Talk about untimely and unwelcome distractions. Going into last night’s matchup with the Boston Celtics — only the biggest game of the season so far — reports surfaced that, after Chicago’s home loss to the Phoenix Suns on March 30, Bulls executive vice president John Paxson apparently grabbed coach Vinny Del Negro by the tie, jabbed him twice in the chest and challenged him to a fight.
The confrontation seems to have occurred because of “a narrow breach of a management-imposed minutes limit on injured forward Joakim Noah.” This certainly provides new perspective Vinny’s by-the-books approach to Jo’s minutes in Chicago’s recent loss to the New Jersey Nets. Sources say that Bulls have hired lawyers to interview witnesses about the incident.
Major drama. Shocking to say the least. It cast a dark cloud not only over last night’s game, but over the team’s future as well. What does this mean for Paxson’s future? Vinny’s? Will there be actual litigation? Will this effect Chicago’s hunt for a big name free agent? I suppose worse things could have happened at a worse time, but this simply boggles the mind.
Before the game, Vinny wouldn’t bite on the subject: “I’m not going to comment. I go about my job every day no matter what happens. I’m a competitor. I’ve been involved in the game a long time. I love the challenge of it. All the other things that happen pretty much stay internally.”
Say what you will about Del Negro the coach, but Del Negro the man seems almost unflappable. The dude has kept his cool during two seasons’ worth of rumors about his impending doom, and he apparently didn’t retaliate when his boss seemingly tried to bully him into a fight. And despite a season full of injuries — during which all management has done is take pieces off the board in an effort to save cash for this summer’s free agent bonanza — Vinny has his club on the verge of a playoff berth.
Seriously, Del Negro has done about everything anyone could possibly ask of him. And his boss may have tried to fight him over a player’s minutes. Unbelievable.
While this situation was brewing behind the scenes, the Bulls had to fight for their playoff lives against a team with their own agenda. The Celtics have been slumping and were on the brink of losing the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boston coach Doc Rivers went with his starters and made a major push to win this game.
It didn’t matter. Derrick Rose wanted it more.
Rose stepped up to the challenge like a true superstar. You want impact: How about a career-high 39 points? You want efficiency: How about 15-for-22 shooting? You want aggressiveness: How about a game-high 10 free throw attempts. You want leadership: How about a game-best 7 assists. You want defense: How about a co-game-high 3 blocked shots.
Derrick did literally everything his sternest critics could have possibly asked him to do. To me, his effort was embodied by a couple sequences that happened just after the midway point of the second quarter. WIth 4:58 remaining, Rose went way up to block a jumper by Rajon Rondo and came away with the rebound. About a half-minute later, Derrick outjumped Kevin Garnett to rip down a rebound and threw a terrific outlet pass to Kirk Hinrich, whose layup was goaltended.
It’s hard to properly describe the intensity of those plays, which occurred during a big Bulls run. But they showed me that Rose was ready to step up to the biggest challenge of his pro career so far. It was an amazing thing to watch. I mean, Rose may be taking his game to a whole new level while we watch. Keep your eyes peeled, folks.
Speaking of stepping up, how ’bout Kirk Hinrich? Captain Kirk has taken his lumps for years, mostly because he’s overpaid. And you know nobody else in the NBA is overpaid, right? The first half of the last three or four seasons have featured so many Kirk-centric trade rumors that people have made top 10 lists about them.
His response has always been to just keep playing. He did that last night…in spades. Hinrich finished with a season-high 30 points, going 11-for-20 from the field and 4-for-7 from downtown. And Kirk hit two of the biggest shots of the game: a three-pointer with 1:15 left and then an 18-footer right before the shot clock went off on Chicago’s very next possession.
Those were huge, huge shots that stymied Boston’s rally attempt. Yet another example of Hinrich answering the call after being left for dead by a basketball public that’s obsessed with the size of his contract.
Rose scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, during which he almost fouled out Rondo and make an absolute mockery of Nate Robinson’s efforts to defend him. Hinrich had 10. That’s out of 34 total points.
While the Bulls’ starting backcourt was scoring 69 of the team’s 101 points, Joakim Noah (16 rebounds) and Luol Deng (12 boards) were cleaning the glass. Brad Miller was bumping bodies and committing hard fouls. And the Bulls, as a team, were taking another step toward locking up a playoff berth.
There’s more to be done, of course. Chicago’s magic number is one: One win tonight against the Bobcats in Charlotte, or one loss by the Raptors in Toronto against the Knicks. It’s a worrisome prospect. After all, the Bulls might be worn out after their win over the Celtics, while the Raptors get to play a lottery team at home.
I’m not going to bother to hope for Toronto to lose. Who wants their team to back into the playoffs? No, I’m going to hope Rose and the rest of the Bulls saved a little something for the Bobcats.