Monday, January 17, 2005

"Specialized Excellence"

That was a term I used to describe the Bulls before their home-and-home series against the Knicks this past weekend. And I think the statement that enveloped that phrase turned out to be pretty relevant:

"what [the Bulls] do is stay close, and by crunch time, Gordon and Chandler will use their specialized excellence to try and take over both ends of the court."

Both wins this weekend, an 86-84 victory win in Chicago and today's 88-86 victory in New York, showed off Gordon and Chandler's (and some other Bulls') specialized talents.

I have to start with the play at the end of Saturday's game, which was a joy to watch, even as part of a highlight package (my only means, unfortunately). A block by Nocioni out of nowhere on the Knicks' Trevor Ariza, followed by an unbelievable save by Tyson Chandler (what happened to 'don't save it under your own basket?') to Hinrich, who then gave it to Noc who made a touch (and bad) pass to Eddy Curry for a layup. Hard to name one star of that play, but my favorite portion was not just Eddy catching the low pass, and his deft move around Kurt Thomas to avoid contact, but the fact that when Nocioni blocked that ball Eddy started sprinting down the court. Amazing what a little winning will do.

Its natural that the Knicks came out firing Monday after seeing a  raucous celebration at their expense. But even after building up a double-digit lead at one point, the Bulls managed to stay close. (with 20 straight opponents kept under 100 points, its hard to get blown out.) After a pretty poor first half, the Bulls backcourt turned it up with Hinrich in the 3rd quarter and Ben Gordon to close it out, scoring 13 points in the 4th including the last 2 with 0.1 seconds left.

(These past two games have provided highlight after highlight to put on this season's tape, but my favorite was seeing Tyson Chandler give Scott Skiles a bearhug after the Knicks inbounded the ball to end that game. Skiles, who at every turn tries to downplay his team's recent success (and rightfully so), got himself caught in the moment of jubilation, smiling and hugging Tyson back before moving on to congratulate Ben Gordon. )

For a more in-depth analysis of that game, Knickerblogger offers profuse praise for the Bulls:

Chicago relied on their two big men, Chandler and Curry, whose four blocked shots don't adequately reflect the intimidation and presence they applied in the paint. The Knicks had their problems scoring inside. Marbury had a drive blocked and recovered by one of the Bulls. Nazr Mohammed was embarrassed when his clear-path-to-the-rim-I'm-going-to-jam-it-with-one-hand was forcefully rejected.

It's quite a luxury for a team whose majority of praise goes to a skilled backcourt to also rely on two young, very large, and extremely athletic frontcourt players to dominate an opposing team. That play Knickerblogger was talking about was one I was looking for when I watched the tape today (not all of us get MLK day off), and it was BOTH Curry and Chandler who blocked that shot. An opposing player who drives the lane against the Bulls now has 14 feet of nasty coming at them, and that's the start of a great defense.

Which brings me back to specialized excellence. Chandler, for instance, still has little offensive game, but his defense can completely alter an opponents gameplan (question: why did Lenny Wilkens attack him at the end of Saturday's game? I guess he can tell whoever's working at the unemployment office soon enough). Gordon still turns the ball over too much and gives away points to his man, but can light up a scoreboard and be counted on in the final possession. Curry still has trouble grabbing rebounds that don't fall in his lap, but makes moves that only the young, explosive Shaq could do at that size. Nocioni is still having trouble adjusting to the NBA, but he can rebound with the best of them at his position (11 on Monday, including a huge offensive board to set up Gordon's shot).

Short of Hinrich and Deng (who led the team with 19 Monday), the Bulls really don't have many complete players. Obviously still young, I'm sure most of them will get it. But on this team they don't have to on most nights, their different skills mold together in what is now the hottest team in the NBA.

(whew! after all that fuzzy-happy-writing, I'll back tomorrow to poor some cold water on our hopes and dreams)

Update: Unknown Column has more.