Well, you can go ahead and file this one under “Almosts,” “Heart-Breakers,” or “What-Ifs.” Take your pick.
Last night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets might very well qualify as one of the closest one-point defeats in NBA history. With the score knotted at 89-all, Kirk Hinrich fouled Chauncey Billups as the Nuggets guard was driving to the basket. There were six-tenths of a second left in the game. Billups calmly sank the first free throw and then intentionally missed the second so time would expire. However, Joakim Noah grabbed the rebound and called timeout with three-tenths of a second on the clock, leaving the door open for a catch-and-shoot situation. There was still a chance.
A pretty solid chance, as it turned out. Hinrich inbounded the ball to Brad Miller, who caught it at the top of the key and, in one motion, spun around and released…good! Bulls win! Bulls win!
Thanks to a good friend, I got to watch the game from the luxury of a Harris Bank skybox suite, so I was one of the 21,409 spectators who exploded out of their seats in wild celebration. There were hugs and high-fives all around. It was one of those great “remember when…” moments that are best experienced live. However, I knew there would be an official review, and it was going to be close.
There was a giant flat screen TV in the suite. That TV was tuned into the game on WGN, which was showing a frame-by-frame replay of the shot from every possible angle. I figured that, if this was the professional football, the Bulls would have been in good shape, because NFL referees require indisputable evidence to overturn the initial call (which, in this case, was that Miller canned the shot before the final buzzer). And, really, it was nearly impossible to tell from replays whether the ball was still touching his fingertips when the buzzer sounded.
Apparently, NBA officials don’t need 100 percent conclusive video evidence to overturn a call. Good to know. After about 10 minutes — which seemed like an eternity to many of the people still lingering around the United Center waiting for closure — the refs concluded that Miller’s shot didn’t count…at which point my friend almost made hot dogs rain down on them from the skybox. I was ready to help.
I guess the Bulls will have to regard this missed opportunity as a moral victory. After all, their defense — which has been surprisingly stout this season — held the Nuggets to only 90 points on 41 percent shooting. And Carmelo Anthony — the league’s third-leading scorer at 30.0 PPG — finished with a season-low 20 points on 8-for-22 from the field. You could even say that ‘Melo was outplayed by Luol Deng, who had 21 points (8-for-13), 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocked shots. Of course, Anthony knocked down some key fourth-quarter buckets, including a clutch 14-footer with 13 seconds left to put Denver up 89-87. As the saying goes, you can’t stop the great ones, you can only hope to contain them.
Not so close, Kirk:
On Denver’s final play, Hinrich crowded Billups, who only had a few seconds to drive or shoot. Kirk obviously expected Billups to shoot, so he got right in Chauncey’s mug. As it turned out, he was too close, and Billups was able to walk right around him. Instead of trusting his help defense (Noah appeared to be rotating), Hinrich hacked Billups across the arms. I know Chauncey is known in some circles as “Mr. Big Shot,” but I think his reputation as an end-of-game assassin is somewhat overblown. It might have been better to force Billups into a contested 20-footer than sending him to the line, where he’s nearly automatic under pressure.
The Bulls had a slight edge in Effective Field Goal Percentage (45.9 to 44.6) while the Nuggets had a slight edge in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (34.0 to 32.6), but overall those two categories were a bit of a wash. Denver won Free Throw Rate (22.6 to 14.9) and was +6 points on foul shots. Chicago won Turnover Percentage (13.9 to 19.3) but didn’t capitalize enough on their opportunities. The Bulls gave up 12 points on 13 turnovers, whereas the Nuggets surrendered only 16 points on 18 turnovers. Chicago was only +4 points in that area. One more score off of Denver’s miscues could have swung the game.
Here we “Jo” again:
Joakim Noah’s hot start continued last night. Coming off a new career-high in scoring, Noah grabbed a career-best 21 rebounds to go along with 12 points (6-for-12), 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. Oddly, he was the only Bulls starter to finish with a negative plus-minus score (-1). And, as Henry Abbott pointed out yesterday on TrueHoop, Noah’s plus-minus numbers this season aren’t pretty. I’m not really sure what to make of this. I mean, he’s playing great, and his contributions — the offensive rebounding in particular — have appeared to swing games in Chicago’s favor.
Chicago’s struggles from beyond the arc continued last night as they missed 14 of their 18 long-range attempts. Luol Deng was 1-for-1, John Salmons 3-for-7, Hinrich 0-for-5, Jannero Pargo 0-for-2, Miller 0-for-2 and James Johnson 0-for-1. Predictably, with the Bulls firing blank from distance, the Nuggets clogged the lane to cut off Derrick Rose’s penetration. Fortunately, Rose has really developed that little pull-up shot from midrange. Derrick only got two layup attempts (both of which he hit), but he went 9-for-16 on his jumpers. And he hit them from all over the floor, which is a great sign. But his game won’t blossom the way it should until the team can open some lanes by knocking down shots and forcing opposing defenses to stay honest.
Speaking of Rose, he finished with a game-high 22 points, 5 assists and 2 blocks. He also tied the game on a layup with 33 seconds left, and then he tied the game again with 10 seconds left after drawing a foul on Billups and coolly knocking down two free throws.
No laughing matter:
When Miller hit his game-winner that wasn’t really a game-winner, the Bulls started celebrating like a bunch of half-crazed teenagers. This amused Chauncey Billups: “As soon as I saw the flight of the ball, I knew it was good. Then, I was sitting and laughing. Not so much about the shot, but looking at their reaction. They were dancing and jumping around like they had just made the Sweet 16.”
It was classic Billups. He used to make those types of subtle digs when he was with the Pistons. Whenever Chicago beat his team back then, Billups (and other Detroit players) were quick to point out that a single win meant more the Bulls than it did to the Pistons, whose sole goal was winning a championship. Well, veteran poise is nice and everything, but personally, I want a team to be passionate about winning every game, every night. If that means they freak out a little bit after a buzzer-beater, so be it.
The Bulls are playing it this season. Seriously. According to John Hollinger’s team stats page, Chicago currently ranks 8th in Defensive Efficiency. They are giving up 98.0 Points Per 100 Possessions. It’s like the Scott Skiles Era all over again! Speaking of which, his Milwaukee Bucks currently lead the league in Defensive Efficiency (89.6 Points Per 100 Possessions).
Salmons finished with 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting. He did contribute in other areas (5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal), but his shooting slump is really hurting the team, particularly in terms of stretching the opposing defense. Because I’m obsessively preoccupied with Salmons’ slump, I watched him shoot around right before the start of the third quarter. He went 2-for-13 from three-point range — a pretty dismal performance for practice shots — before slowly shuffling toward the bench. From my vantage point, he looked either disappointed or disgusted with himself. Maybe both.
His practice form was terrible. Salmons was both sliding forward and falling back at the same time, which is pretty much what he does during games. I couldn’t help but juxtapose John’s form with Hinrich’s. Kirk was balanced, lined up, and straight as a pin on every shot. I mean, his form was textbook. I honestly can’t remember if Salmons’ form was always this bad or whether it’s devolved from lack of confidence. Maybe he needs a shooting doctor.
Jeremy from Roundball Mining Company: “I can certainly understand why Bulls fans are upset. In my opinion if there is enough evidence to overturn the call, it should have been apparent quickly. However, as J.A. Adande pointed out, who cares how long it takes as long as they get the call right. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the decision, you have to give the NBA credit for doing everything they can to get these calls correct.”