Luol Deng keeps doing what everyone on the Chicago Bulls has been doing of late – finding ways to win without their best player, their biggest star, the reigning (and exiting) MVP, Derrick Rose. This time, Deng hit a buzzer beating shot to give the Bulls a 102-101 win over the Toronto Raptors in overtime.
If missing Rose wasn’t enough, Joakim Noah found himself thrown out of the game after tossing the ball, arguably, at an official. He’ll probably see some games with a suit instead of a jersey on for that. Noah lasted only 12 minutes on the court, and understandably, the Bulls struggled in the paint without their best rebounder. The Raptors did something rarely done against the Bulls, beating them on the boards 58-44. It wasn’t enough when it came down to the final shot.
Who stepped up? Not John Lucas, but C.J. Watson, finishing with 23 points and the unintentional assist to Deng on the final play, air balling a forced shot that Deng managed to tip in just before the lights went red. As close as a buzzer beater as you’ve ever seen, some would say.
Deng finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, playing 49 minutes. His outside shooting, like the Bulls in general, was awful. He made 0-6, or didn’t make. The Bulls hit only 3 of 23 attempts from downtown. Carlos Boozer led the scoring with 24 points, grabbing 10 rebounds as well. But the Raptors had to be hitting themselves for letting the game slip away.
The Bulls only lead for the first time in the fourth quarter. The Raptors missed four shots in the final 32 seconds of the fourth quarter that would have won them the game. Even worse – With 6.4 seconds left and a 101-100 lead, Gary Forbes buckled under the pressure, missing two free throws. The Raptors did everything possible not to win in the final minutes.
Like the Bulls, the Raptors kept throwing bricks from the outside, instead of taking advantage of Noah’s absence. They finished with 3-14 from the outside, allowing the Bulls to escape from a rare home loss. Instead, Chicago are the first team to reach 40 wins this season (40-10), with a 20-4 home record, tied for second best in the NBA behind the Miami Heat. The Heat, who have played four games less, have one more loss than Chicago and are 3.0 games behind in the race for home court advantage in the East.
There’s nothing pretty about Chicago’s basketball even when Rose is on the court, but it’s been completely about defense and the ability to get stops during his latest absence, which should be over soon, according to him. No guiding hand, just fast breaks and hustle. It seems to be enough, as the Bulls have won 5 of their last six games, with four different players leading the scoring through those wins.
So are this test good for the Bulls in the long run, or will it be too much of an effort to go through once the playoffs come along? It’s hard to say. Last season the Bulls, and mostly Rose, worked their asses off to secure home court and win more than anyone in the league. It seemed like Rose, most of all, could barely keep on his feet when the crunch time against the Miami Heat came along.
The Bulls are probably deeper than the rest of the teams hoping to win the title by the time the summer comes knocking. Sharing the load through these wins might actually be a good thing for the Bulls, even if their offensive style has nothing to do with planned strategies and is painful to watch at times. Finding a way to win, ugly or not, is the top priority, no matter who’s on the court.