Bulls improbably collapse, fall in Atlanta

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Bulls improbably collapse, fall in Atlanta

Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Posted 8:34 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

ATLANTAThis was one you had to see to believe, but not in a good way.

Even as things unfolded, it seemed impossibleespecially with such a tough-minded, consistent bunchbut somehow, it happened. After leading for the entire contest, Tom Thibodeaus 48-minute foreshadowing came true, as the Bulls were overtaken by the Al Horford-led Hawks in the games final minute Wednesday night and improbably dropped an 83-80 affair at Phillips Arena.

Perhaps Joakim Noah put it best: We tricked it tonight.

Even without being up on the latest slang, Noahs statement is easy to interpret. Chicago blew the game.

The visitors jumped out of the gatesCarlos Boozer (11 points, seven rebounds) was particularly aggressivewith a 10-0 start in the first three minutes, punctuated by a Derrick Rose (12 points, 12 assists, six turnovers) steal and dunk that led to a Hawks timeout. Not that the half-empty Phillips Arena crowd minded, as the majority of attendees seemed to be Bulls fans, many of whom chanted M-V-P for Rose.

The lead eventually extended to 14-0, as another Rose steal led to a textbook give-and-go fast break, resulting in a Keith Bogans layup as the typically light-scoring shooting guard scored eight first-quarter points. Atlanta finally got on the board with nearly five minutes elapsed in the contest.

If anything, however, the Bulls could have further capitalized on their early advantage. Instead, the Hawksled by Noahs (13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) college teammate Al Horford (31 points, 16 rebounds) and sixth-man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford (12 points, four assists)closed on their guests as the opening period wore on and while Chicago, aided by the scoring contributions of the ever-active Taj Gibson, didnt completely squander their seemingly insurmountable lead, they held a 28-19 lead after a quarter in a suddenly more competitive affair.

Despite their hot start on both ends, the Bulls struggled with turnovers and general mishandling of the basketball, even when they made hustle plays, kept rebounds alive and made strong defensive efforts. As if they were locked in step with the typically late-arriving crowd at the Highlight Factory (as the Hawks home arena is nicknamed), the games pace slowed to a lull early in the second period, with neither team immediately able to find a rhythm.

When we got the big lead, I thought we got real loose at the end of the second quarter, carried over to start the third. Youve got to play 48 minutes. You dont do that, youre not winning in this league, said Thibodeau afterwards. Youve got to play tough with the lead.

Chicago gradually rebuilt their winning margin to a double-digit level, as the visitors held their hosts to 31.7-percent shooting, while Atlanta doled out only five assists in the first half. Although their red-hot marksmanship to begin the contest cooled, the Bulls got sporadic easy opportunitiessuch as an uncontested Rose double-pump dunk after he grabbed his own offensive rebound of a three-pointerand with their stifling defense, as well as Luol Deng (15 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals) bouncing back after struggling early and Noah impacting the game with his energetic interior play, they took a 50-33 edge into the break.

Atlanta started the third quarter on a 6-0 run, increasing their defensive intensity, employing full-court pressure (a key aspect of which was keeping the ball out of Roses hands), forcing turnovers and influencing Thibodeau to put a brief halt to the proceedings. The game became a single-digit affair, with the home crowd fully engaged and the visitors out of sync.

I think the effort was there. We just came out too loose in the second half. This loss stings, its a tough loss, but our schedule doesnt get any easier and we can learn a lot from this game. Tough way to lose, but it just shows, youve got to play the game for 48 minutes, said Noah. I take full responsibility for not coming out with the right juice at the beginning of the third. They kind of got whatever they wanted to start that third quarter and weve just got to bounce back quick.

Crawford told CSNChicago.com: We felt like we were never out of it. Even though they got up big, they couldnt hit shots and we couldnt either. We felt like at some point, wed start hitting our shots and Al had a heck of a game.

Horfordthe competitive undersized center was the Hawks saving grace early and showed his fiery side in a near-skirmish after taking exception to a hard Boozer foul in the second quarterwreaked havoc on the Bulls interior defense with his ability to not only stretch the defense, but drive to the basket against his close acquaintance Noah, prompting Thibodeau to later call for the defensive-minded duo of Gibson and rookie Omer Asik (nine rebounds, two blocked shots).

Horford played great. He was hitting a lot of shots from deep, said Noah of his former teammate. I think he played very well tonight. Great rebounding, running the floor hard as hell. Just an overall great performance.

Still, timely baskets from the forward combination of Deng and Boozer enabled Chicago, which displayed outstanding offensive balance, to maintain a slight cushion over Atlanta for the time being.

A Rose turnover, however, led to a Horford follow-up dunk in transition late in the period, making the contest a one-possession game, much to Thibodeaus ire.

This game was definitely on me, but I think Im definitely going to learn from it and get better from it, said Rose, who shot 5-for-21 from the floor and committed an uncharacteristic six turnovers. Ive got to take care of the ball. Shots werent going down like they normally do.

Careless. Thats on my part. Im the one with the ball the majority of the time, he continued. We let one escape.

Concurred a hoarse and frustrated Thibodeau: They did a good job on Rose. He had a hard time getting going. I thought he had some shots that he normally makes, that he couldnt put down. Thats going to happen sometimes. Then, hes got to do other things.
Al Horford tied a career-high with 31 points, 22 coming in the second half to help Atlanta erase a 17-point halftime deficit. (AP)
Asiks offensive rebounding aside, there wasnt much to be pleased with from a Chicago perspective, as the Hawks cut it to 63-58 with one frame remaining and all the momentum on Atlantas side, despite leading scorer Joe Johnson (12 points, seven rebounds, nine assists) experiencing a poor shooting outing.

Asiks energy, defensive presence and offensive rebounding sparked the Bulls in the fourth quarter, giving them multiple possessions and getting the starters to applaud his effort from the bench. Chicago was able to stave off the home teams charge for the time being and Thibodeau reinserted his regulars into the tight-knit contest with the games stretch run approaching.

Horfords dominant effort continued to bring Atlanta to the brink of overtaking Chicago, but every time the Hawks seemed poised to seize the lead, the Bulls managed a timely contribution from any number of players. However, when Marvin Williams (10 points, four rebounds) blocked a Rose dunk attempt, leading to a Hawks fast-break bucket (aided by a Deng goaltend), it felt like the games turning point.

Kyle Korver, the teams designated sharpshooter nailed a three-pointer with under two minutes to go, but Williamswho had been dormant most of the evening answered with his own corner triple.

We believed in each other. We believe in our coaches and we believe in each other as players. Weve been down before and guys didnt hang their heads. We just kept plugging away, plugging away. Finally the tables turned in our favor and we were able to get a win, Williams told CSNChicago.com. We kept creeping closer and closer and closer. We just kept chopping away at the deficit. I think every bucket that we got and every stop that we got gave us more confidence.

After the Bulls failed to convert on the other end, Noah fouled Horford while attempting to grab an offensive rebound. With the score 79-78 in Chicagos favor, Horford split a pair of free throws to tie the game with 56.9 seconds left. On the Bulls next trip, Rose penetrated the defense and dropped the ball off to Noah, who was also fouled and made one of two attempts from the line to give the visitors an 80-79 advantage with 37.1 seconds remaining.

Out of a timeout, Crawford found Horford cutting to the basket off a pick-and-roll for a powerful dunk, thrilling the crowd and giving Atlanta its first lead of the contest, 81-80, with 29.4 seconds to play. Following a Bulls timeout, a bungled exchange between Boozer and Rose resulted in a Johnson steal and subsequent transition dunk over Rose.

I think he hit me in my head. I think I was trying to take off too quick, Rose explained. Just one of those games for me.

Chicago rushed to get off a late three-point attempt to tie the game, but Rose missed a tough look over Horford. Although Noah got the offensive board and the ball made its way to Korver via Boozer, the long-ball specialist airballed a wide-open look with all zeroes on the clock.

It was the kind of shot you want. It actually felt kind of good leaving my hand, Korver told CSNChicago.com. I was really shocked that it went short, but you get ready to shoot the next one.

Thibodeau refused to place the blame on a singular playat least on the offensive endfor the loss.

We couldnt get stops and we couldnt score. Beat ourselves at the end, said Thibodeau. But the game was lost way before that.

By then, we were struggling so much. We didnt have a good rhythm. Those are miracle shots, he continued. Theyre a good team. We should be able to count on our defense when were not making shots and all we had to do was get a shot at the end of the game there. We had the lead. You get a stop, its your game. We couldnt do that, so we lose.

Summed up Noah: Its on us. Its always tough to lose that way we lost, but I know that we were up 19 points and we got loose. We cant play that way and at the end of the day, the positive about is we know that were a lot better than that and well bounce back because thats what we do.

You learn from your experiences. Losing like thiswe havent had a loss like this all yearbut it hurts and you know what, itll make us tougher in the long run.

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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Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

If there's a more maddening player in the Eastern Conference than Nikola Mirotic, that player's psychologist should be getting paid double considering Bulls fans have been talking to themselves about Mirotic so much over the past three years.

And as they've reached no conclusion on Mirotic, along with many other sage minds, only one thing is for certain: March is his month.

Meaning it's the month where it becomes maddening to watch him play and probably equally as maddening for his teammates who've watched his inconsistencies for the better part of four months or so.

Averaging 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 41 career March games, it's the only full month where Mirotic averages in double figures for his career—meaning there's a lot of inconsistencies to wade through to get to the proverbial pot of gold.

In 2014-15, he emerged as the NBA's best fourth-quarter scorer that month when the Bulls were without both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Last season, he came back fresh after an appendectomy took a big chunk of his year.

This year, there's no big macro reason. He's just playing definitively, making quick movements and it's paying off as his two best scoring games took place within a four-day span (28 against both Detroit and Milwaukee).

"Right now, you see I'm shooting without hesitation," Mirotic said to CSNChicago.com. "Just catch and shooting. It's a great feeling."

No word on whether Mirotic hears the fans in the arena or the twitterverse screaming for him to ditch the pump fake that he actually admits it got in his head, but this season has been a roller coaster of the most dramatic kind, as the Bulls are still vying for playoff positioning with eight games remaining in the regular season.

"Sometimes, especially when I'm reading you guys (media), Niko pump fake, pump fake," Mirotic said with a smile. "Okay, no more pump fakes, just fire that ball. I'm laughing because you guys are (right)…that's true. You guys want me to shoot. It doesn't look good when you pump fake every time you have a wide-open shot."

Being penciled in as a training camp starter due to the need for floor spacing, Taj Gibson quickly outplayed Mirotic for the power forward spot. Then Mirotic's up and down, down and up, season began.

Kind of like his pump fake that often drew more defensive attention for it's predictability than effectiveness, stability has been hard to find for a player many have been waiting on since the day he was drafted in 2011.

"I know the defenses are ready for my pump fake so now just like, shoot the ball," Mirotic said. "I've been spending a lot of hours working on my shot before practice, after practice, trying to catch the feeling."

Better late than never or too late?

That's the question surrounding Mirotic and he knows it, being aware of his status as a restricted free-agent-to-be, along with his trade value a month ago being so low, the Bulls could only get a future second-round pick for him from teams.

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With the Bulls having so many questions going into the future, who knows if they want to go through the up-and-down, down-and-up cycle with a talented player yet again, with a big-time financial commitment.

In a sense, Mirotic knows he's left plenty on the table as far as his play through the years and seems to be content with playing with a sense of freedom as the season concludes, whether he's back with the Bulls or not for next year and beyond.

"I just wanna leave a good impression for the Bulls," Mirotic said. "Whatever decision they make. It's been a pleasure. A lot of people dream to be here, I was one of those guys when I was in Europe. I was really like, I wanna go there and play for the Bulls. The history they have. For me, it's a dream come true. Whatever decision they make, I make, whatever. I don't know. The years here have been great. I know it's been up and down. It's been a pleasure and I just wanna finish right."