Watching the ball, or the rim...does he even need to look, really? (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Rip Hamilton returned for the Bulls on Monday, completing the intended starting lineup for the first time since January 4th, and had the first Bulls points with a layup(and one), starting part a 8-0 Bulls run to start the game. Seeing the selfless passing and player movement that Rip brings, and figuring that they were facing the banged-up Hornets (no Eric Gordon or Emeka Okafor) you'd think it was going to turn out to be an easy night. It looked even more that way when Carlos Boozer dunked over Chris Kaman right before the end of the quarter, what with it being Carlos Boozer of all people.
But it was actually still a close game at that point, and the Hornets managed to stay close throughout. They weren't overwhelmed by the Bulls on the boards, and were fighting and winning for loose balls on every possession, especially their bench. They were feasting at the line and off of Bulls turnovers, and though the latter mostly stopped in the second half the Bulls did look almost too pass-happy (bordering on sloppy) at times tonight. And eventually it wasn't just about staying in it: the Hornets took a 5-point lead after a 14-0 run in the 4th quarter.
Of course, to counter, the Bulls were able to get reliable late-game offense through Derrick Rose. That's the long-hand for 'MVP TIME'. Rose capped his 32-point night by either getting to the line, drawing defenders when he missed so Noah could tip it in, or bouncing home a jumper that gave his team the lead for good. The Hornets weren't able to score at all in opposition to that Rose run, proving it to be as simple as the Bulls having him and them not.
Rose was also part of a surge to start that 4th quarter as Thibodeau gave him and Deng the chance to extend a lead for once. And while they did, as pointed out above, the Hornets were never able to be put away. Beyond the factors already listed, part of what kept the Bulls from fully taking control was an abysmal 3-18 mark from the three-point line. Kyle Korver missed his first 4 attempts and even after making one looked hesitant to shoot afterwards. Rose has this annoying tendency to try for the 'dagger' pull-up 3, and he went 1-5. Luol also had that same output, shooting poorly overall including 3 really bad airballs. Nick Friedell is sounding the alarm over the wrist making Lu change his game more towards the outside, and while I didn't notice it it's worth watching going forward.
Though it was a less-than-dominant performance, I figure a few of those 3s go in, and the Bulls may get this one more comfortably. The excitement of Rip's return still resonates: he only had 5 points, but the 5 assists showed that it's more how merely having another scoring threat opens everything else up. I guess the next step will be to see if opponents adjust and stop leaving the Bulls bigs to help on him, and of course if he can stay healthy.
Because the Bulls still need that element in close games. It was worrisome that when the Hornets gained confidence and looked to steal this one, the offense really clamped up outside of Rose's brilliance: Joakim Noah had an awkward post-up, and two Boozer-focused possessions (who otherwise had a fine game scoring inside beyond the dunk) ended in a dropped pass and blocked shot. Rip may have helped there, but appeared to be in a Bogans-esque minutes cap, only playing in his stints to start the halves. Glad he got some kind of action (though I'd guess day-afters may be tricky for him) before heading into San Antonio tomorrow, as it'll be nice to see how that early-game offense can translate late to where Rose doesn't have to do all the work.