This one was a lot better than the final score, 114-101 Denver Nuggets over the Bulls.
I know, I know. That doesn't matter much as the Bulls now are 1-3 on this Western Conference so called circus trip, and 6-8 on the season.
It's too bad because this is a Denver team that will be pushing just to make the playoffs in the West despite now being 8-2 since the trade for Chauncey Billups. Billups was one of three Nuggets with 21 points while Kenyon Martin was a ridiculous 10 of 10 shooting with 26 points.
Sometimes it happens. He hit a lot of jumpers and you want him to take those.
Carmelo Anthony also had 21 points in a good all around effort with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Though you don't see the joy in Anthony's game much any more and you wonder how long before he snaps. Once, he was dueling with LeBron James, the Nos. 1 and 3 picks in the 2003 draft, supposedly the next great NBA rivalry, something of a second coming of Magic and Bird. But while James has been to the Finals and is heading to an MVP this season and perhaps the greatest bidding war the NBA ever has seen, Anthony is stuck on a competitive, if not special team, 4-20 in the playoffs with five first round exits and cutting back payroll and going nowhere with that roster.
Anthony wasn't a major factor in Sunday's game, at least until the Nuggets with about six minutes left stole a game the Bulls looked like they had and would have deserved.
They were better and smarter than the Nuggets for most of the game.
"Chicago is going to be an interesting team this year," said Nuggets coach George Karl. "They're different. They play small, and they play so many pick-and-rolls you get tired of covering them. That Rose kid is going to be special; Chicago is going to get better as the year goes on."
They'd like to think so, given Luol Deng is day-to-day and Kirk Hinrich is out until February.
I liked the way coach Vinny Del Negro moved the Bulls in and out of the zone, especially late in the third quarter when the Bulls went on a 13-5 run to take a six-point lead while Denver stood around and fired long jumpers.
It was an Aaron Gray highlight film at the time, and we don't even imagine that.
Denver isn't particularly big, and though I often advocate small ball with this Bulls team, I thought in this game the Bulls were having their way on the boards with Gray and especially Joakim Noah, who was more active and effective than usual with nine rebounds in 19 minutes. But Del Negro stayed small, and I thought it hurt this time down the end, though mostly because the "small" guys were losing sight of penetration and help down the stretch and the Bulls were outscored 31-16 in the fourth.
Tired because of the altitude?
"(Altitude) That's all in your head," said Drew Gooden. "I remember coming here in college and playing Colorado and Roy Williams was saying, 'It's all in your head, it's a bunch of bull crap at altitude and if you are feeling it, it will go away.' I felt fine and I know the majority of the guys on the team felt fine tonight. (What happened in final run) I think we kind of got rattled and they got a lot of easy baskets. Defensively we gave up too many easy baskets down the stretch. We have to get stops in the crunch time; especially if we are going to turn the ball over we have to get more stops."
Exactly. If it were so tough to play in Denver, perhaps the Nuggets would have won a playoff series in the last 14 years.
I thought Del Negro made a mistake early in the game apparently worrying about thin air too much as he substituted liberally in the first quarter to give guys rest. I think that creates an excuse for players and puts in their mind they may tire. Noah was very good to start, but was gone for Gray about five minutes in, and I thought the bench emptying first quarter with 10 players playing put the Bulls in an unnecessary 27-18 hole after one.
Del Negro pretty much went back to a regular rotation after that and didn't play Tyrus Thomas and not much of Thabo Sefolosha, though Larry Hughes was firing erratically again and was one of six on threes.
It reminded me of a Cleveland fan's web site for the career 29 percent three-point shooter: "Hey Larry Hughes. Stop taking so many bad shots."
During that third quarter run, meanwhile, Gray put back a Ben Gordon miss and was fouled and even made a clever drop step move to fake Renaldo Balkman for another three-point play.
Gordon had it going with 28 points, five of seven threes and all nine of his free throws, and when he dropped consecutive pull up threes with about seven minutes left to make it 96-92, it looked like the Bulls second chance to get a game in Denver since 1998.
Denver began forcing the ball inside with Gray drawing his fifth and Noah not getting back in the game. I was surprised to see Lindsey Hunter in so long and playing alongside Rose in the fourth quarter, though when Hunter left the Bulls only were down 102-99. Hughes came in and fired up those two misses after a quick hook earlier in then fourth when he got his fifth foul.
Gooden, with 21 points and seven rebounds, was sharp popping out and shooting, but with three guards, Andres Nocioni and Gooden, the Bulls were wheezing. The Nuggets would fail to score on four straight attacks of the basket while Gordon hit those threes, and the Bulls looked in good shape.
With six minutes left and the Bulls leading 99-96 after a Lindsey Hunter three, the defense went brain dead.
Anthony hit a three outside the sagging zone for a 100-99 Denver lead, and then Anthony came cutting down the lane for a slam as both Hunter and Nocioni let him go by untouched. Hughes then went singular with a quick drive and three, both of which missed, while Billups lost Rose on a screen and Hughes didn't roll into cover and allowed Billups to score a layup untouched.
Martin then slammed after Gordon lost the ball on top of the floor making a dribble move between his legs and Martin was fouled by a late arriving Gooden.
So 12-0 run in two minutes, and suddenly it's 109-99 Denver with 2:51 left and the game effectively is over.
After Gooden knocked down a jumper, the Bulls were done. The Nuggets grabbed two misses to get an unlikely Martin three and that was it, 18-2 to end the game for Denver when the Bulls should have had a better result.
"We had a lot of mismatches out there," said Gordon, though that will be the story of every game for this small Bulls team. "I think we looked a little confused on who was covering who since we normally don't cover those types of guys. They got a lot of easy baskets, too many dunks in the paint. On the other end we didn't make sharp plays and it bit us in the butt. I think defensively it was our big problem: a lot of points in the paint (50-32), uncontested shots and the easy lay-ups really hurt us (29-9 Denver on fast breaks).
Rose had a solid line with 15 points and six assists, though four turnovers. But you wonder if he is getting tired, of the road, of the altitude and of the bouncing around he's taking from opponents that is inevitable with all the national attention he is getting.
Despite having Hunter, Rose played 44 minutes, the most on both teams, and is averaging 37.5 per game, 15th in the league and going up as it's 39.1 per game this month and six of the last nine games at least 40 minutes.
So you wonder about the lack of aggressiveness Rose showed against the Nuggets despite a few of his specialty highlight drives. In the third quarter, he scored on a fabulous drive faking left and then right to baffle Anthony and later in the quarter split a double team and scored, though he seemed to carry the ball-hey, at least the Bulls finally have a guy who can do the Iverson-Wade carry.
But Denver's strategy was to trap Rose to make him give up the ball, and I thought he did so much too quickly. Denver trapped off the pick and roll, sending two players with him, and the Bulls too often had non scorers setting the screen, like Noah. So the ball remained on the perimeter. But often when Rose brought the ball across, Denver would show a light trap with the big man coming out and Rose would pass it cross court quickly. Usually, the Denver big man sank back quickly, and I'd like to have seen Rose attack that double, especially with Martin often coming out, though playing 44 minutes that probably was asking too much.
That's the problem. He's so good we forget he's a kid and just learning.
I commend Del Negro and the players for hustling efforts after the miserable start in Los Angeles and Portland. Next time if they can just finish.
"We weren't as crisp at the end there, but the guys played hard again and gave ourselves an opportunity," said Del Negro. "We just weren't able to convert down the stretch. They were switching and trapping and doing different things and we were going back man-to-man and zone and trying to make some things ourselves. But they were posting Carmelo and we had a couple of doubles at times and they got some easy baskets underneath on us. They are a big athletic team up front and we made some mistakes down the stretch. Offensively we got a little stagnant and with their traps and stuff we got to do a better job of moving the basketball."
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