Despite the absence of Carlos Boozer due to a sore hamstring, the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a convincing victory over a division rival. And unlike their two losses to the Bucks earlier this season, they managed to build a big lead and keep it.
The Bulls outhustled and outworked the Bucks. They made the hustle plays and maintained their focus for most of the game (minus one sloppy stretch of the third quarter).
The Bulls (28-17) stayed 1.5 games ahead of the Pacers (27-19) for the lead in the Central Division. And get this: they’re only a game behind the Knicks (28-15) and 2.5 games behind the Heat (29-13). That they’ve managed to remain within striking distance of the Eastern Conference lead without Derrick Rose playing a single game is more than impressive. It’s a minor miracle.
Player of the Game:
Nate Robinson. Little Nate was the unquestioned goat of Chicago’s last loss to Milwaukee. He incited Brandon Jennings with a continuous stream of smack talk and Jennings responded with a season-high 35 points…which also happened to be the highest single-game total of any Bulls opponent this season. Still is as a matter of fact.
After that game, Jennings said: “[Robinson did] a little trash talking before the second half. I guess he felt like he had it going, he was getting the best of me. I really don’t take trash talking too kindly because I don’t really do a lot of trash talking. I warned him, so, hey, it happens.”
Robinson didn’t forget. Nor apparently did he forgive. Nate erupted off the bench with 16 second quarter points — on 7-for-9 shooting — as the Bulls outscored the Bucks 32-18 in the period to go into halftime with a 55-37 lead.
To be fair, Nate had it cooking all game long, scoring a game-best 24 points while going 9-for-11 from the field, 2-for-3 from three-point range and 4-for-4 from the free throw line. He even chipped in 4 assists, 3 steals and 2 rebounds. He hit jumpers. He drove in for layups. He even got his first dunk of the season on a nice backdoor cut:
He also played some inspired defense against Jennings, who shot 6-for-18 and scored only 15 points. Mind you, Jennings played 14 more minutes than Robinson, so holding him down was certainly a group effort. But whenever they were matched up, Nate was there, slapping at the ball and forcing Jennings into bad shots.
The coup de grace game with just under three minutes left to play. The Bucks kinda-sorta within striking distance — the Bulls were up by 10 — when Jennings drove into Robinson and got called for an offensive foul.
Nate took a dive for sure, but it wasn’t a Vlade Divac-style flop by any stretch of the imagination. Still, Jennings — frustrated by getting repeatedly shown up and taunted by Robinson — threw the ball, walked right up to the official, and said the call was bull-you-know-what. Then he said the official knew the call was bull-you-know-what.
That did it. Jennings earned a technical foul and an ejection for his behavior. And that pretty much sunk any chance the Bucks had of making a comeback.
Here’s video of Nate abusing Jennings throughout the game:
Said Bucks coach Jim Boylan: “Even though he and Brandon are going at it, I don’t think it’s taking away from Brandon’s game.”
Uhm…are you sure about that, coach?
Said Jimmy Butler: “I think Nate got the best of [Jennings] in this one. He got him extremely frustrated, not to mention that Nate was knocking down a lot of shots. He was knocking down a lot of shots and was really into him defensively. I think he wasn’t letting anything go easy. Nate took it as disrespect last time at home when (Jennings) was doing Nate’s celebration. I don’t think Nathaniel Cornelius Robinson liked that too much.”
Admittedly, I wish Nate had canned the trash talk, although I know it’s part of his game. Still, here’s a guy playing on a minimum contract who always brings 100 percent energy and effort off the bench. He’s leading the team in Player Efficiency Rating (18.4). He’s doing pretty much everything the team could possibly ask of him under the circumstances. Even if his decision-making and shot selection occasionally drive the Bulls and their fans crazy.
Said coach Tom Thibodeau: “The good outweighs the bad. He’s a catalyst. He’s a spark plug. The thing that I like right now is I think he’s really improved defensively and he’s got to keep working at it. His defense is getting better and better. He’s always had the ability to score the ball and he’s playing both positions. He’s playing the point, I think he tries to run the team more at the point, then when he goes to the 2 he looks to score more, but he’s done a good job for us.”
Added Joakim Noah: “I knew that he had a lot of energy and always talking a lot of trash. But after spending time with him, he’s a great teammate and he’s playing at a real high level for us right now. He’s playing great basketball. I think the last couple weeks he’s brought his intensity and he’s really channeling his energy the right way, not getting down on himself when things aren’t going well and just being aggressive offensively, being aggressive defensively and he’s been huge for us.”
Player of the Game Runner Up:
Jimmy Butler. Can you believe this kid got left out of the Rising Stars Challenge? What a joke. Butler is playing at a very high level right now.
As Exhibit A, I present last nights performance: 27 minutes, 18 points, 8-for-12 from the field, 1-for-2 on threes, 6 rebounds, 2 steals and a plus-minus of +19. Like Robinson, Butler scored in a variety of ways, shooting, driving, and dunking. He played great D as always. He was energetic and efficient. And, with Robinson, he was a huge part Chicago’s 50-25 advantage in bench scoring. And that was minus Taj Gibson (14 points, 7-for-12, 9 rebounds), who started in place of the missing Carlos Boozer.
Said Thibs: “He’s a big lift. He can guard, he can score and play multiple positions and make hustle plays. He’s doing a lot for us. He’s a big part of this team.”
Butler has made me a believer.
Key Stats Part 1:
The Bulls outscored the Bucks 66-40 in the paint. According to Hoopdata, Chicago converted nearly as many shots at the rim (28) as Milwaukee attempted (31). And their conversion rate at the rim (75.7 percent) was much better than the home team’s (48.4). Robinson — the tiniest man on the floor — was a perfect 6-for-6 at the rim. Butler and Deng were both 5-for-6.
Oh, and those 66 points in the paint? That was a Bulls season-high.
Key Stats Part 2:
Chicago’s D let up a little in the third quarter, when the Bucks shot 11-for-22 (50 percent). But it was cranked up the rest of the game, as Milwaukee went 9-for-23 (39 percent) in the first quarter, 7-for-18 (39 percent) in the second and 7-for-19 (37 percent) in the fourth.
With Boozer out, Deng (13 rebounds, 12 points, 5 assists) had to join Noah (12 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists) in the double-double club. Gibson just missed by one rebound.
Gibson had a good game overall, especially in the early going when the team was looking for him in the post. Taj was much more assertive on offense than usual and attempted eight shots at the rim, making five. He even hit a slick turn-around jumper from the baseline.
But Gibson — who averages about 20 minutes a game — logged 34 minutes of PT because of Boozer’s absence. And you could see a decline in his performance in the second half, especially on the defensive end. (Check the plus-minus stats if you don’t believe me.) Ersan Ilyasova was shooting over Gibson and driving past him, and Jennings hit a three over Gibson as well. You could tell Taj was gassed. If Boozer misses a few more games, the extra minutes could take a toll on Gibson’s performance.
According to Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Stats and Information): “The Bulls have won 41 straight games when scoring at least 100 points, tied for the longest streak in NBA history. The Spurs had a 41-game streak from 2003-05.”