This Bulls-Celtics series has had more unexpected twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Except, unlike an M. Night Shyamalan movie, I could watch these games over and over again. (Sans Game 3, of course.) I have no idea what to expect from Game 5. (Although I have a sneaking and somewhat paranoid suspicion that Games 5 and 6 might have some 20/20 Rule action going on.) So rather than a game preview, here are some random thoughts I’ve had during the series.
Derrick Rose: If Derrick can tighten up his defense, develop a three-point shot and become a slightly more creative playmaker (ala Chris Paul), he’ll be The Perfect Point Guard. However, he’s a little too quiet for my tastes, though. Maybe we could sprinkle a little Matt Foley into his magic sauce?
Ben Gordon: His playoff performance just goes to show that it’s never too late for the Contract Year Phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine John Paxson breaking the team’s piggy bank to re-sign Ben, and it’s even harder to imagine the Air Gordon act being a success anyplace but in Chicago. It’s long past the point where we can expect Gordon to expand his game. He is what he is, and that’s an undersized shooting guard who’s often a liability on defense but can be flat-out unstoppable on offense. During the regular season, Ben set a career-high in True Shooting Percentage (57.3 percent). For the sake of perspective, that mark was better than Kobe Bryant’s (56.1) and just a tad below Dwyane Wade’s (57.4). So Ben’s targeting computer is on par with a couple legit MVP candidates. Not too shabby.
But BG is like your crazy college girlfriend. His 40-point outbursts and game-winning shots are like that amazing sex that made you think, “I want to spend the rest of my life with this woman.” But watching him get abused on defense by bigger guards — and let’s face it, they’re all bigger — or miss running, one-handed bank shots with 20 seconds left on the shot clock are like finding out she dumped you again on the night of the Residence Hall Formal so she could get drunk with some frat guy she just met. Not that that happened to me, or that I’m still bitter or anything…I’m just sayin’.
Anyway, part of me wants Ben to retire as a Bull, and another part of me wants to wish him well, see him off and move on. And I’m kind of glad that, unlike Paxson, I’m not the one who has to make that decision.
Joakim Noah: I love this guy’s energy. There were times during his rookie year and earlier this season where his drive often seemed spastic and misdirected. But now he’s making good things happen. Take the second overtime of Game 4, for example. When just about everybody else looked like they were running on fumes, Noah grabbed three boards, blocked two shots and had a nasty, momentum-sustaining jam (off a slick pass from Kirk Hinrich) with a buck twenty-five to go. Not bad for a young fella in his first playoffs. Note that the current postseason numbers have him tied for third (with LeBron James) in rebounding (at 11.3 per) and second (behind Tyrus Thomas) in blocks (3.0).
One area Noah needs to work on is working out. The kid needs to beef up. Boston’s Kendrick Perkins has been backing him down in the post with frightening ease. And that was a theme all season. Even power forwards like Al Jefferson were able to muscle Joakim down low. I understand Jo’s an undersized center, but that can be changed. Take a look at Brad Miller. That dude was a beanpole coming out of Purdue, which is probably part of the reason he went undrafted. But he beefed up, turned into a solid post defender and went from a near seven-footer nobody wanted to take a chance on — even with a nearly meaningless second-round pick — to a two-time All-Star who’s been in the league for 11 seasons. So I have two words of advice for Joakim: BEEFCAKE! BEEFCAAAAAAKE!!
One last note. Jo was the first player back on the court after halftime of Game 4. I watched him shoot jumpers for about five minutes and was amazed to see him knock down eight or nine in a row from about 15 feet. Yet, according to the NBA.com’s Hot Spots page, Joakim took exactly 13 jump shots all season. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m don’t want him to become a bomber. But the occasional 15-footer to keep defenses honest would be nice.
Tyrus Thomas: This man makes me crazy. Like Stacey King likes to say, he teases you with his athleticism. He can jam with the best of them, block shots, rebound, run the floor. But it’s one of those classic Body by Fisher, mind by Fisher Price situations. I don’t trust his decision-making abilities. There was a perfect example of this in Game 4. With the Bulls clinging to a two-point lead, Tyrus snared a critical defensive rebound, but instead of giving the ball to Derrick Rose, he held onto it and let Rajon Rondo foul him with 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Naturally, Ty was able to hit only one out of two at the line, which paved the way for Ray Allen’s game-tying three-pointer seven seconds later. It’s little mental lapses like that — in addition to the many occasions in which he eschews a drive to the hoop for 20-foot jump shots — that cause me to question his basketball IQ, and whether he’ll ever “get it.” For his sake as well as the team’s, I sure hope so. (But I’m not holding my breath.)
John Salmons: Shortly after the Bulls acquired John, my buddy Statbuster and I heard a broadcaster for a worldwide leader in sports entertainment that shall remain nameless refer to Salmons as “sam-uhns,” as in the fish. Not once, mind you, but several times. That led Statbuster to quip: “John Salmons, swimming upstream for the Bulls, coming to Chicago to reproduce and die.” This cracked me up so much I promised myself I’d include it here someday. And now I have.
Anyway, Salmons was absolutely fantastic, on both offense and defense, right up until he suffered that groin injury. He hasn’t been the same since. This makes me look forward to seeing what he can do next season when he’s completely healthy. But, to be honest, it also makes me wonder, “What if this injury is just an excuse and he’s not really as good as we thought?” Plus, there’s the question of what his place in the team’s offense will be when he’s playing alongside Luol Deng.
Kirk Hinrich: We know that John Paxson was trying to dump Kirk’s contract before the trade deadline, and it’s a fairly safe bet that he’ll resume that mission this offseason and into the next regular season. I know he’s a cap killer, and I get that his eternal five o’clock shadow makes him look like he just rolled out of bed after a long night of partying, but he’s a great insurance policy at the point and the two spot, plus he plays tough, persistent defense. Hey, he was key in holding down Paul Pierce in Game 4. The Bulls might now win that game without that. (Not to mention his 18 points off the bench.) I understand that cap space has become the ultimate goal of all NBA GMs, but Kirk makes this team deeper and better.
Vinny Del Negro: Like it or not, it’s practically a lock that the Notorious VDN will be back in the Captain’s Chair for the Bulls next season. There’s no question that Vinny has made a lot of mistakes this season. But it’s also true that he got better and accomplished quite a lot, given the team’s injury problems and personnel turnover. Plus, one thing his critics fail to point out is that, while he may be stubborn, he’s not stupid. For instance, remember earlier in the season when he inexplicably began benching Derrick Rose in the fourth quarter, forcing John Paxson to go public with a “Play Rose or Else” edict? Vinny gave a typically stubborn “I’m the coach and I’ll do what I feel is best” response…but you’ll notice that he immediately stopped sitting Derrick in clutch time.
Then, when the media was ragging on him for running out of timeouts at the end of Games 1 and 2, he brushed off their carping and said he had no regrets, which brought on a whole new tidal wave of “What an idiot!” criticism. But — surprise, surprise! — you’ll notice that he sure didn’t run out of timeouts down the stretch of Game 4. As Vinny likes to remind us, he’s Italian, which makes him come off as stubborn and prideful. But even though he doesn’t always admit his mistakes to the press, he does make adjustments. Maybe not all the ones that the armchair coaches around the world think he should make…but he makes ‘em. And as out-of-sorts and unprepared as the team looked in Game 3, they were all business in Game 4.
I’m not saying that Vinny’s a great coach, or that he’s going to be a great coach, or even that he’s the man for this particular job. Only that it seems to me that, in the rush to bash his mistakes, his critics rarely spend a single second considering his successes.