I like what Luol Deng was saying after the Bulls were shocked by LeBron James Saturday night in that 106-97 loss. Here's a guy one for 19 on threes coming in who beats you with two threes. Really, you have to let him take those.
"Toughest cover in the league," Deng was saying afterward. "But like I said, we could beat a lot of teams with how hard we played. He came in and carried the team and made big shots."
Deng also noted how hard the Bulls were playing and admitted it was a departure from last season, which was an indictment on the players, but, still, that was then and this is now.
The Bulls made the Suns look very old and slow Friday and I thought they outhustled the Cavs Saturday night. The Bulls got 17 offensive rebounds, a huge total with Ben Wallace getting one and Tyrus Thomas getting six. The Bulls also had five steals and nine blocks, three by Thomas. Those are the kinds of plays that ignite fast breaks and the kind of basketball the Bulls would like to play.
An aside here: Thomas has the ability to be what Wallace was. Thomas also had three blocks, putting his average on the season now at 2.29, which is seventh in the league. It's all about effort for Thomas. If he eschewed the jumper and chased everything, like Wallace and Dennis Rodman did…..Of course, that's what made Wallace and Rodman special. It's also why, I think, the Bulls are holding out hope for Thomas. If someone could get him to compete relentlessly, you would have something.
Anyway, back to the team.
It hurts in depth, experience and shooting not to have Kirk Hinrich, who undergoes surgery Tuesday. But injuries happen. The Wizards are without Gilbert Arenas. The Spurs now face a month without Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. And the Hawks Tuesday come in without Josh Smith.
Sure, the Hawks are undefeated, a surprising 5-0, and their defense has been excellent, which I probably never would have said about any Hawks team. They weren't bad in the late 90's with Dikembe Mutombo, but I can't credit any team with Christian Laettner for defensive excellence. I did think Bob Pettit's team in '59 could D it up a bit, though they couldn't repeat while yielding the league's fewest points per game. Now the Hawks are second in the league in points allowed and third in field goal percentage against. To me, the key has been Smith being among the league leaders in blocks and steals.
"The loss of Smith hurts," acknowledged Hawks general manager Rick Sund. "Up until he got hurt, we were in real good shape. Realistically, we've been one of the teams fighting for the eighth spot and looking now to get up higher. With Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, that's a really good one-two punch. With Josh, the whole focus of camp has been for him to be our guy on defense to get the club to be what it can be and he's played great. It's been a credit to him for always taking the best player
"My big thing with Josh has been, 'You've got a unique ability few have,'" related Sund. "He's somewhere between a Scottie Pippen and Ben Wallace. He blocks shots and boards like Ben and does all those rangy things with length and quickness and athleticism like Scottie."
Which is why I like the Bulls this week to win two of three and perhaps all three.
The Hawks struggled with a miserable Oklahoma City team Sunday before winning, and I think they're ripe for that first loss. The Mavericks on Thursday are flopping around as the Clippers got their first win of the season against them Sunday, and it's the Pacers here Saturday. I noticed how the local reporters in Indianapolis were writing how the schedule became easy now with the Bulls among the weak teams coming up. Yes, it happens when you are not the up and coming team. Yes, just a year ago it was the Bulls. There wasn't a preseason prediction—OK, one, and I don't know how NBA.com knew they'd miss the playoffs—that didn't have the Bulls in the top four.
So now they've got basically the same team. And Derrick Rose. How can they be THAT bad?
It is the question for the season. Yes, of course Hinrich is gone, but Ben Gordon is averaging 25 points and shooting 55 percent the last four games and Luol Deng is averaging 17 and points and shooting 46 percent the last two. Andres Nocioni is playing off Derrick Rose nicely and has games of more than 15 points in two of the last three. Rose has scored double figures in points in every game this season, remarkable for a rookie point guard.
I can't say much for the Bulls play on the road this season, but at home they've been dominant in every game but against the Cavs, scoring relatively easy wins over the Bucks, Grizzlies and Suns. And it took a Jordanesesque fourth quarter for the Cavs to win Saturday as the Bulls were within two in the last two minutes.
Talent can get overrated when you win and underrated when you lose. The Bulls weren't as good as we thought last year, but they fooled us with effort and hustle. They aren't as bad as they've been depicted this season because they are giving a bit more effort and hustle.
Drew Gooden's ankle still is tender, so he remains questionable for Tuesday's game while Larry Hughes probably is a few games from getting back. But I think the Hawks will mostly play small. They started Zaza Pachulia for Smith Sunday—and you only hope they will again-- though didn't play Pachulia much since he usually picks up a few fouls before leaving the locker room.
I like the Don Nelson gambit and would put Ben Gordon on Pachulia, in effect, daring him to score, so then I could put someone taller on Joe Johnson and at least bother him some.
There's really no guarding Johnson and Al Horford is a rock inside. But I'd put Joakim Noah on Horford with Noah's size and maybe some collegiate challenge. It will be a Bulls type game with a lot of guards as the Hawks now are fourth in the league in three-point attempts after being 28th last season. But with Mike Bibby at point they won't be able to stay close to Rose and it should open the floor for Gordon and Nocioni. They are basically the same guys who won 49 games. So if Deng is right and they are going to play harder, who knows.
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