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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 cannot rise like a phoenix against Suns

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.

LeBron came and he conquered the Bulls

Veni, vidi, vici.
Yup, same old LeBron James.
He came to Chicago, he saw a city he liked, as he would concede afterward to reporters, and he conquered a Bulls team once again without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, though this time by a more pedestrian 92-85.
Hail, LeBron, which a sellout crowd of Bulls fans mostly did as James had 29 points, 13 in the fourth, when he won the game after the Bulls led by two with six minutes left. He also had 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks, converting 11 of 12 free throws.
The guy is really good, though we’re not sure yet whether good enough that they’ll name a salad after him as they did with Caesar.
Though I’m sure he can get a deep dish pizza named after him if he decides to leave the Cavs as a free agent after this season and come to Chicago.
“I am well respected here,” James acknowledged. “They like their basketball here and the way I play.  For these fans to see what they’ve seen, going back to 1984, when Jordan was doing what he was doing all the way to 1998, they’ve seen the top of the tier. It is very humbling for me for them to respect my game as well. Chicago is a great city and one of the best in America. From lifestyle to sports town it’s a great city. I know that. You (media) guys know that. Everyone knows that.”
OK, but tell everyone something we don’t know, like what you’ll do after the season.
It’s the biggest question of the NBA season, much more so than who will win the NBA title or when the Nets will win again.
I believe he’s staying in Cleveland, especially with the Cavs rolling like they are with a 55-15 record and playing just parts of games to win, like they did with the Bulls Friday. James scored his 15,000th point during the game, making him the youngest player ever to 15,000 points after he also was to 5,000 and 10.000. Just another young king, eh?
James had quite a time of it Friday, mostly floating through the early parts of the game before he turned it on with the Bulls leading 78-76 with about six minutes left behind Taj Gibson with 20 points and 13 rebounds and James Johnson, guarding James, or at least as much as James would allow him, with 16 points and eight rebounds.
James then hit a 22 footer to tie the game at 78, and after the Bulls came out of a timeout with Flip Murray missing a bad, long jumper, James hit another long jumper for an 80-78 lead with 4:48 left. Johnson, who did some terrific things but has to lead the league in turnovers in the last six minutes, palmed the ball as he got caught up in going at James. Not a great idea, but Johnson is showing that athletic potential many saw in him in the draft.
James drew a double and hit Anthony Parker for a three. Gibson answered with a followup slam dunk on a Kirk Hinrich miss, and then James lined up Johnson from the far left wing right in front of the Bulls bench.
James, as he does too often, stops the ball and all his teammates, which makes the Cavs most vulnerable, and faked move after move against Johnson. It pretty much rendered Antawn Jamison useless Friday as he relies on cutting and movement for his scores. Mo Williams shot well and added 18 standing around waiting for James passes when doubled.
Johnson stood in defensive position, mostly isolated with the Bulls coaches up yelling for defenders to help behind. Bulls players on the bench began to yell at James to shoot.
James isn’t a big talker on the floor, certainly not like Kevin Garnett, but he does engage in playful banter, sometimes between his dance steps, which were limited Friday as James was out late Thursday night at a Jay-Z show. That’s his rapper friend better known as Beyonce’s husband.
“Whoever was telling me to shoot it,” James said about the taunting Bulls bench led by Noah and Jannero Pargo. “You want me to shoot it? Shoot the ball? I said, ‘OK, I’ll shoot the ball.'”
Great.
James blew by Johnson and was fouled at the rim by Gibson, making both for an 85-80 lead with 2:56 left.
Johnson then, again, committed a turnover, traveling. He pointed toward himself, which I hate. Yes, we know who was at fault. This isn’t Tiger Woods or John Edwards. You don’t have to ask for forgiveness in public. It happens in games all the time, but so often down the stretch? Your fault? Yes, we know.
James then made a hard curl down the lane beating Johnson easily, scoring and getting fouled by Brad Miller for a three-point play and 88-80 Cavs lead with 2:28 left.
“I’m feeling confident knowing what I can do to close games out,” said James. “I never get rattled or shaken, no matter down one, up two, whatever the case may be.”
As good as the Bulls played throughout without their regulars, they again couldn’t do anything with their sub squad when the opponent got interested. Flip Murray drove and was blocked and Gibson picked up the ball and got hammered with no call, James retrieving the ball. He missed twice around an Anderson Varejao rebound, but Murray, five of 17, missed again. James got the rebound, came up slowly again and fired in a long bank shot from the wing to effectively end the game with a 90-80 lead with less than a minute left.
“I was born with a God-given gift,” said James. “I take full advantage of it by being able to do what I do on the basketball court. Hopefully, I can continue to stay healthy, and hopefully, I’ll continue to break records.”
And surely this summer break hearts somewhere.
James can infuriate you if you are an opponent with some of his dancing and celebratory antics. The last time the teams played, Joakim Noah was annoyed and had a little faceoff with James. But you’ve got to admire someone who brings that much joy to work.
I’m not saying he didn’t take the Bulls seriously—OK, maybe I am—but it was amusing to watch him on the bench in the first half. He had some sort of game going with headbands with reserve Jamario Moon, who didn’t play. There always seems something amusing being said as Jamison, one of the more responsible veterans in the NBA, kept laughing.
When it was approaching time to come back in the game, James leaped off the bench and patted his behind like you would see someone do with a horse when they holler “giddy yap!”
Later in the game, in the fourth quarter when the Bulls got a nice open court steal from Murray and dunk and took the lead  on a strong move from Hakim Warrick and three point play after being set up by Acie Law, James just seemed to stand up and head for the scorers’ table to check in as coach Mike Brown still watched he action.
There was 7:23 left in the fourth and James hadn’t played yet, so it probably was time, anyway. James had 13 of the next 16 Cavs’ points as the Cavs outscored the Bulls once James returned to the game 18-7 before a meaningless three by Murray with two seconds left.
James has been coy all season about his free agency plans, basically cutting off conversation after the first few weeks. So I asked him why given how well the Cavs are playing, how many good deals they’ve made getting Jamison most recently and how much he seems to be enjoying himself why he just doesn’t declare his intentions to stay.
James declined, leaving the slightest window opening for everyone.
“It’s still a business,” James said. “I’m in a business. This isn’t high school basketball anymore. You have to do what’s best for your family and do what’s best for yourself. I’ve always said I love being in Cleveland. But to me as a basketball player, no matter what happens I love to play the game of basketball. I love to play it for the fun, the joy. I love my teammates. I love the guys here and that’s just the way I approach the game.” James, as I said, was complimentary of Chicago and also was positive about the Bulls players, which management believes is perhaps its major selling point to free agents.
“Derrick Rose was a first time All-Star. He’s an unbelievable talent,” said James. “Unfortunately, he has a wrist injury (Rose said he’ll likely play Saturday in Philadelphia along with Noah). Taj Gibson is a bright spot. Joakim Noah is a bright spot. They’ve got Luol Deng. They have a lot of great players.”
James has studied well from many of his star predecessors and tends to be very engaging after games. He used to speak with reporters before every game, but has mostly stopped doing that. As someone around the Cavs joked, “He’s got the MVP locked up now.”
But James is very aware of what goes on around the NBA and in talking with him after the game in a large group of Chicago reporters, he showed an unusual knowledge of the Bulls season.
“When they were all healthy they were playing great,” James said about the Bulls. “I remember the West Coast trip they had. They had an unbelievable West Coast trip when they were healthy. Having four guys out of the starting lineup, I don’t think you can recover from that.”
Who follows Bulls road trip from two months ago?
Does it mean James is watching the Bulls closely regarding free agency?
Perhaps, though he wouldn’t bite when one of the local TV guys not often at the games—James brings out the stars—asked James if he thought the Bulls were one star away from winning a title. James asked him what he thought.
James is quite the show, much like all the great ones, and he brought out what little celebrity we have here with Olympian Shani Davis, Chicago Bear Julius Peppers and actor/writer Harold Ramis, whom I recall was in Ghostbusters, among other high brow epics, where the version of Caesar’s famous short war description, “I came, I saw…” was offered with, “We came, we saw, we kicked (butt).”
It was no kicking this time as the Bulls didn’t fall behind by 25 like in Memphis and Dallas, and might have stolen one instead of losing their 10th straight and falling to 31-37 if they could have made some jumpers.
Beware the Ides of March?
Heck, beware all of March as the Bulls haven’t won yet this month.
Murray, Hinrich and Pargo were a combined 13 for 44 and two of 16 on threes, and the Bulls really didn’t have a chance with that.
The Bulls defense was sharper, they moved the ball better and broke that streak of giving up at least 100 points in 12 straight games.
“It is frustrating,” repeated Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.  “Our guys battled.  Taj was solid and we got some good performances.  We just did not make enough shots.  In the first half, we had some fast break opportunities but we were just a little bit out of control.  At the end of the game we were not able to knock some shots down and we had some turnovers.  They put pressure on you with LeBron at the elbow.  You have to double if he gets it going and you have to make someone else beat you.  That’s when they hit the three or somebody is on the glass.”
The Bulls were outrebounded 53-41, no surprise lately without Noah, though they had about half as many turnovers and 20 assists to 16 for the Cavs. The Bulls also had a large margin on points in the paint.
It probably was a game to give Acie Law more time, and not only because he averaged 20 points the last two games on 13 of 19 shooting, especially with Pargo and Murray firing blanks.
I’m not a huge fan of the plus/minus stat in basketball. But the Bulls made the best run late with Law, Chris Richard and Hakim Warrick in the game in the fourth, and Law was the only Bull in the game to finish with a plus/minus higher than zero. He was plus-3 and the next best were Johnson and Warrick both minus-1.
Also, I wanted to see more of Joe Alexander, who came in late in the first quarter to go against James. He stripped James of the ball for one of James’ five turnovers leading to a Law runout for free throws, and never got back in after his 24-second stint, one of the best ever, at least on defense.
Del Negro is just trying things now, so it’s easy to second guess when guys don’t make shots. But you could see Murray and Pargo weren’t going to get it back on this night.
But we’ll start to see less of them now with both Rose and Noah saying after the game they’ll play Saturday in Philadelphia. They were also planning a late arrival as the team’s plane broke down and with so many college games going on there wasn’t another charter to find. The players usually dress quickly before a road game on a back to back, but were lingering as the takeoff time was announced at 1 a.m., hopefully. It would be an early morning arrival.
“I’ve got to play through it,” said Rose. “Basically be a right handed player. I’ll fight through it. It’s going to feel weird, but I’ll make the adjustment. I think I’ll do fine. I’m mad I missed this big game, but hopefully we can get the eight (playoff) spot and play them every game.
“We’re getting closer (to winning),” said Rose. “We’re fighting back. Now we’ve got to find a way to win these games.”
Noah said he was given a choice in the back to back by team doctors of playing one of two and he chose the 76ers’ game, which starts a run of games in which the Bulls, theoretically, have better odds of winning.
The Bulls looked like they had a surprising chance Friday as Gibson came out strong, and the only problem was teammates taking long jumpers even at times he had big advantages in the post, especially against Leon Powe, who was dragging his leg returning from injury.
Gibson, who also has a severe case of plantar fasciitis, has been a revelation the way he continues to compete.
“It’s inflamed,” acknowledged Gibson. “The doctor said some players play with it. He said (I’m) playing a lot of minutes and playing where the team looks to (me). So I’m just going to have to fight through it. He said with the ice and treatment so far it’s been doing well. Don’t worry. I’m not going to sit out. If it tears, that’s a positive because I’ll never have it again.
“They said after the season I’ll probably get rid of it,” said Gibson. “It takes time. They told me some guys can deal with it and (I’ve) been dealing with it and fighting through it and I don’t need to sit down now with the stretch starting now. The last couple of games could be like the East playoffs. I’m not going to sit out. I care about this team. The coaching staff. I’m not going to let them down. I’m going to keep fighting. It’s tough because I feel the coaching staff has been geat. Vinny talks to me all the time, pushes me, tells me no letdown. That’s the way players get better. It’s a tough stretch but we’ll keep fighting.”
The Bulls did Friday, though they fell behind 54-46 at halftime despite some strong moves from Johnson, who also drew the unenviable job of defending James. Though James did back off some early to let his teammates get going.
“I was trying to make him a shooter,” said Johnson. “Trying not to let him drive anywhere he wanted to. But if we give the same effort we did tonight we’re going to win.”
The Bulls had perhaps the best defensive stretch in this 10-game losing run in the third quarter, though James had one of those highlight come-from-behind blocks against a fast breaking Hinrich. Johnson had one as well in the fourth in addition to a beauty of a reverse layup on the run and slam dunk as the Bulls got within 69-65 after three.
But in the euphoria of a close game, Johnson got caught up in trying to go against James with one-on-one moves after James’ scores in the fourth. Thus the turnovers.
“That was not the plan,” said Del Negro.  “It’s not the way you want to go about that.  I thought a couple of times our ball movement got a little stagnant.  You have to have good ball movement.  When it came down to it we turned the ball over too many times and we did not make them pay for their close-outs. James has to control his turnovers.  Those are the things we have to work through.  From a positive standpoint, it is giving them an opportunity to learn.”
But did we learn anything about LeBron and his plans?
“I’m here,” James said in deferring a cloying query about would be please join the Bulls. “They can see me until I catch the plane.”

Bulls make soft comeback again in 9th straight loss

So I’m hearing now despite the Bulls losing again, 113-106 to the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, that there were a lot of positive signs.
Like Acie Law with 22 points on just eight field goal attempts as he got to the line with seven free throws. Like James Johnson back in the starting lineup and running the wing aggressively for 11 points and several dunks. Like Hakim Warrick off the bench for 13 points and the Bulls again fighting back with a big fourth quarter to get within striking distance of a win with plenty of time left in the game.
Nonsense! The Bulls once again in losing their ninth straight were uncompetitive and had the opponents effectively laughing at them. They gagged as soon as the game became relatively close and for the second straight game fell behind by 25 points.
And not exactly to the ’96 Bulls or ’86 Celtics.
This was a Mavs team blown out by the Knicks at home in their last game. The Grizzlies, who wrecked the Bulls Tuesday, aren’t even a playoff team and lost badly Wednesday to another non playoff team, Houston.
The Mavs didn’t even play Jason Kidd in the fourth quarter.
Yes, yes, I know. The Bulls remain without Derrick Rose, who’ll probably be back against Cleveland Friday from a sprained wrist, Joakim Noah, who should be back Saturday in Philadelphia, though for limited minutes with his plantar fasciitis, and Luol Deng, who’s calf injury doesn’t seem to be improving and isn’t expected back this week. Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro Wednesday said Deng suffered a setback trying to run these last few days.
Still, I recall the Bulls going into Golden State and playing a bunch of D-leaguers and losing.
It’s not that difficult. You aren’t looking at Oscar, Bird, Wilt, Michael and Malone out there.
The Bulls got their butts kicked down the stretch when it mattered by J.J. Barea, with Rodrique Beaubois the two midget Mavs combining for 26 for the game on 10 of 14 shooting.
But Barea did kick butt in the D-league a few years back.
Think they’ll be playing much when the Mavs play the Lakers or Nuggets or Spurs?
Del Negro wasn’t fooled. I give him credit. He’s not being conned by these faux comebacks. It’s easy to play after you are behind by 25. There’s no pressure, and no one expects anything of you, including the opposition. There aren’t any more Jordans. They don’t try to kill you anymore when you are losing. Otherwise, how could they hug like all the players do these days after games? C’mon, at least pretend you’re upset when you lose.
Someone tried to throw Del Negro a softball question in the postgame about Law playing well, and Vinny was having none of it.
Good for him. It would be easy in classic Cubs-fans-in-September fashion to look at the kids and say how bright the future could be and what depth we’ll have. But Vinny knows. He knows you can compete with all the first round picks and NBA players the Bulls have on the roster without Rose, Deng and Noah. If they wanted to. Vinny hasn’t seen that they have.
Asked if his play will earn Law more time, Del Negro veered off.
“Everyone has got to improve,” he said. “I never really worry about guys’ offensive tools. I think Acie has proven that he can get to the basket and do some things. But we’ve got to tighten up some things defensively. That’s how we won early in the season. We can’t control the paint and we’re not controlling penetration as well as we’d like.”
In other words, don’t stand there admiring shooters, as Law and Warrick and several of the new and young guys did. Warrick was active offensively down the stretch, but he had one rebound. C’mon, you’re 6-9. You ought to get hit in the head by at least one rebound without even trying.
You know the old saying, “Nice game, you got one more rebound than a dead man.”
This is the Mavs, after all, not exactly your lock down defensive team.
They call him Irk Nowitzki. You know, no D.
“It (defense) was a little bit better in both games in the second half,” said Del Negro, shrugging about an observation regarding the second straight second half comeback from 25 behind. “It wasn’t anything anyone’s real pleased about. We should be able to play a little bit better defensively, I feel. When we’ve gotten into people and more aggressive.”
Which the Bulls weren’t much once again.
Kirk Hinrich was back from his one game suspension, and while he doesn’t look as flashy as Law driving to the basket and scoring, he, at least, was trying to get up on defense, pressure and compete. And then when he looked around he was alone. The frustration boiled over once again as the Bulls were headed to giving up at least 100 points for the 12th straight game.
Nowitzki gave Hinrich a push going for a loose ball with about two minutes remaining and the Bulls trailing by 10. Hinrich retaliated with an elbow to Nowitzki’s. Big, bad Kirk. But, hey, at least someone showed some fight. It’s why I would have put Joe Alexander in as he’s bolted to the bench even with all the injuries. I recalled against the Hawks toward the beginning of this month of blowouts, he was in for some garbage time and threw a nice cross body block chasing a loose ball. When everyone hid when Dwight Howard ko’d Rose again, Alexander came in late and committed four fouls. I don’t know his skill level, but he seems to want to compete.
I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of that of late.
Doesn’t anyone get tired of being beaten and beat up every game?
Taj Gibson, after a poor effort against Memphis as he fights his plantar fasciitis, came out with a strong move to the basket and followup slam. But the Bulls were shockingly indifferent in allowing Mavs shooters open look after open look. The Mavs shot almost 70 percent in the first quarter to lead 32-20. The Mavs pushed the ball in transition whenever they could and pulled up for open shots. It was almost like the state three-point shooting contest in Illinois this week, which includes some familiar names like James Stack, the son of former Bulls executive Jim, making his second consecutive appearance, and Charlie Morrissey, son of my former newspaper colleague, Rick Morrissey.
They’ll be guarded in the contest about like the Bulls were defending the Mavs shooters Wednesday, at least through three quarters.
It got worse in the second quarter as the Bulls were so soft I thought I saw some tissue paper company executives trying to sign up some of the players for endorsement deals.
“This tissue is so soft you can use it to guard Mavs and Grizzlies players like we do.”
The Mavs laughed their way to a 60-35 lead after a Barea three as I swore I saw someone signal to the Bulls bench for a camera so they could get a good, close up shot of him shooting.
“In the first half we gave up a lot of fast break points,” noticed Hinrich, trying to be diplomatic.
Asked generally how the team could improve, he said: “Well, defensively.”
Duh.
“I don’t know they finished up the game with but in the first half they were shooting a very high percentage (just 65.8 percent). I’m assuming they finished the game that way,” said Hinrich, though the Mavs eased off considerably and ended at 52 percent. “We’ve got to dig in on defense. We’re shorthanded. Everybody’s got to step up.”
The Mavs led 64-44 at halftime, and you could almost hear Bulls players proudly thinking they’re not as bad as the Timberwolves, who gave up 152 on Tuesday. The Bulls attempted four free throws in the first half. So what do you think they were doing other than admiring their long jumpers?
The Mavs kept the lead around 20 most of the third quarter until Law ended the third with a three to bring the Bulls within 88-72.
And here come the Bulls!
Hello, as Norm used to say, “Give me 48 minutes.”
Not 12!
The Bulls have become pretty impressive 12-minute men of late and they scored on 11 of their first 12 possessions of the fourth quarter.
Chris Richard, who does try despite his limitations, got a dunk on a Warrick pass and a nice follow. He had a team high nine rebounds in just 14 minutes. Law has strong moves to the basket and spun by Barea for a drive and three point play. He’s never really gotten a chance to play behind Mike Bibby in Atlanta and with guard oriented teams in Charlotte and Golden State. But he’s not really a point guard as he doesn’t pass much. He’s a good scorer, but also kept going way under screens against Barea, who lit up the Bulls for 10 fourth quarter points on four of five shooting with a pair of threes.
“JJ really stepped up big in the fourth quarter and saved us,” said Nowitzki, who had 26 while Caron Butler added 27 with 14 of 16 from the line. “He made some big shots, two big three’s, two pull up jumpers behind the screens because they left him open and he really used the screen and knocked some shots down.”
The guy’s about 5-10 and 170 pounds. You can’t guard that guy? But, yeah, he did kill at Northeastern. Oh, that’s right. He averaged 7.2 as a senior.
Warrick had a pretty baseline slam dunk and Law a nice baseline drive where he used his body to hold off the defense and scored. He does have talent. That got the Bulls within 98-90 with 6:30 left. Game on, eh?
Nowitzki missed, but Johnson then ran down out of control and lost the ball with a chance to get to six.
Law then got a nice view of a Barea jumper from about six feet away without even trying to get to him as Dallas went back up by 10. It was hardly only Law, and I know he’s not used to playing this much, and they wouldn’t have been close without him and it’s not like Rose is Michael Cooper. But at least make the effort.
Brad Miller got it back to seven with a three point play and Jason Terry missed a jumper. It’s 100-93 with 5:34 left.
You know what’s coming. Hinrich handed off to Johnson, who decided to make a side to side move and traveled. Ooops, turnover again.
Barea then got a three over Hinrich. Murray missed a three, but Hinrich stole a pass the other way and pitched ahead to Murray, who threw the ball away, the third turnover in the last five Bulls possessions once they got within seven. And then Barea did beat them to the basket with a finger roll after Shawn Marion got an offensive rebound for a 105-93 lead. Hinrich then committed an offensive foul on a ridiculous Barea flop. I loved Barea trying to take the ball from Hinrich after the call and Hinrich slapping his arm away.
He’s Bad Bad Kirk, meaner than a junk yard dog.
Barea then stepped back over the three point line with Law again six feet from him and dropped in a three to make it 108-93 with 3:36 left. Make it 10 straight points for J.J. Barea, superstar.
So when Dallas had to play, they basically sent anyone out to beat the Bulls.
That left the Bulls at 31-36 and with Toronto and Charlotte winning, the Bulls fell two and a half games out of eighth (with Toronto having the tiebreaker) and three games behind in the loss column. That’s pretty far behind. You began to wonder with the Clippers winning whether the Bulls now were better off losing all their games to fall behind the Clippers for the 10th worst record.
That way they wouldn’t have to swap picks with the Bucks. Though the Clippers are six back, and the Bulls are not out of it, especially with Rose and Noah returning. But that swap of picks seems almost certain as the Bulls have the 11th worst record now and could hardly fall behind the Clippers without completely dumping the rest of the schedule. Which we really don’t want to see. The Bulls ought to be able to compete even despite the injuries, and you have to hope for much better than we’ve seen lately.
It’s up to them.

Bulls lose 8th straight to Grizzlies without top 4 scorers

Eight is enough. But the losses look like they will keep coming for the Bulls.
The losing streak reached eight Tuesday in Memphis in a curious 104-97 defeat to the Grizzlies without the Bulls’ four top scorers. Yet, the Bulls came back from 25 down to get within four with 3:39 left and twice had chances to cut the lead to one or two.
The first time Brad Miller came out of a timeout with a corner three that was off, and after the Grizzlies missed underneath, Jannero Pargo lost the ball dribbling down the middle for one of the Bulls seven fourth quarter turnovers, three by Pargo.
But Pargo was playing point guard because Derrick Rose was out with a sprained wrist, Kirk Hinrich was suspended from bumping a referee in Friday’s Miami game and Acie Law, who was two off a career high with 18 points, was out late because of cramps in his legs. Overall, the Bulls were without their top four scorers with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah also injured.
“A lot of guys haven’t played together,” understated Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “I was pleased with the effort, but I was disappointed with the outcome. We will just try to get guys healthy. Acie was cramping up a lot. I would have liked to have gotten him back there in the end, but he was cramping up and couldn’t go.”So the Bulls stumbled to 31-35, though Miami and Charlotte also lost in the scramble for the final Eastern Conference playoff spots. No, it ain’t over.
The Bulls gave up at least 100 points for the 11th consecutive game, the longest streak since the 1985-86 season. And they play in Dallas Wednesday before returning home to face the league leading Cleveland Cavaliers Friday.
But Noah went on the trip for the first time since being pulled with his plantar fasciitis at the end of February and said he is getting close to playing. No one is saying, though my guess is Noah returns, though for limited minutes, when the Bulls travel to Philadelphia Saturday. It’s likely Rose and Deng will be back by then as well, perhaps Friday in the home game against the Cavs.
“Let’s see who comes back healthy and when and what the rotation is,” said Del Negro, guessing now from game to game who’ll play. “There’s a lot of basketball left. But we can’t keep saying that. We’ve got to get guys healthy and win some basketball games. I appreciated the way the guys battled, but it wasn’t good enough.”
It’s difficult to quantify a game like this with rookie Taj Gibson, who is clearly moving slowly with his own plantar fasciitis and with just two points and three rebounds and fouling out in 26 minutes, the only regular starter playing. The backcourt was Pargo and Law with Flip Murray at small forward and Brad Miller at center.
You figured this was a no chance game for the Bulls, even as they sprinted out 22-11 to open the game.
“They kept changing lineups and going smaller and smaller, and trying to create bad matchups,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “We were discombobulated early offensively because we saw a lot of mismatches and were standing around trying to take advantage of mismatches instead of just playing. Once we got control of that, we took control of the game.”The Grizzlies did, particularly with a 17-0 run in the second quarter as the Bulls went 10 straight possessions without scoring and mostly firing up jumpers without much ball movement. Really, it is what you’d expected and you could hardly blame the makeshift group. Late in the third quarter, the Bulls were trailing 81-56 as Rudy Gay, who was little factor and seemingly little interested all game, made one of those spectacular twisting drives he can do.
So did the Bulls then fight back and show no quit and make some cases, namely Law, Murray with 25 and Hakim Warrick with 22, for extra playing time and a nice supporting rotation when the regular return?
Or was it one of those tortoise and hare things where the guy was so far ahead he decided to take a nap and before you knew it the little regarded one came crawling up and stole it?
Well, almost.
The Bulls still trailed 85-67 entering the fourth quarter as Warrick, playing back in Memphis, ran out for a slam dunk and pulled up for a jumper as the Grizzlies sat back satisfied.
The Grizzlies pretty much emptied their bench after that and Zach Randolph apparently gave away his headband, not expecting to return, which he eventually had to bandless. And he saved the game for Memphis with a couple of tough baskets inside after the Bulls had those two shots while trailing 94-90.
But the Grizzlies’ reserves who opened the fourth couldn’t find a scorer. Warrick had a pair of jumpers and James Johnson got a run out dunk and suddenly the Bulls were getting close to within 10.
Johnson would have started, especially after his best game of the season with 20 points against Miami Friday. But he was late for practice Monday and was benched, and it has become too much with him. He’s been perennially, let’s say, inconsistent about time throughout the season having grown up in the Mountain time zone and played college ball in the Eastern time zone. Or maybe he just needs a battery for his watch. He is a talent. We saw that Friday. And he blocked four shots Tuesday against the Grizzlies, often coming up from behind to surprise shooters or drivers, and twice late in key defensive possessions. But he remains somewhat immature and a bit too fun loving, from the break dancing you’ve seen him do on YouTube to just a general lack of discipline. Though not disruptive. He doesn’t seem to have the anger or attitude of someone like Tyrus Thomas. He’s just seems a bit too playful for being a professional. It’s what people forget. Just because you are in the NBA doesn’t mean you automatically become a pro. It’s a learning process, and Johnson is getting his schooling. He’s still learning, as we can see.
Which is why Murray started at small forward, and he actually did a good job on Gay, who finished with 12 points on five of 13 shooting, six rebounds and three assists.
I’ll admit, I like Gay’s talent. But he’s probably not the guy to invest in for free agency. He does come more cheaply because as a young player his maximum salary is closer to $12 million. He’s a restricted free agent, which means the Grizzlies can match an offer. Though with the stands a third empty again it’s difficult to see how they would do that, especially with a creative, front loaded offer.
That said, the Bulls have seen Gay now twice in the last few weeks and he’s shown no inclination to take over the game or look like he can. Plus, he plays small forward, where the Bulls have Deng. Heck, Murray had 25 Tuesday, though he went into the backcourt at times while O.J. Mayo was the leader for Memphis Tuesday with 24 points and Mike Conley with 19 points and 10 assists. Pargo was one off his career high in assists with eight.
No. 2 overall draft pick Hasheem Thabeet got his first career start with Marc Gasol hurt and Thabeet had a respectable 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. But he was lost on defense and constantly beaten on the pick and rolls as he seemingly had little idea even what to do.
Meanwhile, after that early run to open the fourth quarter behind Warrick, with 10 in the fourth, and Johnson’s dunk, and pulling within 89-77 the Bulls had another brutal stretch. This time the Memphis reserves still were in and collapsing as Johnson had back to back blocks. But the Bulls messed up four straight possessions with Devin Brown having two ugly possessions with a quick, bad jumper and turnover on a fast break as he traveled. Johnson then stepped out of bounds for a turnover as he tried to drive and Del Negro pulled them both. Pargo then went one-on-one on top of the floor and went between his legs on the dribble about eight times standing still and threw up a jumper, and I hate that extra dribbling stuff.
Yes, we know you can dribble.
Anyway, Thabeet gagged a pair of free throws and it was beginning to look like that 35-point lead the Bulls blew to Sacramento. You take a team for granted, and then you tighten up.
The Bulls kept making turnovers, Gibson and Law with one each following a Murray three giving the Bulls four turnovers in seven possessions. Yet, they were still in the game and about to get within 94-90. Amazingly, they could have won this game.
Because Miller then hit a corner three and a cutting Warrick took a pass from Pargo and slammed it facial version over Mayo with Gay looking on curiously. Pargo then drove for a score and was fouled after a Ronnie Brewer air ball and, stunningly, it was 94-90 Grizzlies with almost four minutes left.
“We just have to take care of the ball to put ourselves in a position to win,” said Law, who looked good driving the ball. “We hurt ourselves down the stretch. We were down 25 and we fight all the way to get back into the game and then we kill ourselves with turnovers.” Yes, here they come.
The Grizzlies committed a 24-second violation with Gay stuck with the ball, but Miller missed that three to get within one. Mayo missed a reverse underneath, but Pargo dropped the ball on a drive and went out of bounds with it. Randolph got deep post position and went up for an easy score, and then Pargo lost the ball again as he drove into four defenders.
Randolph scored again and Murray missed a three. Conley got a pass to Thabeet at the rim, and he put it in for a 10-point lead with 1:25 left. But Pargo suckered Conley into jumping into him on a three-point shot and made all three. Pargo then pressured in the backcourt—at least he wasn’t quitting after his misplays—and forced a turnover. Warrick rebounded a Murray miss, was fouled and made both and the Bulls, amazingly, were within five with 1:03 left.
Mayo missed a three, but with a chance to get within two or three, Pargo had the ball slip out of his hands for still another turnover, and that was about it.
“We didn’t value possession of the basketball enough and turned it over,” agreed Del Negro. “There were some costly turnovers and that was frustrating.”
Great effort? Opponent who took them too lightly? An encouraging loss? Still, another loss. And the march goes in. Can you lose 10 straight after the All Star break and still make the playoffs? We’ll likely soon find out. The Grizzlies moved to 36-32 and are pretty much out of it in the Western Conference. Life and basketball can be so unfair.

Rose’s 34 not enough as Bulls lose to Mavs

Sometimes your best isn’t good enough. Sometimes your best won’t do. And so it was Saturday as the Bulls lost 122-116 to the Dallas Mavericks to fall back to .500.
The Bulls shot 52 percent and pushed the ball, which they need to do to score. They had the game’s high scorer. They outrebounded the Mavs, who, by the way, are looking like a legitimate championship contender. They scored more points in the paint, shot threes about as well as they have all season at 44 percent at seven of 16 and outscored the Mavs off the bench 35-23 with six players in double figures to five for the Mavs.
Yes, the Bulls gave up a lot of points. But the Mavs played fast and without Joakim Noah, sorry, and, yes, Tyrus Thomas, too, it’s difficult to play great defense when you hardly have anyone to protect the basket and block shots.
So the Bulls did what they could and what they should, and much better than they did in their three previous consecutive losses.
“I guess we gave our all,” said Derrick Rose. “They were too good a team.”
Rose, by the way, was spectacular with that game high 34 points on 15 of 22 shooting, eight assists and just two turnovers, both in the last 25 seconds of the first half when the Bulls were trying to steal a quick basket in a frenetic conclusion.
He was almost perfect and it wasn’t good enough.
Sometimes you’re flying high like a pigeon. And sometimes you’re famous but just the statue.
Brad Miller and Kirk Hinrich combined to shoot 13 for 20, Taj Gibson had another double/double, Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick were both back in double figures and James Johnson in four second quarter minutes made several terrific plays.
“They’re tough,” Rose reiterated. “They have one best players in the league (Dirk Nowitzki with 27 points) with very good other players surrounding them (Caron Butler and surprising rookie Rodrique Beaubois each with 24) and a great point guard (Jason Kidd with 15 assists and 11 rebounds).”
Though it doesn’t feel any better or help any to get beat by a better team. Perhaps you could point to the Mavs on the second of a back to back, though it was their 11th consecutive win, and without Erick Dampier, Brendan Haywood and Jason Terry.
But the Bulls still fell to 31-31 and in increasing danger of missing the playoffs.
They are just a half game up on Charlotte for eighth place now and the Bulls have the toughest schedule of all the bottom playoff contenders in the East. The Bulls finish with 15 of their last 20 games against teams with winning records compared with Charlotte with 10 against winning teams.
Milwaukee and Miami won again, and the Bucks got the Cavs with LeBron James sitting out for the first time this season to rest. I’d say there’s another reason he’s no fan of Chicago, helping the Bucks make the playoffs. But it looks like it may be just one of those seasons for the Bulls as the Bucks also saw the Heat without Dwyane Wade while the Bulls saw players like Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman and Danny Granger come back from injuries to play against them.
Yes, the Bulls are .500 and a year ago at this point they were 28-34. And perhaps Noah does come back for the last three weeks and makes it a race. It’s difficult to see how they could otherwise, though the way the Bulls played Saturday is the way they have to play the rest of the way to have success.
They’ve improved drastically on defense this season, but it’s not the same defensive team without Noah, and even the inconsistent and moody Thomas. Gibson does what he can, but he doesn’t have the size. Miller isn’t a force at the basket as well as he’s played overall, and Warrick is still adjusting to the Bulls schemes.
It’s basically where they broke down Saturday, though Dallas was really good and made shots.
“We scored 116 points, which is plenty,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.  “Their penetration really hurt us.  We missed some of our rotations and gave them some easy baskets in the lane.  On the one play when Shawn Marion slipped to the basket, we tried to double team Dirk.  Our weak side defense is not very good, but Shawn is one of the best in the league at slipping things.”
Yes, the Bulls slipped in some areas, but it’s difficult to see them having done much more.
They have two key elements to their defense. One is to blitz all pick and roll, meaning have the screener’s man push the dribbler with the ball to the side. When the screener’s man, say Warrick, does that, the player setting the screen, Marion in that case, slides in and the weak side has to come across. With so many new lineups and without basket protection from a big guy, that’s a tough assignment and Dallas did beat it numerous times. But the Mavs are a smart team with Kidd. When that fails they have options, which have the screener receiving the ball, Marion, pitch out to the deep corner three, where the ball then rotates back up toward the top to shooters. That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and the Bulls are basically playing seven or eight players with so many new players and players brought in for expiring deals.
The Mavs are basically a veteran team, and they know their roles.
Kidd is having a rebirth and Nowitzki is a matchup nightmare. Miller cannot get outside to him, and when the Bulls went with Warrick as some teams like to go with a smaller player (the Suns used to use Marion with good results), Nowitzki is now much better in posting up and taking his shot, which you can’t get to. When the Bulls sent a double, Nowitzki passed back to Kidd, who is adept at finding cutters.
“I think we’re loaded,” said Kidd. “We have guys who know how to put the ball in the basket and we all enjoy sharing the ball and being part of a play that’s successful. Tonight, I didn’t have to score. My guys were knocking down shots. We got a lot of points in the paint and we made shots down the stretch when we had to.”
The other anchor of the Bulls defense is to create a so called shell around the lane to thwart penetration. But in doing that the perimeter guys tend to fall back when their man passes the ball. But the Mavs move the ball so quickly, it ended up in a lot of open jump shots before the Bulls could recover and with Bulls players scrambling back a lot of lanes opened as the Mavs move the ball impressively and had 31 assists on 49 baskets.
And then there’s an X-factor, which Saturday was the somewhat unexpected—though it shouldn’t have been as he set or tied career highs in his previous two games—Beaubois. He set another career high with a stunning 18 points in the third quarter as he was darting around and throwing in jumpers from everywhere against the Bulls best perimeter defender, Hinrich.
“Both Butler and Beaubois were the difference in the game,” said Del Negro.  “They hurt us.”
Still, the Bulls had chances.
That Beaubois run seemed to stun the Bulls, though Rose insisted they were very aware of him and his recent high scoring games. He’s a rookie from Guadeloupe. I admit I didn’t know where that was. It’s in the Caribbean and a territory of France. Columbus was said to find that, too, though the Bulls could have used his help in finding Beaubois in the third.
The Bulls finished the third quarter missing five of their last six shots, mostly long, lonely jumpers, to fall behind 94-80, their largest deficit.
The Bulls trailed 30-26 after the first quarter as the Mavs would have some success with a 2-3 zone they came in and out of basically all game, though Rose’s shooting kept taking them out of the zone. Johnson had that nice second quarter run with a three, a block of a J.J. Berea drive which he kept in and passed ahead to Rose for a score and drive and foul of his own. Johnson also had a sweet inside bounce pass to a cutting Rose, who was fouled. But that zone bothered the Bulls some late in the second and they also had a bit of a late quarter meltdown, which has been something of a bad habit, as the Mavs got several runouts and an 8-2 run to go into halftime leading 66-55.
That Beaubois of a third quarter then looked like the end.
But unlike some of the recent games, they didn’t give in as Rose was brilliant in the fourth with 13 points in hitting six of seven shots and Jannero Pargo got it going with a trio of three pointers.
“They went small, so I thought I’d get JP in there,” said Del Negro.  “He has the ability to hit some shots in a row, he’s one of our best shooters.”
Dallas did what it could with its big men out, which was force the pace as they had more offensive weapons than the Bulls. You’d say perhaps then slow the pace and make them play halfcourt. But the Bulls are weakest when they do that. So the Bulls pushed in the fourth quarter and made it a game.
Pargo hit a pair of threes and a short jumper around a beautiful crossover by Rose spinning Nowitzki around as Rose banked one in. That got the Bulls within 98-94 with eight minutes left and Dallas into a timeout. Game on.
But the Bulls never could get closer.
“We just had trouble stopping them all night,” said Hinrich. “We did not play good team defense and we lost because of it. They are 43-21 for a reason. They play really well together and we did not have an answer for them.”
The Mavs rode Nowitzki in the fourth, and not many have an answer. He ranks second in the NBA in fourth quarter scoring and had 13 in the fourth, so it’s not like a lot of teams have him figured out.
He came out of that timeout with a jumper to make it 100-94. Miller then lost the ball and Butler, who dominated his matchup with Deng, hit a three. Bulls timeout with the Mavs up nine.
“We got it to four. They’re a good team and started making plays,” said Deng. “In our offense, it’s like that. Some nights you get the ball, some nights…It looks bad (six points), but I missed six shots. Some nights it’s yours. Some nights it’s not. Like I said, they are a good team. We just couldn’t get a stop. If you want to win games in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to lock down. The fourth quarter is not about offense. It’s about getting stops.”
The Mavs shot 55 percent in the fourth. But the Bulls shot 68.2 percent. Yes, and still lost.
The Mavs led 108-98 with 5:18 and the Bulls wouldn’t back down.
Miller slipped a screen, drove and dunked, a rare sight, and Miler followed that with a three on a Rose penetration and drop off pass. Though Nowitzki hit a 16 footer inbetween.
And it wasn’t like the Bulls weren’t into this game. The bench, especially the likes of Noah, Johnson and Acie Law, was exploding and fired up with the great plays.
But Butler then hit a three as the ball swung around four times and left Bulls defenders chasing. Deng then scored on a hard inside cut as Rose drove, drew the defense and handed off.
Nowitzki hit another jumper, and then Rose came up with the spectacular drive of the game splitting a double on top and beating Marion at the basket with Butler coming from the side.
But the Bulls just could not stop the versatile Mavs.
The Bulls gave Gibson a look on Nowitzki and as Nowitzki ran baseline Pargo gave him an elbow that nearly knocked him over. The Bulls weren’t being passive. But when Deng came to double, Marion took off for the basket and with three guards on the floor to come from the weakside, Marion had no problem scoring on a layup.
The teams then traded missed jumpers and Rose delivered a pretty teardrop to bring the Bulls within 117-111 with two minutes left.
The Mavs went back to Nowitzki. Kidd screened Gibson coming across and Rose went to help and fouled Nowitzki, who made both. Rose answered with a pull up from 17 feet. Nowitzki then missed a 15 footer. But Hinrich was trying to play Butler with the Bulls going small and Butler got inside for the offensive rebound and put it back for a 121-113 lead.
The Bulls last gasp was when Pargo hit a three in transition to get within 121-116 with 46 seconds left. Beaubois missed a three from the left corner, but it flew out way over Gibson’s head and right to Nowitzki near the free throw line. The Bulls had to foul and that was the end.
I suppose you can second guess any loss. But down 14 the Bulls in the fourth quarter shot better, including 50 percent on threes, got more rebounds, the same number of assists and scored 36 points. It just wasn’t enough.
“It’s the NBA. We’ve still got a college season left,” said Deng of the 20 games remaining. “It’s not time to get down. We’ve had losing streaks before. We’ll figure it out. We’ll come back.”
They better quickly because the bracketologists have them on that first out list for now.

Ailing Bulls can’t get well against Atlanta

Now how did the lyrics to that old Broadway tune go? This could be the start of something bad?
I don’t think that’s it, exactly, but the Bulls began their “Uh oh” stretch Monday with a 116-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks as Joakim Noah sat out again with plantar fasciitis and could be out a week or longer, Luol Deng missed his first game of the season with a knee injury and hopes to play Thursday against Memphis and Derrick Rose for the second consecutive game had to leave after being hit in the knee.
James Johnson started and Acie Law and Joe Alexander finished, and over the next three weeks the only team the Bulls will face with a below .500 record is Miami, and that game in the second of a back to back on the road.
This could turn very ugly for the Bulls, who’ve now lost three of five to fall to 31-29 and were absolutely hammered by the Hawks, who held a rollicking 63-37 rebounding advantage, including 22 offensive rebounds.
So here was one of the most positive things I heard after the game in talking to Rose, who still had 24 points in 31 minutes. He said there’s no problem going home for treatment.
“I’ve got a lot of ice bags from the previous injuries I had,” Rose said.
Uh oh.
“I’m sure Joakim will be out for another week, at least and then it is day to day,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “I expect Luol to be able to play on Thursday. His knee was really stiff and swelled up a little more. With a couple of days in between, the first time we’ve had that for a while, we’ll see if we can get the swelling out of there and be ready to play on Thursday. It’s not impossible (to win without them), but it’s very difficult. Without Joakim and Luol and Derrick going down for that stretch, it really took the energy out of us. When we missed, they would get out in transition. Before you know it, it went from five to nine to 12. I thought it was time to get some of these guys, especially Derrick, out of the game.”To fight another night?
One hopes, though this seems about as bad as it can can get short of Rose being lost. Noah’s 27 minutes against Portland Friday when he probably accounted for the overtime win with his defense on LaMarcus Aldridge apparently is the last time we may see him until April. Noah stammered on again about when he’d play. He obviously is getting as tired being asked about it as everyone is asking him.
He promised he’d return, albeit not 100 percent, when it mattered. We assume that meant playoffs, which is hardly a guarantee anymore given the schedule and the way, even though the Bulls got within 77-72 early in the fourth quarter, the Hawks simply turned it on when they felt like it and blew away the Bulls.
The Hawks pretty much seemed to have it on half speed most of the game as they never trailed, though Brad Miller, who did all he could with 15 points and seven rebounds, won the opening tip from Josh Smith, who dominated with 17 points and 18 rebounds.
“Sixty three to 37,” Miller muttered about the rebounding margin. “Seldom does a team win a game giving up that big a difference. If they do, I’d like to know about it.”
Asked about trying to deal with Smith who was dunking lobs and tipping everything back to teammates, Miller sighed: “I did out quick him on the jump ball.”
Taj Gibson fought valiantly, getting 11 points and 13 rebounds. But the Bulls trailed by 11 after one, by 16 at halftime and in double digits most of the third quarter before a little run to close the third.
Rose had a two handed tomahawk dunk to give the early departing crowd something to recall and added a jumper and Flip Murray had a pair. When Jannero Pargo opened the fourth with a jumper the Bulls were within five.
OK, that was enough for the Hawks, who would score 41 fourth quarter points, the most by a Bulls opponent this season.
They scored on eight of their next nine possessions on a variety of short jumpers and run outs. On the one possession they didn’t score, they got two offensive rebounds and stole the outlet pass after the Bulls got the ball and missed again.
“They’re very tough,” said Rose as the Hawks went to 38-21. “They switch almost everything (on defense). They rebound well and you can’t turn the ball over or it will be a highlight on the other end.”
That run gave the Hawks a 91-79 lead with 6:41 left. The Bulls came out of a timeout with the long armed Hawks defenders thwarting a play and Miller ending up missing a three. Then Atlanta scored on four of their next five possessions to go up 100-81 on a Jamal Crawford drive with about four minutes left. Del Negro then threw in the towel, hoisted the white flag and called for anyone’s uncle to help.
“I am feeling my shot more now,” said Crawford, who led the Hawks with 21. “I had missed some games and was not getting into the flow. My teammates have kept encouraging me to keep shooting and now I’m getting my timing back. We’re playing good ball and looking to make a run to move up in the playoffs.”
Yes, former Bull Crawford is headed to the playoffs for the first time in his 10th season in the NBA and the Bulls are looking for help.
They’ll probably sign forward Chris Richard, who was previously with them and went back to the D-league after the trades for Murray and Hakim Warrick, who both scored in double figures.
But it was another rough game for Kirk Hinrich, who had been shooting so much better. He was one of six in the loss to the Pacers Saturday and one of nine Monday. He was playing physically, however, apparently so much so that the usually detached Marvin Williams got a double technical with Hinrich late in the second quarter and when the teams were walking off at halftime Williams gave Hinrich a sucker shot with an elbow that apparently the refs missed.
Yes, the Hawks were kicking sand in the Bulls faces as well.
“It is a long season and we go through the peaks and valleys,” said Del Negro. “Kirk brings a lot of intangibles to the game. We would like him to score more, but he did not shoot the ball well tonight. But he’s been playing well. We know he is always going to play hard and we have some guys out. We just need to find a way to get guys healthy.”
There’s obviously no pill for that, and apparently no shot as the Bulls players have tried those.
The team would have needed more than that had Rose not been able to return. They just would have been shot, period.
Rose had his left knee hit by Earl Watson in Saturday’s loss, and then his right knee about four minutes into the game when Miller threw an outlet pass and Mike Bibby stepped in to try to intercept and knocked knees with Rose.
You know that crazy elbow thing you can get. This is like that, but way worse, particularly for a guy whose strength is his speed and explosiveness.
“Today was worse,” said Rose. “Indiana was the side of my knee. It didn’t hit the kneecap. This time was inside of my kneecap, so it was worse. My knee loosened up a little bit. I was just trying to get us close and let my teammates handle the rest.
“Right when happened I said, ‘Not again, not again.’ I don’t know what to say about it,” said Rose, shaking his head. “I rarely get injured, knock on wood (Rose actually stopped his comments to reporters to find wood in the locker room and knock on it). I don’t know what’s going on.”
Rose admitted given the pounding he is taking as teams trap, blitz and collapse on him everywhere on the court, run him through endless hard screens and beat him up constantly, he thought about not returning to what, clearly, was a lost cause with Noah and Deng out. But Rose’s brother, Reggie, came into the trainer’s room as Rose was being treated and challenged him.
“At first I thought about sitting out,” Rose admitted. “My brother came back there and was talking about great players play through when they’re hurt. I didn’t want to hear his mouth, so that’s what made me go out there and try to play.”
The young man needs help, so I headed over to the Hawks locker room after the game to find him some. It’s generally believed the Bulls have the best chance in free agency of luring the Hawks Joe Johnson compared with the likes of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Though I did see where James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he filed the papers to change his number to six from 23. Setting the stage for a move to Chicago? Perhaps, but I couldn’t imagine the Bulls giving anyone Erwin Mueller’s old number.
Johnson had 14 points and nine rebounds on just five of 15 shooting as he was a bit passive after winning Sunday’s overtime game over Milwaukee with clutch shooting.
A couple of Bulls had filed into the Hawks locker room to see old friends, which is not uncommon around the NBA. Miller was waiting for former teammate Mike Bibby and reminiscing about their high/low game with the Kings and how Bibby anticipated those spinning bounce passes that sometimes confuse Bulls teammates. Pargo went in to see Johnson, so maybe the Bulls should keep Pargo. They seem good friends.
Pargo had six points on three of six shooting and despite his diminutive size is one of the tougher Bulls competitors. He’s said to regularly win the informal contests the players have, and last week in the locker room I saw him do a running somersault and stick the landing like an Olympian, drawing cheers from his teammates.
Johnson seemed happy to see him and yelled at Pargo that Pargo fouled him every time he had the ball. Pargo laughed and didn’t disagree.
Free agents get asked this stuff all the time, and it hardly matters what they say as things will and can change any time until they sign somewhere. Still, I asked. It’s what we do. So I wondered if Johnson thought at all as he traveled around what it would be like playing for that team. I didn’t mention Chicago, but, well, it seemed obvious. He smiled.
“Not today,” Johnson said. “I just come out and work hard. We’ve got something special going and that’s all I’m thinking about.”
It’s hard to blame him as the Hawks are good. Smith is a phenomenal athlete and Al Horford is a grinder at center and tough. Crawford gives them strong relief for Bibby as Johnson can also play the point. The bench isn’t great, but the top six is impressive.
The issue with Johnson is the Hawks’ woeful financial situation and muddled ownership and whether they’d pay him the maximum salary it would take to sign him. Yes, he’ll be 29 this summer, but that’s the cost of an All Star in this market.
The Bulls could use any sort of help about now.