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Despite encouraging stretches here and there, Charlotte couldn't give a complete effort, coming up short to Chicago.
"Revenge is a dish best served as often and as excruciatingly as possible," said the wise sociopath.
"I agree," said Tom Thibodeau. And then he went out and instructed his team to a tantalizingly-close-yet-so-far-away game to beat the Bobcats 93-85. Sure, it wasn't just out of reach for Charlotte, but it was just far enough to feel like you're getting crushed but also thinking you have a shot at the game in the last couple minutes.
At times the Bulls looked like an incredibly well-oiled machine. Carlos Boozer's footwork in the post can be a fun thing and he put on some moves tonight. Nate Robinson played good defense on Kemba Walker and hit a bunch of maddening shots to keep the Bobcats out of reach in the fourth quarter. The Bulls defense in general was spectacular at times. Thibodeau keeps the rotations tight and the roster defends the perimeter very well.
Joakim Noah was an instrumental force on defense and offense. He racked up 18 rebounds, including six on offense. Noah also was a wonderful passer whether in the paint with pretty feeds to Boozer or kicking out to Nate Robinson. And he also had five blocks. And he had 13 points (on 12 shot attempts, but still). That's an incredible game.
Despite all this, the Bobcats hung in there like scrappy teams do.
Early on, there were bad omens abound. The Bobcats led for a bit in the first quarter due to strong post play. Yes, they got great early returns from Bismack Biyombo and first-time starter Jeff Adrien. That's encouraging and made my heart flutter and rainbows flowed from my fingernails, but 99 times out of 100, it's flat out unsustainable. The Bobcats were forced to run their offense because of Chicago's on-ball defense giving the guards hell whenever they touched the ball. Whenever they got past the initial line of defense, the paint was walled off. So they were forced to dump the ball into the post for decent looks.
Granted, it worked for a bit. But then Charlotte's offense died with three minutes left in the first quarter. Next thing you know the Bulls erased the Bobcats' early lead and reversed it into a double-digit deficit for Charlotte. The bench, normally a point of strength for the Bobcats, got zilch offensively during this time. Ramon Sessions particularly had difficulty, unable to get to the paint or draw fouls at his normal rate.
But the thing about scrappy teams is that they often are scrappy because what they lack in talent they must make up for in effort. But the Bobcats lack not just talent but also offensive fluidity. This especially happened tonight with the Bobcats unable to get out into transition as well as they usually do.
Charlotte relies on their guards to create space off the dribble. This is their only business model, which is pretty much like praying for something to happen. There aren't too many guards better than Kemba at doing this right now, and the team actually has a handful of guards who can do this well, which is why they rely on it so much. But they lack so much else. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist usually fights that; he's a good cutter and moves well off the ball. Unfortunately, his offensive game struggled against the Bulls. Adrien did a lot of great things to fill the normal gaps here, too. The main thing was just that he moved. Tyrus Thomas was more than happy to sit in front of the three-point line waiting to get his jump shots. Teams are happy to let him take those shots. It did nothing to help the Bobcats. They didn't stretch the defense. They didn't challenge the defense.
I just saw a Hubie Brown quote the other day in a piece from Steve McPherson in which Brown asked his players what the purpose of setting screens is. His answer: "To make the defense think." I asked myself if the Bobcats made the Bulls defense think tonight and I think their brains were pretty relaxed tonight for the most part. The team doesn't move well off the ball. You'll see the Bobcats run themselves into tight spots, into double-teams, into traps against the court boundaries. The result is invariably a turnover, whether it's a god-awful forced shot destined for doom, picked pocket, bad pass, dribble out of bounds or shot clock violation. Only in the rarest of occasions is it a Ben Gordon off-balance prayer three.
The Bobcats had a handful of these dry spells, only spelled by the timely runs sparked by Adrien, Walker and Gordon. We saw them lead the Bobcats back into the game in the third quarter, tying the game at 55. Immediately following the tie, Dunlap put in Brendan Haywood and Tyrus Thomas to give Biyombo and Adrien rest. And then they went scoreless for about five minutes straight. What a coincidence!
But the Bulls sure didn't go scoreless. Nate Robinson buried the Bobcats beneath threes and Joakim Noah piled on the pain with mastery of the paint on defense. Jimmy Butler hit cruise control and the Bulls looked like they were running away with it. And they should have, too. But Jeff Adrien and Biyombo are not weak men. And Ben Gordon is a master of the no-hesitation jumper, whether contested or not. They made their best efforts on offense, but couldn't gain ground fast enough to outpace Chicago and they couldn't slow Chicago's offense enough to cut into the lead.
I caught myself several times thinking this should be well out of hand, thinking "how is this so close?" But the Bobcats kept thrusting themselves back into the game. Kudos to the effort, but the Bulls avenged their own lackluster effort from the last match, bringing a strong all-around performance to put the Bobcats back under their thumbs.