The Bulls have been given some gifts lately. And I’m not just talking about Joakim Noah and Luol Deng returning from the injured list.
First, the Raptors — the team standing between the Bulls and the East’s final playoff spot — lost Chris Bosh “for weeks” after he had surgery to repair a displaced nasal fracture. The night after Bosh had his face broken, Toronto’s Hedo Turkoglu suffered a busted nose of his own. He’s listed day-to-day.
As for the Bulls, they got to play (and lose to) the Andrew Bogut-less Milwaukee Bucks earlier this week. Then, last night, Chicago faced the Cleveland Cavaliers sans LeBron James, who sat out with “bumps and bruises.” And as if that wasn’t enough, Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison (23 points, 10-for-19, 6 rebounds, 3 steals) limped off the court after suffering a right foot contusion late in the fourth quarter. He did not return.
I mean, it’s been like a karmic reversal from the injury woes the Bulls have been dealing with all season long.
And yet they still almost lost.
This is the kind of crazy stuff that goes on at the end of the NBA’s regular season. You have teams (like the Bulls) scrambling to make the playoffs. You have teams (like the Cavs) with nothing to play for except for a little pride and the chance to prove they’re more than just the “LeBronairs.”
Cleveland was not sharp on defense. To wit, the Bulls rank 28th in Offensive Efficiency (100.5 points per 100 possessions) while the Cavaliers are 7th in Defensive Efficiency (101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). Yet Chicago shot nearly 52 percent as a team, had an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 54.7, and finished with an Offensive Efficiency rating of 110.1.
All that despite Taj Gibson’s forgettable 1-for-9 shooting performance.
Chicago’s “Fantastic Four” were on. The Bulls got double-doubles from Derrick Rose (24 points, 10-for-19, 10 assists), Joakim Noah (17 points, 8-for-14, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks) and Luol Deng (22 points, 9-for-16, 10 boards), and Kirk Hinrich (23 points, 8-for-12) had a hot shooting night.
Did I mention they still almost lost?
Just like against the Bucks, Chicago built a double-digit lead and then lost it. Mo Williams got so hot I was ready to call 911 and send some fire trucks to the United Center. Williams drilled six three-pointers and finished with a season-high 35 points. Four of Mo’s three-pointers came in the fourth quarter, and two of them were absolute heat checks.
Said Williams: “Even without LeBron, we gave the crowd a show. They paid those high-priced tickets. I think it was worth it.”
Worth a heart attack, maybe.
Fortunately, the Bulls’ defense came through down the stretch, which is good, because their free throw shooting sure didn’t. After an ugly possession that ended with a forced three-point attempt by Rose, the Cavs rumbled downcourt in transition with a chance to take the lead. Fortunately, Gibson blocked Williams’ layup out of bounds with 26 seconds left.
Then Williams — who, as I mentioned, was in “heat check mode” – chucked up a tough turnaround jumper against aggressive defense by Hinrich. Deng hauled down the board and was immediately fouled. Naturally, he bricked both free throws.
Fortunately, Cleveland had an ugy possession of their own, with two jumpers by Anderson Varejao sandwiched around a blocked layup attempt by Jamario Moon. That sequence mercifully ended with a forced foul on Rose, who promptly shanked both foul shots. Thank goodness for Noah, who knocked the rebound away after Derrick’s second miss, which allowed time to expire.
I should probably mention that Chicago’s final two scores were a 17-footer by Noah and then a Noah tip-in off a missed layup attempt by Rose.
Yeah. Joakim came up big.
The win moved Chicago into an eighth place tie with the Raptors (although Toronto has the tiebreaker). As important as this game was, though, it won’t mean anything if the Bulls don’t come through in New Jersey tonight.