Going into last night’s game, the Nets were 21 games below .500. But their record was at least somewhat deceiving since Deron Williams had only played six games in a New Jersey uniform.
In possibly related news, the Nets began the night having won five games in a row, which was tied them with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the league’s second-longest active winning streak. And in their last game, the Nets had beaten none other than the Boston Celtics.
As for the Bulls, they had the league’s longest active winning streak at seven games. Now it’s eight games and they’ve once again taken a half-game lead over the Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Despite the double-digit margin of victory, this wasn’t an easy win. The Bulls simply could not shake the suddenly troublesome Nets. But they did what good teams do: They locked down on defense and executed down the stretch.
On the defensive end, they held the Nets — who, again, have been on fire lately — to a season-low 73 points. And they did it in New Jersey. The Bulllies made them shoot only 34.9 percent from the field and forced them to brick 16 of their 19 three-point attempts. Williams, an All-Star, shot 1-for-12 and went 0-for-3 from three-point range. And check out this shot chart: The Nets attempted 14 layups and converted only five of them.
The Bulls basically pulled an iron curtain around the basket.
Said Luol Deng: “Our defense has been great. Our defense has been great all year. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but holding a team like that to 73 points says a lot about our D. Especially a team who just won five in a row and beat a good team in their last game, so their confidence was pretty high coming into this game.”
Added Derrick Rose: “That’s what we’ve been doing the whole year — playing defense. If our offense isn’t going, that rarely happens, but if it’s not, we’ll rely on our defense and that’s what we did tonight: Make it tough on them. At first, they were getting everything that they wanted, then we just closed down the paint and rebounded the ball.”
The Bulls offense certainly wasn’t going last night. And, with all due respect to D-Rose, the offense is usually pretty average (which is why Chicago currently ranks 15th in Offensive Rating). The Bulls shot only 40.7 percent themselves and Rose, in particular, struggled to score his team-high 21 by shooting 8-for-23 from the field and (ugh) 0-for-5 from downtown. Rose also had only 2 assists.
Of course, he helped hold Williams to that 1-for-12 shooting — blocking two of Deron’s shots — and had a critical steal down the stretch. Perhaps more importantly, he had a game-high plus-minus score of +14. Here’s some video of one of Derrick’s sweet blocks on Williams:
As a team, the Bulls consistenly made big plays down the stretch:
With 5:35 left and the score tied at 65-65, Deng brought the ball across halfcourt against New Jersey’s trapping defense. For a second, it seemed like Lu was going to call timeout…and then he drove hard to the basket for a layup.
After Kris Humphries tied the game with a layup off an assist from Williams — who, in his defense, had a really good floor game with 11 dimes — Rose drove in for one of his patented driving layups to put the Bulls up two points with 4:52 left.
With 3:57 left and the game once again tied (69-69), Luol Deng drilled a 19-footer off an assist from Kurt Thomas. Bulls by two again.
With 3:17 left, Rose made a great steal off a long pass by Williams and took it the other way for a layup. Bulls by four.
With 2:16 left, the Nets committed an illegal defense, and Kyle Korver capitalized by draining the ensuing free throw. Bulls by five.
With 2:08 left, Joakim Noah tipped in a miss by Rose. Bulls by seven.
With 1:15 left, after the Nets had pulled to within five points off a layup by Sasha Vujacic, Deng busted New Jersey’s trap by making a crosscourt pass to Korver, who knocked down a triple to put the Bulls up by eight points.
With a minute left, Big Sexy hit a stop-and-go layup off a nice assist from Noah. That put the Bulls up by 10. After that, Korver and Noah combined to make three of four free throw attempts to round out the scoring.
What I hope that description got across was the teamwork. Everybody contributed. Everybody did their job. The shooting, rebounding, passing. This team is in sync. They know each other. They believe in each other. And it’s all coming from the top.
I’m talking about coach Tom Thibodeau.
Said Noah: “We’re doing the same things every day. It’s almost becoming more and more routine. Thibs is preaching the same stuff and even when we’re doing interviews and stuff, I always end up saying what he’s saying to us all the time, and everybody’s saying the same things in interviews. It’s funny, but you know what? Thibs, he knows what he’s talking about and we’re listening.”
On the subject of team play, let’s talk about the job Omer Asik did last night. He scored 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting while blocking two shots and ripping down a career-high 16 rebounds. Nine of his boards came on the offensive end. That’s nine extra opportunities in a close, low-scoring game in which the Bulls shoot poorly.
Said Rose: “That’s almost every game with him. To come in and get that many rebounds. Got to the free-throw line, dunked a lot of balls, blocked shots, played a lot of defense, that’s what we need from him. We’re happy that he’s on the team.”
Added Noah: “He’s been playing so good for us and I think that’s the beauty of this team. We’ve got a lot of weapons. And Omer is someone who lives in the gym, improving, his confidence is getting better and better and he’s understanding how he can score in the offense. He’s playing at a really high level and we need that to do what we want to do.”
I know some fans wanted the Bulls to part with Asik to bring in somebody like Courtney Lee at the trade deadline. I was not one of those fans. Although I don’t think Omer will ever be an All-Star, I think he can be a very capable backup and at-need starter. Heck, he already is. He has a very high basketball IQ even if his arms look like wet pasta noodles. With all due respect to the Courtney Lees of this world, shooters become available every year, but talented, intelligent, hardworking big men are a precious commodity that should never be traded away lightly.
Management made the right decision keeping this guy.
Anyway, Asik was a big component of another strong outing for Chicago’s bench (32 points, 25 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocked shots, 2 steals). Which is yet another reason why, for today at least, the Bulls are the best team in the Eastern Conference.
From ESPN Stats and Information (via TrueHoop):
The Chicago Bulls pulled a half-game ahead of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference with an eighth straight win Thursday, giving Chicago its longest winning streak since stringing together nine straight victories in 2005. The Bulls have outscored their opponents by 12.5 points per game during their win streak, with each of the last five wins coming by a double-digit margin. The only team to win MORE than five games in a row by at least 10 points this season is the Heat, who won nine straight by double digits from November 29 to December 13.
Chicago held New Jersey to a season-low 73 points, the NBA-best 12th time the Bulls have held an opponent under the 80-point mark this season. The only other season in franchise history when the Bulls held their opponents under 80 more times was in 1997-98, when Michael Jordan and crew held opponents under 80 13 times en route to a sixth NBA title.
The Bulls seem to have an easier road to the top seed in the Eastern Conference than the Celtics. Over the final four weeks of the regular season, Chicago will play more home games (7 to 6) and more games against teams with losing records (8 to 6) than Boston.
Devin Kharpertian of Nets Are Scorching: “It’s almost paradoxical that a game prominently featuring two of the most innovate point guards in the league today was defined by such ugliness on both sides. Rose & Williams combined to shoot just 9-35 from the floor, and if you include backups, all the point guards for both teams combined to shoot just 10-48. Yes, that number actually gets uglier the more you look at it. Both stars shot poorly for different reasons; for Williams, it was a matter of his hand injury, while Rose struggled to get in rhythm with his jumper. … As an aside, it’s interesting how two guys who are legitimate stars at their position have significantly different roles — Rose is expected to anchor Chicago’s offense, while Deron is a cog in creating everyone else’s offense. Rose is expected to carry that huge offensive burden, and when his jumper’s not falling, it can cause a lot of problems for Chicago. That was evident in this game.”