CHICAGO | The game had a very different feel to it, a buzz and energy in the arena that is part of what is referred to as "playoff atmosphere."
Boston and Chicago both had tangible goals to play for on Tuesday, but the Bulls' urgency was much more immediate. The Celtics were trying to motivate themselves with an outside shot at the three-seed in the East, which would have required two more wins and an Atlanta loss during the season's last two days. Chicago, meanwhile, was playing to keep playing. The difference in motivation was apparent on the floor.
"Our energy tonight was fantastic," said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro after Chicago's 101-93 win at the United Center.
The victory reduces the Bulls' hopes to a task simple in its definition, if not so much in its execution. Tonight, they travel to Charlotte for a season-ending game against the Bobcats, who of course are now owned by the greatest player in Bulls--and NBA--history. If the Bulls can't beat Charlotte, they must then hope the hapless Raptors lose at home to the even-more-hapless Knicks.
"This was our season, right here," Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich said.
Does it even matter? That was the question on some people's minds before the game. After all, the reward for earning the last available playoff spot is a matchup with the league's top team and championship favorite, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics, of course, saw last year how another mediocre version of the regular season Bulls turned dangerous once the playoffs arrived.
"I hope so," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, when asked if the Bulls could again be a dangerous playoff team. "I hope they are. I hope they take (Cleveland) to seven games, that'd be great. Take them to triple overtime in all their games, I think that'd be fantastic.
"Losing Gordon, then starting out with all their injuries, it hurt them. They would have been in (already) if not for the injuries they had early in the year. They've been playing catchup all year."
With the loss, the Celtics are locked into the fourth seed in the East bracket.
"That's what we're dealing with," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "There will a lot of teams that don't want to see us at a four-seed, but we're going to have to deal with winning in other teams' buildings. That's what it boils down to."
1. He gone.
There is something rotten in the Bulls organization. By now, you've probably read about the reported altercation between Bulls VP of Basketball Operations, John Paxson, and Del Negro. The story goes that after the Bulls lost to the Suns on March 30, Paxson shoved Del Negro and challenged him to a fight because the coach exceeded a pre-determined minutes limit for ailing center Joakim Noah. The report broke yesterday about an hour before game time, after Del Negro had already addressed the media. Afterwards, however, the topic became the centerpiece of Del Negro's postgame chat.
"All those things are internal," Del Negro said. "I have no comment on that. Whatever happens is between the organization and myself and the people involved. That's all internal stuff. I control what I can control, and that's the preparation of the game, the staff and getting the players ready to go."
Once pressed, however, Del Negro at least indirectly acknowledged that there had been an incident of some sort.
"Of course," Del Negro said, when asked if he preferred that the story had not gotten out when it did. "This is the NBA and when things happen, whether it's in a game or in practice, it's going to come out. That's just part of the deal. You handle it, you're professional with it and you move forward. You show great leadership towards your team and go about your business.
"Things happen. There is a lot of emotion involved in this game. There's a lot of things that happen on a daily basis. As long as everyone is pulling in the same direction for the ultimate goal, there is a lot of positive to take out of it, too."
There are all sorts of stories being hurled around the back corridors of the United Center. One is that Del Negro's firing will be come almost instantly once Chicago's season ends and that the decision was made some time ago. There are also tales that some of the media witnessed Paxson's altercation with Del Negro and kept a lid on the story at the coach's behest.
"I'm not going to get into that," Del Negro said when asked about that aspect of the story.
In one respect, yesterday's soap opera doesn't change the essence of what we've all suspected for some time now: The Bulls will be shopping for a new coach in the offseason. However, that scenario could be complicated if the team's investigation into the Paxson-Del Negro incident confirms that the fight did indeed take place. The legalities of the situation are beyond my knowledge base, but when an employer threatens or menaces an employee, that can't be a good thing. What's probably at stake are the dollars Chicago owes Del Negro beyond this season and whether or not the team can define his termination as "with cause." However, one wonders if always-shy-to-fire owner Jerry Reinsdorf will now be averse to making a move at all.
My feelings on Del Negro remain muddled. I see growth in his ability to run a game, though he's got work to do, especially with his substitution patterns. I don't think he has a good grasp on when to push tempo and when to pull back. I don't think he's got a good feel on when and how to use timeouts. I don't particularly like his base offensive system. However, I think he's improving in all of these areas, I think his players like and respect him and I think he generally gets them to play hard. It's a mixed bag and perhaps Del Negro has delivered more than the team could have hoped for when they hired him without any coaching experience. Given the numerous injuries the Bulls have faced this season, the offseason departure of Ben Gordon and the roster-juggling that resulted from the trades of Tyrus Thomas and John Salmons and the apparent lack of support of his bosses, I think Del Negro has done a pretty solid job this year, still and all. And I write that even though the up-and-down play of the team has driven me as crazy as anyone. I keep coming back to the same question: Just who exactly do they think they're going to bring in?
"The guys have handled the adversity all season, with all the things we've had to deal with," said Del Negro. "I give those guys a lot of credit. They've hung together, they've worked hard and they've grown.
"The focus is on the game. I don't waste my time with that stuff. I don't have time to deal with it. This is all about the players and the focus is right now will be getting ready for Charlotte. All that other stuff is irrelevant."
As for the players, Shove Gate has about as much relevance as the Easter Bunny in terms of success on the floor.
"What happened?" Bulls guard Derrick Rose asked, when informed about the incident between Paxson and Del Negro. After being filled in on the sordid details, Rose said, "I never heard about it. If it did happen, it slipped past me.
"When they're around us, they're always kidding around, joking around, talking," Rose said. "If something happened, it was behind closed doors. When they're around us, they're professionals."
As he's done consistently, Rose again went to bat for his coach.
"Vinny's a good coach," Rose said. "He's been my coach ever since I got to the NBA. He's allowed me to work (through) my mistakes. If you want to talk to him, he'll talk to you. No matter what's going on, he wants to win the game and he's going to play the guys that play the hardest."
Hinrich perhaps best summed up the players' attitude.
"We're all in this together," Hinrich said.
2. One more game.
Back to basketball. After a season of nice wins and embarrassing losses, the Bulls can put a lot of that behind them with a victory tonight. Since Del Negro may be in Dick Williams mode*, you'd think he'll have his team ready, but the Bulls have fallen flat so many times this season when faced with a Big Chance that you just can't predict what will happen in Charlotte. Just to cherry pick a couple of Chicago's bad losses, if the team hadn't blown a 36-point second-half lead at home against Sacramento or lost TWICE this season to the Nets, tonight's game wouldn't mean diddly-squat.
"I look at it as (being) a great opportunity. You live for games like this," Del Negro said. "They're like playoff games. We had to win this and we dug deep. (Now) we have to figure out how to get our energy back up for tomorrow. We know how good Charlotte is and how tough they are on their home floor. We haven't accomplished anything yet other than the fact that we have an opportunity. We have to embrace that."
Unlike the Bulls, the Bobcats don't have anything to play for. No matter what happens tonight, Charlotte will be the East's No. 7 seed.
"We're confident, but we still have to go out there and play that game," Rose said. "(The Bobcats) are going to play hard. Larry Brown is a good coach and he's not going to let them (coast)."
Perhaps, but Brown is battling ill-timed rumors of his own. Reports have circulated that Brown has asked for permission to inquire about the jobs with the Clippers and Sixers. (Philly has denied the story.) Others, in Chicago, see Brown as a possibility as Del Negro's successor. Stay tuned.
* - After leading the Oakland A's to their second straight World Series title in 1973, Williams essentially told his owner, Charlie O. Finley, to stick it because of his constant meddling.
3. One badass backcourt.
Rose and Hinrich combined for 69 points against the Celtics, easily a season-best in combined output by Chicago's starting backcourt. No other Bull reached double figures. Rose and Hinrich both had everything working--drive-and-kick, outside shot, defensive pressure. For Chicago fans, it was a thing of beauty, if not the kind of performance you can exactly count upon.
Much of the success against Boston came from what I'd term offshoots of the Bulls' base offense. In other words, instead of the stagnant Flex sets that accomplished nothing against the strongside overloads and quick rotations of Boston's defense, the Bulls went with the basics once push came to shove. That is, they set a pick for Rose and he attacked the painted area. Because Hinrich had his stroke going on the outside, it allowed Del Negro to spread his offense and it opened everything up. This is how an efficient Derrick Rose offense will operate at some point in the future.
"It's just one of those days," Rose said. "Some days, I just have a whole bunch of turnovers. Some days I hit everything. It wasn't really me. It was my teammates, the fans, giving me confidence."
Uh-huh. Rose is damned-near incapable of giving himself a compliment. He was a little more effusive when asked about the play of his backcourt partner.
"He was knocking almost every shot down. We needed that," Rose said. "He's one of the leaders on the team. Everybody that's younger than him looks up to him. He really stepped up his game tonight."
That's better, but I prefer what Joakim Noah had to say about Hinrich, who is affectionately referred to as "Captain Kirk."
"Kirkie-workie. That's my guy," said Noah. "I really respect the Cap as a player."
Boston's Rajon Rondo was dominated in his head-to-head matchup with Rose, which resulted in a career-high 39 points for Chicago's second-year guard.
"I couldn't stop him tonight," Rondo said. "It seemed like he was making every shot."
As I say, it wouldn't be wise to expect 69 points from Chicago's backcourt every night, but the Bulls clearly succeed or fail based on the play of their guards.
Combine for 39 or more: 13-2
Both play, score 38 or less: 26-29
Games in which one, the other, or both don't play: 1-10
"I hope this is just the beginning of something for the playoffs," Rose said.
HINRICH + ROSE TOP 2010 GAMES
Date Opp KH DR W/L K+D
04/13 BOS 30 39 W 69
01/15 WAS 19 37 W 56
02/26 POR 17 33 W 50
04/03 CHA 24 26 W 50
03/06 DAL 14 34 L 48
04/08 CLE 23 24 W 47
01/22 @PHX 14 32 W 46
12/19 ATL 13 32 W 45
01/25 @SAS 18 27 W 45
03/22 HOU 17 27 W 44
02/03 @PHI 13 30 L 43
02/16 NYK 14 29 W 43
01/02 ORL 11 30 W 41
03/20 @PHI 17 23 W 40
02/19 @MIN 20 19 W 39
4. To rest or not to rest.
The topic of whether it's "right" to rest stars in the season's final week has been a hot topic lately and, reportedly, has become a point of conversation in the NBA's league offices. Rivers had some insightful thoughts on the matter before the game.
"If you have everything clinched, which we don't, but if you do, then I'm in favor rest," said Rivers. "If I think it's going to help you. I don't rest because you just want to rest. We're an older team and I think rest is important (for us) to be as fresh as possible.
I got injured in the Chicago game as a player in the last game of the season when we already had homecourt. It was a CBS game and they basically threatened the Knicks and the Bulls that everybody had to play. I tore a ligament in my thumb in that game and it hurt me in the playoffs. So that's something I know can happen and I'll never forget that. In this case, for both teams there's some importance in the game and I think (everybody) should play."
The Bulls rolled out a nice surprise for their fans for the last regular season home game. Scottie Pippen, recently announced as a member of the next Hall of Fame class, was the subject of a rousing scoreboard presentation with many of his highlights in Chicago's championship years being featured in the bright lights. At the end, the real thing, Scottie himself, emerged from the tunnel and came out smiling and waving to fans, who were chanting, "Scottie! Scottie! Scottie!" I got goosebumps and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 22 90.0 .357 .167 .238 .045 4.16
Second Quarter 23 90.2 .400 .235 .040 .086 3.94
Third Quarter 20 135.5 .632 .200 .158 .100 5.54
Fourth Quarter 21 118.9 .533 .222 .600 .190 4.34
FIRST HALF 46 90.1 .380 .148 .130 .065 4.05
SECOND HALF 41 127.0 .588 .235 .353 .071 4.96
FINAL 87 106.4 .469 .174 .225 .103 4.49
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 22 76.5 .300 .353 .080 .090 4.72
Second Quarter 23 115.9 .605 .000 .211 .129 4.16
Third Quarter 20 115.4 .553 .200 .105 .100 5.40
Fourth Quarter 21 161.7 .650 .375 .400 .048 5.83
FIRST HALF 46 96.7 .432 .240 .136 .108 4.44
SECOND HALF 41 139.2 .603 .250 .256 .036 5.64
FINAL 87 115.5 .512 .256 .193 .092 5.03
NOTE: THCH is an estimate of team touches per minute
GAME FLOW COMMENTS
(These are the notes that I typed to myself during the game. Presented as typed ... no attempt at cleaning them up or to provide context.)
FIRST QUARTER: Celtics look sharp early, going inside-out on offense. Bulls getting all jumpers ... Rose getting into the paint now and either scoring or kicking out for a good look. Bulls up 11-10 halfway through 1Q ... Bulls offense disappeared in the second half of the quarter. Celtics were crowding the lane and Chicago wasn't getting anything if Rose didn't create it. Boston not getting many open looks, either. It's 20-17 Boston after 1Q. Vinny subbed kind of willy-nilly there and it created a couple of poor defensive possessions caused by miscommunication.
SECOND QUARTER: After Celtics go up six, Warrick forces up a long 2. Taj heads up to the scorer's talbe. After a stop, Murray forces a three. Daniels scores, Celts up 27-19. Points coming hard and Bulls are playing tight ... Evidence: 2-of-7 from line in 1Q ... With Nate Robinson in at point, Bulls go to kind of a fullcourt trap after Hinrich scores. Trap doesn't work, but they get a stop ... On a long rebound, Rose tips the ball to himself and takes it in for a double-clutch reverse dunk that gets the crowed REVVED ... Taj hits a J, Bulls down 29-27. Showing some signs, as they say ... Hinrich and Rose have combined for 21 of Chi's 29 points. It's tied ... Garnett played 8 min in 1Q, hasn't played this Q. Doc said his minutes would be limited ... Deng hasn't scored, but he's got 7 boards and has been played good help defense. Pierce is back in after getting just 4 min so far. He hasn't been a factor ... Celtics' length is giving Deng fits ... That Hinrick/Rose tally is up to 27 of 35. Hinrich is having his best game of the season ... Rose hits a j at shot-clock buzzer. It's 37-29 Bulls w/ 3:14 to go in 1H. Rose & Hinrich have scored 29 of the 39. Bulls are on a 20-4 run. For the first time in their recent chances to lockdown a playoff spot, they are playing like there is something at stake. A playoff-type buzz permeates the arena ... Noah and Gibson really have developed a nice chemistry in terms of creating for each other ... Everything Rose & Hinrich have done has been off one-on-one this Q. Not great ball movement. Pierce has gotten it going, Celts close w/i 44-41 at half. BTW, Hinrich hit a halfcourt shot just after the buzzer. It's the second time in the last week that the Bulls have just missed getting off a successful halfcourt shot.
THIRD QUARTER: Bulls were 5-of-7 on fastbreak opps in 1H. Need about 12-15 of those in 2H ... Pierce and Garnett have come out like they mean business. Deng gets to the hoop and scores, but Pierce does same to him for second time in half. It's tied at 46 and the Bulls better be ready to bring it ... Pierce again all the way to the hoop ... Pierce gets another layup. Bulls are playing scared. NOW is when you call a timeout, Vinny. ... Nice hustle sequence for Chicago. Rose blocks his third shot of game, Deng gets ball poked away but dives and tips if over to Hinrich who bounces to Taj on baseline for dunk. Then Pierce answers. He's got 10 points in 1st 4 1/2 minutes of half ... Taj just got a T. This has been building. He gets no respect from the refs, which is b.s. -- a foul is a foul is a foul. Or not ... Calls mounting against Bulls and crowd gets irate. If Celtics pull away (Garnett just scored to put them up 7) this could become unruly ... Just pick for Rose and let him create. The base offense is getting nothing, but the pick'n roll with good spacing is working ... Allen pops open for a three. Vinny finally calls a timeout. 60-54 Boston at 5:09. ... Bulls are down 4 and are 6-of-13 from the line ... Hate to draw the comparison, but this is shaping up like one of last year's playoff matchups ... Noah just got shoved out of bounds by Perkins and got called for the foul ... Got the stop, then Rose races to the frontcourt where he is hogtied by Big Baby ... They're calling a flagrant on that? Don't know. Rivers is going ballistic about something. Rose is at the line in any event. 2FTs, Chi within 62-61 @3:36 ... Another weird call, this one on Hinrich fighting through a pick. Bulls are in danger of letting officials get in their heads ... Rose's teardrop is a thing of beauty. Game tied. Nice bounceback ... Allen answers w/ a 3. It's been the Big Three this period for Boston ... Rondo's ball-anticipation skills really are uncanny, but he's getting dominated by Rose tonight ... Big Baby is a walking turnover in this game ... When he's not committing a turnover, he's committing a foul. I know Baby's better than this ... Celts up 68-67 after 3.
FOURTH QUARTER: Rose comes out for start of 4Q. He's played 33:35 of 36, bet that stretches fo 45:35 of 48 ... No fastbreak opps for Bulls in 3Q ... Nice inbounds play, Deng w/ a layup ... Rasheed is getting pissed at Noah, refs let it go ... Rose w/ a jumper. He's got 24. Bulls up 3 ... Finley got Pargo on the block w/ the ball and couldn't get a look .. Rasheed just tipped in a Miller shot. Looked like he did it on purpose, though his reaction wasn't a guy that meant to do that. Just fumbled it through the hoop. That puts Bulls up 5. Rasheed might blow ... W/ Garnett & Perkins on bench, Bulls are getting shots at the rim. Up 5 ... Pierce back on floor, scored again. He's been awesome this half ... Bulls run base set and get nothing. It's a gnarly thing to watch ... Rose got into the lane, got his feet kicked out f/ under him by Rondo and hit a 12-footer as he was falling tot he floor. He's got 27 after FT, Chi up 78-72 @7:03 ... Miller draws a charge on Allen & does a little dance on floor. Taj comes in for him, but I think they're better w/ Brad in there right now ... Still no KG for Boston this Q. He's played 22 min in game. May not return until Rasheed gets kicked out ... Miller comes back in ... Rose is ON and he's letting Rondo know it. Bulls up 81-72. TO Bos @ 6:00 ... What is the difference between a model and a supermodel? Can she bend steel or something? ... KG is back on the floor to finish ... NateRob checks in for Rondo, who has 5 fouls ... Celtics have 4 points in 6:48 so far this Q ... Taj & Brad flipped again, going O for D ... NateRob hits a contest three. Oh-oh ... Rose gets him on a runner. He's got 31 ... Nate missed. No way he wasn't taking the heat check there ... Allen slips through Hinrich & Noah off KG pick and dunks. TO Chi, it's 83-77 @3:33 ... Terrific game ... Out of timeout, Hinrich hits a 3 to put Chi back up 9. He & Rose have 54 of 86 ... Under 3 to play ... Rose just hustled on what looked like a breakaway, got up on Allen at the hoop and blocked his shot with both hands but--foul. Crowd not happy and it didn't look like a good call. It's 86-81 @2:23 ... KG w/ 3pt play, Boston w/i 88-84 @ 1:52 ... Rose raises up on NateRob and drills 20 footer. He's making sure it's his game. He's up to 35. ... Pierce answers w/ a dunk after Deng gets picked off and no one rotates over. TO Chi @1:31. It's 90-86 Bulls ... Hinrich hits a 3 out of timeout. Looked like same play were he got 3 out of last timeout. He's had a great game in his own right. That tally is now up to 61 of 93 points. Best game they've had as combo this season ... Celts go to trap ... Rose hits Hinrich, who headfakes and scores from 18 feet along baseline. It's just been that kind of night for those two: 63 points, 9 rebs, 11 asts and Rose's three blocks ... TO Bos, Chi up 95-88 @:43.7 ... Rose just scored out a breakout. He was going to do something fancy and almost fumbled it out of bounds. He recovered to lay it in, smile on face ... Hinrich at line to raise tally to--67 of 99. Both over 30. Phenomenal. Bulls up 99-90, have scored 55 pts in 2H. After Allen 3, they foul Rose to add to total, which will put Bulls over 100. Rose both. 39 for him, 30 for Kirk. That's it. 101-93, Bulls win the game they had to have.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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