International-born players leading Bulls charge

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International-born players leading Bulls charge

Sunday, March 20, 2011Posted: 11:00 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

If the playoffs started todayapologies in advance for utilizing one of the most overused phrases this time of the yearthe Eastern Conference-leading Bulls first-round opponent would be Fridays foe, the Pacers. Indiana, which ended the Bulls' eight-game winning streak with Fridays overtime win at Conseco Fieldhouse, initially surged upon the dismissal of Jim OBrien and promotion of young assistant Frank Vogel. They then hit a downturn before recently bouncing back behind the improved play of young building blocks Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison.

All-Star point guard Derrick Rose doesnt take Indiana lightly, as he remembers the challengesand motivationof being a team fighting for the eighth seed in the postseason, as the Bulls did his first two seasons in the league. These days, the Bulls are the hunted instead of the hunter and as such, are experiencing being a team with a big target on its back.

Its been fun, but at the same time, its kind of hard," Rose said. "Its even harder because youre trying to get in position in the playoffs. You want to get a better seed, of coursebut youre playing against teams that are playing just to get a spot, so you see how hard theyre playing.

Remembering from last year, we were playing pretty hard towards the end, just trying to make it and it took us until the last game.

Despite Fridays loss, one reason the Bulls wont fold, however, is Roses improved leadership. Much has been made of his jumper and defense, including his shut-down job against fellow elite floor general Deron Williams in the Bulls Thursday win at New Jersey, but the soft-spoken 22-year-old is also becoming noticeably more vocal on the court.

I just feel more comfortable, thats the biggest thing. Im able to talk to my guys, no matter what its about. If its on the court, they know if I talk to them or yell at them, its nothing serious. Its just that were trying to win a game and its basketball. People are going to yell at you in basketball, so dont take it seriously. Im fortunate to have these bunch of guys. They dont complain about anything. They just want to hoop, explained Rose, who scored a career-high-tying 42 points before fouling out in Fridays extra session. In games, in situations, it takes a while, but you just get that feeling from teammates, when they come to you about certain things, ask you about certain things. It just happens.

Asiks progress not drawing surprise

While Rose has become more confident in himself, he also continues to develop more trust in his teammates, including rookie center Omer Asik. The 7-foot native of Turkey rang up 11 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in the Nets win, leading his peers to gush about his ongoing progress.

Thats almost every game with him," Rose praised. "To come in, get that many rebounds, get to the free-throw line, dunk a lot of balls, block shots, play defense. Thats what we need from him. He works hard, listens. Thats the biggest thing. To be a rookie, hes doing everything Coach wants him to do, especially to be a big and we need him on this team.

Added Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: Were not afraid to play Joakim Noah and Asik together and I think thats the value of those guysall of them, all five post guysthey can all play with each other.

If you want more size out there, Omer can play with all of our other bigs. Taj Gibson can play with everybody. Taj can play the five. He has great feet, so when teams go small, we can stay big, he continued. Of course, the shot-blocking with Taj and Omer in the second unit. We have a lot of different things that we can do. The versatility of our bigs is a huge plus for us.

Thibodeau also quipped that Asiks so-called language barrier hasnt been a detriment to his development.

Its probably more challenging for you guys the media," the coach said. "With us, hes been fine. His teammates understand him, he understands us. Sometimes with criticism, he doesnt understand, but everything else, he understands. Hes serious, hes a diligent worker, very bright and now this is his second and third time through against some of these teams. He keeps learning, getting better, more confident. But hes come in with a defensive mindset from the start and he has great instincts.

While Asiks offense can appear raw at times, Thibodeau believes the rookie is making progress.

Asiks post moves are probably a little too fast, but youre probably starting to see his passing right now. Hes been a great screener, great offensive rebounder, very smart, he helps you execute, is comfortable away from the basket passing the ball, he sees things, he reads helps, plays are being defended, explained Thibodeau.

Asik is showing signs of the ability to be a starting-caliber NBA center sooner than later, giving the Bulls a terrific luxury, as Noah is already an upper-echelon player at the position and both 7-footers are still very young.

I think its just a matter of time before he gets more confident back to the basket," Thibodeau said. "Hes great on pick-and-rolls rolling to the basket. Right now in his post game, he has to slow down, just a little bit.

Sometimes hes trying to get into his move too quick and obviously, if its a paint catch, we want him to go quick, but if he catches outside the lane, we want him to be a little more patient. Let the cutters go through, then go to work and make plays. Itll come in time.

Starting center Noah is also appreciative of Asiks contributions to the squad. While hes working his way back into his old form, Noah feels confident that the teams legion of big menhimself, veteran Kurt Thomas, Asik, Gibson and currently sidelined power forward Carlos Boozercan help carry the load.

I dont feel Im playing my best, but I know that somebody can step in and play the way O Asik played," Noah said after Thursday's game. "Thats huge and Im just going to keep working and try to get back to 100 percent as soon as I can. I like playing with AsikI like playing with all our bigs and everybody brings something different to the table.

Weve got five bigs that are very solid rebounders. Booz went down, were still solid rebounding. When I went down, were still very solid rebounding. What Kurt Thomas and what Omer are bringing to the table is huge for us, what Taj is bringing to the table with his versatility.

Thats the beauty of this team," Noah continued. "Weve got a lot of weapons. Omers somebody who lives in the gym, improving. His confidence is getting better and better. Hes understanding how he can score in the offense. Hes playing at a really high level and we need that to do what we want to do.

Noah still regaining form
Although Noah admitted to not being 100 percent because of the flu-like symptoms that sidelined him for Tuesdays home victory over Washington, his trademark energy was still present in New Jersey, evidenced by his key tip-in down the stretch Thursday that helped hold off a Nets rally.

After Fridays loss, however, Noahlike Rose, who somehow believed that not only was his scoring effort not enough, but he came up short in the clutch after bringing the team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficitwas extraordinarily hard on himself, in light of his uncharacteristic three-rebound outing. At the same time, after playing in his second game without a bandage to protect the right thumb that caused him to miss 30 games following surgery, he did feel his under-appreciated shooting touch was returning.

My touch felt good. Im just feeling more and more comfortable out there the more I play. Im still a little sick right now, but the more I play, the more I get over this, the better Ill feel.

Noah also fessed up to something made obvious since the early days of the season: Thibodeaus defense and team-oriented mantras have rubbed off on the players, to the point that they parrot his philosophies when talking to the media.

Were doing the same things every day, so its almost becoming more routine. Thibs is preaching the same stuff and even when were doing interviews, I always end up saying what hes saying to us all the time and everybodys saying the same things, he revealed. Its funny, but you know what? Thibs, he knows what hes talking about and were listening.

Deng not distracted

The last of the Bulls' international-born playersoutside of Noah and AsikLuol Deng, has become the teams most consistent player, according to his teammates and coaches. The Sudanese product, who also spent some of his formative years in London before moving to New Jersey in high school, recently opined about how the NBAs pending Collective Bargaining Agreement could affect players, as many observers have speculated that a league lockout is almost a sure thing.

Deng, who scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Indiana, told CSNChicago.com that he would consider playing overseas next season if a potential lockout was prolonged and it was permissible by NBA rules, although hes obviously focused on the current season at the moment.

I have no problem with it. Ive got to wait and see what the rules are, but growing up in Europe and playing in the summer in European competition, I have no problem doing that, but I dont want to do that. I want to stay right here and play. Well see how it goes. I might not be able to. It might be smart to just wait and see what happens, but at the same time, if it looks like its going to be a long timewhich we all hope its notIve got to see whats the rules, whats the options, what can you do and what can you not do because all of us want to be here and play, said Deng, who learned last week that his Great Britain national teamwhich may have former Bulls teammate Ben Gordon on boardhad qualified for the 2012 Olympics, to be held in London.

When that time comes, you go over it. Theres no point right now to be thinking about that. Youve got to be locked in this season and try to do what youve got to do. When its all over and done, when that time comes and youre in that situation, thats when you make that decision, but I havent even given it a thought at all. Really I just try to focus on what weve got here.

Still, the small forward, often described by Thibodeau as the teams glue, is more excited about the continuation of an already-exciting season with possibilities for much more down the line.

Were doing things that havent been done in a long time and I think we should be proud of that. I said it from the start of the year: We really worked hard in training camp and we still do. You deserve what you put in and we really put in the time. Were really committed to it and its just great to be a part of it.

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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Dwyane Wade's sacrifice for LeBron James as historically surprising as it was successful

Dwyane Wade's sacrifice for LeBron James as historically surprising as it was successful

When Dwyane Wade’s career epitaph is written, the chapter titled “sacrifice” could be the biggest of any superstar of his caliber in NBA history.

Wade is making modifications and sacrifices to his game to accommodate Jimmy Butler, but at age 34 it’s a much easier sell to defer to a player like Butler than his most notable stepback move: Allowing former teammate LeBron James to shine even more during their time in Miami.

The partnership formed by the two was based on the friendship forged by the 2003 draftees, and by the time Wade, James and Chris Bosh made the controversial decision to play together in 2010 free agency, Wade was already a champion.

He was also coming off two of the best seasons by a shooting guard not named Michael Jordan, welcoming a two-time MVP in James to his city and his team.

A whirling dervish after a couple injury-riddled seasons, Wade was rejuvenated after the 2008 Olympics and averaged 28.4 points, 7.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks over the next two seasons.

The only problem was the Heat, in anticipation of the celebrated 2010 free-agent class, stripped down the operation to bare bones and Wade couldn’t will the Heat out of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

James had stellar seasons of his own, winning back-to-back MVP’s but couldn’t get his Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals after pushing them to top seeds in the East both years.

“I led the league in scoring (2008-09) and nobody was knocking down my door for anything. It was just like, ‘Oh, good year.’ And then we went into the summer,” said Wade after Thursday's practice, on the eve of the first Bulls-Cavs matchup this season, Friday at the United Center. “And it was like, ‘I don’t get no trophy presentation, no car, no nothing?’ For me, and I think the same thing happened with LeBron as well, it came a point for both of us where it was like the goal is to play team basketball and to win at a high level.”

The story about their rocky first season together is well-known, as is Wade’s subsequent sacrifice to step back and allow James to take the wheel, with the Heat winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.

But had James showed up in the last four games of the 2011 NBA Finals, where the Heat lost a 2-1 lead to the Dallas Mavericks to fall in six games, Wade not only would’ve been MVP of that Finals series, but what need would there have been for him to take a supporting role?

After all, it was James who choked away fourth quarters in that Finals, while Wade was stellar with 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists to go along with averaging nearly two steals and two blocks.

Wade was 29, as in the same age Jordan was when leading the Bulls to their first three-peat, the prime age when players are maximizing their individual gifts, not suppressing them for a newcomer.

There were plenty of reasonable arguments to be made that it was James who should’ve been deferring to Wade during that time, and a championship would’ve proven that theory.

Still in the conversation for the belt-less title of “best player,” Wade finished seventh in MVP voting in 2010-11 while James finished third.

“Once you get over that, people writing and saying you’re arguably the best player in the game, what does that do for you? How many years can you go into the summer early and say, ‘Oh, he’s one of the best players in the game’ if your goal is to win,” Wade said.

In hindsight it makes sense, and Wade almost seems clairvoyant in sliding over before his body started to show slippage in their last two years in Miami.

But with players being wired to say “nobody’s better than me and I have the receipts to prove it,” it was a massive sacrifice by Wade even with the perspective.

“That first year we both had great individual years. We went to the Finals. (But) we lost,” said Wade matter-of-factly. “And I felt some hesitation as well on his part about playing. I took it upon myself to take that hesitation away from him, to allow him to be what he was and what he is - the best player in the game - and not think too much about stepping on my toes.

“We were stuck together. There was no point in us coming together and doing these things if we’re not going to reach that ultimate goal. I didn’t like that feeling after the first loss in the championship against Dallas. I didn’t like it. And I wanted to change it. And I felt that was the best way I could help.”

Some players sacrifice because they have to, with there being such a great gap in talent between one star and the other that it would almost seem counterproductive for one to try to take a more aggressive tone.

Historically, there have been instances of stars switching teams and accepting lesser roles or even transitions of roles from teammates to accommodate age or ascension or general decline.

Kobe Bryant was arguably every bit of Shaquille O’Neal’s equal during the Lakers’ last two championships in their run (2001-2002), so one could understand the power struggle that took place.

Magic Johnson willingly deferred to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until the Lakers were bounced in the 1986 Western Conference Finals in five games by the Houston Rockets and the Lakers were in desperate need of a personality transplant to thrive in the latter part of the decade.

Johnson took over while the aging Abdul-Jabbar, nearing 40 years old, took a step back. The Lakers wound up producing the best season of the “Showtime” era in 1986-87, with Johnson winning the first of his three regular-season MVP’s and the Lakers repeated in 1988.

Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar’s partnership extended the Lakers’ decade-long run while O’Neal and Bryant’s tug-of-war led to their demise after 2004.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook couldn’t find that balance during their time together in Oklahoma City, so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion Wade, James and Bosh were going to figure it out.

One of the few players whose acknowledgement of a contemporary’s greatness doesn’t obscure his own, Wade’s pride in his own game and security in his place in history and the present was a big reason why the Heat managed to win.

It’s also why Wade has little issue being big brother to Butler in Chicago.

“He’s a phenomenal player,” said Wade of James. “There are not many players I’ve been with my own eyes that, no matter what team he goes on, they’re a great team. He has that ability to put his stamp on the game. That’s why he is who he is. He’s arguably one of the top three to five players to ever play the game.”

The fact the two were friends certainly aided matters, leading to an understanding and communication between the two without the uncomfortable moments that can often derail promising partnerships.

Those who were around both said Wade’s leadership rubbed off on James, who was described as immature by some during his time in Cleveland. Wade being older and more savvy was just as critical as James’ otherworldly play.

“The one thing from the standpoint of my leadership and my calmness and my ability to prepare, I think all those things rubbed off on him as well,” Wade said. “Just like the things he did rubbed off on me. That’s a sign of people who respect each other, two great players. The same thing here with Jimmy. I’m trying to rub off on Jimmy. But at the same time, Jimmy is rubbing off on me, too.”