Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010
Updated 12:51 AM
By Aggrey Sam
DENVER -- A valiant comeback effort by a short-handed Bulls (8-6) team went in vain, as the Nuggets (9-6) survived Chicago's second-half rally and knocked off the Pepsi Center guests, 98-97, on a Carmelo Anthony (22 points, eight assists, six rebounds) buzzer-beating jumper with no time remaining.
The heroic shot by Anthony spoiled backup point guard C.J. Watson's season-high 33-point outing in place of an injured Derrick Rose and a guarantee of a winning record on the dreaded seven-game circus trip.
It's as if the Bulls believed the 25-6 hole they were in at the outset of Wednesday's double-overtime win wasn't enough of a challenge, with the Nuggets scoring the game's first 11 points on a variety of uncontested jumpers and lightly-contested drives, leading to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau benching power forward Taj Gibson -- who missed Wednesday's game due to a sore right ankle -- for the remainder of the half; the same scenario would play out at the outset of third quarter.
"Gibson is fine. His timing's off. He hasn't practiced in quite a while, so now he's got to work at getting his timing back. They Denver play small and spread you out," added Thibodeau. "You've got to have quick feet out there and you've got to be able to make multiple efforts. We started off the game slowly, we started off the third quarter slowly, so we had to get more energy into the game."
"I'm just a little rusty after sitting out the last game. That's all," Gibson would say later. "He just told me he wanted me to play a little harder. Don't worry about my foot, just play a little harder."
Meanwhile, the visitors were just as futile on offense, going 0-for-4 from the field and turning the ball over twice on their first six possessions.
Obviously missing Rose -- out for the contest due to a neck injury -- hurt the Bulls, but their normally stout defense was nowhere to be found, as Denver center Nene (18 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots) abused them for 10 quick points, leading to Thibodeau calling timeout and inserting rookie center Omer Asik.
Watson was aggressive in looking for his shot in the opening quarter, as was Luol Deng (24 points, 11 rebounds), the player most responsible for picking up the team's scoring load in the absence of their All-Star. While Deng struggled to find his touch, Watson was more effective, scoring 10 points in helping the Bulls close the period down, 25-20.
Second-year forward James Johnson -- likely given an opportunity because of the team being short-handed and regard of him as an "energy guy" -- saw early minutes, as did recently-acquired point guard John Lucas III, who was signed by the Bulls the same afternoon and flew directly from Houston to Denver to meet the team, who was familiar with him from his training camp and preseason stint this fall.
Chicago's offensive woes continued, as the Nuggets packed in their defense and forced the Bulls into difficult, contested and ultimately errant shots.
A lack of offensive flow was evident, but Chicago somehow managed to stay within relatively close contact, 48-38 at the half, as Joakim Noah (17 points, 16 rebounds) was able to get it going before intermission.
Duplicating their uninspired effort to start the contest, the Bulls were held scoreless for the first two minutes of the third quarter, during which Denver scored eight points.
Forced to play catch-up, Chicago relied on Deng -- who hit seven straight shots after a 1-for-7 start -- to help bring them back, and the small forward responded with more aggressive offensive play to help gradually slice into the now double-digit deficit.
"I don't have an answer for that the team's slow start at the beginning of each half," said Deng. "It's something that we have to do better. We noticed it."
"Our start wasn't that great and the start of the third quarter was pretty bad like usual, so we've got to work on that," added Watson. "If we get that taken care of, we probably would have won the game."
"Low energy," echoed Noah. "We're playing well in spurts, but not for 48 minutes."
A beautiful, back-and-forth fast-break sequence between Deng and Noah -- with Noah finishing an alley-oop pass from Deng, plus the foul -- resulted in a Nuggets timeout.
Solid play from Watson, Deng and Noah -- the latter pair each picked up their fourth foul late in the period -- aided Chicago in cutting the home team's winning margin to just three points -- following an extended 21-7 run over approximately seven minutes -- 76-73, through three quarters of play.
Ragged play to begin the final stanza -- in which Thibodeau elected to keep Noah in the game; Deng would soon join him -- yielded little in the tightly-knit contest, although both squads were a tad more offensively proficient.
The aforementioned trio of Watson, Deng and Noah continued to propel Chicago's offense, while the balanced Nuggets received production from a variety of sources on a relatively quiet night from superstar Carmelo Anthony.
A Watson jumper tied the game for the first time since the game started and sharpshooter Kyle Korver -- struggling through a 2-for-12 shooting night -- gave the Bulls their first lead, 85-82, on a 3-pointer with 6:03 to play.
Denver had no answer for Watson's blend of quick drives and finishes at the basket with degree-of-difficulty outside jumpers, as the offensive-minded backup point guard used his opportunity for extended minutes to showcase his scoring game.
"Just go out there and be aggressive. Try to find my teammates, try to get some easy buckets and just go out there and try to get the win," Watson said of his mindset in replacing Rose for the evening. "Starting and playing extended minutes makes it a lot easier getting into a rhythm.
"I had some turnovers early that I wasn't proud of, but I played well, tried to keep my teammates in it and come out with the win. But it didn't work like that," he continued. "Watson was just doing whatever it takes to win until he gets back. Just trying to hold the fort down."
"C.J. played a great game," concurred Thibodeau. "He ran the team, he scored, played tough defense. He did a great job."
"That's the way C.J. plays. We tell him to play the same way -- we told him to play aggressive; he came out and played aggressive," Rose, who received treatment on his injured neck in the training room during the game, told CSNChicago.com. "That's how he plays in practice. It wasn't a surprise to us. We knew that he was going to play good."
Chicago relinquished its tenuous hold on the lead with approximately three minutes to play on a coast-to-coast driving layup by Anthony. However, the Bulls didn't wilt and a Watson runner with a minute to play put them up, 95-94.
After a Bulls defensive stop, the Las Vegas native cashed in yet again, this time finishing acrobatically at the rim to give the visitors a three-point lead, 97-94.
"If they Denver were showing on the pick-and-roll play Chicago ran, I'd pop it back to Jo or Lu," explained Watson of his thought process on the play. "If not, just try to drive to the basket and get the foul or get the basket."
Following a pair of Anthony free throws to make it a one-point game, Chicago played keep-away until Lucas was fouled with 12.9 seconds to go. In his first regular-season game with the Bulls, the point guard missed both of his attempts, giving the Nuggets another chance with 12.6 left and the score 97-96.
"I knew they weren't going to foul initially. I felt they were going to trap and try to make us pass the ball around, so I wanted guys who could make plays," said Thibodeau, who told reporters he inserted Lucas into the contest at that late juncture in part for his free-throw shooting prowess. "Didn't work out."
"Coach put him in and Coach has faith in him, so I know Coach trusts him in that situation. He just didn't make them and that's how the ball falls sometimes," said Watson, who said Thibodeau indicated he had no preference of players who got to the line on the possession. "They Denver were trying to get a steal instead of fouling right away because there was only one possession."
"It's part of the game and everybody's been in that situation before," added Noah about Lucas. "I'm confident that the next time he'll make it."
On the next possession, Anthony missed a contested fall-away shot, but the rebound bounced off a Chicago player to allow Denver a final attempt with four seconds on the clock.
"You've got to come up with it," said a frustrated Thibodeau. "The game's on the line."
"It was a lot of holding and grabbing," chimed in Watson. "I think we had a chance to get the ball, but we didn't get the ball, so there's nothing to talk about."
Off a baseline inbounds under the Bulls' basket, Anthony caught the ball on the right wing and drilled a mid-range jumper with no time on the clock for the final score.
"Anthony was in a crowd. We wanted to play him one-on-one, take his airspace, make him shoot over the top, but he hit a big shot. The big problem was not coming up with the loose ball on the prior possession," explained Thibodeau of the final sequence, in which he elected not to double team Anthony. "Depends on where the ball is and who has it and situation, but they've got a lot of shooting on the floor. We're not going to let someone drive it to the basket. We're going to get the ball out of their hands."
"When he shot the ball, I thought I contested it well. Not for one second did I think it was going in," said Deng, who guarded Anthony for the majority of the game, including the game-winning shot. "He was catching it at the 3-point line. He's all the way away from the basket and we stopped him the play before. We just couldn't come up with the ball. He just hit a tough shot."
Moving forward, the Bulls still have a chance to finish with a winning record on this brutal seven-game stretch with a win Saturday at Sacramento.
"We're looking forward to tomorrow. We play 'Sac,' then we go home," Rose told CSNChicago.com. "I was getting massaged the whole game and tomorrow, we'll see how it is, but I've got to play."
"We'll bounce back. It's a long season. Disappointed we lost the game that we feel we should have won. It's a lot of little things at the end of the game we could have done better. It hurts, but we've got to play tomorrow. We've got to bounce back and try to get that win," said Deng. "From the start of the year, we said that we feel like we've got a deep team. We believe that. We went out there tonight, we played hard and we put ourselves in a position to win the game. There's a few things that we've got to do better and a good player hit a tough shot.
"We're a resilient team," concluded Noah. "Games like this, they come down to a possession and it hurts because we know we should have won."
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.