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Friday, January 04, 2008

Blazers Outlast Bulls in Double Overtime

The surprise team so far this season, the Portland Trail Blazers, earned yet another win on Thursday, outlasting the Chicago Bulls--arguably the most disappointing team this season--115-109 in double overtime. Brandon Roy had 25 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals. A bruised tailbone slowed Roy down in the second overtime but Jarrett Jack (17 points, five assists, four rebounds) then took over, putting Portland ahead for good with a three point play with just :19 remaining in the second overtime. Travis Outlaw added 21 points for the Blazers, who had six players score in double figures. Ben Gordon, thriving in his new sixth man role, had a game-high 32 points, shooting 15-27 from the field, but his late turnover led directly to Jack's game-clinching play. Joe Smith had a season-high 31 points plus 11 rebounds and Ben Wallace contributed 12 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. Kirk Hinrich had 12 points, nine assists and seven rebounds but he shot just 5-18 from the field and his late game efforts to defend the larger Roy reaffirmed Scottie Pippen's assessment that Hinrich should not be guarding the league's top shooting guards because, quite simply, "he's not that talented...Little guards always put you in a vulnerable position. You've got to send help. It puts too much pressure on the defense."

The Bulls suffered a damaging blow in the first half when Luol Deng tweaked his left Achilles and was not able to return to the contest. That forced other players to play more extended minutes and also led to stretches during which the Bulls did not have many offensive options on the court. This was the fourth game in five nights for both teams and by the second overtime the game looked like the last round of a heavyweight bout between two out of shape boxers who spend more time clinching each other than throwing punches; neither team scored for the first 1:53 until Jack made a layup. The Bulls' Andres Nocioni answered more than a minute later with a jumper but most of the concluding points down the stretch came from the free throw line.

Prior to this loss, the Bulls had won three of their four games since firing Coach Scott Skiles but, as TNT's Doug Collins noted, time is running out for Chicago and the Bulls really needed to win this home game. New Coach Jim Boylan is essentially undergoing an extended job interview, while several Bulls players who think that they are worth large contracts need to step their games up. This team is too talented to have such a bad record. Since Boylan took over, the Bulls seem to be playing with greater energy and purpose, which simply reinforces the perception that the players essentially quit on Skiles. Supposedly Skiles was too tough of a disciplinarian but I think that his real downfall is that he was too soft with several of these players. It is obvious that Gordon should be the sixth man, not a starter, and that young players like Tyrus Thomas need to earn their minutes. Skiles kept giving his players opportunities to get out of their slumps when he should have simply made the correct moves without worrying about upsetting people. As soon as Boylan took over, he removed Gordon from the starting lineup and Gordon is now playing better than he has all season. Gordon is a one dimensional player, a gunner. As a starter, he tended to force things and his liabilities in other areas were very evident, but as a sixth man he gets to play a lot of minutes against either tired starters or against second unit players. Either way, if the team needs offense Gordon will be on the court at the end of the game.

Boylan is also emphasizing the importance of pushing the ball up the court and initiating early offense so that the Bulls can get some easy baskets before the defense gets set. Under Skiles, the Bulls were prone to going through long scoring droughts and were putting up some of the worst shooting and scoring numbers in the league. Thomas averaged more than 20 mpg during the first month of the season. His minutes declined in December but they have been slashed since Boylan took the reins; Thomas has not played more than six minutes in a game since Skiles was fired. Collins said that young players have to learn how hard you have to work on a daily basis to be a good pro basketball player and that you earn your minutes by how well you practice. Thomas shoots just .423 from the field, which is inexcusable for an athletic player who gets a lot of dunks and easy baskets; as Pippen rightly noted, Thomas should be a "fetcher," a guy who rebounds and hustles, not someone who takes many shots outside of the paint.

Collins and play by play announcer Kevin Harlan talked a little bit about the awkward position that Boylan is in, taking the place of someone who hired him to be an assistant coach, but I would have liked to hear Collins discuss how Skiles must feel. Collins just touched on this briefly, saying that Skiles did a good job building the team up but won't be around to see everything come to fruition, but Collins never mentioned how this mirrors his own experience; two decades ago, Collins--who was an intense, demanding coach much like Skiles is said to be--led the Bulls to a 47-35 record but was replaced by Phil Jackson, who had been an assistant on his staff. Obviously, these Bulls do not have a transcendent player like Michael Jordan but Collins knows exactly what it feels like to be fired after leading a team to the playoffs and then be replaced by a member of your own coaching staff. It would have been interesting to hear Collins' thoughts about this but maybe the issue is too raw and hits too close to home, even after all of these years. Collins' players supposedly grew weary of his demands but Jackson turned out to be no less demanding, instituting a Triangle Offense that was hardly popular with Jordan at first and placing great emphasis on defense. Much like Skiles is perceived to be tough but may not have actually insisted on the right things in the right ways (i.e., failing to make Gordon into the sixth man and not benching players who were not performing up to par), Collins developed a reputation for being difficult but he actually did not confront Jordan and others as much as perhaps he should have. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Collins rued that Jordan took too many bad shots and did not pass to his teammates. Jackson, then an assistant, said that Collins should say this to Jordan directly but Collins felt that it would not make a difference and told Jackson that he was welcome to try communicating these sentiments to Jordan; Jackson did exactly that, telling Jordan about how the Knicks in the early 1970s became champions by playing as a cohesive team. Jordan respected someone who would challenge him and make him play better much more than someone who might yell at him at times but would not really confront him in a meaningful way that would guide him down a different path. I've always thought that this little story goes a long way toward explaining how Jackson has been able to win so many championships with Jordan, Pippen, O'Neal and Bryant--and why those championships were not a sure thing just because those players were on the roster: even the greatest players need to be coached and it takes a deft hand (or, more precisely, a clever, determined mind) to find the right way to help such gifted athletes to maximize their talents within the context of the team being successful.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM



At Friday, January 04, 2008 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think the Bulls will stick with Boylan? Do you think they should?

Larry Brown would be the obvious choice here (assuming Reinsdorf is willing to pay his exorbitant fee), are there any other coaches in the league or out of it that would be a good fit to coach this roster of young talent?

I am a Cavs fan but it is disturbing to think that this Bulls team will not live up to their potential. I am hoping for a solid decade of memorable playoff battles!


At Saturday, January 05, 2008 2:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This may sound like a copout but it is too soon to say whether or not the Bulls should stick with Boylan. There usually is a "honeymoon" period when a new coach is brought in and the Bulls have looked better since Skiles was canned but let's see how everything shakes out by the end of the season. If Boylan gets the Bulls in the playoffs then I would think that they have to at least consider retaining him. Of course, some of this depends on who is available, too. It is clear that this team should not have such a bad record. Rightly or wrongly, Skiles became the fall guy and Boylan has a chance to show that he can get more out of this roster.


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