February 22, 2010

In praise of the new-look Bulls

Say what you will about the Bulls' recent trades, but that was a freaking clinic they put on in Saturday's 122-90 win over the 76ers. And before you say to yourself, Well, yeah, it was the Sixers, keep in mind that coming into the game they'd gone 14-11 since their atrocious 7-22 start. So it's not like the Nets were visiting the UC *cough, cough*.

It does, however, make me a little sad that in a game featuring 217 Bulls dunks, the most replayed sequence has been the breakaway one Joakim Noah chunked.^

^ And didn't you just have a feeling something bad was going to happen there? He's coming off the bench ice cold, he hasn't played in a few weeks, and he's running around on Toni Kukoc's hoof -- you know all of it had to be going through his head. I honestly didn't care that he missed it; I was just glad his foot didn't explode.

Still, it led to a great moment (in a game that had many of them). After the Sixers' Rodney Carney missed a 3 at the first quarter horn, Noah got the rebound and started dribbling towards the Bulls' end. Then, as if something at that very instant had occurred to him, he abruptly did a 180 and dunked the ball on the Philadelphia basket, just to prove (to himself, probably) that he could do it. Classic Joakim move.

On the successful-dunk-during-actual-play side of ledger, Hakim Warrick had two unbelievable ones, including one off a post-up on from the right block, where he did a mini-Dream Shake before using his preposterous length to ram it home over Thaddeus Young from the outer-reaches of the restricted area. Other than this, it was probably my favorite dunk of the year, and, admittedly, something I can't recall Tyrus Thomas ever doing. Tragically, the dolts in the WGN truck never replayed it; of course, they did manage to show us Noah's miss several times.

Warrick followed up his first monster dunk about a minute later with a nice fadeaway, again from the right block, then added a power jam in transition (off a dish from fellow newcomer Flip Murray) with about three minutes left in the third.

Really, pretty much everyone that got significant minutes had a good game; that's generally how you win by 30+ points. Even Loul Deng, who shot just 1-for-10, had a nice all-around effort, scoring 12 points (thanks to a 10-for-10 performance from the line) and adding seven rebounds, five assists, and four steals, all without committing a turnover. In fact, Derrick Rose, Brad Miller, and Jannero Pargo -- slackers all -- tied for the team lead in turnovers... with one (1!) as the Bulls remarkably turned the ball over just three four times (apparently they also had a team one) versus 26 assists. Again, this is how you win a game by 32 points.

But I thought the catalyst of the rout was Miller, not exactly someone I'd call one of my favorite Bulls. With the team down 38-35 with a little over five minutes left in the second quarter and looking awfully lackluster, Miller missed a three-footer off a nice feed from Kirk Hinrich, got the rebound in traffic, collected himself and missed from point-blank range, got the rebound again, and hit the putback. That began a string of 21 unanswered by the Bulls, eight of them by Miller, and turned the game into a laugher.

Still, I found something Neil Funk said at the 10:31 mark of the third quarter with Rose shooting free throws to put the Bulls up 66-41 to be especially germane:

Sometimes, Stacey, you see the Bulls, especially in that fourth quarter with a big lead and then they start almost as if they're playing not to lose, rather than to win the game and just put a team away. They had Minnesota down where they could've done that last night, let's see if they can do that against Philadelphia playing at home here.

Since my last post was somewhat anti-Bulls-related media, I should mention here that I really enjoy listening to Neil and Stacey King do play-by-play. Sure they're homers, but it is the Bulls broadcast and they are entertaining. Funk -- who I loved listening to on the radio* back in the days when I thought getting rid of my TV was the answer -- is a gigantic improvement over the gigantic Tom Bore.

* In fact, it was my admiration of the Bulls radio team circa the early 2000s that had me convinced that John Paxson would make a great GM. And while he certainly wasn't terrible in that role, he wasn't nearly as good as I thought he'd be based on his incredibly insightful, on-target commentary.

In terms of King... As a kid, I was a huge Oklahoma football fan, so when the basketball team had that great season in 1988, I immediately adopted them as my U-of-I surrogates. Mookie Blaylock, Ricky Grace, Dave Sieger, Harvey Grant -- who everyone thought was better than twin brother Horace -- and King (I can recall that lineup without Wikipedia or Google) made for a hell of a college team, and I was pretty bummed out when they were upset by Kansas in the title game.

While King was ... I don't want to say a bust, but ... certainly a disappointment as a pro, probably my favorite off-court memories of the Bulls' first three-peat are King's dead-on impressions of Bill Cartwright. Absolutely hilarious, and I wish I could find it on the interbosphere. He apparently doesn't do it anymore, but if you have it archived somewhere for the love of God please post it online.

Admittedly, it took me awhile to get used to the somewhat over-the-top style, but I have to say that King's energy is a nice change of pace from the previous team; as much as I miss Red, he hadn't been the same in recent years. The point is, while I don't always agree with what they say, I genuinely like the Bulls' broadcast team and find them to be highly entertaining.

So back to what Funk said...

Almost on cue, the Bulls began to let Philadelphia back into the game. First the Bulls were unable to increase their lead, and then they allowed the Sixers to go on a 9-0 run, making it 77-61 and at least a little uncomfortable given the Sacramento game.

But that's when Vinny Del Negro -- he might rival Cartwright as my least-favorite coach of all time, but he pushed all the right buttons in this one -- made one of his best substitutions ever, re-inserting Taj Gibson, whose energy they really needed at that point. Gibson, who had five dunks among his 20 points and was to me the game's MVP, immediately helped the Bulls do exactly what Funk had hoped: Put the Sixers away early. After Hinrich scored to open the fourth quarter, the Bulls lead never shrunk below 20. Gibson finished with a +35, the only player on the team whose plus/minus was higher than the final margin.

Now it's only been two-game sample, but winning on the road and blowing out a not-entirely-terrible team at home is a shit-ton better than losing both. The Bulls were amazingly efficient last night in putting together their best offensive performance of the season, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if they can maintain a 8.67 6.5 assist:turnover ratio the rest of the way, they might win at least a few more games.

Incidentally, I continue to be astounded by how well the Bulls have played without Noah. Because prior to the injury he was producing better than anyone but Rose, I thought go into the shitter with him sitting, and the fact that they haven't is a real tribute to their depth. Since Noah barely played against the Sixers, you could almost count that as another game missed -- and by almost I mean that's exactly what I'm going to do here -- making the Bulls 7-2 without him.

None of us knows what will happen the rest of the way. The Bulls are in a soft part of their schedule right now, but it's the good teams that take care of business in a stretch like this; we are all excruciatingly familiar with how this team has played down to the level of the worst teams, so it's nice to see them consistently win the games they're supposed to win. For the most part, March is looking like a bear, but right now this team seems capable of anything. And so while I have several reservations going forward, it's hard not to get caught up in the positivity that follows a game like the one the Bulls just played, and I find myself feeling a bit, dare I say, optimistic.

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