Rather than the normal rapid reaction, this one will just be a few quick thoughts.
First, a lot of credit to this Bulls team. They were shorthanded the entire season, but never used that as an excuse. They had their nights that they faltered and fell flat, but it’s games like tonight that show you how much fight and effort this team put in every time they went out on the court. When I look back in a few years, that’s what I will remember. That and Game 4 against the Nets.
The effort was always there from the players on this team. From the new guys like Nate Robinson (who when he was signed I thought he was just an overconfident shooter, but actually bought into Tom Thibodeau’s system pretty well—and provided much needed scoring), to Jimmy Butler (taking a huge step forward into a starting role, developing a reliable three-point shot and shutting down perimeter players), to Joakim Noah (who has been giving the effort his entire career but emerged as Chicago’s MVP this season, often facilitating the offense and leading the defense). Even guys who were planted on the bench for long stretches of the season like Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed stepped up into huge roles at times, including the playoffs.
This Bulls team wasn’t always the most exciting team, but they had their moments, and all you can ask of a team is that they fight until the very end. Chicago did that.
A long, injury-riddled season with tons of off-the-court news has finally ended for the Bulls. Here’s to a better 2013-2014.
Feel free to leave your thoughts on the season below in the comments
Hold on one second, I’m still adding up all the fouls from last game. 51 personal fouls, nine technicals, two ejections and one flagrant. According to my math that adds up to…one lopsided victory.
Lots of people said this is what “playoff basketball” is all about, but it’s a stretch to say that what the Bulls were doing for parts of Game 2 can be considered basketball. Chicago shot 35.5 percent, while Miami hit 60.0 percent from the field. Look at any stat from Wednesday night and the Bulls would be losing in it, unless it was “players thrown out.” Thanks for that Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson (although when they got tossed the game was out of reach).
“Not only Joakim, but our entire team,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to do better, do a better job with that. You can’t get sidetracked. We know how it’s going to be called. We’re not going to get calls. We just got to be tough mentally, physically, emotionally. We’ve got to be a lot stronger.”
Although the calls didn’t go their way, and probably won’t even with the series shifting to Chicago, the Bulls might gain something out of getting under Miami’s skin. Anytime LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company are thinking more about a hard foul or revenge than playing basketball, that’s an advantage for the over-matched Bulls. Chicago won’t get the superstar calls in this series, but they can irritate those superstars and hope to know them out of their game.
But this time, Chicago needs to keep their cool and know when to stop, because they can’t afford to lose anyone to an ejection with all of their injuries.
Luol Deng probably won’t be able to go again. “I don’t know. I want to play, but I don’t know what I can do,” he said. “I just, I haven’t done anything.” Deng apparently lost 15 pounds because of his recent illness. I think the Bulls should play it safe and shut Deng down. It’s not worth risking his health any more. Losing that much weight in such a short amount of time is bizarre.
But of course, that won’t happen. “Still day to day. He’s feeling a little bit better,” Tom Thibodeau said. “We’ll see tomorrow.” I don’t know if Thibs is just pretending like he will play Lu to mess with Miami or whether he thinks Deng might actually be healthy enough to go. I truly hope it’s the former. Everyone praises Thibodeau’s never say die attitude—it’s gotten them to the second round of the playoffs and tied 1-1 with the Heat—but this is a case which you should worry about the player more than the game.
The 15 pounds loss is scary, but the fact that this is still lingering for Deng is even worse. “I’m weak and I have headaches,” he said Thursday. “When I’m moving around a lot, my headaches increase.” Sounds like facing the Heat would be the perfect answer to this, right? The timing is unfortunate, but Deng looks to be out the rest of the series.
While on the topic of injuries, Kirk Hinrich had a second MRI on his calf and is still listed as doubtful.
No Deng means Jimmy Butler is stuck with the task of guarding LeBron James the rest of the way. LeBron had his way in the first quarter of Game 2, going 6-6 for 12 points. For the game, James was 6-7 at the rim, 0-2 from midrange and 1-3 from beyond the arc. It’s easier said than done, and it takes an entire team, but keeping James away from the basket is going to be the key for Game 3.
Not only does he score at a high rate at the rim, but when he drives the defense is forced to collapse, which leads shooters open. Miami, who as a team was 24-29 at the basket, also hit 50 percent of their threes. That was up from 29.2 percent in Game 1.
Stopping Miami is just part of the battle, because if the Bulls can’t score like they couldn’t in Game 2, the defense won’t matter. Only Marco Belinelli and Taj Gibson made more than four field goals in the game and Gibson (4-6) was the only Bulls player with more than five field goal attempts to shoot 50 percent or better. Miami had six such players. Chicago’s offense doesn’t have any secrets–Nate Robinson has to create, Butler and Belinelli have to hit open shots and Noah has to facilitate.
But the guy who has been a no-show so far in the second round is (not surprisingly) Carlos Boozer. Boozington is 6-20, and even though he is being guarded by Shane Battier for stretches, he refuses to drive. Boozer has to stop settling for midrange jumpers, especially if it’s not falling. If he doesn’t start putting the ball in the basket somehow, the Bulls could be in for another possible blowout.
“It’s just one game,” LeBron said. “Even though you got dominated the game before and you didn’t do things right, it’s still one game. You don’t get two wins if you win by over 30 or over 40. You only get one game.
The Bulls got dominated in Game 3, but it’s still an even series and Tom Thibodeau has always been good at getting them to respond to losses—and after Chicago was embarrassed last time out, they should be hungry to prove they deserve to be here.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): LeBron James pretty efficiently sliced the Bulls defense, scoring 19 points on 7-12 from the field, and also posted five rebounds and nine assists. He did this all in 32 minutes. Unlike in Game 1 where LeBron was content to facilitate early, the MVP was attacking from the start Wednesday night. James was 6-6 for 12 points in the first quarter, with two assists and two steals.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): Pick your favorite (or least favorite) Chicago player. Carlos Boozer was 3-9 and refused to drive to the basket even though his jumper was off and he had Shane Battier guarding him for stretches. Non-savior Nate Robinson showed up, as he went 3-10 and turned the ball over four times. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson both lost their cool and got tossed in the fourth, long after the game was lost. Marco Belinelli shot 4-13 as no Bull scored more than 13 points.
X factor: The Bulls pride themselves on defending the paint and the three-point line. Tonight they did neither.Miami scored 56 points in the paint, compared to just 18 for the Bulls. As a matter of fact, the Heat had 16 points in the paint in the third quarter, nearly topping Chicago’s effort for the game in 12 minutes. And after missing lots of open shots in Game 1, Miami shook off the rust. They hit 9-18 from deep, led by Norris Cole (4-4).
That was … terrible: It was the Heat’s largest margin of victory in a playoff game, as well as the Bulls’ largest margin of defeat.Chicago shot 35.5 percent, while Miami hit at a 60.0 percent clip. Miami had 29 assists, the Bulls had 17.Every stat was in favor of the Heat except “number of players tossed.” With all that said, this only counts as one loss and the series is even going back to Chicago. The Bulls have a lot of adjustments to make, but that’s what Tom Thibodeau does.
If you’re currently experiencing an intense and overwhelming feeling of stunned amazement at what they Bulls are doing in these playoffs, don’t be alarmed.
It indicates only that you are still sane.
You know the drill by now. The Bulls are a depleted team. No Derrick Rose. Kirk Hinrich is day-to-day with a bum calf. Luol Deng had a spinal tap last week and tweeted a picture from his hospital bed last night. Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) and Taj Gibson (knee) are playing through injuries. Gibson and Nate Robinson recently battled the flu.
All that and two days after winning a do-or-die Game 7 on the road, the Bulls had to face the defending (and presumed future) champs in Miami.
Mission impossible, right?
Never impossible. Not with this group. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau ripped the page with the word “quit” right out of the team dictionary, burned it, and buried the ashes.
At times, Thibodeau’s mantra of “more than enough to win” has seemed laughable in the face of the many injuries and misfortunes that have plagued the Bulls this season. But it instilled a sense of commitment and responsibility in every player on this team, from the front of the bench all the way to the end of it.
Take Nate Robinson.
The Bulls signed Robinson last summer as a last-minute afterthought. He was supposed to be a part-time player at best. With Rose and Hinrich both out, Robinson started at point guard, playing 40 minutes and 29 seconds. Little Nate finished with game-highs in points (27) and assists (9). He had more free throw attempts (10) than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined (9). According to ESPN Stats and Information, Robinson became the fourth Bulls player in the past 25 seasons to have at least 25 points and 9 dimes in a playoff game, joining Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, and Scottie Pippen.
Not bad company. Especially considering Robinson is doing it for a little over $800,000 this season.
But wait, there’s more. Robinson scored or assisted on 25 of Chicago’s 35 fourth quarter points…and he scored 7 in the team’s 10-0 run to close the game. His clutch performance made him the only player in the last 15 seasons with at least 11 points and 6 assists in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. All this despite getting 10 stitches mid-game after busting his lip in a loose ball collision.
Said Thibodeau: ”He got knocked around a little bit, couple stitches, it’s all good. Get out there and get it done. … He’s about as confident as they come, and that’s the thing that makes him good. If he misses a shot, he has a very short memory. He always thinks he’s hot, never afraid, and will step up in a big situation. He has the courage to take and make.”
Now take Jimmy Butler.
Forget Robert Downey Jr. Butler is Iron Man. Incredibly enough, the second year man out of Marquette has played the full 48 minutes for three straight games, making him only the fourth player since the NBA-ABA merger to go the limit in back-to-back-to-back playoff games (per Elias Sports Bureau). In his previous two games, he spent those long minutes guarding Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Last night he guarded LeBron and D-Wade all night. While contributing 21 points (on only 13 shots) and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Said Butler: “It’s all about being tough. We’re always going to be the underdogs. We take pride in that. Everybody can overlook us, but we feel like we’re good enough to hang with a lot of these teams. I talked to Lu before the game. He was like, ‘Take up his space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot.’ Of course, no layups. I feel I don’t want to give layups to anybody, make them earn it from the stripe. Lu’s going to rest up and we want him back. But until (then) I guess I’ll be stuck guarding him.”
As Huey Lewis might tell Butler: The Bulls and their fans are happy to be stuck with you.
Said Noah: ”I’m really proud of him. [He's a] young player, but he played huge against the best. He’s like a brother and to see him shine the way he’s been shining in these playoffs … I knew he was ready but the sky’s the limit for that kid.”
Added Gibson: “He’s really talented and he goes out there and does the job, doesn’t talk back, just grits it out each and every night and he’s getting better each game I think. … He understands his role, he understands what this team needs. Whenever we’re down we can always count on Jimmy. Without Lu in there Jimmy just stepped up big and we just helped him. Whenever a guy needs help, we just help each other out.”
Helping each other out. That’s what this team does.
Whether it’s Noah with a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 blocked shot) and great interior defense, or Marco Belinelli hitting the boards (7 rebounds) to make up for his poor shooting (3-for-10) or Gibson giving the team a big lift off the bench (12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, +9).
And there there was the defense.
In the first quarter, Miami was held to only 15 points on 5-for-19 shooting. They improved only marginally in the second quarter (8-for-20). The Heat did shoot 50 percent (10-for-20) in the third quarter, but they were only 8-for-19 in the fourth, including 0-for-5 in the final two minutes.
For the game, Miami shot a miserable 39.7 percent, including 29.2 percent from three-point range.
Most importantly, the Heat converted only 59 percent of their shots at the rim, per Hoopdata. Mind you, Miami led the league in field goal percentage at the rim during the regular season at 71.5 percent.
The Bulls played great individual and team defense, but much of the credit goes to Noah and Gibson, who both protect the paint and can switch out on perimeter players better than most big men in the league. Just ask Ray Allen and Shane Battier, who combined to go 4-for-14 from the field and only 3-for-11 from downtown.
Maybe the Heat players were simply rusty after a long layoff. They did miss several open shots in the early going. But the Bulls also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Heat 46-32, with a 26.5% to 15.9% advantage in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (per Basketball-Reference). In fact, Butler (14 boards) and Noah (11 rebounds) both outrebounded Chris Bosh (6 rebounds), Udonis Haslem (3 rebounds) and Chris Anderson (1 rebound) by themselves. Rebounding is about effort. And Chicago simply fought harder than Miami in this game.
Said Robinson: “I’ve played on some tough teams, but this one is a little different. There’s something special about this group. For me, it feels like we’ve been playing together 10 years. We love to play for each other, regardless. A couple of times in the game me and Jimmy had miscommunications and he told me on a switch to make sure to go under, little things like that. You make adjustments and you don’t need the coach to tell you. He’s younger than me and is telling me that. He’s helping me out. That’s how it is with each guy on the team. It makes it easier to go out and play, and it’s fun. I love the energy and passion. Teammates joke with me and it gives me confidence to go out and play with energy. I love the energy and passion. This is probably the best season I’ve had with this group of guys. God is good. I’m blessed and thankful to be on this team.”
And Chicago fans are blessed and thankful to be rooting for this team.
Luol Deng was in the hospital Friday, possibly for meningitis, after getting a spinal tap prior to Thursday’s game. Nate Robinson was throwing up on the bench during Game 6 because of an illness—a game in which he played 42 minutes. Taj Gibson, suffering from the same illness, struggled through 18 minutes. Joakim Noah is still fighting through plantar fasciitis and his minutes limit is long gone. Kirk Hinrich missed Game 6, but will travel with the team and will be a game-time decision with a calf injury. Derrick Rose hasn’t played all season.
I think that about sums up the Bulls luck heading into a win-or-go-home Game 7 in Brooklyn. It all comes down to Saturday night, and the Bulls roster continues to shrink.
(Quick tangent: Luol Deng defended himself on Twitter Friday, saying it was more than a flu that kept him out. Deng should never have to explain himself for missing a contest. Actually, no professional athlete should ever have to explain why they missed a game, but someone with Deng’s track record should never be questioned. And if you saw the Vine of him leaving the arena, you could tell something was very wrong with him. He has played through countless injuries these past few seasons, while averaging the most minutes per game in the league. Perhaps this is misguided anger at another Chicago Bull, but that’s another story for another time. If Luol Deng thinks he cannot go, and had a spinal tap earlier that day, Luol Deng cannot go and shouldn’t be questioned. It’s that simple. Now back to Game 7.)
Chicago was in a similar place in Game 6 and grinded all the way to the end with a shortened, injury-plagued rotation (with three players coming down with an illness, maybe “plagued” is too accurate). It was a game they had no chance of winning, but yet were still right there at the end with a chance to tie. They should have been in a better spot down the stretch honestly, but Marco Belinelli went 1-5 from three in the fourth quarter (with many of those very makeable, open attempts) and Chicago shot 32.1 percent as a team. Who knows if it would have been different had the Bulls had more rested bodies at the end.
The Bulls dug themselves an early hole, allowing Brooklyn to shoot 65.0 percent in the opening frame, and although Chicago shot 59.1 percent, that’s not how they win games. The Bulls are never going to win a shootout, and giving Brooklyn early confidence is the last thing Joakim Noah and company can afford.
The defense tightened up the rest of the way, holding Brooklyn to 27.8 percent from the field in the second half, but even with that great defensive effort Chicago couldn’t close the gap. The Bulls did hold the Nets to 48.3 percent shooting at the rim (14-29), something that would go a long way in Game 7 if it could be duplicated.
The Bulls have their work cut out for them going on the road for a Game 7. Chicago is 0-6 all-time on the road in Game 7s. Add in their injuries and it’s going to be a huge hill to climb, but if there is any team in the NBA that can do it, it’s the Bulls.
Chicago has shown this year—heck the entire Tom Thibodeau era—that they have a shot in any game they take the court—no matter how few of their players actually take the court. But sometimes those injuries just become too much to overcome, just as they were last season against the Sixers. The Bulls don’t want to be the team that followed up a first round loss as the top seed with the squad that blows a 3-1 lead…even if they have an excuse for both occurrences.
“I’m just very confident our guys are going to take advantage of the (home court) opportunity and continue to do what they’ve done all year,” Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said Friday.
The Bulls will also do what they have done all year: fight until the last whistle no matter who is out there.
Stopping Deron: Deron Williams is 13-39 from the field with nine turnovers when guarded by Kirk Hinrich; unfortunately Hinrich probably won’t be able to play. That leaves Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler. Williams is 12-24 with four turnovers when guarded by Nate Robinson and 5-14 from the field with six turnovers when Jimmy Butler is on him. So in short, keep Nate away from Deron at all costs.
Stats that may not matter but are somewhat relevant: Home teams have won 80.2 percent of Game 7s (89-22). The Bulls are 3-6 in Game 7s, but 0-6 in Game 7s on the road. The Bulls have not won a winner-take-all game on the road since 1989’s first round against the Cavaliers (this was a Game 5). The Nets are 0-1 all-time in Game 7s.
On the surface, that question seems irrational and misguided, because there are no such things as curses. But it sure feels like a witch doctor somewhere worked some major voodoo on this team.
For the past two seasons, the Bulls have had championship potential that was ultimately undone by injuries. Injuries to their superstar. Injuries to their All-Stars. Injuries to starters and reserves. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of their ball boys come up lame during a shoot around. It’s been that ridiculous.
Initially, last weekend’s thrilling triple-overtime win in Game 4 appeared to be the point at which this series turned irrevocably in Chicago’s favor. However, given that it effectively knocked Kirk Hinrich (and his invaluable defense on Deron Williams) out of Games 5 and 6, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Even without Hinrich, the Bulls seemed a fair bet to close out the series at home in Game 6, as long as nothing else unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Then something unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Luol Deng is sick. Sick with what exactly is the question. Deng was reportedly sick enough to undergo a spinal tap to test for viral meningitis. The test apparently came back negative — thank God — but Deng wasn’t well enough to play and got sent home well before tip-off.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson were suffering flu-like symptoms during the game.
Robinson — whom coach Tom Thibodeau says has been sick for “a while” — still managed 18 points and 4 assists, but Gibson was clearly hampered. I know Gibson hasn’t had quite the season Bulls fans had hoped for, but he’s still much better than 3 points, 3 rebounds and 6 personal fouls in 18 minutes of a critical home playoff game.
Said Gibson: ”It was all about being there for my team. I am just frustrated right now … I still feel sick. I just had to go out there and do my job. We have to play for each other.”
Added Thibodeau: ”That’s part of it. In the NBA over the course of a season, guys get sick, they play through illness.”
Playing through illness and injury is what these Bulls do pretty much every night of their lives. If the Chicago Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Bulls must have the Curse of the Co-pay. About the only thing that hasn’t happened is players spontaneously combusting on the bench. Or should I say hasn’t happened yet? After almost 200 players games (and counting!) lost to injury this season, almost nothing would surprise me at this point.
So Tom “We Always Have More Than Enough To Win” Thibodeau was forced to ride yet another starting lineup into action. And I do mean ride. Jimmy Butler did sit down for a single second of this game. Marco Belinelli played all but one minute and 37 seconds of this one. Joakim Noah — plantar faciitis and all — logged 43 minutes and 16 seconds. Robinson, even with the flu-like symptoms, played nearly 42 minutes.
Despite it all, the Bulls almost won. “Almost” being the operative word.
Chicago’s D struggled mightily in the early going, as the Nets scored 33 points on 65 percent shooting in the first quarter. And although the defense picked up in the second half — limiting Brooklyn to 35 points on 10-for-36 shooting over the second and third quarters — that rocky start had the Bulls on their heels all game long.
This was one of those classic “hump” games, where the Bulls were tantalizingly close for most of the night but could never get over the hump and take control. They had countless opportunities to tie the game or take the lead, but something always stymied them. Missed shots. Turnovers. A key play by the Nets. Something.
In the final two minutes, the Bulls had several chances to tie the game. Robinson missed two layups. Carlos Boozer committed a loose ball foul. Belinelli missed a three. With three seconds to go, Noah lost a jump ball to Williams.
For the record, Noah is 6’11″ and Williams is 6’3″.
Said Joe Johnson: ”We just believed. We believed in one another. In practice (Wednesday), we went over a lot. More so than anything, it was about who wanted it badder.”
That’s a nice sentiment. But I disagree.
After all, who wanted it any badder than Noah (15 rebounds, 14 points, 5 assists, 5 blocked shots), who according to Elias Sports Bureau joined Artis Gilmore as the only players in Bulls playoff history to finish with at least 15 rebounds, 10 points and 5 blocks in a game since blocks were officially recorded in 1973-74? And Noah almost made the play of the game by tying up Williams on an inbounds play with seconds to go.
Robinson was pretty productive despite his illness. Belinelli scored 22 points and tied a career-high with 7 assists. Butler ran the marathon and finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and a blocked shot. Boozer had a double-double with 14 points and 13 boards.
The Bulls held the Nets to 43 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 46-41, including a 15-10 advantage on the offensive glass. I think they wanted the game badly enough.
As Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo put it: ”Starting with Derrick, their franchise player hasn’t played. It seems almost every time we play them, it’s a different roster. … There is not a team in the league that plays harder than them.”
That said, a team can go to the well only so many times before that well runs dry. Only don’t tell that to Noah, who remains as defiant and fiery as ever.
Said Noah: ”We’re a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team, and we’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we’re going to win.”
Noah’s teammates mirrored those sentiments.
Said Butler: ”[Our confidence is] going up. It’s sure not going to go down. They know they got to win Game 7; we know we got to win Game 7. Same style of basketball; it’s going to be a fight. The tougher team is going to get the win, and we go in wanting to be the tougher team.”
Added Gibson: ”We just got to go there, put our boxing gloves back on and tell everybody ‘be ready to play. It’s no time to be hurt, sick; it could be the end of the season. So we have to go out there, just put forth a lot of effort. There’s no time to worry about small things; we got to just push the limit.”
The Bulls may go down in Game 7. But they will not go down without a fight. That is who they are. Which is why their fans may be disappointed in a particular outcome, but they can never be disappointed a group of players who never give up on a game, no matter the odds.
Game 1: Brooklyn wins 106-89 Nets lead series 1-0 Brooklyn: Brook Lopez: 21 points, 5 rebounds Deron Williams: 22 points, 7 assists Chicago: Carlos Boozer: 25 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists Nate Robinson: 17 points
Almost nothing went right for the Bulls in their opening game of the postseason and it was over before halftime. If playoff series are all about adjustments, Tom Thibodeau has a chance to show how good of a coach he is. It’ll be an uphill battle, but there are plenty of changes he can make.
Chicago got beaten in every facet of the game. Brooklyn’s stars showed up (Brook Lopez had 21 points and Deron Williams had 22), while the Bulls’ stars were sidelined (Rose), hobbled (Noah) or invisible (Deng). When Carlos Boozer leads your team in points, rebounds and assists, something has gone terribly wrong.
What I would suggest? Do everything differently—everything.
The Bulls gave up 40 points in the paint in the first half, while managing to score 35 total points. They let the Nets convert 20 of 24 shots at the rim for the game and 8 of 12 shots from 3-9 feet. That’s 28-36 inside of nine feet. The Bulls cannot allow that type of conversion if they want to win this series.
The guy who did the most damage in the paint was Brook Lopez. Brooklyn’s center was 7-8 at the rim and 7-7 from the line, meaning all 21 of his points came from those two areas. He was 0-1 from 3-9 feet and 0-5 from 16-23 feet. That shows how imperative it is for the Bulls to keep Lopez away from the basket.
Unfortunately, Lopez showed that Taj Gibson can’t guard him on the block. Lopez was too strong for Taj, leaving the only options either Boozer or Nazr Mohammed (Noah didn’t play enough minutes to be a factor). As much as the idea of playoff minutes for Nazr probably scares Bulls fans, it may be a necessity. Because if Chicago cannot find a way to make it harder for Lopez to score—preferably pushing him out and forcing him to shoot midrange jumpers instead getting buckets at the rim—then this series will be over quickly.
Stopping, or rather slowing, Lopez and Deron Williams would be nice, but the Bulls may want to focus on stopping the role players. During the regular season, Lopez scored 22.0 points per game against the Bulls. Williams added 19.8 in the four games with Chicago. So that combination averaged 42 points against the Bulls in the regular season, and scored 43 in Game 1. News flash: the Bulls didn’t lose by one point.
It was the other guys that hurt the Bulls more. C.J. Watson (OF ALL PEOPLE) went 6-8 for 14 points off the bench. Gerald Wallace woke up from his season slumber to score 14 points (5-7 FG) as well. Joe Johnson tallied four assists and four rebounds to go along with his 16 points. And Andray Blatche dropped 12. Hell, even Reggie Evans scored five points (Evans averaged 4.5 points this season).
Lopez and Williams are star players. It will be very tough to stop them. With Noah either out or a couple of steps slow, it will be even tougher to handle Lopez and protect the rim in general. But the Bulls have been doing that all season. Chicago was seventh best in the league at protecting the rim, holding teams to 63.0 percent from there. They also held opponents to 38.9 from 3-9 feet. Chicago will need to get closer to those numbers to keep this series within reach.
K.C. Johnson says that it’s possible either Marco Belinelli or Rip Hamilton may be bumped out of the rotation. I have my fingers crossed that it’s Rip. He was dreadful in game one, and considering Hamilton played just seven minutes compared to 20 for Belinelli, I’d say Thibs knows who should sit as well.
The bigger news is that Noah is apparently going to give it a go again tonight. He wasn’t good in Game 1, hobbling through 13 minutes of action in which he recorded four points and five boards. I don’t know if Joakim can do any more damage to the injury by playing on it, but at this point, in his bruised state, I’m also not sure he is doing the Bulls a ton of good. Although an injured Noah was far the Bulls only problem.
“The thing is, we’re disappointed. We played poorly and we have to change the mentality. We have to correct the mistakes,” Thibodeau said after the loss.
Usually, Thibs does a great job of correcting the Bulls errors, at least on defense, and getting them to respond and come out strong after a loss. Game 2 is when the adjustments take place and if Thibs can get the Bulls protecting the rim, Chicago can get right back in this series.
Boozer added: “We feel like we got our butts kicked, in the first half especially, but we didn’t play our best game. We all felt we can do so much more. That’s where it’s at. To a man we’ve got to do a lot better.”
The Bulls did do better in each one of the four regular season games they played against Brooklyn. They need to protect the rim, contain the role players and show that they belong in this series.
As awful as that game was—and we all know it was awful, probably one of the worst defeats under Tom Thibodeau—it still just counts as one loss. Meaning if the Bulls win in Game 2, whether by two points or 20, they are tied in the series.
Noah admitted what many had feared: the games down the stretch that he tried to play in worsened the injury. “I’ve got a tear in my foot. I’ve got a tear in my foot, so it is what it is,” Noah said. “I’m upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time, and I have nobody to blame but myself. I just wish that I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season that I probably shouldn’t have played. It’s going to be tough, but these are the cards I was dealt, and I’ll just do the best that I can to get back as quick as I can.”
That means the task of slowing down Brook Lopez, who had the fifth best PER in the league this season, falls on Nazr Mohammed. At least to start.
“It was a master plan,” Mohammed said with a laugh. “[Thibodeau] told me when I signed here they were going to save me all year and then unleash me at the end of the season. Nah, it’s one of those things; that’s how the season is.”
It’s unclear how much time Nazr will actually get filling in for Jo. Nazr played 37 minutes against the Nets when Chicago was without both Noah and Gibson. But when Carlos Boozer and Noah were out, he logged just eight minutes (in the two games Noah was healthy, he played three and four minutes). So he’ll will play somewhere between eight and 40 minutes…you’re welcome for narrowing that down. My guess would be somewhere in the middle, closer to 20. I expect a lot of Taj-Boozer tandem, as Taj can guard Lopez.
Noah’s injury also hurts the Bulls rebounding. Brooklyn has two very good offensive rebounders in Lopez and Reggie Evans. Evans’ was first in offensive rebounding percentage and total rebound percentage, while Lopez was just outside of the top 20 in offensive rebounding percentage. It’s going to take a full team effort for the Bulls to keep the Nets off the offensive glass. Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler are both solid rebounders, as is Boozer. Taj Gibson hopefully won’t be hindered with his knee injury very much, because he will need to be out there both to rebound and to slow Lopez’s scoring.
It’ll be a lot to overcome Noah’s absence, especially considering the improved play of Deron Williams. Brooklyn’s point guard averaged 24.6 points per contest in April on 52.4 percent shooting. Before the All-Star game, Williams shot just 41.3 percent and scored 16.7 points per contest.
After last season’s first round “upset” at the hands of Philadelphia when Noah and Derrick Rose wet down for the series, Bulls’ fans hoped next season would be different. Unfortunately Chicago is in a similar place, without there two best players, fighting an uphill battle. At least this year the Bulls had extensive experience playing sans Rose and Noah.
Game 1 in Brooklyn: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Game 2 in Brooklyn: Monday at 7 p.m.
Game 3 in Chicago: Thursday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 4 in Chicago on Saturday, April 27 at 1 p.m.
Game 5* in Brooklyn on Monday, April 29 (TBD)
Game 6* in Chicago on Thursday, May 2 (TBD)
Game 7* in Brooklyn on Saturday, May 4 (TBD)
The Bulls won the season series 3-1. Here’s a breakdown of those f our games:
December 15, 2012: Bulls win 83-83 in Chicago behind Marco Belinelli (19 points) and Joakim Noah (12 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocked shots). Kirk Hinrich missed the game with a knee injury, which meant a big game for Deron Williams (24 points, 10-for-13 from the free throw line, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block). Still, the Bulls got key stops down the stretch, and rookie Marquis Teague (20 minutes, 8 points, 4-for-6, 2 assists) forced Williams into a tough miss in the closing seconds. Said Teague: ”I was just trying to contain him, just keep him in front of me. It’s hard to keep a player like that from scoring.”
It’s probably worth noting that the Nets were playing their fourth game in five nights and were coming off a double-overtime game against the Pistons the night before. It’s also worth noting that Brook Lopez (18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocked shots) played just 25 minutes in his second game back after missing seven games with a right foot injury.
The Bulls held Brooklyn to 38 percent shooting and outscored them 42-30 in the paint, but the Nets outrebounded the Bulls 41-33.
February 1: Nets win 93-89 in Brooklyn behind Brook Lopez (20 points, 9-for-16, 4 rebounds) and strong play off the bench from MarShon Brooks (13 points, 3 assists, 2 steals) and Andray Blatche (11 points, 5-for-7, 3 rebounds). The Bulls — who were without Carlos Boozer (hamstring), Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) and Kirk Hinrich (right elbow) — actually had a four-point lead going after three quarters but then shot 8-for-18 and got outscored 30-22 in the fourth. In fact, Chicago’s fourth quarter points were matched by Brooks and Blatche alone. Said Joe Johnson: ”MarShon and Blatche, man, carried us in that fourth quarter.”
The always short-handed Bulls got 18 points a piece from Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli plus a double-double from Nate Robinson (12 points and 11 assists) and a near double-double from Taj Gibson (16 points and 9 rebounds).
The Nets shot 52 percent and outscored the Bulls 56-44 in the paint. Brooklyn also won the rebounding battle 40-29. Meanwhile, Chicago was 1-for-14 from three-point range.
March 2: Bulls win 96-85 in Chicago behind the frontcourt dominance of Joakim Noah (21 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, 2 steals) and Carlos Boozer (20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 assists, 1 blocked shot). As usual, the Bulls were two men down — Rip Hamilton (back spasms) and Taj Gibson (knee) — and Luol Deng was still recovering from getting elbowed in the mouth by Philadelphia’s Spencer Hawes two days prior…a blow that left with internal bleeding in the mouth (Deng went on to say his “whole bottom jaw is out of line” and that he may eventually need root canals to repair the damage).
Brook Lopez scored 14 points in the first quarter and finished with 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting. However, thanks to Kirk Hinrich’s pesky defense, Deron Williams (14 points, 4-for-12, 6 assists) had a very average game. Note that Joe Johnson (11 points, 5-for-10, 5 turnovers) was playing in his second game back after missing three games with a foot injury.
The Bulls shot 52 percent while the Nets committed 21 turnovers for 24 points going the other way.
April 4: The Bulls win 92-90 in Brooklyn behind a monster game from Carlos Boozer (29 points, 12-for-22, 18 rebounds) and strong performances from Luol Deng (18 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) and Jimmy Butler (16 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block). This win was especially impressive considering the Bulls pulled it off on the road without Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain), Rip Hamilton (back spasms) and Taj Gibson (knee injury). All that and Kirk Hinrich fouled out with 3:38 remaining.
Said Nate Robinson (12 points, 4-for-8, 5 assists): “For us, it’s big. Kirk fouled out. You got Marco out. Rip out. D-Rose out. Taj out. Guys are just stepping up, man, and that’s what teams do. You got Jo out and [Nazr Mohammed] stepping in for him. These guys are coming in and it’s like old school wrestling. Tag team. You know when one guy goes in, tag him, the other guy go out. Back and forth. We just got to keep playing and keep doing that, we’ll be OK.”
On defense, the Bulls got lit up by Deron Williams (30 points, 9-for-16, 10 assists) and Brook Lopez (28 points, 10-for-19, 5 rebounds). Of course, Lopez scored 18 of those points on 8-for-9 shooting in the first quarter then scored only 10 on 2-for-10 shooting over the final three quarters. Lopez also turned goat in the final minute by turning the ball over, getting a layup attempt stuffed and then missing a baseline jumper in the closing seconds that would have forced overtime. Joe Johnson (12 points, 4-for-11, 2 steals) was playing his first game back after missing five games with a sore left heel.
The Bulls dominated the boards (46-30) and scored 21 points off 16 Brooklyn turnovers. The Nets kept things even by going to the line 30 times.
In terms of production by position, the Nets usually win the point guard and center match-ups thanks to the play of Deron Williams (18.9 PPG, 7.7 APG, 20.3 PER) and Brook Lopez (19.4 PPG, 52% shooting, 24.7 PER). This will put a lot of pressure on Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah on defense. This means that Noah’s plantar faciitis could be a huge factor in this series. Lopez averaged 22 points on 53 percent shooting in four games against the Bulls this season…and that can’t be allowed to continue.
Williams had that one big game against the Bulls, but his overall numbers against Chicago’s D were pretty humble (19.8 PPG, 42% shooting, 6.8 APG, 3.2 TO). Still, Williams was on fire in April, averaging 24.6 points and 8.4 assists while shooting 52 percent over that eight-game stretch.
As for the Bulls, their biggest upsides in terms of production by position were at the small forward and power forward positions. And Carlos Boozer certainly had his way with the Nets, averaging 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 54 percent against them. And note that Boozer missed Chicago’s only loss to the Nets with a hamstring injury.
Unfortunately, Deng didn’t have quite as much success. In the four-game series, Deng averaged 15.3 points on 39 percent shooting to go with 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
Still, assuming a reasonably healthy roster, the Bulls have a major size advantage over the Nets. With Boozer, Deng, Gibson, Noah and Mohammed, Chicago will need to bully Brooklyn inside and dominate the rebounding battle. The Bulls will have to be especially mindful of their defensive backboards because the Nets are a premier offensive rebounding team.
Assuming the Bulls frontcourt can impose its will while slowing down Lopez, that leaves Bulls coach Tom Thibodea with the task for designing defensive schemes to neutralize Williams. Considering the job he’s done on superstars like Kobe Bryant in the past, I’d be willing to bet Thibs (with help from Hinrich and possibly even Jimmy Butler) comes up with something.
If Thibodeau’s schemes focus on stopping Lopez and Williams, then guys like Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace are going to have to really pick up their games, which didn’t happen against the Bulls in the regular season.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): This feels weird to type, but Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng all played well in this one. Boozer (22 points, 4 assists,) made a couple of great passes, Hinrich (14 points, 4 assists, 3 steals) was finally knocking down shots, and Deng filled up the stat sheet (18 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 blocks).
LVP (Least Valuable Player): Let’s take a look atRip Hamilton’s first quarter stats: two missed shots, two dropped passes and one air ball. He did not record another statistic in the first frame. It didn’t get much better the rest of the way, as he finished 1-5 from the floor with one assist. Can he get suspended again?
X factor: The Bulls, normally one of the lesser three point shooting teams in the league, went 9-17 from beyond the arc (52.9 percent), led by Kirk Hinrich, who hit 4-6. That 9-17 includes misses from both Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Orlando went 2-10.
That Was … convincing: After dropping their last three games to lottery teams, the Bulls finally pulled out a convincing win against a lesser opponent. It was also nice to have the likes of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson back on the court, even if Noah played quite poorly.