The Bulls' ninth win in their tenth home game was one of those where they built a cushion, never ran away with the game, but were never really threatened.
Credit the Bucks for coming out strong with a lot of hustle in the Bulls' 107-100 win at the United Center on Friday. They did a lot right in terms of how the players on the court performed. They played with a pace rarely seen by a Scott Skiles squad and attacked the Bulls offense with a Thibs-esque hyper-aggressive help scheme on top of the Skiles-esque glue gun man-pressure. The problem with this modification in Skiles' scheme is that the weak side of the defense just gets too weak. It leaves shooters and cutters open, while big men move out of rebounding position; and the Bulls made the right passes possession after possession, while establishing great positioning in those portions to elongate possessions with second chance points.
The Bucks were without Andrew Bogut, putting more pressure on Drew Gooden to anchor the paint, largely creating Milwaukee's deficiencies in the paint. Brandon Jennings did all he could to prevent Derrick Rose from areas of the court, but the help just wasn't there and -- well -- it's Derrick F'N Rose, FFS:
Rose came out with ferocity and had me not questioning his turf toe, scoring a season-high 34 points on a highly efficient 14-for-24 shooting and getting to the line for ten charity tosses (He bricked four, but whatever). Only three assists, but Milwaukee made it difficult for him to not reward them for half-assing their efforts to close his driving lanes -- relative to the effort necessary to make Rose over-hesitate and start jump passing tot he wrong team.
Oddly enough, it was the Bucks who benefitted from the faster paces of the first and fourth quarters in the halfcourt. The Bulls simply responded by using their size to attack loose balls and their speed to run up the floor, accumulating fastbreak points. When you look at the Bulls' 25 second chance points on their 20 (!!!) offensive rebounds and 56 points in the paint to the Bucks' 42, it's reasonable to wonder why the Bulls didn't win by more.
It was almost the curse they encountered by the combination of running the floor after the Bucks' wealth of bricks (39-for-92, 7-for-24 on 3s, .462 eFG%), slowing them down on following possessions. There were moments where Ronnie Brewer and Carlos Boozer were tossed in just too many directions by Jennings' speed. So even when the help was aggressive, the recovery suffered and sloppy fouls were accumulated by Boozer and Brewer just had too much on his plate to close-out on much taller shooters.
- ENERGY!!!! The Bulls killed the Bucks in the "hustle" categories, proving that the most valuable energy comes from athleticism, talent, and a coach who encourages an opportunistic pace. The Bulls scored 25 points on Milwaukee's 15 turnovers and outscored them 16-8 on fastbreak points, along with dominating the glass.
- Joakim Noah (15 points, 16 rebounds, three steals, three blocks) played like a top-five center. Sure, Bogut wasn't out there, but the fact that Noah so aggressively attacked when he smelled blood in the water was huge progress. Noah's worth is in him evolving from an "energy guy" to someone who'll kick you in your grave when you can't keep up with him. There's a huge difference between the two and the Bulls have made the commitment they've made to him to be the latter. It was refreshing to see him own the paint for eight offensive rebounds in only 33:34, making it feel like he played a lot longer. It makes him seem unstoppable when he handles the ball so well to turn those rebounds into easy buckets, igniting fastbreaks. It adds a dimension to offense when he gets four assists like Friday nights. And when he puts the ball on the floor, it's the difference between being Anderson Varejao and a fullcourt difference-maker with elements the best centers in the game can't handle.
- Boozer deserves a token pat on the back. The defense isn't good and it never will be. Drew Gooden (yes, that one) scored 23 because he went 10-for-10 at the line, but Boozer translated the foul machine aggressiveness that factored in the Bulls' loss to the Pacers into strong shows. Jennings (22 points on 10-for-22) had a crazy start, but only eight points in the final three quarters, largely due to Boozer's shows forcing hesitation; and that's when Jennings brain farts. Booz's D wasn't great, but his efforts forced bad decisions from Bucks' ball handlers, largely contributing to the Bulls' 28-18 third quarter. More important, Booz played more big boy basketball on the offensive end (20 points on 8-for-15), not only grabbing eight defensive rebounds, but five on the offensive end. Nice to see him use his Starman; let's see it in Miami.
- Ronnie Brewer's Starman-only mode isn't cut for Luol Deng minutes. Brewer was strong, but clearly gassed toward the end of the second half and from the mid-third for the duration of the game. He played 43:01 and his shot 2-for-13 in the process. Stephen Jackson was irrelevant partially because of Brewer's ball denial; but Jackson's a lot bigger and the task clearly took a toll, so he eventually got the ball, raising the call of duty for Brewer. With LeBron James on deck for Sunday, this could get ugly. He had a team-high six assists, relieving ball handling pressure from Rose here and there, but lost lift attempting to finish here and there.
- Welcome to the starting lineup, Kyle Korver (nine points on 3-for-9). Now go back to being the bench sniper, please. Richard Hamilton (thigh) was a late scratch, so Korver started. Let's hope I don't have to write that again, mkay? He wasn't awful, the option to kick out to him helped, and he's moving his feet about as intelligent and aggressive as I've ever seen him, contesting shots as well as possible while being foul aversive. The problem is that his best fullcourt game is still bad for a title contender. In other words, Korver's a very good wing player, I'm a huge fan of the hot sauce; but not a player who plays 35-plus minutes on a very good team. With Dwyane Wade on deck for Sunday, this could... well, you know.
- Usual "Bench Mobsters" weren't there much. Tom Thibodeau likes playing Omer Asik most with Taj Gibson. Taj only played 15:28 in his first game back since his high ankle sprain, looking O.K., but with no Bogut, Thibs used his Booz-Taj frontcourt for about two-thirds of Taj's minutes. Also, Booz and Noah were playing a really strong high-low game and it was nice to see Thibs ride it out. Hopefully, the tape proves to be valuable for some progress down there. Otherwise, with the Heat on deck for the Conference Finals...
Next up for the Bulls is the Heat. In Miami. Likely without Luol Deng; if not, with a crippled one. Hamilton's day-to-day. I'm pre-emptively breathing in a paper bag.
Stats via NBA.com [.pdf].