Talk about a battle of the walking wounded. The Bulls, already without Luol Deng (stress fracture), lost the services of Derrick Rose, who bruised his right wrist during a blown dunk attempt over Washington’s Oleksiy Pecherov right before halftime of Chicago’s win over the Wizards on Monday night. It was the first missed game of Derrick’s pro career. “Trust me, I can take pain,” Rose said. “But it really hurts. I can barely turn a doorknob.” Of course, there aren’t many doorknobs to turn on a basketball court, but I’ll go ahead and assume that the injury would have affected his shooting and ball handling too.
The Pistons aren’t strangers to the injury bug, either. Allen Iverson missed his 14th consecutive game with a “bad back” that might actually be a case of the “don’t want to come off the bench.” Rasheed Wallace missed his eighth game with a strained left calf and Rip Hamilton sat out his fifth straight with a left groin strain. That’s 48 points, 13 boards and almost 10 assists missing in action, which seems kind of significant.
So neither team was at full strength. But the games have to be played regardless of who is or isn’t available. And although the Bulls are looking up at the Pistons in the standings — as they have been for the last several years — that gap has narrowed by a lot…mostly because Detroit has been falling apart all season. Coming into their game against Chicago, the Pistons had gone 7-14 since February 8. During that same stretch, the Bulls have gone 11-9. Not what you’d call a great run, certainly, but I’d rather be a couple games above .500 than seven games below it.
It was a classic case of two teams going in opposite directions. Detroit entered the game as sort of a dark reflection of the Bulls. Whereas Chicago had won four of their last five games, the Pistons had dropped four of five. And more tellingly, the Bulls have been on a big-time roll at home, having won seven of eight at the United Center prior to the Pistons game. Ernie Johnson brought this up during TNT’s pregame show, and Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith laughed as his suggestion that Chicago’s stretch-run schedule — in which eight of their final 11 games are at home — was really quite favorable. That only proves that Charles and Kenny haven’t watched the Bulls play at the UC lately. Or probably anywhere else for that matter.
Now, I’d say that the team came out a little lethargic, which is to be expected. After all, they played a tight game against the Wizards in Washington last night, and there were stretches in the first half where they had Rubber Leg Syndrome. And keep in mind that, without Rose and Deng, and with Tim Thomas limited to just under five minutes due to back spasms, the Bulls basically had to go with a six-man rotation. John Salmons, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich each logged 46 minutes, Tyrus Thomas played 40, Joakim Noah went for 30 and Brad Miller put in 24. Oh, and Lindsey Hunter got five minutes of daylight, but you would have hardly noticed.
Kirk Hinrich made the most of his second start of the season. Captain Kirk set his phaser to “kill,” scoring a game-high 24 points and dishing out a team-high 8 assists. Hinrich even had 3 steals and a block. It kind of makes me wonder what would have happened had John Paxson gotten his wish and had been able to dump Kirk’s contract before the trade deadline. Would the Bulls have won with Lindsey Hunter playing 40+ minutes at the point? Somehow, I doubt it.
But as well ask Hinrich played, the guy who really gave the Bulls a spark was — wait for it — Tyrus Thomas. He had a double-double (18 points and 12 boards), a season-high 5 assists, and shot 7-for-13 from the field. Yes, he took a few ill-advised jumpers — as usual – but he hit a few too, from 15, 17 and 19 feet out. And note that he showed more restraint and patience than I’ve seen from him in a while. Not only did he pass up some open jump shots to make strong moves to the hoop, he was able to draw extra defenders and make timely passes.
At times, it was like watching a completely different Tyrus. So much so that a few times I considered going to his home and checking the basement for Body Snatcher pods. But who knows, maybe Tyrus played better because he felt freer. After all, due to the shortened bench, he had to figure he was going to get big minutes, if only because Vinny Del Negro would have no choice but to play him. And he rewarded the team with all the youthful energy and enthusiasm he could muster.
Meanwhile, the Pistons — despite a big game off the bench from Will Bynum (20 points, 10-for-16, and a game-high 9 assists) — just wore down. They didn’t have a rabid home crowd from which to draw inspiration. Chicago eventually went up by 19 points (92-73) with just over six minutes remaining before going to sleep a little bit. That allowed Detroit to make a little run to make the final score (99-91) respectable, and it looked like that freaked Vinny out a little bit. But given the circumstances, I was okay with the guys pulling back on the throttle a little bit.
The win not only put Chicago a full two games up on the Charlotte Bobcats for the East’s final playoff spot, it pulled them to within a game of the Pistons for the seventh seed. And whereas the Bulls’ stretch schedule is home-heavy, Detroit plays seven of their final 12 on the road…and one of their home games is against the Lakers. Not to mention that the Bulls will travel to Detroit on April 13 in what could be a showdown for playoff seeding. Crazy.
Player notes: Ben Gordon scored 19 (7-for-15) and contributed 6 assists. Joakim Noah added a double-double (15 points, 10 boards). John Salmons grabbed 6 rebounds to go with his 16 points. And Brad Miller had 7 points, 5 boards and 2 blocks off the bench.
Et tu, fans? Believe it or not, the United Center crowd — what was left of them anyway — booed Captain Kirk during his postgame interview. Seriously. The crime? Bonking a free throw with 17.9 seconds left that would have given the Bulls 100 points and “earned” the fans free Big Macs. I guess sometimes surging at the end of the season to possibly make the playoffs just isn’t enough. That’s what happens when “free taco excitement” gets out of hand.
Extras: Recap, Box Score, Play-By-Play, Shot Chart, Photos.
Let me start off by saying that tonight’s game against the Pistons was a footnote to Johnny “Red” Kerr’s moving halftime tribute (which you can watch again or for the first time at Comcast SportsNet Chicago). It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to not caring about whether the Bulls win or lose. (But not really; I still cared.) It was the best, most-fitting ceremony I’ve seen since Larry Bird Night at Boston Garden back in 1993. There was a stirring video homage with footage of Johnny both as a player and a color commentator. They gave him a collage of pictures and mementos for display in his home. A bust (representing his broadcasting days) was unveiled, and it will be prominently displayed in the United Center as long as that building still stands. Last, but certainly not least, Johnny was presented with the 2009 John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And there were some very special guests on hand, including Kerr’s lifelong friend and NBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes, Jerry Colangelo (who convinced Johnny to coach in Phoenix many years ago), Kerr’s old broadcasting buddy Jim Durham, NBA commissioner David Stern (who made his cadaverous appearance via video), the great Scottie Pippen, and the even greater Michael Jordan (who, in honor of their past together, clapped some rosin powder in Johnny’s face). I didn’t think it would be possible to top Jordan’s speech, but then they aired a video tribute from Barack Obama, otherwise known as the freaking President of the United States! Kerr earned his reputation as the NBA’s original iron man for playing in 844 consecutive regular season games, but the fact that he wasn’t weeping like a child after all that is proof positive that he has a heart forged of pure steel. I know I was crying. (But in a manly way. While crushing rocks with my bare hands.) Even MJ was misty-eyed throughout. It was everything Johnny deserved.
The only part of the event that hurt was seeing Johnny — who had always been so vigorous – appear physically diminished. In case you didn’t know, Kerr was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year and his declining health has been something of an open secret around Chicago (to long-time Bulls fans, anyway). In fact, his condition is the reason that the organization moved up the ceremony, which was originally scheduled for April. Johnny’s son, Matt Kerr, had to read a statement that Johnny had prepared. And when Johnny finally did speak, it was obviously with great effort. I can only hope that Johnny’s health will improve, at least enough for him to enjoy this long-overdue honor for many years to come.
Then there was the game. For a while, it looked like the Bulls were going to ruin the feel-good vibe that swept through the UC during halftime. The first half was hotly contested, but the Bulls came out flat in the third quarter. (I saw the same thing happen when Magic Johnson’s number was retired by the Lakers in 1992; L.A. came out listless at the start of the second half and their opponent, the Celtics, quickly built an 18-point lead.) The Bullies couldn’t defend their own shadows, let alone the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace was particularly devastating, scoring 15 of Detroit’s 34 points in that 12-minute span. The Bulls started the final period down 85-71 and I wrote “we lost this game in the third quarter” in my notebook.
I’m happy to say I was way wrong, but I wouldn’t know it for several more minutes. Chicago continued to struggle and fell behind 100-90 when Tayshaun Prince hit a 19-foot jumper with 3:33 left…and then the amazing happened. The Bulls finished the game with a 17-2 run that would have had Johnny screaming himself silly at the broadcasters’ table. The comeback started with a 9-0 spurt that pulled the home team to within a single point. ‘Sheed hit a couple free throws to give Detroit a three-point cushion with a minute to go, but the Bulls scored the final eight points in — you guessed it — dramatic fashion.
First, Derrick Rose (23 points, 10-for-15, 4 assists) hit a driving layup with 46 ticks left. Then Rasheed forced up a terrible fadeaway jumper despite the fact that Detroit still had about 12 seconds to go on the shot clock. It wasn’t even close. The Bulls got it back, and Rose drove in for a layup that was blocked by Wallace. But, incredibly, Rose grabbed his own rebound and passed it out to Ben Gordon (24 points, 8-for-18, 5 rebounds), who was wide open for a corner three (Rodney Stuckey had collapsed into the paint to help out on Rose). Stuckey bolted toward Gordon and bulled him over as the shot left his hand. That shot went in as the two players were collapsing into a heap. Gordon went on to hit the foul shot, completing the four-point play and putting the Bulls up 105-102 with 16.7 seconds left. And the rest was played for posterity.
I should also point out that Tyrus Thomas (22 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals) was a HUGE part of the comeback, with 8 points and 4 boards in the fourth quarter. Overall, he shot poorly from the field (6-for-14), but he grabbed 6 offensive boards and hit 10 of his 13 free throw attempts. By the way, that was T-Time’s sixth double-double in the last seven games. Speaking of big men coming through, how ’bout Joakim Noah? He scored 12 points (5-for-11) and grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, including 8 on the offensive end. Yes, they made mistakes — Thomas tied Gordon with a game-high 5 turnovers — and, at times, struggled on defense. But those two guys gave the kind of pedal-to-the-medal effort that makes good things happen. And they did. Very good things.
As always, there were reasons for concern. Like how the Bulls defense was exploited by Wallace and Rip Hamilton (30 points, 11-for-21, and a game-high 8 assists). They committed 16 turnovers, which led to 19 bonus points for the Pistons. They also missed nine foul shots. So, yeah, there are still some kinks to work out. But they seem to be clicking offensively, having scored at least 100 points in eight of their last 10 games. They’re playing together, and they’re playing with energy. That’s the kind of thing that Johnny was sure to love. And it was perhaps the best tribute the team could have given him.
Possible injury: During Detroit’s next-to-last possession, Antonio McDyess set a moving pick on Rose, hitting our guy in the face with one of his extra-large shoulders. Rose was pretty shaken up, in NBA parlance, and was shown to be in pretty serious pain on the sideline. He ended up going to the locker room with a towel over his head before the game even ended. It might be nothing, and I can’t find anything in any of the recaps, but his nose looked a little mashed. Maybe he broke it? Update! Apparently, he’s fine.
Truthiest quote of the night: President Obama noted that Johnny wasn’t just a broadcaster, that he was “the fan on the barstool next to us.” I couldn’t agree more.
Funniest on-air quote of the night: While broadcasters Neal Funk and Stacey King were discussing a game in which Johnny had grabbed 34 rebounds against Wilt Chamberlain, Funk tried to put the feat in perspective by exclaiming: “34 rebounds is a lot against a midget!”
Update! Funniest on-court quote of the night: From By The Horns reader Mark: “I’m sorry to disagree, but the funniest quote of the night was when Johnny Red was asking his son for the piece of paper with his speech on it and his son wasn’t giving it to him. When he finally did, Johnny quipped, ‘The kid never did listen.’”
Extras: Recap, Box Score, Play-By-Play, Shot Chart, Photos.