Tuesday, April 5, 2011Posted 9:40 p.m. Updated 11:40 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
Tuesday night's game at the United Center seemed in the bag as the Bulls built up a seemingly insurmountable lead, but let up and allowed the Suns to claw their way back into the game, before escaping with a 97-94 win.
The late heroics of Derrick Rose were Chicagos saving grace, as the All-Star point guard hit clutch shots to hold off Phoenix and maintain the Bulls three-game Eastern Conference first-place lead over both Miami and Boston.
We got the big lead, we got loose, we stopped defending and they hurt us on the boards, so we were fortunate in the end, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. We didnt play well and you have to give the Suns credit. They played well. They played hard, they played smart, they were unselfish and we didnt play tough with the lead. Our shot selection hurt us, our defensive transition hurt us. Were fortunate in the end to get the win, but weve got to do a lot better. Weve got to clean up a lot of things.
Overall, 94 points54 in the second halfthats not good enough.
With both teams welcoming back key players to the lineupBulls center Joakim Noah (12 points) returned after a four-game absence caused by a sprained right ankle; Phoenix point guard Steve Nash (16 assists) got over the flu in time for his annual visit to the Windy Cityeach squad was raring to go and the up-tempo style play early on favored the visitors.
As offensively capable as the Bulls (57-20) have occasionally proven to be with their full complement of players, the Suns (37-40) are regarded as the NBAs masters of run-and-gun basketball.
Behind a bouncy and active Noah, Roses newfound ability to get to the charity stripe, balanced scoring amongst the supporting cast and collectively buckling down on defense, Chicago slowed down Phoenixs rapid-fire attack.
I just came back from injury, so Im very happy to be out there, said Noah. I love this. This is great. Playing for the Chicago Bulls, No. 1 seed right now, about to go to the playoffs, playing in the best building in the world to play basketball in and trying to improve with a great group of guys, and be as good as we can be. I feel pretty good right now.
Despite the efforts of 38-year-old Grant Hill (13 points)a day younger than Bulls veteran Kurt Thomasand Nashs playmaking, the home team clung to a narrow 25-24 edge at the conclusion of the opening period.
The contest remained a close-knit affair early in the second quarter, but the Bulls Bench Mob, led by the high activity levels of Taj Gibson (10 points, nine rebounds) and Ronnie Brewer (10 points, six rebounds, four assists), managed to build a slim cushion by forcing turnovers and playing the gritty, selfless style of basketball Chicago fans have come to expect from the second unit this season.
The aforementioned pair continued to slash their way inside for easy buckets and coupled with the outside marksmanship of Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson, as well as solid transition defense, the Bulls' reserves extended the lead to double digits.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau eventually went back to his regulars and the Bulls ran their offense through Carlos Boozer (12 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) while others, such as Luol Deng (18 points), also got involved as the squad found a balance between solid defense and pushing the pace. At the halftime break, the Bulls maintained a 53-40 advantage.
Chicago was clicking on all cylinders early in the third quarter, as Noah continued to excel as an interior scorer and Rose began to assert himself as a scorer, prompting the Bulls lead to balloon to over 20 points.
Nash, however, was at his playmaking best and while he didnt look to be a scoring threatin some part due to Roses improved defensehe set up his teammates for open jumpers and easy finishes at the rim, causing the Bulls to incur the wrath of the intense Thibodeau, who was clearly unhappy with his teams slippage on the defensive end.
Explained Rose: Offensively, youre going to miss shots. defensively, we let them get in a groove shootingpick-and-pop, Steve rolled coming off screens, floaters, layupsand we cant let players like that get confidence.
After a timeout for instructional purposes, the Bulls widened the gap to previous standards. But Phoenix once again fought back, trimming the deficit via transition opportunities, many of which were created by Bulls turnovers.
Capped by a time-machine alley-oop by former All-Star swingman Vince Carter (21 points), the Suns closed to within 81-70 through three quarters.
Phoenix continued its charge early in the final stanza, battling within single digits behind a small-ball lineup that spread the Bulls out and then took advantage by ducking inside for easy buckets or corralling long rebounds and turning broken plays into ultimately successful possessions.
Carter was the Suns catalyst, scoring in variety of ways that harkened his Half Man, Half Amazing heyday and putting the visitors within striking distance, as it became a two-possession game midway through the period.
Defensively, we had to do a much better job than we did. Once we started coming up with stops, obviously we could get in the open court and run, said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. We have to play the way we played the second half when the game is even, not when were 22 down."
The visitors continued to test Chicagos mettle as the contests stretch run approached, as the two teams were separated by a single basket with two minutes remaining.
Rose, the favorite for this seasons MVP award, gave his team some breathing room by a converting a traditional three-point play with 1:52 to go, to the delight of his hometown fans.
I was just trying to attack, said Rose. They did a good job of containing me the whole game, just making sure I didnt get a lane. I saw a hole and just tried to penetrate.
Both Gentry and Hill both disagreed with the callRose, however, drew contact, but didnt go to the line on several previous second-half drives, perhaps to compensate for the frequency of his trips to the charity stripe in the first halfand voiced their opinions afterwards.
Grants done a good job and Steve did a good job on him. We tried to stop his dribble penetration and then, when he did, we tried to step in front of him for charges, to see if we could take a charge on him, said Gentry, emphasizing the word charge each time to show his disagreement with the blocking foul called on Hill.
Disputed Hill: I thought I was there and Derricks the MVP at home. Its not the first time that an MVP in this building down the stretch got that type of call, but it shouldnt come down to a play like that.
One of those calls that go either way.
But the Suns werent done just yet, as jump-shooting big man Channing Frye (13 points, nine rebounds) knocked down a triple with 1:41 left, making it a 94-92 game and prompting a Bulls timeout.
Rose again displayed nerves of steel, taking his man off the dribble and draining a pull-up jumper from the elbow with 33.2 seconds left, giving his Bulls a four-point lead.
Joakim Noah returned from his ankle injury to mixed reviews from head coach Tom Thibodeau. Noah knows he needs to focus on helping the Bulls improve their rebounding and continue to find chemistry with Carlos Boozer down low. (AP)
Im just trying to do whatever it takes to win, said Rose. At the end, if its me making a shotI never want to be in that position where I have to make a shot like thatif anything, Id rather win by 20 or 30 points, but Ill do whatever it takes to win.
Following a Suns timeout, Carter was efficient in hitting a driving layup on the ensuing possession, leaving 26.7 on the clock and a two-point deficit for Phoenix, plenty of time if the visitors played their cards right.
Chicago attempted to milk the clock before Korver was eventually fouled and while he surprisingly split a pair of free throws to leave the door open, the Suns were unable to get off a potentially game-tying three-point attempt, giving the Bulls a narrow escape.
We cant mess up at practice, we cant come in sluggish at the games, cautioned Rose, who appeared dissatisfied with the quality of the win, given Phoenixs near-comeback. We just cant do that right now.
Noah focused on rebounding in return
Noahs return after a four-game absence caused by a sprained right ankle was certainly a sight for sore eyes, but after missing nearly half of the season due to various injuries, its no surprise he wasnt completely on point.
Offensively, I thought, pretty good. Defensively, I think you could see his timings not quite there, said Thibodeau. Hes hurting a little bit.
Noahs 12-point, four-rebound, four-assist effort showed that his shooting touch and even court awareness offensively was there and while the fact that he guarded Suns face-up big man Channing Frye took him away from the basket some of the night, his rebounding and defense werent up to his usual standards.
Im concerned that he hasnt been able to get into rhythm because hes missed so much time. Hes missed almost half the season and he was just starting to come around, and he was getting his timing back, and then he sprains his ankle. Thibodeau explained. But we need his rebounding. For us to be the type of team we want to be, hes got to rebound big.
Noah himself acknowledged his rebounding could improve; in fact, so could the team as a whole. After dominating opponents on the glass throughout much of the season, the Bulls have come back to Earth, a fact illuminated by a finesse Phoenix team outrebounding them Tuesday.
We have to do a better job rebounding. Thats definitely on everybodyon meto step it up, said Noah. My rebounding is a little down right now, but Im going to work as hard as I can to get it back to where it used to be.
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.