Monday, March 14, 2011Posted: 4:15 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
Saturdays 16-point, eight-assist, five-rebound outing from C.J. Watson was more of the same. Not necessarily for the backup point guard specificallyalthough hes been consistently consistent in relief of All-Star Derrick Rose latelybut for the Bulls entire bench.
Pick a reserve in Tom Thibodeaus rotationWatson, swingmen Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, young big men Taj Gibson and Omer Asikand odds are, hell have his moment in the spotlight sooner than later. In fact, as well as the Bulls starters have played, it can be argued that the collective performance of the second unit has gotten the team over the hump in the majority of its victories since the All-Star break.
Theyre consistent, man. They always come in, play hard, they practice well together. They like playing together, I think thats the thing, observed Rose. Thibs is doing a great job with them, with the early group, (a pre-practice session Thibodeau uses to go over plays) they come in and go over the offense all the time and theyve just got everything going for them right now.
Chimed in fellow starter Joakim Noah: Our bench has been playing huge for us.
I feel like we just come in waves.
Indeed, the emergence of the second unit has overwhelmed many an opponent recently, as the Bulls bring athleticism, size and length on the interior (Gibson and Asik), outside shooting (Korver and Watson), defensive ball pressure (Brewer and Watson) and an unselfish, up-tempo brand of controlled chaos. Thibodeau has grown so fond of their chemistry and production that upon the return of Joakim Noah, he removed veteran Kurt Thomas from the starting lineupkeeping the Gibson-Asik pairing intactthen reinserted Thomas into the first unit when starting power forward Carlos Boozer went down with a sprained ankle last week.
I like the way both units play. I didn't want to change our second unit because of the way we're playing. Kurt, when he was starting when Jo was out, functioned extremely well with the starting unit, so we're going to stay with that, said Thibodeau. They Gibson and Asik complement each other extremely well and it's not only those two, it's the entire unit. The way they're playing together, I think it's a big asset for us and they've given us a lot. I don't want to change that, so we try to keep that unit together as much as we can.
On most nights, Thibodeau brings in Brewer and Gibson for Keith Bogans and Boozer, respectively, during the first quarter of games, instantly upping the teams athleticism and increasing transition opportunities, which suits the explosive Roses game. To start the second period, Asik and Watson join the crew, leaving Deng as the lone Bulls starter in the contest until Korver replaces him.
Deng, who is among the leagues leaders in minutes per game, has a simple explanation for why Chicagos bench has been so successful: The second unit, I think they've been doing a good job of outplaying every other second unit. They've been really consistent all year doing that.
Indeed, upon closer examination, it makes sense that the Bulls reserves have an advantage over other benches. Brewer was a starter for the majority of his tenure in Utah, Gibson started 70 games as a rookie last season (as well as the beginning of this campaign, when Boozer was sidelined), Korver has been a key rotation player his entire career and Watson played major minutes with Golden State, his previous team.
That second team, nobody really wants that attention. Were not worried about who gets the shots. If were down, we do anything that it takes to get it going. Sometimes we start out slow, sometimes they the starters build a lead for us. We dont want to be the people who lose the lead. We want to be that group that maintains it or furthers the lead, Brewer told CSNChicago.com. Were all unselfish players, we make extra passes and we start with defense. When you start with defense, that allows us to get easy offensive plays and easy baskets. When you get easy baskets, you're confidence level gets a lot higher.
Its really hard to defend us because I think a lot of guys do so many different things that you can't focus on one person.
Added Gibson: Weve got guys that could normally start on a lot of teams in this league. Our second unit is a good unit. We understand what we have to do, we understand what it takes to win and everybody just knows their role. Everybody understands the game and thats whats so beneficial to our team.
Its been the presence of the teams sole rookie, however, that has further solidified the unit. Rough around the edges to start the seasonfoul trouble and uneven offensive play were his primary issues; the latter still occasionally plagues himAsiks international experience, physical play and defensive acumen have made him not only a fan favorite, but a player that the close-knit squad supports wholeheartedly, often rising from the bench as a group to praise his play as a form of encouragement.
Omer's been playing huge for us lately and I think he's playing more and more confident every game, said Noah. He's been bringing a lot of energy for us off the bench and he's been a huge presence for us at the rim.
Omer is somebody, from just watching him play this summer in the World Championships, I knew he was somebody that was going to help us right away, he continued. I'm glad that he's with us because he's helping us win ballgames right now.
A prime example of that was Asiks performance in Orlando against All-Star center Dwight Howard. With Noah battling foul trouble, Asik played a career-high 31 minutes, snatching 13 rebounds before fouling out himself, but not before frustrating Howard and being the catalyst to the Bulls win.
Statistically, that night was a highlight for the first-year Turkish playerhe told CSNChicago.com afterward that its fun playing against the best center in the NBAas was his 11-rebound performance in a home win over Miami, but numbers dont do him or any of the other reserves justice. Like Watsons game Saturday (the point guards individual best this season came in Roses absence, when he scored 33 points in a buzzer-beating loss at Denver), the way the unit has been functioning as a whole recently has been impressive, compared to solitary moments of excellence.
Take Gibson, for example. His aforementioned rookie campaign and starting stint this season might have led to hard feelings when supplanted by Boozer, but after fighting through sporadic injury woes, hes bounced back to find his groove as an energy player, scorer when called upon and half of a dynamic defensive duo with Asik.
It's all about my teammates. The point guards make it easy for me. Working out with Booz and Joakim and Kurt and Omer is making things real easy for me. Just taking my time, fitting in where I fit in. Guys know their roles and guys come in playing hard. One thing about coming off the bench, you know what you've got to do. Come in, provide energy, play solid defense and get ready to take that next shot, said the second-year pro. It was just trying to find a niche after going down with the injuries, just trying to get back in the swing of things and lately it's been coming together.
A 14-point, six-rebound night in a win at Charlotte last weekthe same game during which Boozer was hurtis evidence of that process. Likewise for current and former teammates Korver and Brewer.
Coming into the season, both free-agent acquisitions expected to challenge for the starting shooting-guard spot, but thats been occupied by veteran Keith Bogans. Bogans isnt the scorer Korver is or the athlete Brewer is, but his experience, toughness and understanding of Thibodeaus system gave him the edge.
Instead of sulking about the decision, both players made the best of the situationthey actually play more minutes than Bogans, who usually starts each half, but doesnt return after being replaced by Brewer; Korver typically finishes games, so the Bulls can utilize his deadly perimeter jumperand while their respective strengths (Brewer as a defender, particularly playing the passing lanes; Korver as a shooter) are obvious, theyve also made strides in other areas, while also displaying some subtle hidden talents.
Brewers finishing abilityusually on fast breaks or on the baseline, whether slashing or cuttinghas been a boon to the team and he has paired with Watson to harass opposing ball handlers into turnovers, jump-starting the Bulls transition game, but hes also proven to be an underrated mid-range shooter and a jack of all trades, who contributes with his play-making ability, rebounding and willingness to do the dirty work. Meanwhile, Korver has lived up to his billing as a sharpshooter, but his defense has improved and his passing skills have been much better than advertised.
Brewer isnt a prolific scorer, but hes been consistent all seasonrecent games include an eight-point, four-rebound, four-steal game in a win over the Heat and in the aforementioned Charlotte game, he came up with 10 points, three apiece of rebounds and assists, as well as one steal and blocked shot eachbut hes almost guaranteed one passing-lane steal and fast-break finish a game and a scoring output of between six and 12 points, depending on the flow of the game. Korver, like all shooters, has varying degrees of hot and cold nights, but with penetration from either Watson or Rose setting him up, hes been getting wide-open looks and knocking down shots with regularity.
One of the strengths of the team is how deep we are. I dont want to brag, but when we go at it in practice, the white team the second unit usually beats the black team the starters, Korver joked. We have a lot of confidence. Weve got guys that have been playing in the league for a long time. Weve got Omer, whos still learning the game, but has a whole lot of potential. It seems that every night, weve got somebody different stepping up.
A lot of guys had to step up early in the year. You don't want guys to go downthe starters start for a reason and we want them on the courtbut weve had other guys step up all year.
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.