LOS ANGELES Who, our guys? Tom Thibodeau wondered quizzically before diverting the focus of the question. It was a brief crack in the ever-impassive at least when dealing with the media, if not on the sidelines Bulls head coachs facade, but his initial response to a question about whether his players panicked while facing a seemingly insurmountable in final minutes of Sundays thrilling 88-87 win over the Lakers revealed his belief in the team.
The Bulls (1-0) delivered upon Thibodeaus faith in them, giving the coach, who dismissed pregame queries about Christmas gifts in a Scrooge-like manner, the only present a basketball lifer could ask for. Reigning league MVP Derrick Roses go-ahead floater with 4.8 seconds remaining in a back-and-forth affair was the difference on the scoreboard, but a key stop against Lakers (0-1) superstar Kobe Bryants attempted game-winner put the cherry on top of a Christmas Day battle for the defensive-minded Bulls.
I feel like we showed a lot of character tonight. Things werent going our way. Offensively, we were getting a lot of calls against us and I feel like we just fought until the end, said center Joakim Noah, who scored the teams first points of the 2011-12 campaign and finished with a game-high nine rebounds, despite battling foul trouble for the entire contest, as well as being one of a swarm of defenders surrounding Bryant on his failed final attempt. Derrick told us with three minutes to go, Weve been in this position before. Just keep fighting. I feel like we didnt play our best basketball, but to just come up and win in this fashion, just says a lot about this team.
Concurred Thibodeau: What I like a lot was the resolve at the end to find a way to win the game. We had a lot of guys dig in and make some hustle plays. Of course, Lu with the big steal and Derrick with the big shot, and some real good team defense on the last play.
Indeed, the resiliency the Bulls displayed throughout their 62-win regular season a year ago returned in the season opener, as an abysmal third quarter shooting the ball and a fourth quarter in which it appeared the home team would expose the visitors as still not having all the answers. However, that was far from the case in the early going, as the Bulls unselfishness and balanced scoring led to 16 first-half assists and three double-figure scorers in Carlos Boozer (15 points, six rebounds), Luol Deng and Rose, who had 10 in the second quarter after a scoreless opening period.
The ball moved great in the first half. We had 16 assists in the first half and then we came out after halftime, and were holding onto it. It was sticking and then were dancing with it, and when we start doing that, were going to struggle to score, explained Thibodeau. Against a good defensive team, if youre holding onto the ball and youre dancing with it, youve got everyone else sitting there, staring at you, so youre not going to get good shots and thats what happened.
The games second stanza was marked by the Bench Mob reprising their role from last season, pushing the tempo and keeping the Bulls in position, although strong first-half efforts from Bryant and fellow All-Star Pau Gasol (14 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots) the Lakers lone proven big man, with usual starting center Andrew Bynum suspended and sixth-man extraordinaire Lamar Odom recently jettisoned to Dallas made it a close-knit affair through the contests intermission. After the break came a ghastly third quarter in which the Bulls shot a horrific 21.7 percent from the floor; the Lakers, while not much better at 38.1 percent, used their own brand of defense Boozer, in particular, struggled to score against Gasols length as the team attempted to run its offense through him, while new acquisition Rip Hamilton couldnt shake free of Bryant, his longtime acquaintance, to accurately launch his vaunted mid-range jumper to gather momentum in the final period and mounted a double-digit lead behind Bryants determined scoring.
The thing about Kobe is the way he does everything just cutting, his pick-and-roll game, catch-and-shoot game, post-up game, isolation game just so many different aspects of his game that you have to really gear your team toward helping, observed Thibodeau about the Lakers guard, who dealt with an injured wrist, as well as lingering dissatisfaction over the Odom trade and his own personal, yet publicized marital issues. What that often does is it pulls you off bodies, and then when the ball is shot, youre scrambling to get back and if you dont finish to get back, youre going to get hurt with the second shot.
Chimed in Deng: With Kobe, on the iso, I really try to crowd him and send him to the defense, whatever side the help was.
He made a couple tough shots on the baseline, spinning, but thats expected.
"Shots like that are what we want.
Against all odds, facing one of the games premier closers in Bryant and with star-studded crowd featuring the likes of music artists Lil Wayne and Chicago native Kanye West watching breathlessly, the Bulls fought back during the games stretch run. Deng, the longest-tenured Bull, made play after play a traditional three-point play after a driving layup, followed by a pair of free throws to make it a one-point game with 20.4 seconds left in the clutch on both ends, including stellar defense on Bryant.
Lu you know how Lu is hes going to keep it simple, do what he has to do: play defense, rebound the ball, push it, play smart, lauded Rose, who scored a team-high 22 points, to go along with five assists, though he matched that total in turnovers. His I.Q. of the game is very high and thats what I like about him.
After Dengs free throws, the Bulls trapped Bryant (game-high 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and uncharacteristically, the future Hall of Famer turned the ball over, throwing a pass that Deng stole. The ball would end up in Roses hands and the All-Star point guard made yet another play that will be part of his budding legend and highlight reel of his young career.
I think it was a great call by Coach Thibs to trap him. We didnt go for the foul; we trapped him to get it out of his hands. We went for the first trap, and he did exactly what we wanted. It was just a great, great plan by Coach, Deng, who scored 21 points, snatched seven rebounds, swiped four steals and dished out three assists, recounted. When I got the steal and I dribbled down the side, and my mindset was just looking for Derrick, and I jumped up and he got open at the last second and I just let it go. But as soon as I got the steal, I just wanted to find him.
Said Thibodeau: Its one big shot after the next and its been that way certainly all last year and at the start of this year.
Rose himself downplayed the shot.
It was really a floater. Thats something that Im just used to doing if Im going to my right hand and they let me get to my right hand, explained Rose, who said he suffered no aftereffects from the nasty knock to the head he took earlier in the contest, briefly rendering him motionless. If it wasnt for my teammates by making the steal, getting the ball to me at the end theres no way I would have got that shot off and us winning this game.
Bryant and the Lakers had one more chance to hold off the visitors, but with 4.8 seconds left and Deng defending Bryant, the man known for his heroics in pressure situations was forced into a swarm of Bulls, including Noah, and couldnt convert.
I trust our defense. I trust our bigs. I wanted to crowd him so he didnt have the jump shot and if he drove, I knew our bigs were going to be there and thats exactly what happened, said Deng. I really have a lot of confidence in our defense. No matter who it is in the league, I just feel like Im confident enough, whoever Im guarding, to know that my guys are right behind me and we did a good job down the stretch, just talking. As a defender, that gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that my guys behind me are alert.
I think everyone knows by now, we play hard. We play hard, we play together and we stick with it, whether were down 30 or down two, were always going to play until the end.
Concurred Rose: We showed fight. We definitely dont want to be in a position like that, but we fought our way back.
We just played harder. We stepped up our intensity on the defensive end, he continued. I told them that weve been in this situation before. Theyre a new team, they have new players, a new system. I said that they hadnt been in that circumstance yet and weve been there. Thank God that we got a couple of steals, a great couple of plays and we won the game.
Im not complaining. Im not complaining at all, as you can see. We got the win, weve got another game Monday and weve got to take it from there.