Bulls lock down late, extend conference lead

Bulls lock down late, extend conference lead
March 26, 2011, 2:35 am
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Friday, March 25, 2011
Posted 9:48 p.m. Updated 11:44 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Another night, another blue-collar victory for the Bulls (52-19), who outlasted a game Grizzlies (40-32) squad, 99-96, Friday evening at the United Center.

On a night when offense didnt come easy, All-Star point guard Derrick Rose came up big in the clutch, converting a traditional three-point play late in the game as part of the effort to stave off Memphis.

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A win is the most important thing. My teammates, they had my back tonight. Shots that I would normally hit werent going for me tonight, said Rose, who struggled through a 6-for-22 game shooting from the floor, afterwards. Theres always going to be a night like that, but were playing against tough teams.

Towards the end, I just knew that I just had to make shots or make plays," he continued. "That was the biggest thing. Im trying to get better at the end, just being a closer. Im still trying to get there.

Deng unhappy with Bulls' effort

Clearly not in awe of the Bulls new status as darlings of the national media, the Grizzlies blitzed their hosts in the early going, jumping out to an 11-4 lead. Chicago native Tony Allen (13 points) led the visitors charge, as the Grizzlies swingman who played for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau when both were in Boston scored eight quick points on 4-for-4 shooting in the opening period.

While Luol Deng (23 points, six rebounds) was the only player who could effectively manufacture offense initially, a lack of touches during the teams drought affected him as well. Luckily for Chicago , Taj Gibson's (six points, seven rebounds) immediate impact off the bench sparked the home teams offense.

Meanwhile, Memphis got scoring from a variety of sources such as point guard Mike Conley (12 points, six assists) and another swingman, Sam Young their hot shooting cooled off toward the conclusion of the first quarter, which ended with the Bulls trailing slightly, 22-21.

They were the aggressor in the first quarter, Carlos Boozer observed. Once we got in the fight of the game, I thought we fought back great.

Chicagos second unit (affectionately known as The Bench Mob), usually relied upon to outplay the opposing reserves and thus either increase the starters lead, give the Bulls an advantage or get the team back in the game didnt make much initial progress in their nightly second-quarter pursuit, although rookie center Omer Asik (six points, five rebounds) again impacted the game with his always-high activity level, as did swingman Ronnie Brewer (seven points, four rebounds).

Tellingly, however, a C.J. Watson (five points, three assists) tumble beyond the court and into the courtside seats was perhaps the most buzzed-about moment of the reserves stint, prior to Thibodeau filtering in most of his regulars.

An antsy United Center crowd, unaccustomed to their now-first-place team playing in a lackluster fashion, displayed its dissatisfaction with both the officiating and the play on the court, as the excitable Allen continued to torment his hometown team and the Grizzlies gained confidence to go with their lead.

Late in the half, however, a double technical on power forwards Boozer (12 points, nine rebounds) and Zach Randolph (16 points, five rebounds, four assists) seemed to ignite the Bulls, resulting in a Deng-propelled comeback and a 49-46 halftime lead for Chicago, following a tough Rose (24 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) fall-away jumper with seconds remaining.

Weve got players that really like Derrick and Booz get a lot of attention, said Deng. Everyone else, weve got to be smart about what theyre trying to do early in the game and use that to our advantage.

Derrick does a good job of getting so much attention, its really just a matter of locking in and making your shot, he continued. I had open shots and Ive been shooting the ball well the last few games.

After the break, the Grizzlies made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to underrated center Marc Gasol (14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists), who responded by scoring proficiently in the low post. Rose began to assert himself offensively, but Memphis countered by utilizing Randolph, a highly-skilled post-up player, keeping the game a tight-knit affair.

Chicago, buoyed by Roses strong all-around play it wasnt one of his better shooting nights, however built a slight cushion, but the visitors refused to wilt, hanging tough despite Allen earning himself a technical foul.

Through three quarters, the Bulls clung to a 74-73 advantage. Led by reserve forwards Darrell Arthur (10 points) and Leon Powe (11 points) another of Thibodeaus former Celtics protgs Memphis kept battling, eventually overtaking the Bulls.

Now, it was time for Chicago to fight back and that they did, with Boozer as a catalyst, as the power forward controlled the boards and muscled in tough baskets on the interior, leading to the Bulls having the momentum in this see-saw battle heading down the stretch.

Defense was the Bulls saving grace late in the physical contest, as they came up with key defensive stops to prevent the Grizzlies from taking a lead in the final minutes. On the other hand, crucial turnovers plagued the home team, ensuring that they didnt have the opportunity to capitalize on their good work on the other end of the floor.

Thats how the playoffs are going to be. More than likely, thats how the playoffs are going to be called, said Boozer of the games atmosphere. Great test for our team.

Added Rose: Every game. Falling, tripping, getting fouled hard. Some calls and some no-calls. Weve just got to fight through it.

With under a minute left and holding a 95-93 lead, the Bulls forced a Memphis miss and after Allen, the boisterous Chicagoan, couldnt control the offensive rebound, the Bulls had possession with 30.2 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Rose took Allen off the dribble and finished at the basket with his left hand, drawing a foul in the process, giving the Bulls a 98-93 lead with 10.8 seconds remaining.

He jumped on my right hand, thinking I was going to drive right and I just saw a lane. Right when I saw it, I just tried to go in there hard and get contact. I got it and just tried to focus on making the layup, and it went in, Rose recounted. Id been missing bunnies the whole game. Id been missing layups, shots I normally hit. It feels good when a shot finally goes in.

Rose completed the three-point play, but after a timeout, Grizzlies sixth man O.J. Mayo rebounded a Memphis miss to knock down a three-pointer with 4.3 seconds to go, cutting the deficit to 98-96. Following a timeout, Rose was fouled on the ensuing possession, but split a pair of free throws, leaving the door open for the Grizzlies in a one-possession game.

Alas, Conleys final long-range attempt was short, giving Chicago the victory. Coupled with a Celtics loss, the Bulls increased their stranglehold on first place in the East to a two-game lead.

We get poised at the end of the game, said Boozer. Weve almost seen every scenario this season, so when the game got down to the wire, we were comfortable because we had already been there.

Sometimes it comes down to the last two or three minutes who wants it more? and we wanted it more.

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.