Talk about a battle of the walking wounded. The Bulls, already without Luol Deng (stress fracture), lost the services of Derrick Rose, who bruised his right wrist during a blown dunk attempt over Washington’s Oleksiy Pecherov right before halftime of Chicago’s win over the Wizards on Monday night. It was the first missed game of Derrick’s pro career. “Trust me, I can take pain,” Rose said. “But it really hurts. I can barely turn a doorknob.” Of course, there aren’t many doorknobs to turn on a basketball court, but I’ll go ahead and assume that the injury would have affected his shooting and ball handling too.
The Pistons aren’t strangers to the injury bug, either. Allen Iverson missed his 14th consecutive game with a “bad back” that might actually be a case of the “don’t want to come off the bench.” Rasheed Wallace missed his eighth game with a strained left calf and Rip Hamilton sat out his fifth straight with a left groin strain. That’s 48 points, 13 boards and almost 10 assists missing in action, which seems kind of significant.
So neither team was at full strength. But the games have to be played regardless of who is or isn’t available. And although the Bulls are looking up at the Pistons in the standings — as they have been for the last several years — that gap has narrowed by a lot…mostly because Detroit has been falling apart all season. Coming into their game against Chicago, the Pistons had gone 7-14 since February 8. During that same stretch, the Bulls have gone 11-9. Not what you’d call a great run, certainly, but I’d rather be a couple games above .500 than seven games below it.
It was a classic case of two teams going in opposite directions. Detroit entered the game as sort of a dark reflection of the Bulls. Whereas Chicago had won four of their last five games, the Pistons had dropped four of five. And more tellingly, the Bulls have been on a big-time roll at home, having won seven of eight at the United Center prior to the Pistons game. Ernie Johnson brought this up during TNT’s pregame show, and Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith laughed as his suggestion that Chicago’s stretch-run schedule — in which eight of their final 11 games are at home — was really quite favorable. That only proves that Charles and Kenny haven’t watched the Bulls play at the UC lately. Or probably anywhere else for that matter.
Now, I’d say that the team came out a little lethargic, which is to be expected. After all, they played a tight game against the Wizards in Washington last night, and there were stretches in the first half where they had Rubber Leg Syndrome. And keep in mind that, without Rose and Deng, and with Tim Thomas limited to just under five minutes due to back spasms, the Bulls basically had to go with a six-man rotation. John Salmons, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich each logged 46 minutes, Tyrus Thomas played 40, Joakim Noah went for 30 and Brad Miller put in 24. Oh, and Lindsey Hunter got five minutes of daylight, but you would have hardly noticed.
Kirk Hinrich made the most of his second start of the season. Captain Kirk set his phaser to “kill,” scoring a game-high 24 points and dishing out a team-high 8 assists. Hinrich even had 3 steals and a block. It kind of makes me wonder what would have happened had John Paxson gotten his wish and had been able to dump Kirk’s contract before the trade deadline. Would the Bulls have won with Lindsey Hunter playing 40+ minutes at the point? Somehow, I doubt it.
But as well ask Hinrich played, the guy who really gave the Bulls a spark was — wait for it — Tyrus Thomas. He had a double-double (18 points and 12 boards), a season-high 5 assists, and shot 7-for-13 from the field. Yes, he took a few ill-advised jumpers — as usual — but he hit a few too, from 15, 17 and 19 feet out. And note that he showed more restraint and patience than I’ve seen from him in a while. Not only did he pass up some open jump shots to make strong moves to the hoop, he was able to draw extra defenders and make timely passes.
At times, it was like watching a completely different Tyrus. So much so that a few times I considered going to his home and checking the basement for Body Snatcher pods. But who knows, maybe Tyrus played better because he felt freer. After all, due to the shortened bench, he had to figure he was going to get big minutes, if only because Vinny Del Negro would have no choice but to play him. And he rewarded the team with all the youthful energy and enthusiasm he could muster.
Meanwhile, the Pistons — despite a big game off the bench from Will Bynum (20 points, 10-for-16, and a game-high 9 assists) — just wore down. They didn’t have a rabid home crowd from which to draw inspiration. Chicago eventually went up by 19 points (92-73) with just over six minutes remaining before going to sleep a little bit. That allowed Detroit to make a little run to make the final score (99-91) respectable, and it looked like that freaked Vinny out a little bit. But given the circumstances, I was okay with the guys pulling back on the throttle a little bit.
The win not only put Chicago a full two games up on the Charlotte Bobcats for the East’s final playoff spot, it pulled them to within a game of the Pistons for the seventh seed. And whereas the Bulls’ stretch schedule is home-heavy, Detroit plays seven of their final 12 on the road…and one of their home games is against the Lakers. Not to mention that the Bulls will travel to Detroit on April 13 in what could be a showdown for playoff seeding. Crazy.
Player notes: Ben Gordon scored 19 (7-for-15) and contributed 6 assists. Joakim Noah added a double-double (15 points, 10 boards). John Salmons grabbed 6 rebounds to go with his 16 points. And Brad Miller had 7 points, 5 boards and 2 blocks off the bench.
Et tu, fans? Believe it or not, the United Center crowd — what was left of them anyway — booed Captain Kirk during his postgame interview. Seriously. The crime? Bonking a free throw with 17.9 seconds left that would have given the Bulls 100 points and “earned” the fans free Big Macs. I guess sometimes surging at the end of the season to possibly make the playoffs just isn’t enough. That’s what happens when “free taco excitement” gets out of hand.