Bulls steal Christmas opener from Lakers

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Bulls steal Christmas opener from Lakers

LOS ANGELES Who, our guys? Tom Thibodeau wondered quizzically before diverting the focus of the question. It was a brief crack in the ever-impassive at least when dealing with the media, if not on the sidelines Bulls head coachs facade, but his initial response to a question about whether his players panicked while facing a seemingly insurmountable in final minutes of Sundays thrilling 88-87 win over the Lakers revealed his belief in the team.

The Bulls (1-0) delivered upon Thibodeaus faith in them, giving the coach, who dismissed pregame queries about Christmas gifts in a Scrooge-like manner, the only present a basketball lifer could ask for. Reigning league MVP Derrick Roses go-ahead floater with 4.8 seconds remaining in a back-and-forth affair was the difference on the scoreboard, but a key stop against Lakers (0-1) superstar Kobe Bryants attempted game-winner put the cherry on top of a Christmas Day battle for the defensive-minded Bulls.

I feel like we showed a lot of character tonight. Things werent going our way. Offensively, we were getting a lot of calls against us and I feel like we just fought until the end, said center Joakim Noah, who scored the teams first points of the 2011-12 campaign and finished with a game-high nine rebounds, despite battling foul trouble for the entire contest, as well as being one of a swarm of defenders surrounding Bryant on his failed final attempt. Derrick told us with three minutes to go, Weve been in this position before. Just keep fighting. I feel like we didnt play our best basketball, but to just come up and win in this fashion, just says a lot about this team.

Concurred Thibodeau: What I like a lot was the resolve at the end to find a way to win the game. We had a lot of guys dig in and make some hustle plays. Of course, Lu with the big steal and Derrick with the big shot, and some real good team defense on the last play.

Indeed, the resiliency the Bulls displayed throughout their 62-win regular season a year ago returned in the season opener, as an abysmal third quarter shooting the ball and a fourth quarter in which it appeared the home team would expose the visitors as still not having all the answers. However, that was far from the case in the early going, as the Bulls unselfishness and balanced scoring led to 16 first-half assists and three double-figure scorers in Carlos Boozer (15 points, six rebounds), Luol Deng and Rose, who had 10 in the second quarter after a scoreless opening period.

The ball moved great in the first half. We had 16 assists in the first half and then we came out after halftime, and were holding onto it. It was sticking and then were dancing with it, and when we start doing that, were going to struggle to score, explained Thibodeau. Against a good defensive team, if youre holding onto the ball and youre dancing with it, youve got everyone else sitting there, staring at you, so youre not going to get good shots and thats what happened.

The games second stanza was marked by the Bench Mob reprising their role from last season, pushing the tempo and keeping the Bulls in position, although strong first-half efforts from Bryant and fellow All-Star Pau Gasol (14 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots) the Lakers lone proven big man, with usual starting center Andrew Bynum suspended and sixth-man extraordinaire Lamar Odom recently jettisoned to Dallas made it a close-knit affair through the contests intermission. After the break came a ghastly third quarter in which the Bulls shot a horrific 21.7 percent from the floor; the Lakers, while not much better at 38.1 percent, used their own brand of defense Boozer, in particular, struggled to score against Gasols length as the team attempted to run its offense through him, while new acquisition Rip Hamilton couldnt shake free of Bryant, his longtime acquaintance, to accurately launch his vaunted mid-range jumper to gather momentum in the final period and mounted a double-digit lead behind Bryants determined scoring.

The thing about Kobe is the way he does everything just cutting, his pick-and-roll game, catch-and-shoot game, post-up game, isolation game just so many different aspects of his game that you have to really gear your team toward helping, observed Thibodeau about the Lakers guard, who dealt with an injured wrist, as well as lingering dissatisfaction over the Odom trade and his own personal, yet publicized marital issues. What that often does is it pulls you off bodies, and then when the ball is shot, youre scrambling to get back and if you dont finish to get back, youre going to get hurt with the second shot.

Chimed in Deng: With Kobe, on the iso, I really try to crowd him and send him to the defense, whatever side the help was.

He made a couple tough shots on the baseline, spinning, but thats expected.

"Shots like that are what we want.

Against all odds, facing one of the games premier closers in Bryant and with star-studded crowd featuring the likes of music artists Lil Wayne and Chicago native Kanye West watching breathlessly, the Bulls fought back during the games stretch run. Deng, the longest-tenured Bull, made play after play a traditional three-point play after a driving layup, followed by a pair of free throws to make it a one-point game with 20.4 seconds left in the clutch on both ends, including stellar defense on Bryant.

Lu you know how Lu is hes going to keep it simple, do what he has to do: play defense, rebound the ball, push it, play smart, lauded Rose, who scored a team-high 22 points, to go along with five assists, though he matched that total in turnovers. His I.Q. of the game is very high and thats what I like about him.

After Dengs free throws, the Bulls trapped Bryant (game-high 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and uncharacteristically, the future Hall of Famer turned the ball over, throwing a pass that Deng stole. The ball would end up in Roses hands and the All-Star point guard made yet another play that will be part of his budding legend and highlight reel of his young career.

I think it was a great call by Coach Thibs to trap him. We didnt go for the foul; we trapped him to get it out of his hands. We went for the first trap, and he did exactly what we wanted. It was just a great, great plan by Coach, Deng, who scored 21 points, snatched seven rebounds, swiped four steals and dished out three assists, recounted. When I got the steal and I dribbled down the side, and my mindset was just looking for Derrick, and I jumped up and he got open at the last second and I just let it go. But as soon as I got the steal, I just wanted to find him.

Said Thibodeau: Its one big shot after the next and its been that way certainly all last year and at the start of this year.

"Hes something."

Rose himself downplayed the shot.

It was really a floater. Thats something that Im just used to doing if Im going to my right hand and they let me get to my right hand, explained Rose, who said he suffered no aftereffects from the nasty knock to the head he took earlier in the contest, briefly rendering him motionless. If it wasnt for my teammates by making the steal, getting the ball to me at the end theres no way I would have got that shot off and us winning this game.

Bryant and the Lakers had one more chance to hold off the visitors, but with 4.8 seconds left and Deng defending Bryant, the man known for his heroics in pressure situations was forced into a swarm of Bulls, including Noah, and couldnt convert.

I trust our defense. I trust our bigs. I wanted to crowd him so he didnt have the jump shot and if he drove, I knew our bigs were going to be there and thats exactly what happened, said Deng. I really have a lot of confidence in our defense. No matter who it is in the league, I just feel like Im confident enough, whoever Im guarding, to know that my guys are right behind me and we did a good job down the stretch, just talking. As a defender, that gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that my guys behind me are alert.

I think everyone knows by now, we play hard. We play hard, we play together and we stick with it, whether were down 30 or down two, were always going to play until the end.

Concurred Rose: We showed fight. We definitely dont want to be in a position like that, but we fought our way back.

We just played harder. We stepped up our intensity on the defensive end, he continued. I told them that weve been in this situation before. Theyre a new team, they have new players, a new system. I said that they hadnt been in that circumstance yet and weve been there. Thank God that we got a couple of steals, a great couple of plays and we won the game.

Im not complaining. Im not complaining at all, as you can see. We got the win, weve got another game Monday and weve got to take it from there.

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah may be wearing a different uniform, but he's still wearing the same heart on his sleeve.

That much was made clear in his comments made to the New York media on Wednesday.

Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Knicks after eight seasons with the Bulls, was asked about comments Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf questioning Noah's future as a main contributor on a team.

Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month that Noah was "not a frontline player," referencing the team's decision not to bring him back in free agency.

Noah responded to those comments in classy fashion - while also getting his true thoughts across:

“He’s entitled to his opinion,’’ Noah said. “I feel I have no regrets about my time in Chicago. I gave it everything I had. To me that’s all that matters. I did everything I could for that organization. I thought it was a little bit of a low blow, but at the end of the day I have nothing but respect for that organization. I’m just excited for this new chapter of my career.”

No one would ever question Noah's heart, but it's undeniable that his body is beginning to show wear, and his performance has reflected it.

Noah played in just 29 games last season before a season-ending shoulder injury, averaging career-lows in points (4.3), field goal percentage (38.3%), free throw percentage (48.9%) and steals (0.6). That came on the heels of a 2015 season in which he missed 15 games and averaged 7.2 points, the lowest since his second season in the league.

But the Knicks are hoping a rejuvenated Noah, playing in his hometown, will find some magic in his 31-year-old body and be able to get the Knicks back to the playoffs.

Noah, Derrick Rose and the Knicks will square off against the Bulls at the United Center on Nov. 4.

Chicago Mag is right: The Bulls will be must-watch in 2016 with Wade, Rondo

Chicago Mag is right: The Bulls will be must-watch in 2016 with Wade, Rondo

No one knows how all the new pieces the Bulls brought in this offseason - eight, to be exact - will fit together.

The team opened training camp on Tuesday, and it should come as no surprise that everyone seems to be getting along just fine. It won't be until the real games get going close to Halloween that we see how the new team, built by GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson, fares. And realistically, the squad won't be a finished project until well into 2017.

But as Chicago Mag's Adam Waytz wrote earlier this week, no matter how the new faces - particularly two veteran champions in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo - mesh together, the Bulls will be must-watch television and live streaming in 2016-17.

Yet for all of Rondo’s outward absurdity, a similar strangeness lurks just below Wade’s surface, manifesting in an occasional thrown elbow and, this summer, in his erratic exit from the Miami Heat. Wade had no reason to leave Miami, where he led the team in 2006 to its first championship and holds franchise records for points, games played, assists, and steals. Yet the looming presences of Shaquille O’Neal and Pat Riley on the 2006 team, followed by LeBron James’s arrival in Miami (and subsequent departure!) overshadowed Wade’s steadfast tenure as the most successful athlete in South Florida history. Then came this summer’s contract quibbles.

But Wade’s departure had little to do with money. It was about the Heat, and the league more broadly, slowly wallpapering over his relevance as a top five all-time shooting guard.

This slow burn of Wade’s ego is the flame to Rondo’s fuse. Rondo also unwillingly tumbled into obscurity, with each setback—a 2013 ACL injury, his acrimonious 48-game Dallas stay, and a purgatorial last season in Sacramento (where a national audience ignored his career bests in rebounding and 3-point shooting)—fueling his resolve. For both Wade and Rondo, arriving in Chicago signaled a pressure release—they have already vocally deferred team leadership duties to Jimmy Butler—yet their pride still smolders.

Bulls fans now get to sit back and watch the Wade-Rondo redemption tour, a revenge fantasy that Tarantino could not have stunt-cast better. If all goes as planned, Rondo’s eccentric aggression will allow Wade to access the strange spite he secretly harbors, and Wade’s polish will set an example for Rondo, guiding him to restore luster to his recently tarnished reputation. If nothing else, watching their rejuvenation will be way more fun than pondering the sadness behind Rose’s eyes or wondering whether Noah and Taj Gibson can play together.

One has to wonder, too, about how much Wade's decision to return home had to do with his best friend, LeBron James, doing the same in Cleveland two years ago. And even though he's already dubbed the Bulls as Jimmy Butler's team, it thrusts him back into the spotlight playing for the team he dreamed about ever since he was a kid.

For both Wade and Rondo, it's also an opportunity to rebound from sub-par years. Wade played in 74 games, his most since 2010, but shot a career-worst 45.6 percent from the field, and his 19.0 points and 4.6 assists were the lowest since his rookie season 13 years ago. That's not to say the future Hall of Famer doesn't have plenty left in the tank - he does, at witnessed by his stellar playoff performance - but some added motivation in a new jersey will serve him well.

Rondo has even more to prove. The Bulls will be his fourth team since the start of the 2013 season, and while he led the NBA in assists per game last year (11.7) his shot and defense remain liabilities. Both Rondo and Wade can opt out of their deals after this season, and while that doesn't mean leaving the Bulls per se, there are financial games to be made by the pair having dominant seasons.

Combine that with Jimmy Butler attempting to prove he can play nice with a pair of Alphas, and as Waytz wrote, there will be something new to watch for every night.

Time will tell if Fred Hoiberg can harness the egos, talent and attitudes in the Bulls locker room. But one thing's for certain: no matter the outcome, it'll be worth watching and streaming.