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Heart and Hustle: Bulls Steal Game 1 From The Superfriends

The Bulls may have stolen Game 1 in Miami on Monday night, but they’re certainly not satisfied yet.

They fight through adversity. They never back down. They play for each other. And they have no fear. The 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are one of the greatest sports stories in recent memory whose fairy tale may end when LeBron James decides he’s had enough. But until then, what we are witnessing is a team of warriors who will give anything and everything to win basketball games, playing with an attitude and a swagger that most sports fans would die to see their teams adopt.

After Game 7 of the Brooklyn series, I couldn’t recall a prouder Chicago sports moment in my life. Jordan’s Bulls and the 2010 Blackhawks teams obviously brought joy to everyone – but those teams were great. Those teams were expected to win. This team? Forget about it. Winning just one playoff series with this roster despite Derrick Rose’s ailing ACL, Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis, Kirk Hinrich’s mysteriously strained calf, Nate Robinson’s and Taj Gibson’s flu and Luol Deng’s meningitis scare was an enormous accomplishment in and of itself. “Next man up” has been the recurring theme of this team, and it all starts up top. Since day one, Tom Thibodeau has brainwashed these guys into thinking that, no matter what happens, they have enough to win.

Jimmy Butler, who I felt would be something very special for our team this season, has all but earned his spot as the Bulls’ future 2 guard, playing all 48 minutes (ALL 48 MINUTES!) in each of the last three playoff games. He has been nothing short of magnificent this postseason, averaging 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, nearly five trips to the free throw line and almost never turning the ball over in round one (0.7 TOs/game), all while guarding the Deron Williams/Joe Johnson combo AND never committing more than three fouls in a game. On top of that, he took on the impossible task of guarding LeBron James the entire game last night (only committed three fouls too) and was still able to post a 21-14-3 stat line, hitting 9/10 from the free throw line and 2/4 from beyond the arc (Butler’s 3% during 2012-13 season and postseason: 38.1% and 40.9% respectively; 3% during 2011-12 season: 18.2%). No moment is too big for this kid. In only his second year in the NBA, Luol Deng’s protegé has proved once and for all that hard work and a heavy heart can take you a long way in just a short amount of time in this league – and trust me, he’s not gonna slow down any time soon.

Nathaniel Robinson has been, quite frankly, Jordanesque this postseason. He may only be 5’9, but Lil’ Nate has a ridiculous amount of confidence and a monstrous sack of nuts. He’s never seen a shot he didn’t like, and although players like that can typically hurt your team more than help it, Robinson has been as clutch as I’ve ever seen anyone in a Bulls uniform since ’98. Whether it’s him putting up 34 points (23 in the 4th quarter) on 14-for-23 shooting in Game 4 against Brooklyn, 18 points in Game 6 while puking in between timeouts, or 27 points and 9 assists last night in Miami (11 of those points and 5 of those assists came in the 4th quarter as well) with 10 stitches in his upper lip, Robinson continues to thrive in big moments and show the Knicks, Celtics, and Thunder what could have been had they decided not to let the little Energizer Bunny walk for nothing.

Carlos Boozer has, well, disappointed again. Yes, he actually played well against Brooklyn, and I really do applaud him for that. But we’ve grown accustomed to Boozer laying postseason eggs the past few years, and last night was no different: 6 points on 3/11 shooting, 7 rebounds and 3 turnovers. He watched, cheered and yelled from the bench the final 16 minutes of the game, when the Bulls just so happened to outscore Miami 44-31. Coincidence? I think not. It won’t happen this summer, but until 2014, “‘Tis the season to be amnestied…”

Marco Belinelli has been freakin’ awesome the past few games, not just for his “Sam Cassell dance” in Game 7, but also for his ability to hit huge threes and get to the rim late in games. Belinelli has shot 50% from three (3-for-6), 3-for-3 from the free throw line and  has a +/- of plus-15 in 12 “clutch time” minutes (last five minutes of the game and leading or trailing by five points or less) of playoff basketball. To give you some perspective on how huge he has been, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were a combined 0-for-10 from three, 7-for-25 from the field and a minus-16 each  in 54  clutch time minutes last round (on the other hand, Robinson, Boozer and Noah have +/- of plus-28, plus-24 and plus-20 respectively in clutch time minutes, but they’ve all played much more during those moments). I couldn’t be happier with what Belinelli has given us, as he’s effectively replaced Kyle Korver as our Chicago Hotsauce – he’s just uglier, but at least he can create for himself once in a while.

Not enough can be said about Joakim Noah. In fact, nothing anyone can say will do that man justice. It’s clear that he has become our bona-fide leader, emotionally and physically, and Bulls fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The way he has led this depleted team on essentially one foot, dominating the likes of another all-star center in Brook Lopez and doing everything he can possibly do to help us win has been truly inspiring. Noah is the epitome of a professional athlete. He’s the kind of player that I would have idolized as a kid, and even idolize now, giving 150% night in and night out and fighting til death’s end. It’s admirable, and I feel that all athletes around the country should strive to be as tough and as passionate as he is. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching him play basketball, and I have no doubt that one day he, along with a fully healthy Derrick Rose, will lead the Bulls to a NBA championship.

If you follow the NBA like I do, you know damn well that these kinds of things never  happen. To predict that a team led by the guys above, along with Taj Gibson, Nazr Mohammed and even Marquis Teague, can go into Miami in front of their pathetic home crowd, steal game one and shock the basketball world? Unthinkable. But here we are, in the wake of Miami’s third loss since February 2 (yes, third loss – they’re 41-3 since then), and we, as fans, aren’t just happy to be here anymore – we’re starting to “bullieve.”

Does this mean Chicago will win this series? No, but every game will be an absolute dogfight. I don’t think the Bulls can truly win this series, but I sure as hell know they’ll leave everything they have on that court each night. Like I said, this is not a great team – Derrick Rose ain’t coming back, Kirk Hinrich is battling through a painful injury, and Luol Deng is still bedridden after a spinal tap. All we can do is pray that the latter two come back soon. But whether we realize it or not, we are all witnessing something great – something inspiring. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Bulls fan right now, and what happens from here on out will just be the cherry on top of an already accomplished and memorable season.

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Tough decisions loom for Bulls front office this summer

Gar Forman and John Paxson have some tough decisions to make this summer.

Let’s be honest: with Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Luol Deng (wrist surgery) set to miss a majority of next season, the Bulls may not be ready to compete for another title until the 2013-14 season. Which means that next season may be more of a transition and a learn-to-play-without-your-two-best-players period. Assuming Pat Riley doesn’t break up the Superfriends in Miami (that would only maybe happen if they don’t win the championship this year), it will be too difficult for the Bulls to win a playoff series against them with Rose and Deng still trying to shake off their rust.

I’ve heard many fans talk about how the Bulls should tank their way through the season in order to earn a high draft pick. As great as that may sound, we all know it just won’t happen. Gar Forman, and especially Tom Thibodeau, would never allow it in a million years, so we may as well put that case to rest. There are a lot of other decisions, though, that the front office has to make as the scalding summer drags on. Yes, there are still games to be played in this year’s epic NBA finals, but that shouldn’t stop us from talking Bulls and thinking about what could be some day. That being said, let’s break down what the Bulls should do this summer, in order of realistic expectations (starting with the most unrealistic).

Keep Dreamin’

Amnesty Boozer, then sign Eric Gordon and a free agent power forward: If you haven’t read my piece, The Summer of Gar, from last month on this, then you should. Because you will definitely agree. However, let’s just be clear: this sweet-sounding chain of events will not happen. Time and time again, Nick Friedell has shut down any hopes that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer. There’s zero chance it happens this summer because Forman and Paxson are counting on him to carry the scoring load with Rose and Deng out (great plan, huh?). Friedell said if there’s ever a time that the team will amnesty Boozer, it will be next summer. We’ll have to keep dreamin’, I guess.

Highly Doubtful But Not Inconceivable

Trade Luol Deng or Joakim Noah for draft picks and/or lower-salaried players: Relax, people. Let me start off by saying that I did not come up with this idea: Bulls.com writer Sam Smith came up with a Deng scenario, and ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle came up with a Noah scenario. I’m not saying I actually want this to happen. I love Luol Deng and Joakim Noah like I love Portillo’s chocolate cake. And that says a lot. But, this is all just speculation and nothing more, so it can’t hurt to talk about it.

The Bulls are set to enter next season with just over 96% of their salary cap invested in four players (Rose, Boozer, Deng and Noah). Not good. Since the Bulls are not going to amnesty Boozer and have a slim chance at striking gold with the 29th overall pick in the draft (I’ll be breaking down draft prospects later this week), how in the world are we going to improve for the future?

That’s where Deng and/or Noah come in. Obviously, these two players have a ton of trade value. They have been the defensive anchors for the best defensive team in the NBA over the past two seasons and running. One has been the glue guy (Deng) while the other has been the emotional leader (Noah). Any team would be lucky to have them. Problem for us is no one’s getting younger, and no one’s salary is decreasing.

Sam Smith proposed the Bulls trade Deng to a team with a top-five pick, such as Cleveland or Sacramento, both of whom desperately need a small forward. The Bulls can then use that pick to select Harrison Barnes, the sharpshooting high-school phenom out of UNC (has been compared to a Luol Deng/Glen Rice type of player at the NBA level) if he’s still there, or Bradley Beal, the uber-talented shooting guard out of Florida who would be a perfect fit for the Bulls (nbadraft.net compares him to Eric Gordon/Marcus Thornton) because of his great jump shot and ability to spread the floor for the offense. Of course, there are many scenarios for trading Deng, as I’m sure numerous teams would be highly interested in acquiring him, but Smith’s proposal has to be the most ideal if we were to actually trade him. As you know, I would much rather keep Deng than ship him off, but if the front office decided that a move like this would be best for our future, I would have to learn to live with it.

As far as Joakim Noah goes, Doolittle proposed the Bulls trade him and the no. 29 pick to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and the no. 5 pick. Evans’ name alone may make the casual basketball fan think that trade is perfect. I, on the other hand, don’t really like the idea of trading for Evans (although I can maybe convince myself to) because of his obvious regression throughout the first three seasons of his career. He’s known to have a bad work ethic and has really underachieved defensively, and he’s also going to be a restricted free agent after next season. Not exactly the type of player Thibodeau likes to coach. That top-five pick is really the only thing holding me back from despising this idea altogether. Nevertheless, I don’t see Noah going anywhere, so assuming the Bulls bring back restricted free agent Omer Asik (which they plan on doing), the front-court should be set.

Gotta Make It Happen

Let CJ Watson go: After a horrendous playoff performance this past May against Philadelphia (7.3 points on 24.1% shooting), it became evident that Watson just cannot run a successful offense in the NBA. He’s a decent backup point guard and should have little to no trouble finding another job if the Bulls were to let him go, but he’s too predictable, makes too many bad decisions and will never be more than a backup.

The Bulls have a team option for Watson but will save $3.7 million if they choose not to pick it up. That, combined with the money they can save by letting Ronnie Brewer go (which I’ll get to in a minute) and/or Kyle Korver (whose $5 million contract is non-guaranteed this season), should help them land a very legitimate free agent, such as Andre Miller.

Miller, who is now 36 years old, showed this past May that he still has something left in the tank and can run an offense very effectively. After a solid season (6.7 assists) backing up Ty Lawson in Denver, Miller should be able to land a respectable $5-7 million from any team that wants his services and can undoubtedly start at the point, as he has for basically his entire career, until Derrick Rose is healthy enough to come back. If he’s not the answer, then there are more than enough unrestricted free agent point guards who can replace Watson and help keep this Bulls team in contention for a top-four seed in next year’s playoff race, such as:

  • Goran Dragic: Coming off a ridiculous 2012 campaign (18-4-8-2 as a starter) and will probably be very expensive; also likely to re-sign with the Houston Rockets, leaving Kyle Lowry as trade bait.
  • Kirk Hinrich: Not really convinced that he can run an offense full-time anymore, but I’m putting him on this list anyways because a) I miss him and b) I’ve heard numerous rumors that the Bulls are looking to bring him back, and if they were to sign him this offseason, it would make me look much smarter than I really am.
  • Delonte West: He has legit game, had sex with Lebron’s mom and gives wet willies to opposing players mid-game. I’ll welcome him with open arms.
  • Jonny Flynn: Averaged 13.5 points, 4.4 assists and shot 36% from three-point land during his 2009-10 rookie season as the starting point guard in Minnesota. I’d like to think he’ll come dirt cheap and can be a decent backup at worst. Just something to think about.
  • Jeremy Lin: Just kidding. Or am I?
  • Other notables: Steve Nash (can’t see it happening), Ramon Sessions (if he declines his player option with LA), Jason Kidd’s corpse

It’s also important to point out that John Lucas III is a free agent as well. If the Bulls choose not to bring him back (along with Mike James), then they’ll absolutely have to find another point guard. Now would be a good time to start looking if they haven’t already.

It’s Inevitable

Let Ronnie Brewer go: As much as I like Ronnie Brewer, he’s set to make $4.37 million this season and didn’t really get the job done last season. He’s a fantastic defensive player, but to me, Brewer has maxed out his potential as an NBA player. He’ll never be more than a high level defender and role player with a limited offensive skill-set and inconsistent jump shot. Brewer has a team option this season, so the Bulls can buy him out for just $333,000 and let him walk. That’s a good amount of money they can save, and with Jimmy Butler waiting in the wings, why not promote him to the backup shooting guard/small forward role?

At 22 years old, Butler is worth much less, has a higher offensive ceiling, and he has the potential to be an even better defender than Brewer has been. After seeing Butler take on the difficult task of guarding Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony one-on-one during the regular season, there’s no reason to think that Butler isn’t worthy of at least backup minutes. In fact, in 43 total minutes that Butler guarded Carmelo last season, he shot 29%. In all other minutes against the Bulls, he shot 52%. With his great attitude, motivation and hard work ethic, Butler has the ability to become one of the better all-around defenders in the NBA (think Tony Allen, Thabo Sefolosha and players of that nature). If given the opportunity to play valuable minutes next season and beyond, I have no doubt that Butler will thrive in almost any situation Thibodeau throws him into. The Bulls should trust him and open up some salary space by letting Brewer go. When it comes down to making that decision, they will probably do just that.

With the NBA draft just ten days away and the start of free agency coming up sooner than we think, the Bulls will need to have a game plan in place for how to approach improving this team. This was the best team in the NBA this past season, but we all know that the regular season doesn’t really matter. If the front office decides to stick with what they’ve got and not build a team that can survive a little longer in the playoffs without a fully healthy Derrick Rose (who knows when exactly he’ll get back to full strength), then we could be in for a long 2012-13 season with another disappointing finish.

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Bulls finally get over the hump with defense and clutch shooting

With their backs up against a wall, the Bulls showed signs of life last night.

Let’s be honest – last night’s game was no better than a disgusting affair, where both teams qualified for what looks to be the lowest combined score (146 points) in a playoff game since 2002 (Detroit and Boston combined for 140). Nevertheless, I am ecstatic after that win for a couple of reasons: 1) Although the Bulls stopped crashing the offensive glass (they lost that battle 11 to 8), the 76ers somehow still got out and ran for 23 transition points. We won anyways. 2) The 76ers continued to get to the free throw line and draw fouls (24 free throws attempted in all), yet we still won. Looking at just the raw stats comparison, you would think Philly had actually won this game. But they didn’t for two reasons: half-court defense and a clutch performance from Luol Deng.

The Bulls obliterated Philly in the half-court and really frustrated them. Evan Turner had by far his worst game of the series, scoring 4 points on 2/7 shooting, committing 4 turnovers and attempting 0 free throws (averaged 5.5 in the first 4 games). Andre Iguodala was also atrocious offensively. The Bulls finally got the hint – when Iguodala starts out slow, let him beat you with his jump shot. There are better shooters on that team (Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams) that must be stopped in the half court. Iguodala is one of the streakiest shooters in the NBA, and it showed last night. He scored 11 points on 4/19 shooting and went 1/6 from downtown. Six 3s attempted? Give him that ALL day. Overall, Philly shot 32.1% from the field, which shouldn’t surprise anyone at all after seeing the Bulls pick up their defensive intensity. Let’s dig a little deeper into some advanced statistics and assess how the Bulls did so.

Below is a breakdown of the Bulls defense in Games 2-4 compared to Game 5 based on the four factors for team defense: opponent’s effective field goal % (OEFG), defensive turnovers caused per possession (DTPP), defensive rebounding percentage (DRP), and opponent’s free throw rate (OFTR).

Based on these numbers, it is easy for us to see that the Bulls knew the only way for them to win this game, and potentially this series, is to lockdown on defense. Even with a depleted offense, everyone knows that great defense is what sparks offense. The Bulls refused to give Philadelphia open looks last night and really stepped up their game by wreaking havoc in the half-court and causing a lot more turnovers than usual.

In addition to the phenomenal defensive performance was Luol Deng’s ability to hit clutch shots. He played, without question, his best game of this series, scoring 24 points on 10/19 shooting. More importantly though, were his four 3-pointers, three of which came in the fourth quarter with the shot clock winding down (all under four seconds). Those are the exact kind of shots the Bulls have needed without Derrick Rose while letting their fourth quarter leads slip through their fingers. They’ve had no one to bail them out at the end of the shot clock – until last night. Deng was simply sensational.

Now it’s back to the City of Brotherly Love tomorrow night for Game 6. Joakim Noah told ESPN Chicago this morning that he “will do everything I can to get back on the court tomorrow night.” Let’s hope he gets back out there. Nothing would make me happier than shoving it to those classless Philly fans with a much needed W. But even if Noah doesn’t play, I still have faith that, after last night’s team performance, we can absolutely win this series. Only time will tell.

Placing blame for Game 3’s meltdown

Losing Joakim Noah is not the only reason we lost Game 2.

What the hell happened last night? How did our Bulls blow that 14 point lead? The easy answer: Joakim Noah left the game with a severe ankle injury with 7:57 to go in the 3rd quarter. The actual answer: a combination of shockingly horrendous coaching and a lack of heart. The Bulls stopped playing to win and instead began playing not to lose. There was no doubt in my mind that when Philly cut the lead to 9, they were going to win. It was the same feeling I had when Tebow stepped onto the field against the Bears in the 4th quarter down 10. Chairs were thrown, and tables were nearly broken as I walked out of the room after Matt Prater’s OT field goal that night. But I digress. Here are my main reasons (other than losing Noah) that the Bulls lost last night’s game:

1) Coaching

  • I have no idea why in God’s name Thibodeau decided to put Noah back into the game in the 4th quarter. The dude’s limp was worse than Leapin’ Larry’s in Seinfeld. Thibodeau was quoted saying,  “I’m relying on (trainer) Fred (Tedeschi). The game is going on. I ask him if he can go or not go. That’s usually how it works.” Whether that’s the case or not, isn’t it ultimately Thibs’ decision to put Noah in the game? I don’t know one Bulls fan who agreed with the decision to put him in last night because within 1 minute of putting him in, he had tweaked the ankle again.
  • Ronnie Brewer has missed 1 game in the past 2 seasons. He’s a high energy guy who plays great defense and knows his role on offense. Can someone tell me why in the world he rode pine for all 48 minutes last night? I don’t understand it. Korver finished the game with a goose egg, and Hamilton couldn’t hit the side of a barn. I’m not saying he would have been the difference between winning the game and losing it, but he most definitely could have made an impact in one way or another.
  • Anyone who knows anything about basketball should be able to say, with confidence, that John Lucas is a terrible point guard. Now, I’m not saying I don’t like him – he has had some big moments for us this season, and he plays with absolutely no fear – but when was the last time he didn’t dribble out the shot clock in the half court to under 5 seconds before a) launching up a 35 footer or b) making a legitimate pass? I felt like I was watching an atrocious pickup game at the gym the way Lucas was “running the offense” last night. There’s a reason he has never found a home in the NBA besides the fact that he’s so small, and it’s because he can’t actually run an offense. Unfortunately, that happens to be the most important thing for a point guard to do. What does this have to do with coaching? Oh, I don’t know, maybe the fact that, after watching Lucas continuously run the shot clock down to 3, Thibodeau still decided to stick with him the entire 4th quarter. You’re probably thinking “but Watson was playing horrible, Thibs had no choice.” Wrong. Mike James, anyone? In the 3 games that he played 17+ minutes this season, he averaged 7 assists. The journeyman actually has a track record. He’s played about 12 seasons in the NBA, including nearly 2 full seasons as a starter in Toronto and Minnesota. He’s no rookie. He obviously wouldn’t be the difference between winning this series and not, but could it really have hurt to put him in when the lead was slowly disintegrating? He can run an offense better than Lucas, and clearly no one could trust Watson and his shot selection last night. I just don’t understand why he didn’t get a chance.

2) Carlos Boozer

  • There’s no one I dislike more in Chicago sports than Carlos Boozer and Alfonso Soriano. For the sake of this post, I will limit the text to only obliterating Boozer. For me, there has never been a more frustrating Bulls player than Boozer. Everyone knows there are players that rise to the occasion at the end of games, the guys who simply want the ball in their hands with the game on the line. Then there are the players who disappear when it matters most (think Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Webber, etc.), the guys who would rather pick out some schmucky fan from the stands to take a big shot than their own damn selves. Carlos Boozer, my friends, is the epitome of the latter. There isn’t a softer player than him on this roster. We’re paying him $15 million a year to average 12-14 ppg in the postseason and disappear at the end of games? What a joke. There was no Derrick Rose, there was no Joakim Noah. We need this man to step up his game when it matters most. Going 1-6 in the 4th quarter and constantly settling for his rocking chair jump shot when he should be banging in the post and finding ways to score like he used to in Utah? He should be ashamed of himself. And don’t even get me started on his defense…

3) Luol Deng

  • Luol: what happened bro? I understand that Iguodala is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, but there’s no excuse for 5 points on 2-7 shooting in game 3 and 8 points on 3-12 shooting in game 2. None whatsoever. I don’t even know what else to say. But Luol Deng is much better than this.

I will now stop talking before I murder someone. Game 4 tomorrow.

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