Rose, Bulls top Suns in battle of point guards

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Rose, Bulls top Suns in battle of point guards

Tuesday, April 5, 2011Posted 9:40 p.m. Updated 11:40 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

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.

As the NBA evolves, Bulls' Taj Gibson, Robin Lopez experiment with 3-pointers

As the NBA evolves, Bulls' Taj Gibson, Robin Lopez experiment with 3-pointers

Taj Gibson began working on his 3-point shot as early as this past offseason. That work in the gym from beyond the arc continued into training camp, the preseason and eventually the regular season.

The eight-year veteran didn't attempt his first 3-pointer until the 21st game of the season, and that came in the final minute as the Bulls trailed by nine against the Pistons. Gibson's 27-foot heave from the left wing was off, and he proceeded to play the next 17 games without attempting another.

But recently Gibson had a conversation with head coach Fred Hoiberg, who knew the 31-year-old power forward had been putting in additional time to work on his corner 3-pointers. Hoiberg told Gibson he believed in his corner 3-pointer and that he'd allow the Bulls' forward to shoot them in games.

On Jan. 10, Gibson took a pass from Rajon Rondo midway through the first quarter and hoisted a 3-pointer from the left corner. He connected, marking just the second made 3-pointer of his career, and his first since the 2010-11 season.

Between triples Gibson, always a reliable midrange shooter, attempted and missed 22 3-pointers. But with the added practice time and confidence, and a blessing from his head coach, Gibson believes the 3-pointer can become an asset, going as far to say he’d like to shoot two triples per game.

There is, however, one aspect of the shot still standing in his way.

"When you get out there you never really realize how far it is until you're lined up and the crowd is like, 'Shoot it!'" Gibson said after Thursday's practice at the Advocate Center. "Your teammates are behind you, but it's fun. Hopefully (I) look forward to trying to make some in the future."

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Gibson attempted two more triples in Saturday's win over the Hornets and another in Sunday's win over the Grizzlies. All three were off-target, but just seeing Gibson step into the attempts and fire with confidence was a sight for sore eyes on a Bulls team lacking from outside.

Through the season's first half the Bulls rank last in both 3-point field goal percentage (31.7 percent) and 3-pointers made (6.4 per game). Their 276 total made 3-pointers as a team are less than two pairs of teammates (Houston’s Eric Gordon and James Harden, 301; Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, 283).

The Bulls' expected top 3-point shooters – Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine – have combined to go 114-for-350, or 32.5 percent. Starters Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade haven’t fared much better, albeit on fewer attempts, while Chicago's trio of point guards have made 29 percent of their 144 3-point attempts. Simply put, there's ample opportunity to see what Gibson can do from deep without messing up the team's current perimeter shooting.

"It's something that he worked on a lot in the offseason. So yeah if he's open in the corner we want those shots," Hoiberg said. "It’s obviously a huge part of today's game. The 3-point shot, to have multiple players that can stretch the floor out there, those teams are really hard to guard."

Gibson's not the only Bulls big man experimenting. Robin Lopez said he, too, has been working on his outside shot in practice. Gibson joked that Hoiberg hasn't yet given Lopez permission to fire away from deep, while Hoiberg cracked that Lopez might be jealous of the 5.2 3-pointers his twin brother, Brook, is attempting this season in Brooklyn.

Lopez, like Gibson, has always had a dependable midrange shot. Per NBA.com, his 44.4 field goal percentage on midrange shots is fifth among centers this season.

"That’s something I've been working on more this season. I don't know if it's game-ready yet. That's more of a confidence issue," said Lopez, who added he's been working with assistant coach Pete Myers on the shot. "I think the way the NBA is going, I don't see why not. If Brook can do it, I definitely can."

Lopez is 0-for-5 from distance in his nine-year career, including 0-for-1 with the Bulls this season. But the defensive-minded center knows the ever-changing NBA game now includes teams wanting to get as many perimeter shooters on the floor at once. If he and/or Gibson can eventually be part of that, he knows the difference it could make.

"I think it's wonderful for the game. I think there's a real premium on skill at all positions on the court. I think that's going to continue. You're going to have more skilled and more talented big men," he said. "There's always a new breed of big men right around the corner."

Bulls Road Ahead: Trying to get back to .500 yet again

Bulls Road Ahead: Trying to get back to .500 yet again

Mark Schanowski and Mark Strotman break down what the Bulls need to do to get back on track on this edition of the Bulls Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda dealers.

A stellar win over the Grizzlies on Sunday has all but been forgotten, as the Bulls lost to the Mavericks on Tuesday. Now back under .500 for the fourth time this season, the Bulls will have to regroup as they prepare for a back-to-back against the Hawks and Kings.

See what else they had to say in this week's Bulls Road Ahead.