You know, a lot of people predicted that the Bulls would come back from their Western Conference road trip with an 11-game losing streak, particularly after they kicked the journey off with an overtime loss (of the “fourth-quarter collapse” variety) to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead, the team will return to the United Center on Tuesday for Johnny “Red” Kerr Night after a 4-3 trip that was like a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the ninth. Or, to use a more appropriate analogy, it was like a go-ahead three-pointer at the buzzer that secures a critical win.
And make no mistake: The success of this road trip was absolutely critical. Players were rebelling. The fans were angry and losing hope. Jerry Reinsdorf was ripping the team and dissing the coaching staff. Now it looks like all that drama might have been the proverbial darkness before the dawn, because instead of the disaster everyone was expecting, the Bulls pulled off their first winning roadie since Michael Jordan was preparing to make Byron Russell the most famous poster boy in NBA history. The victories over the Clippers and Kings got things rolling. Wins at Phoenix (even though the Suns are imploding) and New Orleans (even if the Hornets were missing Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and Mo Pete) were huge. And two of their three losses came in overtime, the first requiring a season-high 39 points from Al Jefferson and the second needing Dirk Nowitzki to summon some Promethean fire.
Speaking of which: Wow. Dirk, who hit only one of his first 10 shots, went 15-for-24 the rest of the way and ended up with 44 points. That total included the 14 he scored in overtime, during which he went 5-for-7. So yeah…I guess you could say he got it going. Joakim Noah, whose eyebrows may never grow back after Nowitzki’s scorching, said: “There were times when Dirk was shooting that I was like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to shoot.’ I felt like I was right on him. And he was just making shots that I don’t think anybody in the NBA can make. He has such a different game than everybody else. It’s hard to explain unless you’re out there guarding him.”
(In the interest of maintaining the feel-good vibe the Bulls established on their road trip, I’m not going to bring up the fact that Joakim is the guy who was used like an inflatable defender — first by Jefferson, then by Yao Ming and finally by Nowiztki — in the Bulls’ three losses. Whoops. I brought it up.)
But in all fairness, Dirk wasn’t the only Dallas player who burned the Bulls. Jose Juan Barea came off the Mavericks’ bench to score 20 points, and Jason Kidd — who hadn’t hit a shot all game, by the way — drilled a three-pointer with 13 seconds left in regularion to tie the score at 97-all and (after Derrick Rose missed a running jumper) send the game to overtime. So the Bulls were one improbable (and rather unexpected) shot and a superstar scoring explosion from going 5-2 on the seven-game road trip that was supposed to end their season prematurely? All things considered, that’s not so bad.
(One other thing worth noting. The Mavs lost Jason Terry when, early in the second quarter, he broke the the fourth metacarpal in his left hand during a collision with Barea. One could suggest that Chicago failed to take advantage of his absence, but it sure seemed to me that Terry’s injury gave Dallas one of those short-term bursts of inspiration. I mean, it wasn’t until after the injury that Dirk started Hulking-out. Coincidence? I think not.)
Some other notables from the game: Ben Gordan had a team-high 28 points (not to mention a game-high-tying 5 turnovers). Tyrus Thomas continued his exceptionally strong play — five double-doubles in the last six games! — by scoring 23 points (including a triple that pulled the Bulls to within two points with three seconds left in overtime) and grabbing 12 rebounds. Derrick Rose finished with 22 points and 9 assists, but he shot poorly (11-for-25) and had four of his shots stuffed. Speaking of misdirected shooting, Luol Deng had his second straight stinker since I deemed him “back” after the Rockets game (10 points on 3-for-15 from the field). Kirk Hinrich and Andres Nocioni chipped in their usual 20+ points of the bench — Kirk scored 10 and Noc had 13 — but Hinrich added another 5 turnovers to Chicago’s gaudy total (18). And all those TOs led to 25 points going the other way. That hurt.
Beyond the numbers, the Bulls showed — yet again — that they can be exploited by a superstar (or, in the case of Jefferson, an “almost All-Star”)…and that’s something that they’re going to have to address sooner or later. (Not by trading for Amare Stoudemire, though.) But right now, I’m all for sitting back and celebrating for a couple days. The trip improved their record only slightly, but at 22-29 they’re currently tenth in the East and only two games out of the last playoff spot. And you know what? I’ll take it.