I know the Bulls still are an eighth place team in the Eastern Conference. Eighteen NBA teams have better records. No one buys foam fingers to wave, “We’re No. 19!”
But suddenly, quietly, without any trades or coaching firings, the Bulls have won seven of 10 games, gotten wins against the top four teams in the Eastern Conference—in Boston Thursday 96-83, and earlier over Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta—won three straight by double figures and an average of 20 points per game and rank in the top five in the NBA in the key defensive categories.
“It’s probably the most complete game we’ve played all year with controlling it and that’s something we’ve been working on,” said Derrick Rose, who scored 17 points to support Luol Deng’s 25, but also nine in the fourth quarter with two highlight play drives down the stretch. “Everybody’s getting healthy and we’re just trying to compete now.”
And in the end, the Bulls did it with defense in a crucial segment with less than four minutes remaining and the Celtics, behind all game, ready to steal it with a Paul Pierce three to get within 86-80.
“Bottom line is we made some plays when we had to and we had a couple stops when we needed to,” said coach Vinny Del Negro.
The Bulls came out of a time out looking to get John Salmons in the post with a mismatch on Eddie House. But the Celtics helped and by the time the ball swung back around Deng had to rush a jumper that spun in and out on a night he was a sharp eight of 13 shooting.
Deng was really good in his matchup with Pierce, who led Boston with 20 but on six of 18 shooting as Deng easily won their battle.
“Deng is very good over the years and over the past few years he’s shown what he can do for that team, his improved jump shot from the mid range, you have to honor that, and I didn’t do a good job of honoring that tonight, and he knocked it down all night,” said Pierce “For a guy who hasn’t been an All Star in this league, he’s about as good as it gets without being an All Star.”
Pierce got a switch on Joakim Noah, who was dominant on the defensive boards and finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, his 19th double/double of the season. Noah stood his ground and kept Pierce on the outside. Pierce took an 18 footer that missed, and Rose did a nice job of tapping it to Taj Gibson.
Rose then had a runner just creep off the rim. Rajon Rondo took a screen from Pierce, who was playing power forward now with the Celtics having gone small, leaving Rondo a lane to the basket against Gibson. Gibson got a clean block, knocking the ball to Rose who pitched out to Deng. Deng missed the drive, but Rose got the rebound and hit Noah diving on a pick and roll and Noah was fouled. Noah made both free throws for an 88-80 lead with 2:17 left. Ray Allen then missed a three from the left wing and Gibson rose up in the middle for a huge defensive rebound.
Rondo went for a steal against Rose, who then blew past Rondo and all the way through the Celtics defense for a crossover layup at the basket and, effectively, the end of the game as the Celtics, quickly using fatigue as an excuse in their fourth game in five nights—as if no one in the NBA plays those schedules—pretty much gave up and fired up a few jumpers without much interest as the Bulls pulled away.
And perhaps as important as winning the game, the Bulls held off the Celtics down the stretch with their own big plays on both ends of the court.
“We knew it was their fourth game in five nights and we tried to keep the tempo up,” said Deng, who has 27 and 25 points the last two games and shot a combined 21 of 31. “What we did great was in the second half we came out and we knew they were going try to jump on us early and we did a good job. We played good enough defense, but we hit shots. We made plays, but we played well together. We shared the ball, we took good shots.”
It was an impressive all around effort. Every starter shot at least 50 percent and scored in double figures. The bench guys shot poorly, a combined six of 25, but Tyrus Thomas had four steals (after six against Detroit) and six offensive rebounds, and along with Salmons and Brad Miller all had at least five rebounds as the Bulls outrebounded the Celtics 50-39.
Yes, the Celtics were missing injured Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace. But the Bulls dominated Thursday’s national TNT game from start to finish with the Celtics leading a total of 17 seconds after having beaten the Bulls previously by 28 and 26.
“They’re a different team than they were,” said Boston coach Doc Rivers. “We got our butt kicked in every fashion. The Bulls were fresh. They looked it. They looked athletic. They looked quicker. I thought they came with a sense of purpose.”
The Bulls even are now one game ahead of their pace from a year ago this time after 37 games and when the Bulls then were in their worst slide of the season, soon to fall nine games below .500. Because this is the time for the second long Western Conference trip of the season, a seven gamer over two weeks which starts in Golden State Monday after Friday’s home game against Washington. Nine of the next 10 games after Friday are on the road and 10 of the last 13 leading up to the All Star break.
But this is the best the Bulls have played all season with Rose back at a high level and making big plays at the basket, Deng shooting well again, Kirk Hinrich getting the ball moving with Rose, and Noah and Gibson attacking the boards, especially on the defensive end, like the Bulls haven’t had in more than a decade.
“I was pleased with Joakim and Brad and Tryus,” said Del Negro. “Our front line battled and that’s what you have to do. They got a lot of size, a lot of weight up front with Perk and Big Baby. We were more determined to play 48 minutes. We’ve been in some games in the fourth quarter that we’ve let slip away and we haven’t been able to finish some of them off. This is basically the same team we played last year in the playoffs. We’re without our leading scorer who is no longer with us (Ben Gordon), but we have Luol back in the lineup and he was fantastic. We caught them at a good time with Kevin and Rasheed out. They’re obviously a different team when they don’t have two star players. We’ve (also) had our share of injuries. You just have to go through it. Our guys battled all night.”
It was an excellent effort from the beginning with the Bulls jumping on the Celtics to start. Rose came out strong with that left elbow jumper he likes so much and a beautiful hesitation drive. But he ran into some questionable foul calls, one so egregious that TNT announcer Doug Collins gave it an “oh my” when he saw the replay. The fouls limited Rose to just eight minutes and those two baskets in the first two minutes in the first half.
“I was in foul trouble earlier in the game,” Rose noted of his fourth quarter play. “I knew that to get it going I just had to force myself being aggressively attacking the basket, taking shots they were giving me.”
The Bulls got on a 9-0 run after that second Rose score and led 29-18 after the first quarter.
In that run was what has quietly become a signature shot from Noah.
Yes, he has a shot, which differentiates him, at least, from Dwight Howard already, who has yet to have one shot other than a dunk in more than five years. A year ago, Noah wouldn’t even turn toward the basket with the ball. He’s hardly smooth or graceful, but he’s developed this very reliable left handed driving runner which has proven to be a very impressive and dependable shot. And with his off hand no less.
He’s got to be the league’s Most Improved Player this season given one of the more remarkable turnarounds. He gets just about every big defensive rebound, makes free throws (seven of eight Thursday), did a heck of a job fighting off the brutal Kendrick Perkins and has a bit of an offensive repertoire, amazingly enough.
Hinrich closed the first quarter with two daring driving scores while Thomas and Johnson applied defensive pressure.
“Our game is probably to just to go out there and play, push the tempo, rebound the ball and just try to make everything tough for them for tonight and it worked,” said Rose.
Thomas was disruptive with his steals and one time flying into the broadcasters chasing a loose ball. Though Thomas had one nice baseline dunk when Davis dropped off him to help, I’ve noticed Thomas not dunking in traffic since his return from injury and missing an inordinate number of point blank layups. There’s always been a question of Thomas’ appetite for contact and it will be something to watch, especially with Thomas’ energy playing such an important role in the last two wins.
“We just tried to play together a little bit better and develop the young guys with Joakim, Tyrus, and Taj,” said Del Negro.
Rose picked up that third first half foul on a ridiculous Davis charge drawn. But the Bulls stayed in with Deng’s jumper looking terrific (he hit all five shots and all six free throws in the first half), Noah with another rolling left hander and Noah blocking a Pierce drive at the end of the first half. The Bulls were also hustling on defense and Hinrich closed nicely on Pierce to force a 24-second violation as the Bulls stayed ahead 47-39 at halftime.“Give the Bulls credit,” said Rivers. “I thought they were well-prepared. Their game plan was to attack us off the dribble the entire night. Everybody. I thought the game turned personal in some ways. Guys (Bulls) were getting off and we were trying to go back at them. They have shot blockers when you get to the paint. Those are the best times to make passes back out And we just didn’t do it. I thought the warning sign for me came in the third quarter. I thought we tried to make a push right out of the box and within two, three minutes we couldn’t sustain.”
That was because Hinrich hit a three off a Gibson pass, Deng blew by Pierce for a running banker, Noah rebounded a Hinrich miss and Hinrich went back up with it and Gibson hit a jumper to give the Bulls a 60-47 edge.
The Celtics came back as Salmons shots were off and starting to be forced. When Thomas missed two free throws early in the fourth, Del Negro pulled him with Boston now within 72-67 and what appeared certainly to be another Bulls fade down the stretch without that closer.
But Deng hit a big 20 footer at that point and after Miller drew an offensive on Perkins, Deng stepped through for a jumper and was fouled to give the Bulls some room.
“My jumper was feeling good then I tried being aggressive off the dribble,” said Deng.
Deng again held off the Celtics with a nice baseline jumper off a good out of bounds play. The Bulls pulled back ahead 83-73 as Rose faked and flew by Rondo on the left and went up in the face of Perkins at the basket for a score. The Celtics had that last run in them within 86-80, but Noah and Rose cleaned it up from there.
It was the Bulls quicker, tougher, more efficient, the Celtics weary and with excuses. It must mean something.
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