Despite the absence of Carlos Boozer due to a sore hamstring, the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a convincing victory over a division rival. And unlike their two losses to the Bucks earlier this season, they managed to build a big lead and keep it.
The Bulls outhustled and outworked the Bucks. They made the hustle plays and maintained their focus for most of the game (minus one sloppy stretch of the third quarter).
The Bulls (28-17) stayed 1.5 games ahead of the Pacers (27-19) for the lead in the Central Division. And get this: they’re only a game behind the Knicks (28-15) and 2.5 games behind the Heat (29-13). That they’ve managed to remain within striking distance of the Eastern Conference lead without Derrick Rose playing a single game is more than impressive. It’s a minor miracle.
Player of the Game:
Nate Robinson. Little Nate was the unquestioned goat of Chicago’s last loss to Milwaukee. He incited Brandon Jennings with a continuous stream of smack talk and Jennings responded with a season-high 35 points…which also happened to be the highest single-game total of any Bulls opponent this season. Still is as a matter of fact.
After that game, Jennings said: ”[Robinson did] a little trash talking before the second half. I guess he felt like he had it going, he was getting the best of me. I really don’t take trash talking too kindly because I don’t really do a lot of trash talking. I warned him, so, hey, it happens.”
Robinson didn’t forget. Nor apparently did he forgive. Nate erupted off the bench with 16 second quarter points — on 7-for-9 shooting — as the Bulls outscored the Bucks 32-18 in the period to go into halftime with a 55-37 lead.
To be fair, Nate had it cooking all game long, scoring a game-best 24 points while going 9-for-11 from the field, 2-for-3 from three-point range and 4-for-4 from the free throw line. He even chipped in 4 assists, 3 steals and 2 rebounds. He hit jumpers. He drove in for layups. He even got his first dunk of the season on a nice backdoor cut:
He also played some inspired defense against Jennings, who shot 6-for-18 and scored only 15 points. Mind you, Jennings played 14 more minutes than Robinson, so holding him down was certainly a group effort. But whenever they were matched up, Nate was there, slapping at the ball and forcing Jennings into bad shots.
The coup de grace game with just under three minutes left to play. The Bucks kinda-sorta within striking distance — the Bulls were up by 10 — when Jennings drove into Robinson and got called for an offensive foul.
Nate took a dive for sure, but it wasn’t a Vlade Divac-style flop by any stretch of the imagination. Still, Jennings — frustrated by getting repeatedly shown up and taunted by Robinson — threw the ball, walked right up to the official, and said the call was bull-you-know-what. Then he said the official knew the call was bull-you-know-what.
That did it. Jennings earned a technical foul and an ejection for his behavior. And that pretty much sunk any chance the Bucks had of making a comeback.
Here’s video of Nate abusing Jennings throughout the game:
Said Bucks coach Jim Boylan: “Even though he and Brandon are going at it, I don’t think it’s taking away from Brandon’s game.”
Uhm…are you sure about that, coach?
Said Jimmy Butler: ”I think Nate got the best of [Jennings] in this one. He got him extremely frustrated, not to mention that Nate was knocking down a lot of shots. He was knocking down a lot of shots and was really into him defensively. I think he wasn’t letting anything go easy. Nate took it as disrespect last time at home when (Jennings) was doing Nate’s celebration. I don’t think Nathaniel Cornelius Robinson liked that too much.”
Admittedly, I wish Nate had canned the trash talk, although I know it’s part of his game. Still, here’s a guy playing on a minimum contract who always brings 100 percent energy and effort off the bench. He’s leading the team in Player Efficiency Rating (18.4). He’s doing pretty much everything the team could possibly ask of him under the circumstances. Even if his decision-making and shot selection occasionally drive the Bulls and their fans crazy.
Said coach Tom Thibodeau: ”The good outweighs the bad. He’s a catalyst. He’s a spark plug. The thing that I like right now is I think he’s really improved defensively and he’s got to keep working at it. His defense is getting better and better. He’s always had the ability to score the ball and he’s playing both positions. He’s playing the point, I think he tries to run the team more at the point, then when he goes to the 2 he looks to score more, but he’s done a good job for us.”
Added Joakim Noah: ”I knew that he had a lot of energy and always talking a lot of trash. But after spending time with him, he’s a great teammate and he’s playing at a real high level for us right now. He’s playing great basketball. I think the last couple weeks he’s brought his intensity and he’s really channeling his energy the right way, not getting down on himself when things aren’t going well and just being aggressive offensively, being aggressive defensively and he’s been huge for us.”
As Exhibit A, I present last nights performance: 27 minutes, 18 points, 8-for-12 from the field, 1-for-2 on threes, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a plus-minus of +19. Like Robinson, Butler scored in a variety of ways, shooting, driving, and dunking. He played great D as always. He was energetic and efficient. And, with Robinson, he was a huge part Chicago’s 50-25 advantage in bench scoring. And that was minus Taj Gibson (14 points, 7-for-12, 9 rebounds), who started in place of the missing Carlos Boozer.
Said Thibs: “He’s a big lift. He can guard, he can score and play multiple positions and make hustle plays. He’s doing a lot for us. He’s a big part of this team.”
Butler has made me a believer.
Key Stats Part 1:
The Bulls outscored the Bucks 66-40 in the paint. According to Hoopdata, Chicago converted nearly as many shots at the rim (28) as Milwaukee attempted (31). And their conversion rate at the rim (75.7 percent) was much better than the home team’s (48.4). Robinson — the tiniest man on the floor — was a perfect 6-for-6 at the rim. Butler and Deng were both 5-for-6.
Oh, and those 66 points in the paint? That was a Bulls season-high.
Key Stats Part 2:
Chicago’s D let up a little in the third quarter, when the Bucks shot 11-for-22 (50 percent). But it was cranked up the rest of the game, as Milwaukee went 9-for-23 (39 percent) in the first quarter, 7-for-18 (39 percent) in the second and 7-for-19 (37 percent) in the fourth.
With Boozer out, Deng (13 rebounds, 12 points, 5 assists) had to join Noah (12 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists) in the double-double club. Gibson just missed by one rebound.
Gibson had a good game overall, especially in the early going when the team was looking for him in the post. Taj was much more assertive on offense than usual and attempted eight shots at the rim, making five. He even hit a slick turn-around jumper from the baseline.
But Gibson — who averages about 20 minutes a game — logged 34 minutes of PT because of Boozer’s absence. And you could see a decline in his performance in the second half, especially on the defensive end. (Check the plus-minus stats if you don’t believe me.) Ersan Ilyasova was shooting over Gibson and driving past him, and Jennings hit a three over Gibson as well. You could tell Taj was gassed. If Boozer misses a few more games, the extra minutes could take a toll on Gibson’s performance.
According to Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Stats and Information): “The Bulls have won 41 straight games when scoring at least 100 points, tied for the longest streak in NBA history. The Spurs had a 41-game streak from 2003-05.”
Chicago and Milwaukee will meet for the last time in the regular season tonight as the Bulls try to even the series at two games apiece and pull further ahead in the Central Division.
The Bulls got Luol Deng back last time out, but may be without Carlos Boozer tonight. Boozington will be a game-time decision because of a hamstring injury. Although he started January off on a great run, he has cooled as of late. Boozer is shooting just 40.5 percent over the last five games, and is averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. However, he has played well so far against Milwaukee, averaging 21.0 points and 13.7 rebounds in the three previous games.
Deng, after missing five games, played 31 minutes against Charlotte. That’s a great sign going forward. Deng was averaging the most minutes in the league, so if Jimmy Butler’s emergence gives Lu fewer minutes, and in turn helps Butler develop, Bulls fans should be very pleased. Although the lighter load could just be because it was Deng’s first game back and Tom Thibodeau wanted to bring him back into it slowly. We’ll know for sure which it is if Deng is playing 45 minutes by the end of the week.
Rip Hamilton is averaging 18.7 points per game against the Bucks, his third best total against any opponent this season. He averaged 26.0 points per game over the first two games before going 2-11 in his 16 minutes of action in game three. Rip has scored in double figures just eight times since November (he was injured for much of December). He scored two points against Charlotte, and only played six minutes in the second half. Hamilton is probably going to continue losing minutes to Jimmy Butler, and when Rose returns, it may only get worse, with Kirk Hinrich taking some minutes at shooting guard. If Hamilton wants to stay in the lineup, he has to start making jumpers and force Thibs to have him on the floor (trading Rip would also solve this problem, which the Bulls are surely trying to do).
Even if the Bulls are without Boozer tonight, they do have a bit of an advantage, as Milwaukee will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
Milwaukee fell behind early against the Pistons Tuesday night, but then blew by Detroit behind 30 points from Brandon Jennings. Jennings was by far the best starter for the Bucks, who got a big lift from their bench. The Bucks’ reserves scored 59 points, led by 17 from Mike Dunleavy. Beno Udrih didn’t shoot well (3-9), but dished eleven assists. Samuel Dalembert recorded a double-double (12 points, 10 assists) off the pine in just 21 minutes.
The Pistons had their own gem off the bench, as Andre Drummond had a monster 18 points and 18 boards. The entire starting line-up for the Pistons combined for 19 rebounds.
Milwaukee, going up against a team that isn’t good at forcing turnovers, coughed it up just 10 times. They forced the Pistons into 21 turnovers, and scored 29 points off of them. The Bucks are 4th in turnover percentage and seventh in opponent turnover percentage. The Bulls have lost the turnover battle in the previous three games, but not by too much (15.3 to 12.3). Chicago has turned it over just eight (Lakers) and eleven (Bobcats) times in their last two games.
The Bucks got this big win without running their players into the ground—a novel idea right Mr. Thibodeau? Monta Ellis played the most minutes with 34. For comparison, Deng playing 31 minutes in a game causes me to celebrate (see above). Jennings did his damage in short time, scoring his 30 points in 30 minutes. And those were the only two guys that played about 30 minutes.
Jennings tore the Bulls up in the most recent matchup, scoring 35 points, and the Bulls blew a 27-point lead in another game to find themselves down in this series.
Chicago is 12-6 on the road, which is the best road record in the league, but over their next stretch they are going to prove how good they are away from the United Center. The Bulls play ten of their next 12 games on the road, with ten of those contests coming against playoff teams. The Bulls two home games over that stretch are against the top teams in each conference, San Antonio and Miami.
Stat of the night: The Bucks are averaging 12.3 blocks per game against the Bulls this season. Chicago is blocking 3.3 Milwaukee shots per match-up.
Chicago goes for its fourth win in a row, which would be a season-high, when they face division rival Milwaukee, who is now under coach Jim Boylan.
The Bucks and Scott Skiles parted ways on Tuesday, and later that night Boylan led Milwaukee to a win over the Suns. Brandon Jennings led the way for the Bucks, tallying 29 points and nine assists, and leading seven Milwaukee players who scored in double figures.
The Bulls and Bucks have split their first two meetings of the year, with the away team winning both contests. Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton both scored 22 in the first match-up, a Bulls win. Chicago shot 39 percent from the field, but grabbed 20 offensive rebounds and went 25-26 from the charity stripe. Brandon Jennings scored 23 points, but the Bucks went just 7-10 from the line.
The Bucks are 28th in defensive rebounding percentage, 24th in free throws per field goal attempt and 23rd in opponent free throws per field goal attempt.
The Bulls didn’t have the same kind of rebounding margin when the teams met in the United Center, with Chicago grabbing just one more offensive board than the Bucks (14-13). The Bulls hit five more free throws and Rip Hamilton dropped 30, but it wasn’t enough. Milwaukee’s bench scored 56 points compared to the Bulls’ bench—only Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson got playing time off the pine—scoring just ten points. This was the worst game the bench put in all year, and it has been a lot better since then. Although being better than just ten points and six rebounds is not really that hard to do.
That loos to Milwaukee put the Bulls at 6-7 and is the last time they were under .500 on the season.
Carlos Boozer has been playing extremely well the past three games. Boozington is averaging 27.3 points per game and is shooting 60 percent over the last three contests. He has recorded a double-double in all three of those games, and is pulling down 11.3 boards per game. What that means is that Joakim Noah is finally getting some help. Noah is averaging 12 points, 11.5 rebounds and four assists over the last two games (also four turnovers as well, though).
Kirk Hinrich will be a game-time decision tonight, because of an elbow cut. Kirk is averaging 8.3 points while shooting 37 percent over his last four games.
With last night’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls finished their circus road trip 1-5. They are now 10-61 on that annual trek through hell over the last decade…so don’t blame the coaches or players if they get the shakes any time they hear the word “circus.”
Well. At least it’s over. Until next year.
I suppose there is some small consolation in the fact that — instead of getting blown out for the fifth consecutive game – the Bulls came back from a 14-point third-quarter hole to take an 89-87 lead on Luol Deng’s layup with 4:15 to go in the fourth. They also got a clean look at tying the game at the buzzer via a Derrick Rose/Brad Miller pick and roll. Unfortunately, Miller’s 18-footer came up just short.
Said Miller: “It was well within my range. I felt comfortable, and I just didn’t make it.”
Why didn’t Derrick just take it all the way himself? Said Rose: “Part of me being the point guard was to pass that ball. That’s why I did it.”
Added Vinny Del Negro: “Brad got a good look. They double teamed Derrick. Derrick swung and he made the right basketball play. The percentages will go in your favor if you make the right play.”
Unless they don’t. Although passing to an open teammate really is the right play. You can’t fault Rose for doing his job.
But again, it was better than getting blown out. Of course, whether a team ends the game down by 20 points or only two, the final result is still a loss. Last time I checked, the NBA standings don’t have a “Gosh, they came awfully close” column.
Pain in the Paint:
After getting manhandled inside for most of the trip, the Bulls actually came out kinda-sorta on top within the painted rectangle last night. They were +4 in rebounds (51-47), +4 in points in the paint (44-40), +1 in layups (14-13) and +1 in dunks (3-2). They also had a slight edge in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (40.0 to 37.7).
However, the Bulls still fell victim to their old Achilles’ heelWalton’s foot: namely, they were victimized by an opposing frontcourt player. Andrew Bogut was 10-for-19 from the field (mostly at or around the basket) and finished with 22 points (a team-high), 15 rebounds (another team-high), 3 assists, 3 steals (a co-game-high) and 4 blocked shots (another game-high).
He was also strong in the clutch. The Bucks were leading 93-90 with 1:30 to play when Bogut stuffed a dunk attempt by Deng. With 1:07 to go, Bogut hit a layup to build Milwaukee’s lead to five. Less than 10 seconds later, Bogut swatted a layup attempt by Rose on the other end. Deng got the offensive rebound and earned a foul, but that sequence was a microcosm of how dominant Bogut was for most of the night.
And he wasn’t even supposed to play!
Bogut missed the last six games with a lower left leg strain. That injury was supposed to keep him out up to four weeks. Instead, he came back early and beat the Bulls. The Milwaukee coaching staff intended to limit Bogut to 20 minutes. He played 35. Said Bogut: “I’ll be sore tomorrow. I’ll get in the ice bath, do my recovery and I should be all right.”
Don’t get me wrong. Joakim Noah (16 points, 17 rebounds, 8-for-10 from the line) had a strong game. But the Bulls desperately need to figure out how to stop opposing big men. Maybe it’ll help when Tyrus Thomas returns from injury. Maybe.
Another possible consolation was the solid team effort VDN got from his troops. I already mentioned Noah’s numbers. In addition, John Salmons scored a game-high 23 points (8-for-15) to go along with 3 boards, 3 steals and 3 blocked shots. Deng added 22 points (7-for-14) and 14 rebounds. Rose had 19 points (8-for-17) and 7 assists (and it might have been at least 8 if Miller could have knocked down that last-second jumper). Taj Gibson chipped in with 8 points and 5 boards (4 offensive).
Unfortunately, the bench play was weak. Chicago’s reserves shot 4-for-18 and got outscored 18-9. The Bulls really need Kirk Hinrich back. Unfortunately, he’s out for another week or two.
TrueHoop Network: Jeremy of Bucksketball: “Bogut’s play figuratively (and at times quite literally) leapt off the court for the majority of his 34:39 on the court. He was mobile and showed no sign of the injury that had kept him shelved for the previous five games. He frequently carried the Bucks for extended stretches on offense. When he wasn’t the focal point, he was often the release valve if the Bucks struggled to get a good shot. Bogut brought his entire offensive repertoire in this one: hooks, baby hooks, left hand, right hand and runners. It all started with Bogut in the paint on offense. 22 points on 10-19 shooting. Ask Joakim Noah if Andrew Bogut is back, he spent the better part of four quarters getting destroyed.”
Finally, mercifully, this year’s circus trip is coming to an end. After their 1-4 start to this edition of their annual trek through hell, the Bulls are 10-60 this decade when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to Chicago. Human words cannot adequately describe that level of fail.
When the worse-than-expected Bulls finish wrap up the trip in Milwaukee against the better-than-expected Bucks, it probably will be without Kirk Hinrich and his sprained left thumb. Said Captain Kirk: “It would have to improve considerably. It’s still really sore. I have trouble gripping. It doesn’t feel strong. But I’m pretty confident it’s not going to be long.”
Well, that’s a relief.
As you may have heard, an MRI of Hinrich’s cranky digit confirmed the left thumb ligament wasn’t torn. According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “Hinrich said he’s visiting a specialist on Monday merely for ‘closure’ and to get ‘more of a timetable’ for how long he’ll be sidelined.”
So…is there any chance at all he’ll play?
Added Hinrich: “[Sunday] it was a little bit better, but it’s still very sore. I wear this splint just to keep it from moving because pretty much any movement, it’s very sore. I have trouble gripping anything, like tying my shoe, opening bottles or anything like that. If it feels better [tonight] and I feel like I can give it a go, I’m gonna try and play.”
Sounds like a big “maybe” to me. But Vinny Del Negro downgraded that somewhat optimistic appraisal to what sounds like a bigger “no.”
Said Del Negro: ”He hasn’t practiced. We need him to get back, but we want to be smart about it.”
Fair enough. No sense in risking Kirk’s health in November. It is, after all, a long season.
With Hinrich out, that means more minutes for Derrick Rose…not to mention a starring role as the primary defender for Brandon Jennings. You may remember Jennings as the rookie who dropped a game-high 25 points on the Bulls a month ago and a bigtime 55 points on the (notably defenseless) Golden State Warriors back on November 14.
The good news for Rose is that Jennings has been cooling off a bit lately. The kid went 7-for-22 from the field in a 100-98 loss to the Magic on Saturday, and he’s averaged only 14.0 points and 29.0 percent shooting in Milwaukee’s last four games. Not coincidentally, the Bucks lost all four of those games.
That doesn’t mean the Bulls should relax, though. The end of a long road trip usually results in a major letdown game for the visiting team, which could result in a comeback game for Jennings. But Rose apparently has an anti-Jennings plan: “You have to make sure you always stay in front of him, contest all his jump shots; it’s like that with any other good guard. He can score and so can every guard in the league. You just have to make it difficult for him.”
Rose knows what he’s talking about. After all, opposing defenses have been making it difficult for him all season.
Interestingly enough, Rose has been the opposite of Jennings on this circus trip. When Brandon’s scoring tailed off, the Bucks started losing. Meanwhile, Chicago’s depressing four-game slide — all four of which have been double-digit smackdowns — has coincided with the return of Derrick’s offense. Rose has averaged a shade over 20 PPG on 50.7 percent shooting during the losing streak. Before that, he had been averaging 13.4 points on 43.8 percent shooting.
It remains to be seen whether the Bulls have what it takes to salvage the final game of this brutal trip, but Vinny seemed awful upbeat about the team’s chances: “We’ve had a couple of days to practice. We just have to bounce back and play well, get a good game under our belts and find a way to win on the road. It usually comes down to the fourth quarter. If you’re able to execute and make plays, you can win, and we haven’t done that the last few games.”
Four-quarter execution can be difficult for tired teams…which the Bulls probably will be. After all, they weren’t terribly deep to begin with. Now they’re minus one starter (Tyrus Thomas) and their primary backcourt reserve/best perimeter defender. Will their seven-man rotation be enough to pull out a win in Milwaukee? We’ll see.