The 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are not winning an NBA title.
Derrick Rose is probably not going to play a single game this season.
The Bulls will not be fully healthy — or even close — by the end of the regular season.
Their absolute ceiling is a second round playoff elimination. If they make it that far.
But games like this are why I love this team.
The Bulls have had plenty of ready-made excuses all season…but they have refused to cash in on any of them. They won’t roll over for anybody and they never quit. Results may vary and even disappoint, as they did recently in come-from-ahead losses to the Mavericks and Wizards, but this squad gives their fans everything they could ask for under the circumstances.
Effort. Heart. Resiliency. Teamwork. Every night. Without fail.
The Nets had every reason to succeed last night. They were back home after a long road trip. They got Joe Johnson back from injury. They got a first quarter blitzkrieg from Brook Lopez and a terrific all-around game from Deron Williams (30 points, 9-for-16, 10 assists). They even led by as many as 16 points in a game that — with the Bulls and Atlanta Hawks creeping up on them in the standings — they absolutely had to have.
Meanwhile, the Bulls had every reason to lay down and die. Rose (left knee rehab) is still out. Ditto for Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) and Rip Hamilton (back spasms). The best news the Bulls have gotten lately was that the left knee injury Taj Gibson suffered against the Wizards was only a minor sprain. But he will still miss the next several games recovering and obviously won’t fully heal until the offseason.
So for those of you who enjoy simple math, the Bulls were down their one and only superstar, their All-Star center, and three key rotation players. Almost half a team. And it was a full half a team out after Kirk Hinrich fouled out with 3:38 remaining.
I have to admit, things looked pretty grim when Lopez exploded for 18 points on 8-for-9 shooting as the Bulls fell behind 26-13 after 12 minutes. It had all the makings of one of those games.
But the Bulls stuck with their game plan and slowly chipped away. Offensively, they leaned on Carlos Boozer, who followed up a one-point first quarter by scoring 9 in the second, 10 in the third and another 9 in the fourth. Boozer finished with a gaudy stat line of 29 points on 12-for-22 shooting to go with 18 rebounds and 3 assists. How huge was his work on the boards? By comparison, Brooklyn’s entire starting lineup had 23 rebounds…and Lopez finished with only 5.
Overall, the Bulls won the rebounding battle 46-30, which included a 13-7 edge in offensive rebounds. They also scored 21 points off 16 turnovers by the Nets.
What’s more, Chicago’s defense turned Lopez — who was the unquestioned hero of the first quarter — into the game’s biggest goat.
How many times does someone score 28 points on 10-for-19 from the field and 8-for-10 at the line and still end up looking like a fool by the final buzzer? It happened in this case. Lopez scored only 10 points on 2-for-10 shooting over the final three quarters while (as noted) getting outrebounded by Boozer, Jimmy Butler (10 rebounds), Nazr Mohammed (9 rebounds) and Luol Deng (7 rebounds). Not a great stat when you’re the tallest guy on the court.
Lopez was at his absolute worst down the stretch.
The Nets were still leading 91-90 with about a half minute left when Lopez threw an ill-advised pass that got intercepted by Nate Robinson. On the other end, Lopez was late on a defensive rotation, which allowed Robinson to hit a go-ahead floater with 22 seconds to go. Back on offense, Lopez got caught with the ball under the basket and had his layup stuffed by Mohammed. The Nets were forced to foul Daequan Cook, who went 1-for-2 at the line, and then they got one final shot. Which ended up being a 17-foot baseline jumper by Lopez.
He missed that one too.
After the game, Lopez was blaming nobody but himself: “Let’s start with [the turnover]. I felt like I was in the key for a little, so I was looking through my options of where to kick it out to. I was trying to find D-Will or Joe Johnson. It was just a terrible play on my part. The next play D-Will hit me with a good pass, and I didn’t finish strong enough, and the same thing happened on the next play: I got a good look and it didn’t go down. But at that point though you can’t really blame the last play for what happened previously.
“We shot ourselves in the foot, no question, or rather I shot [us] in the foot.”
In all fairness to Lopez, the Bulls did some sharpshooting of their own. After going a dismal 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) in the first quarter, the Bulls went 9-for-19 (47.4 percent) in the second, 13-for-26 (50 percent) in the third and 11-for-18 (61.1 percent) in the fourth. They also went 4-for-6 on three-pointers in the second half.
This despite being forced to get 11 minutes out of Vladimir Radmanovic.
Said Robinson: ”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 [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.”
Despite being down half a team, the Bulls used the “Thibodeau Rules” to grit out yet another game that — all things being equal — they probably shouldn’t have won. Those rules are reasonably simple:
Defend, Play Together, Rebound, Work Hard on Every Play.
Said Thibs: ”It’s not happenstance that we went out and won. If we put the work into it, the magic is in the work. If you put work into it and you do the right things the results will take care of themselves and that’s the way we want to approach it.”
On nights like this, it’s pretty hard to argue with the coach’s mantra that the Bulls have more than enough to win on any given night, regardless of who’s able to actually suit up.
Said Butler: ”I think whenever you hear it enough each and every day you start to buy into it. Thibs is constantly saying that, we’re constantly saying that. And we know that we have enough to win because even though [our injured teammates] aren’t on the court with us, they’re with us spiritually. Whenever we come into that locker room they’re saying things that they see from the TV. They’re always helping, just maybe not physically out there on the court with us.”
Butler is definitely drinking Thibodeau’s Kool-Aid…and it’s showing in his performance. The second year man had another strong all-around game: 16 points, 10 boards, 3 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot.
There were other contributors, like the ever-ready and every-steady Deng (18 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal), the always exciting and often frightening (on both ends) Robinson (12 points, 5 assists, 1 steal) and the ancient Mohammed, who played big minutes (37) and responded with 9 rebounds, 4 points, 3 blocked shots and an assist.
More than enough to win indeed.
And the win made a huge difference in the standings. The Bulls (41-33) are now only a game behind the Nets (43-32) for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. What’s more, Chicago owns the tiebreaker after winning the season series with Brooklyn 3-1.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself or anything, given that the Bulls and Nets are neck-and-neck, and the Hawks (42-34) are right there as well. But the Bulls have to feel pretty good about their chances down the stretch. Here’s a peek at their remaining games:
@ Detroit Pistons
New York Knicks
@ Toronto Raptors
@ Miami Heat
@ Orlando Magic
That’s six lottery teams and two playoff teams that might be resting players and/or not going full steam ahead.
Of course, you never know. Recent wins over the Pacers, Heat and Nets have shown the Bulls can play with anybody. But those losses in Dallas and Washington showed they can also lose to anybody…even after dominating most of the game. And with all the injuries, you just never know how things are going to play out.
But regardless of how it all pans out, Bulls fans have to be pretty proud of their team. Those guys never give up.