Rose puts the Bulls on his back

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Rose puts the Bulls on his back

No, Tuesday nights 76-74 Bulls (5-1) win was not a flashback to last season. Yes, many of the same elementsa slow start, poor shooting, never refusing to quit, a comeback sparked by stout defense, dramatic twists and turns up until the final buzzer existed and even a familiar foe in the Hawks (4-2)but until Luol Dengs game-winning layup fell through the net, the raucous United Center crowd couldnt be completely sure their beloved home team had its mojo back.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the masterfully-executed out-of-bounds play that produced the winning basket argued, We caught a break that thats a second night for them, back-to-back, but anybody who watched the Bulls grind out a significant portion of their 62 regular-season victories in a similarly ugly fashion knows otherwise.

Although the visitors were coming off a night in which they came from behind to win in Miami, they still attempted to push the tempo in the games early going and had successful results, getting out to a 13-4 lead.

That was our first thought from the beginning to tire out the Hawks, but they came out, we couldnt hit a shot, we werent playing defense, said Derrick Rose. Thats how they got the big lead.

Versatile forwards Marvin Williams (14 points, eight rebounds) and Josh Smith (15 points, 14 rebounds) were both very active and go-to scorer Joe Johnson (10 points on 3-for-17 shooting), last seen by Chicago fans getting hounded into a dreadful playoff showing, was also effective.

The home team failed to take care of the basketball and fell into sloppy habits, though the up-and-down pace suited Rose (30 points, seven assists, 11-for-13 from the foul line) well, as he abandoned the distributor role he claimed at the games outset in favor of attacking the rim as a scorer. Still, after a quarter of play, the Hawks had a 23-15 advantage.

It was disappointing, the way we started the game. I thought we were playing a low-energy game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. I give them a lot of credit. I thought that they played great. They were more aggressive to start the game. When we play without pace, we struggle.

Even the insertion of the typically-energetic Bench Mobminus swingman Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who missed his second consecutive game with a groin injury, while C.J. Watson was also absent due to a sprained left elbow and was replaced in the rotation by third-string point guard John Lucas IIIdidnt help matters for the Bulls, as Atlanta maintained its double-digit cushion. There was a lid on the rim for the listless hosts, who mishandled the ball even when left alone, missed an assortment of open shots and blew defensive assignments.

Thibodeau tried different combinations and offensive setsas promised, Brewer occasionally initiated the offense, with Rose playing off the ballbut with the starting frontcourt of Deng (21 points, eight rebounds), Carlos Boozer (11 points, nine rebounds) and Joakim Noah combining to make just four of 19 attempts from the field and the team shooting 24.3 percent overall, it was too much to overcome. At the halftime break, the home team trailed, 38-26, partially as a result of the Hawks zone defense and somewhat due to their own uninspired play.

Explained Thibodeau: For whatever reason, I just thought, in the first half as a team, we were just backwards. We were shooting when we should have been passing, we were passing when we should have been shooting and we couldnt get anything easy, and I think thats important for us, to get some easy baskets and get a flow to the game.

Added Deng, who said that the fiery head coach was unexpectedly really positive at halftime: We had good looks. We just didnt make them. But their zone did bother us. Its the most zone weve seen this year, so Im sure the next practice that we have or even the next tape session, well be talking about zone offense a lot.

The tide began to turn early in the third quarter, as the Bulls used much-improved defenseafter Noah picked up a pair of quick fouls to give him four for the game, backup center Omer Asik (nine rebounds, three blocked shots) impacted the game with his shot-blocking acumen and overall defensive presence, not to mention a surprisingly fluid reverse layup in transitionand more efficient offense, sparked by Roses playmaking, to get a rise out of the discontent United Center crowd. However, as Atlanta settled down and was more patient with its offense and shot selection, the suddenly scoring-deficient Bulls gradually fell into an even deeper hole, trailing by as many as 19 points.

Boozer, the target of many fans dismay, started the period slowly and picked up his play as the frame waned on, but his lack of intensity on the defensive end forced Thibodeau to pull him from the game for the more active Taj Gibson. But the much-maligned power forward cant possibly shoulder all the blame for the lackluster effortdesignated sharpshooter Kyle Korver (eight rebounds) missed a wide-open three-pointer and a technical foul free throw, Brewer struggled to hit a variety of shots and the normally-reliable duo of Rose and Deng also struggledwhich left the Bulls down, 56-42, heading into the final stanza.

It was just one of those nights, but the way that we play on the offensive end cant affect the way we play defensively, said a dour Rose afterwards. Our defense always has to be there.

As if they finally realized how lousy they were playing, the Bulls came out like they were shot out of a cannon in the fourth quarter, with the slumping Korver knocking down a triple to open the periods scoring. Rose followed with a pair of shots from long range, sandwiched around two free throws and an Atlanta three-pointer, but after Deng turned a Hawks turnover into a fast-break layup, Chicago cut the deficit to five points with under 10 minutes to play.

It was officially a ballgame again and the Bulls suddenly morphed into the lovable, scrappy squad of last season, as Rose switched into takeover modebreaking ankles and slashing to the basket when he wasnt draining long bombs or calmly sinking foul shotsand a frenetic, trapping defense (even Korver, back on the floor after Thibodeau briefly took him out at the end of the previous period, was hustling all over the court to make plays, something unexpected for a player considered a defensive liability by many) rushed Atlanta into hurried possessions.

Ive been focusing on my rebounding a lot, trying to get more of those. Were a good rebounding teamsometimes theres not many rebounds to getbut thats something Thibs talked to me about and something Ive been focusing around lately, and just trying to be an all-around player, said Korver. No one wants to be labeled a one-dimensional person.

Deng, who turned up his aggressiveness as a scorer, hit a corner three-pointer just prior to the quarters midway point that knotted up the score at 62 apiece, setting the stage for a tense stretch run.

As he did in last years playoffs, Thibodeau rode the athletic, defensive-minded combination of Gibson and Asikalong with fellow reserve Korver, they were paired with starters Rose and Dengfor the final period of the low-scoring, close-knit affair, counting on their heart to make up for whatever the unit lacked in scoring balance.

We were very flat. We were searching. That group got some momentum going, so we were staying with them. We felt like they got them out of the hole, so they deserved the chance to finish it, reasoned Thibodeau. There was a stretch where I was going to come back with the starters, but that group was making their run and it was a lot of ground to make up, and I felt at that point, you couldnt afford to have another lull. They looked like they were fine and we looked like we were picking up our energy, and Derrick and Luol are accustomed to playing big minutes.

I thought Taj and Omer came in and gave us a lot of energy, he continued. The bench was very good. Of course, Derrick was sensational down the stretch, just made big play after big play. You cant say enough about Luol. He does everything. He rebounds, he defends, cuts, active, tough, smart.

Following a Deng layup and an Atlanta turnover, a Rose layup with 57.9 seconds on the clock gave the Bulls a 72-71 lead, their first of the game, but a subsequent thunderous alley-oop finish quickly changed the atmosphere of the arena.

Rose missed a leaning floater on the next possession, then Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was fouled and missed a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 16.3 seconds to go, setting up Rose making a tough, driving layup in traffic with 9.9 seconds left, giving the Bulls back the lead. The game appeared to be signed, sealed and delivered, but an inexplicable off-the-ball foul called on Deng sent Horford to the line and the All-Star split a pair of free throws, tying the game at 74 with 7.7 seconds remaining.

But Deng refused to be the goat, cutting backdoor to receive a perfectly-timed pass from Noahback in the game for his passing in place of Asik, the center knew the Hawks would focus on denying Rose the ballfor a layup with 3.7 seconds to go.

We run it every day after practiceevery single dayand it works. We see it works now. Lu got an easy basket. The guy that was sticking him turned his back and Joakim threw a great pass to Lu, and Lu had a layup, Rose broke down the play to reporters. I set the back pick for Kyle and then I go off a screen, Kyle goes off, then Joakim gets me, I act like Im going to the hole, set a back pick for Lu, Lu flies off. If Lu isnt open, dribble handoff.

Summarized Thibodeau: Theres multiple options on the playobviously were trying to get it to Derrickand they did a good job taking the first and second options away, and then Derrick made a great screen and Jo made a terrific pass, Lu made a great cut.

Atlantas final attempt, a Johnson jumper at the buzzer, was off, but the crowd was already breathing easy, knowing the ending to a familiar story.

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What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne

NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

Thursday's trade with Oklahoma City points out the problem with trying to stay in playoff contention while also rebuilding the roster with more young and athletic players.

The Bulls obviously hurt their postseason chances by dealing locker-room leader and rock-solid pro Taj Gibson and their best 3-point shooter in Doug McDermott. And, at first glance, the players they got back don't look very impressive.

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made it clear that one of the objectives in Thursday's deal was to free up playing time for his last two first-round draft picks, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis. He also made it clear that newly acquired point guard Cameron Payne would play a lot over the final 25 games of the season.

So, how does Fred Hoiberg now deal with an unwieldy number of players expecting to get minutes? If Payne is going to play, that probably means Rajon Rondo is out of the rotation. But will Rondo sit by quietly so the Bulls can preserve his $14 million salary slot for possible trades this summer? Or will the front office be forced to offer him a contract buyout?

And what about the other two players acquired in the Oklahoma City deal? Long-range specialist Anthony Morrow is suffering through one of the worst seasons of his career, hitting just 29 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. Will he get the minutes previously given to McDermott, or is he a candidate for a buyout? Paxson cryptically said Morrow's role is "still to be defined."

Joffrey Lauvergne, a 6-foot-11 center, has some ability, but he's a restricted free agent at season's end and it's hard to project him getting any meaningful playing time behind Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio.

So let's add it all up. Hoiberg now has four point guards — five if you count Isaiah Canaan — and three centers to juggle, plus he'll have to find minutes for Valentine, Morrow and Paul Zipser at the wing spots behind Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

How will Portis fare as the new starting power forward? And what to do with Nikola Mirotic? His fading confidence is probably at a new low after the team's failed efforts to find him a new home before the deadline.

It will be fascinating to see if this team can manage to hold onto a playoff spot after losing Gibson and McDermott, to say nothing of the maddening inconsistency we've witnessed over the first 57 games of the season.

Good health will be critical, with the team's two best players, Butler and Wade, each enduring some bumps and bruises in the final weeks leading up to the All-Star break. We've seen what the Bulls look like without Butler, and it's not pretty. They're 1-5 in the games Butler missed because of illness and a right heel contusion.

The story is different when Wade has been out. The Bulls are 5-4 in the games he's missed because of illness, injury or just plain rest. Still, the 12-time All Star has shown the ability to raise the level of his play when the games matter most, and you can expect he'll be a big factor for the Bulls down the stretch. Don't forget, Wade almost single-handedly took an undermanned Miami team to within a win of the Eastern Conference Finals last season with a turn-back-the-clock playoff performance.

Hard to gain much from looking at the remaining schedule. Only 11 of the remaining 25 opponents have winning records, but we've all seen how that's gone in the past. If the Bulls can head into April around .500, they should be in position to make a strong closing run with a pair of matchups against the NBA's worst team, Brooklyn, along with games against the Pelicans, Knicks, 76ers and Magic to close out the regular season.

Of course, since Hoiberg has been told to give significant minutes to Portis, Valentine and Payne the rest of the way, it's possible making the playoffs isn't quite as important as it was at the start of the season. Questions about Butler's future will start up again as we approach the NBA Draft in June since Paxson wouldn't commit to trying to build around the three-time All Star, and if Butler goes, it's a pretty safe bet that Wade follows him out the door.

Life's never easy in the NBA when you're stuck in the middle. Maybe the trade with Oklahoma City is the signal we've been waiting for that a full rebuild is on the horizon.

[MORE BULLS: What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

Off to see the Wizards

The Wizards have been on fire since Dec. 12, putting together a 25-12 record. In case you haven't noticed, fourth-year forward Otto Porter is among the league leaders in 3-point percentage, shooting 46.5 percent to go along with 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. It's going to cost the Wizards a small fortune to sign the restricted free agent this summer.

Washington's backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal is finally starting to reach the potential everyone saw when the Wizards upset the Bulls in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. The two are combining for an average of 45 points and 14 assists per game, with Wall now a perennial All Star capable of taking over games with his scoring and playmaking. Beal probably should have made the Eastern Conference All-Star team as well with his 22.2 points per game scoring average, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from behind the 3-point line.

The Wizards also made an under-the-radar pick-up, getting Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn for a first-round pick in this summer's draft. You probably haven't watched a lot of Brooklyn Nets basketball over the last couple years, but Bogdanovic is a good 3-point shooter who can also score off the dribble, averaging 14 points a game this season, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range. Bogdanovic will be a major upgrade for a Wizards bench that's struggled this season.

Moving to Canada

Toronto made two good moves before the deadline, acquiring a starting power forward in Serge Ibaka and a backup small forward in P.J. Tucker. Ibaka's ability to block shots and stretch the floor from the 3-point line should help the Raptors on both ends, while Tucker gives them another strong perimeter defender to go along with DeMarre Carroll in a possible playoff series against LeBron James and the Cavs.

LeBron loading up

Speaking of the Cavs, they're expected to add former Illini star Deron Williams to their bench once he clears waivers and completes a buyout with Dallas. Williams gives Cleveland the additional playmaker James has been demanding for the last couple months and sets up a potentially epic Finals matchup against Golden State. Williams gets a chance to compete for a championship late in his career, and he's still capable of being a difference maker in big games, averaging 13 points and seven assists per game. Cleveland is now loaded in the backcourt with Kyrie Irving, Williams, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and swingman Kyle Korver.

No luck for the Celtics

The one contending team that didn't make a move at the deadline is Boston. Danny Ainge talked trade with the Bulls about Butler and with Indiana about Paul George, but in the end he wasn't willing to give up those precious Brooklyn first-round draft picks he's been hoarding for years. Keep in mind the Celtics reportedly love University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz, who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, and they'll have enough cap room to make a run at free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler.

Even with the addition of Butler or George, the Celtics might not have been able to take down King James and the Cavs in this year's playoffs, but they are still lurking as the rising power in the East. Now, we'll all have to wait to see what Ainge does in the days leading up to the draft.

Quote of the week

Gibson gave the Chicago media one last lengthy session before boarding a private jet with McDermott to their new home in Oklahoma City.

On his time in Chicago: "Every day I came to the locker room just seeing my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true."

So what will it be like to join a new team after eight and a half seasons in Chicago? "I'm like a kid going to a new school. I don't know where to sit on the bus."

Something tells me Russell Westbrook and the Thunder will let Gibson have any seat he wants.

Good luck in Oklahoma City, Taj (and Doug). You will be missed by Bulls fans and media.