Deng's balanced attack propels Bulls over Pacers

375290.jpg

Deng's balanced attack propels Bulls over Pacers

Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011
Posted 9:30 p.m. Updated 11:46 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

With their superstar still ailing, the Bulls didnt miss a beat Saturday night.

Although they again allowed an inferior opponent to stick around three quarter, a huge fourth-quarter push increased Chicagos current winning streak to five games, as they knocked off the visiting Indiana Pacers, 110-89.

It was a victory with equal parts unselfish offense, stout defense when it mattered and enough out of Bulls stars and supporting-cast members alike. In the grand scheme of things, casual observers may consider it just another win against subpar competition especially after beating fellow Eastern Conference contender Orlando the previous evening but to the game-by-game Bulls, it was much more significant.

WATCH: Ronnie Brewer posterizes a Pacer

When you look at your season, this game had just as much value as last nights game. The perception is last night was a big game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Well, tonight is big. It counts just as much.

A looming subplot entering the contest was the health of All-Star point guard Derrick Rose. Rose (20 points, seven assists), whos suffering from stomach ulcers, had a quiet first half just five points on 1-for-7 shooting but exploded after the intermission, hitting his first four shot attempts (all jumpers off the dribble), then taking over the game for a stretch in the final stanza.

I took it easy in the first half and in the second half, I just tried to be aggressive, taking shots they were giving me and they were just falling, said Rose, who admitted he felt sore afterwards. Theres nothing to complain about. Everybodys feeling good, were winning and were just trying to keep this thing going.

We won. Thats the biggest thing. Theres nothing to say about it, continued Rose, who hasnt eaten a solid meal in days. Get these wins out of the way now, rest up and hopefully get better.

Although the Bulls start to the contest wasnt exactly crisp they didnt shoot the ball proficiently at the outset and allowed Pacers power forward Josh McRoberts (20 points, eight rebounds) to score seven of Indianas first nine points solid defense permitted them to take a slim lead over their divisional rivals.

However, Chicagos balanced offensive approach couldnt withstand the Pacers perimeter-oriented attack, as starting wings Danny Granger (17 points, six rebounds) and Mike Dunleavy (13 points) wreaked havoc from the outside.

In fact, the visitors went on to build a slight cushion, as point guard Darren Collisons (11 points, eight assists) playmaking and the ability to spread the Bulls defense then attack by either bombing away from deep or efficiently slashing to the rim but the lethargic home team made a late rally, fueled by Luol Dengs (19 points, eight assists, six rebounds) aggressive start to the contest, to cut the deficit to 27-25 at the conclusion of the opening period.

With Granger, Indianas leading scorer, paired with the Pacers second unit against his counterpart, Deng, and the Bulls reserves, both teams essentially canceled each other out at the start of the second quarter, with their respective small forwards carrying the offensive burdens.

That even nature of the close-knit affair took a turn toward the Bulls favor upon Carlos Boozers (24 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) reinsertion to the contest. Aside from his typical low-post scoring and rebounding contributions, Boozers passing he got reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver (16 points) going with a kick-out pass that led to a three-pointer; Korver scored on two more trips soon afterwards, including a rarely-seen drive on the baseline that was finished with a nifty reverse layup also benefited his teammates.

When hes shooting like that, it opens so many screens for us, praised Thibodeau. He played such a terrific game. it looks like hes getting his legs under him again.

Indiana hung around, however, buoyed by the play of backup point guard A.J. Price (12 points), but after both squads filtered their regulars back into the contest, Chicago took command, rattling off eight uncontested points before Pacers head coach Jim OBrien attempted to put a halt to the onslaught with a timeout.

Whatever instructions were meted out appeared to have been followed the Bulls ragged play certainly helped the visitors cause as Indiana battled back before the half and Chicagos lead evaporated to a 55-51 winning margin at the break.

After halftime, Rose began to assert himself as a scorer. Indiana countered by going to McRoberts, whose activity, athleticism and energetic play on the interior gave Chicago fits, prompting Thibodeau to put a temporary cease to the proceedings.

The remainder of the period was evenly played the insertion of Taj Gibson (four points, seven rebounds) improved the Bulls defensive effort and after a Rose three-pointer just before the third-quarter buzzer, Chicago entered the final frame with a 77-72 lead.

Rose came out like gangbusters in the fourth quarter, wowing the United Center crowd with two early scores before giving way to backup point guard C.J. Watson for a breather.

It just shows you the type of competitor he is. Hes our leader, hes our MVP this year. Hes been doing it all for us, night in and night out. We expected him to be out there tonight, veteran Kurt Thomas told CSNChicago.com. I wasnt concerned at all. I felt he was going to do what he needed to do to get his mind right and get his body right before the game.

Added Rose: I like pressure. If anything, it makes me play harder and makes me perform better.

Additionally, Dengs strong all-around play persisted, as he mixed inside and outside scoring, a solid effort on the boards, nice playmaking from the wing and tough defense on Granger, all aiding Chicago in putting Indiana in a double-digit hole.

A downer for the Bulls came when Gibson, after stepping on teammate Ronnie Brewers (eight points, five rebounds) foot, appeared rolled his right ankle. Gibson writhed in pain on the court before being helped up he seemingly couldnt put weight on the injured ankle and needed assistance to walk off the floor and headed directly to the locker room early in the period.

WATCH: Gibson discusses ankle injury

I just remember Granger cutting down the lane, I went to help and I dont know if it was just me or if I tripped over somebodys foot. My foot just came in just twisted in the same injury from before, earlier this season. I just went down, recounted Gibson, who told reporters an X-ray on his ankle came up negative and was diagnosed as a sprain.

I thought it was pretty serious because it was the same exact spot same exact place I turned it a couple months back and the pain was way worse than what happened last time I did turn my ankle. I was a little scared and at first, I couldnt put pressure on it. I was nervous.

Korver returned to the contest and added to the home teams momentum by draining two jumpers and while the Bulls werent efficient, they played stifling defense against the Pacers.

However, it was Brewers powerful, two-handed flush over McRoberts plus the foul that blew the game open even wider and resulted in the unraveling of the Pacers.

WATCH: Brewer describes dunk

Deng dropped it off to me, McRoberts jumped and I got the and-one. It was a good play, it was good that the crowd got into it and I was happy I made the free throw, said Brewer, who was exuberant after the spectacular dunk. I think I over-celebrated, but I think I was in the heat of the moment.

McRoberts was assessed a technical foul following the ensuing free throw for shoving Boozer while jostling for the rebound. Then, OBrien received his second technical of the contest and was ejected.
After defeating the Pacers, Bulls players gave credit to head coach Tom Thibodeau for making sure they focus on the task at hand; meanwhile, Thibodeau admitted he doesn't even know what the Bulls record currently is. (AP)
Chicago went to Boozer to seal the deal, but the gap was large enough that Thibodeau elect to use reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, a fan favorite whose appearance brought delight to the fans.

In addition to their prize of Big Macs for the Bulls reaching triple digits, the crowd also received another treat: Chicago maintaining their dominance at home.

With the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls will head into a five-game West Coast road trip next week, starting with a reunion with former coach Vinny Del Negro Wednesday in Los Angeles. Similar to Saturday night, the plan is for the team to not look past any opponent.

Our confidence is high. Any game we go into, we expect to win. Most of the time, were not worried about opponents; were just worried about what to do. Its all about us and thats a winning attitude, Deng told CSNChicago.com. Coachs challenge is getting us fired up and our challenge the captains and as a team is to be ready for the game. Coach has been doing a good job preparing us, making sure every theres a reason and we havent really relaxed yet. Thats how you win and thats how were winning.

Added Thomas: All were focusing on is the Clippers. Thats our next game, thats our next opponentI know you hear it all the time, but thats been our mentality all year.

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.

NBA Buzz: Time for Fred Hoiberg to make adjustments for the Bulls

NBA Buzz: Time for Fred Hoiberg to make adjustments for the Bulls

You've heard it said by countless NBA players, coaches and executives over the years: "Playoff basketball is all about adjustments."

And after dropping two games to the Celtics on their home court, the Bulls clearly need to make some changes to their strategy on both offense and defense. Fourteen-year veteran and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade admitted as much on Monday.

"They made adjustments (after losing the first 2 games in Boston). We didn't need to because we were up 2-0. Then coming off of Game 3, we felt watching the film we played low motor, not enough energy, so we didn't feel the game plan was necessarily the key. But it was coming out of Game 4. So now I'm sure it will be a few adjustments we'll look to make, and hopefully it makes a difference."

Fred Hoiberg indicated before practice on Tuesday that the Bulls had studied mistakes made against Boston's staggered screen-and-roll game, and would work on some new coverages for Game 5. Isaiah Thomas shredded the Bulls at the United Center with his ability to keep his dribble going while maneuvering around and between multiple screens either to score himself or find wide open shooters.

The Celtics' strategy oftentimes forced one of the Bulls' big men to switch on to the 5-foot-9 Thomas, and that's an impossible task. Thomas was able to blow by those slower defenders in Game 4, scoring eight of his 10 baskets at the rim. Boston's plan also forced Hoiberg to take Robin Lopez out of the game in the fourth quarter on Sunday, after Lopez had helped the Bulls grab a brief two-point lead briefly in the third quarter. Thomas was more of a facilitator in Game 3, dishing out nine assists, many of them to Al Horford rolling down the lane with little resistance. 

Look for the Bulls to try to trap Thomas early on screen-and-roll plays and force him to move the ball to another player on the perimeter. And, if Thomas does get a driving lane to the basket, the Bulls need to go with my former studio partner Norm Van Lier's advice and take a couple of hard fouls to make him think twice about whether he wants to venture back into the paint.

Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup before Game 3, starting journeyman Gerald Green at forward and moving 6-foot-9 Amir Johnson to the bench. Green paid big dividends in Game 4, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the first half, helping Boston race out to a 20-point lead. The Bulls need to be more aware of closing out on Green at the 3-point line, and not let him take uncontested shots. It's going to be a tall task for the Bulls’ defense with all the confidence the Celtics gained during the last two games, but if new starter Isaiah Canaan can have some success pressuring Thomas out front, maybe the Bulls can force Boston out of their comfort zone and make them rely on contested perimeter jumpers. 

The challenges are just as great on the other side of the floor. Without Rajon Rondo pushing the pace and moving the ball around to multiple shooters, the Bulls have been forced to play a grind-it-out style, too dependent on isolation plays for Jimmy Butler and Wade. 

Again, the hope is Canaan's 3-point shooting (3-for-7 in Game 4) will help create better spacing in the offense, and Butler and Wade can be more effective coming off weakside screens to get the ball on the move to the attack the basket. 

The Bulls also need to run more post-up plays against Boston's small lineup. Get the ball inside to Robin Lopez for some early chances against Horford, let Wade back down the smaller Avery Bradley like he did a couple of times in Game 4, and when the Bulls are successful in getting Thomas to switch on to Butler on screen and roll plays, punish the tiny defender inside and try to get him into foul trouble.

Hoiberg also has to find a way to get more open 3-point looks for Niko Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser. All three young forwards have had their moments in the series, and getting them into a comfortable rhythm early is crucial to the Bulls' offensive success.

Finally, we've all seen enough of young point guards Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams in this series. Both players have lost their confidence, and neither has had any success trying to slow down Thomas. If Hoiberg needs to use another perimeter player, give rookie Denzel Valentine a look to see if he might be able to provide some outside shooting, with either Butler or Wade running the point. 

Rondo did some light shooting before practice on Tuesday, and I'm guessing he'll play in Game 6 on Friday, even though he'll be severely limited because of the right thumb fracture. Let's hope the Bulls’ coaching staff comes up with the right adjustments to win Game 5, and set up for a possible clinching situation for the home team.  

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Fascinating piece in the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine, profiling Miami Heat president and nine-time NBA champion Pat Riley. Written by Wright Thompson, the story details Riley's inner struggles trying to chase one more title after the break-up of the Big 3 of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

Thompson details Riley's 2014 free agent meeting with James in Las Vegas, where James and two friends watched a World Cup game on television while only half listening to Riley's pitch to stay with the Heat. Riley was furious after James told him a short time later he was going back to Cleveland, and told Thompson he's glad he didn't go to the media with a Dan Gilbert, scorched-earth-style statement.

Riley admitted to Thompson he now understands why James made the choice he did. "He went home because he had to go home. It was time. It was really time for him to go home, in his prime. If he's ever gonna do anything in Akron again, this was the time to do it. Otherwise, he'd have had a scarlet letter on his back the rest of his whole life."

Thompson also writes that Riley regrets re-opening contract negotiations with Chris Bosh after James bolted for Cleveland. He wishes he would have said no to Bosh's request and given the money to Wade to keep him in Miami. The piece details how Riley is still hurt by Wade's decision to sign with the Bulls and wishes he would have handled things differently to be able to keep the face of the franchise as a lifetime member of the Heat. 

In his end of the season news conference with Miami reporters, Riley says no decision has been made yet on Bosh's future with the team. It's expected the Heat will petition the league to get the final two years of Bosh's contract removed from the team's salary cap because of career-ending blood clot issues. Bosh would then be free to sign with any other team as a free agent if he tries to resume his career.

The Heat will have to decide whether to use the new cap room to re-sign productive players on the current roster like Dion Waiters and James Johnson or chase one of the big name stars in free agency. Given Riley's quest for one last championship, you can expect him to make a run at free agents Blake Griffin, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward. 

The Clippers' situation will be interesting to watch this summer. Head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has already indicated he'd like to keep the team together, but with Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick all headed to free agency, the cost of keeping all three might be cost prohibitive.

Paul and LeBron James, in their leadership roles with the Players Association, helped change the rule that prevented teams from offering long-term contracts that extended beyond the season a player turns 35. Now, Paul is in position to sign a new five-year contract well in excess of $200 million, so the odds are he remains with the Clippers.

Whether or not the 28-year-old Griffin or the 32-year-old Redick remain is a story that won't unfold until the start of free agency in July.

For those of us thinking the Cavs might be vulnerable in the Eastern Conference playoffs after a mediocre regular season, forget about it. James and company made an emphatic statement about their readiness to defend their NBA championship with a four-game sweep of Paul George and the Pacers. 

James continues to play at an All-World level, leading the Cavs back from a 26-point deficit in Game 3, and told reporters he likes what he's seeing from his team so far in the playoffs. Cleveland's defense is still shaky, but does anyone really think they'll have trouble advancing to a third straight NBA Finals? Me neither.

Meanwhile, Golden State also appears ready for Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals, Part 3. They dispatched Damian Lillard and the Blazers in four straight, with Steph Curry looking like the two-time MVP Steph, capped off by a 37-point long ball shooting exhibition in the series clincher. Kevin Durant played well in limited minutes in Game 4, and if the Warriors stay healthy they will be a solid favorite to bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to the Bay Area in June. 

Speaking of health, all of us who follow the NBA closely, are rooting for the Warriors’ head coach and former Bulls’ three-time champion Steve Kerr to get back on the bench very soon. Kerr was forced to miss the last two games of the series against Portland because of the continuing after-effects of a botched back surgery.

Kerr said the neck pain and headaches he was experiencing became so debilitating he couldn't function at the level he needed to during the playoffs. Assistant coach Mike Brown will run the Warriors in Kerr's absence, but it's just not the same around the team without Kerr's presence.

Getting to know Kerr a bit during his time as a player with the Bulls, you couldn't ask for a more likeable, down to earth athlete, and he's kept that same self-deprecating sense of humor through the daily pressure of life as an NBA head coach. 

Kerr has experienced all the success anyone could ask for during his time in basketball, including six NBA championships, three as a player with the Bulls, two with the Spurs and one as head coach with the Warriors. 

But as we all realize, good health is more important than anything in life, and right now Kerr's life has been all about managing pain for the better part of two years. Here's hoping Kerr can find the answers to his health issues, and be able to get back to experiencing the joys of coaching what looks like the NBA's next dynasty.

Will the Bulls be able to turn to Rajon Rondo soon?

Will the Bulls be able to turn to Rajon Rondo soon?

It doesn't seem likely but a Rajon Rondo return to the Bulls-Celtics series certainly seems possible, as the injured point guard was launching corner 3-pointers before the start of Tuesday's practice.

Except he was shooting with his left hand, as his right thumb was fractured in the second half of Game 2 in Boston. Game 5 is Wednesday night in Boston, as the Bulls have lost the two games without him and have looked rudderless at point guard.

As of the moment, the Bulls have ruled him out for Game 5 but are noncommittal beyond that, with Game 6 being back in Chicago Friday night.

If he returned it would be a remarkable turnaround considering one of Rondo's teammates called his thumb injury "I've worst I've ever seen in my career", leading to cautious words from Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

"This is honestly the first time he has touched a basketball with that right hand. We'll see how it goes. He's going to continue to condition and do everything he can," Hoiberg said. "Just watching him wince a little bit when the ball was coming to him makes me think it's a longshot.

But if there's anybody who can do it and will try to fight through it, it's Rondo because of the competitor he is."

Rondo said he couldn't grip a fork with his right hand, let alone a basketball when he spoke to the media this weekend, and the official diagnosis stated he would be evaluated between 7-10 days, pushing things right between Games 6 and 7, if it gets to a decisive seventh game in Boston.

It's not just Rondo's wizardry that has people fantasizing about Rondo producing a Willis Reed moment, but the lack of confidence in backups Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams is palpable.

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bulls playoff tickets right here]

Hoiberg is going with Isaiah Canaan at point guard for Game 5, after he hit a few shots and defended Isaiah Thomas reasonably well, despite Thomas scoring 33 points Sunday night.

Rondo did a good enough job funneling Thomas near the help defense, but it seems to be a foreign process from anyone else this series. The Bulls' dependency on Rondo's brain is obvious, given everything he's been through; Their seeming reliance on Rondo in the physical form is more than shocking, seeing as how he couldn't do right in their eyes  in December and January.

"He obviously wants to get back out there and is doing everything he can to put himself in that position, knowing that it's still a longshot that that happens," Hoiberg said.

The visual, though, in plain view of camera phones and TV cameras, certainly appeared striking as Rondo still had a brace around his thumb before practice.

"We want that guy back, man, but I don't know if it will happen, if it won't happen, I can't tell you that," said Jimmy Butler, who's had to take on more ballhandling responsibilities in Rondo's absence. "But he's still out here, shooting shots with his left hand from the corner."

Butler then added some levity and perhaps a dose of reality to the moment of optimism.

"He just shot that one right-handed by the way and air-balled it. But we love him, man," Butler said.

The Bulls would need more than just a ceremonial Rondo appearance if he were to return, as he supplied the Bulls with a confidence and swagger that hadn't been seen in awhile and hasn't been heard from since his injury—unless you could the Celtics' brimming confidence with two wins in Chicago to take control back of homecourt advantage.

The Celtics have loaded up on Butler and to a lesser degree, Wade, turning them into facilitators rather than attackers or at least guys who can get an easy basket or two during a game.

Rondo was good for setting those guys up along with taking care of Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, but that responsibility has fallen down the line to players who are just as willing but not as creatively capable as Rondo.

"He's our floor general out there," Butler said. "He knows everything, knows every matchup, every position, and he's still helping over there from the bench, but we really want him healthy and out there for us."