Bulls impress former champs, move into first

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Bulls impress former champs, move into first

Saturday, March 12, 2011
Posted 9:52 p.m. Updated 10:58 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A halftime ceremony for the 20th anniversary of the franchises first title perhaps overshadowed an evening when the Bulls (47-18) tied Boston for first place in the Eastern Conference, following a 118-100 win over the Jazz (34-33) Saturday night, the teams sixth consecutive triumph.

WATCH: 1991 Bulls ceremony

After a stellar first-half performance complete with a 17-point first-quarter outburst from All-Star point guard Derrick Rose and a team record-setting three-point shooting mark with 18 shots from deep the Bulls let their foot off the gas a bit, but their huge lead was enough to carry them to victory.

Given the beginning of the contest, the second half wasnt played with the focus the Bulls have emphasized all season. Given the distractions at hand, however, that should probably have been expected.

We didnt want to lose, thats the biggest thing, Rose told CSNChicago.com in a United Center hallway afterwards, as Bulls legends Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant briefly offered postgame congratulations to the young star. It was an honor being in their presence. You just saw how the fans treated them and you wanted to be in their shoes one day.

Whether motivated by the upcoming halftime ceremony or not, the Bulls certainly played inspired, getting out to an 11-0 start, with Joakim Noah (16 points, nine rebounds) scoring six points in the run after a scoreless outing the previous evening. Despite a Jazz timeout, the onslaught continued, as Chicago s defensive intensity overwhelmed the visitors, coached by former DePaul star and longtime NBA player Tyrone Corbin.

WATCH: Noah loves praise

With luminaries such as Michael Jordan looking on, Rose got off to a quick start hitting four of his first five shot attempts, all from long range, prompting the now-customary M-V-P chant earlier than usual as did Luol Deng (26 points, seven rebounds, six assists), allowing the Bulls to maintain their double-figure advantage. The lead ballooned to 20 by the opening periods end, capped by Roses fifth three-pointer of the quarter at the buzzer, giving Chicago a 37-17 lead.

Nothing, Rose, a major reason why Chicago set records for made triples in a quarter and half, told CSNChicago.com when asked about what adjustments he made in his shooting stroke, as he had been struggling from deep as of late. Just keep shooting. I told you, Im not going to stop shooting. Im not the one. Everybody gives me confidence to shoot and tonight, they were just falling.

Added Deng: We came out aggressive. We did a good job, we shot the ball well, we got stops and we went up. It was a great atmosphere, too. We were excited to start the game and we did a good job. Derrick was making great plays.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau employed a lineup of five reserves to start the second quarter (as opposed to four members of the second unit and Deng) and his second unit responded well, as the home teams lead was extended even further.

It was a group effort, as the perimeter shooting of C.J. Watson (the backup point guard shot 3-for-3 on three-pointers, while also notching three apiece of rebounds and assists) and Kyle Korver (12 second-quarter points, 17 points overall, 3-for-3 from three-point range), combined with the inside play of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik was too much for Utah to handle.

Thibodeau filtered his starters back into the contest by then, the lead was approaching a 30-point margin to close out the half and although Jazz big man Al Jefferson (the man who replaced currently sidelined Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer in Utah) and reserve swingman C.J. Miles (13 points) attempted to provide the United Center guests with some semblance of a scoring punch, Utah was unable to significantly chip into the deficit. At the intermission, Chicago held a 68-41 lead.

Theres no doubt that when you see the love that those guys get, its well deserved. When were on the road and we get the love that we get, a lot of it is because of what they did, said Noah. The Bulls are a franchise that is recognized all over the world and it is because of those guys. To be part of that is something very special. Were trying to do something special to respect the tradition.

Through the early portion of the third quarter, the Bulls maintained their comfortable advantage, as the Jazz perhaps shell-shocked from the first half were unable to mount much of a challenge for the time being. However, the visitors gradually cut into the seemingly insurmountable deficit and when Chicagos lead dipped to under 20 points.

Thibodeau, dissatisfied with turnovers, defensive lapses and generally sloppy execution, put a halt to the proceedings to refocus his squad.

I was concerned at halftime. We were taking a lot of threes. The first thing we did when we came out was take a three instead of establishing our inside-out game, said Thibodeau afterwards. You have a tendency to relax. Keeping your focus is critical. I knew going in, it would be a tough game. We came off back-to-back and a lot of games in a week.

The powerful Jefferson (33 points, 18 rebounds) continued to be an inside force for Utah and coupled with balanced scoring from his supporting cast and the Bulls offensive inefficiency despite the respective scoring efforts of Rose and Deng the visitors made the score look somewhat more manageable. Heading into the final stanza, the home team still led, 88-71.

Jefferson continued to torment the Bulls early in the fourth period, but after an early-quarter adjustment by Thibodeau via timeout, Dengs scoring and Watsons (16 points, eight assists) blend of playmaking helped the second unit steady the ship. Thibodeau went back to his starters, who came out with more energy.

Thibodeau paired Watson with Rose to counter Utahs smallish backcourt and the quiet Las Vegas native, freed from the responsibility of running the offense, knocked down a triple, prompting Corbin to call timeout midway through the quarter, as the gap between the teams again threatened to hit 20 points again. Utah didnt wilt, playing an up-tempo style in order to play catch-up at a rapid pace, but Chicago always seemed to have an answer.

Thats any NBA team. Theyre going to play hard, Rose told CSNChicago.com. We slacked on defense a little bit, but we were able to finish the game out.

A basket-for-basket exchange had taken hold of the contest and while that style isnt favored by Thibodeau, the Bulls lead appeared to simply be too much for the Jazz to overcome. While Jefferson was almost unstoppable in the low post, point guard Devin Harris (24 points) found his touch, but Noah and Deng took turns carrying the scoring load down the stretch to finish off the Jazz.

As far as the games significance in the standings, Deng took a familiar, focused tact.

It doesnt mean anything, said Deng of tying the Celtics for first place in the East. We play Washington next game. Thats going to be our main focus.

Chimed in Thibodeau: We are still chasing. I want us to continue to improve every game. The really good teams do that. The whole idea is to play your best at the end of the season and to be as healthy as you can. That is what we are striving for. Weve been playing solid and we have a lot of room for improvement.

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

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NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

Thursday's trade with Oklahoma City points out the problem with trying to stay in playoff contention while also rebuilding the roster with more young and athletic players.

The Bulls obviously hurt their postseason chances by dealing locker-room leader and rock-solid pro Taj Gibson and their best 3-point shooter in Doug McDermott. And, at first glance, the players they got back don't look very impressive.

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made it clear that one of the objectives in Thursday's deal was to free up playing time for his last two first-round draft picks, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis. He also made it clear that newly acquired point guard Cameron Payne would play a lot over the final 25 games of the season.

So, how does Fred Hoiberg now deal with an unwieldy number of players expecting to get minutes? If Payne is going to play, that probably means Rajon Rondo is out of the rotation. But will Rondo sit by quietly so the Bulls can preserve his $14 million salary slot for possible trades this summer? Or will the front office be forced to offer him a contract buyout?

And what about the other two players acquired in the Oklahoma City deal? Long-range specialist Anthony Morrow is suffering through one of the worst seasons of his career, hitting just 29 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. Will he get the minutes previously given to McDermott, or is he a candidate for a buyout? Paxson cryptically said Morrow's role is "still to be defined."

Joffrey Lauvergne, a 6-foot-11 center, has some ability, but he's a restricted free agent at season's end and it's hard to project him getting any meaningful playing time behind Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio.

So let's add it all up. Hoiberg now has four point guards — five if you count Isaiah Canaan — and three centers to juggle, plus he'll have to find minutes for Valentine, Morrow and Paul Zipser at the wing spots behind Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

How will Portis fare as the new starting power forward? And what to do with Nikola Mirotic? His fading confidence is probably at a new low after the team's failed efforts to find him a new home before the deadline.

It will be fascinating to see if this team can manage to hold onto a playoff spot after losing Gibson and McDermott, to say nothing of the maddening inconsistency we've witnessed over the first 57 games of the season.

Good health will be critical, with the team's two best players, Butler and Wade, each enduring some bumps and bruises in the final weeks leading up to the All-Star break. We've seen what the Bulls look like without Butler, and it's not pretty. They're 1-5 in the games Butler missed because of illness and a right heel contusion.

The story is different when Wade has been out. The Bulls are 5-4 in the games he's missed because of illness, injury or just plain rest. Still, the 12-time All Star has shown the ability to raise the level of his play when the games matter most, and you can expect he'll be a big factor for the Bulls down the stretch. Don't forget, Wade almost single-handedly took an undermanned Miami team to within a win of the Eastern Conference Finals last season with a turn-back-the-clock playoff performance.

Hard to gain much from looking at the remaining schedule. Only 11 of the remaining 25 opponents have winning records, but we've all seen how that's gone in the past. If the Bulls can head into April around .500, they should be in position to make a strong closing run with a pair of matchups against the NBA's worst team, Brooklyn, along with games against the Pelicans, Knicks, 76ers and Magic to close out the regular season.

Of course, since Hoiberg has been told to give significant minutes to Portis, Valentine and Payne the rest of the way, it's possible making the playoffs isn't quite as important as it was at the start of the season. Questions about Butler's future will start up again as we approach the NBA Draft in June since Paxson wouldn't commit to trying to build around the three-time All Star, and if Butler goes, it's a pretty safe bet that Wade follows him out the door.

Life's never easy in the NBA when you're stuck in the middle. Maybe the trade with Oklahoma City is the signal we've been waiting for that a full rebuild is on the horizon.

[MORE BULLS: What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

Off to see the Wizards

The Wizards have been on fire since Dec. 12, putting together a 25-12 record. In case you haven't noticed, fourth-year forward Otto Porter is among the league leaders in 3-point percentage, shooting 46.5 percent to go along with 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. It's going to cost the Wizards a small fortune to sign the restricted free agent this summer.

Washington's backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal is finally starting to reach the potential everyone saw when the Wizards upset the Bulls in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. The two are combining for an average of 45 points and 14 assists per game, with Wall now a perennial All Star capable of taking over games with his scoring and playmaking. Beal probably should have made the Eastern Conference All-Star team as well with his 22.2 points per game scoring average, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from behind the 3-point line.

The Wizards also made an under-the-radar pick-up, getting Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn for a first-round pick in this summer's draft. You probably haven't watched a lot of Brooklyn Nets basketball over the last couple years, but Bogdanovic is a good 3-point shooter who can also score off the dribble, averaging 14 points a game this season, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range. Bogdanovic will be a major upgrade for a Wizards bench that's struggled this season.

Moving to Canada

Toronto made two good moves before the deadline, acquiring a starting power forward in Serge Ibaka and a backup small forward in P.J. Tucker. Ibaka's ability to block shots and stretch the floor from the 3-point line should help the Raptors on both ends, while Tucker gives them another strong perimeter defender to go along with DeMarre Carroll in a possible playoff series against LeBron James and the Cavs.

LeBron loading up

Speaking of the Cavs, they're expected to add former Illini star Deron Williams to their bench once he clears waivers and completes a buyout with Dallas. Williams gives Cleveland the additional playmaker James has been demanding for the last couple months and sets up a potentially epic Finals matchup against Golden State. Williams gets a chance to compete for a championship late in his career, and he's still capable of being a difference maker in big games, averaging 13 points and seven assists per game. Cleveland is now loaded in the backcourt with Kyrie Irving, Williams, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and swingman Kyle Korver.

No luck for the Celtics

The one contending team that didn't make a move at the deadline is Boston. Danny Ainge talked trade with the Bulls about Butler and with Indiana about Paul George, but in the end he wasn't willing to give up those precious Brooklyn first-round draft picks he's been hoarding for years. Keep in mind the Celtics reportedly love University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz, who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, and they'll have enough cap room to make a run at free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler.

Even with the addition of Butler or George, the Celtics might not have been able to take down King James and the Cavs in this year's playoffs, but they are still lurking as the rising power in the East. Now, we'll all have to wait to see what Ainge does in the days leading up to the draft.

Quote of the week

Gibson gave the Chicago media one last lengthy session before boarding a private jet with McDermott to their new home in Oklahoma City.

On his time in Chicago: "Every day I came to the locker room just seeing my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true."

So what will it be like to join a new team after eight and a half seasons in Chicago? "I'm like a kid going to a new school. I don't know where to sit on the bus."

Something tells me Russell Westbrook and the Thunder will let Gibson have any seat he wants.

Good luck in Oklahoma City, Taj (and Doug). You will be missed by Bulls fans and media.