Friday, April 13, 2012

Bulls' Bench Mobs Heat to Move Closer to Number 1 Seed

The stage was set last night for an epic showdown of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Rose v. James, Chicago vs. Miami - next on TNT! Derrick Rose was fresh off an ankle injury, one that he got when he was fresh off his groin injury. The NBA couldn't have hoped for a more marquee matchup, with the two best teams facing off with some of its biggest superstars. And yet, at the end of the day, it was guys named Watson, Gibson, and Korver who sealed a huge win over Miami and made the number 1 seed in the East the Bulls' to lose.

When you think about it, the Bulls' bench had to step up, as three of the Bulls' starters practically no-showed. Derrick Rose had the worst game of his professional career, notching 2 points in 25 minutes of play. Joakim Noah again no-showed as he endures a terrible stretch of the season, finishing with 5 points and 4 rebounds in only 23 minutes. And Rip Hamilton, the off season acquisition we all hoped would add another dimension the Bulls sorely needed, contributed only 7 points in 24 minutes. For almost every other team across the league, getting no production from your best player and two other key starters would spell doom against even a middling NBA team. Yet for the Bulls, it didn't matter. They still forced overtime and ended up beating Miami by 10.

Watson and the bench got it done
Really, that is what makes the Bulls special. Their depth is something other teams can't compete with, and it gives Tom Thibodeau another option on nights he needs energy or simply wants to switch it up. And even more than that, Thibs can do so without facing some kind of pouting from his starters. Last night, Rose wasn't in the game for much of the 4th quarter and overtime as C.J. Watson worked his magic. Did Rose pout? No. After the game, he was authentically enthusiastic and happy for Watson, caring only about the win. Can you think of any other superstar that would do this? Do you think that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James would take to sitting on the bench well, even if it was best for the team? This is just such a tight team that Thibs can make decisions like sitting his superstar for the biggest parts of the game without facing any scrutiny from anyone. That's just the ultimate sign of respect.

And boy, did Thibs' substitutions make a difference. C.J. Watson finished with 16 points and 9 assists in what was easily his finest performance as a Bull. This even included the epic three to tie the game and send it into overtime:

Love it. C.J. came up huge down the stretch, filling in admirably for a night that Rose didn't have it. More than just the stat line, though, was the energy and spark that Watson and the rest of the Bench Mob used to swing the game. When Watson, Gibson, and Korver came into the game, the Heat held something like a 9 point lead. The Bench Mob, led by those three, helped swing the balance in favor of the Bulls. There was no looking back until late in the game when Dwyane Wade singlehandedly led the Heat back into it.

Gibson, as usual, was amped and ready to go against Miami. It seems that he gets up for these games especially, finishing with 11 points, 5 rebounds, a huge block, and one monster dunk in overtime that blew the roof off the United Center:

Korver was on fire
What a ridiculous atmosphere. Down the stretch, it was quite clearly the atmosphere of a playoff game, yet the guys on the floor getting it done were off the Bulls' bench. You could see in that clip the contributions on defense that we got from Omer Asik as well, and we can't discount the defense that Ronnie Brewer played as well. But really, after Watson and Gibson, the biggest performance by a member of the bench mob was that of Kyle Korver. Not only did Korver pour in 17 points, including 5/6 for threes, it seemed that each of the threes came at the perfect time. The nail in the coffin was his three from 35 feet out at the end of overtime that essentially sent the Heat home packing. It was overall an insane performance by the Bench Mob, something the likes of which I can't remember ever seeing.

That's not to say all of the starters were bad. Carlos Boozer played a great game, pouring in 19 points and 11 rebounds and hitting some big shots down the stretch. Boozer pretty much neutralized any offensive production that Chris Bosh contributed. Remind me again why Miami gave Bosh $100 million? For me, though, the best output from a starter was Luol Deng. Yeah, he only had 16 points, but he played 43 minutes, most of the time guarding LeBron James. I don't understand how the guy does it, but he's the glue that holds the team together and allows for a seamless transition between the starters and the bench, mostly because he just keeps on playing. I just hope that all these minutes in this truncated season doesn't lead to the same situation as last year, where Deng slowed down in the playoffs and wasn't as effective against Miami. Either way, great game from him last night.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm not concerned about Rose. It was D Rose's first game back, besides NY on Sunday, in almost a month. As Rip said best after the game, its not about getting in game shape as much as it is about timing. Rose just looked off last night. Shots not falling, errant passes, whatever. It's going to take a few games for him to get back in the swing of things, and once he does that and establishes some chemistry with his teammates again look out. I expect we'll see the same D Rose before too long.

The alarming thing for me though was another ineffective performance from Joakim Noah and Rip Hamilton. Rip, when he has actually played this year, hasn't seemed to get into the flow of the offense just yet. He'll have the random sporadic game where he drops 20 points, but other than that, it feels like games like last night, where he'll score somewhere between 5-10 points and disappear for stretches at a time, are more the norm. I hope it's more rust than anything else, but with how deep this Bulls team goes Thibs isn't going to continue to give him all the time in the world to get it together. As a jump shooter, he has to start getting his shots to fall. We need him in the playoffs.

As for Noah, I feel like he hasn't been the same player these past few weeks. He has had relatively weak games the past three games, and in each one he was needed for his energy and rebounding. It shouldn't be a situation where he is sitting on the bench for much of the second half while Asik comes in and fills his role defensively. Noah is that teammate who is the spark for everyone else on the team. I hope it's just a mini-funk for him, as I feel that once the playoffs hit that's all he'll need to fuel his energy, one that permeates through the rest of the team. Hopefully that's the case.

Regardless though, it was a huge win last night. It could have sealed the number 1 seed for the Bulls, who are 4 games up on Miami in the standings with only 7 games left to play. Even more than that, it was a confidence boosting win for the Bulls, who can show themselves that even with their bench, the Heat aren't God's gift to basketball. Solid defense, good energy, teamwork, and depth can beat this team. Seeing the ability of Thibs to tell his star players that they're sitting on the bench, and to see his ability and confidence in having Asik, Korver, Brewer, Gibson, and Watson in the game for key stretches at the end of the game tells you all you need to know about this team. The Bulls are special; let's just hope it carries all the way through the playoffs.