To be honest, it’s somewhat difficult to concentrate on basketball matters after yesterday’s tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon. The immense national sadness was felt everywhere, including the Bulls’ locker room.
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: ”It’s just terrible. Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, the first responders, everybody there. It’s just terrible. Very, very sad. … It’s unfathomable just to think about something like that happening there. Again, it’s just a terrible day. Terrible.”
The word “terrible” pretty much sums it, but no single word or words can quite do justice to the grief many are feeling.
Given the scope of the tragedy — at least 140 people injured, 17 people in critical condition, three people dead — I almost feel guilty reporting good news. Namely that Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson returned to action last night.
For the first time in what feels like forever, the Bulls had an almost full cast of characters, with Derrick Rose (left knee rehab) the only player still missing in action. (Unless you count Vladimir Radmanovic, who missed the game with a back injury, possibly from sitting on the bench too hard.)
After missing the last seven games with a sprained left knee, Gibson logged 21 minutes and submitted a nice all-around effort (12 points, 5-for-11, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 1 rebound). Noah, who was absent four games due to an ongoing case of plantar faciitis, finished with a stat line of 14 minutes, 6 points and 5 rebounds.
Nothing earth shattering. But man…it was good to have all those warm bodies.
Said Thibs: ”I thought both guys were very active. “It was just good to have some depth, to have some guys you could play up front.”
Added Gibson: ”The main thing I want to do is just play some defense, get our defense back because our defense has been really awful the last couple of games, contesting shots, getting offside help, and it was good [to be back].”
The defense was indeed back. Chicago held the home team to 84 points on 41 percent shooting. The Magic went 2-for-10 from three-point range and committed 17 turnovers for 20 points going the other way. The Bulls even played lock down D at the free throw line, where the Magic missed 13 of their 33 attempts.
Of course, Orlando finished the season 12-29 at home, so they aren’t exactly world killers. But then again, the Bulls lost twice to the Toronto Raptors last week, so beating bad teams isn’t exactly a given these days. In fact, five of their last six losses have been against teams that won’t be in the playoffs (Dallas, Washington, Detroit, and Toronto twice). Although having a nearly full roster obviously makes a big difference.
Said Boozer: ”We’re a team that has people on this team for certain reasons and that’s why our team works. It’s like having a car that’s missing a couple of pieces. It ain’t going to run as smooth. But once we’ve got everybody back out there, once you’ve got the parts on the car, it runs pretty good.”
Just imagine how well the car would run if the team’s engine — D-Rose — made his return.
Said Gibson: ”We feel like that every day. He works out with us, he practices with us and it’s like he never left. But it’s just different when the game comes. We’re still patient knowing that he could possibly play one of the games coming up but until that time we have to just stay sharp and be ready (for) whenever he’s ready to come back.”
Added Boozer: ”We can’t worry about all that. We just got to worry about what’s in front of us. He’s doing his job on what he has to do. We’re doing our job on what we have to do and if he comes back … whew, it would be awesome. If he doesn’t then we got to go with what we got.”
Boozer isn’t kidding. He’s submitted a strong month: 18.9 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 9 games. And he was especially sharp against the Magic, scoring a team-best 22 points on 11-for-15 shooting to go with 6 boards and 4 assists. The Bulls also got strong performances from Luol Deng (18 points, 8-for-11, 8 assists), Marco Belinelli (16 points, 6-for-9, 2 assists) and Kirk Hinrich (14 points, 5-for-8, 4 assists, 3 steals).
It was apparently a “defense optional” night for the Magic, given that the Bulls shot 56 percent from the field and scored at a rate of 119.9 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference). The Bulls also had 33 assists on 42 made field goals. Not bad considering a blah first quarter that saw them shoot 9-for-20.
Don’t expect Chicago’s coach to start doing cartwheels, though.
Said Thibs: ”We still got a lot of work to do. We’re going to have to be at our best in a very short amount of time. I know in looking at our team we’re a well-rested team but the question I have is: Are we a sharp team? We have guys who haven’t played a lot of minutes that are going to be called upon to be at their best. And the moment of truth will be here shortly.”
Speaking of which, the Bulls (44-37) are now a half-game behind the Atlanta Hawks (44-36) in the battle for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Chicago has one home game left against the Wizards on Wednesday, while the Hawks play at home against the Raptors on Tuesday night and on the road against the New York Knicks on Thursday. Of course, the Knicks have already locked up the East’s second seed and will likely be resting starters, so that game might be something of a gimmie for the Hawks.
Still, if the Bulls win their final game and the Hawks lose one of their final two, the Bulls will get the fifth seed because they won their season series with the Hawks 2-1.
The difference between fifth and sixth place could be huge, considering a fifth seed means facing the Brooklyn Nets, while a sixth seed means facing the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls won their season series against the Nets 3-1 but lost their season series against the Pacers 1-3.
That said, the Pacers have their own issues to deal with, after losing Danny Granger for the season and having lost four of their last five games after a enormously successful five-game Western Conference road trip. Meanwhile, All-Star Paul George has been in a real funk lately, having gone 17-for-60 from the field (including 6-for-28 from three-point range) over the past five games.
But there’s no need for speculation at this point. The Bulls aren’t in control of their destiny anymore. All they can do is try to get healthy and develop some rhythm heading into the postseason.