Bulls walk the walk, demolish rival Pacers

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Bulls walk the walk, demolish rival Pacers

So much for that budding rivalry, at least Monday night, justifying the letter, if not the spirit, of Tom Thibodeaus pregame declaration.

After some barbs were exchanged through the media, the Bulls (32-8) backed up their words, demolishing the Central Division rival Pacers (23-13) at the United Center, 92-72, thanks to a huge second half, balanced scoring that saw five players reach double figures and as usual, a stifling defensive effort, for the teams seventh consecutive victory.

Indianas a terrific team and it comes down to multiple-effort plays, and when things arent going your way, youre not shooting well, youve got to find other ways to help your team win and I think we have a lot of guys on our team that do that, said Thibodeau. Our defense and our rebounding. The rebounding was huge. They play hard. Theyre a hard-playing team. they missed some shots that they normally make, but I like the way that our team hung in there. We just found a way to win in the second half.

With all of the build-up prior to the affair, it wasnt surprising that neither team was exceptional at the outset, but it was unexpected that a significant piece on each team would exit the contest early on. One of the featured players in the pregame war of words, Pacers center Roy Hibbert, picked up two quick fouls, and was forced to leave temporarily, while Rip Hamilton appeared to tweak his right shoulder and after heading to the locker room, was replaced by Ronnie Brewer (12 points, seven rebounds), who made an immediate impact with his energetic play.

Indiana wings Danny Granger and Paul George (game-high 21 points), as well as veteran power forward David West, made their presences felt for the visitors, but the Bulls kept pace with Joakim Noah (nine points, 17 rebounds) and Luol Deng (team-high 20 points, six rebounds, four assists) carrying the scoring load, as Derrick Rose (13 points, nine assists), named the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, focused on distributing and playing more of an all-around game.

At the conclusion of the opening period, the hosts held a slim edge, 22-20.

With C.J. Watson out due to a sprained left ankle, John Lucas III (13 points) assumed the backup point-guard role and the never-bashful diminutive reserve not only got on the board, but dominated the scoring action in aiding the Bulls some breathing room.

Thats whats so good about our team. Everybody goes in focused and you stay ready, said Lucas. Like we say, Were all weve got, so one of our teammates goes down, somebodys got to step up.

Thibodeau chimed in: John Lucas did a terrific job filling in, he was ready to go and that gave us a big lift.

Concurred Rose: John is someone that gave us a little bit of energy in the first half and during the second half, just pushing the ball, feeding the bigs and I think everyone just fed off of him.

However, the Pacers had their own backcourt sparkplug off the bench, in the form of offseason acquisition George Hill (17 points), a combo guard and Indianapolis native, who displayed his ability to score in bunches, which he earned a reputation for in San Antonio.

A balanced Pacers attack continued to be effective against the Bulls, though neither team shot the ball particularly well in the defensive-minded second quarter. The hosts were afflicted by ball-security issues and Carlos Boozer, Deng and Rosewho did excel as a playmaker, if not a scorerall struggling with their shooting. However, partially thanks to Brewer and fellow reserve swingman Kyle Korvers outside marksmanship, the Bulls only trailed by a slight margin, 43-42, at the intermission.

We did a good job of rebounding the ball. We played with a lot more energy in the third quarter. Jo was tremendous rebounding. It wasnt really going our way to begin withmissing a lot of shots, guys werent shooting welland in the second half, we just found a way. Got stops, started going out and running, did a good job of rebounding, said Deng.

When we came in at halftime, no one talked about missing shots. We really didnt talk about it at all. We just said we know weve got a lot of guys who can score. It doesnt happen often when everyone is not shooting. Someone is going to get it going. We just really talked about our defense, kind of playing with a lot of energy, like we did in the third quarter and going out and running, getting easy baskets.

Echoed Thibodeau: We made some shots and our defense picked up. Just our energy overall was much better in the third quarter. You have to bring it for all four quarters. We like to count on our defense and our rebounding. Some nights youre not going to shoot as well as others.

Added Noah: We had a great third quarter. Derrick shot the ball very well, Lu shot the ball very well, we played good defense and rebounded the ball well, and it just opened up the game.

After the break, behind Rose beginning to assert himself as a scorer, Brewers energy and scoring and Noahs dominance on the interior, the Bulls gained some separation from the visitors early in the third period.

Additionally, the hosts started clamping down on the defensive end of the court and Deng found his outside touch, leading to a double-digit advantage for the home team, whose fans showed their boisterous appreciation.

Between Rose and Deng, the All-Star duo knocked down five three-pointers in the quarter and with Noah, Brewer and reserve Taj Gibson (10 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots) playing in typically high-energy fashion on both ends of the floor to augment the pairs contributions, as well as stout defense limiting Indianas offensive opportunities, it appeared that rout was on, as the lead continued to balloon.

Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls had earned a robust 75-56 advantage.

Our biggest thing was shutting down the paint and I think that we did a pretty good job of that, just making sure they shot contested twos or whenever they shot, making sure someone put a hand up. Theyre a good team. We just tried to make it hard on them tonight, said Rose of the Bulls approach. We just tried to push it a little bit more when we got the rebound and put a little pressure on them on the defensive side.

Deng added: We were just making silly mistakes with our assignments. Certain plays, were supposed to show on the screen. Certain plays, were supposed to blitz, fronting the post. Stuff like that, just little mistakes and we just locked in, and went over the game plan, just did a good job of doing that.

Defense was again the name of the game in the fourth quarter, as the Bulls completely smothered their guests, maintaining their comfortable lead.

Thibodeau rode his reserves for the bulk of the period, before inserting Noah and Dengthe latter actually saw some time at the beginning of the frame, but admitted, When we kept losing the lead, I knew I was going back in, so I stayed ready, while Thibodeau acknowledged that Rose was warming up in the bullpen and instructed him to stretch in preparationbut the outcome had already been decided well in advance, as the Bulls were on cruise control for the extended garbage time, which featured late appearances by rookie swingman Jimmy Butler and fan favorite Brian Scalabrine, who scored the teams final points of the evening.

It was a good win for us, just coming off a back-to-back. We played very hard tonight. We were excited about this game, said Noah. We handled our business, we played hard tonight and it feels good to win in that fashion.

We played with a lot of passion tonight. Its a good feeling to be playing well, especially because we have a tough stretch coming up and we know whats at stake. To be playing good basketball right now, its rewarding, he continued. The whole team, were on the same page. Were about the right things. Just got to keep it up. I know the citys proud right now. The NBAs all about highs and lows. Just got to keep representing and well be all right.

NBA Playoffs observations: Officiating, Draymond Green, LeBron James

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NBA Playoffs observations: Officiating, Draymond Green, LeBron James

The officiating has overshadowed some bad basketball and some really great finishes to start the second round of the playoffs.

I’ve never seen a finish like the last 13 seconds of Game 2 with San Antonio and Oklahoma City, where there were so many violations and missed calls, the league almost issued an apology for it.

Manu Ginobili embellished the contact from Dion Waiters on the start of the wild finish, but there shouldn’t have been contact in the first place. His reputation could’ve hurt him...

Or it was truly possible the official wasn’t looking at Waiters’ upper body, only counting off the five-seconds.

I talked to numerous officials in the aftermath, with each in agreement they’d never seen a play like that before, from start to finish.

We as viewers have the benefit of replay. The officials don’t have that luxury in the moment, and therefore it makes us as the public more skeptical about what we see compared to what they call.

By and large, though, the NBA refs do a pretty good job of catching calls, while also understanding nobody wants a whistle-fest for 48 minutes of basketball.

And we say we want the refs to swallow their whistle and not to decide the games, well, they did that in the finish of San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

After all that controversy, it’s hard to remember the Spurs beat the brakes off the Thunder in Game 1...remember?

Russell Westbrook catches a lot of flak that should be aimed in the direction of his coach, teammates and front office. Yes, that includes Kevin Durant.

But I’m not sure you can truly “win” with Westbrook, given his style of play doesn’t lend itself to late-game execution because he can’t slow down.

But being frenetic is what makes him special, right?

Who cares if Draymond Green is a superstar or not, he certainly is extremely valuable to Golden State, which maximizes everything he does so well. Green doesn’t make other players better in the traditional sense, but he enhances what you do well, which is just as important.

Winning Game 2 should buy the MVP, Stephen Curry, an extra few days of recovery before pushing him back to action over the weekend.

Nights like Game 2 between the Warriors and Trailblazers make me rethink my voting on Defensive Player of the Year.

My ballot was Kawhi Leonard, Green, and Atlanta’s Paul Milsap.

But speaking of Atlanta, I can’t see them challenging the Cavs for anything beyond a game in this series.

It looks like the Cavs realize that, too. And it should be a sweep. Why? The Hawks just don’t have enough. On the floor or the sideline.

With Kyle Korver’s struggles, one should know the easiest thing in the NBA to find is perimeter shooting, and no team should be married to it in the form of one player or another (Hint, hint, Chicago Bulls management) 

During the season, I talked to a personnel man in Los Angeles, who said the Cavaliers wouldn’t win a title unless LeBron James took a step back from doing everything and allowing others to flourish.

By “others”, he meant Kyrie Irving and made the comparison about Dwyane Wade deferring to James starting in 2012, which lead to the Miami Heat winning two titles.

More on Wade in a moment.

Would James’ ego and game work without being a high-volume, high-usage player, especially ceding a spot in the hierarchy to the likes of Irving? That’s the most interesting development that will come out of the Hawks-Cavs second-round series.

Moving back to Wade. Whenever you think he’s done, he pulls another rabbit out of his hat—and the Heat look poised for a meeting with the Cavs in the conference finals.

If there’s a team to truly challenge Cleveland, Miami’s length on defense and shot blocking could be an interesting antidote to Cleveland’s high pick and rolls.

Not only with Wade but Goran Dragic and Joe Johnson, the Heat has three supreme shot creators down the stretch of games, who can facilitate, get to the rim and make free throws.

That makes them beyond dangerous. 

Not as dangerous as Chris Bosh seems to be to his own health. He desperately wants to play, but the Heat won’t give him clearance.

Think about how rare that is, a team that desperately wants to win, but will not put a player in danger to do it. Sounds simple and humane, but think how many franchises in all facets of sports would try to take every precaution but letting a player make his own decision about playing.

I commend Bosh for wanting to play so badly, he’s going to the union so he can risk his life, potentially.

Think about how that sounds.

With his health situation sprouting in two straight years, one wonders if Bosh should even think about playing beyond this playoff run.

That said, the Heat almost gave one away to the Raptors, a team nobody believes in for good reason.

A team led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry seems like it has a very low shelf life—the second round.

Speaking of Lowry, it’s past time to call him a playoff underachiever. He’s played over 30 playoff games and isn’t shooting 40 percent for his career.

That desperation triple that sent game 1 into overtime was three of his seven points.

That desperation triple shouldn’t have counted considering he stepped out of bounds before picking up his dribble.

The officials will get another round of derision after the NBA releases its two-minute report Wednesday.

One wonders how bad the Bulls feel watching the Raptors, a team they’ve dominated the past two years, being in the second round while they’re at home.

Lowry’s probably still shooting in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre after hours.

And it probably won’t help.

Timberwolves' Tom Thibodeau appreciative of time with Bulls

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Timberwolves' Tom Thibodeau appreciative of time with Bulls

There's likely a lot Tom Thibodeau would love to get off his chest.

But the newest head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves continued to take the high road on his tumultous ending with the Bulls when he spoke to David Kaplan Monday morning on ESPN 1000.

Thibodeau, who was hired by the Timberwolves in April as head coach and president of basketball operations, said he was appreciative of his five seasons with the Bulls.

"I felt I had a great job here and I had great guys to coach," he told Kaplan. "That part, you're disappointed that it's going to end, but you know if you're in pro sports. These things happen. I was disappointed that we weren't able to win the championship, not only for our players, but for the fans here and for Jerry (Reinsdorf). Jerry took a chance on me and I'll always appreciate that he did that. I enjoyed my time here.

"Obviously I loved living here and appreciate all the support we received for our team over the five years I was here," he added. "I know what the Bulls mean to this city and I know how the organization feels about the support that they receive from the fans. This is a great, great sports city and I certainly appreciate all they did for me as well."

Thibodeau's departure coincided with Fred Hoiberg's arrival at the helm. The Bulls struggled in their first year post-Thibodeau, missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.

Thibodeau alluded to myriad injuries the team faced, including the season-ending shoulder injury to emotional leader Joakim Noah.

"Jo (Noah) is a big hit. You can't underestimate that, but along with Jo going down I felt that the East had gotten a lot better," Thibodeau said. "When you combine those things, and sometimes that happens. They're still a really good team. I think Fred is an excellent coach. They have to be healthy. That's a big thing for the organization, and unfortunately that hasn't been the case for the last few years."

The Bulls and Timberwolves will play twice next season.

Tom Thibodeau all smiles after seizing all the power in Minnesota

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Tom Thibodeau all smiles after seizing all the power in Minnesota

With the controversy behind him and a future that’s envied by virtually every team not in the playoffs, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau embraced his introduction as Minnesota Timberwolves coach as a new beginning.

Of course, the smile was a little wider considering the title he’s also walking into the door with, as President of basketball operations. He’ll be able to create and establish his own culture as basketball czar, with comrade Scott Layden as general manager.

Layden will do the daily, dirty work, but Thibodeau will have final say in basketball matters—a responsibility he craved in this year away from the sidelines, and also evidenced by his partnership with the popular firm Korn Ferry, the firm that helped place Stan Van Gundy in Detroit.

"For me, personally, this is about alignment," Thibodeau said at his introduction. "It's not about power. It's not about any of that stuff. I've known Scott a long time. We've shared philosophies with each other about certain things. He was the person that I really wanted. So I'm glad we had the opportunity to get him."

Like Van Gundy, Thibodeau had a rocky relationship with his previous employer before turning the tables in his next stop to become the all-knowing basketball being.

Scathing comments after his firing last spring from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf stung Thibodeau, according to reports, but was offset by Thibodeau thanking Reinsdorf for taking the chance on hiring him, not the ugly, forgettable ending.

“I don’t want to keep going back to Chicago, that’s gone,” he said afterward. “When I look back in totality, there was a lot more good than bad. That’s the way I prefer to view it. The next time you go around, you want to do it better. You analyze different teams, see the synergy between front office and coach and you try to emulate that.”

It’s easy to take the high road when two of the league’s brightest and youngest talents—Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—are in your stead, healthy and ready to bust out.

And it’s easy to take the high road when there’s no barrier between what you want to happen and what will happen inside the building—a tricky proposition, it should be said.

The natural conflict that often exists between a front office and coach—one takes a more immediate view of matters while the other must consider the long-term effects of the franchise as a whole—won’t exist at all with Thibodeau and Layden because the hierarchy is clear.

It’s Thibodeau at the top and everyone and everything must bend to his will, per se. Considering the way he felt about the way things transpired in Chicago, where he reportedly clashed with Gar Forman and John Paxson over myriad issues, no one can be too surprised he followed the model laid out by Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Van Gundy, among others.

And like Van Gundy, Thibodeau has the task of getting the team with the longest conference playoff-less streak back to the land of the living—a feat Van Gundy accomplished this season with the Pistons, his second. The Timberwolves haven’t made the postseason since 2004, when Kevin Garnett won MVP.

It was four years before Garnett and Thibodeau connected in Boston in the 2007-08 season, helping the Celtics end a 22-year titleless drought. It’s Garnett, and players like Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah who helped Thibodeau earn this reputation as a master motivator and defensive wizard.

He thanked those players among others, as well as late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, who drafted the likes of Towns and Wiggins with the long-term view of having them develop at their own pace with the likes of veterans like Garnett and Tayshaun Prince there to guide them.

Thibodeau the coach will be there to prod, poke and push the greatness they’re expected to possess, the same way he did with Rose, Noah and Butler to varying degrees.

Thibodeau the coach won’t have much patience for mistakes, but Thibodeau the executive must resist the “trade everybody” emotions many coaches have when players go through down periods.

Having perspective was never one of his strong points, as he squeezed every ounce of productivity from his teams, but perspective must be his greatest ally in his second act in the spotlight.

Taking a long-term approach in a season when it came to minutes and players’ bodies was something he reportedly bristled at—and even if the narrative was somewhat exaggerated, the rap remains on him, unlikely to shake until proven otherwise.

Now he must take a long-term view in everything, and has to deal with the politics that come with being a top executive in the NBA, a task much easier done in fantasy than application.

Perhaps he gained that perspective in 11 months off after being fired from the Bulls, and using the time to gain insight into other franchises operations while watching the Bulls crumble from the inside.

The Bulls got what they wanted with his ouster, and it was a case of “be careful what you wish for”.

Eleven months from now, one wonders if the same mantra will apply to the coach who wanted it all and got it all.