AUBURN HILLS, Mich. As the regular season winds down, its getting closer to the time when NBA writers are tabbed to select season-ending league awards. While I wont share which honors Ive been selected to vote on, it just so happened that one strong candidate for the Most Improved Player Award was in action against the Bulls Sunday night. He didnt have his best performance -- 13 points and eight rebounds, in comparison to his season averages of 15.8 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game, up from his rookie-year averages of 9.4 and 7.5 in the same categories -- but second-year Detroit big man Greg Monroe, as usual, was solid.In the interest of full disclosure, I lived in New Orleans during Monroes senior year of high school and watched him play in person, then followed him during his two seasons with the Georgetown Hoyas, a program Ive always rooted for. I caught up with the versatile, fundamentally-sound lefty prior to the Bulls overtime win to discuss his development.Just continuing to work on my post game, trying to get better. Work on my jump shot a whole lot. I wanted to be stronger, he told me about his offseason goals before the season. Knocking down that jump shot just opened up my game a little bit. It opens up anybodys game when you can make a jump shot, so I just try to focus on being consistent with that.Monroe acknowledged that after a decent rookie campaign, he knew opponents would focus on his dominant left hand, but even with increased defensive attention, he felt hed be able to exploit double teams with his passing ability. Ive definitely gotten better with my right hand, a lot more confident, he explained to me. Ive always had good vision. Ive always looked for my teammates. My main focus is to make the right play, whether its scoring or passing.Not that Monroes game Sunday will dissuade me or others from considering him as a viable candidate for the award, but there are certainly others worthy of consideration, from more-established players like the Lakers Andrew Bynum to more under-the-radar types, such as Milwaukees Ersan Ilyasova. Anyway, theres plenty of other stuff going on throughout the league and certainly with the Bulls, so on to this weeks mailbag.Where does this year's Bench Mob rank in terms of the best bench in NBA history? -- Tyler C.Tyler, as far as NBA history goes, wed be getting a little ahead of ourselves by comparing the Bulls to all-time benches. For instance, thinking of the Bulls opponent Sunday, both the Bad Boy Pistons teams and the 2004 Detroit title winner were extremely deep. If the Bulls win a championship, then the Bench Mob could reach similar status, as history is often kinder to squads that win it all. This season alone, however, Id certainly put the Bulls reserves among the top benches in the league, alongside the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers, though the latter hasnt been as potent since a lineup shake-up. Regardless, when we look back years later, the completeness of the Bench Mob and the way they seemingly never fail to rise to the occasion will be remembered fondly.What is the Bulls record for matinee games this season? It seems like they don't play as well during the day. -- Scott S.Scott, the Bulls are a woeful 2-6 in matinee games this season, with the two victories being the season-opening Christmas Day win over the Lakers and a home triumph over the Hawks. Youre right in saying they havent dealt with early starts very well this season, something Thibs discussed after last Sundays loss at New York (he joked -- at least I think he was joking; there was an awkward silence among the assembled media afterwards -- about wishing the Bulls had more matinee games at home), calling it a big concern, and putting some of the onus on himself for not having the team fully prepared. I wont downplay it and call it a coincidence, but I do think that if theyre faced with the prospect of an early start in the postseason, theyll be ready to play, especially with Thibs gently reminding them how they fared in the regular season.In your opinion, how has the lockout affected this season? Other than the number of games, of course.-- Neil A.Neil, thats an easy one: Injuries. From Derrick and Rip missing so many games for the Bulls to durable players like Dwight Howard-- say what you want about the All-Star center, but hes rarely injured and his current back problems appear to be serious-- being sidelined, its clear that the compressed schedule and shortened training camp have taken a toll on the leagues workforce. Sure, I could point to sloppy play early in the season, but for the most part, thats rectified itself as the season has gone on. But for players who came into the season out of shape or have played heavy minutes, its obvious the work stoppage has been a major factor. I havent studied the numbers-- the Bulls have enough going on to look at the league as a whole-- but even the number of freak injuries seems higher this season, something evidenced by the Bulls litany of various ailments. Other than injuries and the schedule itself, as time has gone on, its been more or less a normal NBA campaign.Just realized that Charlotte hasjust sevenwins this season, is there any hope for them? -- Joey N.Joey, good question. Even if the Bobcats land the No. 1 pick -- no guarantee, as Bulls fans are aware that the top pick doesnt always go to the worst team. Some observers, such as Charles Barkley, have suggested that with the Nets moving to Brooklyn, missing out on the aforementioned Howard this season and likely to lose Deron Williams, the draft lottery will be rigged for them to get the top choice -- Im not sure Chicago native Anthony Davis, assuming the Kentucky freshman declares for the draft, will guarantee them an instant turnaround. They do have a few pieces, namely swingman Gerald Henderson, point guard D.J. Augustin, center Byron Mullens and rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, but in general, the Michael Jordan-owned franchise has an underwhelming collection of talent. That said, they do have plenty of cap space for free agents, but with speculation that there will be a coaching change, Jordans reputation as a penny-pincher, dwindling crowds and that less-than-attractive talent base, its unlikely that marquee players will look to relocate to Charlotte. That said, theyre capable of turning things around in the long-term future, but it wont be easy.Keep the questions -- whether theyre about the Bulls, the rest of the NBA, other levels of basketball or life in general -- coming. Youll get a much better explanation, though not as instant, than you would via Twitter with only 140 characters. You can submit a question by commenting on this article below or by clicking here.
Here are some of Friday's top stories in Chicago sports:
Two nights after managing just 90 points in a lackluster home loss to the Lakers, the Bulls entered Friday night’s tilt against the defending-champion Cavaliers with a specific offensive game plan.
Attack, head coach Fred Hoiberg told his team, the interior of the Cleveland defense early to establish a presence in the paint. Knowing the Cavs, for all their strengths that made them NBA champions five months earlier, lacked a true rim protector, the Bulls made it a point to get Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez going.
The Bulls managed to do exactly that, tallying a season-high 78 points in the paint in their 111-105 victory over the Cavaliers. And while Lopez was again his usual efficient self and Gibson turned in his best performance of the season – the two scored 33 points on 15-for-23 shooting – it was point guard Rajon Rondo who proved to be the kick-starter for a Bulls offense that needed to be at its best to match Cleveland’s star power.
Rondo logged his first triple-double with the Bulls in the victory, tallying 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. But looking past the raw numbers, it was the shots Rondo took, and the passes he made, that allowed the Bulls to play so efficiently on offense and ultimately come away with their most impressive victory of the year.
Of Rondo’s 12 assists, all but two of the made shots off those passes came from a distance farther than 7 feet. Ten of Rondo’s assists resulted in baskets in the paint, of which the Bulls had 39 as a team. Squaring off against a subpar defender in Kyrie Irving, Rondo was active in knifing into the paint and finding open bigs inside. Rondo had six assists in the first quarter, and all but one resulted in baskets within 3 feet of the hoop.
All four of his made field goals in the first half were layups, as was his only bucket in the third quarter. His putback midway through the fourth quarter was also at the rim, and gave him his tenth rebound to secure the triple-double. Two possessions later he connected on a 3-pointer that gave the Bulls an eight-point lead; Cleveland never got closer than four the rest of the way. Rondo only took three shots outside of the paint. Friday marked the first time in a month Rondo had shot better than 50 percent from the field in back-to-back games.
Past Rondo’s own numbers, Gibson said that the Bulls’ point guard was instrumental in leading the Bulls’ offense to match up against a Cavaliers offense that entered the night second in the league in efficiency.
“He’s like a quarterback. Even though he never really played any contact football the way he always gathers the huddle, he always sees what’s going on in the game,” Gibson said. “He’s always encouraging. He’s pushing it. He’s a great teammate and I know he got a lot of criticism before the year, a lot of people talk about the negative that’s in it, but he’s been showing me nothing but great stuff on and off the court.”
In a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere to it simply because of the matchup between Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, as well as the defending champs coming to town, the veteran Rondo took it upon himself to lead the Bulls offense. Though the Bulls wanted to avoid getting into a track meet against the fast-paced Cavs, Rondo didn’t allow the offense to become stagnant when it was apparent they could get into the paint at will.
“I thought Rondo was great all night long,” Fred Hoiberg said, “getting guys out and running, pushing them. You can hear him yelling “run with me” to get the guys down the floor. Rajon was a huge factor.”
His defense will continue to be a liability – Irving had an off-night shooting more than anything – and he won’t score 15 points each night, but his leadership and ability to run an offense with precision has the Bulls behind their floor general as they head into the season’s second month.
“He’s always inspiring. He’s one of those guys you want to go to war with. He’s one of those guys that’s in the huddle, you know that every time down the court if it’s a wrong call, a foul, a scuffle, if you not feeling right he’s always going to have your back no matter what.”