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.
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.