Bulls starters meshing at the right time?

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Bulls starters meshing at the right time?

INDIANAPOLISFor the 15th time this season, Tom Thibodeau had the luxury of having his starting group together in Wednesday nights win over the Pacers. While each member of the quintet werent outstanding individuallythe starting backcourt of Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton shot a combined 5-for-21 from the fieldthe Bulls head coach liked what he saw in general.

I like the way the starters started the game. It got us off to a good start. Carlos was really good to start. Derrick had a really good bounce to his game and I like the plays that Rip was making off the catch-and-shoot. Rips shots were great shotsthey were all in and outso I was very pleased with our starters, he said. Theres always things that you could do better, that we need to work on, but were getting there. Our starters havent played a lot together all year, so it was a good opportunity for them to get some quality time on the floor and I thought that was good for us. Our bench has been terrific all season long, so it was good. It was good to have everybody.

As has occurred for much of the season, the Bulls Bench Mob carried the squad, with Kyle Korver in particular having an excellent performance with a team-high 20 points, including making four of his six three-point attempts, but there were good signs from the first unit, as well. For example, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah were both extremely productive from the outset, All-Star Luol Deng had a solid all-around night and Rose, the reigning league MVP, appeared to have regained some of his vaunted explosiveness.

Im just trying to play within the group. Theyve been doing a good job making sure that Im taking my time, not rushing anything when I come off picks, just trying to make the right play. Carlos and Joakim are doing a great job of making plays for other people. Lu is playing great, shooting the ball good. Rip is Rip, hitting mid-range and trying to get the line, trying to get people up in the air going into him. I think our chemistry is good. Our bench is even better. Their chemistry is great. They know who should shoot the ball, who shouldnt shoot the ball. Their chemistry is good. Thats the reason why we won the game tonight, Rose explained. Its easy now. Guys arent scared to take shots. If theyre open, were doing what were supposed to do and thats shoot the ball, and moving the ball, so I think our assists are up and were rebounding the ball, too.

Im not worried about that, he continued, when asked about whether hed return to his MVP-level form in the near future. Im going to be all right. Certain situations, if it was a crazy type of game and at the end, I need to take over, thats what Im going to try to do. If not, Im still going to try to play my game, play aggressive.

Unlike a lot of other coaches, Thibodeau is of the mindset that his starters should play significant, if not excessive minutes down the regular seasons stretch run, a position justified by the amount of injuries they incurred over the campaign.

Well see where we are. I want our starters to get more time together, so itll be similar to tonight, but well see how the game unfolds, he explained, when asked about his plans for the Bulls season finale Thursday against Cleveland at the United Center. I just want us to continue to take it step by step. Just get ready tomorrow, have a great walk-through, know Cleveland and the rest of it takes care of itself. Dont worry about all the other stuff.

Korver concurred: Im not into those guys totally staying out. Maybe in certain situations, with certain teams, they can feel that out, but I think for usespecially for us because we have had guys outwe need Derrick to play some. We dont need him to hurt himself or strain anything, but we need him to play and we need to play with him.

Typically, the Bulls win reflected what the team has done all year, with few blips on the radar: Win, no matter how it looks to the casual fan.

Explained Korver: Just a grind-it-out type team. We may have the best record in the league, but we probably also lead the league in ugly games played. Were out there just grinding, man. Were a great defensive team, were a great rebounding team and we definitely rely on both of those things to win.

Added Noah: I think we played well tonight, so thats a good sign and weve just got to keep it up. We just have one more until the playoffs start, so its an exciting time of the year and we just want to be playing the right way.

Even having clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are proud of achieving the feat in consecutive seasons, but remain focused on the task at hand.

Its huge. Having the best record in the NBA, youve worked hard for it all year and besides, you want to finish the season with good momentum. Weve got our starting unit, we want to get our rhythm down and finish with wins, Deng told CSNChicago.com. I thought we played well. Theres still a lot to work on, get our rhythm down.

Chimed in Rose: Its important, but the only thing weve got to do is win out. The most important thing were thinking about right now is Cleveland.

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Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

The Celtics season was unraveling, and their face of the franchise was stumbling down the stretch. The opposing Bulls had used a 40-18 run spanning the second and third quarters to take their first lead. Jimmy Butler was hearing “M-V-P” chants from the crowd of nearly 22,000 and the Celtics looked lost, just as they had at times in Game 1 and 2 losses.

And Isaiah Thomas, the MVP candidate who had carried the Celtics all season, was at the front of the miscues. In just 4 third-quarter minutes he missed two shots, turned the ball over three times and committed his third and fourth personal fouls, the latter occurring on a charge during a 3-on-1 fast break. Knowing he’d need his All-Star point guard down the stretch of what was quickly becoming a tight contest, Brad Stevens subbed out Thomas with the hope that the Celtics could keep close their eight-point lead at the time.

Instead, the Bulls kept their foot on the gas, eyeing a 3-1 series lead behind the driving force of Jimmy Butler. The Bulls’ own All-Star helped manufacture a 12-0 run that put the Bulls, down by as many as 20 late in the second quarter, ahead for the first time, 65-63.

Thomas reentered with the score tied at 63, missing his first shot that set up the Bulls’ go-ahead basket from Robin Lopez. Following that basket, Thomas strung together the most important stretch of basketball this season in a 4-minute span that saved the game, and potentially the season.

The Bulls’ lead was brief, as Thomas twice drove to the basket and connected on layups to put the Celtics ahead. Next he found Al Hoford on a pick-and-roll set that the duo had run to perfection in Game 3. Thomas then took two trips to the free-throw line, burying all four attempts, and capped the quarter with a pair of assists to Kelly Olynyk that pushed the lead to 10. All told, Thomas had a hand in all 16 of the Celtics points scored after the Bulls took their lead.

The Celtics managed to hide Thomas defensively – he finished with just the four fouls – and the Bulls only managed to get within five in the fourth quarter (with Thomas on the bench) before the All Star point guard closed the door to even the series heading back to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday.

“The game was not going our direction and the worst that could happen is somebody fouls out of a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah’s a big part of our offense and we needed to feel better about ourselves and we tweaked the defense a little bit there to try to protect him, but we didn’t feel like he could sit right there. Things were not going our way.”

Much of the night belonged to the Celtics, even if the Bulls did manage to erase the 20-point deficit. The Bulls’ defensive strategy in Game 3 to limit Thomas, who was second in the league in scoring, to just 18 points, his second lowest point total of the year. Thomas’ nine assists were crucial in Friday’s win, but the Celtics wanted him attacking the basket.

They set higher pick-and-rolls to allow Thomas room to take Robin Lopez off the dribble, and the Boston again playing a small-ball lineup the floor was spaced enough to allow Thomas to attack the rim; just two of Thomas’ 10 makes came outside the restricted area, and his 13 free-throw attempts were a stark contrast after he tallied zero in Game 3. Thomas was a team-high +17 in the nine-point win. His 33  points were the most he had scored in the series.

“It helps us feel a lot more confident when he’s on the floor because he’s able to make plays, not only for himself but other guys on the team,” Avery Bradley said. “Sometimes we need him getting in the paint, kicking it out, and hitting the next guy because it’s contagious.”

Thomas’ third-quarter stretch was his best, but not the only time he contributed. The 5-foot-9 Thomas scored 10 points in the first quarter as the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 14 points. He hadded six more in the second quarter as the Bulls deployed three different point guards – Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan – at him, as well as Jimmy Butler.

Thomas remained focused as the Bulls’ carousel of point guards with Rajon Rondo out continued to to turn.

“I just try to play the same way no matter who’s out there on the floor. I got a job to do and that’s score the basketball, make plays for others on this team and be a leader,” Thomas said, speaking to the media for the first time this postseason. “So it doesn’t really matter what the other team’s doing because I’ve got to do my job and I’ve got to do it at a high level for us to win.”

Thomas went for the kill shot in the fourth quarter and delivered. Two baskets from Game 1 hero Bobby Portis cut the Bulls’ deficit to five, prompting Stevens to sub in Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder earlier than he would have liked. No matter. Thomas drove twice to the basket on successive possessions and scored both times, including a three-point play. That pushed the Celtics’ lead back to 10 in just 90 seconds, and the Bulls didn’t get close than eight the rest of the way.

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg vented frustration with the officials following the game, noting that Thomas becomes an “impossible guard” when he’s allowed to carry the basketball during his dribble. Thomas said he couldn’t remember a time this season when he was called for carrying – in reality he’s been called for it three times, though not since January.

It was a strategic tactic for Hoiberg to deploy, hoping for any chance to slow down Thomas. The Celtics point guard is heating up at the perfect time, and he’s doing so while still trying to find his three-point shot. Once that starts working the Bulls will need to once again adjust on the fly. As for Hoiberg’s comment, Thomas echoed during his postgame availability what he showed earlier on Sunday night.

“That,” he said with a smile, “is not the reason why I’m an impossible cover.”