Tag Archives: james johnson

Bye, bye Kirk? Hello, LeBron?

The Bulls Thursday on the night of the NBA draft took another step toward the potential recruitment of a top free agent like LeBron James with a tentative trade to send Kirk Hinrich and the No. 17 pick in the draft to the Washington Wizards, sources close to both teams confirmed.

The Wizards would not be sending anything back to the Bulls but absorbing Hinrich into their salary cap room. The trade for the Bulls would be to create additional salary cap space, close to about $31 million now, to perhaps be able to sign two top free agents.

It’s an unprecedented situation in the history of the NBA with teams paying others to take their players, as Miami did Wednesday in giving their No. 1 pick to Oklahoma City so the Thunder would take Daequan Cook. The Bulls also were believed to have sent cash to the Wizards, suggesting the Bulls aren’t backing off or sparing any expense in their pursuit of top free agents.

The pitch then would be to a free agent like James that the Bulls could add another free agent, like Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson, along with James and the current roster of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.

The not-yet-official-deal puts the Bulls likely in the best position among all the competitors to obtain perhaps the biggest free agent prize of alltime, James.

Only the Knicks now have more salary cap space for free agents than the Bulls, and the Knicks roster is decimated with only Danilo Gallinari, Toney Douglas, Wilson Chandler, Bill Walker and Eddy Curry under contract. It would be a huge stretch to believe the Knicks could be championship contenders with James and even Chris Bosh, especially because Bosh would have to be their principal big man and Bosh doesn’t want to be a center and isn’t known as much of a defensive force.

The Miami Heat also is angling for James. They may be able to trade Michael Beasley for cap space as the Bulls are apparently doing with Hinrich and get enough for two full maximum free agents, which they don’t have yet. But it’s difficult to see James coming to a team with Wade when Wade is a similar wing player and it is Wade’s town and LeBron would be at best a costar.

The Nets and Clippers also are hoping to be contenders, but with the Nets playing in Newark and Clippers’ history they are considered longshots. The move figures to put the Bulls in prime position to appeal to James when a few months back it seemed like an impossibility to everyone.

It’s also possible James could remain in Cleveland, especially because of his hometown ties to the area and his desire to live there in the future. Would he be able to after leaving the city like that?

Still, the Bulls now assuming the deal goes through as believed have put themselves in probably the best position to make the strongest case to James for ultimate championship success as they are just about in position to make offers to another maximum player like Bosh along with James.

It was not the case until the deal for Hinrich. It’s why it’s such a major move even though it seems so one sided as the Bulls, effectively, have the Wizards their first round pick and cash so Washington would take one of the best top players. It seems so one sided on the surface to be ludicrous, but it could be a deal people will be looking back on in the future as one of the great moves like when the Lakers gave away players like George Lynch for nothing in 1996 to create more salary space to sign Shaq.

The Bulls still would need to trade someone like James Johnson to get to just about the full expected $16.5 million starting salary for two veteran free agents like James and Bosh.

There are potential roadblocks, like if both or either want six year full maximum deals as the Bulls, really, no longer would have the players to do a sign and trade and the Raptors and Cavs are unlikely to help the Bulls create a super team in their conference.

But the presumption is the Bulls would explain that even without the sixth year and even if the starting salaries are slightly less than the allowed $16.5 million, the players if the team is hugely successful will more than make it up with current and future sponsors.

The potential complication in the deal is it cannot be completed until July 8 because the Wizards will not officially have the space under the salary cap to absorb Hinrich’s contract until then. There is a moratorium period in the NBA until July 8, after which teams know the value of the salary cap and then can renounce players, like the Wizards are expected to with Josh Howard.

The potential issue, though it is rare that it would occur after sides have agreed, is since the deal cannot be official until July 8, if something were to happen to Hinrich before then, like an injury, the Wizards could theoretically say they do not want to proceed. But that would be unlikely because a team cannot afford to get a reputation in the league that it will back out of deals. If that were to occur, it would be difficult for a team to make trades. So it would be unlikely a team would back out, especially with a new owner, Ted Leonsis.

So why would the Wizards want Hinrich given they are set to draft John Wall No. 1 and have Gilbert Arenas? It’s a legitimate question, though the Wizards were said to like the way Hinrich operated as a sort of mentor to Derrick Rose to keep pressure off Rose as he came into the NBA and feel Hinrich can do the same for Wall. Some do feel Arenas and Wall will be dynamic together and Hinrich would be the perfect third guard.

The Bulls made their No. 17 selection Thursday night for Washington, Kevin Seraphin. It will officially be listed as a Bulls selection.

The Bulls have been in discussions for several weeks, as has been widely speculated, that they were in talks to see if they could deal players for salary cap space.

There was the most interest in Hinrich. The talks with the Wizards were strong earlier in the week, though sources said the Wizards would not commit. The Bulls were then engaged in serious talks with the Sacramento Kings about the same deal, which spurred the Wizards into action early Thursday before the draft.

Though on the surface it looks like a major risk to give up their best defensive player and only backup to Rose plus a solid first round draft pick for a chance at free agents.

But it is truly the only way the team could go if they want to make a serious pitch to someone like James. Now the Bulls can say in addition to All Star Rose and top rebounder Noah, they can have another All Star in addition to, say, James. It’s a highly appealing package for any free agent who would say he wants to win.

With the deal the Bulls aren’t quite at the $33 million under the cap believed to be needed for two maximum free agents. Some top free agents, like David Lee, don’t require a $16.5 million starting salary because they have fewer years. Lee would start a deal at about $12 million, so he’s a possibility as well with James for both to get the full maximum available for players leaving their teams.

The Bulls figure to work on another deal, perhaps trading a future first, like the one they are owed from Charlotte, if someone would take James Johnson. Perhaps Taj Gibson, though you figure the Bulls would want to keep him. Such a deal could get the team within less than $1 million from two max deals. There’s also the possibility into July if teams with salary cap space like, say, the Clippers or the Nets, cannot attract a free agent. Then the Bulls could trade Deng, which could potentially give the Bulls room for two maximum contracts and almost a third, or at least a high salaried veteran.

Again, it’s a risk to lose so many players on your roster for just the right to pursue the top free agents. But it’s a risk you have to take if you are serious about becoming a true basketball superpower again. The Bulls officially dove into the free agent pool aggressively Thursday and hope to emerge in a few weeks with the catch of all time. Thursday’s deal was the best and only way.

Del Negro out as Bulls coach and here is why

It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was close. They’d gone through one date after another and nothing really was mutual. Until one day, John Paxson ran into Vinny Del Negro at the Chicago draft camp and they began talking hoops. And things seemed to click between the two former court rivals. This seemed different.
So Paxson and Gar Forman brought Vinny home, or, more precisely, to the home of their professional dad, Jerry Reinsdorf. And Jerry gave his blessing.
But once they started living together, it just wasn’t the same. It happens. It happens all the time in life, and it happens in basketball.
So Tuesday, the Bulls and coach Del Negro are expected to announce their official divorce.
The Bulls get the kids, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Vinny gets the settlement, about $2 million from his three-year contract to get on with his basketball life.
There’s no great explanation.
Each side has its own story.
Irreconcilable differences, as the explanation generally goes
It’s like when the movie stars announce a divorce and you are shocked that he/she could walk away from someone who looks like that.
But, hey, you didn’t have to live with them.
And that’s pretty much how I see the conclusion of the relationship between the Bulls and Del Negro. The Bulls sent out a notice late Monday night that general manager Forman Tuesday morning will address “the organization’s head coaching change.”
They did give it one last gasp at some counseling over the weekend with Del Negro meeting with Bulls chairman Reinsdorf Sunday and Forman Monday. It was too late. Too much had occurred already.
No, it wasn’t the altercation in March between Paxson and Del Negro, once close, and who actually was the one who plucked Del Negro out of candidate obscurity to give him a chance at the job. Del Negro certainly wasn’t on any list Reinsdorf had prepared.
There really was no one overplayed incident.
Vinny wasn’t who they thought he was, which is something Chicago teams run into with Phoenix guys. For his part, Vinny was on the NBA hamster wheel, running as fast as he could to catch up with the NBA game going at light speed, doing all he could and feeling he’d make big progress.
It was Vinny’s first ever coaching job, and it was a risk for the Bulls.
It was well chronicled they didn’t want a deal with Doug Collins. But I’m convinced has Mike D’Antoni waited a few days instead of running to the Knicks within hours of his first meeting with the Bulls he would have been hired. D’Antoni has since told friends he regretted his decision.
The Bulls will begin a search with the usual suspects for now, though nothing is imminent as there only has been the kind of vague discussion that goes on in all organizations.
Sure, Del Negro played and was a team executive and personnel guru. But like those rookies always say, the thing that surprises you is how fast the game is compared to watching it. It’s the same with coaching. It goes by a lot faster than you think, and millions of eyes are ready to second guess: Why didn’t you foul? You had one to give. Foul to play the free throw game down the stretch or let them shoot the three? When do you sub and who? When do you take them out and how long do you leave them in? Call a timeout? How many timeouts to keep for the end? What’s your offense? What’s your defense? Trap? Zone? Switch?
OK, bring in some veteran coaches to help. So Del Negro got Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff. Too bad they had different philosophies on the game, Del in one ear and Bernie in the other. Foul, don’t foul? Time out, no timeout. Shoot the three, drive.
The Bulls were hoping—fantasizing, really, though they knew that was unrealistic–they might strike gold, a new millennium version of the next Phil Jackson, who’d replaced the popular Doug Collins. But Vinny wasn’t ready.
So there were disputes. Why was Rose left out of games at crucial times? Why wasn’t Noah getting more time to develop? What’s with those big minutes? What’s with the tight rotation? Where’s the defense?
Del Negro said it was coming, and it was. The defense was improving, the rebounding was getting better. The young guys, Rose and Noah, were better. Taj Gibson, the rookie, had come on fast. The team played hard and finished strong for the second consecutive season.
So what’s the problem?
Yet, Rose’s defense had gone nowhere. The offense remained simplistic and predictable, the pick and rolls constantly using a poor shooter. There was too much standing around. Sure, Gibson had contributed, but where was James Johnson? How come guys played 20 minutes then two?
And then there was the minutes limitation for Noah.  Was it even necessary? Del Negro was endangering the future. Or was Noah always ready to play and showed it in the playoffs?
But life, as we all know, is not always fair.
It wasn’t about only those things.
The sides had dug in.
The Bulls didn’t feel the man they hired was the man who came to work. Del Negro believed despite the changes and priorities toward the future, the present had developed as well as could be expected.
The Bulls gave Vinny a chance when no one else would or did. His own Suns passed on him and hired Terry Porter.
The average life of a coach, especially in the Eastern Conference, is about two years. Of the 15 teams in the East, only five have coaches hired in seasons before the Bulls hired Del Negro.
This has happened before with the Bulls as well. Collins was fired after making it to the conference finals. Stan Albeck took the team to the playoffs the year Michael Jordan missed 64 games with a broken foot, and Albeck was then fired.
But it also happens all over basketball.
Sam Mitchell, Hubie Brown, Avery Johnson, Byron Scott and Rick Carlisle were fired or left within two seasons of being named coach of the year. Carlisle was fired in Detroit after two 50-win seasons and second round playoff appearances. For Hubie Brown, ostensibly for health reasons, it was 12 games into the season after he won the award. Larry Brown was fired in Detroit after taking the team to the Finals for the second straight season. Del Harris was fired by the Lakers 12 games into the season after he won 61 games. Mike Fratello was fired by the Cavs after six straight winning seasons and never a losing season.
Del Negro, by the way, was the fifth coach fired this season. The coaches of Atlanta, Toronto, Miami and Golden State are hardly secure.
These jobs are as much about results as they are communication and relationships.
Plus, their priorities are at variance.
The coach’s job is to win today’s game and win as many games as he can. The GM’s job is to develop a team for the long term and, if necessary, sacrifice the present. So there was that, Del Negro playing to win every game to assure his return or status, thus limiting one rookie and the bench, relying on the starters for big minutes, perhaps playing Noah more than recommended. And there was the organization hoping to see more of Johnson, preferring players like Luol Deng coming off serious injury not playing the second most minutes in his career, hoping to see defensive advancement from Rose and some more care for Noah.
Each had a point. But the relationship began to deteriorate.
From the outside, it appeared Vinny had done what he could given trades and Ben Gordon leaving in free agency. From the inside, there seemed perhaps a different agenda.
Vinny no longer was the right guy for this time.
It was no one’s fault. It happens. It happens all the time in pro sports.
Vinny gets his contract fulfilled, which was all he was promised. After all, it wasn’t like when he was hired anyone said this was coach for life, that this was the next Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach. The Bulls get the benefit of two years development, which has enhanced the status of Rose and Noah and with a good summer of work, the Bulls could be in an excellent position to move forward and become a true contender. Vinny gets the asterisk taken off his name. He’s a coach with experience now, which moves him to the head of the line and opens up the future if he wants to coach again.
Win/win? Perhaps not, but it is the way of life in the NBA. The game moves on. So will Vinny and the Bulls.

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.

Bulls shooting for three: Three more games

As what may be the Bulls final shootaround of the 2009-10 season was ending, several of the players were practicing half court, LeBron James style jump shots.
When James Johnson came up short on one, Kirk Hinrich joked, “Better get in the weight room.”
At least the weight of playing perhaps their final game of the season, trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 in this opening round playoff series, was not pulling the Bulls down.
“Today is one of those days everyone is feeling fine and shooting well and focused,” said Derrick Rose. “I think we’re gonna get a win tonight.”
Reporters asking questions were far more subdued than the Bulls players as Rose playfully talked about James’ half court three from Game 4 and said he’s still working on making three pointers.
Rose reported no ill effects from the sprained ankle in Game 4 and precautionary MRI Monday.
“I thought I was going to have a shot before the game the way I was feeling after the game and yesterday,” said Rose. “I got treatment, was taking pills and putting cream on it (and sleeping in a boot). It hurt (afterward) when I walked. It feels good now. If I did not have the brace on it would have been worse.”
Rose doesn’t tape his ankles like most players, but wears a brace.
Luol Deng, who has knee and calf problems, also is fine to play.
The Bulls seem to be bracing for a fight, at least.
“They’ll play tonight,” said coach Vinny Del Negro. “They both feel a little better. They’re sore, but they’ll be out there. They’ve been battling all year and fighting through different (injury) things.”
But trailing 3-1, the Bulls will have to do some different things as well, especially with LeBron James, who dominated the game with 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
You just can’t say you take the ball out of his hands with double teams as that compromises your defense and leaves too many open shooters.
Deng has been trying against James and doing a decent job, but the Cavs adjusted well and got the ball to James higher with more steam coming up court. The result was he was able to get into the middle of the court better and spread the ball to shooters.
I expect the Bulls to change up some and put Kirk Hinrich on James more. They’ve done some of this, but Hinrich will get up on him and bother James physically, and while it may seem like a fly on an elephant, James doesn’t generally like defenders like that. Sure, it could leave post up options, but James doesn’t generally like to play out of the post. And if he does, he ends up controlling the ball more and stopping their offense, and then mostly becomes a passer. I’d try to lure him into more of that.
The Bulls were getting burned on that pick and roll play where Deng was switching onto Antawn Jamison and Jamison was dominating Deng.
There also comes a time you have to, as they say, “man up,” and Deng will have to be more physical with Jamison in those situations. Though he had a rough go in Game 4, I still expect to see James Johnson in those situations as well because of his size and quickness and Del Negro’s uncertainty about playing Hakim Warrick with troubling matchups with the Cavs.
Also, on offense, I’d like to see the Bulls put James in pick and roll as well as he likes to play more free safety. James isn’t a great—or much interested—pick and roll player, so you want to make him work on defense. So I also look for Deng to be more aggressive shooting.
You got the feeling around the Bulls Tuesday morning that, as John Belushi famously said, “It ain’t over until we decide it’s over. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” Germans?
“This can be our last game,” noted Rose. “We’ve got to give it our all. Go out and play hard. I know I will and I know the team will.”

Bulls and Coach Del Negro facing elimination game

It was an appropriate setting Monday in the Berto Center for what could have been the Bulls last full practice of the 2009-10 NBA season and perhaps Vinny Del Negro’s last as Bulls coach.

Yes, coach Vinny Del Negro had his back to the wall.

“Everyone is frustrated because we know we can play better,” said Del Negro of the Bulls being down 3-1 after Sunday’s 121-98 loss to the Cavs and LeBron James’ triple double and six three pointers. “But give Cleveland credit. They made plays. It’s not like we didn’t want to play better. They put us back on our heels a little. They made a run at the end of the first half and then jumped on us to start the third. Derrick (Rose) hurt his ankle and we got out of the flow a little. But our defense wasn’t good enough. We have to do a better job defending and making it harder on them. We did it in spurts, but we didn’t have consistency.”

It’s not a particularly upbeat time for the Bulls, and not only because of the playoff deficit to the league’s winningest team and likely MVP.

Rose and Luol Deng didn’t practice because of minor injuries.

Rose had an MRI on his ankle injury suffered early in the second half. It was negative, but he was sore. He traveled with the team to Cleveland and is expected to play Tuesday in Game 5.

Deng aggravated long standing knee and calf injuries.

“(Rose) was sore,” said Del Negro. ” He jammed it on Shaq’s foot. He was limping a little today, so hopefully he’ll feel better tomorrow. Luol’s knee and calf were a little sore. It’s that time of year. Things are going to happen. You have to get the guys out there who are healthy. Obviously we need both those guys to play at a high level. I think they’ll both be fine, ready to play. Who is 100 percent at this time of year? Not many guys.”

Well, the Cavs for 12.

James is playing at a tremendous level after sitting out the last four games of the regular season to rest while the Bulls had to play their way in with, effectively, three win-or-go-home situations. It has to have taken a toll, especially now facing a team which finished 20 games ahead of the Bulls.

James crowed about not returning to Chicago after Game 4, and it was not unlike the confident claims Michael Jordan would make in the 1990’s.

In that era, first round series were best of five. After the Bulls would win the first two, Jordan would generally tell his teammates to pack for one game.

He never was wrong. In the Bulls’ six championships, they never lost a first round game.

There also has been speculation about Del Negro’s job future basically going on since January of Del Negro’s first season, and it only has grown with a recent confrontation between Del Negro and Bulls vice president John Paxson.

It was a travel day for the Bulls Monday, so after a short practice, only Del Negro and Joakim Noah addressed reporters.

Del Negro had been asked some before the last regular season game about it being perhaps his final game as Bulls coach and he said he’d prepare as he always does and deal with other circumstances after the season. The question didn’t come up Monday.

Noah was asked about the speculation and reports regarding Del Negro, and said it hasn’t been an issue with the players, and that clearly seemed to be the case the way the Bulls overcame the Raptors late to make the playoffs.

“Those are things that we as players can’t control,” said Noah. “Our mindset is just to be ready for tomorrow’s game. We’re in this all together. A lot of things can happen and there’s a lot of rumors and speculation. But some things are better kept internally, kind of like a family or a frat, you know? Kind of like that.

“(It) doesn’t mean you guys have to know everything,” Noah told reporters. “As long as we fight every day on the court for you guys, what else do you need to know?

“How about we focus on this game tomorrow and see what happens and then when the season is over you figure it out?” Noah said. “It’s important to live in the moment. I’m enjoying this. Even though we got slapped by 30, I still think we’re in a good situation getting to play on the biggest stage in the world and battle it out tomorrow against the best players in the world. I think that’s pretty cool.”

It’s the ultimate optimism of youth. And the way the Bulls have played to come back from a March 10-game losing streak, you can never truly count them out.

Rose is averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 assists while Noah is averaging 16.5 points and 14 rebounds. The Bulls have been able to count on them, and Deng has been consistent averaging 17 points. The question will be whether the Bulls can get Kirk Hinrich rolling again. He is averaging 12.5 points on 41.9 percent shooting, but 58.3 percent on threes.

Overall, I feel the Bulls have played the Cavs the right way.

They’ve pretty much shut off the middle in Del Negro’s “elbows, boxes and nails” defense, which is a shorthand for the way the team provides a shell of a defense around the lane.

The key in playing the Cavs is keeping James out of driving the middle, where he then can attack the basket or pass off into the corners for threes.

Though James was scoring the first three games, the Bulls limited the other shooters. In Game 4 Sunday, James got into the middle more to free Antawn Jamison, who had 24 points and Mo Williams and Anthony Parker, who combined for five threes. James added another six, and the Bulls could not score at that level.

The Bulls have to push the ball to get over 100 points to match the Cavs, but the Cavs shot the ball so well Sunday the Bulls couldn’t run, and then, as Noah noted after the game, lost their enthusiasm and allowed the Cavs to run away.

Rarely have the Bulls when healthy played two poor games in a row, so if Rose’s ankle is OK I can see them making a good effort.

The elemental weakness the Bulls have on offense is the lack of a true post player, which they really haven’t had since, well, ever, and the lack of a consistent three point threat.

The Cavs have made 42 threes in this series. The Bulls have attempted 44.

That’s right, the Cavs have made 28 more threes in the four games while outscoring the Bulls by a combined by 44 points.

It’s the right strategy. See if they can beat you “over the top,” the shorthand for long distance shooting, and the Cavs have.

And why not try that given James shot 28.5 percent on threes in the regular season since the beginning of February, one of 14 in April.

“At times, you can live with, but when he’s (James) making six, you have to get up in him a little and come with the double-team,” said Del Negro, who did very late in Game 4 to finally take the ball out of James’ hands a few times. “You have to pick your spots with him. It wasn’t like we didn’t do that. He made one step across halfcourt, banked one in, things are going to happen. Those are the tough shots. That’s why it’s so important to take the easy ones away. The one where he splits you and takes a dunk, those you can’t have because you know he’s going to make some difficult ones.”

So I suggested to dare James to do it again. It’s easy to say you take the ball out of his hand with double teams, but that compromises your defense and rebounding, putting everyone out of position and helping. Great players do great things and James is great. And they do these things at big times. LeBron qualifies with some memorable playoff performances. But I think he’s more dangerous when he gets those other guys good shots, which comes when the defense is scrambling. Hey, LeBron, I’d say, you can’t shoot threes. Do it again!

You have to use some gamesmanship when you are behind and some innovation when you are a big underdog. Del Negro isn’t much a believer in that.

“Shouldn’t the message be he can’t do this again, let him try?” I asked Del Negro.

“No,” said Del Negro. “That’s your message. That would not be my message. It’s not one guy. Antawn played very well for them. They isolated him on the wings. He’s a very tough cover one-on-one. Mo is always Mo and you have to find him. It’s not just LeBron who is going to fill up the stat sheet. You have to have a huge amount of attention on him. But they’re very good for a reason. The reason starts with LeBron. But they have other players who are capable.”

I don’t deny that, but you have to try to lure the Cavs into doing things they don’t usually. Look, they are better and more talented and have the best player in the series.

So call out LeBron and see if he forgets he’s playing with the other guys. We know he’s got a giant ego, and maybe he wants to show you.

The Bulls had one of these elimination games last year in the Boston series, but it took three overtimes to finally win at home and go back to Boston for a seventh game.

Another key for the Cavs, I thought, was Shaq getting in foul trouble. That brought in J.J. Hickson, who runs the court and finishes strong and fits better with James in a smaller lineup in wich they are able to open the court better and get to the middle. Coach Mike Brown basically is looking two series ahead and trying to get Shaq ready for the Magic and Dwight Howard. Take advantage of that.

I’d put Jannero Pargo on Shaq.

Actually, Vinny hasn’t been very good with his bench, basically rarely using guys or so inconstantly that when he puts them in now for a short stint it’s difficult for them to do anything. So he pretty much has to stay with seven guys with Brad Miller and Flip Murray off the bench. James Johnson came in and committed several fouls on James when the Cavs closed the first half fast to get a 62-52 lead. But James is the Bulls best reserve matchup with James because of his size and basically has been told to play James physically. So he went a bit far in Game 4, but it was hardly his fault.

Given wildly fluctuating minutes, Hakim Warrick has been inconsistent.

I’d also liked to have seen Pargo some to match some three point shooting.

But you know making a move like that with Pargo on Shaq would force the Cavs and the sensitive Shaq to go at Pargo. Challenge the Cavs to beat you with Shaq. I don’t see how given how long he’s been out he could score much, and he might waste a lot of time doing so and slow the Cavs and take them out of their running and three-point shooting game.

It’s called junking up the game, but it’s OK when you are in a desperate situation. It doesn’t get more desperate for the Bulls than Tuesday.

“I think there was frustration because guys were so excited to play,” said Del Negro. “We were in the game and then we gave up some scores and free throws late in the half. We felt good at halftime with some of the stats we had (leading 16-5 in fast breaks and 26-19 on the boards). Then in the third quarter they jumped on us and Derrick hurt his ankle and we took quick shots and they built that lead on us. LeBron was hitting threes. There was frustration. But it’s been a very resilient group all year. I expect us to come out tomorrow. Our backs are against the wall.”

We’ll see if it’s a firing squad looking at all of them.

Good guys return to wearing black

The good guys finally are wearing black.
The Bulls Thursday with Game 3 of the first round playoff series are going back to all the players honoring team tradition and wearing black sneakers after they couldn’t get everyone on board in Cleveland.
The reason for the 0-2 start? We’ll see.
As Bulls fans know, wearing black sneakers became a team playoff tradition in the first round of the playoffs in 1989 when the Bulls were big underdogs to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bulls had finished the season 10 games behind the 57-win Cavs and were swept 6-0 by the Cavs that season. Reserve Brad Sellers came up with the unity idea of wearing black sneakers, which were hi-tops in that era.
No wonder there were so many fewer sprained ankles, but I digress.
Everyone went along and the Bulls prevailed in a classic five-game series with Michael Jordan’s game winning shot to win Game 5 and the series in Cleveland.
Through the six championship seasons and in every playoff series since the Bulls players wore black sneakers.
Last season after a one-year playoff hiatus, the Bulls didn’t have the black sneaker unity for Game 1 in Boston. The Bulls did win in overtime. Kirk Hinrich gathered the team and pushed for the return to black sneakers, and the Bulls went on to lose in Game 7 in what’s been considered one of the great playoff series in league history because of the overtimes.
But this season in the first two games in Cleveland, several players wore white sneakers.
Equipment manager John Ligmanowski said he provided black sneakers for all the players, but some demurred.
Flip Murray has difficulty with some of the sneakers he gets from Nike, so he’ll often buy different pairs at the Nike store on Michigan Avenue. Murray wore white in Cleveland, but said before the game he’d wear black at home.
“They were on me all day,” admitted James Johnson, about teammates joking with his and urging him to wear black sneakers for Game 3. Johnson also wore white sneakers in Cleveland.
Johnson said he was wearing his white sneakers because of his issues with plantar fasciitis and the importance of wearing the correct shoes.
Though there are many theories about the causes of plantar fasciitis, there’s considerable consensus that the biggest issue may be the soft shoes so many of the players tend to wear in this era.
The team has been pushing the players into stiffer shoes, though it’s a sensitive issue because players have shoe contracts and some companies don’t make sneakers firm enough.
Johnson borrowed a pair of black sneakers from Rob Kurz, who was to be on the inactive list, to wear for Game 3.
“You gotta go with tradition,” said Johnson.

LeBron is coming, LeBron is coming; is he alone?

The Bulls plan, and I agreed with it, has been to keep those other guys out of the game because James knows he needs them and tries desperately to get them going. James couldn’t in Game 2, so he took over.
It was impressive.
“The goal is for him to take jump shots,” Kirk Hinrich said after Bulls practice Wednesday. “He did that and made them in Game 2. He hit them fading away. We’re going to challenge him to take tough jump shots. We can’t have him in the paint getting wide open looks for those other guys, getting in transition.
“We want to win this series,” said Hinrich. “Hopefully, we’ll get on our home court and get some momentum and get a game.”
So, in other words, if you’re so good, LeBron, let’s see if you can get 50 on the road in Game 3 at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Perhaps he can as it was an awfully efficient 40 points for James in Game 2 on 23 shots.
Though the secret to playing the Cavs, I believe, is making LeBron beat you.
It was much the same with Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980’s. Jordan would go off for huge 40-point type games. He’d win a few like that, but never quite enough.
I remember talking to Isiah Thomas about Jordan during some of those games and he said if Jordan even truly included his teammates the Pistons would have no chance. Once Jordan accepted that fully in 1991, it was over.
Maybe James doesn’t need that to get by the Bulls. But James understands you don’t win championships trying to score 40 or 50 a game. He doesn’t want to. In effect, the Bulls want him to, though I expect there’ll be some adjustments from that strategy in Game 3.
Reserves generally have more difficulty in the playoffs on the road, so the Bulls job will be making sure the starters don’t get involved as much.
O’Neal had in this era for him a big game in the opener with 12 points and five rebounds. He’s obviously, even with a Big Invisible performance in Game 2, a concern, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro Wednesday sent his subtle message.
“We’ve got to somehow stay away from Shaquille’s elbows,” said Del Negro, “get our heads away from those elbows a little bit.”
Since the NBA is harsh regarding questioning officiating in the playoffs with huge fines, Del Negro was cautious. I told him to ask management for $35,000 and rip away. He laughed and said he should check with managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf.
“Shaquille, obviously, is difficult to referee and play against because of his size and where the elbow starts coming,” noted Del Negro. “The referees need to be conscious of that and hopefully we’ll be getting some calls going our way in that aspect and be aggressive to the basket.”
But there are no such limitations regarding gamesmanship on me.
It’s an embarrassment for the league the way they allow O’Neal to catch and turn in with his elbows out. It should be an offensive every time. At one time when O’Neal could jump and was graceful—OK, a little bit—he could make an athletic move on the turn. No more.
We’ll see if that changes and if Derrick Rose, who got just six free throw attempts with 52 shots in 86 minutes, gets a bit more aggressive back home.
“Derrick has done a better job attacking the basket with floaters and things. We need to continually attack,” said Del Negro.
Rose missed practice Wednesday with a personal, family issue but will play in Game 3 Thursday.
It was mostly a routine day for the Bulls at the Berto Center, though with considerably more media.
The Bulls players are not difficult, but at home practices don’t hang around much to chat. The coach is generally required by the league to talk to reporters, and Del Negro did for about 10 minutes after the closed practice.
By the time he was done, most of the players left for treatment and weight work, which are off limits areas to reporters. Hinrich stuck around and answered a few questions, and that was pretty much it.
Are the players confident? They insist yes and are looking forward to seeing if the Cavs will sweat if they lose.
Or have they mentally packed it in after playing a good game Monday despite falling down 2-0 and getting some national respect? And then maybe avoid a return trip to Cleveland next week.
Of course, it was the joke of the weekend with Joakim Noah having some fun knocking down Cleveland.
James addressed it after Cavs practice and said he loves Chicago.
“It’s an awesome city. Great restaurants, great shopping,” said James, who said he spent three summers in Chicago while in high school working out. “I have nothing bad (to say) about Chicago. I’m not saying that because of what he said about Cleveland. I’m serious. We all love Chicago.”
James drew some laughs at Noah’s comment about no one vacationing in Cleveland when he offered he vacations in Chicago.
“You all are making it a joke,” James said. “I’m being very serious. I love Chicago. I love Cleveland and love Akron, too.”
Good this is Chicago and not New York. The tabloids in New York would turn that into “LeBron Coming to New York” headlines.
I raised the possibility in my Bulls.com column Wednesday of James leaving the Cavs as a free agent and coming to the Bulls this summer if he is serious about winning long term. After all, who among the Cavs rivals either Rose or Noah?
Though after watching the Heat and Celtics Tuesday, I’d have to save Dwyane Wade is the most likely to get out of town. If James’ supporting cast isn’t that much, well, Wade’s is a nightmare.
Look, this is a tough one for the Bulls for a lot of reasons other than finishing 20 games behind the Cavs in the regular season. And that was with the Bulls straining to the finish to get in and the Cavs’ regulars taking most of the last two weeks off.
The Bulls need to get over 100 to be in the games. When they had 83 in Game 1, they were out early. When they had 102 in Game 2, it was close.
The problem is a faster game forces the Cavs to bench Shaq and the Cavs were 45-5 in the regular season when they scored at least 100 points. They were 16-16 when they didn’t. The Bulls were 22-8 when they scored at least 100 in the regular season and 19-33 when they didn’t. The Bulls want to run. The Cavs love to run.
There’s no question James beat the Bulls in Game 2 when it was close and the pressure was on. Cavs fans, as we know, have seen that picture before.
“We have to pick our spots and make it difficult for him to score,” said Del Negro.
That suggested to me we will see some more doubles on James at certain times, perhaps a late double when he goes into his move. When he holds the ball with the clock running down he doesn’t like to pass the ball then because it puts teammates in a tough position to make shots.
“We want to keep them out of transition,” said Del Negro. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s young, strong, big. I thought Luol (Deng) was solid. They made plays, but we’ll try to be more efficient and maybe we’ll shoot better at home.
“But the people in Chicago know,” said Del Negro. “You had a guy here a long time was who was pretty good who wore No. 23. You can have all the great defense you want. But some guys just make plays over the top whether you are bringing one, two or three guys. You have to get into him and make it as hard as possible.”
That reference to Jordan opened the door for me to have a little fun with Del Negro and ask who was better, Jordan or James.
I probably shouldn’t have done it.
“That’s impossible to answer,” said Del Negro trying to be diplomatic. “Michael right now because of what his legacy is and what he did to evolve his game.
“Larry (Bird) and Magic (Johnson) took it to a level, Mike to another level,” said Del Negro. “I’m not big on comparing guys because I don’t think it’s fair. Comparing anyone to Michael now is not fair because of MVP’s, championships. LeBron at this stage is only 25. He has a long career left (if he) stays healthy, is consistent. Who’s better (Bill) Russell or (Wilt) Chamberlain?”
Wilt, by the way.
“It’s different rules, different eras, players, different travel,” noted Del Negro. “(Jerry) West, Oscar (Robertson), so many guys you can talk about. Obviously, they both are great players.”
I understood Del Negro didn’t want to get into it because he is playing LeBron now. Don’t make him mad, as LeBron also suggested at practice the Bulls players harassing him from the bench about his shooting got him going.
“I understand a lot of teams would like to make me shoot jumpers and keep me out of the paint,” James said. “That’s what I would do if I was guarding me, but I wouldn’t talk to me if I was guarding me.”
But that’s also the point. James was fabulous in Game 2 with a classic playoff game. But there’s still a big question about his teammates. I believe he worries about that because he knows he’ll need them. So you don’t play off them. Make it difficult. Make them make big shots at big times while defended. I’m not sure they can.
James Johnson likely will get another brief shot at James because he can be physical. Hinrich will some because he can be pesky, and Deng will most of the time and it will be crucial—and two days of between games should help—for Deng to continue to attack on offense to keep James engaged on defense and not playing the passing lanes. Deng also can’t get too deep on shots as James will cheat and try to run out. So the Bulls have to get back and let Noah and Taj Gibson deal with the offensive boards.
The traditional theory often is to let the other guys beat you. But that’s what James wants. Because he believes he always can. So I say let see if he can beat you again and again.
Make James try to prove he’s as prolific as Jordan. It makes for a heck of a show, but it also makes the Cavs a one-man show, and you don’t win that way. Most of the time, anyway.

Bulls go down 2-0 to Cavs, but may have a plan

The Cleveland Cavaliers Monday needed probably the world’s best basketball player having one of his best ever playoff games to beat the eighth-seeded Bulls at home, the 112-102 victory sending the Cavs up 2-0 in this playoff opening series.
So if you are the Bulls you don’t feel great about losing, but you know now you can play with this team and you’ve come up with a game plan to beat them.
Now all you have to do is take it back home for Game 3 at the United Center Thursday.
“I think we played real hard tonight,” said Joakim Noah, who led the Bulls with 25 points and 13 rebounds, seven offensive. “They hit some real tough shots down the stretch (15 of LeBron James’ 40 in the last eight minutes). They did not get fazed by our runs. We can’t get discouraged. We’re down 2-0. They did what they were supposed to do.
“They just took care of what they had to,” said Noah. “At home, we’ll have our fans ready for the next game and we’ll be ready to go.”
If the Bulls attack the Cavs as they did Monday, running the floor before the defense could set, switching effectively on the inside to ward off penetration, making James work on defense so he couldn’t play free safety and cause turnovers for fast breaks, stay away from the jumpers as Luol Deng was slashing more for 20 points and get a boost from the bench like Flip Murray’s 14, then, perhaps, there’ll be a series here.
This is supposed to be just a warmup appetizer for the top-seeded Cavs, and so far they do have two double digit wins.
Now, they have to take it on the road, and we’ll see whether they have that championship look they insist is theirs and whether the Bulls have the moxie to stand in the way and at least take the series back to Cleveland.
Of course, the joke is no one wants to go back the way Noah playfully inflamed the locals with mocking comments about Cleveland. You had to be there at practice Sunday as Noah said it all with a laugh and a wink, as he does many things, but it also was another impressive sign of leadership.
Everyone knows what that brings: The wrath of the community. They make fun of their city, as anyone living in Cleveland would. After all, as someone noted, the fish can’t even stand the smell of the lake. Don’t let some outsider do it, though.
But the subtle message was lost on the Clevelanders.
After the Bulls were dominated in Game 1 Saturday and Shaquille O’Neal was celebrated as an actual, living NBA player with 12 points and five rebounds, Noah was, in effect, saying to his teammates he’d take the wrath of the community and the pressure of the game and you all can relax because he’d be there.
So after a pedestrian 10 points and eight rebounds and foul trouble in Game 1, Noah ran Shaq out of the game, and ran by just about everyone on the Cavs, almost all the way to an improbable victory.
“He was great,” said Deng about Noah. “He played hard. He gets rebounds and gave us second chance points. That’s what he’s done all year.”
The Bulls were tied at 77 entering the fourth quarter and trailed just 91-88 with six minutes remaining.
The Cavs then scored on their next seven possessions with unlikely Jamario Moon hitting his third among four three pointers in five attempts, and James with three back breaking scores, a drive and step in fake by Noah for a layup, and then a pair of 20 footers isolated on the right wing, both defended well by Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
That put the Cavs up 107-98 with about 90 seconds left, and Moon clinched it with another three.
“He was probably the main reason we won,” said James, generously.
It was a heck of a run for the Cavs and mostly by James, who was jawing with the Bulls bench as he knocked in those jumpers, the Bulls taunting him to shoot as he’s not known for his perimeter game and James, to his credit, answering.
“They were talking the whole game,” said James. “Every time I caught the ball there (Bulls bench), they were daring me to shoot the ball, telling me I couldn’t shoot or ‘You can’t make jump shots, so take the shot.’ So that’s what I did. They asked me to shoot a jumper and I did that, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”
You gotta give it to him as the Cavs fans had to give it to the Bulls No. 23 two decades ago.
“It’s a sight to see,” marveled Antawn Jamison. “To see how close the game was and to see him take over you have to realize you are witnessing history.”
I know, I know, we are all witnesses. Boring.
“You could see it in his eyes,” said Jamison. “Guys like that strive off those moments. He was in a zone.”
But it took that from James and unlikely shooting from Moon for the Cavs to escape.
“That’s shots you want (James) to take,” said Deng, who also had six rebounds and five assists. “We did a good job keeping him out of the paint. He was hitting some unbelievable shots, fading back. You’ve got to live with that.”
I agree, and I thought Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro played it right. You can second guess taking the ball out of James’ hands. But the Cavs are best when James involves his teammates, as he did in Game 1. When he had to pretty much go it alone you’ve got your best chance because he has to be super. It was the Bulls bad fortune he was.
“We wanted to win (and are disappointed),” said Deng. But we are (also) happy. We’re going back home and the way we played is encouraging. We’ve got to come out and play like that again. If he keeps hitting shots like that the whole series, we’ve got no chance. We just have to play him like we did tonight.”
I agree. I thought the Bulls had a good plan and it produced results.
For one, Deng got off that line at 20 feet and began going to the basket against James. It was illuminating in the locker room to listen to he and Rose before the game discussing the angles of where Deng could cut from in order to get a slashing score from Rose and when he has to stay home to spread the court better for Rose.
After they finished a 10-minute discussion on it, Deng said, “I have a good feeling about tonight.”
And Deng played a big part.
One of the things you have to do with James is keep him active on defense. He likes to cheat and play the lanes like a free safety, drop down toward the post, stunting and disrupting plays. The Bulls committed 14 turnovers in Game 1, and James was a big part of that by dropping low off Deng to squeeze the court.
Deng went aggressively at James, who had to work hard to stay in front of Deng. And while Deng had a good game, what was more important was James could not help out and the Bulls committed just four turnovers.
“I did a good job slashing in there and not settling for jump shots like I did in the first game,” admitted Deng.
The Bulls made a few subtle switches, and I thought they worked out well. In Game 1, they played a cross match with Kirk Hinrich on Mo Williams because Williams is the better scorer and Rose is the weaker defender. But the result was Williams with 19 because the Bulls use Hinrich as a help defender on the big men.
By guarding Williams, Hinrich was too far on top. So the Bulls switched Rose to Williams. Rose has been better on defense lately, and Williams was just two of eight for 12 points while Hinrich played Anthony Parker. Parker did have three three pointers, but Parker plays below the foul line in the corner, so Hinrich was able to help more inside by not having to go so far and the Cavs bigs were less effective as Anderson Varejao, Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas combined for 18 points and 16 rebounds after 22 points and 22 rebounds in Game 1.
It, obviously, was more than that helping as the Bulls switched the bigs on screen rolls since Taj Gibson, Noah and Brad Miller aren’t particularly overmatched by the slow Cavs bigs and it didn’t compromise the defense with the screen rolls, thus keeping the Cavs more on the outside.
Yes, they hit shots, but that’s way more difficult on the road, especially for reserves like Moon.
“If anything,” said Rose, who had 23 points and eight assists, “we’d rather have (James) hit those shots than drive to the hole and get other people involved.”
Another key was transition.
The Bulls got out and pushed the ball much more, which enables Noah to use his edge running the court, and also doesn’t allow the lumbering Cavs’ bigs to set up their defensive wall that so inhibited Rose.
Rose was 10 of 24, but he also had those eight assists with just one turnover after seven in Game 1, and especially in the third quarter the Cavs spent a lot of time chasing. The Bulls want to get the game over 100 points, which they did, and then it changes the personnel and the Cavs have to rely more on modest talents like Moon, Delonte West and Parker. Del Negro also did a nice job getting Murray in against West, whom Murray was able to overpower and finally get some scoring off the bench.
“I’m pleased with the effort, not the result,” said Del Negro. “I think our guys feel better than they did the other (game) in terms of how we played. We were sharper and much better off the glass. If you go into the fourth quarter tied (on the road) you have an opportunity, which is what we were looking for. I thought we played well enough to steal a game, but they earned it.”
If I had a quarrel with the Bulls, it was they weren’t as physical as I’d like to have seen them. But they don’t have the depth to match the Cavs, so that’s an issue. You wear guys down in the playoffs with hard screens all game and it catches up to you late. The Bulls don’t do enough of that and the Cavs enjoyed 66.7 percent fourth quarter shooting.
Though there’ll be replays of James huge slam dunk over James Johnson in the first quarter, I thought Johnson came in with the right attitude to play James aggressively. I thought he did a good job staying in front of James most of the time and should get some time on James the rest of the series. He committed fouls, and James felt them. That’s what you have to do.
“He came out with a lot of energy,” James acknowledged of Johnson. “Bench players do try to make their mark on the game. I felt I could slow down and counter his energy. I did that and got in attack mode.”
The Bulls also made a point to not allow Jamison to rest and roam around like he did in Game 1, and had Taj Gibson go at him. Gibson had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Jamison played just three minutes in the fourth quarter.
“Taj has been huge for us all year,” complimented Noah. “He’s someone who works hard on his game. We wouldn’t be in this position if not for Taj Gibson. He is an underrated player with what he brings to us.”
The game began with the expected booing of Noah, who’d had some fun at Cleveland’s expense with some derogatory comments about Cleveland not necessarily being a great place to visit. Or live. All in fun, though.
Noah was booed on introduction and most every time he touched the ball, and the scoreboard posted his quotes from Sunday’s practice of Cleveland, “I don’t know about Cleveland, man. There’s nothing going on. It’s bad, man. It’s bad……What? That Cleveland sucks?”
Noah said he’d been booed many times before.
“My whole life,” said Noah. “College. Boston, they don’t like me there. They don’t like me here, either. It’s OK. I have my friends. I don’t care.”
Noah also joked when asked whether he regretted what he said that it’s not like people are vacationing in Cleveland.
“What’s so good about Cleveland?” Noah asked.
Oh, right. The Cavs.
They got ahead 28-22 after one quarter as James had 10 points, including that hammer dunk after blowing by Johnson.
But this wasn’t the same, tentative Bulls team from Game 1, and they showed in an impressive stretch midway through the second quarter that turned the game.
Noah sealed O’Neal and scored, Deng jab stepped LeBron and shot over him, Deng ran out on a forced James jumper and dunked as James got no help, Rose hit from on top, Noah scored on a clever interior pass from Deng and Noah tipped in a Rose drive, again the Cavs unable to build that defensive wall against Rose as the Bulls’ transition left the court more open.
The Bulls pulled within 52-50 at halftime, and James was the only Cav in double figures. Good sign.
When he scores and doesn’t involve his teammates as much, the Cavs stop moving on offense and it makes their defense more passive.
The third quarter was a beauty with 15 lead changes and seven tied as the Bulls continued to push the ball, and Gibson scored twice inside down the stretch of the quarter while Noah blew by Varejao for a layup to tie the game at 77 after three.
But the Bulls could never get the lead after the Cavs opened the fourth with a Jamison runner, a West spin by Hinrich and a Moon three.
“We had a lot of guys (five in double figures) make big plays and big shots, and that’s what we need,” said Rose.
The Bulls never backed down, and there was one impressive sequence when Moon blocked a Noah shot with the Bulls down 89-84. But then Deng hustled back and blocked a Williams fast break and Noah ran out and scored to get the Bulls back within three, the closest they would get.
“We couldn’t pull away,” lamented Rose. “They’d make a big shot or make a big play.”
J.J. Hickson, who’s been benched with Shaq back, signaled like a baseball manager signals for a closer—James was actually asked by a Cleveland sycophant after the game if he discusses these things with baseball’s Mariano Rivera—and James came in and did close it out.
“I feel the fourth quarter is when I make my mark as an individual. I’ve always been a confident player. It’s a great feeling on every shot to believe it is going in no matter who is guarding you. They call me The Closer every time I come in in the fourth quarter,” said James, who made 16 of 23 shots. “That’s my time to put the game away or do what I do best, and that’s just try to close the game the right way. Am I always successful? Not all the time, but it makes me stronger when I’m not always successful. I know how to react the next time I’m in that situation. So it’s great to actually live up to what those guys now are starting to call me, The Closer.””
It was 85-82 when he reentered and the Bulls scored on eight of their next 10 possessions. But James answered every time, including a big three over good defense from Noah at the 24-second clock for a 99-93 lead with 4:20 left. James followed that with a pair of free throws, a drive and those two jumpers, scoring on five straight possessions to refuse to let his team lose.
“I don’t think we’re discouraged,” said Noah. “If anything, we’re motivated and think we can win, especially oin our home court. It will be exciting to play in front of our home crowd in Chi. We’re looking forward to it, enjoying the competition, living in the moment and trying to win against one of the best teams in the world.”

Bulls have a foul taste about Game 1 and want change

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

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

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

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

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

Silence. There was no response.

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

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

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

Not once!

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

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

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

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

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

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

That being What Would Phil Do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Del Negro defended him Sunday and he was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe look like at least light heavies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it should be no joking come Monday evening.

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

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

Joakim Noah is no great admirer of Kevin Garnett

Leave it to Joakim Noah to get right to the point of the first day of the NBA playoffs.
“That was unbelievable yesterday, that Boston/Miami game,” Noah was saying after practice Sunday while some wild one-on-one games went on among the reserves. “He’s unbelievable that guy… I’m gonna say it. He’s a dirty player. He’s a dirty player.”
That would be Kevin Garnett, and Noah said what most NBA players won’t say but all know: Garnett is a punk and a cheap shot artist, and his elbows in the late game melee at Quentin Richardson was just the latest example.
Noah does love this game.
He plays it with the joy of youth, and you can see in him the collegiate spirit. You watch Noah and you know he won’t take games off to rest, that the joy is in the playing and he would do it even if he wasn’t making the big money. As he spoke with reporters just after noon Sunday, he watched intently as James Johnson, Joe Alexander, Rob Kurz and some others who don’t play much went at it, Noah exclaiming excitedly over the best plays.
Noah would punctuate his answers to reporters with an “Oh (crap),” or “Bust his butt,” in the middle of sentences.
A lot of these talks with the players after practices become casual with general talk you’d have with colleagues, what you did, where you went, what you watched. Noah said he watched the games Saturday night after the Bulls loss to the Cavs—trust me, there’s not much to do in this city I rank 30th among my favorite NBA destinations—and offered his views on the Garnett extracurricular.
“That’s really messed up, man,” said Noah, growing serious in more a disappointed tone. “I’m really excited about that series. It’s gonna be fun. I hope they put (Jamaal) Magloire in more.”
Magloire is a noted physical player often without the most grace.
“I don’t make the decisions,” Noah said when asked whether he thought Garnett deserved a suspension. “He’s always swinging elbows, man. I’m hurting right now because of an elbow he threw. It’s unbelievable. He’s a dirty player.
“It’s one thing to be competitive,” Noah went on, getting into it now. “He’s a dirty player. It’s unbelievable. It’s one thing to be competitive and compete. But don’t be a dirty player, man,” Noah, whose Bulls are facing the Cleveland Cavaliers, said of Garnett. “He knows what he’s doing. It’s wrong. Then after that to say (Garnett’s weak post game explanation of defending a fallen teammate)… I shouldn’t even be talking about that. It’s crazy.”
And how refreshing is this kid?
To play with the emotion and joie de vivre he does, no phoniness, no games or acting, a guy who respects he game and professional behavior and will stand up for dignity.
The Bulls can be proud he’s one of them.
Cleveland Tourism
So let me elaborate on my comment on Cleveland. As they proudly say here, “At least we’re not Detroit.”
There’s an hysterical video you can find on Youtube entitled “Cleveland tourism” that pretty much sums it up. It notes you get to see the sun three times a year, you can buy a house for the price of a VCR, it leads the nation in drifters, the highlight of its downtown is poor people waiting for buses and has an economy based on LeBron James.
The suburbs are like any suburbs anywhere, comfortable with nice homes and two of every fast food place on every block. But since both the baseball stadium and basketball arena are downtown, the teams stay there and there is no more depressing center city anywhere. Among the 30 NBA stops, this always is my least favorite with barely a decent restaurant anywhere downtown, little retail and a gloomy, scary stretch of streets that are deserted once it gets dark.
Noah was in a buoyant mood after practice, obviously, given his newsmaking comments on Kevin Garnett. Celtics coach Doc Rivers joked he didn’t know Noah was in their series. Garnett got a one game suspension for his elbowing. But I also ran across a Tweet from Andrew Bogut sarcastically wondering who started that Celtics/Heat melee. You’d think the Aussies were from Brooklyn if not for the accent. Everyone around the NBA knows Garnett is a punk and relentlessly cheap shots and spews verbal lunacy about it. What a sad way for a formerly great player to be playing his last years.
Anyway, Noah was asked about being booed because he had dared question LeBron James acting like an idiot when he was dancing on the court against the Bulls a few months back. Hey, it’s Cleveland. Ever see the way they dress to the football games?
“I don’t know about Cleveland, man,” Noah moaned. “There’s nothing going on. It’s bad, man. It’s bad.”
So regarding chants of “sucks,” Noah quipped: “What? That Cleveland sucks?”
I think Detroit’s downtown may be worse, but we never stay there with the arena in Auburn Hills. But at least Detroit is close to Canada and those cheap prescription medicines we can’t get here. Hey, you think about that at my age, though Allen Iverson seemed to like it more for the Ontario gambling. Cleveland is close to Erie, Pa., I think.