Tag Archives: paul pierce

Now begins the hard part, waiting for LeBron

And now we wait.

The last time I heard that in quite this dramatic a sense was in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

Hey, it was a classic of a sort.

And perhaps that is the most appropriate reference because this Great Free Agent Chase of 2010 has become something of a farce.

Now, the Bulls, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, at least, go home to wait to find out if they have been chosen by the player, LeBron James, who calls himself the chosen one.

How absolutely ridiculous has this been to watch teams of civic, business and entertainment leaders parade into an office building near Akron, Ohio, to basically plead with a basketball player still in shorts and t-shirt to honor their team and their city with his presence.

I know athletes were victimized for years by teams before the advent of free agency, but the symbolism of this has gotten ludicrous.

Here is James hosting some of the most powerful and influential people in the business and sports world and he’s sitting down for these pleading presentations like he’s eating at Burger King.

It remained unclear to me, as in medieval times when greeting a king whether the participants had to leave the room walking backward since kings refused to look upon the backs of subjects or those seeking favors.

I know it’s not much, but at least tuck in your shirt.

I weep for the entire NBA in this process for having to prostrate itself to this extent for just the chance to acquire some talent. Look, I understand. It’s the way it is now, and the rewards potentially are great. So you grit your teeth and turn it into a welcoming smile.

Actually, I’ve heard the Bulls presentation to James Saturday afternoon, the last of the teams courting his basketball majesty, was both dignified and spectacular.

Gone was the 2000 debacle of brass band and Benny the Bull for a frightened Tracy McGrady.

The Bulls management team made its presentation along with a film that included testimony from many of Chicago’s top business and civic leaders about how James would profit immensely both on and off the court in Chicago, undeniably more than anywhere else.

The point was perhaps that New York was bigger and Miami had Dwyane Wade, but New York’s roster was a disaster and Miami’s entrée into international finance was a non-starter. The best combination came in Chicago and with the Bulls, and this was a franchise that not only would do anything but despite what’s been spread, including by Wade, the franchise has spent lavishly in free agency and to accommodate it’s stars.

At the height of the Bulls’ championship run, the Bulls had the league’s highest payroll. Jordan in 1988 signed one of the first true groundbreaking contracts in pro sports that shocked the world, the eight-year $25 million blockbuster which was international news. It came when Jordan hadn’t even been past the second round of the playoffs. Ben Wallace, bad investment or not, was offered $12 million more than even his home team offered whom he helped win a championship. When Jay Williams was injured and violated his contract the Bulls paid him anyway, just as they did Jordan when he quit basketball to play minor league baseball.

Come to Chicago and only there can you achieve your championship dreams of outpacing Kobe Bryant.

That likely is one reason why James and Wade and Chris Bosh have some things to think about. Because there also is some significant intrigue going on among the top guys.

As we’ve seen, most of the apparent commitments thus far, like with Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay and seemingly Amar’e Stoudemire to New York, are about chasing the most money. Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce are staying for the same reason, millions of them.  The Bulls cannot give anyone the most money because they likely cannot do a sign-and-trade for James or Wade, and only maybe for Bosh.

But here’s what’s going on: James and Wade still are favorites to return to their teams for the most money and Bosh is trying to figure out if he can get a sign-and-trade deal, though Toronto doesn’t want players back and perhaps will take multiple No. 1 draft or maybe no deal.

The big surprise in this has been Wade making nice with the Bulls.

Long considered a lock to return to Miami, Wade is playing it coy in challenging Miami to improve its roster first or perhaps bolt to the Bulls, which would prove devastating to the Heat.

So James is now left to ponder whether Wade is trying an end run to get he and Bosh to Chicago with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, a foursome that likely would deny James any chance at a championships for years to come if he stayed home. Miami would be out for James, as would New York, and could James justify playing in Newark, N.J., wherever that is, and with a team coming off a 12-win season without a regular All-Star?

Is Wade bluffing, trying to push James out of his Cleveland comfort zone and top salary to the Bulls without Bosh, who then would follow Wade to Miami? And watch James and Rose fight it out for the ball?

Is Wade trying to distract the Bulls and have them show James they are not fully committed to him to scare him back to Cleveland and keep the Bulls from compiling a super team?

Or is Wade serious about what all these guys merely pay lip service to, that being winning at any cost. Would Wade take substantially less money to return to Chicago and team with Rose and bring along Bosh with what would be an ideal fit as the Bulls primary needs are shooting guard and power forward? James plays Luol Deng’s small forward position, and with previous attempts to trade Deng proving unavailing, that could be an ugly locker room with Deng sentenced to the bench and a minimum salary shooting guard to step in.

With Wade and Bosh, or even Carlos Boozer, all the pieces fall into place and the Bulls could be talking contending immediately.

But there’s also the possibility of finishing a strong second in each case, and place doesn’t pay anything in this race.

James could return to Cleveland now that Byron Scott is coach and the rumors are they’d figure out a way to trade for Chris Paul. Maybe another short deal as he’s only 25 and Jordan didn’t win until he was 28.

Maybe Wade goes back to Miami, where he is the most popular athlete in South Florida and has built a reputation in the community while he seems to have a good chance to regain custody of his children and maybe move them there.

So what of Bosh?

He’s been the flake in all this with goofy twitter bulletins about his thoughts about interviewing and psychological angst. And this guy was recruited in high school. What must that have been like?

He’s wanted the sign-and-trade for the six-year deal, and the Bulls and Heat would have a shot if Toronto truly only wants draft picks and cash. But other teams can get in with bigger players, and Bosh has been something less than the most committed competitor.

If you are Bosh and believe you deserve a maximum salary, how the heck do you miss the playoffs twice in a row with a pretty good roster that the general manager said was a 50-win team entering this past season?

That said, I’d still take him if I were the Bulls, even without James or Wade. Look, the reality is there are about five or six players in the entire NBA truly worth a “max’ deal and two players in this class, James and Wade.

This is the talent that plays today, so you have to take the best you can and pay. It’s a players’ market with more teams spending than players to spend the money on. Teams and fans have to get over that.

Stoudemire probably won’t even take a physical lest the Knicks fear losing him.

The Bulls’ sales pitch has to be strong because they can pay each of two top free agents about $1 million less than the lower five-year max with the assurance they would more than make it up on a championship team in Chicago. That’s been proven.

But what if Bosh bolts and takes a sign-and-trade elsewhere?

Would LeBron and Wade pair in Chicago? Everything I continue to hear is they don’t want to be together, and teaming with Rose would be an awkward fit that probably would chase Rose out as a free agent when his deal comes up. I’d take Wade with Rose, but I’d rather have Rose at his age than Wade. Wade just spent two grueling seasons using up a lot of his future to keep the Heat competitive. Ask Patrick Ewing how that kind of play under a Pat Riley system shortened his effective career.

If Bosh does bolt, then it becomes a race among the Bulls, Heat and Nets for Carlos Boozer.

So here’s the tough part for some of these guys.

James could go back to Cleveland and they have a mid-level exception, so they’ll add someone decent and they did win 60-plus games the last two seasons practically uncoached.

But how could Wade return to Miami if Bosh and Boozer went elsewhere, again without help and with a disaster of a roster now? He’d have to have a commitment from someone like Bosh or Boozer to return as I don’t see David Lee in that class.

Could the Bulls lock up Bosh or Boozer, or have they already, and that’s their pitch to James? Or why Wade suddenly became so lovey dovey with a franchise he’s basically ignored for several years.

Maybe he needs to head off James and can’t return to Miami because the Heat cannot assure him of that running mate. Even without Bosh or Boozer, having Wade with Rose and Taj Gibson at power forward would look, at least to me, like as good as there is in the East.

But, again, would Wade take so much less money. Some teams have toyed with the idea of an insurance contract for the sixth year in case  a player like Wade is hurt, so he still can collect a big ending season on his contract.

And Wade has been saying there’s more to his free agency life than just basketball, which no one is quite sure about the meaning.

They all talk about winning, but so far everyone who has committed has put themselves in situations to barely make the playoffs or barely advance a round.

James, Wade and Bosh have a chance to be the exceptions. But who goes first and where remain the questions.

So the Bulls and Heat seem in the most potentially exceptional and vulnerable positions. If Wade returns to Miami and brings Bosh with him and the Nets wow Boozer, it’s David Lee, and I’d probably rather stay with Gibson and test out the trade and utility free agent market and build a team.

If Wade and Bosh go to Chicago, making the Bulls the East favorites, Boozer probably is going to New Jersey and Eric Spoelstra likely would be begging Riley to coach.

As Mr. Magorium said, “Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.”

We’ll soon see if anyone will.

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Where LeBron, Wade and the free agents are going…

As the Great One said, “And away we go.”

No, not LeBron, the real Great One, Jackie Gleason. Of course, that may be bad karma here as he went to Miami.

No, I don’t believe LeBron is going to Miami to form some superhero trio of Flash, Batman and Robin, also known as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, if only because Wade doesn’t want to be elbowed aside, Bosh doesn’t want to be a third wheel doing the inside dirty work and LeBron doesn’t want to be known as a guy who needed Dwyane Wade to get him a championship. Plus, who really wants to play for Pat Riley? He’ll put on a great pitch, as he is probably the league’s most impressive salesman/motivator. But who needs those Kremlin rules and three-hour practices?

I think the key to all this may be Chris Bosh.

He seems like the mystery figure to me. Everyone seems to assume/hear/believe/know he’s going as some sort of tag along for LeBron or Wade. He could, but I don’t believe he views himself that way. I’m not sure he needs to be the dominant figure, as he’s pretty much shown he’s not up to being able to carry a team. But he also has made it clear he’s not playing center–Miami and New York have no center–and never has been a defensive stalwart. Bosh has an ego as well and if not the guy to carry a team, which he’d have to be in New York, then he likely doesn’t also want to be the guy to be ignored and the third option for a shot. I know we all want to say they’d sacrifice for winning. But you also want to be a large part of that.

Plus, Bosh is most likely, along with Joe Johnson, to want a sign-and-trade. Johnson will for sure if he were to leave, because five years from now at his age, now 29, there’d be no way he’d be in position for a $28 million pay day, which is about the final year of a six-year contract. Likely Bosh as well, even though he’s 26. A dozen years into his career, it’s hard to see how Bosh would command a salary that high.

In addition, there’s little chance in a new labor deal after next summer anyone would be able to make that kind of money in one season in the future. That is also why Wade stays in Miami. At 28 and with a history of injuries, Wade needs to cash in now as well.

The only one who really doesn’t need to is LeBron, who is 25 and likely to still be in his prime if he were to leave and sign for five years. The Cavs seem to have made it clear they are not doing any sign and trade to accommodate LeBron, especially to an Eastern team. But LeBron has outside earnings interests that basically none of the others have with the exception, perhaps to a limited extent, of Wade.

Meetings began just after midnight Eastern Time Thursday morning, with LeBron’s expected to last about three days. The thinking is he’ll commit to someone fairly soon after that, as he’s been accused enough already of making this a circus-like atmosphere. Some of those meetings will be based on whether the team can produce another free agent to join LeBron and whom that might be. Despite what you may have heard, LeBron isn’t delivering anyone else. He’s expecting a team to show him what they can do, not unlike Wade, who has been asking the same of the Heat.

Yes, the heat is on and there are an awful lot of team executives sweating.

So what’s going to happen and who’s going where? I think the Bulls do have a pretty good shot to hit the jackpot, though I don’t see it in the end.

LeBron James: Cavs. Since when did they get so bad? They just won 127 games in two seasons and had LeBron himself not gone into that mysterious Game 5 pout against the Celtics they probably would have won that series. They are getting a new coach, likely Byron Scott or Brian Shaw, both appealing to James for their championship playing experience. Plus, because they are over the cap they have the mid level exception and will be able to give someone a $35 million deal, which will get you a very good player in this era. Anderson Varejao can be somewhat like Joakim Noah at center. They have Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams, near All Stars and potentially could have cap room after one more season. He just built a huge mansion near Akron, where the Cavs built their training facility and can you go home again after being the basketball version of Art Modell, who stole your team and chance for something special. And there’s that extra approximately $30 million he gets from staying a sixth year. I know he has a lot of money. But that’s what Michael Jordan made when he finally hit it big with the Bulls. And after next summer with a new labor deal, those kinds of one season paydays are probably over with. I believe his only other choice will be Chicago if the Bulls can attract Chris Bosh, whom I believe they will. LeBron will have a tough time making that choice, but eventually will stay home.

Chris Bosh: Bulls. This would be a huge coup for the Bulls, even if LeBron doesn’t come. If they get a commitment from Bosh, it makes them the most appealing to LeBron. Though the complication is a sign-and-trade. Bosh wants it and all things being equal will go to another team that’s close if he can get it. I believe Miami is out because all they can really offer is Michael Beasley, whom I’ve heard the Raptors won’t take because of his myriad of issues. Heck, with his record he might not even make it past customs. Same with Chalmers. So forget that. Would Bosh go to Houston to play with Yao? The Mavs? The Lakers made sense, but they say they are out. We’ll see. The Raptors surely would prefer Bosh out of the East and could get a decent sign-and-trade involving Luis Scola and then maybe build up a deal to enable the Raptors to get rid of Hedo Turkoglu or Jose Calderon. But would Bosh want to go there? That’s why he’s the mystery in all this. He seems the toughest to read with statements one day he wants to be the main man and then the obvious that he cannot be. He’s given the Raptors a list of seven teams he’d go to for a sign and trade, so there are options for the Raptors. Chicago would fit him perfectly as there’s a center so he doesn’t have to play there and worry about defense and a point guard who doesn’t really want to be the leading scorer and he can be the leading scorer without having to carry the load, seemingly ideal for him. I’ve heard he’s been in touch regularly with Rose and has told Rose of his interest previously. In the end, my guess is the Raptors take Taj Gibson, three No. 1s and the maximum $3 million. That’s also a huge trade exception for them and they can do some maneuvering on their own. Is that enough to attract LeBron? But then LeBron comes at less money and he’s the man while Bosh makes more. I’ve never seen that as a happy locker room in the NBA. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bosh would prefer it that way without LeBron because then the Bulls would be in position to win the East and LeBron would be without a super teammate as he likely wouldn’t go to Miami. Then the Bulls go for a shooting guard like Ray Allen, Randy Foye, Ronnie Brewer or J.J. Redick. The Bosh scenario is the scenario to watch most closely. I see the Bosh/Carlos Boozer tandem as the main possibilities for the Bulls and Heat. So if Bosh flees, the battle likely is over Boozer.

Dwyane Wade: Miami. He’s not going anywhere and leaving that extra $28 million or so on the table, the lack of state taxes, South Beach and it looks like him getting custody of his kids and why would he want to be anywhere else? He’ll get a power forward partner. Bosh is his choice as he and Bosh share agents. But he probably realizes there isn’t a huge chance. Pat Riley has privately said for months the Heat is getting LeBron, but that’s no place to build an international brand as LeBron wants to do. I know, Cleveland probably isn’t, either, but you get some credit for staying and building. Wade will visit the Bulls among a few other spots, but it’s hard to see that as other than a fact finding visit about what those teams are up to as Wade has been very open, the most among the top free agents, in personally recruiting.

Joe Johnson: Atlanta. Once word started to come out that the Hawks were going to offer Johnson a max deal, it was over. There’s no way he could walk away from six years and $126 million at age 29 and coming off that desultory playoff finish that labeled him to some not even worth a five year maximum. I’d take him, and he was committed as much as anyone to the Bulls for much of the season. But the Hawks make a good point in saying even with Chicago having someone like Bosh they are as good as the Bulls with Johnson and a chance to add a mid level player and Jamal Crawford going into his final season and trade material. And without Kirk Hinrich there wasn’t any real sign and trade possibility with Atlanta for the Bulls. The Mavs will try a sign and trade with Caron Butler, but the Hawks are for sale and like with the Tribune’s view of the Soriano signing when the team was being sold, what’s the big deal. The next guy will pay the contract.

Carlos Boozer: Miami. Though he has his Coconut Grove home up for sale. Boozer is also the Bulls fallback if somehow Bosh gets to Miami and Wade. As I said, I cannot see it as he is likely to get a reasonable sign and trade somewhere he prefers and as much a competitor as Bosh might be, he’s not about to go for winning while he makes all the monetary sacrifice and Wade makes none. With slightly less than $30 million after signing Wade, the Heat have money for an additional guy after signing Boozer and that should be enough to at least keep Wade there. Look, without a low post All Star they won 47 games. They should still be right there in the mix. But rather than everyone coming together I see most of them going for what’s best for each and the Lakers still the favorite coming into next season.

Amar’e Stoudemire: Suns. The assumption in Phoenix has been owner Robert Sarver won’t pay Stoudemire. Stoudemire’s not likely to warrant a huge sign and trade or likely any. He’s cocky, but he has it awfully good in Phoenix with Steve Nash and a comfort zone now. There remain concerns about the possibilities of more surgery, though he is fine now, after microfracture a few years back. He may be too much of a risk on the outside, though the Nets could take a shot.

David Lee: Nets. The Nets are the wildcard in the LeBron race because everyone with an arched eyebrow wonders what the new Russian oligarch owner will promise LeBron. The league will be watching, though they are more like the SEC trying to figure out what the banks are doing. They don’t have the expertise to examine these kinds of holdings and business deals. If the owner puts away a $100 million annuity for LeBron, no one would ever know. Heck, it could be in gold bars with his initials on them in some country without vowels. Lee doesn’t need to be a savior in New York when they strike out. He could play off Brook Lopez well with his new shooting and help Lopez’ rebounding and give time for Derrick Favors to develop.

Dirk Nowitzki: Mavericks. I know he talks all the time about nothing meaning much but winning, but he does have an owner who will make moves. Cuban is all over the free agents to try for a sign and trade and will be trying hard for Bosh as well. The money is too big to pass on and the possibilities of being better than Dallas now are uncertain.

Paul Pierce: Celtics. Likewise with Nowitzki, he’s a lifer. His value likely isn’t that much anyway as he was part of one of the losingest teams ever until Garnett and Ray Allen showed up. He wants a longer deal and certainly will get it.

Rudy Gay: Knicks. Rudy will be the biggest winner because the Knicks cannot come out of this empty handed and have the most money to waste. Gay will be the most not worth it, but he’s a lot better than trying to resign Al Harrington. He’s a huge talent and can be a spectacular player with a personality that can fit the city. They’ll make runs at other players and throw such a front loaded deal at Memphis since Rudy is restricted that Elvis will roll over in his grave.

Of course, sources who may or may not know assure me this may or may not happen. But it sure is going to be fun to find out. How sweet it is!

Thibodeau hired to coach Bulls

The Bulls have a new coach, Tom Thibodeau of the Boston Celtics.

Thibodeau, according to reliable sources, agreed to a three-year deal early Saturday afternoon to become the 15th (not counting interims) coach in Bulls history.

Thibodeau currently is the associate head coach of the Celtics, who are down 1-0 in the NBA Finals.

NBA rules do not specifically prohibit the announcement of significant transactions like a trade or coaching hire during the Finals, a spokesman said. But teams are strongly discouraged from doing so to not upstage the league’s premier postseason event. Plus, Thibodeau is busy now, anyway.

I know. Apparently this memo never reached LeBron James.

So the Bulls declined comment.

But reliable sources close to Thibodeau confirmed that Thibodeau received the three-year offer worth some $6.5 million late Friday and agreed early Saturday.

Sources also said Thibodeau is trying to persuade Oklahoma City Thunder assistants Mo Cheeks and Ron Adams to join his staff in Chicago with holdover Pete Myers.

Thibodeau also is not expected to comment until the Finals conclude and under rules of the Celtics assistant coaches cannot do interviews with the media.

Unlike the interview process, which was permitted by the league to be public, the Bulls will have to wait to make the official announcement. Team officials could not be reached for comment.

But it was clear with word from Thibodeau’s associates the deal is done and that Thibodeau is thrilled. Thibodeau made the unusual commitment to pass on several job opportunities just for the chance to be considered a prime candidate for the Bulls job.

Although the Bulls did extensive background work on numerous candidates and had informal personal and telephone discussions with candidates, the interview with Thibodeau while the Celtics prepared for the Finals earlier this week was the most significant.

So did the Bulls get a great coach?

No one ever truly knows that until they get the chance to prove it. But Thibodeau has strong backing and support around the NBA and in retrospect perhaps the major surprise is he is just getting his first NBA head coaching job.

The guy has been so good for so long that he’s been taken for granted,” Jeff Van Gundy told the Newark Star-Ledger about Thibodeau, his longtime assistant. “Tom now has this thing where he’s known as a defensive guy, which he’s great at — not good, great. But he also is very good offensively. And it’s the reason why I hired him initially in New York — his work with individual players. He had incredibly good offensively ideas. His work with Yao Ming still gets overlooked because Yao is hurt a lot. But in Yao’s last full year, he was an MVP candidate, 25 and 11.”

Thibodeau has gotten a reputation as a so called defensive guru, which is a bit unfair because you have to have the players. And while he did have Kevin Garnett in Boston, no one ever accused Ray Allen or Paul Pierce of being defenders previously in their careers and they’ve both been principal starters for one of the NBA best defenses the last three years, and at the most vital wing positions where there is the best talent.

The so-called knock on Thibodeau has been that he’s too intense, so would not relate well with players. But with Thibodeau up for serious head coaching consideration this season his players have been effusive in praise. And Van Gundy also noted the irony of guys being condemned because they don’t work hard enough and here’s a guy who supposedly works too hard.

And while Thibodeau is highly regarded for his defense systems and schemes, even Kobe Bryant credited him in a recent interview for helping Bryant develop his offensive game when Bryant was growing up in Philadelphia and Thibodeau was a 76ers assistant.

As the son of former 76ers Joe Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe had access to 76ers facilities and said of Thibodeau: “He started drilling me, NBA basketball drills, when I was 14. So he kind of has inside information on what I like to do because he taught me most of the stuff.”

Added Bryant: “I’ve been facing his defenses here for some time and they’re tough – very, very tough.  Every single team he’s been on has had great strategies and physical defenses.”

And Van Gundy’s point about Thibodeau and Yao was significant, if often overlooked.

But before his injury which kept him out all last season, Yao had become one of the most efficient and effective offensive players in the NBA. Thibodeau is a renowned worker who has put the job before everything in his life. Friends says he owns little but a car as he spends all his time working with players and on the game. During his time with Van Gundy in Houston, Thibodeau traveled to China in the summers to work with Yao and developed a strong teacher/student relationship with him and Yao long has been an advocate.

Here are some quotes from Boston players on Thibodeau:

Ray Allen: “Tom will come up with a defensive scheme that we’ve never heard before, and he’ll say it like we’ve been talking about it all year.  But he makes sure we’re all on the same page with it. So, he’s definitely kept us keyed in.”

Kevin Garnett: “Coach is real animated. He’s real emotional. He’s real energetic. That’s what type of defense we try to go out and have. It’s an energetic, consistent defense. It’s a talkative defense, and when you see him on the side, those are the things that he’s put in for us to try to go and carry over to the court.”

Kendrick Perkins: “Thib has been the best thing that happened to us.”

I’ve also heard the stuff about Thibodeau and being too much a workaholic and humorless, and as I’ve written previously I didn’t find that when I’ve talked with him and I remember a scene at the All Star game in New Orleans a few years back when I saw Yao and Thibodeau doing something of a comedy routine for the NBA Entertainment cameras, which are everywhere during All Star weekend, about Thibodeau being single and what he does on Valentine’s Day and both shooting one liners at one another. And if you have been around Yao you knew he does that much better than most guys with English as a first language. It certainly didn’t strike me with Thibodeau as a guy who didn’t have the humor gene.

Which is not to say the Bulls hired Jerry Seinfeld.

I believe they hired one of the most respected coaching minds in the NBA. That seems to be a good start. And, at least on this one, Jeff Van Gundy and I agree.

I caught up with Van Gundy Saturday afternoon after Finals practice and he was both thrilled and relieved his old friend and coaching colleague, Thibodeau, finally gets a chance to be a head coach.

Van Gundy chose to sit out this coaching derby to stay with his ESPN/ABC television gig, but his views about the game are held in high regard and he believes Thibodeau will be a success with the Bulls.

Van Gundy admits he probably wouldn’t have been so bold if he were Thibodeau to turn down jobs to pursue a chance with the Bulls, but Van Gundy said, “You’ve got to admire him. He knew what he wanted and he went for it.

“He’s smart,” said Van Gundy about why he believes Thibodeau is the right man for the Bulls job now. “But not just smart about the game, but about people and making the right decisions. That’s critical to being a good coach and that’s what he’s got. The other thing is he’s sincere, reliable and trustworthy. Those are the things that are going to form the basis for solid relationships.

“He’s as bright as anyone I know about the game,” said Van Gundy. “I don’t worry about that. It’s the other stuff at which he’ll surprise his critics. This is a guy who’ll be astute about the magnitude of the job.”

Van Gundy laughed about past questions of Thibodeau’s supposed lack of a gregarious nature. Besides not necessarily being the case, Van Gundy said it’s not like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are going around doing celebrity roasts.

“I have no doubt for a guy who never has coached an NBA game that he’s done as much to prove he’s ready to get an opportunity as anybody. He’s experienced everything, the highs and lows, the championships, long losing streaks, winning streaks, all kinds of markets and players. He’s a guy who knows how the NBA works and he’ll be the same coach every day. No real highs or lows, and that demeanor will serve him well.

“And he understands the balance you need for winning basketball,” said Van Gundy. “You see that with the teams still playing, teams that balance offense and defense.”

Van Gundy admitted his friend was discouraged some after the Celtics won in 2008 and he didn’t get a head coaching chance, but he persevered, which is the kind of trait a coach needs to carry a team through the tough parts of seasons.

“Like any good coach, Tom believes in certain principles without regard to who is on the team,” said Van Gundy. “Play hard, play smart, play together, defend, rebound, take care of the ball. But he will design a system that plays to the strengths of his best players and try to hide their non strengths. I think his time in Philadelphia, New York and Boston has prepared him for the magnitude of the job.”

Bulls overcome Celts with Pax and Vinny a sidebar

This wasn’t Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich Tuesday who combined for 69 points, including 27 of the team’s 34 in the fourth quarter, to beat the Boston Celtics 101-93 before a raucous, playoff like crowd at the United Center.
No, it was more like Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe. Like Gail Goodrich and Jerry West. Like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Like Bob Cousy and Sam Jones.
This was a backcourt duo for the ages as the Bulls now will make the playoffs if they defeat Charlotte Wednesday or if the Toronto Raptors lose to the Knicks.
“We’re just having trust and confidence in one another and we’ve been playing good basketball,” said Rose, who scored a career high 39 points and drove All Star and top defender Rajon Rondo from the game late. “It was one of those days. Some days it’s a whole bunch of turnovers. It was one of those days I hit almost everything. It’s my teammates who give me the confidence. I love playing here and being in tough situations, which makes me go out and perform. Kirk was huge knocking down shots, stepping up and making big plays. He’s one of our leaders. Everyone, the younger guys, look up to him.”
And the Bulls are a game from not having to look up at the eight playoff teams. Their destiny, as it were, is in their hands again after a second playoff style effort in which they outworked a Boston team playing its regulars with Paul Pierce with 28 points and Ray Allen with 25.
The Celtics now fall to fourth in the Eastern Conference and are likely to open the playoffs against the hot Miami Heat and potentially face Cleveland in the second round. The Celtics were hoping to avoid both, so it was no late season, Cavs like team.
But the Bulls dominated the boards 49-40 with Joakim Noah with nine points, 16 rebounds and three blocks (Rose was all over the place and also had three blocks) and Luol Deng with seven points and 12 rebounds. The Bulls committed just eight turnovers and shot 56.4 percent after halftime with Hinrich and Rose combining to shoot 26 for 42 overall.
With Boston relentlessly closing to within 90-86 with 1:48 left, Hinrich knocked in a big three from on top, sending the Celtics into a timeout and Noah running to Hinrich and rubbing his head.
“I don’t play with his pony tail when he make shots,” joked Hinrich. “He should leave my hair alone.”
Pierce then drove and was fouled for a pair of free throws. The Celtics cut off Rose and he found Hinrich in the left corner. Nate Robinson, who’d replaced Rondo with six minutes left, flew by Hinrich. Hinrich coolly stepped in for a 17 footer and 95-88 lead.
Allen then missed. Kevin Garnett got the ball, but Hinrich ripped it away and got it to Rose who ran ahead for what looked to be his second spectacular dunk of the game.
Earlier, Rose had a reverse two handed over the head tomahawk on a breakaway that would have had Stacey King making another commercial if the game wasn’t on TNT nationally.
“I’ve been planning that one for about three months,” Rose admitted. “I didn’t have the opportunity. I got it and tried. I did it to try and help my teammates get the edge. We’re playing in our building and the crowd likes to see exciting plays, so why not try.”
So on the way to another one of those—Rose said he was planning a one handed jam with his arm cocked back—his leg gave out and he was just able to get the ball over the rim and in to essentially end the game with the Bulls ahead 97-88 with 26.6 seconds left.
“I was happy I made it,” said Rose. “Or I would have been on TV somewhere with everyone making fun of me.”
The Celtics weren’t laughing, falling to 50-31 after giving it their best shot with the starters all playing big minutes and Garnett a reasonable 28.
“You saw Derrick Rose, you saw Kirk Hinrich. They really caught fire,” said Pierce. “That’s pretty much what it was. Those are the two leaders, the two scorers. They stepped up when it was needed.”
It should have been a heck of an uplifting night, and it was, especially in the wake of the equally big win in Toronto Sunday.
But just prior to the game YahooSports published a story detailing an altercation between executive vice president John Paxson and coach Vinny Del Negro, allegedly over Noah’s limited minutes schedule from his plantar fasciitis.
That line of questioning occupied much of the post game discussion, though it didn’t seem to bother the players much.
I get the feeling they have seen this before and know management and Del Negro have been an odds and no one will be surprised if Del Negro is relieved of his duties after this season.
The Bulls officially responded it was “an organizational issue” and it would be handled internally.
Though I write on the Bulls web site, that’s really all they tell me as well.
But players generally don’t worry about what they say and seemed pretty buoyant about the results of the game and even the line of questioning.
“Honestly, I didn’t hear anything about it,” said Deng, smiling. “I don’t think it’s affecting us at all. There’s always going to be news and that’s great for you (media) guys. It’s something to write about us.
“How did you hear about that?” Deng asked. “I stay away from all that. I’m sure those guys will solve it. It’s nothing more than guys being competitive. I’m sure it happens more in this league. I don’t think every team has snitches like we do.
“What happened, happened,” said Deng with a shrug.
So what did happen?
I’d heard some stuff about a dispute, but didn’t think much of it as there have been plenty over the years. Scott Skiles and Paxson used to have them. Jerry Krause had them all the time with Doug Collins and later Phil Jackson.
But I guess this got a bit physical, though it sounded a bit like one of those pushing scenes you sometimes see on the court when guys look like they want to fight but don’t.
I wish it wouldn’t have happened as I like Paxson and I like Vinny.
And they both were pretty fiery players in their time.
There’s obviously been some uneasiness throughout Del Negro’s tenure with rumors he’d be fired when the Bulls were nine games under .500 last year. Then after those blowout losses and 35-point lead lost to the Kings in December, there was a spate of national stories Vinny was to be fired any day. He obviously wasn’t, though he wanted a vote of confidence from management and mostly those are stupid as coaches generally get fired right after them. So management didn’t say much other than he was the coach.
Then Noah’s plantar fasciitis began to become serious and he had to stop playing. Noah went out Feb. 5 and missed seven games and the All Star break.
The medical opinion, as is known with plantar fasciitis, is you have to be careful and work back slowly or you can go back to ground zero and have to start over again.
So Noah was put on a very limited schedule. The next three games he played seven, 12 and seven minutes with his limitation increasing to 15 to 20 minutes.
Then came the Feb. 26 game with Portland with the Bulls facing a tough month in March. The Bulls were up to 30-27 and Vinny sensed some momentum he wanted to keep going. The Bulls got into a tough game with Portland and Noah came off the bench and was huge. Vinny got greedy going for the win in the overtime game and played Noah 27 minutes, almost double his time.
The next day was a disaster as Noah had that huge setback and was ordered out by the doctors at least three weeks, or 10 games.
The Bulls without Noah lost them all.
Things were edgy with Del Negro after that as Noah came back to a schedule of increasing minutes. By March 30 it was up to 25 minutes and the Bulls were monitoring it closely feeling they still had a shot at the playoffs if they could keep Noah playing.
So here were the Bulls again in a tough game against a good team, and Vinny’s former team, the Suns. Vinny went two minutes over with 27.
It didn’t seem like much, but he had been instructed.
I heard various versions of the story and only one staffer and no coach was witness. As far as I can tell, Paxson loudly challenged Del Negro about going over the limit again. These kinds of post game discussions are frequent, and I know even mild mannered Steve Kerr said one he had early with Mike D’Antoni led to bad feeling and D’Antoni’s eventual departure.
Now all of this stuff is subject to he said/she said as there really were no witnesses.
So supposedly Del Negro got up from his chair to come at Paxson. Or Del Negro got up and Paxson got in his face and pushed him. Paxson supposedly challenged Vinny. I also heard that Vinny welcomed it and said something like c’mon. I really don’t know whom to believe and what happened and didn’t talk to either Vinny or Paxson about it.
Here was Vinny after the game:
“All those things are internal. I have no comment. Whatever happens between the organization and myself…is internal. I focus on what I can control, preparation for the game and getting players ready. We’ve been battling a lot of adversity all season. Guys stayed together, showed great character and kept on fighting for eachother. I go about my job every day no matter what happens. I’m a competitor and love competing and the challenge and all the other things that happen stay internal.
“Of course (I wish it would not come out). That’s the NBA and things happen, practice or different situations things are going to come out. It’s part of the deal. You handle it and move forward and show leadership toward the team and go about your business. Things happen. There’s a lot of emotion involved in this game. A lot of things happen on a daily basis.
“The focus is on the game. I don’t waste my time with that stuff. I focus on the playoffs and getting ready to play. Now, we’ll focus on Charlotte. All that other stuff is irrelevant.”
Del Negro said the dispute didn’t enter into his thinking at all regarding not playing Noah but 12 seconds in the New Jersey overtime game. He credited the team doctor, Brian Cole, and trainer Fred Tedeschi with getting Noah ready to play at the level he’s at now (46 minutes Tuesday) and acknowledged sometimes with a competitor like Noah you have to protect him from himself and Del Negro said he feels “we’ve handled that right.”
I can see both sides. Vinny, like all coaches, works essentially day to day, and he was likely trying to sneak out a few minutes here and there for a win and hoping no one would notice. Noah having the relapse was a disaster. The Bulls view Noah, as we’ve seen from extraordinary performances of late, as a key part of their future and don’t want to risk injury and felt they knew best how to use him to push for the playoffs. Del Negro apparently saw it differently in trying to pile up wins when he could.
Not one person I spoke with said anything about anyone being punched or there being a fight. There seemed to be a lot of yelling, though it didn’t seem to faze Rose.
“What happened?” said Rose in a veteran response.
“I never heard about it. If it did happen it slipped past me,” he said. “I really don’t watch that stuff. When are around us, they’re always kidding around, joking around, talking. I guess they’re doing it behind closed doors. When they’re around us, they’re professionals.”
Noah was a bit annoyed, though made the point that whomever was leaking the story was more trying to distract the Bulls and perhaps cost them a playoff chance. Maybe it was Jay Triano.
“I think that that’s none of your guys’ business,” said Noah. “Things happen in a team and an organization. But that has nothing to do with you guys. We deserve not to have these problems talked about right now. We’re fighting as players. We’re giving everything we got. I don’t think it’s fair for us as players to be talking about that stuff. It’s nothing. Really, it’s nothing.”
And it did take away from a brilliant Bulls game in which they outworked and were tougher than the Boston bullies.
Garnett screamed obscenities, as he generally does, and Kendrick Perkins lumbered around yelling at everyone, even drawing a technical foul after he was awarded a three point play. It’s not just age now for the Celtics as they added Rasheed Wallace and Nate Robinson and when you start to add dogs you can find fleas. Too big Glen “Baby” Davis wallowed around and got a few shots blocked as he leads the league by far in that dubious category and classy guys like Ray Allen and Doc Rivers have to be wondering what the heck is going on.
It was a brutal start with the Celtics ahead 20-17 after one as the Bulls shot 28 percent from the field and 28.6 percent on free throws. It was not looking good.
The Bulls got it going in the second quarter with Hinrich on the way to his season high finding his shooting almost unerring.
“I feel I’m doing a better job of staying in the flow of the offense,” said Hinrich. “There are stretches of the game I don’t feel like I’m getting opportunities, but I’ve stayed patient. Derrick’s been drawing so much attention I’m getting good opportunities and have been able to knock down some shots.”
Quietly, Hinrich has three games of at least 23 in the last six games.
The Bulls went ahead 37-29, but Garnett and Pierce combined on a late surge to bring Boston within 44-41 at halftime.
The Celtics looked like they were taking control behind Pierce, going ahead 57-50. But Noah hit a jumper and a hard drive faking Garnett and going over Perkins and responding to the three-point chance with a bold fist pump. He was again bringing the life back to the Bulls.
“The intensity was there,” said Hinrich. “We knew we had to win in Toronto. We had to win tonight. Our mindset was refuse to lose.”
Still, the Celtics held on 68-67 after three.
Yes, it was winning time, and it went to the Bulls this time.
The Bulls opened the fourth with six straight, the last two on a Brad Miller miss that Rasheed Wallace grabbed and somehow pushed back into the basket that got a good laugh except on the Celtics bench. Miller then got a layup on a pass from Jannero Pargo, and then they turned it over to Rose and Hinrich, who were absolutely brilliant.
Rondo is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and a likely first or second team all-defensive player. Rose made him look silly and Rivers had to bench him.
Like all teams, the Celtics were doubling, leaving a man behind the primary defender to put up a wall, trapping on occasion. Nothing worked as Rose got anywhere he wanted and made jump shots, tear drops, leaners, layups and when he didn’t Hinrich was there for a pair of threes down the stretch, the Bulls with the Celtics answering almost every time scoring in their last seven possessions and nine of their last 11.
Yes, and this is a pretty good Celtics defensive team, if not the one of a few years ago, and Garnett played down the stretch.
“It’s a tough back to back,” said Hinrich of Game 82. “We’ve got one game to determine our fate.”

Bulls beat Wizards, but real tests now coming

The Bulls beat the Washington Wizards Friday 95-87. But make no mistake–they did not play very well, just well enough to beat a team that had just lost 16 straight games.

It took, in the end, a brilliant defensive sequence by Taj Gibson and then a Gibson jumper along with a Luol Deng three and a highlight Joakim Noah lob to Derrick Rose to finally pull away from a collection of D-League players and end of the bench reserves thrust into starting roles in the Wizards’ lost season.
Back home Saturday, the Bulls play the Charlotte Bobcats, who scratched out a rugged playoff style overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks Friday. If the Bulls want to seriously believe they have a chance to make the playoffs—and they have not beaten a playoff team since Feb. 26—then they have to start with Saturday’s game.
“I try to remind everybody that we are going to be in the playoffs,” said Rose, who led everyone with 24 points. “We just have to continue to win.  Even though the task is going to be hard, we’re still going to fight, come together, and try to put some games together.”
Yes, it’s going to be very difficult, especially since the Bucks could not help out the Bulls with Friday’s loss. It leaves the Bulls at 36-39, a game and a half behind Toronto but without the tiebreaker, and four games behind Charlotte with two games remaining with the Bobcats and a chance to get that tiebreaker.
But the Bulls are going to see a motivated, tough team Saturday instead of a rag tag bunch playing out the season. Nevertheless, the Wizards trailed by just one going into the fourth quarter. Thanks only to Washington shooting 12.5 percent in the fourth, the Bulls were able to pull away, though never quite convincingly.
“Our guys got some stops in the fourth quarter when we needed to,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.  “Overall, I didn’t think our rhythm was good as a team.  We had a lot of guys in and out of the line-up that have not been playing together for a while.  We found a way to win and we got the defensive stops in the second half that we needed. We don’t have time for an adjustment period.  Guys are going to have to battle through it and we will see who is healthy and those are the guys that will be out there.  We are going to need everybody and who ever can go will be out there.  We will see how it is all going to come together every day.”
There’s really no time for that anymore and, frankly, no reason.
There are seven games remaining. Everyone is healthy, or, at least, playing as Luol Deng returned from a calf injury and had 28 minutes off the bench. He had 14 points and six rebounds and a big three to make it 90-82 with 4:45 left right after the Wizards went to a zone and the Bulls acted like they’d never heard of the concept.
Deng needs to be back in the starting lineup. James Johnson made a few good plays, but he still makes way too many mistakes. I’ve seen about enough of him for this season. Development time is over.
Look, the Bulls need six wins, probably at minimum.
Rose played 41 minutes. Not quite enough, or at least he has to be engaged all the time. I know it’s a lot to ask for a kid whose played through a beating all season and took back to back hard falls again on his bad left wrist and on his back.
Joakim Noah was back in the starting lineup and played 27 minutes, getting 10 points and eight rebounds. I know he’s been hurt. But if he can’t play 35 minutes, then forget it. He’s had plenty of rest the last six weeks. Same with Deng. Put them out there and cut back the minutes of Brad Miller, who was awful shooting zero for nine, and Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick if they are having off nights.
Murray had been terrific the last few games, but his shot was missing Friday as he was two of 11. Vinny should have recognized that and gotten him out of there before he could do more damage. Warrick was very good. He had just seven points and  two rebounds, but he impacted the game.
He had a huge block on Andray Blatche with the Bulls leading 85-78 with just over six minutes left that led to the play of the game. Noah gathered in the ball and started dribbling up court, reminiscent to his coming out play in Game 6 of the Boston series last fall when he denied Paul Pierce and went all the way for the slam and three point play for the overtime winner.
This time Noah took the middle like a guard and found Rose with a perfect lob pass for a two handed flush that would have had Republicans cheering for health care.
“I was just thinking, ‘No bounce pass,'” laughed Rose afterward.  “‘At least throw it up so I can attempt to get it.’ But he threw a good pass. Jo was small when he was young, so he learned how to handle the ball. It was a great pass. I hope he continues to do that.”
Health permitting, we assume, though he looked good again high stepping in his loping running style, which is a good sign.
Del Negro coached best with a short rotation, basically using seven players down the stretch last season, and given the time off for the injured players who are back and the urgency, it’s time again.
I’m not saying guys don’t try hard. Or that some are unmotivated. But it has to be natural if you know you won’t be back with this team. Ride the guys who have an investment in the franchise’s success, like Rose, Deng, Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Gibson. The Bulls have some dry stretches on occasion even when Rose is playing, and that generally is because Rose will have periods where he defers or gives in too easily to the double team. He cannot do that now. Seven more games! He has to attack. He has to have the ball in his hand. He has to continue to make plays and force the referees to react.
“There are adjustments we have to go through, but there’s no time for it,” agreed Noah.  “There’s no time for excuses.  We have to go out there and play to the best of our ability and focus on what we have to do.”
So it’s Miller, Murray and Warrick off the bench with the starting five. If Miller is missing shots or driving and then standing around to argue with officials, like he was Friday, get him out of there. If Murray isn’t hot and standing outside, yank him. If Warrick is holding the ball too much and settling for long jumpers instead of attacking, forget him. Because if you need anyone else, you probably have lost, anyway.
Rose, as usual, was wonderful. Obviously, he can get a shot whenever he wants. But you can see how much he wants it.
The Bulls were soft on the boards for most of the game with the exception of Gibson. So Rose went up in traffic to get several rebounds when Blatche, with 18 points and 13 rebounds, was making fools of the Bulls interior early. Eventually given the kind of season they have had, the Wizards decided to hoist up a lot of selfish jumpers. But in the first half they were playing and making the Bulls look weak on the inside.
So with the Blatche and JaVale McGee playing volleyball over the Bulls heads in the second quarter, Rose went up to grab a defensive rebound. I liked  with the Bulls barely ahead 83-78 with eight minutes left Cartier Martin, a D-League guy, breaking out for what looked like a fast break dunk. Rose took off and caught him and forced him into losing the ball in what would have made it a three point game with eight minutes left. Yes, that’s how close it was.
It was right after that play Warrick bottomed out an 18 footer. Martin then missed a three and Noah spun out an easy layup on a beautiful feed from Rose. But it was then Warrick made the block to set up the Noah to Rose lob play and an 87-78 lead with just over six minutes left.
But the Bulls weren’t quite good enough to make the Wizards disappear yet.
The Wizards got some nice play from onetime Peoria star Shaun Livingston, and he looked good enough to resume an NBA career after horrific injuries. He had the highlight pass of the game, a behind the back, Magic no look for a McGee slam. But he wore down chasing Rose.
“He’s definitely a world class athlete,” said Livingston.  “He has definitely earned everything he has received.  There is definitely talent coming out of Illinois.  He was freshman when I was senior.  He grew up watching me take those titles, and then he got one It definitely wears you down (guarding him).  Part of his athleticism is that he can come at you full speed the whole game.  By the fourth quarter, you have to have some endurance to stay on him.”
Murray missed on a three and Wizards coach Flip Saunders sprung a zone on the  Bulls and the Bulls looked flummoxed, committing a 24-second violation. Fortunately for the Bulls, Mike Miller traveled, though the defense forced him into it, and Blatche, who had checked out mentally by now as he often does, fired up a jumper.
Nick Young was fouled and made both to bring Washington within five with 5:02 left. But Deng got deep in the left corner for a three and 90-82 lead to make the zone less appealing.
“We would not have won the game without the help of Luol,” said Del Negro. “I think he gave us some good minutes in both halves.”
Mike Miller got wide open on top for a matching three and it still was a five-point game with about four minutes left.
Murray finally drove and was fouled, making one of two, and then came the key possession.
Young fired off a three that missed long, but James Singleton retrieved the ball in a scrum with Gibson. The Wizards then worked the ball nicely and found Miller cutting down the lane. He got the ball and then passed to Young along the right baseline. Gibson turned to cut off Young, who passed into the lane to Singleton.
Gibson wheeled back toward the middle at Singleton and blocked the ball, a brilliant recovery.
Gibson finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.
Rose then was trapped on top and laid the ball off at the elbow to Gibson, who swished a 16 footer with three minutes left for a 93-85 lead, and that about took the heart out of Washington. The Bulls made a solid defensive stand on the next possession, rotating aggressively on several passes and forcing a 24-second violation. It was enough.
But it won’t be enough Saturday if what the Bulls showed Friday was all they’ve got. The Bobcats bring former Bulls Tyrus Thomas, who hasn’t been playing much with an ankle injury, Tyson Chandler, who got the same saving rebound tip Friday in overtime, Larry Hughes, and perhaps MJ in the building. Time to play for real.

Bulls face Heat with free agency implications

Sure it’s a big game for Eastern Conference playoff positioning Thursday at the United Center when the Bulls host the Miami Heat.
But it’s way more significant that just a playoff series or two or that the TNT studio team of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson will be there to broadcast the game.
It’s a big game, agrees Smith, because TNT is the place for all the NBA to watch Thursday nights because there are no other games. And Bulls/Miami doesn’t only mean playoffs. It is two of the premier cities in the NBA trying to make the case to be the ultimate destination for the best of 2010 free agency.
Free agency wars? Bosh Bowl I?
“How they perform in the latter part of the season might dictate who stays and who comes and who doesn’t,” Smith, the onetime championship team guard for the Houston Rockets, said of why he sees Thursday night’s game so crucial. “Can one team create some style that becomes attractive or exciting? From a purely competitive standpoint in terms of the future, games like this are big.”
In other words, LeBron and Bosh and Boozer and Stoudemire and Johnson all will be off and watching, and does one want to play with Wade and for Pat Riley’s organization?
Or with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the home of Michael Jordan?
“It has to be a team that is close or in the playoffs,” believes Smith. “The big name guys are trying to win it all. They are not going to go to a situation similar to where they are at.”
So perhaps they watch and imagine themselves with Wade and enjoying the freedom of less defensive attention as the opponent concentrates on Wade. Or seeing themselves not having to do the two toughest jobs in the NBA, match up against the physical inside big guys and handle the ball and make the right pass to set you up, like the Bulls have with Noah, who is expected to play about 15 minutes to 20 minutes, and Rose.
Of course, it’s a vital game for both teams in terms of their playoff futures for this season.
The Bulls are currently ninth, two games behind Toronto, which lost badly to the Jazz at home Wednesday night. The Raptors have lost nine of their last 13, and eight of the losses have been by double digits. But the Bulls are in the hole without the tiebreaker.
Miami is tied for sixth with Charlotte, a game and a half ahead of Toronto and two and a half games behind Milwaukee for fifth. Everyone generally wants to avoid Cleveland by not being eighth and likely Orlando, who remains second. Boston and Atlanta are tied for third trying to avoid fourth and a potential second round matchup with the Cavs.
But none of the bottom four playoff teams in the Eastern Conference will be expected to advance. Teams like the Bulls and Heat are eying the summer and free agency for the chance to advance next season. They, along with the Knicks, are considered the three prime destinations for free agents, and those free agents can begin to project Thursday what life might be like in the future.
Smith, who played 13 seasons in the NBA out of the U. of North Carolina, doubts any of the free agents has made his decision yet.
“It depends on what happens solely in April and May (playoffs),” Smith said. “Everything depends on how they play. Do (their teams) exceed expectations or not meet them. If they meet the level, they stay. If not, they (probably) go.”
Smith said free agents will be watching to see what Wade does and says.
Smith said Miami is one of the favorite cities of NBA players, and that “Pat Riley is a guru all basketball players want to have some relationship with. But Wade has to be the m.c. and vocal about getting people there. If he doesn’t (say much about being there) that says a lot. Overall, the front office is going to have to prove (to him) they can get a player.”
Smith says New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles are cities “guys circle on the calendar when they go there, for shopping, going out, meeting. You never get a bunch of guys in the summer saying, ‘Let’s go hang out in Salt Lake City.’ Nothing against Salt Lake City, but you don’t get that call. Guys are going to L.A., Miami, New York, Chicago. You get those calls. Places people go on vacation.”
Smith believes East Coast and Southern guys don’t know Chicago as well, but it’s a strong pull for those from the Midwest. Smith also said he doubts anyone is intimidated by the Michael Jordan legacy anymore.
“That’s all wiped out now,” says Smith. “It’s the city itself. Chicago is a great summer destination location. Look at Paul Pierce (despite) all the Celtics championships. He’s viewed as a winner regardless of all the banners. He’s viewed differently because he won.”
In addition to the studio crew doing the play by play and color and Craig Sager, a Batavia native with some special Bulls and Heat colors for his eclectic outfit, TNT has some enticing gimmicks for the broadcast. They’ll have coverage on NBA.com during the breaks and commercials, which is when Barkley usually is watching Law and Order.
Perhaps some will be needed on the floor as well.
The last time the Bulls and Heat met the law was trying to restore order.
That’s when Kirk Hinrich was suspended for bumping referee Bennie Adams after a parade of Heat players to the free throw line, 32 free throws to 17. Wade became so frustrated with Hinrich riding him into a seven for 16 shooting game Wade took what Bulls players and Taj Gibson regarded as a dirty, cheap shot at Gibson. Brad Miller talked about seeing the Heat again. Wade said Miller needed to stop crying.
Eighth place fever?
The Heat won earlier this month as Jermaine O’Neal again had a big game, the second time this season he had a 20-points plus game against the Bulls without Joakim Noah playing. When Noah played against O’Neal earlier in the season, O’Neal had a quiet eight points and seven rebounds. O’Neal doesn’t much like contact. Miami is 2-1 over the Bulls this season and three and a half games ahead of the Bulls.
The Bulls have come to life again after that 10-game losing streak.
They’ve won two straight with Rose back averaging 25 points and 6.5 assists on 55 percent shooting in the two wins. Noah has returned in limited minutes, more symbolic presence than impact player at this point.
Though the change for the Bulls has been in defense, mostly in an attitude change of not feeling sorry for themselves with the injuries (Luol Deng remains out) and not, basically, giving up, which it looked like a few weeks ago.
Gibson has fought through his plantar fasciitis and is averaging a tough 12.3 points and 10.7 rebounds the last three games as the Bulls have held each team under 100 points, an average of 88 after giving up at least 100 for 12 straight games.
Opponents in the last three games are shooting a combined 38 percent, and the Bulls finally outrebounded someone against the Rockets Monday.
Hinrich also has been strong, averaging 14.7 points, seven assists and 2.3 steals in the last three. Flip Murray, playing a lot of small forward with Deng out and James Johnson often in foul trouble, is averaging about 13 points but firing up shots at an alarming 33 percent rate.
So nothing is going to come easy, and now starts the time to make up games. Three of the next seven for the Bulls are against Eastern teams in the last four playoff spots.
And the Bulls, at least on paper, have the most difficult schedule.
The Bulls have 12 games left with eight against teams with .500 or better records.
Toronto with 12 games left has six such opponents while the Bobcats have four and the Heat three. The Bulls do have the most home games, seven, so there’s a chance, albeit slim.
Smith said it would be good looking toward free agency to make the playoffs, but not essential. It may depend more on what you have and how you play. The Bulls have a chance to put on a show Thursday and the people they most need to impress likely will be watching.

Derrick does Dallas; Rose looking ready

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Well, Derrick Rose got to Dallas and I didn’t. Snow in Dallas and it’s clear in Chicago. Next thing you know Jason Kidd will make the All-Star team.
What!
Anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter that much to the NBA that I’m still at O’Hare rummaging for a flight. Rose got to Dallas for All-Star weekend, and the indications were good late Thursday night that he’d be playing in Sunday’s game after his brutal fall in Wednesday’s Bulls loss to Orlando. X-rays and an MRI showed no significant injuries, though that grimace you see with Rose is not a smile. He was said to be moving a bit better after arriving in Dallas Thursday and would get treatment and another exam from Bulls physical Brian Cole Saturday.
It remains uncertain whether he’ll defend his title in the Skills exhibition Saturday, though indications are Rose will play Sunday.
It’s too bad he suffered the bruised hip that scared and shocked him as much as hurt him as he later told friends it was the first fall he’d taken like that. It’s unfortunate because he might even have started the All Star game because Allen Iverson pulled out for family reasons and was replaced by the Knicks’ David Lee.
That leaves the East team with guards Dwyane Wade, a starter, as well as Joe Johnson and Rajon Rondo. Stan Van Gundy is East coach and I was asking Van Gundy Wednesday in Chicago about Rose and he said he’d hoped to play him a lot because “he’s really good.” So given only Rondo is a point guard, Rose could have replaced Iverson.
That seems unlikely now given Rose figures to be slowed by his hip injury, though generally with replacement starters coaches like to go with veterans. And since it’s an All-Star game it doesn’t matter that much because there won’t exactly be a lot of pressing and trapping the pick and roll.
So it’s possible Paul Pierce could start in the backcourt with Wade, who plays a lot of point guard for Miami. For the West team, Kobe Bryant dropped out for injury season and was replaced, oddly, by Kidd. It obviously was a paean to Dallas and Mark Cuban for hosting the game. Though with the change Dirk Nowitzki should move into the starting lineup with Carmelo Anthony going to the backcourt with Steve Nash as starters.
That’s likely what should be done. But George Karl is West coach and he and Cuban had a celebrated feud in last year’s playoff series and it’s hardly beyond Karl to bench the Dallas players. Yes, All-Star controversy.
But even if Rose doesn’t play—and I don’t expect that—Rose is scheduled for a busy weekend. He and Bryant will appear together to present the awards at a video game tournament Saturday afternoon.
Rose’s schedule generally looks about like this with some changes possible for treatment and medical reasons:
Friday:

Interview session with world wide media: 12:30.
NBA Cares community work: 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Youth clinic: 6:00 p.m.
Rookie Challenge to support teammate Taj Gibson: 8:00 p.m.

Saturday:

All-Star practice: 11:00 a.m.
Labor meeting with commissioner and players association: 12:00 p.m.
Adidas appearance: 12:30 p.m.
Game appearance w/Kobe: 2:00 p.m.
Skills challenge (if participating): 6:00 p.m.

Sunday:

Foot Locker appearance: 12:00 p.m.
Depart for All-Star game: 4 p.m.

Monday:

Return to Chicago for practice.

So it’s a busy and exciting highlight time for Rose.
Before he left, we sat down for a few minutes and I asked him some of the big highlights of his first season and a half in the NBA:
Favorite game:
“Against Phoenix this year (with the monster dunk). It seemed like everything was clicking for me. Didn’t miss many shots. Making the right plays. It seemed like everything was clicking the whole game.”
Even more than the opening playoff win in Boston, I asked?
“Yeah, even more than playoffs in Boston.”
Favorite dunk:
“Against Greg Oden last year.”
That was his two hand flush taking a left wing pass and dunking over the seven footer in that early season loss.
Toughest opponent:
“Steve Nash. He’s really shifty and takes angles away from you when you are trying to stick him.”
Toughest team:
“The Lakers.”
Did you ever fantasize even about playing for the Bulls when you were at Memphis?
“Never. I never thought I’d be playing for the Bulls. When I first went to Memphis things were so hard at first I didn’t even know if I’d be able to leave after the first year until I got comfortable and things got easier for me. It was tough as a basketball player. I wasn’t thinking where I’d be. The day before the draft I thought I was going to Miami.”
Toughest thing:
“It’s got to be the injury (in preseason). Getting treatment and recovering from it. It’s tough because it’s frustrating, especially if it’s an injury that messes up your strength in basketball. Mine is running and being explosive and when you mess with that it messed with my whole game.”
Biggest thing he learned:
“Games are never over in the NBA. No matter how many points you are down you can always come back. Or get caught.”
Highlight:
“Last year against the Clippers was my first game we came back. We were down 20 and that’s when BG hit that that three to take us to overtime.”
Funniest:
“Watching other people’s expressions on the court when something happens. I laugh at Joakim on the court. He’s the funniest because he’s always yelling crazy stuff out.”
Off court the funniest:
“The bus rides. Everytime we go on the bus someone’s cracking jokes or laughing or telling a story. Every one of our bus rides are fun.”
Surprise:
“The game is much quicker than any game you ever played. I thought I’d seen it at Memphis, but up here the game is so much faster and you have to know so much.”
High:
“Taking it to Game 7; playing in that game was fun. The crowd was going crazy. They hated us. I like being the underdog. Right there was the prime example with them with home court advantage.”
Personal thrill:
“Winning games on the road, seeing the team get confidence, believing in each other and letting them believe in me and I believe in them. It seems I’m way more comfortable, smarter mentally, making the right plays. What the game is all about mentally.”
Best time of life:
“Probably the team in college and high school. We were around each other a little bit more. Here there are businesses guys have to attend and families, too much going on.”
Most proud:
“Playing back in Chicago. I’m blessed. Ain’t too many people out there have the opportunity to do that. For me to be playing here and my mom can see me and she don’t have to travel anywhere to see me and my family can see me anytime they want. Friends can come over my house. It’s fun. I wouldn’t take it back for anything in the world.”