NEW YORK—When the Bulls’ season began, it was easy to be skeptical about Marco Belinelli.
Billed as a replacement for sharpshooter Kyle Korver, a fan favorite, the shooting guard struggled out of the gates with both his shot and his defense until a December injury to veteran Rip Hamilton allowed him to start, build confidence and display his versatility, which includes the ability to function as a de facto point guard, be an underrated playmaker and operate in pick-and-roll scenarios, as well as knock down outside jumpers.
Since then, Belinelli has dealt with nagging injuries and seen his minutes fluctuate with the emergence of swingman Jimmy Butler, who has laid claim to the starting role at shooting guard, but the Bulls recognized he could be called upon in big situations, such as when All-Star Luol Deng was forced to miss the last two games of the team’s first-round series against the Nets after suffering from complications of a spinal-tap procedure.
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Belinelli was outstanding in Thursday’s Game 6 loss in Chicago and had another stellar performance in Saturday’s Game 7 win, again starting in place of Deng and scoring 24 points, while looking as if he was accustomed to excelling in NBA postseasons.
Except he hasn’t, as Belinelli had only previously been to the playoffs once in his well-traveled career—with New Orleans, where the Hornets were ousted in the first round of the 2011 playoffs by the Lakers—but that didn’t stop him from fulfilling a goal.
“My mentality was to be aggressive every time, especially because I didn’t think they played good pick-and-roll defense. I wanted to play aggressive on offense and defense, too,” he explained. “I wanted to win this game so bad. I’ve never been in the conference semifinals, so I’m going to be the first Italian guy that’s going to play in the second round. So I’m happy and I just love this team. Tonight was unbelievable.
“New Orleans was great,” Belinelli continued. “But this is the Bulls and to be honest, this is something special.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau raved about Belinelli’s effort.
“Marco was fantastic,” the coach said. “Marco is a very experienced player. He’s started, he’s come off the bench, he’s hit a lot of big shots. He can pick-and-roll, he can run catch-and-shoot, very good spot-up shooter, he knows how to move off penetration, very smart overall player and a team player, he plays to win and I think his defense has come a long way from the beginning of the season.”
Rookie Teague plays like a veteran
When 20-year-old Marquis Teague started the second quarter, it could be safely assumed that he was in the game to give starter Nate Robinson a breather, as the diminutive scorer had a heavy workload with Kirk Hinrich sidelined.
But instead of a short stint, the rookie point guard played extended minutes and delivered, and although his four-point, three-assist outing didn’t produce gaudy statistics, his poise, ability to get to the rim, defensive pressure and knack for making plays on both ends of the court were significant, leading to fourth-quarter playing time in the crucial Game 7 win.
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“I felt like I was out there competing at a high level, so [Thibodeau] went with me and I was ready for whatever. If I needed to be on the bench cheering, that was fine, too,” he said. “I just wanted to go out there and just play. I didn’t want to have any let-ups. I just wanted to play as hard as I can.
“The NBA is crazy. Anything can happen. somebody could get ejected, get hurt. Anything can happen, so everybody needs to be ready. Just on the bench, just staying enthusiastic. Stay into the game, pay attention in the huddles. Keeping myself ready,” Teague continued. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life, so just go out there and compete.
“I was just being aggressive, trying to make things happen when I was in there and I was just taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Thibodeau insisted that he had complete confidence in the youngster.
“When we went to the bench in the second quarter, that’s normally when I would rest him and because that unit was playing well, I was riding him a little bit longer and I thought it would help down for down the stretch,” he said. “I thought Marquis did a good job in the fourth quarter, as well, so that was huge for us.”
Bittersweet win for Brooklyn native Gibson
Bulls big man Taj Gibson is from the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, the same neighborhood where the Nets’ Barclays Center is located.
As happy as he was about the Bulls moving on to the second round after beating his hometown team, which is in its first year in the borough, Gibson took the time to reflect about how much the organization means to his community.
“This is a fairy-tale story, but it’s hard because at the end of the day, I’ve got so much love for Brooklyn,” he explained. “They came to Brooklyn and they really created an opportunity for young guys from my neighborhood on the wrong path and finally giving them jobs, good benefits to help themselves and it was rough just beating them tonight because I’m from there, but I wear a Bulls jersey across my chest. So it’s very sentimental, but I’ll get over it.”