Friday, March 4, 2011
Posted: 8:49 PM Updated: 10:05 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
ORLANDOTo a man, the Bulls and their coaching staff constantly preach that the teams depth is one of the squads primary strengths, as they believe any player is capable of stepping up on any given evening to carry them to victory. Friday night was Omer Asiks turn, as the rookie center battled Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard effectively, sparking Chicago (42-18) to an 89-81 win over Orlando (39-23) in a defensive-themed performance.
Chicago, perhaps suffering from a hangover in the aftermath of their collapse in Atlanta Wednesday, got off to a rough start at the sparkling-new Amway Center. The interior presence of Howard (20 points, 8-for-8 field-goal shooting, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots) proved to be an effective deterrent to drives to the basket, ball security didnt seem to be a priority and Orlando scored effectively, whether in transition, from the perimeter or Howard asserting his power at the rim, the latter of which caused Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to make an early adjustment, subbing Joakim Noah for the defensive-minded Asik.
The playmaking of Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson (14 points, six assists)who was injured early in the teams last contest, a Bulls win at the United Centerand outside shooting of veteran Jason Richardson (16 points, five rebounds) were catalysts, but while the visitors early offering didnt look pretty, they kept within striking distance of the home team. Orlando, however, didnt exploit Chicagos early missteps, and the scoring of Derrick Rose (24 points, four assists, four rebounds, two steals) and Luol Deng (16 points, six rebounds, three assists) kept the visitors afloat against the trigger-happy hosts and through the opening period, the score was knotted up at 21 apiece.
After the first five minutes of the game, once we settled down, I thought we played real solid defense and the rebounding was great, Thibodeau observed. Our bench came in and played great. The starters, they settled down, after about five minutes. I thought we were really anxious and we were breaking down because of what we were doing.
When the bench came in, they gave us a huge lift. Actually, the second quarter, because they were going so well, I probably held on to the starters a little longer than usual, but they were playing very well and theyve been playing well for a while, so I wanted to keep playing them.
Dengs hot hand persisted through the early second quarter, but it was countered by the unexpected offensive contributions of Orlandos Brandon Bass (16 points), as both starting forwards transitioned into primary scoring options while playing with their respective teams second units, keeping the contest a tightly-knit affair. Upon Carlos Boozers (12 points, nine rebounds) return to the contest, Chicago seized its first lead of the game on a putback by the Alaskan power forward, then subsequently extended it to create some breathing room as part of a 14-0 run by a mostly-reserve lineup to give the visitors a double-digit lead.
Toward the end of the half, Howard was fouled by Noah and then wildly swung an elbow when tangled up with Kyle Korver (10 points, 3-for-4 three-point shooting), resulting in a technical foul with 1:41 remaining in the period, his 16th of the season, which is punishable by a one-game suspension. A late scoring burst by Rose piled on to the Magics woes and the Bulls went into intermission with a 49-35 advantage.
A pair of quick fouls on Noah early in the third quarter put him on the bench with four personals, but with Asik (five points, career-high 13 rebounds, five of which were offensive, two blocks) in his stead, the Bulls maintained their cushion, as neither team was especially efficient offensively, although both Boozer and Nelson had their moments. Orlandos scoring woes persistedthe Magics reliance on three-point shooting betrayed themand with Chicago controlling the glass, the visitors didnt let the home team have an opportunity to get the crowds momentum behind them.
Behind Howard, however, the Magic gradually chipped away and made it a single-digit contest as the periods midway mark passed, sparked by improved defense and timely scoring, particularly two crowd-energizing triples by reserve sharpshooters Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick, the erstwhile offseason Bulls free-agent target. But Chicago persevered and despite Asik fouling Gilbert Arenas on a three-point attemptthe former All-Star guard hit the entire trio of free throws with 0.5 seconds left in the quarterthe Bulls took a 65-57 lead into the final stanza.
Chicagos reserves kept things going in the visitors favor, but when Asikwho clearly had become Thibodeaus preferred option in defending Howard and thusly played the bulk of thepicked up his fifth foul, the Magic went on a quick run, again threatening to shift the games course. Noah, who struggled mightily to score, came back in, but promptly accrued his fifth, too, forcing Thibodeau to play musical chairs with his two seven-footers.
Still, the Bulls defense and strong offensive rebounding ensured the visitors kept the hosts on their heels and a traditional Rose three-point play in transition once again gave Chicago a double-digit winning margin midway through the period. Asik keyed the Bulls with his savvy defense against Howard, infectious energy on the boards and refusal to be cowed by a big stage before fouling out with 1:37 to go after playing a career-high 31 minutes.
Its really fun to play against the best center in the league. I tried to do just do my job, tried to defend him, Asik told CSNChicago.com afterwards. I just tried to defend and take the rebounds. The team needs me at that position, so I tried to do my job. Thats it.
Omers been playing huge for us lately and I think that hes playing more and more confident every game and he played huge for us tonight, and we needed it. I was in foul trouble and hes been bringing a lot of energy for us off the bench and hes been a huge presence for us at the rim. He played awesome, said Joakim Noah, who was visibly pleasedboth during and after the gameto see his backup excel. Omer is somebodyfirst of all, just watching him play this summer in the World ChampionshipsI knew he was going to be somebody that was going to help us right away and hes somebody, apparently, in Europe whos very known for his play. Im glad that hes with us because hes helping us win ballgames right now.
Added Thibodeau: Omer was great, from his individual post defense to his rebounding, shot-blocking and then offensively, he helps you execute. He sets great screens, keeps the ball moving, gets you extra possessions and he and Taj play extremely well together.
Hes stronger than he looks and hes a range rebounder. He can go and get the ball out of his area. And his shot-blockingnot only his shot-blocking, but his lane intimidationhis ability to go up and not foul, and make guys finish over him. I think its a testament to his work and his drive, he continued. Hes really worked hard and hes improved. In the beginning of the year, those were fouls and now hes learned to hold his hands back. Hes using his chest well, hes jumping straight up and hes a hard guy to score over, and hes got a quick second jump. Hes doing a lot of great things for us.
Korvers marksmanship was also a factor for the guests, as he seemingly came up with dagger-like triples at the most important moments, including one with 1:06 on the clock, giving the Bulls an 86-73 lead.
Praised Thibodeau: I thought Kyle made a lot of good plays for us also. When Kyle comes off a pin-down, he usually gets double-teamed and he makes the right play every time.
For Korver, it was a bit of redemption after airballing a three-pointer that would have sent Wednesdays loss in Atlanta into overtime, especially after witnessing Orlandos impressive comeback win over the Bulls next opponent, Miami, Thursday night.
I just wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to step into my shots and hit them. I definitely felt bad about the other night. I couldnt sleep until like five in the morning after Wednesdays game. It was a tough one, Korver, who hit all three of his three-pointers in the fourth quarter, told CSNChicago.com. Youve got to block it out and be ready to shoot the next one.
The NBA is a game of runs and thats just the way its always been. Obviously we all watched the game last nightand we saw them come back, and we gave one away the other night in Atlanta after the big leadand so, at halftime, we talked about it a lot, he continued. I thought we came out with a better focus in the second half.
The reality is, in the playoffs, you have to win on the road and its games like this that kind of build the confidence that you need to do that later on. If you go into the playoffs and you havent won any big road games, in the back of your mind, that kind of wears on you.
Chimed in Noah: I think we rebounded the ball pretty well tonight and I think that it was a great team effort.
Our bench has been playing great for us. I feel like we just come in waves. Weve just got to keep it up, keep improving and not be satisfied with this win, but this was definitely a huge win. This was my first time winning here!
To be a great team, you have to be able to deal with adversity and weve dealt with a lot of adversity so far this year, he continued. We try not to get too high and we try not to get too low, just try to stay as consistent as possible and just focus on the next task, and thats the Miami Heat.
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.