The second-biggest storyline coming out of Game 2 — after Jesus Shuttlesworth versus Air Gordon — was the Bulls’ lack of timeouts in the closing seconds, which forced a final (and fatal) 50-foot heave from Tyrus Thomas as time expired. And in true “I’m Italian!” fashion, the one person not second-guessing Vinny Del Negro is…Vinny Del Negro.
According to the Notorious VDN: “You always want to try and keep a time out, but you always want to try to keep yourself in the game. There’s no need to save your time outs if you’re down 15 points, or 10, or 12. At certain times, when they’re making runs like that, and we get the ball with 20 seconds to go in the game and we’re down two, I want to make sure we get a good shot and have an opportunity to tie. Because if we don’t execute well and set something up — especially with a young team — then they’re shooting free throws and the game’s probably over. So I would have liked to have had one at the end, but sometimes you can keep them and sometimes you have to use them to stay in the game.
“People are going to second guess and first guess. So what? I don’t care. They can guess. I’m the coach. I’m going to make the decisions. That’s the way it is. In two seconds or whatever we’ve got to take the ball out of bounds. The ball is going to go to Derrick, because he’s our fastest guy to get it up the court. We set up a play in the time out. We didn’t execute it because the Celtics did a good job with their execution. And that’s the end of the game. I mean, two seconds, I don’t second guess that.”
And now, the money shot. On whether he regrets his use (or, if you’re a critic, misuse) of timeouts: “No not at all. Not a second.”
First off, let’s look at the timeouts Vinny called down the stretch. There was a full timeout with 1:54 following a couple miscues by the Bulls and a quick mini-spurt by the Celtics that cut a five-point Chicago lead to 109-108. The result: A midrange shot from Ben Gordon to make it 111-108. There was a 20-second timeout with a minute left and Boston up 112-111. The result: A 20-footer from BG to put Chicago up 113-112. The final pause, another 20-second timeout with 20 ticks on the clock, predeced another Gordon jumper (from 16 feet out) that tied the game at 115-115 with 12 seconds to go.
To recap: All three late-game TOs resulted in made shots that either increased the lead, took the lead or tied the game. (Chicago’s only other second-half timeout was used with 2:50 left in the third quarter.) So in a sense, they were a success in that they all led to scoring conversions, which gave the team a very real chance to win the game. And mind you, there’s some 20-20 hindsight going on here. The only reason people are screaming about this is because Ray Allen hit an incredible shot over Joakim Noah. If Allen had missed that shot — which wouldn’t have been much of a stretch — then nobody’s talking about this now.
And honestly, what was Vinny supposed to say? Would it have made his critics — or, more importantly, his team — feel any better if he was killing himself with regret? I doubt it. And while I certainly hope that Vinny is able to hold onto a timeout (or two) in Game 3, I’d be giving him a little more hairy eyeball if the ones he called in Game 2 had ended in empty possessions.
Onto rebounding, the third-biggest storyline of Game 2. According to one AP article, the Bulls are “seething” over how badly they were beaten on the boards. (Note that there aren’t any particularly juicy quotes that communicate that seething feeling, but whatever.) To tell you the truth, I’ll be more interested to see what kind of adjustments Vinny makes in the team’s rebounding than how many timeouts he holds onto. Can he rely on Joakim, Tyrus and Brad to deny Boston the second-chance opportunities they lived off of in Game 2? Will he press the “little guys” (Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, John Salmons) to crash the boards a little harder? And if he does, will that slow down the running game?
I tend to think he’ll continue to put the onus on his big men to get the job done. The Bulls have become a running team. Their fast break has really hurt the Celtics in the first two games; Chicago had a 24-13 advantage in fast break points in Game 1 and a 21-10 edge in Game 2. I doubt he’ll want to surrender that weapon.
Update! Actually, Vinny’s putting the onus on everybody. Here’s the scoop: “Everybody has to do a better job rebounding, not just the bigs. Guards have to get in there and get long rebounds. Rondo has hurt us bad with his rebounding and overall game.”
One last thing. According to a little urban legendry, Chicago’s team logo might hide a rather benign secret: “If you turn the Bull’s head upside down it reveals…a robot sitting on a park bench, reading the Bible. The Bull’s nostrils form the robot’s eyes, its furrowed brows are the open pages of the book, and the horns are the legs of a park bench. (Why the Bible? Well, it just looks like a big book.)” And in case you need a visual:
Not exactly the Da Vinci Code…but mildly interesting nonetheless.
Holy crap! You wanted playoff drama, you got playoff drama. This game had everything: Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…
Okay, okay. That was actually The Princess Bride. But this game sure had its share of fairytale-like elements. A proud but ailing champion. A fierce and determined underdog. Mortal combat. A duel for the ages. And, of course, a thrilling last-second victory. Unfortunately, the Bulls were not the recipient of tonight’s happy ending…the Celtics won 118-115 to even this best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
But what a wild ride it was. I literally cannot summarize this game. It was way too epic, far too full of twists and turns, a million little momentum shifts and heroic deeds. (I’m pretty sure the live broadcast saved a burning orphanage and walked several little old ladies across the street…maybe even rescued a kitten from a tree.) But I’ll try to break down some of the key components of what went down:
Derrick Rose: Rose, the unquestioned superhero of Game 1, got tagged with two early fouls and never totally got back into the flow of the game. (Credit the Celtics’ defensive game plan, which clearly had a “Rose Rules” element added in, as explained at Celtics Hub.) He finished with 10 points (5-for-11), 6 rebounds and a team-high 7 assists — good numbers, but certainly not great — and he was thoroughly outplayed by his Boston counterpart.
Rajon Rondo: Real scary moment for the Celtics when Rondo suffered a minor right ankle sprain in the second quarter. He missed the final five minutes of the first half but returned in the third quarter and finished with a triple-double (19 points, 12 rebounds, 16 assists). He also had a game-high 5 steals. Rondo was aggressive and forced the action all night. Plus, he hit a clutch 20-footer with a minute left to put Boston up 112-111, then he snagged a critical offensive rebound with 30 seconds to go and hit Ray Allen for a threeball that put Boston up 115-113. He also assisted on Allen’s last-second game winner (more on that below). If it wasn’t for Derrick’s nuclear-powered Game 1, Rajon would be the MVP of the series so far.
The Battle of the Boards: The Celtics won this one, big time, 50-36, including a 21-8 edge on the offensive glass. That rebounding dominance allowed Boston to score 32 second-chance points (to Chicago’s 12). That is the single-biggest reason the Bulls lost this game. If you repeatedly give a great team extra shots at the basket, they’re going to start hitting them. As coach Vinny said: “I loved the grit and toughness of our team, but you can’t expect to win when you get outrebounded like that.” Update! Nate pointed out in the comments that the Bulls’ “little men” were partly responsible for the rebounding deficiency. And, indeed, Ben Gordon and John Salmons combined for 2 defensive boards, while Rondo had 7 offenisve rebounds.
Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins: Boston’s big men put the hurt on us, no doubt about it. Big Baby is sort of a “Kevin Garnett lite” — or, actually, based on his hefty girth, maybe he’s more of a “Kevin Garnett heavy” — but he did virtually everything KG would have done. (Well, except for on the defensive end.) Davis shot 12-for-21, snared 9 rebounds (4 offensive) and finished with 26 points (second-best on his team, behind Ray Allen). Moreover, Baby worked the Bulls over with his constant hustle and intensity, which may be why he finished with best plus-minus score of the game (+20). Perkins, meanwhile, muscled his way to 16 points (7-for-9), 12 boards (7 offensive) and 2 blocks.
Block party: Chicago’s interior defense was wicked-aggressive, as the team finished with 14 blocked shots (to Boston’s 4). Tyrus Thomas had 6 of those blocks, and Joakim Noah had 4 of them. Here’s the “but” though: The Celtics retained possession after several of those stuffs, and they managed to score several times after getting the ball back. Ty and Jo really need to work on controlling the rebound off their blocks or tapping it to a teammate.
Brad Miller: Whatever was wrong with him in Game 1 — during which he shot 2-for-11 — had been fixed by the time he checked into Game 2. Brad shot 4-for-8 from the field (including 1-for-1 from downtown) and 7-for-8 from the line for his 16 points, plus he grabbed a team-high 8 defensive rebounds (3 more than Joakim and double what Tyrus had). And in case you’re wondering why Miller played 36 minutes to Ty’s 20, it might be worth checking out the plus-minus column in the box score. The Bulls were outscored by 21 points when Tyrus was in the game, but they were +19 when Miller was on the floor. Only two other Chicago players had positive plus-minus marks: Lindsey Hunter was +2 and Rose was +1. If advanced stats mean anything at all, then they’re a sign that, for one night at least, the Bulls were a much better team with Brad on the floor.
One BIG knock on Miller, though: Those 4 turnovers. Ouch.
The transition game: Despite the fact that Boston came out running early, the Bulls still finished with a 21-10 advantage in fast break points.
Ray Allen versus Ben Gordon: In 1988, it was Larry versus Dominique. In 2008, it was The Truth versus King James. This season, it was Jesus Shuttlesworth versus Air Gordon. And no, I’m not overstating things: This playoff shootout was right up there with the best of them. In fact, if it had been, say, Kobe Bryant and LeBron going at each other the way Ray and BG did, your children’s children’s children would be hearing about it.
Gordon scored a playoff career-high 42 points (14-for-24, 6-for-11 from downtown), including Chicago’s final 12. He was so hot that the Boston defenders probably ended up with second and third degree burns from just standing near him. Seriously, Gordon was hitting every possible shot from every conceivable angle. Even video games aren’t that ridiculous. Said Little Ben: “I was in a zone. I really don’t remember what happened. I was in a zone. Every time I got the basketball, I tried to get a good shot and a good look at the basket.” (Gordon also finished with zero assists and zero turnovers. So, you know, he was definitely thinking “shoot first.” But hey, I’m not complaining…)
Unfortunately, Ray Allen had the same kind of second-half sizzle, scoring 28 of his 30 points in the final 24 minutes, including the game-winning three — over Noah’s desperately outstretched hand — with two seconds left. Allen finished 9-for-18 and matched Gordon’s six triples. Plus, Ray-Ray said that he and Ben were exchanging more than just clutch jumpers: “We were exchanging jabs there, and I don’t mean shots. I mean he caught me with an elbow, I got him right back with an elbow. It was…competitive.”
Clock (mis)management: Just like in Game 1, the Bulls were out of timeouts in the final seconds, so when Allen nailed the go-ahead three-pointer, the best Chicago could do was a running 46-footer from Tyrus Thomas as time expired. Memo to Vinny: Could you please, please, pretty-please save a timeout next time? The way things are going in this series, it looks like you’re going to need one or two down the stretch.
No fear: Okay, quick question: Where in the world did the Bulls’ poise come from? They nearly came away from a two-game stint in very hostile territory against the defending champions with a 2-0 series lead. They never looked nervous, scared or overwhelmed…how is that possible?
Looking ahead: So, after two tight games in Boston, the Bulls have to be feeling pretty good about Games 3 and 4 at the United Center, where they’ve been killing people for the last couple months. Said Tyrus: “To do what we did (Monday night) and know we’re headed back to the United Center is a good feeling for us.” No doubt.
But…it’ll be interesting to see how the team responds to playing at home. They were able to play pretty free and loose in Beantown. After all, they weren’t supposed to win there, right? That sometimes eases the pressure. However, a team absolutely must win its home games in the playoffs, and that can make players a little tight and tentative.
Derrick Rose’s first playoff game made NBA history, alongside the other all-time great postseason debuts of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Chris Paul, John Williamson, Gary Brokaw and whoever else you want to name. But I felt it was necessary to rank Derrick’s performance against several other real-world examples of incredible awesomeness in order to provide the proper perspective on his spectacular accomplishment.
2. Superman turns the tables on fate, physics and common sense by flying around the world at the speed of light in order to travel back in time. (Note that Supes gave science this big middle finger to keep from burning a piece of bread he was trying to toast for breakfast and not — as is commonly thought — to prevent Lois Lane from dying in an earthquake. That would have been a gross misuse of his powers.)
5. Derrick Rose scores 36 points and dishes out 11 assists, leading the seventh-seeded Chicago Bulls to a 105-103 overtime road win over the defending champion Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their 2009 NBA Playoff series.
11. (Tie) Blog author Matt McHale scores 20 of his team’s 21 points (using the standard “1s and 2s” scoring system) in a pickup basketball game; Matt’s college roommate, Dave, establishes his complete mastery over Street Fighter II during the same semester in which he gets an “A” in Communications 201: An Introduction to Social Research without attending a single class.
12. Rocky Balboa rediscovers the ”Eye of the Tiger” and knocks out Clubber Lang to recapture boxing’s Heavyweight Championship of the World.
13. The incredible Hulk catches a 150-billion ton mountain range on his back during the first Secret Wars, thus saving the lives of other notable Marvel Heroes such as Spiderman, Captain America and some dude who shoots a bow and arrow. (Seriously, how’s that a super power?)
On Friday, Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub revealed: “Rose scares me. … If Derrick Rose can break down the defense either through one-on-one penetration or screen/rolls, I worry that as the C’s big men help, Thomas and Noah will be able to find the right spots on the floor before Davis/Powe/Perkins can get back to them. I also worry about Rose’s ability to finish around the rim. He’s so athletic, and so good at going around big guys standing straight up.”
So, uh, Zach…why didn’t you tell me you had a time machine?
Derrick Rose scored 36 points yesterday, setting a new career-high and tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most points scored by a rookie in a playoff. He shot 12-for-19 from the field and was a perfect 12-for-12 from the line. He had a game-high 11 assists, which made him only the second player in NBA history with 35 points and 10 assists in his playoff debut (Chris Paul had 35 and 10 in his own history-making playoff debut last season). And his Chicago Bulls beat the Boston Celtics — 105-103 in overtime — for the first time in 11 postseason tries. It’s no coincidence.
Rose was flat out awesome. That’s not to say he didn’t make mistakes. He committed a game-high 5 turnovers — including an ill-conceived forced pass with 3:30 left in regulation that led to a Paul Pierce layup, which allowed Boston to regain the lead — and he fouled out with 10 seconds to go in overtime on a pretty cheesy bump foul on Rajon Rondo. But that feels like nitpicking. The kid was unflappable. He never looked panicked or even worried. When he was interviewed at halftime (with the Bulls holding a surprising 9-point lead) and after the game (after Chicago’s even more surprising victory), he wasn’t even breathing hard.
It was amazing. Rose hit some shots that were just redonkulous. Long jumpers with the shot clock winding down, driving layups in the heart of the Celtic defense (including one in which he got fouled right before lofting it up one-handed on the baseline from slightly behind the backboard). In some ways, it was nearly as fantastic as Michael Jordan’s legendary 63-point performance against the C’s back in 1986…or maybe more fantastic, since Rose’s effort resulted in an overtime win instead of a double-overtime loss.
Maybe that’s overstating things, but what Derrick huge. Or as the Beantowners might say, “yuuuuuuuuge.” But in all fairness to D-Rose, he didn’t do it alone. Joakim Noah was a monster. He hit only five of his 12 shot attempts, but he finished with 11 points, 3 blocked shots and a game-high 17 rebounds. To put that in perspective, the Celtics — one of the league’s best rebounding teams — didn’t have a single player reach double figures off the boards. (Pierce, Rondo and Leon Powe were the closest, with 7 rebounds each.) And trust me when I tell you that Joakim’s board work was probably just as critical as Rose’s offense.
(Okay, I’m really, really trying not to hold Joakim’s biggest blunder of the day against him, when he rotated over and fouled Pierce on a long, fall-away jumper with 2.6 seconds left in the fourth. That foul likely would have cost the Bulls the game had Pierce made both free throws. He didn’t, and things turned out okay, but still. Joakim, it’s like Hubie Brown always says: NEVER FOUL A JUMP SHOOTER.)
Then there was Tyrus Thomas, the third member of Chicago’s young core of the future. Ty finished with 16 points (8-for-12), 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. But he was at his best in overtime, when he scored six of the Bulls’ eight points — including the game-winning jumper with 51 seconds left — all on jump shots. Yes, you read that correctly: ALL ON JUMPSHOTS. From 16, 17 and 20 feet, to be exact. I guess all those regular season misses paid off?
I should also mention that Ben Gordon — who might not even be a Bull next season — shook off a slow start to finish with 20 points and a second-best-on-the-team 5 dimes. Moreover, he got hot late, drilling four of his six makes in the fourth quarter on (surprise!) long jumpers (once from 24 feet, twice from 20 and once from 18). His clutch offense forced Doc Rivers to shuffle Ray Allen (4 points on 1-for-12 shooting) like Ray was in the witness protection program.
And while giving out credit where credit is due, I should mention Brad Miller (who went 2-for-11 but grabbed 12 boards) and Kirk Hinrich (whose stats weren’t all that), who were the only Chicago players other than Derrick Rose to finish with a positive plus-minus score (they were +9 each, while Rose was +8). Brad was a key part of 53-45 rebounding edge, and Kirk was a steady presence off the bench, particularly on defense.
I’m not totally sure what to make of this win. It’s big, yeah, but it took a historic performance by Rose to pull out a 2-point overtime win. Can Derrick make history again? And will the Bulls continue to play with the same sort of loose confidence they displayed in Game 1? I mean, it sure seems easier to execute when nobody believes in you and all the pressure is on the other guys. Pierce, for one, thinks this was a wakeup call for the Celtics. And if that’s the case, Game 2 could get ugly.
But if this game proved something to the young Bulls (and the old ones)…it’s that anything’s possible. Right?
Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub was kind enough to answer a few Leprechaun-related questions leading into the Bulls-Celtics playoff series.
1. With Kevin Garnett, the Celtics surrender only 90.8 PPG. Without him, they’re giving up 99.4 PPG and (gulp) 107.5 PPG versus playoff teams. Why can’t they stop people sans KG?
I think these numbers are a little skewed by some games against lesser opponents in which the Celtics either came out flat or were short-handed beyond just missing KG. I’m thinking specifically of games like an early March game at New Jersey (111 points allowed) and the mid-March at Chicago.
When they’ve focused, they’ve shown they can play defense without KG. They held the Cavs and Magic to 94 and 86 points, respectively, in consecutive games in early March. Of course, the defense is less consistent without KG for all the reasons you’d expect — the other bigs don’t rotate down low quite as quickly or show out on the screen/roll as well. There is a level of precision and crispness that is lost without KG and won’t ever be there without him. But there is enough defensive ability left to win in the playoffs, in part because Paul Pierce and Kendrick Perkins have both become elite defenders at their positions.
2. Conversely, without Garnett, they score a little better (103.2 PPG versus 99.9 PPG) and their shooting improves (49.8 comparied to 48.0). Why is that? Are they really a more efficient scoring team without Kevin?
I don’t think the Celtics would put up better offensive numbers without KG over a larger sample size. Other players (especially Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis and even Perk) have stepped up their scoring without KG without sacrificing much, if anything, in terms of shooting percentages. It has been a pleasant surprise. But there are more easy baskets to be had when KG’s in the line-up — because of his consistently great shooting and his interior passing. Things just seem like less work, and I think the number, over a full 82 games (or more), would reflect that.
3. As a team, the Celtics withstood KG’s absence better than anybody could have predicted. I mean, how many teams could win 62 games when their best player misses almost a third of the season? But up until now, they had the hope of Kevin’s return to sustain them. How do you suppose the latest news will affect their group psyche?
I think the Celtics are strong mental team, and I think they will come out hungry and eager to prove themselves as worthy champions. Paul Pierce said today that “guys have to be ready to step up” and that “we know we’re still a pretty good team and capable of winning a championship.” Ray Allen has talked about how a championship would be “sweeter” given the KG adversity. This is a proud, proud team — you saw that on Sunday during the Cleveland blow-out and again Tuesday when they beat an amped-up Philly team even without Ray Allen and KG (and with no reason to work so hard). Paul Pierce was screaming at the team in the huddle during the second quarter because the defense was so sloppy.
I think they’ve been preparing themselves for this eventuality for a while. Even Glen Davis has talked often about how he plays with a different intensity when KG is not in the line-up, because he knows he has more responsibility. This team will play hard, and they will truly believe they can and should win every game.
4. The Bulls are, primarily, a perimeter team that relies on streaky shooting and a steady diet of drive-and-kicks. How will the C’s defend that?
If the Bulls get overly reliant on perimeter jumpers, the Celtics should defend them well. The team generally closes out on shooter, and they rarely make mistakes or fall too far behind in their rotations. There’s a reason the Celtics finished second overall in defensive efficiency (and were #1 for most of the season) and were held opponents to the fifth-lowest three-point shooting percentage in the league. They don’t allow a lot of easy jumpers — especially from the most efficient parts of the floor.
That said, the quickness advantage Thomas and Noah have over the Celtics bigs worries me. If Derrick Rose can break down the defense either through one-on-one penetration or screen/rolls, I worry that as the C’s big men help, Thomas and Noah will be able to find the right spots on the floor before Davis/Powe/Perkins can get back to them. I also worry about Rose’s ability to finish around the rim. He’s so athletic, and so good at going around big guys standing straight up.
5. With the possibly exception of Tyrus Thomas, the Celtics seem to have an advantage (at best) or a stalemate (at worst) at virtually every position. Are there any matchups that worry you?
I think I may have answered this question a little bit above. Rose scares me. I think Rondo is a very good defensive player, but I think his ability to keep quick guards in front of him is a little over-rated — it’s why he resorts to trying to poke the ball away from behind so often. If Brad Miller and Ty Thomas are stretching the C’s defense by hitting 20-footers, it will put a let of pressure on Boston defensively.
On the positive side (for us), I don’t see how Chicago can stop Boston consistently. With Salmons hampered by a groin injury and Deng out, I don’t seen anyone who can guard Pierce. I think Rondo will blow by Rose just as easily (if not more easily) than Rose will beat Rondo on the other end, and Perkins, because of his size, has a chance to score 10-12 points per game in this series. Ray Allen should also have an easy time getting shots off when Hinrich is on the bench.
The basics: The Chicago Bulls (41-41) versus the Boston Celtics (62-20). The Bulls are 28-13 at home (yay!) but only 13-28 on the road (boo!). Meanwhile, the Celtics are 35-6 in Boston (the third-best home record in the league) and 27-14 outside of Beantown (tied for the second-best road record). Is it a bad sign for the Bulls that Boston’s road record is almost as good as Chicago’s home record? Yeah, probably.
Advanced stuff: The Bulls rank 19th in offensive efficiency (105.1 points per 100 possessions) and 18th in defensive efficiency (105.8 points given up per 100 possessions). The C’s? They’re 6th (108.1) and 2nd (99.4), respectively. Boston also has the edge in rebounding: They’re 2nd in the NBA with a rebounding rate (the percentage of missed shots that a team rebounds) of 52.8. Chicago ranks 20th (49.6). It turns out Boston isn’t just better offensively, defensively and on the boards…they’re way better. As bad signs go, that ranks somewhere between waking up next to a bloody corpse and finding out that Soylent green is people.
The season series: The Leprechauns won it 2-1.
Bad news for the Bulls: The Celtics won both games in Boston by an average of 17 points. Chicago shot 29.8 percent in the first game. They then lost the second contest by 18 despite shooting 50 percent both from the field and beyond the arc. That might have something to do with the fact that the C’s hit almost 60 percent of their field goal attempts (including 12-for-24 from downtown).
Good news for the Bulls: They did manage to win in the Celtics’ only trip to the United Center. It was an exciting (if rather defenseless) 127-121 affair in which John Salmons matched his career-high by scoring 38 points on sizzling 14-for-20 shooting. Some people felt the victory was marred by the fact that Kevin Garnett missed the game with that pesky knee injury. But, as it turns out, KG’s knee hasn’t gotten any better…and he won’t suit up for this series. Or maybe at all during this postseason. Bad news for Boston fans is good news for the Chicago faithful.
Reality check: The champs weren’t only missing Garnett. They also were without Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine, and they lost Leon Powe a few minutes into the game after he bruised his right knee in a collision with Ben Gordon. The Celtics might be sans Garnett, but those other guys — well, except for Scalabrine — are back and ready to go. Oh, and Salmons’ ongoing groinal dysfunction will probably prevent him from enjoying any more scoring explosions.
A slight ray of hope: No matter how you look at it, the Celtics aren’t the same team without Garnett. They were “only” 18-7 without him (versus 44-13 with him). And they enjoyed far more success against non-playoff teams (10-2) than squads headed for the postseason (8-5). In fact, they’re giving up 107.5 PPG to playoff teams when KG isn’t around to bolster the D.
Celtics player to watch: Paul Pierce. He’s really picked up his game in KG’s absence, scoring 24.1 PPG while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 41.0 in threes. And, uh, he’s pretty much owned the Bulls this season: 22.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 56.8 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from threeland. And John Salmons, who will have to guard Pierce, is hobbling around with an injured groin. This could get ugly.
Bulls player to watch: Derrick Rose. His season averages against Boston — 14.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 42.9 percent shooting — weren’t the stuff of legends, and Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (14.7 PPG, 10.3 APG, 55.6 percent shooting versus Chicago) pretty much had his way. But this kid is already the Bulls’ best player. He’s got to be aggressive and set the tone offensively if the Chi-towners are going to have any hope at all of winning a game, let alone the series.
Key(s) to the series: First, Boston’s second-best-in-the-league defense. If the Bulls aren’t extremely careful, the C’s D might smother them like a kitten in a burlap sack. (Warning: Do not put kittens in burlap sacks…they’re so cute!) Second, Chicago’s bottom-half-of-the-league defense. The Bulls aren’t stopping anybody. If they’re forced to outscore the Celtics, well, it’s going to be a short series.
Fun fact: This will be the fourth time the Bulls have faced the Celtics in the playoffs. Boston won all three previous series in sweeps (4-0, 3-0 and 3-0). There is an odd symmetry to it all, though: In the first two series (in 1981 and 1986), the Celtics were on their way to a championship. In the third series (1987) and this one, the C’s were defending their title.
Prediction: Unless something unthinkable (like, say, Paul Pierce’s right leg falls off) or bizarre (like both of Paul’s legs fall off) happens, the Celtics should win this series 4-1. Unless John Salmons gets a bionic groin implant. But then again, if a man can cut steel with a piece of bacon — yes, it’s happened — then why can’t the Bulls beat the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics? As KG himself has pointed out: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLLLEEEE!!!!
Yesterday on Basketbawful, I made what was, in retrospect, a rather rash and foolish statement regarding Philadelphia’s loss to the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen-less Celtics: “The defeat will almost certainly cost the Sixers the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs (unless the Bulls lose at home to the Raptors and Philly manages to beat the Cavs in Cleveland), which will force them to face Boston in the first round. So, you know, uh oh.”
What a boner…especially considering I’m the person who invented the term “stat curse.” Not only that, I’m also the guy who has repeatedly mocked the New Jersey Nets for going 23-40 and failing to reach the postseason after some early season success that caused Devin Harris to utter the now infamous line: “We knew we were going to be a playoff team.”
Yep. I fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: No NBA team can ever — I repeat, ever — simply pencil in a victory. No matter how well they’ve been playing, no matter how lousy the opponent, and no matter how invincible they seem at home. It’s a time-proven formula for failure. That’s science. Look it up.
So the worst-case scenario, which really had seemed unthinkable, actually happened: The Bulls lost 109-98 to the Raptors at the United Center, while the Sixers pulled out a 111-110 overtime victory in Cleveland. Now, instead of facing a suddenly struggling and potentially vulnerable Magic team, Chicago has to face the defending champions in the first round. You know, the same squad that managed to win 62 games despite the fact that their top dog and reigning Defensive Player of the Year missed almost a third of the season with a sprained right knee.
Sweet Lincoln’s mullet, what happened?! The Bulls had won 12 of their last 15 games and 14 of 15 at home. The Raptors, meanwhile, entered the game a disappointing 32-49 — unlucky number 13 in the East — and had nothing to play for except being the spoiler. Well, that’s not quite true. This was Shawn Marion’s last chance to audition for a big free agent contract, and he played like it, going off for a game-high 34 points on a video game-like 15-for-18 from the f ield to go along with 11 rebounds.
The Chi-towners brought less energy to the game than your average DMV employee brings to work each day. The Raptors just plain wanted it more, a fact that’s pretty obvious from one quick glance at the stat sheet: Toronto outrebounded the Bulls 57-40. (Chris Bosh grabbed 19 of those caroms.) Now, Chicago isn’t a great rebounding team — they have a -0.5 differential on the year — but to lose the Battle of the Boards by 17 at home in a semi-must-win game? Really?
The Raps also, amazingly enough, outran the Bulls, as evidenced by their 19-10 edge in fast break points. Said Ben Gordon: “We had lackluster energy.” He’s not wrong.
This stinker was more than a little surprising, particularly after the team’s impressive road win against the Pistons on Monday. It happens, I guess. They’ve been playing above their heads for a while. Guys have been logging a lot of minutes. John Salmons (5 points, 1-for-7) is struggling with that sore groin. (The way he played, his groin better be ready to fall off. At least that might explain his misdirected shooting and non-existent defense on Marion.) Plus, it sure seems like they’ve started taking their recent home dominance a little for granted. Memo to the Bulls: You still have to play the games.
Well, no use crying over spilled milk. All you can do is wipe it up and move on. And hope that Kevin Garnett is still far less than 100 percent. And that Paul Pierce wore himself out playing too many minutes to compensate for KG’s absence. And that Ray Allen misplaces his jump shot. And that Derrick Rose can handle Rajon Rondo. And, and, and…
Player notes: Rose finished his Rookie of the Year campaign with a double-double (20 points, 11 assists). He also added 2 blocks and a steal. Ben Gordon scored a team-high 23 points, but it took him 22 shots to get there. Joakim Noah (17 points, 8-for-11, 9 boards) and Tyrus Thomas (12 points, 6-for-11, 8 rebounds) had decent numbers, but I wish they would have done a better job protecting the glass. Salmons, as noted, was a disaster. Brad Miller had a double-double off the bench (14 points, 11 rebounds) but missed nine of his 14 shot attempts. Kirk Hinrich had his phaser set to “suck”…he went scoreless (0-for-6) in 17 minutes.
Kurt Helin of NBC Los Angeles: “Remember back around the All Star break, when Bulls were an unmitigated disaster? Rose looked like a rookie — a promising rookie, but one who turned the ball over and was still learning to play in the clutch. The team gave away fourth quarter leads like Jim Cramer gives away bad stock advice — every night. Vinny Del Negro looked like an unprepared rookie coach and John Paxson was being nailed to the sports talk radio wall for brining in the bloated contract of Brad Miller and the ball-hogging John Salmons. Well look at the Bulls now. Rose matured, Del Negro has grown, the trade provided needed pieces and the Bulls are a team to avoid. They have won 8 of 10 and that includes going into Detroit on Monday night and knocking off the Pistons behind brilliant play from Derrick Rose and a game-winning shot from Ben Gordon. That win secures at least seventh place in the East, meaning the Bulls win the avoid-the-Cavaliers-in-the-first-round game that everyone has been playing. Chicago’s win is bad news for Orlando, the likely first round opponent for the Bulls. (All the Bulls have to do is beat Toronto at home in the final game of the season to secure that seeding.)”
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “At Tuesday’s final regular-season practice, Kirk Hinrich walked around with a bloody gash on his left cheek, Thomas spent time arguing his flagrant foul and Ben Gordon winced when recalling getting hit in an area no man should experience. It was all residue from Monday’s road victory over the Pistons—one of the most physical games of the season. And the fact the Bulls not only won but shoved back bodes well for the playoff series against Boston or Orlando that’s coming. ‘It’s going to be physical,’ coach Vinny Del Negro said. ‘You have to get used to that. You’re not going to get calls. You have to go in there and get into bodies. Defensively, you have to get contact. And you have to fight through those things. You can’t let the frustration get you out of sync. We have a ways to go on that. But we battled and showed some progress.’”
John Jackson of the Chicago Sun-Times: “The Bulls gathered at the Berto Center early Tuesday to prepare for their season finale tonight against the Toronto Raptors at the United Center, a game that will go a long way — if not all the way — in determining their first-round playoff opponent. Still, the players couldn’t help looking back to their gritty 91-88 road victory Monday against the Detroit Pistons in arguably their biggest game of the season. By beating the Pistons, the Bulls assured themselves of avoiding the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round and will face either the Boston Celtics or Orlando Magic. They’d have no chance against LeBron James and the Cavaliers but might have a shot against the Celtics, if Kevin Garnett continues to be hobbled by a knee injury, or the Magic, which is 3-5 in April. ‘It was definitely a quality road win that we haven’t had in a long time,’ center Joakim Noah said. ‘I can’t remember the last quality road win we had.’”
Stu Courtney of the Chicago Sun-Times: “A win Wednesday at home vs lowly Toronto would give the Bulls (18-27 at their lowest point after an overtime loss Jan. 25 at Minnesota) a winning season (42-40) and a likely No. 6 seed, good for a trip to Disney World to play the ailing Magic. So are you buying in with this team? Gotta like the improving play of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, the court smarts of Brad Miller and the consistency of John Salmons. D-Rose gives the Bulls the closer they were lacking and Ben Gordon brings enough firepower to make them a potentially tough first-round ‘out.’ What’s your take on the franchise going forward? Has Vinny Del Negro redeemed himself for all his rookie coaching shortcomings? In assessing Vinny, only one thing matters: If Derrick Rose respects him and will continue to grow under him, then he’s the right guy. If not, then it doesn’t matter how well they do in the playoffs — start looking around for a new coach.”
Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald: “Much of the playoff buzz surrounding the Bulls is whether they can lock up the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference and get a somewhat favorable first-round matchup against Orlando. Favorable to everyone but Joakim Noah, that is. He’d have to spend a playoff series guarding Magic center Dwight Howard, a guaranteed first-team all-NBA honoree and likely defensive player of the year. ‘Dwight is an animal. He’s the best center in the league,’ Noah said following Tuesday’s short practice at the Berto Center. ‘It’s exciting, though. It’s exciting to go up against the best on the big stage. Dwight’s a lot to handle, but it’s going to be an exciting time.’”
More K.C. Johnson from the Chicago Tribune: “Remember during training camp when critics accused Ben Gordon of pouting over failed contract negotiations and milking a jammed big right toe? Gordon does. ‘That was a slap in the face,’ Gordon said. ‘Anybody who said that doesn’t know me. I was hurt.’ And now he’s not. In fact, Gordon is poised to be the only Bull to play all 82 games this season, the third time in five seasons the durable guard will accomplish that feat. He has missed just 12 career games. ‘I definitely take pride in that,’ Gordon said. ‘I think the way I train is a testament to how important this game is to me. I work very hard. I definitely don’t like to miss games. So I’m happy that after all that has happened, I’ve played in all the games again.’”
What a crazy, wild, unthinkable ride this season has been. A few months ago, the Chicago Bulls were an awful mess. GM John Paxson was accused of mismanaging the team and at one point was rumored to be stepping down in semi-disgrace. Vinny Del Negro was declared a coaching bust; people were calling for his head and discussing whether someone like Avery Johnson, Doug Collins or Flip Saunders should be brought in to right the sinking ship. The team couldn’t win a home, couldn’t win on the road, couldn’t take care of the ball, couldn’t hold onto leads in the fourth quarter, couldn’t…well, let’s just say that the list of things they couldn’t do was really, really long.
The fans were disgusted. People were giving up, leaving this year’s team for dead, praying for a change, a savior, maybe Amar’e Stoudemire, perhaps Chris Bosh. When Pax finally made the moves that brought in Brad Miller and John Salmons, they bemoaned Miller’s albatross of a contract, suggested that Salmons was a stat-padder or, worse, a ballhog, and wondered why Paxson failed to rid the team of Kirk Hinrich’s bloated salary.
Even as the team started winning a few more games than it was losing, people scoffed. When TNT’s Ernie Johnson brought up the Bulls’ growing momentum at home, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith mocked him and derided Chicago as just some sub-.500 team unworthy of respect or consideration. And even when they started to look like a pretty sure bet to make the playoffs, some people casually dismissed them as a team that could play well at home — 14 of 15 by last count — but would likely falter on the road.
But this team keeps answering questions. Tonight, they proved they could go into a hostile arena and compete in a playoff-like atmosphere. Not only compete, in fact, but win in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. And I have to tell you, this 91-88 win over the Pistons in Detroit felt a lot like redemption, for Paxson’s vision, for Vinny’s growth, for Derrick Rose’s maturity, for the coming together of seemingly disparate parts.
Chicago has become a running team, so Detroit slowed the tempo and relied on mismatches, execution and experience to slowly overwhelm the younger, less experienced Bulls. And when Rodney Stuckey drilled a 19-footer to give the Pistons an 11-point lead with 9:47 left in the third quarter, it honest-to-God felt like Detroit was about to start pulling away. But they couldn’t maintain the double-digit lead…the Bulls just kept hanging around, hanging around…
And it wasn’t one guy doing it, either. Joakim Noah hit a layup. Ben Gordon did the same. Noah drew a foul and knocked down a couple free throws. Gordon hit from 14 feet out. Derrick Rose nailed a running 18-footer. John Salmons and Gordon sent a couple jumpers down the well. Tim Thomas hit a layup and got the “And 1!”
Then came the decisive fourth quarter. This is where the Bulls were supposed to falter. But they didn’t. The Pistons did. Chicago outscored Detroit 22-13 in that final period. And Rose showed that, while he isn’t quite up there with D-Wade, Kobe or LeBron, he someday very well might be. Quite simply, Derrick took over. He dropped in a free throw. He hit Tyrus Thomas for a jumper. Then he assisted Miller on an 18-footer. He got Brad a layup on the next possession. A couple minutes later, he found Miller for a three-pointer, Chicago’s only triple of the second half. A short while later, Rose hit layups on back-to-back possessions. Then he got fouled and converted a couple foul shots to pull the Bulls to within two (87-85) with 4:07 to go.
Then things almost fell apart.
Detroit was up 88-85 with 2:23 to play when Miller lost the ball on a travelling violation and then picked up his second technical foul of the quarter for, ahem, disagreeing with the call. (Brad also got T’d up with 5:58 left when the officials called him for an offensive foul after a made layup. So instead of a three-point play, Miller got the foul. And he let the ref know that he wasn’t a fan.)
Anyway, it looked like Brad’s tantrum was going to cost his team the game. But Rip Hamilton bonked the free throw and then turned the ball over 19 seconds after play resumed. Bullet: Dodged.
Then it was Rose to the rescue again. After both teams combined for a few misses, Derrick hit a fast break layup while getting fouled by Rasheed Wallace. He calmly put in the free throw to tie the game. Then he made a spectacular play on defense, blocking Rodney Stuckey’s jumper. Joakim controlled the rebound to give the Bulls possession with 31 seconds left. Then it was Gordon time, as little Ben drove in for the go-ahead layup with 14 ticks on the clock. The Pistons called timeout, but ‘Sheed couldn’t convert a three and Antonio McDyess, who snared the offensive board, wasn’t able to nail a followup shot. Rose pulled down the rebound, got fouled and hit one out of two from the line. There were only two seconds left, Detroit was out of timeouts and Stuckey’s 61-footer hit nothing but the shot clock.
Detroit’s loss doomed them to the East’s eighth seed and a first-round date with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, Chicago’s win moved the Bulls them to one game over .500 (41-40) for the first time since November 1, when they were 2-1. More importantly, it put them in sixth place, a half-game up on the Philadelphia 76ers. And while the Bulls wrap up their season at home against the Raptors on Wednesday, Philly has to face the Celtics at home and the Cavaliers on the road.
A first-round matchup with the banged up, struggling Orlando Magic? That doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe Tyrus knew what he was talking about when he said the Bulls were the most dangerous team heading into the Eastern Conference playoffs…
Player notes: Rose scored a team-high 24 points (9-for-17), including 11 in the fourth quarter. He also had a 5 rebounds and a team-best 8 assists. Gordon shot 8-for-15, connected on three of his five three-point attempts and finished with 19 points. Joakim had a double-double (11 points, 13 boards) plus 4 assists and a block. Tyrus added 13 points, 8 boards and 2 blocks. Miller came off the bench to contribute 10 points (4-for-6), 2 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, a game-high 6 turnovers (ugh) and one ejection.
If you’ve been watching the Bulls play lately, then you’ve probably noticed that Derrick Rose has been knocking down a lot of open jumpers. Trust me, it’s no mirage. Check out his NBA Hot Spots chart from the last 10 games:
Dig it: Derrick’s been hitting at a 55 percent clip (31-for-56) from that midrange zone in his last 10 games. Now check out his last five:
That’s 21-for-32…a 65.6 percent rate of accuracy! It’s amazing that his shot has improved this drastically over the course of his rookie season. It looks like Derrick’s defenders won’t be able to keep going under screens and daring him to shoot the ball. Unless they want their teams to lose. If he develops a three-point shot, he’ll be unstoppable.