Bulls capture NBA's best record with victory

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Bulls capture NBA's best record with victory

Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Posted: 9:42 p.m. Updated: 11:58 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Although the Bulls (62-20) didnt win their regular-season finale in classic fashion, the 97-92 victory over the visiting Nets at the United Center Wednesday night did demonstrate one of their strengths all season: their depth, in the form of the Bench Mob, the nickname for Chicagos reserves. In a game featuring unlikely protagonists on both sides, the Bulls withstood a strong challenge from the visiting Nets to hold on late and clinch the NBAs best overall record heading into Saturdays playoff opener against the Indiana Pacers.

WATCH: Rose shares his thoughts on Indiana

Of course, thats always good, but our next step is getting prepared for the playoffs. We knew that we made this game tonight harder than what it was, Derrick Rose acknowledged of the teams 62-win season. It took our bench to come in and play great for us to win. Now were looking forward to the playoffs.

With an inferior opponent in town, it first appeared as if the Bulls had finally gone mainstream, feeding into the notion that these types of affairs were better for resting than actual performance. The lowly Nets were competitive at the outsetthe likes of Sasha Vujacic (10 points) and Stephen Graham (11 points) were de facto go-to guysputting the Bulls on their heels early in the first quarter.

But Chicago hadnt come all this way to wave the white flag and created some breathing room, overpowering the visitors with their considerable advantage in star power, particularly low-post duo Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah (10 points, 10 rebounds).

Noahwho started despite tweaking his ankle the previous evening, continued to show progress by playing with his usual high energy level. Despite his protests to the contrary, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau substituted some of his starterssuch as Rose (15 points) and Luol Deng (11 points), who both typically play heavy minutesand behind balanced scoring, the Bulls ended the opening period with a 26-20 lead.

WATCH: Deng discusses the Bulls mindset

The Bulls positive trend continued in the second quarter, as they increased their winning margin to double digits, with Thibodeau giving his reserves ample playing time. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver (19 points) and little-used midseason acquisition Rasual Butler (10 points) each made it rain from the outside, while Chicagos stingy defense caused the Nets misery on the other end.

As has been customary, however, the Bulls intensity decreased and their guests capitalized, gradually coming back behind point guard Jordan Farmar (21 points, 12 assists)superstar floor general Deron Williams was out due to wrist surgeryand backup big man Johan Petro (13 points, eight rebounds). At the half, however, the Bulls were able to maintain a 50-43 advantage.

After the intermission, New Jersey shocked the United Center crowd by jumping out to a double-digit lead, sparked by a 13-0 run that raised the question of whether the two teams had changed identities. Brook Lopez (19 points) came alive for the Nets and with the talented center playing in a motivated fashion, the visitors stunned their hosts in taking control of the contest.

READ: Bulls-Pacers 1st round schedule

At the start of the third, as a team, we were low energy and thats when we got into a hole, so we were looking to change things up from there, said Thibodeau. I didnt want to put the starters back in.

Deng concurred: The guys were big. The starters, we were out there trying. Were digging deep, were trying. It was a tough game, physically and mentally, but our bench has been there all year and they were ready.

Adding injury to insult, Noah bumped knees and was forced to leave the contestworse, in the midst of one his trademark double-double outingssending Bulls fans into a state of panic.
WATCH: Noah says he's feeling fine

Im fine, Noah said afterwards. This is so exciting right now I think that once you step on to the court, youre numb to all that stuff.

I just felt like I was running the floor better today and I was just moving a lot better. Im still a work in process, the center went on to say. Im still not where I want to be, but Im hoping that when the playoffs start, the environment gets me going a little bit more.

Added Thibodeau: I think hes fine.

I thought he played very well in the first half. I thought his energy was extremely high, he was active, offensive rebounding, blocking shots, running the post, sprinting the floor, high energy, he continued. To me, that was a great sign. Thats two games in a row where his activity was really high.

WATCH: Thibodeau on a "new season"

But led by Rose, Chicago put a halt to the Nets spurt, tying the contest at 68 apiece after three quarters, following a jumper by Korver in the waning seconds of the period.

The Bulls Bench Mob (sans the injured Ronnie Brewer, who sprained his right thumb Tuesday in New York) couldnt pull away from the Nets in the close-knit affair, despite the efforts of Korver, who carried the offensive load for Chicago. By tightening up their defenseor New Jersey playing to their usual standardsthe Bulls were primed to salvage the contest as the stretch run approached.

The bench was great, really good and I think it says a lot about Rasual. Hes been a great pro, stays ready, practices hard, great teammate and made a lot of big plays for us, said Thibodeau, highlighting the play of Butler, who has already become popular in Chicagos locker room. I wanted to play our bench more today and cut back on the starters minutes a little bit, but just the way the game was unfolding, we were looking for a group that could give us something.

Chimed in Noah: The Bench Mob has been saving us and playing great all year. We wouldnt have 62 wins and had the season that we had if wasnt for them.

WATCH: Boozer feeling proud

With both Korver and Butler coming up big late in the back-and-forth affair, the Bulls trailed by a point before Butler knocked down a corner triple with 46.1 seconds remaining to give the home team a 92-90 lead. While New Jersey would threaten the late leadincluding a muffed Taj Gibson (nine points, eight rebounds) jump ballthe Bulls survived and kept their positive momentum heading into Saturdays playoff opener.

Sixty-two is a great number and were definitely happy about it, but were not satisfied. We dont want it to end here. Now its a new season, said Noah. I dont think it changes anything. At the end of the day, the best record doesnt help you win a basketball game. Youve got to go in there with the mindset of being on edge for 48 minutes, be really focused and understand that its going to be tough, and were going to go through a lot togethergood times, hard timesand through all of it, weve got to stick together. When we realize that, we can do something special.

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.

Dwyane Wade would like clarity on Bulls' direction before making decision

Dwyane Wade would like clarity on Bulls' direction before making decision

If there’s one thing that’s been in short order for the Bulls over the last year or so, clarity would be first on the list.

So Dwyane Wade would certainly like to have a little of that before heading into the summer of evaluating his place with the franchise and whether or not he’ll pick up his $23.8 million option for next season.

The Bulls’ front office signed players like Wade and Rajon Rondo last summer for the “now”, and then traded dependable veteran Taj Gibson for the “future”, along with management’s repeated flirtations with the prospect of trading Jimmy Butler for the last two years.

The only thing consistent about the Bulls’ front office strategy has been the inconsistency and their desire to have flexibility in the future. For the now, they’ve positioned themselves to have flexibility to go in one direction or the other, to be contenders or hit the button on a rebuild that could take years to recover from.

Wade has called his experience a mostly positive one, although there’s been some hiccups in his return home to Chicago. After Friday night’s series-ending loss to the Boston Celtics, Wade called it a “weird season” and seemed to echo the same big picture feelings Saturday.

He also seemed to shoot down the thought of being a prime recruiter for the franchise even if he does opt-in, considering his role in bringing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami to help the Heat win two championships and get to the NBA Finals in each of the four seasons they were together.

“It happened at a time in Miami where it just so happened one of my good friends is one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball on the planet (James),” he said. “This is now. It's a different time. It's all about the picture that's presented to everyone here and what the goal and future is gonna look like. It's not just about, 'oh we have Dwyane'. Dwyane ain't gonna play that much longer, not forever.”

Wade had five 30-point games in 59 games this season, being on pace to play 71 before breaking bones in his right elbow in mid-March. His numbers weren’t too dissimilar from last year in Miami, with the exception of more 3-point attempts at the urging of the roster construction.

Repeating that type of performance in Year 15 is feasible, one would think, even if he’s closer to the finish line than starting blocks.

“If I could say anything, if there’s one word I could pull out it’s just different,” Wade said. “I expected it to be different. I only played in one organization my entire career, but the biggest thing is I came here and I was embraced. Not only by the city, by up top. I was embraced by the coaches, the players, and it was some good moments and some bad moments, just like every season. But I don’t regret my decision at all.”

Wade has at least a month or so before he believes he has to truly think about what he’ll do, and let management know that in exit interviews at the Advocate Center Saturday afternoon.

“We just talked face to face and touched bases,” Wade said. “We really left it at as we would touch base in a few weeks. No matter where I’m at in the world, we’ll fly and meet somewhere and talk about it.”

Somewhere, he’ll also have a conversation with the player he came to Chicago to pair with in Butler, as one can’t help but think their futures are inextricably tied. If Butler goes in some trade, one would think Wade wouldn’t be gung-ho about signing back on to play with Romper Room.

Being on a team where he’s not as depended on nightly for it to be successful could factor in, as he was the second-best player behind Butler. One wonders if he would be better served as the third-best option or even fourth—meaning he would likely be on a team contending for a championship if he were to fall on the pecking order.

“I have a great luxury. I don't need to ring chase, but I can,” Wade said. “It's a great luxury to have if I want to do. Or I can be a part of passing down my knowledge to younger players. It's either way. Whatever I decide, I'm going to embrace whatever role I have on a team. That's sometimes being the second option. Sometimes I'm going to be the first. And sometimes this season, I had to be the third or fourth.”

[MORE: BullsTalk Podcast - Top-seeded Celtics too much to handle for Bulls]

Considering he’ll be 36 next January with 14 years of NBA wear and tear on his body, that paycheck might not be enough to keep him around.

“Well, obviously it is a Dwyane Wade decision. Jimmy is, you know, a huge component in me being here. You know, what’s his future like? But at the end of the day it is a me decision,” Wade said. “But everyone knows that Jimmy’s my guy, and I’m here because of our conversation [last summer]. But a lot of it depends on the whole big picture. Not just one piece. Jimmy’s a big piece, but it’s a big picture as an organization. Just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.’’

But on the other side, he also arrived in Chicago due to perceived disrespect from a Miami Heat franchise that didn’t pay him what he deemed worthy. Opting out after one year of a big deal to face an unknown market is a risk considering the salary sacrifices he made with the Heat.

“I don’t really go with the signs, I’m not a predictable person, I don’t think,” Wade said. “I don’t know. It’s not a bad thing for me. I’m in a good situation. Whether there’s a lot of options or not, I’m in a very good situation. As a player, you can decide what you want to do. And I have a lot of money to decide if I want to take it or not. It’s not a bad thing, because I worked my butt of for it over my career, so no rush in my mind.”

That’s where the clarity comes in, as Wade indicated the front office said it wants a clear path moving forward. On a team that had so many young players thrust into prominent positions then shuffled out of them, one wonders if they’ll pick a few to grow with and then try to replace the rest with veteran reinforcements to maximize Butler’s prime and Wade’s time.

Either way, the limbo is a bit old, it seems from all parties involved.

“Yeah, we definitely talked. We said it to each other. I think they want a defined vision and view of where they're going too,” Wade said. “And as players, with player options, you want that too. I want that. I want it smack dead in my face. Of how it's gonna be. And from them, too. What their thought of my role or position could be here. All of it. It's not just one-sided. It's definitely from both sides.”

“I look forward to the opportunity where we sit down and have that face to face about what both sides wanna to do. Either way it goes, whether it’s me here, not here, it'll be something that's mutually talked about. I'm a firm believer in talking to people, and I will never make a decision and not tell them I'm making a decision, whether I come back or not, I'll definitely talk to those guys and be very open about where my mind is and what I'm thinking and I want them to be the same way.”

Communication was a big part of the Wade experience this season, whether he returns or not. He seemed to be more invested than people would’ve expected earlier in the season, before the Jan. 25 loss to the Atlanta Hawks where the Bulls blew a 10-point lead in the final three minutes.

Wade and Butler called out their teammates in the postgame, followed by Rondo crafting an Instagram post the next day calling out Wade and Butler. It was a firestorm of the worst kind.

Some would’ve called it necessary considering Wade’s standing in the league but the Bulls believed otherwise, fining Wade and Butler and then benching the two the next game against Miami.

It seemed to sting Wade, who believed his opinions were valued by the organization because of his experience, and that type of pushback had never happened to him in Miami.

“As a player, obviously I want to use my voice the way I want to use it,” Wade said. “As an organization, they didn’t appreciate the way that it was said _ not what I said, but the way I said it. As I told Gar, I respect the decision on whatever they decided to do. I respected it, just like what I decided to do when I said what I said. My biggest thing with my message was just wanting to _ you can always look back on it and say, yeah, I could have done this, I could have done it differently.”

He tried to laugh it off in his media session but it clearly bothered him, at least in hindsight.

“You’ve got young guys, their whole career is in front of them,” Wade said. “I do things a certain way. I’ve done it in Miami. It’s just the way it is. I would do it again if I’m put in that position. But I respected their decision to fine me. I didn’t like the benching part. But I definitely respected their decision to fine me. It’s their organization. And what they decide from at the top, you live with it.”

But the difference between how Wade saw things and the young players dealing with inconsistencies was a direct result of how the team was put together and the fact the Bulls had a young coach in Fred Hoiberg who’s still learning his voice.

His level of patience in any process—even franchise purgatory—has to be speculated about. Most believe he wants to play two more years and evaluate his career from there.

“Losing, like I said, it’s never easy, especially when you’ve won championships before. Whenever you lose it always sucks, but you sit back and reflect on the positive, you look at the things that came out of it, and there’s always some good, more than bad. When you’re playing basketball for money at the top level, it’s not all bad. I definitely don’t regret my decision of being here this season.’’

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."