Nick Friedell sums up the impressive circumstances of the Bulls win on Saturday night over the Knicks well:
The Bulls had every excuse in the world to roll over and lose on Saturday night.
They were playing their fourth game in five nights. They were playing without Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton. They played the second half without Taj Gibson (ejected) and Kirk Hinrich (elbow injury). And they were playing one of the hottest teams in the league in the New York Knicks, who just knocked off the Miami Heat on Thursday night without Carmelo Anthony.
The deck, as it has been so often early in this season, was stacked against Tom Thibodeau's team.
Yet as has also been the case so many times in the past two years, the Bulls found a way to win a game they probably shouldn't have. In a season full of ups and downs, the Bulls pulled off their most impressive win.
Yes, the Bulls caught another break with Carmelo Anthony unavailable (the kind of player who can transcend a defense-dominated slugfest late in a game) but they had a lot going against them as well. Thibodeau had his top defense going against a top offense, who were missing their star but had been living off of 3-pointers lately. With Melo out previously, the Knicks shot 18-44 from beyond the arc to beat Miami. That's usually a week of makes for the Bulls.
Against a Chicago team that stayed home on the shooters due to the knowledge that there was virtually zero threat from dribble penetration or legitimate post-up opportunities, the Knicks managed to make only eight three-pointers on 23 attempts.
The Bulls forced Raymond Felton into taking 30 of the Knicks’ 84 shot attempts, which was more than double that of anyone else on the team. Felton only converted nine of them to finish with 27 points, and Chicago likely couldn’t have been happier with the distribution of its opponent’s shots.
This was a trademark performance from the Bulls; a gritty win brought on by a stellar effort on the defensive end of the floor. Without Carmelo Anthony there, New York struggled to move the ball and find someone who could take control and get buckets when the team needed them most.
We know the formula: having this standout unit keeping them close, getting just enough offense (Belinelli has really stepped up as a starter to give them some shooting for once), and of course limiting exposure to weakness by making sure the best players play all the time.
That last bit may be a problem. It's been a looming one all season, but the mentioned circumstances of their great weekend also highlighted the extreme degree of it. Steve Aschburner can't help but wonder if it'll backfire:
Deng’s workload over the just-completed stretch of four games in five nights: 41:14, 42:23, 42:25 and finally that 46:34. He has played fewer than 40 minutes only four times in his 19 starts this season and he again leads the NBA with an average of 41.2 minutes. The 27-year-old led the league last season too (39.4) and ranked fourth (39.1) in his first season with Thibodeau in 2010-11.
Noah’s minutes have reached an all-time high as well: 39.8 this season, after never having averaged more than 32.8. He ranks second in the NBA to Deng and played 171:31 of the possible 192 minutes in the 4-in-5 run against Indiana, at Cleveland, at Detroit and vs. the Knicks.
At the moment, the Bulls (11-8) have enough wins to sit precariously atop the artless NBA Central. But at what price? Both Deng and Noah have dealt with injuries before. Overuse could lead to new ones or cause one ones (Noah’s plantar fasciitis, Deng’s achy left wrist) to flare up.
Indeed, these wins do matter. The schedule is getting rougher and the closer they are to playoff contention means the more hope a Derrick Rose return can actually mean come April.
Though that may be just a locker room and fans hope, how the Org. treated this offseason means it may all be for little, and it's kind of sad that Thibs has been saddled with some
intellectual (whoops) ineffectual players and a hard cap. But that said, it's obvious Thibs himself has enough responsibility for the minutes management thus far. Given how he was immediately exonerated from any role in injuries last season, there may not be much risk in terms of blame. But I doubt he cares about that as much as simply having these guys available later in the year. I wish he could see that longer-term goal when in the middle of these impressive grind-it-out performances, fun as they've been to see.