The NBA has certain axioms that have stood the test of time.
One of these is that any road win is a good win.
Another is that it is important — possibly even crucial — to open an extended road swing with a victory.
Well, the Bulls started their annual circus road trip with an overtime win in Phoenix last night, which all things being equal means they came away with a good and important victory.
But they sure went and did it the hard way.
Bad Fourth Quarter D:
Things were actually going reasonably well for the first 36 minutes. The Bulls were in control most of the first half and then started to put the hammer down during the third quarter. In fact, when Carlos Boozer scored his 23rd and 24th points with 3:03 left in the third, the Bulls went up by 18 points (79-61) and the game seemed pretty much over.
Then the fourth quarter happened.
Look. I know it’s the NBA and, as coaches and commentators like to say, everybody makes a run. But the Bulls became rather complacent on defense over the final 12 minutes. And it nearly cost them the game.
After limiting Phoenix to 18 points in the third quarter — by playing the kind of defense we’ve come to expect under coach Tom Thibodeau by the way — the Bulls got 31 points dropped on them in the fourth.
Even worse, Phoenix reserves Sebastian Telfair (17 points, 4-for-8 on threes, 4 assists) and Shannon Brown (11 points) did most of the damage.
Telfair scored 9 points in the fourth — all on threes — and had 3 assists. Brown scored 10 points in that quarter, which included three driving layups, one of which ended in an “And 1!” opportunity. And Brown completed it.
Simply put, the Bulls got too lax on defense, giving up a series of easy looks. And that gave the Suns new life. It energized them.
And the Bulls gave up more than just easy looks.
The Suns pulled down 20 offensive rebounds and finished with an Offensive Rebounding Percentage of 39.2. To put it another way, for every 10 misses, Phoenix got about four second chances.
The Suns ripped down 6 offensive boards in the fourth quarter alone.
Considering the Bulls are a fairly strong rebounding team, those numbers are mind boggling.
Again, the Phoenix bench did most of the damage here, between P.J. Tucker (7 offensive rebounds) and Markieff Morris (5 offensive rebounds).
But getting back to those 6 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. That — along with the Suns’ scoring explosion — is a sure sign of how lackadaisical the Bulls became after building that huge lead. From the moment Chicago went up by 18 points until overtime, they got thoroughly outworked.
It’s understandable. After all, Boozer scored a game-high 28 points on 11-for-20 from the field and 6-for-6 from the line. He also pulled down a co-game-high 14 rebounds to go with 3 assists and a steal.
Not a bad stat line.
That said…Boozer scored only 4 points after the Bulls established that 18-point lead. He attempted only one shot in the fourth quarter (a miss) and three shots in overtime (all misses).
Noah’s stat line wasn’t quite as gaudy as Boozer’s — 21 points (9-for-19), 12 rebounds, 5 assists — but he scored 11 of his points after the Bulls had given up their big lead. That included a) two 17-foot jumpers in the fourth quarter and b) Chicago’s final two buckets in overtime — a nifty driving layup that put the Bulls up 110-101 with 1:23 remaining and a cold-blooded 18-footer with 29 seconds left that held off the Suns’ final flurry.
Said Thibs: “He’s been playing this way now throughout the preseason, throughout the season. He’s healthy. And so that’s the big thing; he’s working hard on his game, he’s studying, he’s preparing to play. I think he’s shown that he’s a lot more than just a hustle guy. The thing right now that I think he’s doing great is he’s screening — the better the screen he sets the more he’s open. The more he’s open … he’s making his moves a lot quicker.”
Everybody can improve:
Thibodeau did make one other observation about Noah’s game: “(He) probably could have had 30 tonight if he had made his dunks.”
That said, Hoopdata tells us that Noah is currerntly shooting a career-best 62.5 percent at the rim. He’s also averaging a career-high 2.1 field goal attempts per game from 16-23 feet…and knocking down 41 percent of them. Finger guns, people. Finger guns.
Another strong game for Luol Deng:
Boozer and Noah were the stars, but Deng was his usual steady self: 21 points, 8-for-14, 5 rebounds, 2 assists.
He may have had a “comeback year” in 2010-11 and then made the All-Star team last season, but Deng is playing his best basketball in years. According to Basketball-Reference, his Player Efficiency Rating is currently 17.1. That’s the second-highest mark of his career.
The Good news:
The Bulls scored 50 points in the paint and 17 points on fast breaks.
The Bad News:
The Bulls gave up 48 points in the paint and 14 points on fast breaks.
Key Stats Part 1:
The Bulls and Suns both committed 15 turnovers. The difference: Chicago scored 22 points off Phoenix turnovers, whereas the Suns scored only 9 points off Bulls turnovers.
Key Stats Part 2:
One game after letting the Celtics score 113 points per 100 possessions, the Bulls allowed Phoenix to finish with an Offensive Rating of 108.7. That’s above the Suns’ season average of 104.1 (13th in the league) and well over the season average for Bulls opponents (99.5).
The Bulls haven’t played many bad defensive games under Thibodeau…let alone two in a row. It’ll be interesting to see how they do against the Clippers on Saturday. After all, “The Other L.A. Team” beat the Heat last night and currently rank fourth in the league in Offensive Rating (108.9).
Key Stats Part 3:
According to Hoopdata, Chicago’s defense was pretty stout in most zones. Phoenix shot 2-for-7 (28 percent) from 3-9 feet, 0-for-4 (zero percent) from 10-15 feet, 12-for-37 (32 percent) from 16-23 feet and 6-for-21 from three-point range (28 percent).
But they shot 22-for-32 (68.8 percent) at the rim.
The Suns were playing some scrappy ball last night. At times, their defense was a little slap happy, which got under the skin of some of the Bulls players. Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Rip Hamilton all received technical fouls. And Hinrich was so animated while getting into the face of an official that I was afraid he’d get tossed.
Missed free throws:
The Bulls missed seven free throws last night (18-for-25). Their 72 percent conversion rate would rank about 25th in the league. Not good.
Meanwhile, the Suns were 16-for-17 (94 percent).
However, I’m more concerned about the timing than the percentages. By which I mean: Four of the Bulls’ seven misses came in the fourth quarter. And three of those misses came in the final two minutes.
The last miss was by Richard Hamilton — who leads the Bulls in foul shooting at 91 percent — came with 17 seconds left. Had Hamilton knocked that shot down, the Bulls would have gone up 101-98 and the Suns would have needed a three to force overtime. Instead, Phoenix managed to earn a trip to OT with a layup.
Interestingly enough, as players were lining up for Hamilton’s foul shots, a Suns player (I couldn’t tell who) smacked the ball out of Rip’s hands. It was an obvious “psyche out” move, which I thought had failed when Hamilton knocked down the first free throw. But when he missed the second, I had to wonder.
Opposing Player of the Game:
Man, did Luis Scola put the hurt on the Bulls, or what? Scola scored a team-high 24 points (12-for-22) and a co-game-high 14 rebounds in 43 minutes before fouling out.
And he was the only Phoenix starter with a positive plus-minus score (+8). The rest were in the red. Some deep in the red. To wit:
Jared Dudley: -7
Goran Dragic: -20
Michael Beasley: -20
Marcin Gortat: -22
Speaking of Beasley — who went a dismal 4-for-15 — can you believe that he was chosen second overall in the 2008 NBA Draft? Just behind Derrick Rose and ahead of guys like O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.
And, as hard as it is to believe now, some people thought the Bulls should take Beasley over Rose. No, really. I’m completely serious.
In all fairness, it made a little more sense at the time.
After all, the Bulls had signed Kirk Hinrich to a long-term deal worth big bucks, and conventional wisdom was that their biggest need was a scoring power forward, which is what Beasley was.
Fortunately for the Bulls and their fans, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and then-coach Vinny Del Negro conducted interviews with Beasley and Rose before the draft.
Not only did Beasley answer cell phone calls during the interview, he answered Reinsdorf’s question of “What about college basketball bothered you the most” with “When you go on the road and they referees make bad calls.”
Rose’s answer? What bothered him most about college basketball?
Pretty much says it all.
Quote of the Night:
Thibs: “The lesson we have to learn is we have to play tough with the lead. I thought we got a little loose. We were throwing lobs and not strong with the ball.”