I was hesitant to admit this in the game preview, but my gut told me it was unlikely that the Bulls would (or even could) extend their longest winning streak in almost two years on the road against a quality opponent. They’ve made progress on this seven-game Western Conference safari, there’s no doubt about it. But the NBA is a “baby steps” league, and beating the Rockets would have required a giant leap this team probably isn’t ready to make. So all I was really hoping for was a solid outing. And you know what? I got it.
Although there’s a certain stigma attached to every defeat, there were also several positive signs in last night’s 107-100 loss. First and foremost among them was the play of Luol Deng, who finished with a season-high 28 points while hitting 11 of his 16 shots. Can I just tell you how incredibly relieved I am to see the old Luol back? I thought we’d lost him for good, that he’d been sucked into the black hole that was the 2007-08 season never to return. Watching his resurgence has been like seeing a close friend wake up from a coma. Deng averaged 17.5 PPG (on 50 percent shooting) and 8.5 RPG in January, and he’s now scored 20 or more points in six of the last 10 games. Can I get a hallelujah? Look, Deng is the team’s second-best player, next to Derrick Rose, and if the Bulls are going to reach their potential — or even have any potential in their current incarnation — Luol has to play like it.
(For the record, I have no idea why Vinny Del Negro left Deng on the bench down the stretch. And by the rather grumpy look on Luol’s face as he watched his team’s failed rally from the bench, neither did he.)
Then there was Tyrus Thomas, whose 14 points and 13 rebounds gave him his third double-double in the last four games. He also dished out four assists and did a great job protecting the rim, finishing with three blocked shots and several intimidations. It wasn’t all sunshine and puppy dogs, though. He committed three turnovers, had two of his shots fed back to him, and misfired early and often (5-for-15). The latter was due to his continued (and oh-so-very frustrating) insistence on taking too many jump shots, of which he hit 2-for-8. What I wouldn’t give for Tyrus to learn a post move. Just one.
The Bulls missed their first 10 field goal attempts and shot 42.4 percent for the game — that’s to be expected when facing a team that currently ranks sixth in defensive efficiency — but they rebounded reasonably well, considering Houston’s considerable size advantage, and ended up ripping down 17 offensive rebounds. (The Rockets pulled 12 boards off the offensive glass, but four of them came in the fourth quarter, and they were backbreakers.) They tried their best to run after Houston’s misses, hence the 14-2 advantage in fast break points. The Bulls also took care of the ball — always a moral victory for them — and crossed the finish line with only eight turnovers (compared to 24 assists).
On the downside, they missed 11 free throws (ugh) and were once again exploited inside (double-ugh). Yao Ming shot 9-for-12 from the floor and 10-for-10 on the charity stripe, and he was held to 28 points only because he was limited to 30 minutes of PT due to first-half foul trouble. He utterly dominated poor Joakim “The Prop” Noah, who struggled and gasped his way to two points (1-for-3) and one rebound before fouling out in only 17 minutes of action. Aaron Gray (two points, 1-for-6, six rebounds) didn’t fare much better. Once the ball was in his hands, Yao either scored, got fouled, or initiated ball movement off the double team. He also blocked four shots and scared away a few others. Meanwhile, Luis Scola chipped in with 13 points and a career-high-tying 18 rebounds.
Said Yao: “They don’t have any guy who can match up against us inside. I have the confidence. I just needed to get my game to work. It’s very simple.” He’s not wrong. Memo to Drew Gooden: Hurry back. Please.
Other random mish-mosh: Ben Gordon scored 20 points. Derrick Rose was within shouting distance of a triple-double (12 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) despite the fact that he was clearly hampered by that sprained left foot. Kirk Hinrich (10 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists) and Andres Nocioni (11 points) provided 99 percent of the team’s bench production. Thabo Sefolosha (one point on 0-for-2 shooting in 16 minutes) continues to be an offensive liability.
On the other side of the ball: Tracy McGrady was reasonably effective (16 points, 7-for-14, 6 assists) and almost gave Tyrus a Spaulding tattoo in the first quarter. Ron Artest finished with 10 points, most of which were scored with a helpless defender on his back. Aaron Brooks contributed 18 points off the bench. And Houston’s roleplayers came through in the clutch: During the fourth quarter, Von Wafer hit a huge trey and Carl Landry snared three ginormous offensive boards.
In the final analysis, it was a tough, scrappy game with plenty of fight and hustle, and the Bulls simply lost out to a better team. But it was every bit the solid effort I’d been hoping for. Let’s hope they can match it against the Hornets tomorrow night. (And if Chris Paul misses the game due to that groin strain, who knows…?)