Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010
Posted 8:34 PM Updated 11:03 PM
By Aggrey Sam
CLEVELAND -- Tom Thibodeau's morning shootaround stance of "I'm very concerned" seemed like politically correct pregame posturing at the time, but proved to be valid.
As if they believed the fierce pregame snowstorm in Cleveland would cancel the contest, the Bulls (12-8) sleepwalked through the majority of Wednesday evening's game, narrowly beating the Cavaliers (7-15), 88-83.
"We'll take any win we can get. We didn't play our best, they played very well and in the end, we did some things to put ourselves in position to win," remarked the prophetic Bulls head coach.
A sparse home crowd -- caused by a downtown snowstorm -- apparently was a bad omen for the Cavaliers, as the Windy City visitors started out the game with 10 straight points on two jumpers apiece from Luol Deng and Derrick Rose (both 3-pointers) before Anderson Varejao stopped the early bleeding.
Cleveland, however, decided to compete, heeding Cavs head coach Byron Scott's pregame wishes, and quickly got within closer contact of Chicago, much to the displeasure of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Scott shook up his rotation, giving early minutes to seldom-used reserves like Manny Harris, Ryan Hollins and Jawad Williams.
"Well, I thought the start of the game, we started out fine and I thought to their credit, they kept playing. They changed their lineup, so it was more of a pick-and-roll game," said Thibodeau. "I didn't like us offensively. I thought we played a low-energy game, so we didn't get into transition and we didn't get any easy scores. When we did get opportunities, we didn't convert."
Despite Scott's liberal experimentation, Cleveland was unable to overcome its errant shooting and finished the opening period behind, 21-15, even with the aid of five first-quarter Bulls turnovers.
Cleveland didn't exactly pose Chicago's most formidable challenge, but whether it was the team's extended commute to the "Q" (due to the inclement weather conditions) or the trap-game scenario Thibodeau fervently denied would occur, the Bulls weren't just sluggish or out of sync, but downright sloppy. Still, the Cavs' poor marksmanship and lack of ball security enabled the visitors to maintain a tenuous lead.
After repeatedly threatening Chicago's slim advantage, Cleveland briefly overtook the visitors in the latter stages of the second quarter, taking advantage of the Bulls' uninspired play. The home team's lead was short-lived, as the Bulls immediately played with much more urgency, going on an 8-0 run to end the half with the score 41-35.
Chicago found themselves in an actual dogfight with the Cavs after the intermission, with Cleveland quickly playing catch-up, then the contest evolving into a back-and-forth battle.
Rose (29 points, eight assists) and Deng (13 points, six rebounds) remained the only Bulls who could find the range consistently, with power forward Carlos Boozer and center Joakim Noah -- although his work on the glass was outstanding -- having immense trouble scoring or even finding opportunities against a Cavaliers team not known for its suffocating defense.
Varejao (17 points, 12 rebounds) and veteran scorer Antawn Jamison led the charge for Cleveland, aiding the Cavs -- along with the Bulls' porous defense, sloppy ballhandling and poor shot selection -- in taking a slim winning margin into the final stanza, 68-60, after point guard Mo Williams' (13 points, 10 assists) buzzer-beater.
Once again surging to begin a quarter -- an 8-2 spurt to begin the final period -- the Bulls didn't have quite enough to get over the hump and regain the lead from Cleveland. Reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver (12 points) provided Chicago with a spark, but gritty play from Varejao and timely scoring from swingman Anthony Parker and Jamison kept the Cavs in front.
Seemingly after each time the Bulls looked to pull ahead -- or just break even -- Cleveland answered or Chicago simply failed to convert on its opportunities.
Down the stretch, Thibodeau's small-ball lineup -- reserves Korver and Ronnie Brewer, along with starters Rose, Noah and Deng -- paid dividends, as the Bulls, buoyed by several key plays from Brewer (nine points, eight rebounds), tied the game at 80 with a little over a minute left in the affair.
Rose, Chicago's established closer, put the Bulls up, 82-80, on a driving layup with 46.5 seconds to play.
"I'm kind of getting used to it," said Rose afterwards. "I'm just taking whatever they give me. My teammates and the coaching staff have confidence in me, just like if they have the ball, I have confidence in them."
Added Korver: "He does it time and time again. He wants those moments. He doesn't just say, 'All right, I've got to try to do this again.' He really relishes it and he's done it with jump shots, he's done it with threes, he's done it driving to the basket, he's just showing that he can do it all."
On the subsequent Cavaliers possession, however, a play out of a timeout for Varejao worked to perfection, with the Brazilian finding himself wide open at the rim and tying the game with 26.2 seconds remaining.
Following a Varejao free throw (he missed the first of two attempts after securing a Rose miss and getting fouled) and a Chicago timeout, Rose went to work again, finishing a layup with contact and hitting the ensuing foul shot to give the Bulls an 85-83 advantage with 19.6 seconds left. Cleveland would get a chance to even the score, but couldn't convert.
Noah (13 points, 14 boards), still the subject of the Quicken Loans Arena crowd's scorn after his disparaging remarks about Cleveland in last year's playoffs, secured the rebound and knocked down a pair of free throws with 6.2 seconds on the clock to finalize things. For good measure, Brewer stole the inbounds pass and was fouled.
"It feels good to win, but we're playing with fire, man," said Noah, who laughingly called it an "understatement" when a reporter insinuated the team didn't play up to its potential. "It was definitely a low-energy game and we definitely didn't play our best basketball, but they played hard as hell. We've got to play with better effort.
"There's no denying it. We didn't play our best basketball tonight. Against the elite teams in the NBA, that's not going to get it done. But like I said, we're very happy that we won on the road. That's a tough thing to do in this league," he added.
While Rose was glad the Bulls pulled out the victory, he wasn't pleased with the way it happened, with him in the familiar role with savior at the conclusion.
"Hell no, I don't like that. Hell no. If it was up to me, I wouldn't be in it. I like winning games comfortably," quipped Rose when asked about his repeated game-saving performances. It hurts -- like I said, we won, but it still hurts -- right now, just thinking what happens if we would have lost.
"We're playing terrible right now, letting teams come back. But hopefully, we'll learn from it in the right way, where we'll end that way we're playing like that -- nonchalant -- very early," continued Rose, obviously not content with just a win. "If not, we're going to lose. It's going to hurt us very bad."
A teacher at heart, Thibodeau himself hopes his pupils retain the lesson from the close call by not taking the competition or an early advantage for granted, while making more of an emphasis of forcing the style of play he's tried to instill down opponents' throats from the outset.
"You have to bring energy every game. You have to prepare yourself well. We should have had fast-break opportunities because we were able to get stops for a good part of the game. Our rebounding was okay -- not great -- but our conversion on the break wasn't what you'd like it to be. When you convert those and get those easy scoring opportunities, I think everybody's confidence goes up and it allows you to execute a lot better," said Thibodeau.
"It was one of those games. You were struggling at different times, but there was a lot of fight at the end to do whatever we had to do to get the win and I was pleased with that."
In the end, one characteristic Thibodeau's brought to the team was their saving grace. Oh, and of course, Rose's determination.
No snow days in the NBA
While the constantly swirling snowstorm outside the arena -- but reportedly only in Cleveland's downtown area, not in the surrounding suburbs -- caused the Bulls to be delayed coming to the arena and definitely affected the game's turnout, the team refused to let that be a reason for their lackluster play.
"We're basketball players. There's going to be games like that, where people aren't going to come in until the end of the game or some people are never going to come. We've still got to go out there, put teams away early, especially a team that's down like that. We've got to keep them down because if it was us, they'd try to do the same," said Rose.
Added Noah: "There's no excuses. This is part of it. You can make excuses all you want, but this is part of basketball. Nagging injuries, four games in five nights, snow, the environment, problems at home. You can find an excuse almost every night, but that's why winning is difficult in this league. You try to not worry about the distractions and really focus on what needs to be done to win. That's what good teams do."
Korver chimed in: "It took us like 35 minutes to get here to get five blocks before the game. A lot of us got cut short with our pregame routines, but I'm sure a lot of people had a hard time getting to the game, too. Downtown was a mess. It was a mess getting here. Anyway, I played in Philly for a few years, so I've played in a couple of those arenas where you've got to kind of create your own energy."
Boozer on the bench late
After the game, Thibodeau explained the fourth-quarter absence of Boozer, attributing it to Cleveland's shooter-heavy lineup.
"We were spread out. I liked Lu at the four, just because I thought it gave us another perimeter guy and it would allow us to do some more switching. That was the main reason for that and they did a good job on Boozer with their double teams," said Thibodeau.
"We should have been able to do a better job in transition to get him deep post catches, where they couldn't get the double team there quite as quick, but we played at a slow pace, forced us into a halfcourt game and when we went to him, they forced the ball out of his hands. It was tougher on him, but we've got to do a better job with that."
Added Thibodeau: I thought it gave us an opportunity to put more shooting on the floor and also I liked it better defensively for us. Jamison, he spreads you out and he has the ability to shoot the three, but also put it on the floor and he's very clever with his shots and different types of shots that he can get off."
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.