Schanowski: Roller-Coaster Ride Continues

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Schanowski: Roller-Coaster Ride Continues

Monday, April 12, 2010
5:00 PM
By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

I guess we shouldn't be surprised the Bulls are taking their playoff bid all the way down to the final two games of the season. They've been wildly inconsistent throughout the season, playing great against some of the league's best teams while giving away games against teams they should be able to handle easily. The loss at New Jersey last Friday was excruciating to watch. They were all but done midway through the fourth quarter, trailing the NBA's worst team by 12, but then Brad Miller staged a one man rally, hitting back-to-back three pointers, and even converting a breakaway lay-up off a Nets' turnover. Unfortunately, Derrick Rose could only split a pair of free throws with four seconds left, and New Jersey wound up tying the game on a Brook Lopez tip dunk with one-tenth of a second left. The first overtime was even worse, with the Bulls taking a seven point lead into the final minute, only to see a careless turnover by Rose, and a bad call by the officials give the Nets a chance to tie the game once again. By the time they got to the second OT, the Bulls were done, physically and emotionally.

So, who would have predicted the Bulls would come out with one of their best all-around games of the season in a must-win situation Sunday in Toronto? Led by the determined effort of Joakim Noah, the Bulls jumped on the Raptors early, and never let up, coasting to a 104-88 win to grab a one game lead in the race for the final playoff spot in the East. Noah basically told his teammates to jump on his back and let him lead the way. He came close to his first career triple double, scoring 18 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, and dishing out 7 assists. It's easy to see now why the Bulls were unable to pull out of the long losing streak in March that eventually reached 10 games. Without Noah, this team just doesn't have an emotional leader. Rose is without question the team's best player, but he's quiet and unemotional by nature. Noah is the one guy who can rally the locker room and get his teammates to dig a little deeper when things get tough. He's also become a force on both ends of the court, showing some decent post moves and the ability to hit that ugly 15 foot jumper with remarkable consistency.

Noah probably won't win the Most Improved Player Award, but he certainly gets my vote. To come as far as he has since his rookie season is remarkable. Remember Ben Wallace and Adrian Griffin voting to extend Noah's one game suspension for yelling at an assistant coach to two games because they didn't like the rookie and wanted to teach him a lesson? A lot of Bulls' fans were wondering why the team invested the 9th pick in the draft on a cocky, raw big man with limited offensive skills and a questionable work ethic. Well, Noah has done a complete 180 degree turn in his approach to life as a professional. He's now the hardest worker on the team and spent last summer trying to improve his offensive skills working at the I.M.G. Academy in Florida. Opponents now have to respect his ability to score and that opens up the court for the rest of the players. Who knows what else Noah will add to his game in the years to come? When the top free agents consider signing with the Bulls this summer, and I believe they will, the two biggest selling points are Rose's all-around brilliance and Noah's tireless play and leadership ability. Believe it or not, Noah is now one of the top 10 centers in the league, and with so few quality big men around, he will be a guy other players around the league want to team up with.

FREE AGENCY DEVELOPMENTS

The long awaited free agent class of 2010 got a little bit smaller with recent decisions by Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili to re-sign with their current teams. Nobody really thought Kobe would leave L.A., but until he signed the extension, Bulls' fans could dream about the possibility of Bryant following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan and bringing another string of NBA titles to Chicago. Ginobili isn't a guy the Bulls would have been interested in given his age and style, but taking him off the market just reduces the number of quality shooting guards that will be available.

The latest buzz around the league has Miami now more interested in Amar'e Stoudemire than Chris Bosh. The Heat would love to pair Stoudemire with Dwyane Wade, and then use their leftover cap room to bring in another shooter. If Stoudemire signs with Miami, the Bulls might have a better chance at signing Bosh, but Toronto G.M. Bryan Colangelo has said repeatedly he will work with Bosh on a sign and trade deal if the All-Star forward is determined to leave Toronto. And really, after watching the Raptors roll over against the Bulls on Sunday, is there any chance Bosh would want to stay!

The possibility of Toronto working a sign and trade deal for Bosh opens up the entire league as potential suitors, not just the teams with enough cap room to offer a maximum contract. I'm sure we'll be hearing the Andrew Bynum for Bosh rumors again, and you can bet Mark Cuban will get involved, since Bosh grew up in Dallas, and would be a popular addition for the Mavericks. Dallas has a lot of big contracts they could offer in a sign and trade for Bosh, including Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. The Bulls also could look into a sign and trade for Bosh, with Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and first round draft picks being the likely bait. It's no secret the Bulls are thinking big this summer, hoping to sign one star outright with their cap room, and bringing in another through a sign and trade. It's almost a foregone conclusion that Bosh will be playing for a new team next season, now it's up to the Bulls to come up with the right package to work a sign and trade with Toronto, then use their cap room to go after Wade or Joe Johnson to team up with Rose in the backcourt.

Of course, other teams have similar grand plans, most notably the Knicks, who can sign two max free agents without even worrying about sign and trade scenarios. But we're hearing more talk out of Cleveland that LeBron James is leaning towards staying with the Cavs, and without LeBron being the pied piper that brings a second top free agent to New York, the Knicks might have an awfully tough time bringing in two All-Stars this summer. Any way you look at it, the free agent chase will be one heck of an encore when the NBA Playoffs end in mid to late June.

Don't forget, we've got the regular season finale between the Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats Wednesday night on Comcast SportsNet. CSNChicago.com will also be streaming the game live. The Bobcats are locked into the number 7 playoff spot in the East, so there's a chance they could be resting some of their key players for the finale. But if the Bulls need a win to make the playoffs, I find it hard to believe new owner Michael Jordan will allow his team to use anything less than its best line-up. Kendall Gill will join me to preview the game during the 6:30 edition of SportsNite, then Neil Funk and Stacey King have the call at 7. We'll bring you Vinny Del Negro's media session and hopefully, take a look ahead to a first round playoff series against Cleveland during the final regular season edition of Bulls Post-Game live.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

Morning Update: Bulls prep for Game 4; Cubs won; Sox lost

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AP

Morning Update: Bulls prep for Game 4; Cubs won; Sox lost

Here are some of Saturday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 4 today on CSN

Preview: Cubs look to sweep Reds on CSN

White Sox scoreless streak hits 23 innings in loss to Indians

No clear options for Fred Hoiberg at point guard

Two days later, Blackhawks still stunned, 'embarrassed' by quick exit

Cubs offense explodes with three home runs in victory over Reds

Stan Bowman 'completely, completely disappointed' with Blackhawks

White Sox prospect Carson Fulmer: 'Our time is coming soon'

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Jacob May gets 'Harambe' off his back with first career hit

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 4 today on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 4 today on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Boston Celtics today in Game 4 on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. And be sure to stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live-streaming coverage of the Bulls.

1. Which point guard steps up? With "Playoff Rondo" shelved after suffering a thumb injury, one of the Bulls point guards needs to step up for them to win Game 4. No one is expecting a near-triple-double like Rajon was approaching in Game 2, but hitting open shots and pushing the pace will be vital on Sunday. Jerian Grant finished with a minus-15 and zero assists in Game 3, while Michael Carter-Williams played 23 minutes and scored only two points on 1-for-5 shooting. If those two continue to struggle, it wouldn't be surprising to see Fred Hoiberg call Denzel Valentine's name. 

2. Bigger game from Jimmy Butler. In Game 1 Jimmy Butler dropped 30 points. He followed that up with 22 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in the Game 2 win. Game 3 wasn’t as pretty for the Bulls’ top scorer. Butler had 14 points on 7-21 shooting and didn’t have any assists. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the Bulls need more from Butler to stay in front in the series.

3. Three-point defense. Boston is going to take plenty of threes. The Celtics were third in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game in the regular season with 33.4 per contest. Still, the Celtics shot 17-37 in Game 3. It’s hard to beat a team shooting that well from beyond the arc so the Bulls will have to limit the quality looks Boston gets from the perimeter.

4. Bench production. Not only did Butler have good showings in the first two games, but the Bulls got plenty of bench production as well. That dried up in Game 3. After the Bulls’ bench averaged 30 points in the two games in Boston, the bench had just 16 points in 44 minutes before scoring 10 points in garbage time in the final four minutes of the blowout loss. It doesn’t matter where it comes from - Bobby Portis played the hero in Game 1 and Paul Zipser had the big game off the bench in Game 2 - as long as the bench provides some numbers.

5. Tame big Al Horford. Horford had a nice bounce back game on Friday, scoring 18 points on an efficient 8-for-14 shooting. He also conflated that with a solid floor game, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing six assists. If Horford continues to be aggressive when the Celtics have the ball, it could spell trouble for the Bulls. When Chicago dismantled Boston in Game 2, Horford only had seven points on 3-for-8 shooting. 

- Check out the latest stats and standings to make sure you're ready for action

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- Latest on the Bulls: All of the most recent news and notes