Several members of the Bulls are receiving recognition as the NBA’s season honors roll in.
All-Star center Joakim Noah finished fourth in NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award balloting, behind winner Marc Gasol of Memphis, Miami’s LeBron James and Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka.
Noah received 107 points, including 13 first-place votes.
Fellow Bulls All-Star Luol Deng garnered one first-place vote and a third-place vote, while Jimmy Butler got a second-place vote.
Butler also received two second-place votes and a third-place vote in voting for the league’s Most Improved Player Award, which went to Indiana’s Paul George.
Backup point guard Nate Robinson finished 10th in the voting for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, which ultimately went to Knicks guard J.R. Smith.
Mohammed makes big impact for Bulls
A major part of the Bulls’ Game 2 success was the play of veteran center Nazr Mohammed.
The backup center only finished with eight points, but his contributions went far beyond the stat sheet.
Mohammed was an aggressive offensive presence and a physical factor on the defensive end of the floor when spelling Noah, providing an upgrade as the All-Star center struggled in the first half and ensuring there was no letdown after Noah found his stride after halftime.
“It was hard to sort of settle on the rotation and see what groups are working, and their size up front, their rebounding is a concern and the issue is Jo’s minutes restriction, so you’ve got to find that balance. Nazr’s done a great job the second half of the season for us. The good part—and you hate to even say it, but—some guys being out, it gave some other guys an opportunity to step up and grow. I thought Jimmy has done a great job the second half of the season for us. I thought Nazr did, so maybe in some ways it did help us,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said.
“The timely baskets, hustle plays, size at the rim. I think you need those things. Very difficult, I think, to play great defense when you downsize. I think offensively it helps. Aesthetically, it probably looks a little better because you have another perimeter skilled guy on the floor, but defensively, you sacrifice a lot, I think. It’s one of the unique things about Taj and Joakim, is the fact that when teams go small on you, you can stay big.”
Noah chimed in: “Nazr, a lot of people always say, ‘Oh, veteran, played a long time in this league,’ but the things that he’s dealt with this year, not playing at the beginning of the year and then just coming out in the biggest moments, and stepping up the way he has is something that shouldn’t go un-talked about. He was huge for us tonight and we need everybody. This is a very good team and for us to get to where we want to get to, it’s going to take a team effort. But I’m very proud of Nazr. He’s a class act on and off the court, and works very hard. Even when he wasn’t playing, he always worked really hard. He stepped up in a big way, so he was huge.”
Deng added: “I’m not trying to give a shout-out to everybody, but I thought Nazr was huge for us. I thought Nazr gave us a big lift.”
Thibodeau cites precedent regarding Rose
In Thibodeau’s 20 years as an NBA assistant, he’s had a variety of experiences when it comes to injured players, making the ongoing situation with Derrick Rose easier for him to deal with.
The coach explained that because of previous situations, he believes that if Rose comes back in the middle of the postseason, it would benefit the Bulls.
“When I was in Houston, we dealt with Yao [Ming] missing good chunks of the season. In Boston, we had a situation one year with [Kevin] Garnett, where he got hurt the first game after the All-Star break and we were hopeful he would come back. He tried and he was never able to do it,” Thibodeau recounted. “When I was in New York, Patrick [Ewing] missed the majority of the season. I think he got hurt in the 16th game of the year, early December, and he was able to come during the playoffs. And that experience taught me that it’s the right thing to do, so if Derrick can come back, we want him back.”
Thibodeau also discussed his gift for being patient in general, not just with Rose’s recovery process.
“It’s something you’re always working on. But there’s a fine line there. There has to be urgency there along with the patience. The patience part is more in regard to players who are injured. It’s important when a player is injured that you’re patient in allowing them to get healthy to come back,” he said. “That being said, the players who are available---and I’ve always felt this way---I like the depth of our team. I feel good about our team. I feel we have more than enough to win with. We have to have a greater intensity. We’re shorthanded. We understood that from the start of the season. For us, we have to do this collectively and with great intensity.”
Bench rotation solidifies
Erstwhile starters Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli seemingly vied for the backup shooting-guard role behind Jimmy Butler in Game 1, leading to Thibodeau admitting that he would probably be forced to choose between the two.
In Game 2, it looked like Belinelli was his man, as Hamilton didn’t play at all.
“He missed a good chunk of the season down the stretch and then we tried to get him some games at the end just so he can get his rhythm back,” Thibodeau said of Hamilton. “A big part of his game is that, his timing and rhythm of catch-and-shoot and that sort of thing. We just have to be patient and hopefully as time goes on everyone gets healthier.”
Belinelli ended up with eight points and two assists, as his long-range shooting and ability to function as a primary ballhandler, particularly in pick-and-roll scenarios adds some diversity to the Bulls’ offensive attack.
Meanwhile, the Bulls’ bench in general was very vocal Monday at the Barclays Center.
Taj Gibson, a Brooklyn native, talked about their on-court contributions, as well as their competitive spirit.
“[The bench’s approach was] just to be aggressive. Like Thibs said, he can deal with us getting cheap fouls as long as we go hard and Nazr Mohammed stepped in and played big minutes, Marco Belinelli. A lot of guys were just ready to come in and contribute,” he said. “The whole bench was really into it from the jump ball. The bench was just celebrating every time. It felt like it was a street tournament game, how people were just chanting on the side. We really wanted to get this win and we didn’t like the way we played last game.
“We just played really hard and the bench was really into it. You could tell that everybody, from top to bottom, was ready to go in,” Gibson continued. “Just because we’re going home, we can’t get too confident. We’ve still got to lock in and understand what we have to do the next game. It’s a good team over there. We have to just focus.
“We feel okay, but we can’t get too hype right now. We understand that we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ll take this one.
Once Thibs got into us in that film room, we couldn’t wait to get on the court, because the way they were just cutting us to pieces on the back cuts and getting into the lane—we never really give up points in the paint—and we just wanted to lock in and take away those points today.
While Gibson praised his teammates, Deng lauded the power forward for continuing to play through pain.
Although it isn’t as widely discussed as Noah’s ongoing bout with plantar fasciitis, Gibson isn’t far removed from returning to the lineup at the end of the regular season from a re-aggravation of a previous sprained left MCL.
“A lot of people are forgetting, Taj just came back from his MCL sprain,” Deng said. “It’s tough when you miss that many games and you just come to the intensity at this level, and those guys were great tonight.”