Bulls lock down late, extend conference lead

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Bulls lock down late, extend conference lead

Friday, March 25, 2011
Posted 9:48 p.m. Updated 11:44 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Another night, another blue-collar victory for the Bulls (52-19), who outlasted a game Grizzlies (40-32) squad, 99-96, Friday evening at the United Center.

On a night when offense didnt come easy, All-Star point guard Derrick Rose came up big in the clutch, converting a traditional three-point play late in the game as part of the effort to stave off Memphis.

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A win is the most important thing. My teammates, they had my back tonight. Shots that I would normally hit werent going for me tonight, said Rose, who struggled through a 6-for-22 game shooting from the floor, afterwards. Theres always going to be a night like that, but were playing against tough teams.

Towards the end, I just knew that I just had to make shots or make plays," he continued. "That was the biggest thing. Im trying to get better at the end, just being a closer. Im still trying to get there.

Deng unhappy with Bulls' effort

Clearly not in awe of the Bulls new status as darlings of the national media, the Grizzlies blitzed their hosts in the early going, jumping out to an 11-4 lead. Chicago native Tony Allen (13 points) led the visitors charge, as the Grizzlies swingman who played for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau when both were in Boston scored eight quick points on 4-for-4 shooting in the opening period.

While Luol Deng (23 points, six rebounds) was the only player who could effectively manufacture offense initially, a lack of touches during the teams drought affected him as well. Luckily for Chicago , Taj Gibson's (six points, seven rebounds) immediate impact off the bench sparked the home teams offense.

Meanwhile, Memphis got scoring from a variety of sources such as point guard Mike Conley (12 points, six assists) and another swingman, Sam Young their hot shooting cooled off toward the conclusion of the first quarter, which ended with the Bulls trailing slightly, 22-21.

They were the aggressor in the first quarter, Carlos Boozer observed. Once we got in the fight of the game, I thought we fought back great.

Chicagos second unit (affectionately known as The Bench Mob), usually relied upon to outplay the opposing reserves and thus either increase the starters lead, give the Bulls an advantage or get the team back in the game didnt make much initial progress in their nightly second-quarter pursuit, although rookie center Omer Asik (six points, five rebounds) again impacted the game with his always-high activity level, as did swingman Ronnie Brewer (seven points, four rebounds).

Tellingly, however, a C.J. Watson (five points, three assists) tumble beyond the court and into the courtside seats was perhaps the most buzzed-about moment of the reserves stint, prior to Thibodeau filtering in most of his regulars.

An antsy United Center crowd, unaccustomed to their now-first-place team playing in a lackluster fashion, displayed its dissatisfaction with both the officiating and the play on the court, as the excitable Allen continued to torment his hometown team and the Grizzlies gained confidence to go with their lead.

Late in the half, however, a double technical on power forwards Boozer (12 points, nine rebounds) and Zach Randolph (16 points, five rebounds, four assists) seemed to ignite the Bulls, resulting in a Deng-propelled comeback and a 49-46 halftime lead for Chicago, following a tough Rose (24 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) fall-away jumper with seconds remaining.

Weve got players that really like Derrick and Booz get a lot of attention, said Deng. Everyone else, weve got to be smart about what theyre trying to do early in the game and use that to our advantage.

Derrick does a good job of getting so much attention, its really just a matter of locking in and making your shot, he continued. I had open shots and Ive been shooting the ball well the last few games.

After the break, the Grizzlies made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to underrated center Marc Gasol (14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists), who responded by scoring proficiently in the low post. Rose began to assert himself offensively, but Memphis countered by utilizing Randolph, a highly-skilled post-up player, keeping the game a tight-knit affair.

Chicago, buoyed by Roses strong all-around play it wasnt one of his better shooting nights, however built a slight cushion, but the visitors refused to wilt, hanging tough despite Allen earning himself a technical foul.

Through three quarters, the Bulls clung to a 74-73 advantage. Led by reserve forwards Darrell Arthur (10 points) and Leon Powe (11 points) another of Thibodeaus former Celtics protgs Memphis kept battling, eventually overtaking the Bulls.

Now, it was time for Chicago to fight back and that they did, with Boozer as a catalyst, as the power forward controlled the boards and muscled in tough baskets on the interior, leading to the Bulls having the momentum in this see-saw battle heading down the stretch.

Defense was the Bulls saving grace late in the physical contest, as they came up with key defensive stops to prevent the Grizzlies from taking a lead in the final minutes. On the other hand, crucial turnovers plagued the home team, ensuring that they didnt have the opportunity to capitalize on their good work on the other end of the floor.

Thats how the playoffs are going to be. More than likely, thats how the playoffs are going to be called, said Boozer of the games atmosphere. Great test for our team.

Added Rose: Every game. Falling, tripping, getting fouled hard. Some calls and some no-calls. Weve just got to fight through it.

With under a minute left and holding a 95-93 lead, the Bulls forced a Memphis miss and after Allen, the boisterous Chicagoan, couldnt control the offensive rebound, the Bulls had possession with 30.2 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Rose took Allen off the dribble and finished at the basket with his left hand, drawing a foul in the process, giving the Bulls a 98-93 lead with 10.8 seconds remaining.

He jumped on my right hand, thinking I was going to drive right and I just saw a lane. Right when I saw it, I just tried to go in there hard and get contact. I got it and just tried to focus on making the layup, and it went in, Rose recounted. Id been missing bunnies the whole game. Id been missing layups, shots I normally hit. It feels good when a shot finally goes in.

Rose completed the three-point play, but after a timeout, Grizzlies sixth man O.J. Mayo rebounded a Memphis miss to knock down a three-pointer with 4.3 seconds to go, cutting the deficit to 98-96. Following a timeout, Rose was fouled on the ensuing possession, but split a pair of free throws, leaving the door open for the Grizzlies in a one-possession game.

Alas, Conleys final long-range attempt was short, giving Chicago the victory. Coupled with a Celtics loss, the Bulls increased their stranglehold on first place in the East to a two-game lead.

We get poised at the end of the game, said Boozer. Weve almost seen every scenario this season, so when the game got down to the wire, we were comfortable because we had already been there.

Sometimes it comes down to the last two or three minutes who wants it more? and we wanted it more.

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.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

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Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”