Big O: Asik powers Bulls to eighth straight win

Big O: Asik powers Bulls to eighth straight win
March 18, 2011, 1:22 am
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Thursday, March 17, 2011
Posted 8:35 p.m. Updated 9:39 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

NEWARK Despite a spirited comeback, the Bulls (49-18) managed to hold off the Nets (22-44), 84-73, Thursday night at the Prudential Center, extending the winning streak of the Eastern Conferences top squad to a season-high eight games - its longest streak since the spring of 2005.

This was a great game for us, playing a team thats won five in a rowour defense came through. We got stops when we needed to. We dont want to be in that situation, but its a good test for us, said Luol Deng. Were getting better at that. The beginning of the year a game like thiseven the one that we lost herewe kind of panicked a little bit at the end. There was none of that today. We were just calm, we got stops. We got baskets when we needed to.

Nets sharpshooter Anthony Morrow got New Jersey off to a quick start with his proficient outside marksmanship, putting the Bulls into catch-up mode from the games outset. New Jersey center Brook Lopez (22 points, eight rebounds) also got into the act, using his shooting range and skills to not only score the basketball, but draw a pair of quick fouls on Bulls veteran starter Kurt Thomas, sending him to the pine in exchange for rookie Omer Asik (11 points, career-high 16 rebounds).

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau also inserted Taj Gibson and behind the young frontline duo, the visitors scratched and clawed their way back into the contest. Although All-Star point guard Derrick Rose (21 points, four assists) wasnt having a great shooting night initially, he willed his way to the foul line to manufacture points, aiding Chicago in turning the tables on the Nets, resulting in a 24-20 lead at the conclusion of the opening period.

Asiks strong interior play persisted and with Deng (19 points) in his customary role as early second quarter go-to guy, the Bulls maintained their slight cushion. Thibodeau eventually filtered his regulars back into the contest, but even with a powerful Rose tomahawk dunk thrilling the Prudential Center fans, the visitors didnt gain much more separation between themselves and their hosts.

Still, tough defense as usual, was the order of the day for Chicago , causing New Jerseys field-goal percentage to drop significantly. Center Joakim Noah (five points, 10 rebounds, six assists) back after a one-game absence due to flu-like symptoms subsequently served as a more than adequate secondary ballhandler.

His timings still not there offensively, in terms of that 15-to-17-foot shot, but it will be and hes capable of making that shot. Hes a very good playmaker. When you put two on the ball and you hit Jo in the middle of the floor, his decision-making is excellent, Thibodeau said of Noah. Hes a terrific playmaker for a guy that size. You just throw it near him and hell get it. He can put it on the floor and he makes great plays, so we have a lot of confidence in him.

Hes not quite 100 percent, but today, he just battled through it and Ive got a lot of respect for that. Thats great leadership for us.

At halftime, the Bulls held a 43-36 advantage.

While Nets power forward Kris Humphries (13 points, 16 rebounds) beastly efforts in the paint on both ends were impressive, his activity on the inside wasnt enough for New Jersey, as the Bulls gradually pulled away.

Rose got the better of his matchup with fellow elite floor general Deron Williams (five points, 11 assists), limiting the All-Stars scoring with his improved defense and patiently running Chicagos offense by either picking apart the defense himself or facilitating good ball movement when the Nets extended their pressure.

It was important because it was our next game. It was nothing individual or anything, said Rose of the duel afterwards. Of course, every time you play in this league, youre playing against somebody good, especially at the point guard position and I just wanted to go out there and play hard.

Chimed in Thibodeau: Two fierce competitors. Both strong, quick. Derricks defense is improving. Hes gotten a lot better, hes doing a great job of challenging shots, he continued. Thats a big part of who we are. When youre not shooting the ball well, you want to be able to win, and our defensive, our rebounding and taking care of the ball put us in position to win.

Despite subpar shooting numbers as a team, the Bulls increased their lead to double digits, with stifling defense, Dengs scoring and Asiks dominance around the rim being major factors. Through three quarters, the Bulls were up, 60-50.

Omer gave us a huge lift off the bench, praised Thibodeau. Even the past two games, he struggled a little bit, but his work has been so consistent and I think hes gotten a lot of confidence.

Today, he had that great rebounding rhythm again and it seemed like anything that was near him, he was getting. The thing that I liked was that he was going up strongthat energy, I thought it really inspired us, too.

Added Noah: Thats the beauty of this team. Weve got a lot of weapons. Omers somebody who lives in the gym, improving. His confidence is getting better and better. Hes understanding how he can score in the offense. Hes playing at a really high level and we need that to do what we want to do.

New Jersey didnt wilt, however; and an early fourth-quarter spurt led by backup forward Travis Outlaw affected Chicagos comfort level. The home team spurred by a suddenly supportive crowd kept pushing and the game became a tight-knit affair midway through the final stanza, as contributions from the likes of Lopez and backup guard Sasha Vujacic (13 points, five rebounds) helped them cut the deficit.

They pressured us some, Thibodeau noted. We played at a pace we didnt want to play at and once we settled down, recognized the second passer and made that second pass, we got a high-percentage shot and that opened things up.

With under six minutes to play, a deep Lopez two-point jumper tied the contest at 65 and both teams exchanged baskets for a stretch Deng and Rose were Chicagos offensive catalysts irking the decidedly defensive-minded Thibodeau.

Ball security became an issue for the Nets, as turnovers Rose picked off a lazy Williams cross-court pass, which was subsequently converted into a fast-break layup mishandles and poor shot selection plagued the hosts down the stretch, as did general unforced miscues, such as defensive three-second violations at key moments.

Conversely, the Bulls scored timely baskets to create some breathing room late, forcing the home fans to acknowledge the reality of the situation: New Jersey wouldnt pull off the upset of an upper-echelon conference rival.

Chicago corralled important rebounds, and generally played mistake-free basketball late, capitalizing on the Nets mistakes.

A three-pointer from Kyle Korver (12 points) with 1:16 to go pretty much sealed the deal, dashing any remaining hopes of the New Jersey faithful in the arena that the Nets would extend the five-game winning streak they came into the game enjoying.

Thats what weve been doing the whole year, playing defense if our offense isnt going. That rarely happens, but if its not, well rely on our defense and thats what we did tonight, just make it tough on them, said Rose, an important cog in a defensive unit that has held opponents to a final tally in the 70s 12 times this season.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.