Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Posted: 9:42 p.m. Updated: 11:58 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
Although the Bulls (62-20) didnt win their regular-season finale in classic fashion, the 97-92 victory over the visiting Nets at the United Center Wednesday night did demonstrate one of their strengths all season: their depth, in the form of the Bench Mob, the nickname for Chicagos reserves. In a game featuring unlikely protagonists on both sides, the Bulls withstood a strong challenge from the visiting Nets to hold on late and clinch the NBAs best overall record heading into Saturdays playoff opener against the Indiana Pacers.
WATCH: Rose shares his thoughts on Indiana
Of course, thats always good, but our next step is getting prepared for the playoffs. We knew that we made this game tonight harder than what it was, Derrick Rose acknowledged of the teams 62-win season. It took our bench to come in and play great for us to win. Now were looking forward to the playoffs.
With an inferior opponent in town, it first appeared as if the Bulls had finally gone mainstream, feeding into the notion that these types of affairs were better for resting than actual performance. The lowly Nets were competitive at the outsetthe likes of Sasha Vujacic (10 points) and Stephen Graham (11 points) were de facto go-to guysputting the Bulls on their heels early in the first quarter.
But Chicago hadnt come all this way to wave the white flag and created some breathing room, overpowering the visitors with their considerable advantage in star power, particularly low-post duo Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah (10 points, 10 rebounds).
Noahwho started despite tweaking his ankle the previous evening, continued to show progress by playing with his usual high energy level. Despite his protests to the contrary, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau substituted some of his starterssuch as Rose (15 points) and Luol Deng (11 points), who both typically play heavy minutesand behind balanced scoring, the Bulls ended the opening period with a 26-20 lead.
WATCH: Deng discusses the Bulls mindset
The Bulls positive trend continued in the second quarter, as they increased their winning margin to double digits, with Thibodeau giving his reserves ample playing time. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver (19 points) and little-used midseason acquisition Rasual Butler (10 points) each made it rain from the outside, while Chicagos stingy defense caused the Nets misery on the other end.
As has been customary, however, the Bulls intensity decreased and their guests capitalized, gradually coming back behind point guard Jordan Farmar (21 points, 12 assists)superstar floor general Deron Williams was out due to wrist surgeryand backup big man Johan Petro (13 points, eight rebounds). At the half, however, the Bulls were able to maintain a 50-43 advantage.
After the intermission, New Jersey shocked the United Center crowd by jumping out to a double-digit lead, sparked by a 13-0 run that raised the question of whether the two teams had changed identities. Brook Lopez (19 points) came alive for the Nets and with the talented center playing in a motivated fashion, the visitors stunned their hosts in taking control of the contest.
READ: Bulls-Pacers 1st round schedule
At the start of the third, as a team, we were low energy and thats when we got into a hole, so we were looking to change things up from there, said Thibodeau. I didnt want to put the starters back in.
Deng concurred: The guys were big. The starters, we were out there trying. Were digging deep, were trying. It was a tough game, physically and mentally, but our bench has been there all year and they were ready.
Adding injury to insult, Noah bumped knees and was forced to leave the contestworse, in the midst of one his trademark double-double outingssending Bulls fans into a state of panic.
WATCH: Noah says he's feeling fine
Im fine, Noah said afterwards. This is so exciting right now I think that once you step on to the court, youre numb to all that stuff.
I just felt like I was running the floor better today and I was just moving a lot better. Im still a work in process, the center went on to say. Im still not where I want to be, but Im hoping that when the playoffs start, the environment gets me going a little bit more.
Added Thibodeau: I think hes fine.
I thought he played very well in the first half. I thought his energy was extremely high, he was active, offensive rebounding, blocking shots, running the post, sprinting the floor, high energy, he continued. To me, that was a great sign. Thats two games in a row where his activity was really high.
WATCH: Thibodeau on a "new season"
But led by Rose, Chicago put a halt to the Nets spurt, tying the contest at 68 apiece after three quarters, following a jumper by Korver in the waning seconds of the period.
The Bulls Bench Mob (sans the injured Ronnie Brewer, who sprained his right thumb Tuesday in New York) couldnt pull away from the Nets in the close-knit affair, despite the efforts of Korver, who carried the offensive load for Chicago. By tightening up their defenseor New Jersey playing to their usual standardsthe Bulls were primed to salvage the contest as the stretch run approached.
The bench was great, really good and I think it says a lot about Rasual. Hes been a great pro, stays ready, practices hard, great teammate and made a lot of big plays for us, said Thibodeau, highlighting the play of Butler, who has already become popular in Chicagos locker room. I wanted to play our bench more today and cut back on the starters minutes a little bit, but just the way the game was unfolding, we were looking for a group that could give us something.
Chimed in Noah: The Bench Mob has been saving us and playing great all year. We wouldnt have 62 wins and had the season that we had if wasnt for them.
WATCH: Boozer feeling proud
With both Korver and Butler coming up big late in the back-and-forth affair, the Bulls trailed by a point before Butler knocked down a corner triple with 46.1 seconds remaining to give the home team a 92-90 lead. While New Jersey would threaten the late leadincluding a muffed Taj Gibson (nine points, eight rebounds) jump ballthe Bulls survived and kept their positive momentum heading into Saturdays playoff opener.
Sixty-two is a great number and were definitely happy about it, but were not satisfied. We dont want it to end here. Now its a new season, said Noah. I dont think it changes anything. At the end of the day, the best record doesnt help you win a basketball game. Youve got to go in there with the mindset of being on edge for 48 minutes, be really focused and understand that its going to be tough, and were going to go through a lot togethergood times, hard timesand through all of it, weve got to stick together. When we realize that, we can do something special.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.