Tag Archives: aaron gray

Bulls roster madness to begin with end of season

So what happens next?
The Bulls Tuesday in losing the opening round playoff series to the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 concluded what generally was a successful season with a second straight 41-41 record and first round playoff elimination. Yes, even with another first round out. This was to be the appetizer.
But given injuries that cost Joakim Noah 18 games and parts of several others, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich missing another 20 combined—only Brad Miller, of all guys, and Taj Gibson played all 82 games—and the midseason trade of John Salmons, it was a positive to get to the playoffs and give the Cavs a scare, if not a seventh game.
This season with the loss of Ben Gordon as a free agent was aimed toward acquiring a free agent this summer. That process begins July 1, and the initial targets likely will be Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, David Lee and Carlos Boozer. The general belief is Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the two elite free agents, will remain with their teams. But with Miami’s poor playoff performance around Wade and the possibility the Cavs could lose to the Celtics in the second round, their objectives could change. Free agency tends to be a financial and emotional process.
Though he was no where near the caliber, Trevor Ariza essentially took the same offer from the Rockets as he could have gotten from the Lakers because he was mad at them. The Heat doesn’t have near the players for a sign and trade the Bulls do, so if Miami comes up short, Wade could go shopping. Same with LeBron. It’s LeBron’s seventh season and if there’s no championship, maybe there’s a different itch he wants to scratch, that seven year itch.
And if Joe Johnson doesn’t have a rash the way the Hawks have fallen behind the no name Bucks 3-2 after Wednesday’s home loss, then maybe you have to wonder about him. Could he want to stay with that team under any circumstances if they lose to the Bucks?
Basically, everyone on the Bulls roster but Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is available. It’s not like the Bulls are looking to move Taj Gibson or Kirk Hinrich, for instance, but they’d like to use a player in trade and then perhaps money to sign a free agent.
There will be dozens of possibilities. I’ve previously mentioned trading for Golden State’s Monta Ellis and signing Lee. Neither is a first tier free agent, generally considered James and Wade, and then Bosh and Johnson—but the Bulls would love to find both a shooting guard and interior scorer.
Ellis likely will be available and the Warriors during the season made various attempts at acquiring Hinrich. The Jazz also has liked Hinrich and there’s some talk they might resign Boozer and trade Paul Millsap. The Timberwolves will be active, as they’ve promised, and given the rough relationship between Kevin Love and coach Kurt Rambis, Love probably could be gotten. The team, for now, seems to be asking way too much for Al Jefferson, namely an All-Star or someone like Noah.
There also will be other free agents who would come more cheaply, like Anthony Morrow, Brendan Haywood, Raja Bell, Steve Blake, Drew Gooden, Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Juwan Howard, Roger Mason and Kyle Korver. Maybe you take a shot at a restricted free agent like Rudy Gay or Randy Foye.
And the Bulls finally will bring in 2008 draft pick Omer Asik. He is a seven-footer who has been injured the last two years with knee surgery and a broken collarbone but has ranked among the best shotblockers in Euroleagus history. The Bulls will get a good look at him at the World Championships in his native Turkey this summer. He is expected to be available to the Bulls for next season.
So there will be plenty of potential permutations before the Bulls have a roster for the 2010-11 season.
Here’s a look at what will happen with this group:
Derrick Rose: He’s the anchor of the team’s future as even LeBron James after Game 5 was calling Rose maybe the league’s best point guard. Deron Williams, by the way, objected, and said at shootaround Wednesday he was the best. Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah. Rose has one more season before he can negotiate an extension, which will be at the maximum salary. He’s not available to anyone. He earned $5.2 million this season and will be under team option one more season, unless he adds an extension after the 2011-12 season.
Chance of returning: 100 percent.
Joakim Noah: He’s the other untouchable. The organization will not even listen to any sign and trade offers with the possible exception of LeBron James, and then only possibly because of James’ bum elbow. Noah earned $2.5 million this season and is eligible for an extension this summer. I assume he signs one as players will want to get in under the old rules as the current collective bargaining agreement expires after next season and long term deals are expected to be reduced. The Bulls can get free agents first, but that’s why they will spend their money this summer because they likely won’t have for beyond once Noah commits. They could make some short term deals to go into 2011 free agency, but with the labor uncertainty it’s not likely. So what’s Noah worth? He’s made himself a star player, though still as an eight figure earner will be one of the only NBA players who probably won’t make as much as his father, former tennis and now European music star Yannick Noah.
Chance of returning: 100 percent.
Luol Deng: After all the preseason uncertainty coming off his stress fracture, Deng had a good season, averaging 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 70 games. He makes $11.3 million next season and has a contract through 2013-14, the team’s longest now. He’ll likely be dangled in sign and trade talks as that will be a key in trying to attract someone like Bosh or Johnson. He has value around the league, but his contract length limits that with no one sure what will happen with the labor talks. And then the Bulls would need a small forward, so they won’t give him up easily.
Chance of returning: 75 percent.
Kirk Hinrich: He is fairly unflappable and sounded the most after Game 5 like he didn’t know if he’d be back. As Hinrich acknowledged, his name has come up in rumors for years. The reason is so many teams like what he brings and he has a descending contract that ends at $8 million in 2011-12, not much above the mid level for a guy who can play point guard and defend. With Joe Johnson and Rose, he’d give the Bulls likely the best guard rotation in the league. But it could cost the Bulls Hinrich in a sign and trade to get someone like Johnson. His name will come up in numerous scenarios starting at draft time, though the Bulls would like to have him back.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Taj Gibson: Along with Noah, he was the surprise of the season coming from the 26th pick in the draft to starting 70 games, second most to Rose. He made $1 million and was one of the league’s best bargains. He averaged nine points and 7.5 rebounds and with Noah made the Bulls one of the league’s best rebounding teams. He does have trouble against bigger players, but is a relentless worker. He’s got to improve his shooting and strength. If the Bulls can get Bosh, he’ll either be in a sign-and-trade or make up a heck of a front line with Noah. He gives the Bulls the option to explore fixing their shooting issues first because he can be a starting power forward, if not at an All-Star level.
Chance of returning: 70 percent.
James Johnson: The sixth player the Bulls have under contract for next season. He made $1.6 million this season, but barely played the first half and then sparingly as that was one of the key issues between management and coach Vinny Del Negro. He was a risk/reward draft pick, selected to make a hit or bust. He had a rocky start with punctuality issues and maturity, but has begun to come around. He’ll likely go to summer league, which can give him a chance to gain confidence. He probably would have been in the D-league at times if the team had more depth. The Bulls still want to give him a chance and feel he’ll virtually be a rookie again.
Chance of returning: 90 percent.
Brad Miller: He’s coming off a $90 million long term deal in which he made $12.25 million this season. Remarkably, he played all 82 games, albeit slowly. He really liked his teammates and bonds well with the support staff, though he was closest with Hinrich. Career wise his numbers are in decline at 34 as he shot a career low 43 percent and 28 percent on threes. He had some big games, but generally takes a few months to get back into condition. He’s a good backup center, though the Bulls won’t have much money after signing free agents and won’t get into a bidding fight for him. They’d probably give him a few million dollars for a year with a team option and would like to have him back. But at his age he remains a risk.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Hakim Warrick: He was acquired in the John Salmons deal and seemed like he’d be a good fit, but he quickly fell out of favor with Del Negro, who never quite found a role for him. He made $3 million this season and probably will look for something in that range or a bit less. It probably would be too much for the Bulls. He averaged 8.7 points and 3.6 rebounds for the Bulls, but in just 19 minutes per game when he played and rarely in the playoffs. He’s not a physical player, but can score with a decent mid range jumper and is a good athlete.
Chance of returning: 10 percent.
Flip Murray: He came in the Tyrus Thomas deal and became a relatively trusted sixth man type as an instant scorer. He got more time than Warrick, but not consistently. He averaged 10.1 for the Bulls, but shot just under 40 percent and 31 percent on threes. The Bulls would like to him have back as he’s a pro shooter and scorer, if streaky. But teams like him as a bench player and he’ll probably command more than the Bulls feel is worth paying.
Chance of returning: 10 percent.
Jannero Pargo: He never gained the regular trust of Del Negro and, as a result, had a tough shooting season with erratic playing time, shooting just 27.5 percent on threes. He got the $1.9 million mid level exception this season. With a bit more discipline and accountability, I think he could be a better average shooter. He’s a popular locker room guy and if he’d take close to the veteran’s minimum might be worth another look.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Acie Law: He came with Murray in the Thomas deal and never got much chance to play, 12 games and one start and mostly DNP’s. He’s a clever ball handler who can get to the basket, but he’s determined to get a chance, which he’s never had in being shuttled around. He made $2.2 million on the end of his rookie deal as 11th pick in 2007. I talked to him and he says he can see the Bulls getting Johnson and with Rose and Hinrich there’d be no minutes again. He doesn’t fit with Rose since he’s a penetrator and is more a scoring point guard. If he gets a chance several teams may regret giving him up.
Chances of returning: 5 percent.
Joe Alexander: Came in the Salmons deal and is an unusually gifted athlete who dominates the one-one-one games in practices. When it gets to full court something seems to change. He’s a dedicated worker and one of those guys coaches don’t seem to know why he’s not better. He says it’s been injuries and the lack of a chance. He made $2.6 million as the eighth pick in 2008, but the Bucks passed on his team option. He’ll likely take a minimum deal and the Bulls will be looking for players who’ll take a minimum but have had experience.
Chance of returning: 50 percent.
Chris Richard: The power forward from Florida became a popular guy around the locker room, easy going and friendly. He can bang around and was back and forth on some 10 day deals. He could be an asset in some sign and trade possibilities and might get a shot with the summer league team.
Chances of returning: 20 percent.
Rob Kurz: Picked up late so the team could take a look at him for perhaps a minimum deal as one of those shooting, so called stretch four forwards who can play a guy like Antawn Jamison, if not quite in that class. Also could be in a sign and trade and likely summer league as well.
Chances of returning: 20 percent.
Devin Brown: Came for Aaron Gray and pretty much got forgotten about once the team added Murray. Never got a chance to shoot himself out of his poor start, which was a long way from starting with the Hornets and making about $1.2 million.
Chances of returning: Zero.

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Bulls have a foul taste about Game 1 and want change

Derrick Rose had just made one of those plays in the Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers Saturday, a double move, slipping the trap on top, driving into the lane, changing direction, getting banged again by Shaquille O’Neal, who got credit for a block.

Rose paused and bent a bit, as if saying to himself, “What do I have to do?”

Rose never says much to referees, or anyone, really. None of those histrionics after every drive or screams of faux pain with every contact. Rose does it the way the NBA asks, being professional and classy and allowing the officials to do their job.

But not much later in a stoppage of play he wandered over to one of the referees and said:

“I did not make it into this league by shooting jump shots.”

Silence. There was no response.

Derrick Rose was the No.1 overall pick in the 2008 draft with the reputation of a player who could not shoot. We know differently, and Rose has worked to become better. But how do you become the consensus best player in the draft when you are not known as a shooter? OK, so you are a guy who drives the ball.

But in the Bulls 96-83 loss to the Cavaliers Saturday, Rose with 28 shots—and not many jumpers—got two free throws, both on a drive with 3:11 left in the game and the Bulls trailing 88-77.

So you mean to tell me Rose was on the floor for more than 40 minutes, he was the focus of the entire Cavs defensive game plan and he attempted 27 shots to that point, about double the next most on the Bulls, and he never once was fouled?

Not once!

Not by Shaq lumbering around and jumping in front or LeBron coming up from behind for those blocks, the usual one or two being goal tending which aren’t called, by Anderson Varejao trapping him and chasing Rose everywhere and a guard deep in his grill?

These must be the greatest defensive players in the history of basketball to come up with almost a dozen blocks and never once make enough contact to foul maybe the fastest guard in the NBA, a fearless competitor who got inside the paint 18 times for shots.

And not once did anyone make any serious contact with him!

“We need to put more pressure on them,” Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said after practice Sunday. “I wasn’t happy with us only getting 11 free throws. We need to not settle and attack off the dribble and get to the line more (eight of 11 free throws overall). We have a tendency to settle for jumpers.”

Del Negro is right, but he needs to do something about it.

I mention this is considering the bracelet I wear that reads, “WWPD.”

That being What Would Phil Do.

Phil would note that Anthony Parker, who needs a roadmap to find the lane, got more free throws than Derrick Rose. How is that possible? Phil would put the referees on notice they are not treating his team fairly. Actually, he’d have said it before the game to let the officials know he’s watching.

Yes, Phil got fined last week $35,000 for noting how many free throws Kevin Durant shoots, which was the NBA’s way of sending a message to all the other coaches. And Phil makes $12 million annually and no one else does, certainly not Vinny.

Sorry, but in the playoffs you have to stand up for your team. And for your best player.

This kid is being treated like a pinball. OK, that’s an ancient reference, though the last video game I played was pong where a dot bounces back and forth off immoveable objects. Yes, that was Rose in Game 1.

Vinny needed Sunday to make this about the referees. I do argue against that at times, and the NBA has been warning coaches and players to stop it. But then you see James scream like he was knifed every time he goes to the basket and Rose keeps his mouth shut and merely surveys his bruises after the game.

I won’t make this argument for Kirk Hinrich, who didn’t attempt a free throw in Game 1, but he generally doesn’t attack the defense, certainly not like Rose.

I thought Rose was terrific Saturday and had no problem with his 28 shots. He doesn’t want to take them, but when he looks around and no one can hit a shot and the game is getting away, what else can he do?

Del Negro defended him Sunday and he was right.

“I did not agree with that (criticism about) 28 shots,” said Del Negro. “We need Derrick to score and get to the basket. He has to cut down on his turnovers (maybe if someone can make a shot and the Cavs can’t send three guys at Rose every time). We need to play well defensively, get out and run and get easy ones and make them guard. There were too many one pass shots. We have to do a better job moving the ball and taking higher percentage shots.”

That’s true, and Del Negro went through all the usual stuff about boxing out, moving the ball, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Yes, the Bulls do have to move the ball better, though to free up Rose. The Cavs are attacking on his first penetration. He’s got to give it up, swing the ball and then get it back for more side isolations.

There was this fuss about Shaq and he likened himself to a diesel truck. I agree. He can’t turn. He had 12 points and five rebounds. C’mon. Hakim Warrick does that in 25 minutes, too. Let’s not get carried away.

Rose, as usual, showed unusual equanimity about his dilemma.

“That’s the way they call the game,” he said. “I can’t say nothing about that. Hopefully, the refs look at what they are doing. We’re still gonna go out and play the game and see if we can get some calls. I know one day it’s gonna change. I cannot get mad. I learned from the New Jersey game (seven turnovers) the refs weren’t calling it right and I got frustrated a little bit. It’s got to change one day.

“The only thing I’ll tell you,” said Rose, “is it’s gonna change one day and when it does it’s going to be scary.”

I also happened to get a message this weekend from one of the coaches whose team is in the playoffs. He had watched the Cavs and Bulls and commented, “It’s like a middleweight against a heavyweight.”

Yes, that is what generally happens in 1 vs 8 matchups, though Rose, not surprisingly, could see only positives in that.

“I want to make history by beating them,” said Rose. “I’ll probably never have this chance again, or if I do hopefully I’m in their position (being No. 1 vs No. 8). I know for the future I’m probably not going to get another chance like this (to upset a No. 1 seed), being this big an underdog. That’s why we want to put it all out there.”

Hey, maybe he knows something about the team getting free agents we don’t.

Still, the Bulls didn’t play very aggressively in Game 1 and got pushed around by the Cavs. The players pretty much acknowledged that and insisted it would be different for Game 2 Monday, that they might be stepping up in class.

Maybe look like at least light heavies.

“Yeah, definitely,” said Joakim Noah. “We were a little bit timid yesterday. We’ll be ready to go Monday. All this is a great learning experience. We’ve just got to keep fighting. They’re very good. There’s no denying that. But at the same time we feel we can compete with them and feel we can win Monday.”

The Bulls certainly looked and sounded confident and relaxed. As Noah spoke, the reserves were involved in heated one-on-one games with Noah providing exclamations of support. James Johnson was impressive, and the hope is he gets some time against James Monday as Johnson can at least deliver some hard fouls. It is time to show some of that kickboxing expertise.

Actually, Joe Alexander was one of the best, though the rap on him has been—fair or not—he’s best at playground one-on-one and up to three-on-three games but suffers in full court games.

Noah said he enjoyed watching so much because he went through that trail by fire of his own.

“You get tired and you really get (upset) at the coaches (calling fouls),” said Noah. “It is adversity at its rawest. It’s interesting to me.”

Noah said his games were with “Tyrus and big Pookie.”

Asked who was Pookie, Noah exclaimed, “Aaron Gray! C’mon, man, you forgot the pookster!”

But it should be no joking come Monday evening.

“We definitely talked about it today,” said Rose. “We’ve got to go out and be totally opposite of how we were last game. I think we were not that aggressive on the defensive end. We have to have some type of swagger or nastiness about ourselves. You’ll see tomorrow.

“No excuses,” said Rose. “Tomorrow we’ve got to come out and start hitting people. No And 1’s. We got to hit people first. If somebody comes down the middle, we’ve got to be aggressive. Tomorrow’s gonna be an aggressive game.”

Bulls pace themselves a bit much in losing to Pacers

I remember one time asking the late Cotton Fitzsimmons, the garrulous and popular longtime coach of the Suns, Hawks, Spurs and Kings, what he’d do when one of his teams had one of those nights like the Bulls did Saturday in losing 100-90 to the Indiana Pacers.
When from the opening tip they had virtually no chance of winning the game as they lacked the energy, enthusiasm or ambition to compete after finishing a grueling stretch of games, for the Bulls eight in 12 days and the sixth back to back in February.
“Just go into the locker room and flush the toilets,” drawled Fitzsimmons. “Tell ‘em to get rid of it and get on to the next meal.”
Perhaps the imagery isn’t delightful, but the message is clear. Gather yourselves because there’s a long way to go.
For the Bulls, Saturday was one to forget quickly with nine straight games coming against teams with winning records and a tough fight to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with the Bulls now 31-28. It leaves them in sixth only a game behind fifth place Toronto, but also only two games ahead of ninth place Charlotte.
And the Bulls come more limping than like a lion into March with Joakim Noah out perhaps another week with plantar fasciitis after missing Saturday’s game, Luol Deng day to day with a knee injury though he fought for 18 rebounds Saturday, and Derrick Rose leaving the game late limping after scoring 27 points and banging knees with Earl Watson.
Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro thought Rose would be OK for Monday’s home game with Atlanta, though Noah seems doubtful and Deng is questionable. I remain probable, just in case anyone wondered.
“The guys were dead,” said Del Negro. “We can’t use that as an excuse.  You have to come out and play.”
The NBA made the Bulls do so, but you could see quickly their hearts—and legs—weren’t into it after the thrilling overtime win over Portland Friday. The Pacers figured as much and came out running and attacking, shooting quick threes and going to the basket.
“The Pacers put a lot of pressure on us with their scoring ability,” said Del Negro.  “(Danny) Granger is a handful.  They got their hands on a lot of basketballs.  And we had a lot of times where we could have converted but didn’t.  They went really small, but we weren’t able to effectively hurt them in the post.”
To further speed the game, the Pacers opened with the quick T.J. Ford starting and often went with three guards and perimeter shooters like Granger, who led Indiana with 30 points, and Troy Murphy.
They spread out the Bulls, penetrated and hit shooters, and played more physically, knocking balls loose and running out. The Pacers finished with twice as many fast break points and a big margin in points in the paint.
“Our game plan was to stop the dribble penetration,” said Kirk Hinrch, whose hot shooting ended up mostly front rim and one of six. “That’s when they get their layups, get to the foul line and get their threes..  We just didn’t do a good job of guarding them.  They were cutting, back cutting us, and we weren’t making any second effort plays.”
The Bulls tried, or at least the best they could. But it was like watching someone churning their legs and constantly falling behind in the race. The Bulls kept getting more tired and falling farther behind.
It happens, though the Bulls also continued to give ample evidence of why they are a .500 type team. In their last eight losses back to the middle of January, six have been to teams with losing records.
They did get through this tough February pretty well at 8-6, though 6-4 against teams with losing records. Of their 23 remaining games, only five are against teams with losing records. The Bulls are 14-15 against teams with winning records and 17-13 against teams with losing records. They also are now 17-3 when they score at least 100 points and 14-25 when they score fewer than 100 points.
Which is why Noah is so vital. The Bulls need to run and rebound to score without much three point shooting, and they need a vital and vibrant Noah and Rose for that.
The team likely will add a big man, probably Chris Richard, who was released and went back to the D-League after the trades last week. But Richard—or anyone the Bulls could add—doesn’t come close to bringing what Noah did, like when he came into the Portland game Friday and controlled LaMarcus Aldridge and energized he team with his hustle.
The team is playing it cautious with Noah and trying to nurse him through the season, though if he doesn’t play much in the next few weeks the season could be lost before too long.
Rose provides that inspiration with his scoring, and he did all he could Saturday, including scoring a dozen points in eight minutes in the fourth quarter in trying to rally the Bulls back on his own before bumping knees with Watson with the Bulls trailing 94-83 with 2:56 remaining.
Rose had just scored on three consecutive possessions, but Del Negro wisely kept Rose out as Rose sat on the bench without getting treatment, a sign he wasn’t seriously hurt. If he were, you could forget the playoffs.
Even with him it’s going to be a tough road if Noah cannot return quickly.
“This is one of those bumps in the road,” said Taj Gibson, who had 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks and has been a rock inside for the team.  “We just have to get back on track.  This was a tough one tonight because we were trying to keep that streak (six of the last seven) going.  But they played well and we can’t take anything away from them.  There’s really no excuses.  Guys are playing through injuries.  But we still have a long ways to go.  Tonight was just a tough one and we have to get ready for Monday against another tough team in the Atlanta Hawks.”
The Pacers came out flying with a three from Kareem Rush seven seconds into the game and a Murphy jumper for a 5-0 lead. The Bulls recovered and trailed just 25-24 after one. But they were flailing with the mismatches, trying to take advantage of Gibson and Brad Miller without huge success against the Pacers with Granger at power forward and Murphy at center.
The Pacers got a bit of a boost from center Roy Hibbert, who had 12 points off the bench and even a little pose and dance after a three point play midway through the second quarter. You know it’s bad when you are being taunted by Roy Hibbert, who is a slightly better version of Aaron Gray.
Rose kept trying to rally the team back, and had a pair of exploding drives for scores to get the Bulls within 40-39. And Jannero Pargo had a nice run of jumpers before the game got out of hand later and he began firing, seemingly to make up for previous lost playing time. He finished five for 16 for 14 points, but the Bulls bench was badly outplayed with Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick having their first poor efforts with a combined six points on one of five shooting in 35 minutes.
It was still a game, at least on the scoreboard, at halftime with the Pacers ahead 54-47.  But the Pacers opened the third with a pair of threes and the Bulls weren’t in single digits much the remainder of the game, watching the Pacers lobbing and back cutting and doing everything to speed the game as the Bulls finally went to a four guard lineup to try to match up. But the Pacers were no match on this night as the Bulls ended winning three of the four between them this season.
Sort of the idea of you planning a trip to Indianapolis in February, and are you really thinking about good things?
It’s a joke, of course, as I spent a few years in Indiana one weekend. Take my wife, please. I know. Lame. Actually, I went to graduate school at Ball State and had my first newspaper job in Ft. Wayne. So Deng and I got into an interesting conversation after Friday’s win as the Bulls prepared to leave for Indianapolis.
Arriving late, we knew there wouldn’t be much open. Which is why I’ve been a regular for years at the downtown Steak ‘n Shake, which is the only downtown restaurant open late. Deng wanted to assure me he eats healthy, but he shyly admitted he’s been in there.
I’d say I’m taking my hat off to Deng, but the national TV broadcasters have first dibs on that cliché, though I’ve never seen one wearing a hat.
But I watched Deng dress after Friday’s win and he couldn’t bend his leg, actually sitting and extending his arms so he could put on his pants. I saw Rose do much the same, and it was one leg at a time. See, he sort of is like us.
Deng wasn’t shooting well given the obvious lack of lift with his leg, but he fought on the boards relentlessly. Rose, too, kept looking for some life around him, and seeing none would take over for stretches to even keep the Bulls within 10 or 12.
They gave it all they could. But the ball never moved much, just 14 assists. The Pacers moved better with the basketballs they took from the Bulls, who had 21 turnovers, and the Bulls have gotten even poorer on threes since the trades and were three of 13 on threes Saturday. They have to run to score and run to succeed, and there was just no run in them left this time.
The next three weeks have three breaks of at least two days. But there are few easy ones to play. This is the stretch run. Buckle up. But hopefully not one gets hurt by the buckle.

Bulls finish road trip with fifth straight impressive win

The Bulls have been good, winning a fifth consecutive road game Friday in New Orleans thanks to 26 points from Luol Deng, 18 points from Derrick Rose and 13 points and 18 rebounds from Joakim Noah.
And they’ve also been lucky, the Hornets with the game effectively won throwing the ball away with seven seconds to go. That enabled the Bulls to tie the game and send it into overtime on a Deng tip in with two tenths of a second left, the turnover also resulting in an injury to Chris Paul that finally sent him to the bench in overtime as his replacement, Darren Collison, blew a chance to tie the game and the Bulls escaped with a 108-106 overtime victory.
Good and lucky? Tough to beat.
The Bulls now are 23-22 on the season with their five straight wins over five Western Conference winning teams and 13 wins in their last 18 games.
“When you’re winning, everything is positive,” said Deng, whose hustling follow of the Rose  blocked layup attempt for the tie saved the game in regulation. “We’re going into games expecting to win. A game like that, if we had lost four in a row, we might have lost it. But the mentality right now is we can win every game.”
And why not? Because for a team where a month ago it seemed everything was going wrong, now they are getting the breaks. Or is it when you play loose and confident you make your breaks? And though the Hornets made the blunder of the night, it was the Bulls who contributed to it by never giving up even in seemingly a lost cause.
And once again, like in Oklahoma winning when they weren’t shooting so great, 45.1 percent, and holding a second straight good opponent to under 40 percent shooting.
Here was the situation: The Bulls had blown a 15-point late third quarter lead by failing to score a field goal for 10 minutes and were back peddling to a loss, which would have been easy to take and say you had a terrific 4-3 Western Conference trip.
But that’s a sign that this is a Bulls team that’s different and could do something. They didn’t give up when they used to or could have, even after David West, who led New Orleans with 29 points and 14 rebounds, threw in a ridiculous bail out 30 foot three pointer for a 100-98 lead with 52 seconds left.
The Bulls had a brilliant, fierce possession with 30 seconds left.
Paul, with amazingly quick hands, nearly stripped Rose. Rose then hit Deng in the right corner for a three that rimmed in and out. But savvy Brad Miller had West’s arms pinned and West one handed couldn’t grab the rebound and knocked it out of bounds.
Now it’s 17 seconds left in regulation and Bulls still down two.
Kirk Hinrich got the ball in to Rose just before the five second count. Rose, much stronger than Paul, bullied Paul in along the baseline. The Hornets converged. West changed the shot, Rose missed and West recovered the ball in a scramble with 8.8 seconds left and that two-point lead. Inbound, shoot free throws, and with the Bulls out of timeouts it was over. Right? Wrong?
Bulls played retreated to the huddle deflated as the TV camera focused on former Bull Aaron Gray with a big smile, though neither he nor former Hornet Devin Brown played.
The Hornets set up in an angled picket fence with Darren Collison supposed to run Rose into two screens and get the inbounds. Why, I’m not sure. He is an 87 percent free throw shooter, but he is a rookie. Noah did a terrific job backing off inbounding West in front of the Hornets’ bench in the backcourt and playing free safety. The Hornets couldn’t advance the ball because West had recovered the loose ball rebound and moved before calling timeout.
Noah got in the way of the intended pass to Collison as Rose trailed. Deng smothered Peja Stojakovic and as he came open Noah jumped toward him, leaving West now a few ticks to get the ball in.
He panicked and saw Paul seal Hinrich, push off and run toward the basket at the other end. But West overshot him and Paul took off trying to save the ball. Yes, the Hornets, amazingly, were about to turn it over and give the Bulls still another chance! Paul leaped out of bounds to save the ball. He tossed it back in, hitting John Salmons, who was guarding Marcus Thornton. The ball hit off Salmons, but Hinrich saved it before it went out of bounds.
Bulls ball with seven seconds left.
On the play, Paul fell into a cameraman and hurt his knee, and eventually would have to be pulled late in the overtime after missing both his shots and unable to guard Rose any longer.
The Bulls were without a timeout, something coach Vinny Del Negro had been criticized before at times last season. But it worked perfectly this time.
“It worked out better,” said Del Negro. “We were in full motion.”
Hinrich threw ahead to Deng at midcourt and Deng took one dribble and fired crosscourt to Rose in the left box. Rose spun inside past Peja Stojakovic as the defense didn’t have a chance to set. But West came sprinting back and blocked Rose trying to make the tying layup.
“Players win games,” said Del Negro. “They made plays when they had to and I’m proud of them for that.”
Deng gets criticism for his lack of athleticism, his inability to be a high jumping, sky walking small forward. But he competes and is always running and working, and his play was a classic example of never giving up, which suddenly is defining this Bulls group.
With West’s block, Collison and Thornton followed in behind West. You could see Deng at the free throw line watching Rose, and as Rose went in and everyone collapsed toward him, Deng went down the middle toward the basket. West blocked the ball hard into the backboard as Rose tried to come around the other side of the rim. The ball bounced straight back over the heads of the two Hornets with Deng closing and he gently put the ball back in to tie the game at 102 with two tenths of a second left, too little time for a shot but only a tipin which failed.
Overtime.
I thought Hornets coach Jeff Bower had a full head of hair before the game.
It isn’t a play which makes the highlights like a dunk. But it’s as good and timely a play as anyone has made all season on the Bulls.
“We battled,” said a relieved Del Negro. “Our guys didn’t give up.
We showed toughness and found a way, got a big steal. We’ll take it
It’s been a long trip, but I’m proud of the guys the way they battled and hung in there. Brad hit  a big shot (in overtime), Lu’s tip in. It was a total team effort.”
Not too long ago, Del Negro was being condemned for every move, every loss. National reporters were drooling over trying to get him fired with breathless reports of a move immediately.
But Del Negro’s been making all the right moves, and made some big ones Friday.
When the Hornets went with three guards, he had Deng go right at Thornton and punish him on multiple possessions before the slow reacting Hornets staff realized what was going on. The Hornets were trapping Rose on the pick and roll relentlessly, so Del Negro got Miller in for longer stretches to relieve the pressure with his outside shooting and Miller had 14 points. Hinrich did a good job pestering Paul, who had a manageable 18 points and 12 assists while Rose defended shooting guard Thornton, and Del Negro used Miller and Noah in an often effective high/low tandem that often baffled the helpless Emeka Okafor, who didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.
“Guys have been stepping up,” said Del Negro. “Brad Miller…different guys making plays, understanding roles and being a team and being committed and the guys are having fun. Winning breeds confidence.”
After that, the overtime was a shock to the Hornets, who had won eight of their last nine at home. Paul was hurt and limping, replaced eventually by Collison. The Hornets scored first when West spun by Noah and put up an unlikely scoop for a 104-102 lead.
But after the Bulls missed twice, West beat Noah baseline and tried to dunk and it seemed Noah fouled him. But there was no call as the dunk missed. Noah got the rebound and pitched ahead to Hinrich, who ran to the right elbow and pulled up with a 15 footer to tie it at 104.
Paul, his knee having him listing, then missed badly twice on jumpers as he was unable to go to the basket. Rose drove and was fouled, making both, and then Rose hauled down a tough rebound in traffic on a Collison miss. Miller then tried an inside bounce pass that went out of bounds, but Stojakovic missed another jumper. Both teams shot two of seven in the overtime. But the Bulls made the big one.
Coming out of a timeout with 1:16 left, Noah set a pick for Rose and dove to the basket, taking Okafor with him. Then Miller picked again in the same spot in the middle at the top of the key and popped out. Rose went hard right over the screen, followed by Collison and West. Miller was wide open on top 21 feet out. Rose went under the basket and pitched out to Miller standing alone, and Miller downed the shot for a 108-104 lead with 59.8 seconds left.
The Hornets went right back to West, who hit a fallway banker with 48 seconds left to bring the Hornets within two, 108-106.
The Bulls went with the same play with Noah and then Miller screening. This time Rose peeled across right, but didn’t penetrate. As a result, Miller had to step back farther with the defense not dropping off. When he got Rose’s pass across court, Miller was a bit farther out and shot a three short. But Noah went up between West and Stojakovic for the offensive rebound of the game with 27 seconds left.
“You have to play the whole game. Anything can happen,” said Del Negro. “It doesn’t matter if you are up or down.”
Rose dribbled out the shot clock and drove. He crossed over Collison, who appeared to push Rose from behind as West knocked the ball loose and the Hornets recovered without a timeout with about eight seconds left. Plenty of time to tie or win with a three.
But no Paul.
Collison took off down the left sideline, but Hinrich, Deng and Salmons got back and walled him off. He broke right and then as he was trying to retreat back left Deng reached in and knocked the ball away to end the game in one of the more remarkable finishes of the season.
“We just had to suck it up, play good defense and give it our all,” said Rose.
It was an unlikely end to the unlikeliest of road trips.
Because this figured to be the toughest of them all, which final games on long trips usually are, and few teams are out for 13 days as the Bulls were.
But they again started fast and led 30-29 after the first quarter. In these five wins, the Bulls, who once could score 100 points in a game, are averaging 31 points in the first quarter.
Deng got off quickly with a dozen in the first. It’s been interesting to watch the Bulls strategy unfold as they usually open games going to Taj Gibson in the post even though he’s a rookie because he probably has the only true big man postup game. Rose had a beauty of a back door slam dunk on a pass from Gibson, who is remarkably fundamentally sound, especially for a rookie.
Thornton, who is starting for traded Devin Brown, was beating Rose with threes as Rose still needs to pay more attention on defense, where he tends to float. Though Paul is so quick, Rose is much stronger and took Paul inside on a post move early and scored, and Miller closed the first with a three for a 30-29 lead.
Tyrus Thomas, with 11 points, had a good sequence in the second quarter, running out for a score after Hinrich knocked a ball loose and hitting a jumper when the bench went cold.  James Johnson had another awful stretch and it can’t be long before he yields time to perhaps newly acquired Brown as the Bulls constantly lose ground when Johnson comes in.
Hinrich didn’t have a remarkable line with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. But he was in the middle of everything and had to have had at least a half dozen deflections, stepping into Paul receiving a simple inbounds pass and drawing a charge. It’s why the Bulls have done so well since he returned to the starting lineup for, effectively, the first time in almost two years.
The Bulls led 57-50 at halftime, and you had to love the fast break after Rose, of all guys, broke up a lob attempt. He pitched ahead to Hinrich who threw farther ahead to a streaking Noah for a slam dunk. That put the Bulls ahead 64-55 early in the third quarter. Thomas and Noah combined on a great possession to block two Okafor shots, and on the hook for four more years at an average of more than $13 million per year for Okafor, who rarely plays down the stretch, you wonder what this Hornets franchise will do. And then it looked over when the Bulls went ahead 88-73 with 2:21 left in the third.
But suddenly it became like 3:30 in the afternoon for a lot of workers when that lunch settles in and it begins to get darker and you are oh so dreary and need a nap.
Hinrich forced up a three at the 24-second clock, the Bulls made three straight turnovers and Thomas forced up a quick jumper. Rose stopped the bleeding with a 13 footer. But Hinrich missed a pair of shots and Noah threw a ball away to no one on an inbounds, and all of a sudden it was 90-89 Bulls with about eight minutes left.
Well, 4-3 isn’t bad.
But this group refused to settle.
Rose blew by Collison on a change of pace drive for a score, but Stojakovic tied it with a three with about seven minutes left.
It looked bad for the Bulls as they went cold again, failing to score on the next seven possessions, including Deng missing a pair of free throws. The Hornets went ahead on a Darius Songaila score. But Gibson blocked a West attempt and the Bulls got every defensive rebound and hung in, down 97-92 with 2:48 left.
Still, it didn’t look promising.
“We got some good defensive stops,” agreed Del Negro.
With about two seconds left on the shot clock, Miller drove and pulled up for a push shot in the lane to get within three. West then faced up Noah and Noah pushed him out into a poor jump hook that missed short and Hinrich recovered. He passed to Miller who passed to Rose, who attacked and was fouled and made both to get the Bulls within 97-96 with 1:52 left.
Songaila then missed from the baseline with Hinrich scrambling over for a good contest. Rose went hard from the top with a runner as the Hornets continued to trap and double aggressively, and Noah got in between Songaila and Thornton for the tipin to give the Bulls a 98-97 lead with 1:16 left. But West then hit that improbable three, more a shot put toss, with Paul smothered by Hinrich, for a 100-98 Hornets lead with 51.5 seconds left.
The Bulls tied it as Miller set the screen for Rose. This time Rose went left and passed back to Miller. West had gone to double Rose, and scrambling back, Miller pump faked him and drove and West grabbed him for the foul. Miller made both to tie the game at 100 with 43.7 seconds left.
Paul, of course, would make the play as Rose does for the Bulls. Paul hit Hinrich with a hard dribble left, spun back right and as Noah stepped up, West slipped inside for the pass and scored the layup for a 102-100 with 30.8 seconds left. Just enough time for the most improbable of endings.
“We’re not surprised at our turnaround,” insisted Rose. “We’re playing good basketball, hanging in there throughout the whole game. We’re sticking with tough teams that are usually over .500.”
And beating them.

Bulls consider new player, All-Stars and ghosts

The newest Bull, Devin Brown, is ready, willing and, he believes, able, but it may be a bit more time until he’s a regular for the Bulls.
Brown joined the team in Oklahoma City Wednesday. He attended morning shootaround, but wasn’t able to participate because the final paperwork on the trade hadn’t cleared the league office yet.
Brown, who was acquired for Aaron Gray and goes back to face his latest former team, the New Orleans Hornets Friday with the Bulls, is expected to be available for Wednesday night’s game against the Thunder.
But coach Vinny Del Negro says it’s unlikely Brown will play.
“(He’ll play) only on an emergency thing for a while, if there’s foul trouble or injuries or something like that,” Del Negro said. “He’s got to learn the system and plays and defensively and that’s going to take time because we don’t have a lot of practice time. As he gets comfortable and I get comfortable with him and him knowing what (we’re) doing out there I’ll try to incorporate him according to the situation.”
For now, there’s probably not much time, anyway, with Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons pretty much handling all the guard minutes. Plus, Del Negro doesn’t much use an expended rotation.
Brown had been starting for the Hornets, who have wanted to get more time for rookie Marcus Thornton and add depth with Gray. But Brown, an NBA journeyman at 31 and in his eighth season who’s been with several teams, said he’s pleased to join the Bulls.
“I’m obviously excited about being here and joining the Bulls,” said Brown. “There had been some interest (previously). I’m just looking to come in and do what I do, which is guard all the top guys, hit threes, get baskets in transition. So that’s what I’m looking to doing. I’m just trying to come in and contribute, do anything I can. Just to help this team win.
“They said come in, relax, and continue to play the way I’ve been  playing, hit shots, defend. We were starting to get things rolling in New Orleans. But it’s part of the business and I’m in a different situation now,” said Brown. “I’ve been on good teams, on teams trying to turn the corner. Cleveland, Utah, San Antonio. This is one of those teams that’s a playoff team that wants to go deep into the playoffs. So I look at it as I’m another piece to get to where they want to be. I see them as a team that always plays hard, a young team that gets a lot of things done. The sky’s the limit. The talent is there.”
Brown is one of the few players who wears a headband, which the Bulls don’t allow, as Ben Wallace found out. Brown will ditch his headband for his Bulls stay.“No problem,” said Brown. “It was the same when I was in Utah. Jerry Sloan doesn’t allow them, either.”
Regarding that young talent, Rose and Joakim Noah were awaiting Thursday’s announcement of the results for the All-Star reserves, and it was announced Wednesday Rose will play in the rookie/sophomore game with teammate Taj Gibson. Gibson is the second lowest choice on the rookie team with the Spurs DeJuan Blair the only second rounder. Gibson was 26th in the first round.
“It’s good I made it. But I’m even happier we’re even winning games,” said Gibson. “It shows that if you work hard and listen to veterans and come to do you job every day it pays off. I’m happy to represent the team. Derrick’s saying they’re going to smack us, they’ll beat us good. I’m just living in the moment. I’m just happy I’m winning games.”
Gibson also was happy to be moving onto New Orleans after the game as he apparently got a bit spooked by the stories from the Knicks earlier this season that the hotel where the team was staying, the Skirvin, is haunted.
Gibson at shootaround was telling Del Negro that his bathroom door slammed during the middle of the night and he didn’t have his heat or air conditioner on. Del Negro looked at him somewhat quizzically. Rose said he hung around in James Johnson’s room a lot. Oh, to be young again and telling ghost stories by the campfire.

Noah starts and Hinrich starts fast vs. Spurs

The Bulls got a nice surprise before the game when Joakim Noah decided he could play after a brief pregame workout.
Then they got an ugly surprise when the Spurs jumped out to an 11-2 lead that left the Bulls reeling into a timeout. But Noah seemed to be running reasonably well and stayed in until there was 4:16 left in the first as he got his second foul with the Bulls trailing 24-17.
“Jo is going to try, but he’s still pretty sore so we’ll monitor that,” Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said before the game. “He’ll warm up and see how he feels. Derrick didn’t shoot around this morning and has cold, congestion and flu. He’s not feeling great, but I expect him to play. Taj’s foot is sore but feels a bit better. And Brad is sore but as he would say, his game is not based on athleticism. I think he’ll play and be effective in some form.”
So the Bulls were back at—sort of—full strength, though reserve Aaron Gray was on his way to New Orleans for a physical after the trade for Devin Brown, who will join the Bulls in Oklahoma City for Wednesday’s game.
Brown has the easy part. Gray has to fly to get his physical, then join the Hornets for a game out west and then return home with the team.
“Aaron (is) a great guy, worked hard, especially after he got injured,” said Del Negro. “I think it made sense for both teams. (Brown) gives us a little more depth. He can spread the court and I like his toughness defensively. Once I can put him in the games I’ll have a better idea. I’m looking forward to getting him in and getting him acclimated.
Aaron wasn’t going to get much of an opportunity,” said Del Negro. “It’s good for him. Hopefully he’ll get an opportunity. There wasn’t minutes here. He works hard. We’ll see what happens with Devin with minutes here. I told him (Gray) I appreciated his effort and wished him all the best. He was thankful and excited about the opportunity.”
Brown grew up in San Antonio and was a prep and local college star who played with the Spurs early in his career.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the team liked Brown, but it’s often difficult for those role players to hang on.
“He was like a utility infielder (in) baseball. For us he played one, two and three. He handles the ball well for a wing type. He shot it really well then. He played pretty good defense. He was an all around player. He didn’t do anything great. He shot well enough, played D well enough, hustled and was a good piece for us, a good role player.”
But they become disposable pieces.
“As guys get older other people come around who also are utility infielders,” said Popovich. “Teams are going to look for somebody younger to do the same things or somebody who isn’t playing and they’ll trade mine for yours.”
And see if the fit is better.
So starting Wednesday the Bulls get a look at Brown and see how it works.
It worked pretty well for the Bulls, especially Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter with 13 points in making six shots of seven shots (the only miss a halfcourter at the buzzer), as the Bulls got within 31-29 after even taking a lead.

Is Aaron Gray just the first Bull to be traded?

I caught up with Aaron Gray Monday afternoon on his last day with the Bulls. He seemed happy.
“It will be a great thing,” said Gray.
Not that he was mad at the Bulls, but the third year center believes he’ll get a better chance to play now that he’s headed to the New Orleans Hornets for shooting guard Devin Brown.
The teams Monday afternoon agreed to the trade, somewhat minor, yes, but perhaps the first to come for the Bulls.
As I’ve noted before, GMs around the league say the Bulls have been active in feeling out teams on various trade scenarios and player availabilities in recent weeks and I’d expect something larger to break before the deadline, much like last season in the big deals for John Salmons and Brad Miller.
For now, it’s a nice tweak for the Bulls to add Brown, a hard nosed 6-5 shooting guard averaging 9.7 points and shooting about 37 percent on threes.
Bulls fans should remember him well as he blitzed the Bulls with 20 first half points, mostly on threes, when the teams played in late December. The Bulls play the Hornets to conclude this trip Friday, and both players should be available in their new uniforms.
The Hornets felt they had to move Brown after trying to trade him for Jason Hart in a salary dumping move to Minnesota recently to help get under the luxury tax. The Hornets later moved Hilton Armstrong. Last year, they tried to trade Tyson Chandler and had that trade rescinded and then traded Chandler for Emeka Okafor. It remained too uncomfortable to keep Brown around.
But it’s a good addition for the Bulls. Perhaps not for Jannero Pargo, who probably falls a bit farther down in the rotation with the addition of another shooting guard. Though it could also open the way for a larger trade involving someone like Kirk Hinrich or John Salmons as the Bulls still need to add an expiring contract by the trading deadline to be able to offer a free agent a maximum contract this summer.
Brown, 31, is a classic NBA journeyman. He is finishing up his second tour with the Hornets and also has played for the Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz and Cavs. He is in his eighth season after being undrafted out of the U. of Texas/San Antonio.
He first played in the USBL and D-League. He was rookie of the year in both and D-League MVP for the Fayetteville Patriots in 2003. His biggest NBA season was 2006-07 when the Hornets were in Oklahoma City and he averaged 11.6 with 49 starts. His career scoring average is 7.3 on 40 percent shooting and 34 per cent on threes.
His minutes have been decreasing of late. But he had a career high 30 points with five threes in a win in Utah earlier this month and back in November 25 points and five threes in a win over the Clippers.
Gray had rarely played for the Bulls this season, just 50 minutes in mostly blowout wins or losses as coach Vinny Del Negro was never comfortable with him. But he’s not a salary dump for the Hornets as they save only about $100,000 on the deal and look to Gray to help their inside depth. Both players are on one-year deals expiring after this season.
The Bulls had some preliminary talks last month with Denver about Gray. But it didn’t involve a player for the Bulls and nothing ever was close.
But this was the kind of deal the Bulls had in mind when they decided not to keep players from their training camp, like Derrick Byars. The Bulls wanted to have some wiggle room money under the luxury tax to be able to facilitate a deal, and they could for Brown, who is a higher quality NBA player than, say, Byars.