Bulls keep vexing their way to victory

BY Sam Gardner • December 21, 2012

Holiday spirit was in short supply Friday night at Madison Square Garden, where the Chicago Bulls survived a flurry of fourth-quarter ejections and a furious rally by a testy New York squad in a 110-106 win over the East-leading Knicks that nearly got out of hand.

From the opening tip, the air of contention between the two longtime rivals couldn’t be denied, and it only grew more hostile as Chicago’s smothering defense confounded New York for the second time this season, holding the Knicks to just 33.3 percent shooting for the first three quarters as the Bulls built a 25-point lead late in the third.

Combine the Knicks’ offensive incompetence with a few questionable calls — or non-calls — from the officiating crew and you had a recipe for a disaster. Finally, in the fourth quarter, New York’s frustration boiled over as Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Bulls center Joakim Noah all got the hook and an opportunity to watch the end of the game from the locker room.

'Melo was the first to go, with 6:45 to play and New York down 89-74, but he wasn’t left to his own devices for long. Just 1:23 after Anthony’s ejection, Woodson received his second tech of the night for arguing calls and was sent to join his star player, who had 29 points in the loss.

Then 43 seconds after that, Chandler and Noah were tossed for their roles in a scuffle following a loose ball. The players came nose to nose after getting tangled up near the 3-point line and needed to be separated by referees, who were able to keep the fight from escalating despite the furious crowd’s obvious desire for fisticuffs.

All told, there were eight technical fouls in the game.

“I was actually in here, then I heard the crowd screaming and yelling,” Anthony said of the ejections. “I walked to the hallway and Woody was walking back. Then I was actually in the shower, came back and Tyson was sitting right next to me. Once I saw that — that’s how the night was going.”

Friday’s loss got ugly long before it turned physical for the Knicks, however. New York scored 39 points on just 34.8 percent shooting in the first half, perhaps its worst offensive effort since the last time it played the Bulls, a 93-85 loss in Chicago that saw New York shoot a season-low 32.1 percent for the game.

But if there’s any comfort to be taken from the defeat — even with a 17-of-28 fourth quarter, New York still shot just 41.8 percent for the game — it’s that the Bulls seem to be doing this to just about everyone, using the same irksome, frustrating formula and smothering defense.

It’s a huge part of the reason they’re right in the thick of the Eastern Conference race despite not having point guard Derrick Rose, who is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in last year’s playoffs.

Rose, the league’s MVP two years ago, returned to practice for the first time Thursday, when he participated in the non-contact portion of Chicago’s workout. But he did not travel with the team for Friday’s game and won’t be in Atlanta Saturday when the Bulls play the Hawks.

Before the Bulls’ shootaround Friday morning, coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters it would be “a while” before Rose starts taking contact. The thought is that Rose may not see game action until after the All-Star break.

But at 15-10, fourth in the conference and first in the Central Division, the Bulls are getting along just fine without their star guard — just like they did last year, when they won 18 of the 27 games Rose missed with injuries to his toe, back, groin and ankle.

And they should be in the thick of things whenever he does return.

“We feel like we still have our best basketball ahead of us, and that’s exciting,” said Noah, who followed up his second career triple-double Tuesday against Boston with 15 points, 12 rebounds and six assists before his ejection. “We feel like we still can get a lot better.”

It helped to see quality offensive showings out of Luol Deng (29 points, 13 rebounds) and Kirk Hinrich (16 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) on Friday, as well as another strong game from pint-sized dynamo Nate Robinson, who followed up an 18-point effort against Boston with 11 points against New York. But this Bulls team isn’t going to shoot its way into the championship discussion.

The Bulls score just 92.8 points per game and have reached 100 points just six times this year. They play at one of the slowest paces in basketball — the only teams that play slower, statistically, are New Orleans and Brooklyn — and don’t shoot particularly well from the floor (44.1 percent) or from 3 (34.7 percent).

Instead, Chicago makes its name as one of the top defensive squads in the league, a staple of the defending Coach of the Year Thibodeau’s teams. The Bulls hold opponents to just 42.4 percent from the floor, the second-best mark in the NBA, and keep opponents off the line, allowing just one made free throw for every five field goals attempted.

The result is a defense that holds opponents to just 90 points per game and easily masks its unspectacular offense.

“It’s just kind of our safety net,” Hinrich said. “When you’re able to get stops, you have a little bit more margin for error.”

The offense certainly will get a lift from Rose's return, whenever he suits back up. Last year, Rose played about 43 percent of Chicago's minutes for the season and, according to basketball-reference.com, the Bulls' effective field-goal percentage was three percent higher with him on the floor. The team's offensive rating, which estimates a team's points per 100 possessions, was 5.1 points more with Rose in the game.

“Our focus is getting better every single day, and at the end of the day, obviously, when Derrick comes back we’re a better team,” Deng said. “But right now we’ve just got to focus on playing one at a time, because it’s easy to go on a losing streak in this league.”

With wins over Dallas, Brooklyn and Boston and two wins over Philadelphia and New York on their current 9-3 run, the Bulls have proved themselves worthy of the title of contenders in the East. And Chicago should actually get something of a breather in the coming weeks, with meetings with Houston, Indiana, Washington, Charlotte, Orlando and Cleveland ahead.

But, like Friday's win over the Knicks, a Jan. 4 visit to Miami will say a lot about where these Bulls stand.

Then there's the matter of a rematch with an angry New York team looking for revenge to attend to shortly thereafter. By then, Rose may well be back, which would only add to the hype, but either way, Friday’s primer made it a must-see game.

“It was a tough night, a tough game,” Anthony said. “A Chicago-New York game will always be a physical game, but we see them again January (11th), back here in the Garden. We will be prepared for that.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com


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