bulls, their first fourth quarter lead after opening the period trailing 84-81, on a Richardson three with 3:01 left. It came after the Suns drew Noah out on a Frye three and Richardson got the offensive rebound. Simple basketball. The Suns keep bodies moving and moving the defense.
Rose then put on the after burners and got into the lane for a seven-foot fallaway to answer.
Richardson went into the post, where he’d been basically abusing the much smaller Rose. But he missed. Rose then got caught between a floater and a jumper and pushed it long. Nash then hit a nice fading shot over Pargo for a 100-99 Suns with 1:54 lead.
The Bulls almost blew the next possession with Miller throwing an inventive behind the back pass inside that went off the Suns. But Miller was hustling. Should Taj Gibson, who had 14 and 10, been in there with the Suns playing smaller with Frye? He did get back in with under a minute left, but couldn’t get out to Frye in time for that big three.
Pargo missed a jumper after the Bulls got the ball back on that Miller pass, but Miller got the rebound and got it to Rose who was fouled on a drive and made both. Nash then got Miller on a switch running that pick and roll, which would be the call for Taj. Nash went by Miller on a crossover and laid the ball up left handed and was fouled for a 103-101 lead. Rose came right back, and you can’t say he’s not getting the calls as he forced contact at the basket at Stoudemire and got two free throws, making both to tie it at 103 with 59.8 second left.
Frye then came up on top as Nash drew Noah on the switch and passed back to Frye as the defense began to collapse to avoid another Nash drive.
“Steve Nash dribbled around and they tried to get Frye to pop out,” explained Del Negro. “He has good range. They keep setting screens for Steve to create. If you rotate to Frye, they dump into Amar’e in single coverage. They spread you out in a triangle, which is tough. They have other guys who can spread it out. They open up the lane for Amar’e and if you double down, they make you pay.”
The Bulls paid as Frye hit the three for the 106-103 lead.
Rose made an amazingly tough drive past Hill lurching at the basket and scoring to get the Bulls within 106-105 with 37.7 seconds left.
But then Nash beat them again with that pass off to Hill, and then cam that forced, quick Rose three and the end of the game, if not the season.
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