San Antonio Injury Report:
Boris Diaw: questionable (strained lower back)
Gary Neal: probable (sore foot/Achilles)
Tony Parker: out (sprained ankle)
The Bulls usually have an excuse when they lose this year. Playing without their best player, it’s been an uphill battle all season, often in games that they were overmatched. But that excuse didn’t fly when they fell to the Spurs on February 11.
It wasn’t just San Antonio’s point guard that was out of last month’s contest, as Tony Parker was sat to rest, but also Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson.
The Bulls are talked about as a team that is always competitive, no matter who is available to play that night, but the Spurs are probably the best at it. With Parker, Ginobili, Duncan and Danny Green out against the Heat, San Antonio nearly pulled off an impressive upset. Gregg Popovic is never afraid to rest anyone, because he knows the others will pick up the slack.
Speaking of Green, the shooting guard was the highest rebounder for the Spurs in the February game against Chicago, with six boards. The entire Spurs team brought down just 26 rebounds in the game. Joakim Noah (15) and Luol Deng (11) combined to match that total themselves. Chicago had 17 offensive rebounds, to two for San Antonio, and 49 overall, a 23-rebound margin.
The Spurs offensive rebound rate was 5.9, while Chicago’s was 41.5. The Bulls had 20 second chance points, to just four against them, but they still lost.
That’s because Chicago turned it over 19 times, and gave up 29 points off those turnovers. The Spurs, who were led by starting point guard Nando de Colo, gave up had just eight points off of eight turnovers. Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson each recorded three turnovers, while Chicago’s other starter, Rip Hamilton, coughed it up twice.
If the turnovers weren’t bad enough, the Bulls also allowed San Antonio to shoot 52 percent from the field and 50 percent (8-16) from deep (Chicago was 2-12 from three). Remember, this is the Spurs without some of their best offensive players. Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 26 points on 11-18 shooting, while All-Star Luol Deng went 4-13 and finished with eleven points and eleven boards.
The Bulls face a more loaded team than the last time, but they will avoid Parker for the second time this year. The Spurs point guard, who was having a great season and had an amazing February, injured his ankle against the Kings and is expected to be out four months.
The Bulls grabbed a moral victory, in a year of them last time out against the Pacers, keeping it close. The reason I was pleased with the game was because of the bench. Tom Thibodeau has made it clear he doesn’t trust many of the reserves this season. Once you get past Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson (who both often start) there’s Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. That has meant a lot of minutes for starters, especially Deng and Noah.
But, on the second night of a back-to-back, Thibs caved. He played Marquis Teague, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nazr Mohammed for most of the second quarter. Teague played the entire quarter, VladRad and Nazr each played more than ten minutes. Butler also played the entire quarter, while Belinelli played most. And you know what? All of these guys had positive plus/minuses. Noah and Deng didn’t even need to kill themselves to keep this one close.
Add the fact that they were playing against Indiana’s starters for much of the quarter and it’s only more impressive. Paul George (played 8:40 in the second quarter), David West (9:40), Roy Hibbert (4:04), Lance Stephenson (7:03) and George Hill (4:04) all recorded negative or neutral plus/minuses.
The Bulls bench could hold even with the Pacers, after Chicago’s starters had already fallen behind in the first quarter, but they couldn’t give the starters a break the night before? Noah, Deng and the rest of the starters were on the court to finish a game against the Nets, a game in which Chicago led by as many as 20 in the final frame. But Teague and VladRad and Daequan Cook couldn’t get off the bench.
“There’s no way they can hold this 20-point lead,” some said on Twitter. I disagreed, and thought playing Luol Deng the entire fourth quarter on the first night of a back-to-back was a bad idea. The fact that Lu shot 5-13 the next night did nothing to change my mind.
The point, if there is one, on this “I told you so” rant is not to say that the bench is good, or that they can do this every game. I do not have much faith in Teague as he’s young, or Nazr as he’s old, or VladRad as he’s horrible at basketball. But they can give the starters a rest. They won’t win the Bulls many games, but that doesn’t mean they’ll lose them every game they enter.
If you have any doubt, look at the Indiana game. Or look across to the other team tonight and see what a bench can do when it’s trusted.
San Antonio Injury Report:
Tim Duncan: doubtful (sprained knee/sprained ankle)
Manu Ginobili: doubtful (hamstring)
The Bulls go from one of the hottest teams in the NBA to the struggling Jazz to…one of the hottest teams in the NBA. The Spurs have lost just twice in the past month. Chicago lost twice last week. San Antonio, just like Chicago, is going through some injury issues though.
“It’s just about their health,” Gregg Popovich said. “We need to have those guys healthy and energetic at the end of the year. Things work a whole lot better with them than without them. With [Tim's] knee and Manu’s hamstring, I’m not gonna take any chances. If I err, it’s going to be on the side of caution.”
Popovich is arguably (and in my opinion is) the best coach in the NBA. It’s interesting what his opinion and mindset is compared to Tom Thibodeau’s, another great coach. Pop is of the belief that getting to the playoffs healthy is more important than winning every regular season game. Thibs is the exact opposite. Pop has been a head coach longer and has also won a bunch of championships.
Noah played 34 minutes against Utah on Saturday night, struggling through every one of them. He finished with a double-double (12 points, eleven rebobunds), but didn’t shoot well (3-8). It’s clear he isn’t fully healthy, and it’s questionable whether he’s doing more damage than good right now. I find it hard to believe Jo would be back right now if the Bulls still had Omer Asik. Or any able-bodied center for that matter.
Jo—and everyone else on the Bulls—also got dominated by Al Jefferson. Utah’s center scored 32 points on 15-22 shooting and added 13 boards, two blocks and two steals. Paul Millsap hurt the Bulls too (21 points, 8-14 FG), but Chicago did a good job stopping everyone else.
Randy Foye was the next highest scorer, with 14 points, but shot 4-11. Marvin Williams scored just three points and Jamaal Tinsley seemed afraid to shoot, and thus ended up scoreless.
One of the keys was that the Bulls made 16 of their 18 free throws, while Utah went 11-17. Another was that they were finally able to play their high paid power forward in the fourth. Thibs trusted Carlos Boozer, and it paid off, as Boozington scored 11 of his 19 points in the final quarter.
Sidenote: Jimmy Butler had a bummer of a game, logging 13 minutes and no other stats except a missed shot. Hopefully this was just a fluke in Jimmy’s young, promising career.
San Antonio, short-handed and all, pulled away from Brooklyn in the second half, outscoring the Nets 60-29 in the third and fourth. Tony Parker led the way for the Spurs, as usual, dropping 29 points and dishing eleven assists. The Spurs shot 58.9 percent from the field and 63.2 percent from deep. This was all without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Parker is going to cause a big problem tonight, as Nate Robinson will have trouble staying in front of him. Kirk Hinrich is still out for the Bulls, which leaves just Nate and Marquis Teague. That’s a match-up I am dreading.
But one I do want to see is Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard. Butler and Leonard are pretty similar, young guys that do everything for their team. They are both great rebounders, especially for their size, finish well at the rim, defend well and hustle. Leonard’s PER is 15.51. Jimmy’s is 15.31.
I don’t want to make too much out of the Bulls’ season-opening win over the Spurs. After all, it’s only the first of 82 regular season games, and the Bulls had a built-in advantage: they were well-rested whereas the Spurs had to play the night before and then travel to Chicago for the second game of back-to-backs.
That said, it was still a pretty gratifying victory. Here’s why:
1. The Bulls withstood adversity: In the first half, they couldn’t have lobbed a beach ball into the ocean. Meanwhile, the Spurs were shooting lights out and Tim Duncan (28 points, 13-for-18, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks) was blistering any Bull who dared to guard him. But Chicago did what teams have to do on bad shooting nights: they crashed the boards. For the half, the Bulls had 10 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points…not to mention a 47-46 lead going into the break.
Joakim Noah was Chicago’s best player in the first half. He grabbed four offensive rebounds. He blocked two of Tim Duncan’s shots. He hit one of his patented ugly-as-hell jumpers from 17 feet out. He played with the kind of energy and intensity you won’t see in a box score. Trust me, his final stats (10 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks) may not knock your socks off, but the Bulls would have gotten blown out in that first half without Joakim.
2. Tyrus Thomas came alive: Let me put this bluntly: Tyrus sucked in the first half. After two quarters, Ty’s line was: 11 minutes, zero points on 0-for-3 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 fouls. He was outplayed by his potential replacement, Taj Gibson, whose shooting was off but who grabbed three offensive rebounds and was aggressive enough to earn some free throws during the Bulls’ frigid first half. Heck, little Jannero Pargo finished those first 24 minutes with more blocks (1) than Thomas (0).
But T-Rise was the player of the second half. He led the charge coming out of the break, hitting back-to-back jumpers from 17 and 16 feet out. He blocked a Tony Parker layup. He blocked anotherParker layup. He swooped to the basket on a fast break and drew the foul from Matt Bonner. He grabbed some rebounds. He drilled another 17-footer. He blocked a Duncan layup. He threw down a vicious dunk (off a sweet assist from Brad Miller) and drew the “And one!” from Richard Jefferson. Chicago’s first two scores of the fourth quarter were a Thomas free throw (Antonio McDyess fouled him on a drive) and 17-footer.
Like Noah, Thomas’ final line (13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks) doesn’t leap out of the box score, but he lit a fire under the Bulls in the second half. No question about it.
3. Luol Deng looked pretty good: Deng shot so poorly in the preseason that I was starting to sweat. Fortunately, he didn’t stop believing in himself. He was never spectacular last night — not the way Jo and Ty were, anyway — but he was solid throughout, finishing with a team-high 17 points on 8-for-13 shooting to go along with 9 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. Those aren’t All-Star numbers, perhaps, but would Bulls fans be happy if Deng played like that all season? Abso-freaking-lutely.
4. Derrick Rose’s ankle injury was a non-issue: Rose still played a little tentatively at times — or maybe the Spurs defense just made it seem that way — but he was still dynamic. Derrick scored 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting, which included three jumpers from 20 feet. But his best contributions came from creating shots for his teammates (7 assists) and — believe it or not — on the boards (7 rebounds). He also had a spectacular block of a Richard Jefferson layup in the first quarter. In fact, his defense wasn’t too shabby. You’ll notice his Spurs counterpart, former Finals MVP Tony Parker, finished with only 8 points on 4-for-11 shooting.
5. It was a total team effort: This was definitely one of those “The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum of the Parts” wins for Chicago. This team doesn’t have a LeBron James, so don’t expect many 40-point explosions or out-of-this-world triple-doubles. But six Bulls scored in double figures (all five starters and Kirk Hinrich). Chicago’s reserves outscored the San Antonio bench 29-27, but the disparity was actually greater than that during the meaningful parts of the game (Gregg Popovich cleared his bench in the final minutes while Vinny De Negro mysteriously left most of his starters in until the final buzzer). The Bulls out-rebounded the Spurs 52-44 (including a 15-8 edge on the offensive glass) and had a 22-13 advantage in second-chance points.
Everybody chipped in. Everybody played their role. Guys were slappng palms and rooting for each other. The chemistry looked great. There was just good stuff all around.
6. The Bulls…played defense: How ’bout that defense, huh? Holding the new-look (and supposedly super-deep) Spurs to only 85 points on 42 percent shooting was pretty sweet (even if Chicago’s 41 percent shooting was pretty sour). Sure, the Bulls had no answer whatsoever for Duncan, but Parker and Manu Ginobili combined to shoot 7-for-22 from the field, and Parker earned only one free throw attempt.
7. They also took care of the ball:
Last season and even during this year’s preseason, the Bulls were sometimes guilty of careless ball-handling. Not last night. Chicago committed only nine turnovers — four fewer than the ball-control Spurs — and surrendered only nine points off those turnovers. Two major keys to winning are rebounding and ball control (just ask the Spurs). The Bulls won both of those battles last night…and the game. Go figure.
Reasons for concern: There were a few. Like how the Bulls were (just like last year) badly exploited by an opposing big man. Like John Salmons’ misguided shooting (3-for-15 overall, 1-for-9 from downtown). Like the terrible three-point shooting (3-for-16). Like the nine missed free throws. Like the fact that the Bulls have to face the Celtics in Boston tonight after beating the Spurs in Chicago last night, a game that threatens to kill all the good mojo created by their game-opening win…
TrueHoop Network: Graydon Gordion of 48 Minutes of Hell: “First and foremost, games that look something along the lines of tonight’s are gonna happen and they are gonna happen on the second night of back-to-backs when we’re on the road against young, athletic teams like the Bulls. I can only assume Vinny Del Negro happily handed the game ball to Joakim Noah, whose six offensive rebounds are one of the game’s most telling statistics.”
Tony Parker, Mo Williams and Devin Harris might be All-Stars, but none of them were better than Derrick Rose in the 2009 Skills Challenge. And honestly, Derrick made winning look pretty easy. (He never needed more than two attempts at any station in either round. Half the time, it takes me at least that many tries just to successfully dunk an Oreo in milk. They get mushy, break apart and…but I digress.)
In the first round, Rose zipped through the course in 33.3 seconds. That was 3.3 seconds faster than Harris, 4.2 seconds faster than Williams and — prepare to laugh, or at the very least giggle a little — 17.5 seconds ahead of former NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker. And that rather embarrassing 50.8-second finish made TP the proud owner of the two slowest times ever recorded in Skills Challenge history. (He slogged through the course in 45.5 seconds in 2003.) Duncan face!
Anyway. Rose’s second stroll through the course lasted 35.3 seconds — 4.4 ticks faster than Harris — and he put an exclamation point on the victory with a sick double-pump reverse jam. (Said Rose: “I always saw Dwyane Wade and them dunking like that at the end, so I said why not me?” Why not, indeed.) For the record, he’s the first rookie to ever win the contest. To which I must objectively say: Boo-yah, baby!
Bonus Quotage:Here’s what Rose had to say about the competition: “[Winning] means a lot. I’m a part of history with some of the greatest players in the league that have won this award. The bounce pass. I knew when I got those two in, the crowd got to me and I came up a little short on my jump shots. I was scared a little bit. But the bounce pass was the hardest thing.”
Regarding next year’s competition: “I really can’t wait. Of course the season isn’t over with, but next year — this summer, I’ll work harder, work on my weaknesses and just go hard throughout the whole summer.” But don’t let his jazzy flush at the end fool you; he has no intention of entering the Dunk Contest: “No, no, no. I told you I can jump high, but I’m not creative at all.”
As for the fate of his shiny new hardware: “I’ll give it to my mom. She will probably cry over it.”
And admit it: Isn’t that pretty much what you expected? The Spurs are still really good — the Southwest Division-leading 25-13 record they brought with them to Chicago was proof enough of that — but, let’s face facts, they aren’t the same team that won four championships in nine years. They’re older, less talented (by which I am pointing an accusing finger at players four through 12 on the depth chart) and seemingly a slow, plodding step behind this season’s legit contenders: The Cavaliers, Lakers, Magic and maybe the Celtics (although Boston has the same general vulnerabilities as San Antonio, even down to the mildly unsettling similarities between Brian Scalabrine and Matt Bonner). But they remain one of those scary, can’t-count-’em-out teams, thanks to superior coaching and the veteran wiles possessed by their holy triumverate of Tim Duncan (18 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocked shots), Tony Parker (20 points, 8 assists) and Manu Ginobili (21 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals).
Make no mistake: Those three men still have as much raw skill as any other same-team trio in the league. But talent alone does not a dangerous player make. (For further reading, please refer to the collected works of Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, Pervis Ellison, et al.) It takes more than just being able to play the game. You have to know how to play it. And then, even more importantly, you have to know how to win.
See, Vince Lombardi was right: Winning is a habit. Do it long enough and it becomes second nature, like walking or making fun of Darko Milicic. For example, in my youth, I spent countless hours honing my skills at Super Mario Brothers. Not to brag, but I achieved a level of expertise at that game that bordered on supernatural. I could cruise through all eight levels without dying once. Most of the time, I would jump on, over or through the various enemies and obstacles a split-second before it was strictly necessary. Basically, I had conditioned myself to win…to the point where I could (and did) do it without even thinking.
That’s where the Spurs are at right now: Barring a crippling injury to Tim Duncan, the Spurs will continue to grind out 50-win seasons year after year out of sheer, boring habit, right up until age causes Duncan’s wheels to go spinning off into NBA oblivion. When the endgame rolls around, San Antonio just lets their win gene kick in and good things tend to happen, particularly against not-so-good teams.
Look, it’s not as though the Bulls were horrible. They overcame a 13-point deficit and an ugly shooting night by Derrick Rose (6-for-21) to take an 82-81 lead on Drew Gooden’s three-point play with 3:14 left. But here’s a summary of their last seven possessions: Missed jump shot by Andres Nocioni; missed layup by Derrick Rose; turnover by Nocioni (stolen by Bruce Bowen), missed layup by Rose; two free throws by Drew Gooden; three free throws by Nocioni; missed three-pointer by Ben Gordon. Not exactly what you would call “clutch numbers.” Particularly when you consider that Noc’s foul shots came off a foul by Parker in which the contact was, ahem, limited. Said Parker: “He got my thumb, that’s how close it was. The ref didn’t call it at first but then he (Nocioni) screamed.”
Of course, Nocioni — whose 17 points and 15 rebounds made him, by far, the best Bull on the court — was himself suckered into fouling Manu Ginobili on a three-point attempt with only seven seconds left on the game clock (and the Spurs leading by only three points). That, of course, followed Parker’s driving layup around Rose and a dagger three by Ginobili that put the Bullies behind the eight ball. That’s the Spurs for you: Grinding it out once again.
There was a smidge of controversy after the game, with Bulls players and coaches aiming a hairy eyeball at the officiating crew of Mark Lindsey, Rodney Mott, Scott Foster. It was felt by some that the home team might have deserved a few more whistles, particularly Rose, who missed seven layups, seven of which drew minor to significant contact. Yet Rose finished the game zero-for-zero from the charity stripe. Uhm…wow?
Said Rose: “[My teammates tell me] just fight through it. Arguing? I’m a rookie, I can’t say nothing. [The referees] look at me; they’ll probably curse me out. So I’ll just keep my mouth closed and next time try to drive harder.”
I guess you could say the refs were letting ‘em play. How else would you explain the rather bizarre fact that the Bulls went from the 5:44 mark of the first quarter until two minutes into the fourth without a single free throw attempt? I mean, 38 minutes without a foul shot despite plenty of aggressive drives? Like Keanu Reeves might say: Whoa.
But despite the iffy officiating, Vinny Del Negro did his best possible Gregg Popovich impression: “We’ve just got to keep attacking the basket. We got into the penalty there (with four minutes left in the fourth quarter), and I talked to the guys in the huddle about being aggressive, getting to the basket, but we weren’t able to get the calls. You’ve got to fight through that stuff. Usually the aggressive team gets the calls.”
Usually? Maybe. When the team knows how to win, that is.