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Bulls roster madness to begin with end of season

So what happens next?
The Bulls Tuesday in losing the opening round playoff series to the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 concluded what generally was a successful season with a second straight 41-41 record and first round playoff elimination. Yes, even with another first round out. This was to be the appetizer.
But given injuries that cost Joakim Noah 18 games and parts of several others, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich missing another 20 combined—only Brad Miller, of all guys, and Taj Gibson played all 82 games—and the midseason trade of John Salmons, it was a positive to get to the playoffs and give the Cavs a scare, if not a seventh game.
This season with the loss of Ben Gordon as a free agent was aimed toward acquiring a free agent this summer. That process begins July 1, and the initial targets likely will be Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, David Lee and Carlos Boozer. The general belief is Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the two elite free agents, will remain with their teams. But with Miami’s poor playoff performance around Wade and the possibility the Cavs could lose to the Celtics in the second round, their objectives could change. Free agency tends to be a financial and emotional process.
Though he was no where near the caliber, Trevor Ariza essentially took the same offer from the Rockets as he could have gotten from the Lakers because he was mad at them. The Heat doesn’t have near the players for a sign and trade the Bulls do, so if Miami comes up short, Wade could go shopping. Same with LeBron. It’s LeBron’s seventh season and if there’s no championship, maybe there’s a different itch he wants to scratch, that seven year itch.
And if Joe Johnson doesn’t have a rash the way the Hawks have fallen behind the no name Bucks 3-2 after Wednesday’s home loss, then maybe you have to wonder about him. Could he want to stay with that team under any circumstances if they lose to the Bucks?
Basically, everyone on the Bulls roster but Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is available. It’s not like the Bulls are looking to move Taj Gibson or Kirk Hinrich, for instance, but they’d like to use a player in trade and then perhaps money to sign a free agent.
There will be dozens of possibilities. I’ve previously mentioned trading for Golden State’s Monta Ellis and signing Lee. Neither is a first tier free agent, generally considered James and Wade, and then Bosh and Johnson—but the Bulls would love to find both a shooting guard and interior scorer.
Ellis likely will be available and the Warriors during the season made various attempts at acquiring Hinrich. The Jazz also has liked Hinrich and there’s some talk they might resign Boozer and trade Paul Millsap. The Timberwolves will be active, as they’ve promised, and given the rough relationship between Kevin Love and coach Kurt Rambis, Love probably could be gotten. The team, for now, seems to be asking way too much for Al Jefferson, namely an All-Star or someone like Noah.
There also will be other free agents who would come more cheaply, like Anthony Morrow, Brendan Haywood, Raja Bell, Steve Blake, Drew Gooden, Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Juwan Howard, Roger Mason and Kyle Korver. Maybe you take a shot at a restricted free agent like Rudy Gay or Randy Foye.
And the Bulls finally will bring in 2008 draft pick Omer Asik. He is a seven-footer who has been injured the last two years with knee surgery and a broken collarbone but has ranked among the best shotblockers in Euroleagus history. The Bulls will get a good look at him at the World Championships in his native Turkey this summer. He is expected to be available to the Bulls for next season.
So there will be plenty of potential permutations before the Bulls have a roster for the 2010-11 season.
Here’s a look at what will happen with this group:
Derrick Rose: He’s the anchor of the team’s future as even LeBron James after Game 5 was calling Rose maybe the league’s best point guard. Deron Williams, by the way, objected, and said at shootaround Wednesday he was the best. Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah. Rose has one more season before he can negotiate an extension, which will be at the maximum salary. He’s not available to anyone. He earned $5.2 million this season and will be under team option one more season, unless he adds an extension after the 2011-12 season.
Chance of returning: 100 percent.
Joakim Noah: He’s the other untouchable. The organization will not even listen to any sign and trade offers with the possible exception of LeBron James, and then only possibly because of James’ bum elbow. Noah earned $2.5 million this season and is eligible for an extension this summer. I assume he signs one as players will want to get in under the old rules as the current collective bargaining agreement expires after next season and long term deals are expected to be reduced. The Bulls can get free agents first, but that’s why they will spend their money this summer because they likely won’t have for beyond once Noah commits. They could make some short term deals to go into 2011 free agency, but with the labor uncertainty it’s not likely. So what’s Noah worth? He’s made himself a star player, though still as an eight figure earner will be one of the only NBA players who probably won’t make as much as his father, former tennis and now European music star Yannick Noah.
Chance of returning: 100 percent.
Luol Deng: After all the preseason uncertainty coming off his stress fracture, Deng had a good season, averaging 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 70 games. He makes $11.3 million next season and has a contract through 2013-14, the team’s longest now. He’ll likely be dangled in sign and trade talks as that will be a key in trying to attract someone like Bosh or Johnson. He has value around the league, but his contract length limits that with no one sure what will happen with the labor talks. And then the Bulls would need a small forward, so they won’t give him up easily.
Chance of returning: 75 percent.
Kirk Hinrich: He is fairly unflappable and sounded the most after Game 5 like he didn’t know if he’d be back. As Hinrich acknowledged, his name has come up in rumors for years. The reason is so many teams like what he brings and he has a descending contract that ends at $8 million in 2011-12, not much above the mid level for a guy who can play point guard and defend. With Joe Johnson and Rose, he’d give the Bulls likely the best guard rotation in the league. But it could cost the Bulls Hinrich in a sign and trade to get someone like Johnson. His name will come up in numerous scenarios starting at draft time, though the Bulls would like to have him back.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Taj Gibson: Along with Noah, he was the surprise of the season coming from the 26th pick in the draft to starting 70 games, second most to Rose. He made $1 million and was one of the league’s best bargains. He averaged nine points and 7.5 rebounds and with Noah made the Bulls one of the league’s best rebounding teams. He does have trouble against bigger players, but is a relentless worker. He’s got to improve his shooting and strength. If the Bulls can get Bosh, he’ll either be in a sign-and-trade or make up a heck of a front line with Noah. He gives the Bulls the option to explore fixing their shooting issues first because he can be a starting power forward, if not at an All-Star level.
Chance of returning: 70 percent.
James Johnson: The sixth player the Bulls have under contract for next season. He made $1.6 million this season, but barely played the first half and then sparingly as that was one of the key issues between management and coach Vinny Del Negro. He was a risk/reward draft pick, selected to make a hit or bust. He had a rocky start with punctuality issues and maturity, but has begun to come around. He’ll likely go to summer league, which can give him a chance to gain confidence. He probably would have been in the D-league at times if the team had more depth. The Bulls still want to give him a chance and feel he’ll virtually be a rookie again.
Chance of returning: 90 percent.
Brad Miller: He’s coming off a $90 million long term deal in which he made $12.25 million this season. Remarkably, he played all 82 games, albeit slowly. He really liked his teammates and bonds well with the support staff, though he was closest with Hinrich. Career wise his numbers are in decline at 34 as he shot a career low 43 percent and 28 percent on threes. He had some big games, but generally takes a few months to get back into condition. He’s a good backup center, though the Bulls won’t have much money after signing free agents and won’t get into a bidding fight for him. They’d probably give him a few million dollars for a year with a team option and would like to have him back. But at his age he remains a risk.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Hakim Warrick: He was acquired in the John Salmons deal and seemed like he’d be a good fit, but he quickly fell out of favor with Del Negro, who never quite found a role for him. He made $3 million this season and probably will look for something in that range or a bit less. It probably would be too much for the Bulls. He averaged 8.7 points and 3.6 rebounds for the Bulls, but in just 19 minutes per game when he played and rarely in the playoffs. He’s not a physical player, but can score with a decent mid range jumper and is a good athlete.
Chance of returning: 10 percent.
Flip Murray: He came in the Tyrus Thomas deal and became a relatively trusted sixth man type as an instant scorer. He got more time than Warrick, but not consistently. He averaged 10.1 for the Bulls, but shot just under 40 percent and 31 percent on threes. The Bulls would like to him have back as he’s a pro shooter and scorer, if streaky. But teams like him as a bench player and he’ll probably command more than the Bulls feel is worth paying.
Chance of returning: 10 percent.
Jannero Pargo: He never gained the regular trust of Del Negro and, as a result, had a tough shooting season with erratic playing time, shooting just 27.5 percent on threes. He got the $1.9 million mid level exception this season. With a bit more discipline and accountability, I think he could be a better average shooter. He’s a popular locker room guy and if he’d take close to the veteran’s minimum might be worth another look.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Acie Law: He came with Murray in the Thomas deal and never got much chance to play, 12 games and one start and mostly DNP’s. He’s a clever ball handler who can get to the basket, but he’s determined to get a chance, which he’s never had in being shuttled around. He made $2.2 million on the end of his rookie deal as 11th pick in 2007. I talked to him and he says he can see the Bulls getting Johnson and with Rose and Hinrich there’d be no minutes again. He doesn’t fit with Rose since he’s a penetrator and is more a scoring point guard. If he gets a chance several teams may regret giving him up.
Chances of returning: 5 percent.
Joe Alexander: Came in the Salmons deal and is an unusually gifted athlete who dominates the one-one-one games in practices. When it gets to full court something seems to change. He’s a dedicated worker and one of those guys coaches don’t seem to know why he’s not better. He says it’s been injuries and the lack of a chance. He made $2.6 million as the eighth pick in 2008, but the Bucks passed on his team option. He’ll likely take a minimum deal and the Bulls will be looking for players who’ll take a minimum but have had experience.
Chance of returning: 50 percent.
Chris Richard: The power forward from Florida became a popular guy around the locker room, easy going and friendly. He can bang around and was back and forth on some 10 day deals. He could be an asset in some sign and trade possibilities and might get a shot with the summer league team.
Chances of returning: 20 percent.
Rob Kurz: Picked up late so the team could take a look at him for perhaps a minimum deal as one of those shooting, so called stretch four forwards who can play a guy like Antawn Jamison, if not quite in that class. Also could be in a sign and trade and likely summer league as well.
Chances of returning: 20 percent.
Devin Brown: Came for Aaron Gray and pretty much got forgotten about once the team added Murray. Never got a chance to shoot himself out of his poor start, which was a long way from starting with the Hornets and making about $1.2 million.
Chances of returning: Zero.

Bulls season ends with loss and questions begin

LeBron James was waiting for it, the subtle knuckleball of a question coming his way after his Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday eliminated the Bulls in five games with a tough 96-94 victory in the opening round playoff series.

James, who held together a shaky Cavs group that was feeling the pressure down the stretch with 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, called Derrick Rose a special talent who now is one of the top two point guards in the NBA. James said he wasn’t offended by anything Joakim Noah said as Noah was able to back up everything with his play on the court.
So wouldn’t Chicago, LeBron, be a nice place for a free…
James, wearing an oversized white sweater with an “LBJ” monogram bigger than Lyndon Johnson’s ranch, stopped me before I could finish.
“So I want to play with them?” James said with a laugh. I kind of figured that was coming.
“Those guys are great,” said James, going on without prompting. “First of all, I’m a fan of the game of basketball before I was a player. It just so happened with the God given abilities I have I was able to be successful in the game and be part of this league. Even when I’m done playing I still love the game. I watch the game every day. I know talent and those are two talented guys. They are going to be really good for this league for years to come.
“I know,” said James, walking away for the night and heading to Boston for the Eastern Conference semifinals, “I didn’t answer your question.”
And now that this season is over with another fun and entertaining first round playoff series, but again a first round elimination—”I don’t want us to be known as the team that always plays hard in the first round. The goal is to win the series and play in the big games,” said Noah—the big questions remain:
What is the fate of coach Vinny Del Negro?
GM Gar Forman said after the game no decision is imminent and the team, as usual, will do its post season evaluations.
Will the Bulls’ moves of letting go Ben Gordon and trading John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for salary cap space pay off in the signing this summer of a major free agent star to add to the talent base of Rose, Noah, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson?
“I think I am going to meet with them, the people in the front office, and just talk and see who we are going to get,” said Rose, whose brilliance with 31 points and six assists in Game 5 overshadowed even James with gasps and demands from the crowd to “stop that guy!” “It is going to be fun. We can get any one of them (potential free agents). We’ve just got to get the right one to fit the team. I’m going to have a say-so, but everything is going to be left up to the people in the front office. I wouldn’t say recruit like that, but Chicago is a great place, a great team, a great organization, the fans are great, so why not come there?”
And just who will be around to play with that free agent?
Certainly Rose and Noah. This series, if it wasn’t already clear, determined those two are untouchables. Bulls insiders confirm no offer could get the team to part with either one of them.
As for Hinrich and Deng, the off season will be an anxious one as both know they’ll be mentioned in trade talk and quite possibly be the bait for the sign and trade deal that a major free agent likely would desire.
“I think they’ve got good pieces, Derrick and Joakim and Taj and Luol, good, though guys,” said Hinrich, who has been a constant in trade rumors. “It’s a big summer for the organization. For myself, I’ve had a good time and enjoyed this year. I’d like to be back, if possible, but you never know.
“It seems every summer or trade deadline my name comes up,” Hinrich said with a wry laugh. “I don’t worry about it. This summer I’ll try to improve and get work in and work hard and be ready to go.”
Dressing near Hinrich in a relatively light Bulls locker room given the circumstances—those guys really did seem to like one another and get along well—Deng was getting up to leave. He was pleased to get through the season mostly healthy after a stress fracture last year and will play for the Great Britain national team summer, likely with former teammate Ben Gordon.
“Everybody talks about the future,” Deng acknowledged after an active 26 points and six rebounds with eight of 11 free throws. “We’ve got a lot of talent, a bright future. I’m sure the organization feels the same way. I’d love to be here my whole career. But you have to understand the business side. There’s always going to be changes. As a player and professional you have to work on your game. Every year is different.”
This one sure was with Rose hurt early in the season but playing through it without his usual explosion. Was the kid done already?
That led to a rocky start, a five game losing streak on the “circus” Western Conference trip in November, and then the December meltdown which produced a hysterical reaction and stories of the imminent firing of Del Negro.
The Bulls lost at home to 1-19 New Jersey, then went to Atlanta and lost by 35, lost by 32 at home to Toronto, lost by 26 at home to Boston and blew that 35-point lead at home to the Sacramento Kings and fell to 10-17.
But Rose recovered and so did the Bulls with a five-game winning streak out west in the January/February trip and suddenly the Bulls were 23-22 and moving up on fifth in the East.
Rose made the All Star team, the first Bulls player to do so since Michael Jordan, but Noah’s plantar fasciitis worsened and he went out. The Bulls got to 31-27 after the All Star break, but that game was the turning point as the Bulls beat Portland at home in overtime. But Del Negro played Noah longer than he was supposed to, Noah suffered a setback and had to sit out three weeks. The Bulls lost 10 straight and Del Negro had a confrontation with team executive John Paxson.
But the Bulls came back, winning 10 of their last 14 and the last three straight to make the playoffs, and James Tuesday admitted, yes, he wanted the Bulls.
Maybe a little to pay back the ills the old No. 23 put on the Cavs two decades ago, but more to get better prepared for what lies ahead.
“We knew this (Bulls) team would push us,” complimented James. “Honestly, we’d rather play Chicago more than Toronto. We knew we were going to get pushed a little more. Not taking anything away from Toronto (sure), but with (Chris) Bosh being out the rest of the season, it looked like they didn’t even want to make the playoffs at the end of the season, especially when you see that game in Toronto with Chicago. So with Toronto it probably would have ended the same way as last year (with an opening round sweep).
“When Chicago made the eight seed, I was excited,” said James, who did control his dancing this series. “Because we knew we had to be in tune on every possession. That team plays hard no matter the score or time, no matter what the series is.”
It’s the way you want to be known around your sport, and I didn’t take it as James just being kind to a loser.
Yes, the Bulls had their usual home big loss, as they always seem to do, like last year in Game 3 against Boston or in Game 3 in the conference semifinals in 2007 against Detroit.
And that Game 4 loss left a bad taste for the team about this series.
“It was tough, the games they really won, they blew us out,” said Rose. “If anything, we just wanted to come out here and compete and try to make the game close. I think if we would have made the game close in the other games, it would have been a better series. But, we let them get out and get their runs and they are the type of team where they are too good offensively where, if one person is going, all of them get going. I wouldn’t take anything back, if anything, we can learn from it and try to work on it in the future.”
But the Bulls pushed the Cavs to the brink Tuesday in the game everyone just gave them.
Cavs players were locking up late in the game, seemingly reluctant to shoot as the Bulls kept coming with two Rose jumpers coming out after being halfway down and an amazingly bad continuation basket for Rose being reversed perhaps costing the Bulls the game. James even was yelling at teammates to shoot in the fourth, and there was a scare for him as he finished the game shooting a left handed free throw because he said his right elbow gets numb on occasion.
This was met with near post game panic by the Cleveland media as one reporter suggested James see Dr. James Andrews and another asked if he could reassure the Cavs fans.
“I don’t know, honestly, what’s going on (with it),” Jame said “I’ve done tests to try and figure this thing out, but it almost feels like you hit your funny bone and it kind of numbs up for a little bit. After I shot the first (free throw late in the game), that’s exactly what it did. I’m not concerned. I just want to try and get a better sense of what it may be. But Cleveland fans have nothing to be worried about. I’m healthy, I’m ready and we are looking forward to the second round. They don’t have any reason to panic.”
I know Noah had some fun with Cleveland with his comments, and it was a tough game for him with eight points, nine rebounds and seven turnovers while Shaq banged his way in for 14 points and eight rebounds.
But you really feel sorry for Cleveland fans, even more so than Cubs fans. Cubs fans generally are so drunk and having a good time, it doesn’t matter much. And they are in Chicago. You are in Cleveland with the Indians failures of the 1990’s, the Browns famous fumble, the Cavs losses to Jordan, and now this and LeBron is a free agent.
And you can almost feel the anxiety in the crowd, especially as the Bulls wouldn’t go away in Game 5.
It really was a fun game with 16 lead changes and five ties. The Bulls again outrebounded the bigger Cavs with Taj Gibson game high with 11 and a big edge in second chance points.
Again, the offensive holes were too much. The Bulls were two of 10 on threes while the Cavs were 10 of 26, making as many as the Bulls shot, and the Bulls had to earn their points with Rose driving and mid range jumpers, the hardest way in the NBA.
Which means: Go for Joe Johnson, a three point threat to spread the court, or Chris Bosh, a postup threat the Bulls never really have had to draw the defense inside. Either way, you open the court with one or the other. The Bulls have made themselves attractive with talent, but it still remains a question how many top players will leave their teams and whether you can out together the right sign and trade as top teams like the Lakers and Mavericks are rumored, as well, to be interested in sign and trade deals for the top talent.
The Cavs got a 27-20 lead late in the first, but Rose came back driving and scooping and shooting just out of reach floaters that were driving the Cavs nuts. It was 27-26 Cavs after one.
The Cavs pulled ahead 55-48 at halftime as they got out running on several Bulls turnovers and James found Williams and Delonte West for threes, a dangerous sign.
But the Bulls were doing some good things with James as Deng was picking him up sooner and forcing the Cavs to run more clock. Deng and Gibson did have some issues trying to contain Antawn Jamison early as he led the Cavs with 25, but just five after halftime.
LeBron began to take some turns on Rose earlier than in previous games as the Bulls pulled within 73-71 after three as the Cavs realized they were not going to shake this Bulls team.
“I told him (after the game) I love his game,” said James of Rose. “He’s awesome. He started this season probably as the third, fourth, fifth best point guard in the league. Now he’s one or two. He’s an unbelievable talent. No guard in the league has the athleticism he has, the speed and quickness. Chicago has a good one. I was guarding him because that’s the one guy who could beat us, their biggest threat.”
And Rose almost won it in the fourth.
He had two jumpers in the last four minutes spin in and out, and seemed to have a three-point play with the Cavs leading 80-79 with 8:10 left. But the refs reversed the call and said it wasn’t a continuation, and then James went down and scored and was fouled for a crucial turnaround that maybe cost the Bulls a chance to win.
“It hurt,” said Rose. “I thought I picked the ball up. They say, usually after you dribble, if you got fouled and dribbled again, it’s not continuation, but I think I picked the ball up while I ran into him. They didn’t call it and it hurt us. They came down, got fouled and LeBron got an and-one or something like that. It turned the game around.”
This came after another awful series of plays in which Brad Miller got entangled with Shaq, a long time foe, and Shaq almost came out swinging like several years ago at the United Center. But Miller got called for the fouls, getting the Bulls in the penalty early, and then Shaq scored against Noah to give the Cavs the edge just before that Rose play. Noah was astonished at the disparity of foul calls.
“We fought hard all year,” said Noah. “This is unbelievable that you can fight like that and it can come down to one or two plays. But we cannot get down on ourselves because we felt everyone on this team gave everything they had, even with the losing streak, the controversies. I still think we can be mentally tougher, but I feel overall with all that happened, what happened with coach, the losing streak, we fought hard. I would go to battle again with every single one of these guys.
“It was frustrating (in the fourth) they are calling our bumps and this guy is 400 pounds and trying to dunk on me every time, but I’ve got to learn from it,” said Noah. “If one day we want to be a championship team, we’ve got to beat these guys.”
The Cavs looked like they had it going up 93-86 with 2:44 left. I could quibble with some of the defensive switching that left Noah on an island on James and caused some foul trouble, but the Bulls brought help better on James late when he was the main option.
The Cavs fouled after having that lead and the Bulls got within 95-92 with 1:11 left. Rose had a floater go in and out and after an Anderson Varejao turnover when the Bulls got a smart double onto James, Rose came out of a timeout and came up short on a drive left handed.
“Yeah, he played great defense (James),” said Rose. “I thought he was going to jump and I was going to jump into him. It messed me up a little bit, messed up my timing. Usually, I hit that one with my left hand because I’m kind of good going to my left. Tonight, it didn’t go in.”
James then made the first free throw for a four point lead with 7.8 seconds left before throwing the second wild left handed and Deng scored at the buzzer to get the margin within a basket.
“We had it in our grip,” said Gibson, clenching his fist for emphasis. “We made them beat us.”
And so ended 2009-10 for the Bulls.
Reporters extracted votes of confidence for Del Negro from Rose and Noah, and even some praise from James.
“Vinny has done a lot as coach,” said Noah. “He’s done a very good job. He’s someone who early on was on my side. I always appreciated that. He gave me an opportunity to play.”
“I would vote yes (for retaining Del Negro),” said Rose. “That’s a guy where we both came in. He let me have my freedom, but still coached me and let me make my mistakes. I watched film with him almost every day. He taught me a lot just on defense and on offense and what I was supposed to do. The decision really isn’t up to me. It’s up to the front office, so I’m just going to let them worry about that and just deal with it.”
"Vinny and that coaching staff had those guys ready," added James when asked. "They have a group of young talent that loves to play the game of basketball and they play hard. There was not one point where they kind of laid down. I'm not trying to make a pitch for Vinny because I know what's going on — 'Is Vinny in or is Vinny out?' That's not my job, but this team that we played in this series played hard."
And so the season ends and the questions begin.
Is Del Negro the guy to lead this team to that next level they all seek?
Will they be able to get those players who will make a difference?
It’s been a heck of a ride thus far, bumpy, sure, uncertain and entertaining, and it’s only just begun.

Could LeBron be thinking how he looks in Bulls red?

The Bulls Thursday play Game 3 of what may be the most important playoff series in franchise history.
And thus far, even though the Bulls trail 0-2, the series with the Cleveland Cavaliers may be going very well.
That’s because based on what LeBron James has seen in the first two games, especially in the Cavs 112-102 Game 2 victory in Cleveland Monday, if James’ goal is to become a great winner, he cannot possibly think there’s a big window of opportunity with his Cavaliers.
He, instead, has to consider what his future would be if he played with a 22-year-old All-Star point guard and a 25-year-old near All-Star center.
If James wants to be considered the greatest player in the history of the game and surpass Michael Jordan—and I believe he does—then it is about winning championships.
At least six of them.
James has a good chance to get his first this season.
But if James at 26 envisions a long run, does he have a better chance with 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal, and by next season 34-year-old Antawn Jamison and 35-year-old Anthony Parker being three of his fellow starters? Or even the likes of Mo Williams and Delonte West?
On the other hand, how good and how long a run could James have if he teamed as a free agent after this season with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah?
That’s potentially the best thing about this playoff series for the Bulls, even though they’ll likely lose it. They may well show James there’s a much better basketball future—if not Noah’s view of way more to do on the weekends—by joining up with Rose, Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. With a core like that, how easy would it be to get a couple of top veterans who want to be part of the next great potential dynasty?
This series for the first time may give the Bulls a legitimate chance to land James as a free agent this summer.
And I know everyone in Chicago would feel James looks good dancing in a Bulls uniform.
The Bulls have believed with their core, which they kept in place while going into free agency unlike teams like the Knicks and Nets, they are one player like Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh or Amar’e Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer away from being a top four team in the East.
But what if you could get the game’s best player?
Look what James did Monday with a collection of scrap metal.
OK, that’s a bit harsh. Just kidding. But that is an old Cavs team with no cap room. Shaq’s on his last gasp. Zydrunas Ilgauskas probably will leave, anyway, after a falling out with the team this season. Plus, he is 35 soon and slowed. Jamison’s best days are past. Same with Parker. They’ve got some young guys, like J.J. Hickson, and, well nobody.
There still really isn’t that great second, the Scottie Pippen to Jordan, the Worthy and Kareem for Magic, the McHale and Parish for Bird.
Chicago’s got Nos. 2 and 3.
How good would they be with No. 1?
How many championships could James claim?
Hey, there’s room for another statue on the west side of the United Center.
It’s probably the main reason why it was so important the Bulls made the playoffs, especially against the Cavs.
Noah, who came up big in Game 2 with 25 points and 13 rebounds, wasn’t exactly conceding, and he never would. But he did take a bit of a big picture look after Game 2.
“This is great for our team,” said Noah. “Competition does not get higher than this. We understand this is great for us. In the big picture, when we go into the summer we can say (if we lose) we played against the best team and we know what we’ve got to do to get better. It’s all about getting better and trying to win ball games.”
Noah added he expected the team to win Game 3 back in Chicago Thursday, though, look, the Bulls finished 20 games behind the Cavs.
But it’s also why I felt it was important for the franchise to make the playoffs.
It’s not that they couldn’t get a free agent if they didn’t make the playoffs. But even trailing 0-2, what do you think is the reputation of the Bulls now compared to the Raptors, who missed out by that one game in Toronto.
The point is to show what you have on the big stage, and the Bulls did a good job of that Monday.
Sure, they lost, and the idea is to win. Second isn’t good in games.
But the Bulls showed not only impressive resolve in the way the Bulls played the Cavs but that they have at least a pair of high level NBA stars.
That’s why, I believe, the Bulls privately were hoping if they made the playoffs to get the Cavs.
They’d be a big underdog against any of the top four teams, obviously.
So show LeBron James, likely the biggest free agent prize in NBA history along with Shaq in 1996, what kind of talent you have, the way the team plays, hard and committed, and then let him get a look at life in Chicago in the playoffs.
There are few better venues.
It’s why it’s always been the foolish who suggested the Bulls should miss the playoffs for a chance for a top lottery pick. Yes, they got lucky for Rose, but it’s less than a one percent chance to move up like that from where they would have been this season.
I think that’s less than the chance James would see what he likes and maybe make the surprise decision.
You’ll notice Noah had some fun with the city of Cleveland, but he showed only respect to James and the Cavs.
We’ve all—including me—believed James was going to resign with the Cavs. Home, perhaps a championship, the most available money, and treatment like maybe no player ever has received from his team. It’s hard to argue how much the Cavs done to accommodate James.
But what if the Cavs don’t win?
It’s not like they looked like a championship team in Game 2.
Shaq was ineffective and you wonder if the one day of rest, which he’ll see more of in subsequent rounds, isn’t enough. There are two day breaks before games 3 and 4 in this series, which should benefit O’Neal.
Suddenly, if Anderson Varejao isn’t having a big game—and he doesn’t score, anyway—the front line looks overmatched. Noah ran them and outworked them badly and Taj Gibson out toughed them with 11 points and seven rebounds.
James, alone, can get you by a team like the Bulls. But then you probably have to deal with the athletic and deep Hawks and the Magic and Dwight Howard, who sent the Cavs out last season.
Of course, with Miami having Dwyane Wade and the excess salary cap room to add a maximum free agent and another high salaried player, maybe that looks better to James. Though you’d still have to find a center, which is difficult.
The notion was the Cavs responded to the Magic loss last year with the acquisition of Shaq to give fouls on Howard, and Jamison to match the Orlando forward scoring. Maybe it will work.
But there’s hardly any guarantee. After all, it took a phenomenal shooting performance–and at home–by James, 40 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to beat the .500 Bulls without Ben Gordon, John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas. And that’s with four threes from Jamario Moon, who hadn’t hit one in 109 minutes in the last four games of the regular season. Moon, once a Globetrotter, was just a 32 percent three point shooter in the season. Yes, as it was noted by my colleague Mark Heisler, “once in a Jamario moon.”
The Magic is deeper and a better defensive team, and the way Shaq looked after one day rest it’s difficult to imagine him being much but an annoyance to Howard.
And these things can become very emotional decisions. After the Cavs were knocked out by the Magic last season, it was clear James was anguished.
How much patience would he have again if it occurs?
And say James does win that first title. If he is about winning, as he says, and he has the opportunity through free agency, wouldn’t his future look a lot better with the likes of Rose and Noah or, say, Wade and Stoudemire, than with Shaq, Jamison, Parker and Williams?
Even the Bulls may not fully realize how big this playoff series is. It has the potential of changing the balance of power in the NBA. It’s why getting there and playing like they have thus far has been so potentially significant.
Maybe the Bulls can dream royally.

How the Bulls can beat the Cavs

The Bulls made the playoffs. Great. Now what do they do? Or more precisely, how do they beat LeBron James, surely the league’s MVP, and the Cavs, the NBA’s winningest team?

I’m glad I asked because I know how to do it. Unfortunately, I am not coaching the Bulls, so I cannot be responsible if the Cavs win, as everyone expects.
Look, the Bulls aren’t supposed to win this series, or really even make it close. This is supposed to be a Cavs team on a mission after being upset in the conference finals last season and reloading with Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison.

This is a Bulls team whose priority is this summer and free agency, so they let go Ben Gordon, the scoring star of last season’s great playoff series with the Celtics, along with trades of John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas, two other major contributors. Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick have come in their place, though Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro rarely uses Warrick.
Perhaps the Cavs’ biggest early opponent is expectations.
You are supposed to walk through this series. After all, the Bulls lost 10 straight games in March and got to .500 by winning 10 of their last 14 to barely pass Toronto for the final playoff spot. But Derrick Rose, who just was named player of the month, and Joakim Noah are playing at All Star levels, and, the Cavs had just one All Star this season.
Will Mo Williams start missing shots again like he did in last year’s playoffs? Shaq’s just returning from being out six weeks. Jamison hasn’t shot as well. Can James embolden them? Will he have to?
The Bulls should look at this as an easy series in which they have nothing to lose. They weren’t supposed to be here. Few expect them to get even a game or two. So what if they don’t? Big deal.
So be creative. Be imaginative. Make the Cavs think. And make ‘em sweat a little.
I don’t really expect it because Del Negro prefers to play a traditional game.
On defense, the Bulls will play Deng on James and Noah and later Miller on Shaq, though Shaq probably won’t play that much in his first game back. The Bulls general defensive plan will be to deny middle and when someone penetrates to bring a double.
I wouldn’t do that, but I’ll explain.
The Bulls will stunt with the guards when Shaq or someone is posting, and they’ll probably bring someone in a double along the baseline, which has been their preferred position to double. They’ve been burned some bringing the other big from across the lane because then you have a mismatch with a guard dropping down, and teams have exploited that. Better, perhaps, to bring the wing player on the shooter who’ll be in the opposite corner. It’s a longer run to make the double, but keeps your matchups.
The Bulls stay traditional, and that’s where I’d change.
Look, the Cavs are way better than the Bulls.
So what you’ve got to do is get them off balance. Their coach, Mike  Brown, isn’t very good making in game adjustments. So make them think.
LeBron, obviously, is the key.
The last half of this season he’s begun to play more like Michael Jordan, at least in the last three championships. LeBron won’t look for his scoring early. He sort of lopes into games, looking to get interior guys going, then working with the perimeter guys before he takes over scoring later.
I’d put Kirk Hinrich on him. Del Negro will likely have Hinrich on Mo Williams in a cross match with Rose as Williams gives Rose trouble running off screens. Teams like to put Rose in screen/roll since he has trouble with them, just as the Bulls will have to put Shaq or Zydrunas Ilgauskas in screen/roll since they don’t particularly play them.
Obviously, James would see the mismatch against Hinrich, who is a pesky defender. You need that kind of defender on James. No one stops him. But you need to stay up on him and bother him, not give him space.
You also want to lure him into trying to score, especially in the post as he doesn’t like to play out of the post.
It’s a variation on what Don Nelson once did to upset the second seeded Jazz when he had the Warriors at seventh seed. He put Tim Hardaway on 7-3 Mark Eaton, daring the Jazz to try to score. The result was the Jazz going away from their ball movement game, and the Warriors won the series.
You have to do the same with the Cavs.
The key to playing the Cavs, I believe, is to let LeBron try to beat you. He really doesn’t want to score that much. He is a willing passer, much more so than the likes of Jordan or Kobe Bryant. It also keeps his teammates more engaged, and, especially at home, the crowd responds when the “supporting cast” begins hitting threes and dunking.
So you stay home on the shooters and don’t double off. Let LeBron get going, but it takes the others out of the game. They get to standing around and can get lethargic in transition.
Because that’s the offensive priority for the Bulls.
There’s this notion the Bulls have to keep the score low because they don’t have as many weapons, and in a low scoring, closer game they can get bailed out by Rose.
But you want to run the Cavs. Shaq is old. Z is old. Jamison is old. That was what worked for the Bulls when they upset the defending champion Heat in 2007. Run and don’t let them set their defense.
The Cavs are best when they can set their defense. They are not a good defensive team contesting shots. It’s actually surprising how bad they are at that. You can get shots up against them. But they are very good in what’s called loading to the ball, which means stacking a defense to create a sort of wall against the offensive play.
You want to keep them out of those formations. You do that with speed and transition.
Also, you have to get in front of James and make the refs call charges. James gets a free pass like no one going to the basket because he is so quick and strong it seems guys don’t want to take charges or feel they won’t get a call against him as he’s called for the fewest fouls in the league for the star players.
Make the refs make a call. Get in front of him. Forget blocking a shot. Let him take those threes, which he can hit, but is hit or miss more often.
Also, make him defend. James has perhaps the most bogus reputation in the league as a defender because he makes so many of those highlight blocks from behind. But he doesn’t like to play much man to man and direct contact. He likes to play passing lanes and avoids a lot of direct defensive contact. If he’s on you, you have to go at him and attack. Make him make a play. Challenge the refs to make calls. They won’t to start. But you have to go back at him.
So I’d have Hinrich harassing him and see if he forgets about his teammates. The Bulls will play Taj Gibson on Jamison, but I’d have Deng more on Jamison. I’d play Jamison like teams play Dirk Nowitzki. He’s too fast and clever for a big who wants to stay by the basket, anyway, like Gibson does. Deng has good length and enough quickness to bother Jamison, who can shoot the three and then would beat Gibson with his quickness.
These aren’t matchups to start the game, which would be more traditional, but things to spring on the Cavs.
Initially, they’ll go to Shaq and I’d have Noah fronting. It’s not easy and no one generally tries with Shaq as he’ll try to seal you. Noah is quick enough to do it. The Cavs with Shaq like to post and repost and fighting him like that will take time off the clock and force him into a quicker shot, which is usually isn’t good at even when in condition.
So when I’ve got Kirk on LeBron and Deng on Jamison, it’s a small team. But the Bulls are small in this series. Use what you have. The Cavs eventually will go small in the backcourt a lot with Williams and Delonte West, so it won’t hurt you that much.
But Del Negro has to go to the bench. It’s too bad he lost faith in Devin Brown, who is a better defender than Jannero Pargo or Flip Murray and knows the Cavs well from playing there. The Cavs privately are happy not to see him as they felt he was one of their tougher players.
The Bulls will have to stay away from their high pick and roll, which they use way too much, anyway. Cleveland defends that well by loading to the ball, so the Bulls should go more side pick and roll in half court sets.
You’d say get Deng in more pick and rolls, but he doesn’t screen particularly well, and once you leave the screener, who usually is Noah, it happens that Noah is one of the better decision makers with the ball and can now make that jumper reasonably often. Brad Miller can pop out in that and the Bulls will try to use Miller as much as possible when Shaq plays other than starting.
The Bulls also have to move the ball, make those extra passes in the halfcourt to keep the Cavs moving, especially when they go with their slower bigs. The Cavs will go with Hickson a lot at center in what has been their best lineup because they spread the court and give James more options, which is when I’d have someone like Hinrich on him to just stay with him and see if he’ll go for 50. The Pistons always used to bait Jordan like that and take teammates out of the game.
The Cavs on defense are going to pick up Rose high and trap him early, as teams have done more of late. But they’ll have to be small to do that more effectively, and then the Bulls may be able to run more. And we saw in that last game when James didn’t play the Bulls laid off Varejao and he couldn’t make a play.
And then if the Bulls can get a lead, with the expectations hovering over them, can the Cavs exorcise those Bulls demons haunting their past and show themselves as the favorite they are supposed to be.
The Bulls should be loose and should be able to play free and easy. It’s house money just being in the playoffs. So take some chances and go for a jackpot. What have you go to lose?
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs Mo Williams. This is going to be a cross match situation. Most likely, the Bulls will play Rose, their weakest defender but getting better with some nice blocks and staying more in front lately, on Anthony Parker. Williams plays off LeBron well and runs pick and pops with him and spots up. Hinrich likely will play Williams, who had a huge game earlier this month against the Bulls with LeBron not playing. Williams has not been good in big game settings and strained to make shots in last year’s playoffs. Rose is making up for the loss of Ben Gordon from last season and averaged more than 30 the last three games when the Bulls had to win and is the player of the month. The Cavs, like everyone else, will aggressively try to trap him, though it will only work some when Varejao plays. Rose has shown like in stealing Game 1 last season he’s a big game player.
Edge: Bulls
Shooting Guard: Kirk Hinrich vs Anthony Parker. Parker can make some threes and will likely be defended by Rose since he’s not one of the primary scoring options. The Cavs probably will use a lot more of Delonte West as he’s more of a scorer off the dribble and could give Rose trouble in the pick and roll. Parker is a streaky shooter and can get hot if left alone, which is why I wouldn’t necessarily be aggressively doubling with Rose. Hinrich is the Bulls best perimeter defender and has been shooting the ball well lately coming off that down screen and dribble handoff the Bulls run for him. He’s finally giving the team some court spacing with his threes.
Edge: Bulls
Small Forward: Luol Deng vs LeBron James. Obviously, no one has the edge on the league MVP. James pretty much does what he wants, though I’ve noticed of late he’s taken to the Jordan model of getting teammates off first and then looking for his scoring later in the game. He’ll tend to fall in love with the three a bit too much, and his free throw shooting is shaky with the Cavs last in the league in free throw shooting. But when he decides no one can stop him at the basket. It’s almost as if everyone is afraid to step in front, figuring either they’ll get hurt or they’ll never get the call. You’ve got to step in and make the refs call something. Deng missed last season’s playoffs and is determined to harass James sand make it difficult for him. Deng’s calf injury has acted up, and his scoring has dropped off. But he’s got to be aggressive to make LeBron work.
Edge: Cavs (big)
Power Forward: Taj Gibson vs Antawn Jamison. We’ll see if he’s the final piece. You’ve got to give the Cavs credit for being aggressive with adding personnel, obviously to try to get James to resign. Jamison’s a tough matchup for Gibson as he’s not a traditional four since he can go outside and hit the three and is unusually quick inside and never quite gets in the shooting motion with his assortment of floaters. Gibson had a big game against him earlier, but in the last game without James playing Gibson was lost as he is best inside and around the basket. He’s probably not strong enough to punish Jamison in the post.
Edge: Cavs
Center: Joakim Noah vs Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal has been out more than a month with a hand injury and probably won’t play that much given his conditioning. He’s mostly on the team for the expected later matchup with Orlando and Dwight Howard. Without Shaq, they’ve been playing J.J. Hickson at center in a smaller, quicker lineup that opens the floor, and they’re really best that way. They’ll bring Varejao off the bench, though he’ll finish more games than Hickson because of his defensive abilities. Shaq will try to overwhelm Noah, who is more like the active Varejao. James likes to find Hickson in pick and roll and transition situations slashing and finishing, which is why the Bulls could have trouble if they continue to blitz the pick and roll, which is a staple of their defense. Brad Miller is the team’s choice on Shaq, so after the initial matchup Miller will probably match with O’Neal. Noah will run whomever is guarding him and the Cavs’ big guys with Ilgauskas don’t want to do that, and Hickson is too small for Noah.
Edge: Bulls
Bench: Varejao is the defensive key off the bench for the Cavs along with Ilgauskas, who can be dangerous as a spot up shooter. The Cavs have pretty much ignored his value this season and he’ll probably move on to another team next season. Delonte West is another key for them, though you wonder as the playoffs go on if the pressure will have an affect on his personality disorder, which the Cavs tend to pretend doesn’t exist. The Bulls have done a poor job this season developing and using the bench. James Johnson never got much playing time and is pretty lost now as a result. After playing some after the trade, the same with Hakim Warrick, who could be useful. They went with their starters down the stretch for huge minutes to get into the playoffs, and they did, so it worked. But the bench has tended to turn selfish as a result given limited time and quick hooks for mistakes.
Edge: Cavs
Coaching: Vinny Del Negro vs Mike Brown. It’s been a surreal last week for Del Negro with the revelations of an incident with vice president John Paxson and additional media scrutiny. Brown is the reigning coach of the year, so it’s not a fair fight, anyway. Brown remains essentially a defensive coach with little apparent input on the offensive end as James and Williams basically call all the plays and James isolates to close games and runs what he chooses. But he is a bright player and an asset that way. They are a tough defensive team that sets up a wall well on one side with good rotation, which is why you cannot let them get into a set defense. Del Negro hasn’t created much with the Bulls offense, which runs mostly high pick and roll and some weak side action of down screens. The lack of bench development shouldn’t hurt as much in a series with the games spread out, especially in the first round.
Pick: Cavs in five. Maybe six if they listen to me more.

Bulls reach play or go home game in Charlotte

So here we are–game 82 against the Charlotte Bobcats. Win or go home. Can it get better than that?

OK, the Toronto Raptors could lose, and that would send the Bulls to the playoffs as well. But you can’t count on that against the Knicks.

Hanging above all that is change.

If the Bulls don’t make the playoffs, especially given the simmering controversy this week involving coach Vinny Del Negro and management, it’s not only likely Wednesday would have been Del Negro’s final game as Bulls coach but given free agency the end of their Bulls careers for who knows how many players.

But Del Negro said before Wednesday’s game that’s not something that’s entered his mind and nothing he’s heard talk about with the players.

“There’s too much going on,” said Del Negro. “You don’t have time to focus on that. You focus in on the task at hand and handle things as best and professionally as you can and move forward. All those things will handle themselves as the end of the year.”

There were numerous stories following Tuesday’s win over he Celtics regarding the dispute between Del Negro and executive vice president John Paxson.

But you’d never know it from the players. It seemed just another night as players filled out ticket requests in the locker room, watched the game film and listened to music. I heard one player joke about it all, and Bobcats coach Larry Brown added his own.

“They’ve had some terrible injuries,” Brown said about the Bulls. “To put themselves in the position they have, I think, is pretty neat… even with people fighting.”

There was no rim shot, though Brown added, “Just kidding.”

Actually, Brown went on to say he doesn’t see any issue in it all.

“I’ve been with general managers, assistant coaches, where you have a disagreement,” said Brown. “That shows me you care. Obviously, it hasn’t hurt that team. They’ve moved forward and been pretty darned good. I think it’s people that care.”

Brown also said he cares and it’s why he is conflicted about the game. He said he’d like to rest players like Tyrus Thomas and Gerald Wallace because they have injuries, but said they’d play because he also feels it’s an obligation to play his best players to try to win for the dignity of the game. Brown also said he’s planning to be the Charlotte coach amid reports he is headed to Philadelphia.

“People are resting guys all over our league,” Brown said. “I want to be true to our players and fair to the teams fighting for a playoff spot. We’ve always said we’ll play the right way and respect the game. So I assume these guys will play and try to do their best to win.”

And so will the Bulls. With the back-to-back, Del Negro said the reserves will have to do well.

“The players have done an unbelievable job,” said Del Negro. “We focus on what we can control. Guys have stuck through a lot of things. The effort last was fantastic and we need a similar effort to win in Charlotte. We’ve stepped up the last few games and have to do it tonight. We’ve got to seize the opportunity. It’s in our hands now. We’ve got to play well to try to find the energy and emotion. Guys have done that, especially lately. You cannot let fatigue get in your mind.”

Back to the dispute with Paxson, Del Negro denied a report as “100 percent false” that he was an aggressor.

“It’s unfortunate that had to come out,” said Del Negro. “The most important thing tonight is to focus on your effort and all those other things will take care of themselves at the end of the season, which hopefully won’t be for awhile.”

Bulls tighten race with win over Charlotte

The Bulls players insisted they didn’t see it, but everyone else did. Eighth place Toronto had won again earlier in the day. The seventh place Bobcats had come off the floor Saturday night from a dozen behind in the third quarter and trailing the first 36 minutes to stun the Bulls with an 11-2 run to open the fourth quarter and take an 82-76 lead with six minutes left.
The Bulls season looked finally in the toilet with the water swirling counter clockwise.
Talk about your unfortunate flushes.
“The season was on the line,” said Joakim Noah. “We understood the situation. We understood it is do or die right now.”
And it was a big time flush that got the Bulls poking their heads above playoff waters again with a terrific, well earned 96-88 victory over the Bobcats.
It brought the Bulls to 37-39, 1.5 games behind Toronto and three games behind Charlotte. The Bulls play Toronto next Sunday April 11 and close the season April 14 in Charlotte.
“We have to win as many games as we can,” said Noah. “We understand what is at stake, keep fighting, stay focused and hopefully Toronto loses a couple of games and we take that eighth spot.”
After the Bulls drew within 82-78 on a pair of Derrick Rose free throws after Boris Diaw generously missed a pair, Noah got an open lane with Rose being trapped and began that long legged gallop toward the basket.
Eying that from the weak side came former Bull and premier shot blocker Tyrus Thomas in his first game against his former team.
It was Noah still standing with a big time slam and Thomas staggering backward.
In your face! Block this? Jo doesn’t think so!
“I did (notice who it was),” laughed Noah, who had 11 points and 16 rebounds back starting. “There was a point in the game he hit a jump shot and we were talking trash to him from the bench. He mean looked us real bad. He blocked one of my shots and he was talking a little. It felt good to dunk that one.”
And it was a big one for the Bulls hopes as Rose, who led the Bulls with 26 points, then made the first of two catch-your-breath-amazing driving, hanging, reverse layups that simply cannot be made! No human being can do that/ And yet the kid did. Great stuff.
Those plays which drew more ESPN top 10 highlight of the night mentions sandwiched a Kirk Hinrich three as Hinrich’s shot was as accurate as it’s ever been. He had 24 points on nine of 12 shooting.
That second Rose reverse on a back door pass from Brad Miller out of a timeout–nice call, Vinny–gave the Bulls an 87-84 lead with 2:33 left. In the next possession, another former Bull, Larry Hughes, who shot the Bobcats back in earlier in the quarter with two threes, one for a four point play on a Flip Murray foul, missed three shots, one blocked by Noah with bodies flying around and on the floor for a loose ball.
“The guys have a lot of confidence,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “You have to make plays. Defensively or offensively, screening or slipping a pick, making shots, getting a dunk. We won this game rebounding and getting some defensive stops.”
And still another big play came on the following possession as Rose got caught looking too much for a shot against severe trapping and fired off a three that missed. Hughes grabbed the rebound and his teammates broke out down one possession, as the TV analysis usually goes.
But Luol Deng held back. He swiped the ball from the stunned Hughes, like a defensive back pulling away the ball, turned and put the ball back into the basket for an 89-84 lead with 1:15 left.
Lu! Lu! Lu!
Deng exulted, a rare show of emotion from the cool veteran, and it was over on the next Bulls possession when Charlotte doubled Rose again and with Tyson Chandler wandering toward Rose, Rose dropped the ball to a cutting Noah along the baseline for a dunk-you-very-much-have-a-nice-flight-home. And a chance to play still another game that mattered.
“It was a big play,” agreed Deng, also back starting and with 12 points and seven rebounds. “Larry kind of grabbed the ball and to tell you the truth I was going to try to hit it out of bounds. The ball bounced my way. I knew most of their guys ran out when he grabbed it so I knew I could step in.
“We made big plays,” agreed Deng. “I thought defensively when they went up six we turned it up and that’s how we’re going to win. If we play with that kind of intensity we’re going to beat a lot of teams. The last two games we played well together. Now, it’s all about winning a game at a time. We cannot look too far ahead, play Milwaukee (Tuesday) and try to win that game.”
Which suddenly looks a bit more winnable with Andrew Bogut hurt Saturday. But the Bulls know about injuries this season. So you move on.
“That’s one thing about this team,” said Noah, whose spirit is incalculable. “Even when things were not going well. Everyone always gives everything they got. That’s not the case for all teams. A lot of teams, with their starters hurt, there is a lot of ways to make excuses. But this team never made excuses. We keep fighting.”
It was a heck of an entertaining game with all five Bulls starters in double figures, the Bulls outrebounding the Bobcats 56-34 in a return to their No. 1 rebounding game of pre-Noah injury time, Taj Gibson terrific again winning his battle with Thomas with 14 points and 15 rebounds, his sixth double/double in the last seven games, and Thomas with 10 points and three rebounds in 16 minutes with some moderate booing every time his name was announced.
“I thought it would be a different emotion than I had,” said Thomas, who exchanged hugs with most of his former teammates after the game. “Once the ball went up it was just another game. I didn’t have any anxiousness or nervousness. Just like it’s been since I got traded. I’m just trying to help my team secure a playoff spot and go from there.
“I didn’t play attention (to the reaction),” insisted Thomas. “I was thinking yesterday as we were coming here I thought I’d have some kind of different emotion. But I just went ahead and played.”
As for his times with the Bulls, Thomas said: “Just a life experience. Something you take and run with. You cannot harp on it and say what would have happened. You learn from it and move on.
“We dug ourselves a hole (Saturday),” said Thomas. “It’s hard to do against a good team at home. It’s hard to get out of a situation like that.”
The Bulls did come out flying as Hinrich, Rose and Gibson were each four of five in the first quarter and the Bulls led 29-24.
A word about Gibson: Wow!
I was sitting next to my colleague from the Daily Herald, Mike McGraw, and we were saying we laughed a few months ago about the idea that Gibson would be a replacement for Tyrus. Now, you ask yourself if you even want a power forward in free agency watching Gibson make big plays in every game and never stop.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” Del Negro said of the season without Gibson. “He is very coachable, he works every day and he plays hard. If he has one fault it’s that he helps too much defensively, which is very rare for a rookie. He played in college four years. He works every day and is ready to go. And he’s such a great kid. He’s been a big factor for us all season.”
Thomas has been hampered of late with a sprained ankle and isn’t playing quite as much with another former Bull, Tyson Chandler, back from various foot and ankle surgeries, and Theo Ratliff starting and playing surprisingly well.
Thomas checked in late in the first and went right to a baseline hook over Gibson and made it and was fouled. He followed that with a layup. But Gibson then got a switch and backed down Gerald Wallace, whom Deng held in check, and Gibson scored on a nice post move.
“Me and Jo kept attacking,” said Gibson. “We get after it like that in practice. One of our keys to win is to dominate (on the boards) and it worked well for us tonight.”
Gibson then came out and dominated the opening of the second quarter as the Bulls went up 37-24 in the first four minutes.
He blocked a Thomas shot from behind coming to help, grabbing three tough rebounds in traffic as Hinrich lined in a three and Rose ran out for a twisting layup score.
“They were really much more aggressive than us,” admitted Chandler. “They got their hands on the ball and tipped all the loose balls out there. We took the game over by six and we had control then. Momentum was definitely in our favor. Then we just didn’t get good shots and they made big plays down the stretch.”
Hinrich was really shooting the ball well, and at times like that you’d like to see him take more shots. But he remains a reluctant shooter, sort of like John Paxson was, always searching more for the better shot. You wish Flip Murray, say, would do that more as Murray fell back to earth with a two for 10 games, though he squeezed off the 10 shots in 16 minutes.
The Bobcats were set back a little as Stephen Jackson’s hamstring tightened and he played little after halftime, and Hughes looked like the Larry we knew as he was one of his last 21 shots—and still taking them—until he hit those two threes early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls led 50-41 at halftime, and 70-63 after three as both teams went dead the last five minutes of the third quarter combining for one score in 13 possessions, a Tyrus jumper that brought boos and hoots from the Bulls bench.
The Bulls were feeling pretty good then, but it would soon disappear as Gibson drew his fourth foul early in the fourth quarter and the Bobcats outscored the Bulls 9-4 while he was out.
He did play 42 minutes and it was a back to back, so it certainly made sense. But it remains a pet peeve of mine and I asked Del Negro. Coaches talk about players using all their fouls and keeping them available for the close, which I understand. But usually when a guy gets his third in the third quarter or fourth in the fourth early he comes out. Taj ended with four fouls. I’d let them play.
“Brad (Miller) has been productive for us,” said Del Negro. “It was a back to back, he played 42 minutes and his foot is bothering him and he’s battling through it. Those decisions have to be made and it worked out for us.”
Del Negro made the decision every NBA coach makes. But I like to see guys play to that last foul if they have to, especially in crucial games like the Bulls are now playing.
But still they lived to play another that matters.
And perhaps get a shot at Charlotte again as the Bulls now hold a 2-1 series edge and a potential tiebreaker if they can make up the difference by the final game. How would that be against Michael Jordan’s new team. Jordan passed on the game Saturday, but that would be some finish with Jordan sitting on the bench baiting referees at Bobcats home games.
“Bottom line is having some of our key guys back,” said Del Negro. “Joakim 16 and 11 (25th double/double and second in the last three), Luol making the big play and 12 and seven. Get your players back and they have to make plays and they did. They stuck to it when we were down and started grinding them out, which is what we’ve done all year.
“Enjoy Easter and get yourself ready for Monday practice,” said Del Negro as he leads the egg hunt for colorful late season victories . “Get ready for Milwaukee and go out and execute. Defense and rebounding has won it for us all year and that’s what we have to continue to do.”

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.