Boozer-Thibodeau rift much ado about nothing

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Boozer-Thibodeau rift much ado about nothing

Friday, Jan. 7, 2011
12:28 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

PHILADELPHIANobody whos paying attention should be surprised. This was foreshadowed back in July.

When the Bulls hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach in June, then acquired Carlos Boozer in July, any astute NBA observer could have predicted that the defensive guru and the offensively gifted power forward would have growing pains as the latter, never known for his defense, adjusted to a new system.

But Wednesday nights loss to the lowly Nets, in which Boozer didnt see the floor in the fourth quarter, wasnt some rubber-hits-the-road situation. It was merely a teachable moment.

Asked about his lack of playing time after the game, an obviously frustrated Boozer told reporterstwiceYouve got to ask Thibs about that.

A multiple All-Star, gold medalist, college national champion and established playoff performer, if he didnt bristle at having to sit during the contests most crucial stretch, that would be the shocker. Of course, if the Bulls had won, hed say all the right things, as hes done consistentlyby all accounts, Boozers also walked the walk and been a model teammatesince arriving in Chicago.

But perhaps thats the issue. Since Boozers debut, the Bulls have justifiably received rave reviews. The easiest way to measure a teams performance is by wins and losses and at 23-11, the end results have been unimpeachable.

However, there have been chinks in the armor. The Bulls have beaten up on the teams theyre supposed to beat since Decembersave Wednesdays game and Vinny Del Negros triumphant return to Chicagobut, as anybody who's watched them play recently can attest to, it hasnt been pretty and with losses to the likes of the Knicks, Magic and Celtics (all likely playoff teams), theres a mild cause for concern.

Thats all big-picture stuff, however. Prior to Fridays shootaround at Philadelphias Wells Fargo Centerwhere the Bulls will take on the recently-improved 76ers, whom they beat by 45 in Chicago last monthBoozer spoke about the so-called incident.

Im looking forward to tonight and on to the next one. Like Jay rapper Jay-z said, you cant live in the past. Cant worry about what happened in New Jersey. We just know weve got to play better, have more energy, play better D and give us a chance to win tonight, Boozer told CSNChicago.com. We Boozer and Thibodeau squashed it. Its already over and done with. Im looking forward to tonight.

Thibodeau was just rolling with the guys that were making the comeback. Im not worried about it. Its not really an issue. Weve got Philly tonight and Im looking forward to a bounce-back game, Boozer told reporters. I was mad we lost. I was pissed we lost. And of course when you lose, you want to be out there to help your team playing as a competitor. I felt like if I was out there I would help my team win. Thats over and done with now. You cant go backwards. We have to move forward.

I dont worry about that being on the floor in crunch time. Thats not an issue to talk about. Im looking forward to the game tonight. Any more segues where I can get us to the game tonight? Great game tonight, he went on to joke. The starters were horrible. Thats why Coach was riding with the guys who were out there. The bench played great. They got us back in the game. The way C.J. played, the way Ronnie played, those guys got us back in. Kyle hit a couple 3s to get us going. It was a good decision. We almost won the game. Because we lost, I think everybody in the locker room was upset, not just me.

It was a tough night. No excuses. But we played the night before, we got in at 4 in the morning. Every team goes through that. It was one of those nights they got the better of us. They had three days rest. We didnt have too much of it. This is the NBA. Every team goes through that. We didnt step up to the challenge, Boozer continued, We know we didnt have the energy they had. They play better at home. They play fast. We didnt have the energy to compete with it. Looking back, we wish we could do it over again, but you cant go backwards.

Thibodeau stuck to his guns before shootaround, elaborating on his Wednesday-night explanation that the starters as a whole wasnt playing with energy and he stuck with his reserves because they gave the Bulls the best chance to beat New Jersey.

It wasnt necessarily Carlos. It was our whole team. We were low energy going into the fourth quarter, down 13 points, so we were looking to get more energy into the game and the second unit went in and they were playing well. We had to make up ground. We were down 13. They made up the 13 very quickly and I just decided to ride that group because they were playing well, said Thibodeau. It had more to do with we went small with Luol at the four to get another shooter onto the floor and again, it was more to try to keep that group together because I thought they had made up the ground. Most of the time, Carlos is certainly going to be on the floor at the end of games and I prefer to have our starters on the floor closing the game, but again, it was a game in which the third quarter wasnt a good quarter for us, the start of the game wasnt a good quarter for us, so we were just searching and thats what it boiled down to, what we felt would give us our best chance to win.

More than anything else, it was the ground we had to make up in the fourth quarter that led to, Okay, that group is playing well. How far do you ride them? Thats what we did, he continued. You have to weigh everything thats going on in the game and when we did that, it came down to we were struggling, we were slow, I wanted to get more energy into the game. I also wanted to try to make up ground, try to get more 3-point shooting on the floor and thats basically what we were trying to do.

At the same time, Boozers teammates have to notice that he isnt the best individual defender, not to mention Thibodeau and his staff. When the likes of Kris Humphries (best known for dating reality-television phenomenon Kim Kardashian) and raw rookie Derrick Favors are doing damage against Thibodeaus vaunted defense, something has to give.

While a grace period is acceptable for Boozer to raise his defensive effort to Thibodeaus high standards, the lapses witnessed in the Nets game were obvious and even could be considered somewhat of a regression, although any playeror teameven a high-profile star can be granted a bad day at work, just like the average Joe (or Josephine) doesnt give his or her best performance from nine to five daily. Thibodeau, however, wouldnt budge in his stance that the decision not to play Boozer was about sending any message.

Carlos has been great. The guys a winner and hes going to be on the floor most of the time. He and Derrick sat most of the fourth quarter and theyre cheering their teammates on and at that point, were just trying to find a way to get a win. Thats what that was all about. It wasnt about any other stuff and again, I thought our team, we were slow. We were low energy and thats what we were trying to change, said Thibodeau. I think hes doing fine and again, its not only individual defense and its easy to point, to say, Well, this guy didnt do this or that guy didnt do that, but we play team defense, so I thought we werent protecting our basketthats a team responsibilityin transition and in the halfcourt.

Its not just one guy, its the entire group, so that was the big thing about the energy. I knew we were low energy. Carlos has done a lot of good things defensively and his rebounding is terrific, but again, you have to evaluate the entire team and how its functioning.

Will this prove to be a season-long issue or a one-game hiccup and ultimately, much ado about nothing? In the words of Boozer, Youve got to ask Thibs about that.

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.

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

NBA Buzz: Nikola Mirotic making Bulls' offseason decision tougher

It's too bad Nikola Mirotic never played college basketball in the United States. He would have been fun to watch during March Madness.

For some reason, Mirotic has saved his best basketball for the month of March over his three NBA seasons. During his rookie season in 2014-15, Mirotic took advantage of injuries to a couple of the Bulls key players, and averaged 20.8 points a game with expanded playing time in March, leading all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring.

Last season, after rehabbing from two surgeries following appendicitis, Niko averaged just over 13 points a game in March, shooting better than 53 percent from deep.

And this season, Mirotic is averaging 14.2 points on 47.9% shooting from the field during his favorite month. Since he re-entered the rotation back on March 13, Mirotic has been even better, averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land.

It appeared Mirotic's time with the Bulls was coming to an end when Fred Hoiberg held him out of three straight games earlier this month, including a spot on the inactive list in Boston on March 12. At that point, Mirotic talked openly of not knowing why he had been taken out of the rotation. Now, he might be the key to the Bulls' playoff hopes.

Mirotic has scored a season-high 28 points each in two of the last three games.

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, "The big thing with Niko is he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. Anybody who's a shooter, they play with confidence, the game's a lot easier. He's not hesitating at all with his shots. He's taking good shots in the flow of the offense. When Jimmy and Rajon get in the paint, and Niko's spacing the floor, it's a great look and right now he's knocking them down."

So, right now all is good for the 26-year-old native of Montenegro. But it's hard to look past the inconsistency that's marked his NBA career. Mirotic is averaging 10.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his three NBA seasons, shooting  41 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Not exactly the numbers Bulls' fans expected from the guy considered to be one of the best prospects in Europe when he was drafted in 2011. 

Now, as Mirotic gets ready to head into restricted free agency this summer, the Bulls are faced with a difficult decision. Are they willing to pay more than $10 million a year for a player who's been so inconsistent in the NBA? Or, do they let Mirotic walk and risk the possibility the light will suddenly come on for a 6-foot-10 stretch forward that every team in the league could utilize?

The Bulls have 2015 first-round pick Bobby Portis under contract for next season, and Paul Zipser and Joffrey Lauvergne also could be in the mix for playing time at the power forward spot. And, there's always the chance the Bulls could get in the bidding for big name free agents Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap.

But after trading Doug McDermott at the deadline, the Bulls are painfully short on 3-point shooting threats, and that might lead the front office to decide they'll need to overpay to keep Mirotic around.

It's just one of the tough decisions the Bulls front office faces in what promises to be a fascinating off-season.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

It's been another tough season in Phoenix. Despite adding a number of lottery picks in recent years, the Suns currently own the third-worst record in the league. Maybe that's why the players were celebrating with so much energy during a loss in Boston last Friday, watching second year guard Devin Booker explode for 70 points.

Booker becomes only the 6th NBA player to hit the 70-point plateau, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson and Elgin Baylor. The baby-faced 20-year-old shooting guard connected on 21 of 40 shots from the field (only 4-11 from 3-point range), plus 24 of 26 from the free-throw line.

With the game hopelessly out of reach in the 4th quarter the Suns kept feeding the ball to Booker to see how high he could push his point total. It might not have pleased basketball purists, but it sure was fun for the Suns' players during their 51st loss of the year.

Phoenix added a pair of young big men in last year's draft, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, and they have a deep backcourt with Booker, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. So, is there a chance they could enter the bidding for Bulls' star Jimmy Butler this summer?

Would a top-3 pick and Bledsoe be enough for Butler? Or would the Bulls prefer a couple of the Suns' young frontcourt players, Bender, Alex Len or T.J. Warren to go along with the pick?

With seven or eight elite prospects at the top of this year's draft, the Bulls will have some options if they decide to go the total rebuild route.

If the Bulls do go shopping for a Butler deal, don't count on Boston still being interested this summer. In case you haven't noticed, the Celtics moved ahead of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the East earlier this week, and Danny Ainge might decide he can build a championship team without making a major trade.

The Celtics already have two All-Star caliber players on the roster in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, and if the pick they have coming from Brooklyn remains in the top 3, Ainge will be able to add an elite young player like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson. After holding on to those Brooklyn picks for so long in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, it's hard to imagine Ainge changing direction now.

Plus, the Celtics also will have enough salary cap room to go after a top free agent, and they've long been linked to Jazz star Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler. It's possible the Celtics could come back next season with a lineup of Thomas and Fultz/Ball in the backcourt, with Horford, Hayward and Jae Crowder up front. Maybe not the star power to match Cleveland, but certainly a team that could contend in the East for a number of years to come.

Former Bulls' All-Star Joakim Noah met with the New York media to discuss his 20 game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance contained in an over the counter supplement he was taking. 

"I made a mistake. It was a tough year for me, for this team," Noah told reporters after returning to practice Tuesday. "... I let a lot of people down. It was a mistake. And I gotta learn from it and bounce back. This is a tough moment and I'm going to learn from it."

Noah said he used the supplement to try to help him bounce back from a hamstring injury he suffered in early February. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year then had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on February 27 to remove loose fragments.

The Knicks are hoping he can get medical clearance to serve part of the 20-game suspension this season, with the remaining time served at the start of the 2017-18 season. Noah still has three more years left on the four-year, $72 million contract he signed with Phil Jackson's Knicks last summer.

Kevin Durant continues to work his way back from the sprained knee he suffered on February 28th in Washington. The Warriors released a statement on Wednesday saying Durant has made very good progress in his rehab and will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days. The hope is to have Durant play a few regular season games over the final week to get him ready for the playoffs.

Durant has been traveling with the team, going through pre-game workouts monitored by the medical and training staff. The plan is to increase his level of movement over the next few days to see how the knee responds.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Even though the Bulls haven't won back-to-back games since February 24 and 25, the players continue to remain confident about their playoff chances.

This from Mirotic following practice on Wednesday, "We have to depend on just ourselves and pray basically. Hopefully we can be there...... I think we deserve it. The attitude of the team is great right now. We're sticking together even after that tough loss against Philly, we bounce back against Milwaukee. So, right now, we've got another chance."

The Bulls probably need to go 5-3 over the final eight games to make the postseason. After a season of ups and downs, it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to put together a stretch of solid basketball during the final two weeks.