Bulls eke out win over short-handed Thunder


Bulls eke out win over short-handed Thunder

One of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus frequent sayings is fools gold, in which he refers to his teams success, despite not playing the mistake-free style he prefers. That phrase would apply to Tuesday nights preseason contest against the Thunder, in which the Bulls eked out a 94-89 victory, though the team clearly took a step back as they regular season approaches.

A quick start for the hosts, sparked by Luol Dengs (21 points, five rebounds, three steals) scoring and Carlos Boozers (24 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) passing, earned the Bulls a slim cushion, but the short-handed visitorsplaying without the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrookcame back to narrow the gap behind the big-man tandem of Serge Ibaka (24 points, eight rebounds, and Kendrick Perkins. However, the home team again gained some separation, buoyed by an 8-0 run and Joakim Noahs (15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, two steals) formidable defensive presence and high activity level on the other end of the floor.

But Oklahoma City didnt relent and with the combination of Ibakas much-improved jumper and the replacement starting backcourt of reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner James Harden (13 points on 2-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds and assists apiece) and Eric Maynor pushing the pace, the gap was narrowed. Increased defensive intensity at the end of the framemost notably, Kirk Hinrichs hustle playsled to a 28-22 Bulls advantage after a period of play.

Surprisingly, former No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeeta 7-foot-3 center, who was previously labeled a bustwas the catalyst for the Thunder making it a close-knit affair at the outset of the second quarter. Outside of second-year swingman Jimmy Butler, the Bulls second unit struggled on both ends, as they allowed the visitors to creep back into the contest before Bulls head coach opted to reinsert most of his regulars.

Boozer got his scoring going for the home team and Hinrich also looked for his shot more, but most importantly, the defense clamped down, frustrating Harden, in particular. By the intermission, the Bulls built a double-digit winning margin and went into the break ahead, 51-40.

As the third quarter started, things began to get a bit testier on the courtthe physical Perkins was engaged in a battle with Boozer and Noahbut although the Bulls appeared somewhat frustrated, they maintained their comfortable edge. And drew the foul-prone Thunder into the bonus even before the periods midway point. On a down note, the Bulls lost Hinrich for the evening with a strained right groin, stretching their point-guard corps, already missing All-Star Derrick Rose, even thinner.

First backup Nate Robinson, then rookie Marquis Teague saw action and while neither was a disaster, the Thunder cut into the deficit as the period waned on. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls clung to a 73-67 lead.

It would be nice to characterize the low-scoring nature of the early fourth quarter as a defensive struggle, but for the Bulls, it was more of an exercise in offensive futility, with little solace taken for their own defense, as the Thunder had several deep reserves in the contest. Still, despite Ibakas continued outside marksmanship, the hosts were able to keep Oklahoma City at bay behind the interior play of Boozer and Noah.

Down the stretch, Thunder rookie forward Perry Jones III (14 points) came on strong and made it a single-possession game before a contested, fading Boozer jumper with 34.4 seconds left. After a timeout, the talented and athletic Jones responded with an acrobatic layup at the 22.8 mark to make it 89-86 in the Bulls favor, but Robinson split a pair of free throws with 18.5 seconds remaining and though Oklahoma City made repeated comeback attempts, the hosts escaped with the win, with veteran Rip Hamilton salting the game away at the foul line.

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Bulls physicality a new wrinkle from last season

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College teammates Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder made plans to go to dinner after Thursday’s game in Chicago but for a few short moments they weren’t just competitors but unexpected combatants, getting tangled up in the second quarter.

There looked to be some harsh words exchanged after Butler took a charge on an unsuspecting Crowder near three-quarter court, with Crowder putting the basketball in Butler’s chest while Butler was still on the floor, causing players on both teams to convene for some tense moments.

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas got involved and then before Butler could blink, Bulls guard Rajon Rondo joined the proceedings, as pushing and shoving ensued before technical fouls were assessed to both teams after an officials’ review.

If one wondered whether these Bulls—a team that touts itself as young with so many players having three years or less professional experience—could play with some bark and bite, perhaps the season opener provided a bit of a positive preview for the next 81 games.

Nearby, an unbothered Dwyane Wade took a practice 3-point shot, much to the delight of the United Center crowd, as observers witnessed the first sign of tangible proof the Bulls have intentions on regaining a bit of an edge on the floor.

Wade joked and took it as a sign of respect between the two teams.

“It looked like it, right? Yeah. It was a little something out there,” said Wade when asked if there was some chippy play. “Every time we play them it’s gonna be like that. Two teams finding their way in the Eastern Conference. We know we gotta see each other a lot. They never give up. They can be down 30 with 15 seconds left and they’re still gonna fight.”

The Bulls have externally preached toughness from the start of camp. Although Wade didn’t participate in that meeting of the minds, he isn’t exactly running away from such matters.
And Rajon Rondo is competitively ornery enough to have his voice hard no matter the setting.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“It’s been a big theme of practice,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We want to play with physicality and toughness. I think it was evident on the glass tonight.”

Yes, the Bulls outrebounded the Celtics by 19, but that could’ve been a by-product of the Bulls’ crashing the offensive glass on a porous shooting night. And yes, the slightly tense moment between Butler and Crowder probably won’t be an expected occurrence.

But when’s the last time one had multiple examples to dissect to discern this team’s level of toughness—or lack thereof.

“That’s something to show that the guys are out there fighting for each other,” Hoiberg said. “That they were playing with an edge. It happens with this game. You have to be competitive.”

Competition boiled over slightly, but considering the NBA isn’t exactly UFC, one doesn’t have to do much to display a little physical resolve.

“The fact that nothing escalated was good,” Hoiberg said. “The fact that those guys are out there and playing for each other and have each other’s back, that’s a huge thing right now.”

Too many times last season, it seemed the Bulls would submit in situations like those. Not that they were particularly soft, but it didn’t appear they had the collective will to fight for one another if an altercation arose.

Half the time, they looked like they could barely stand to be in the room with each other.

“It’s people’s will to win. Not saying a bad thing about anybody from last year,” Butler said. “To tell you the truth, I study the game and put in a lot of work but Rondo studies the game a lot. Every time I’m in the gym, he’s in the gym. That lets me know, these (dudes) are going to war with you. Every day. When I hit that deck, Rondo was right there. I wanna play with guys that’s gonna play hard, that’s gonna fight.”

And it didn’t take long for Butler to realize he has at least a couple teammates willing to jump in the foxhole with him.