Last night, the Bulls earned their first three-game winning streak of the season.
And it was their best win of the season.
They did it without Derrick Rose as usual. They did it without the injured Rip Hamilton. They did on the second night of back-to-back games which also happened to be their fourth game in five nights despite the fact that Kirk Hinrich left after 14 minutes with an elbow injury and Taj Gibson was ejected in the second quarter.
Here’s how it happened.
Shutting Down the Three:
After the game, New York’s Raymond Felton said: “Ain’t nothing they did that was so special, they just took away the 3s. I got inside the paint like I wanted to, but at the same time, they took away the 3s and didn’t let us get good shots.”
Ain’t nothing they did that was so special, Ray? You sure about that?
The Knicks are three-point snipers. They rank first in the league in three-point attempts (557) and three-pointers (226), and they’re third in three-point percentage (40.6 percent).
The three is their primary weapon.
The Knicks arrived at the United Center riding a five-game winning streak during which they were stroking the three big time:
Game 1: 11-for-21 (52%)
Game 2: 12-for-29 (41%)
Game 3: 12-for-29 (41%)
Game 4: 13-for-41 (32%)
Game 5: 18-for-44 (41%)
Now let’s look at the Defensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) of the teams they Knicks faced during that winning streak. League ranks are in parentheses.
Milwaukee: 104.4 (14th)
Washington: 105.7 (18th)
Phoenix: 109.7 (29th)
Charlotte: 109.2 (27th)
Miami: 107.3 (22nd)
The Bulls Defensive Rating is 100.4. They rank fourth in the league. Moreover, they rank third in three-point attempts allowed (319) and second in both opponent three-pointers made (101) and opponent three-point percentage (31.7). And that defense limited the Knicks to 8-for-23 shooting (34.8 percent) from downtown.
So, with all due respect to Mr. Felton, what the Bulls did was very special.
Chicago’s D was focused on not giving up open threes. Felton was one of the primary “victims” of this defense. They ran at him and forced him to drive, likely knowing that Felton converts only 52 percent of his shots at the rim and a dismal 35 percent of his shots from 3-9 feet. Felton is at his best outside the paint, but the Bulls kept luring him into it where, more often than not, Joakim Noah was waiting.
Said Felton: “They were just setting back in the paint. They made sure I had to attack the big, and that’s why I took so many shots tonight. Do I like to take 30 shots? No. I’m a point guard. But if I have to, I have to.”
The result: Felton got off only three three-point attempts…while jacking up 27 shots inside the arc. He ended up 9-for-30 on the night. Several of Felton’s misses went right to Tyson Chandler (18 rebounds, 14 points, 1 blocked shot), who had a game-high 9 offensive rebounds…just one fewer than the Bulls grabbed as a team.
But overall, the strategy was a success.
According to ESPN Stats and Information: “The Bulls defense took the Knicks out of their game Saturday, holding New York to a season-low 85 points. Chicago shut down the perimeter and forced the Knicks into 47 pick-and-roll plays, nearly double their season average. The Knicks shot just 31 percent on pick-and-rolls, including 21 percent by point guard Raymond Felton.”
Luol Deng and Joakim Noah Come Through Again:
They’re ranked first and second in minutes per game. They logged 40 or more minutes in all four of this four-games-in-five-nights stretch. And last night, Deng (46:34) and Noah (44:19) once again very nearly went the limit.
Deng responded with a co-team-high 22 points to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Noah — who looked utterly gassed coming off his monster 30-23-6 game the previous night — had 11 boards, 10 points, 4 blocks, 2 assists and 2 steals.
Of course, Noah also had 9 turnovers, barely missing the dreaded triple bumble.
Still, what Deng and Noah are doing is borderline superhuman, even Wilt Chamberlain-esque.
Said Deng: “You just keep focusing in on getting a win. While the game is going on, you do not feel fatigue.”
Added Noah: “It was a hard battle out there. I was really tired out there. I was tired, but it’s all worth it right now.”
Marco Belinelli On the Rise:
Heading into the month of December, Belinelli looked like a complete and utter bust. Uncertain on offense, lost on defense, Marco was driving Bulls fans crazy with his lousy shooting.
His stats for November: 5.2 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.6 APG, 37.3 percent shooting.
Then Hamilton tore the plantar fascia in his left foot and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau decided to start Belinelli at the two spot.
In his second start, Belinelli dropped a season-high 23 points on the Cavaliers. Then he scored 16 in Detroit. Pretty sweet, but I’m not sure anybody expected that to continue.
But it did. Belinelli scorched the Knicks with 15 first quarter points — including this ridiculous buzzer-beater — and finished with 22 on 8-for-15 shooting, which included going 4-for-6 on threes and 2-for-2 at the line. He also had three steals and his one assist was one of the biggest of the game: Marco fed Noah for a layup with 56 seconds left that put the Bulls up 89-82.
That may have been the killing blow.
Said Belinelli: “I was ready to find (Noah) and other guys. I don’t want to be just a 3-point shooter. I want to be a complete player.”
Marco may be one of those players who perform better starting than coming off the bench. Which leads to the obvious question of what happens when Hamilton returns from injury?
Time will tell.
Productive in Limited Time:
Despite the fact that the Bulls were short-handed, Carlos Boozer logged only 22 minutes. But he still managed a double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) despite being relegated to spot duty due to match-up issues.
The Bulls are the anti-Knicks in that they rank 30th in both three-pointers attempted (235) and made (78), and 25th in three-point percentage (33.2 percent). But they flipped that script last night, going 7-for-13 from deep (53.8 percent).
Free Throw Proficiency:
Last season, the Bulls ranked 27th in Free Throw Percentage at 72.2 percent.
It was a problem.
That problem has apparently been solved this season. After last night’s 18-for-18 showing, the Bulls rank second in Free Throw Percentage at 80.3 percent. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder (83.7 percent) enjoy a better conversion rate at the foul line.
Considering how slim the Bulls’ margin of error is this season, any opportunity for easy points is critical.
More Turnover Problems:
The Bulls rank a lowly 21st in Turnovers Per Game (15.7). Last night’s 19-turnover performance was the eighth time this season the Bulls have committed 14 or more turnovers.
Chicago held New York to season-lows in points (85) and field goal percentage (32.1 percent). The Knicks normally average 102.3 PPG (6th in the NBA) on 44.8 percent shooting (10th).
Gibson on His Ejection:
“I called [referee Derrick Stafford] by his name (saying), ‘Derrick, there were some tough calls early.’ I just expressed my opinion. I said, ‘you have to watch, it’s real physical’ and he just turned and T’d me up. I said, ‘are you serious?’ and he T’d me up again. Boom.
“He must have just felt I had an attitude. I’m not even a guy who causes trouble. I ask questions the whole game. I smile. For me to get two (technicals), I was shocked. I was in the back like, ‘did that really just happen?’”
Gibson went on to say that, from now on, “I’m going to let ‘Thibs’ ask the questions for me.”
The Hinrich Injury:
According to Thibodeau, Captain Kirk is being considered day-to-day due to the left elbow injury he suffered against the Knicks.
Looks like rookie Marquis Teague just moved up in the rotation.
Said Gibson: “We’ve been playing like this forever, it seems. Every year we always have one or two guys hurt. Crucial players hurt and we always continue to step up.”
Added Thibs: “In the NBA, you can find an excuse every night. The bottom line is you have to find a way to get it done. I don’t want these guys looking forward or looking back. I just want them to concentrate on the Clippers, our next game. I want to keep concentrating on improving.”