Bulls take down the Nets, close 2010 in style

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Bulls take down the Nets, close 2010 in style

Friday, Dec. 31, 2010
Posted 4:34 PM Updated 5:53 PM
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

If good tidings are the most important thing about heading into a new year, then 2011 should be a good one for the Bulls (21-10), as they outlasted the lowly New Jersey Nets (9-24), 90-81, Friday afternoon, in their last game of 2010.

The matinee affair wasnt a classic performance, but as Chicago has demonstrated lately, grinding out tough wins is somewhat of an art form.

Well take the win. Youve got to win different ways. We were struggling offensively, but the defense was good, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. I thought every time we got an eight or 10-point lead, we got a little loose and they kept fighting, kept coming back.

Offensive execution wasnt much of an issue for the Bulls in the early going, as the home team got plenty of opportunities with Carlos Boozer (20 points, 15 rebounds, four assists) as the focal point, as hes been in recent outings and while they capitalized at a decent rate, the visiting Nets, in turn, shot the ball at an even better clip.

The injury-riddled guests from New Jersey knocked down perimeter jumpers a pair apiece for wings Travis Outlaw (16 points, six rebounds) and Stephen Graham (16 points, seven rebounds) early while focusing on getting center Brook Lopez (19 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots) open looks.

Additionally, Boozer picked up two quick fouls, depriving Chicago of his all-around game, although both Derrick Rose (19 points, eight assists, four rebounds) and Luol Deng (19 points, eight rebounds) each got off to strong starts. Still, the contest was a surprisingly tight-knit affair, with the Nets actually surging ahead to briefly lead, before the Bulls ended the first period with a 23-21 advantage.

With Boozer back in the game to start the second quarter with the teams second unit, the Bulls tried to push the tempo as head coach Tom Thibodeau has been consistently preaching as of late but while that approach had mixed results, a combination of attacking the basket, high-energy play and Boozers impact widened Chicagos winning margin while Thibodeaus regulars rested.

To start the second quarter, I thought our bench came in and gave us a really good lift. Part of that was Carlos being out there because he came out early in the first, so it gave us a post presence with that second unit and it opened up some things. But when we got the lead, the last six minutes of the second quarter, our defense just wasnt sharp, observed Thibodeau. I thought that group played well Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson; I thought Omer Asik gave us good minutes, Taj Gibson I thought they were very active.

However, as the Bulls intensity waned, the Nets, led by Lopez interior scoring and an unexpected boost from Graham, got back within striking distance. A wholly uninspiring affair in general, Chicagos play was lackluster enough to again surrender the lead to New Jersey late in the period, but a 3-pointer by Brewer (10 points) along with fellow reserve swingman Kyle Korver (nine points, three assists), Brewer provided the Bulls with a big lift salvaged Chicagos lead. At intermission, the Bulls led, 46-44.

Low energy and we didnt come out aggressive, and we didnt hit the shots that we normally hit. Thats what put us in a hole a little bit, Rose explained. Hopefully tomorrow, youll see a different team.

It was just one of those games where you try your hardest to do whatever youre trying to do, but by that time, the games going. We didnt start playing hard really until towards the end, continued the All-Star point guard, who believed the games early start might have thrown the squad off their stride. Thats tough, man. Usually youre taking naps right now or heading to the game, but thats why its the pros. Thats why its the NBA. Its going to be a challenge.

Deng started the second half by hitting jumpers on back-to-back Bulls possessions and the team as a whole proceeded to show that they indeed had some life, exemplified by a tremendous hustle play by grizzled veteran Kurt Thomas (seven points, six rebounds, two blocks).

I thought Lu got us going to start the third. I thought his movement without the ball he got some open looks I thought that got us going again, praised Thibodeau. Hes provided basically whatever weve needed in each and every game, whether its defense, rebounding, scoring, passing. Hes an all-around player, hes an unselfish player and hes a guy you can count on.

But New Jersey, confident from playing their supposedly superior opponents basically to a standstill in the first half of play, didnt immediately fade away.

Although it wasnt an overwhelming display of stellar basketball by Chicago, the Nets showed enough flashes of what has earned them an annual spot at or near the bottom of the leagues cellar for the home team to maintain a slim cushion over the visitors. Despite clearly not hitting on all cylinders, the Bulls were up, 70-63, heading into the final stanza.

A sense of urgency didnt miraculously appear in the fourth quarter, so New Jersey took advantage, again threatening Chicagos comfort level, prompting a timeout by Thibodeau to make adjustments. Whatever Thibodeaus strategic changes might have been, they didnt immediately resonate with his team, as the Nets, with the playmaking of point guard Devin Harris (10 points, nine assists) leading the way, kept the pressure on the Bulls, drawing within two points midway through the quarter.

As if a light switch went on, the Bulls picked up the pace and thusly gained some breathing room from the visitors, mostly by virtue of Boozer making an impact in either subtle or overt fashion, complimented by Roses playmaking.

Though Thibodeau was clearly displeased that his team didnt finish the game in stronger fashion, the home team did enough to salt away the contest and go into the next calendar year on a high note, despite a valiant New Jersey effort late.

This is fine. A win is a win. I remember playing my heart out and losing. It hurts. A win is a win in this league, man, said Rose. No matter how pretty it is or whatever last-second shot or whatever Ill take a win over anything.

Boozer rationalized: Our energy has to be there on both sides of the ball and right now, were grinding games out. Were not having too many easy wins, but another mark of a good team is a team that can find different ways to win. We are playing without Joakim still. We havent talked about it very much, but he makes the game a lot easier for us and with him not being in there, were finding new ways to win.

Much-maligned starting shooting guard Keith Bogans, a well-traveled NBA veteran, explained to CSNChicago.com that these growing pains are expected and the fact that the team is winning, despite not playing at their peak, is a blessing.

As long as we get a win we probably didnt win the way we wanted to the main thing is to get as many wins as we can, go back, fix it in practice or when we talk about it watching film tomorrow. But this is the NBA. Youve got to get as many wins as you can and get ready for the postseason. Every game is not going to be the way that we draw it up or we want to win, so depending on the situation, weve just got to pull it out and work on it after that.

Were still a young team thats learning to play together. Its not going to happen overnight not like with Boston, whos been playing together for years so its going to take some time.

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.

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue break down the Bulls' upcoming schedule in the latest edition of the Bulls Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda dealers.

TNT Bulls are back this week as the team heads into a crucial stretch. 

Currently, the Bulls sit half a game back of the Miami Heat for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and with just eight games remaining on the schedule, each contest is essentially a must-win. 

So, yes, Thursday would be a great time for Jimmy Butler and company to summon their TNT alter ego. The Bulls have sealed 18 straight victories when playing on TNT Thursday, an improbable feat considering those games are usually reserved for two of the NBA's best. 

To continue that run, they'll have to down Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are also fighting for playoff positioning -- albeit at the top of the conference. Good thing the Bulls have a tendency to get up for big games. 

"The Bulls play up and down to their competition," Bulls Pregame and Postgame analyst Kendall Gill said. "They've been doing that the whole season." 

After Cleveland, the Bulls get set to battle another playoff squad, the Atlanta Hawks. 

Watch the video above to see Schanowski, Gill and Perdue break down the matchups. 

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Whacked on his ailing left hand by Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler shook off the pain to hit a rare triple in transition while Middleton was complaining for a foul a couple possessions later.

Butler then darted into the passing lane for a pass intended for Jason Terry like a linebacker jumping into the flat for an interception, then trotted down for an uncontested dunk to give the Bulls an unlikely 17-point lead.

For the man who claims he’s the best football player in the NBA, playing through the pain and doing so with his team’s playoff hopes dwindling, Butler may finally have some believers to his boasts.

Not only did the Bulls avoid a season sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks with a resounding 109-94 win at the BMO Bradley Center Sunday afternoon, they restored a slight sense of pride after looking like they had none of it Friday night in their loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I give them credit for bouncing back after a tough home loss,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to understand what makes us successful. When we’re committed to following the game plan and executing…It’s the little things we have to do that add up to give ourselves a chance to win.

Butler scored 20 with a career-high 14 assists in a grinding 39 minutes, but he could play the role of a semi-closer, making those big plays in the fourth when the Bulls pulled away, and pulled to within a game of the eighth playoff spot in the East.

But the Bulls’ defense, one that held the Bucks to just 39 points in the second half, caught his eye.

“I could actually say we played some legitimate defense,” Butler said. “Got back in transition, we always helped. We came out, stuck to the gameplan of getting back.”

He didn’t have to carry a heavy load offensively, though, leading to his being fresh down the stretch as he started the fourth quarter on the floor as opposed to the bench.

Instead, it was March Madness as Nikola Mirotic played up to his career numbers in his favorite month on the calendar, drilling five triples on his way to 28 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes.

It helped the Bulls shoot 54 percent overall, bringing their mark to 10-1 when they cross that threshold.

“I’ve been playing with a lot of confidence,” Mirotic said. “I’ve spent a lot of hours before practice and after. I know you guys have been asking about consistency, so I’m working on that and trying to be more consistent.”

Mirotic and Rajon Rondo helped the Bulls to a decisive double-digit lead in the third quarter with Rondo scoring 14 of his 18 points in the period, hitting a triple, getting into the lane for layups and dishing out a few of his eight assists.

It was an offensive masterpiece for the Bulls, a prospect that seemed highly unlikely given the opponent and the way they played coming into Sunday’s contest. And with the Bucks getting Giannis Antetokounmpo going early along with Middleton, it looked like a nightmare of a different kind was in store for the Bulls.

Antetokounmpo scored 22 with eight rebounds and seven assists, but 12 of those points happened in the first quarter. Middleton scored 14 but shot six of 17.

“When we get slapped in the face and punched in the mouth, adversity hits and we have to handle it and get through it,” Hoiberg said. “I didn’t see any head-hanging when it didn’t start off great.”

But Hoiberg wasn’t about to let an instant replay occur, having seen his own version of a “Nightmare on Madison Street” Friday night against the woeful 76ers when his backups let time stand still for minutes at a time, squandering a double-digit lead.

Hoiberg decided not to mess around with the second unit as the Bucks began pulling away in the same manner the 76ers did Friday night. He brought the starters right back in when the lead ballooned to 45-33 at the 8:29 mark.

“We were ready in case that happened,” Hoiberg said. “We felt we had to do everything possible to give ourselves a chance. We were ready to play our guys big minutes tonight and we’ll have to do that in the next eight games.”

Then the Bulls went to work to finish the half, with a 23-10 run, along with starting off the third as efficient as they had been in awhile against a worthwhile opponent, shooting 14 of 21 in the period to take a 91-79 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Mirotic was seven of eight from the field before halftime and his first miss of the third—a 30-foot triple that went wide right, wound up in a 3-point opportunity for Rondo, who scooped the ball and scored on a layup while being fouled.

It was that kind of afternoon for the Bulls, a team that can’t seem to decide who they want to be on a nightly basis—making it that much harder for an opponent to predict, that much more difficult to eliminate from the playoff conversation.