Thursday, January 20, 2005

My own personal Skiles love-fest post

I know we all thought the same thing last night, why wasn't Ben Gordon on the floor at the end of Wednesday night's game? After all, this is a guy time and time again who has hit big shots for the Bulls, especially turning up his game in the 4th quarter. The Bulls wound up only scoring 14 points that quarter, and lost by 9. Despite bad games from nearly everyone not named Eddy Curry or Tyson Chandler, the Bulls still had a shot, and I must say even though Gordon was woeful in his 15 minutes on the court (1-7, 5 points), he should've been out there.

I will not go as far as the guys over at the Bulls Report do though:

Having John Paxson and BJ Armstrong in the front office makes me believe that Skiles won't make it past next year, regardless of how well the Bulls do. They watch games like tonight, see Skiles horribly mismanage the 4th quarter and know that they can't win it all with a leader like that. Duhon, Piatkowski, and Hinrich all in down the stretch? Is it a wonder we only scored 14 points in the 4th?

Scottie needs to realize that good teams don't have 10 man rotations. And, if you are going to have one, it only can be used quarters 1-3. In the fourth, you have to have a go to set.

First off, I think that having Paxson in the front office only helps Skiles' case. Have you ever seen a coach and his GM so bound by philosophy and background? I suppose that would change if the team continued to sputter; but with not even a grumbling from Pax when his team was 0-9, the farthest thing from my mind right now is the longevity of Scott Skiles.

Skiles hasn't been using a 10-man rotation in the fourth quarter. More times than not, it'll be Hinrich/Gordon/Deng/Chandler/Curry. And another line of thinking is these rookies are benefiting from seeing their minutes capped. They are, after all, rookies, and perhaps this is Skiles' way of having them avoiding the dreaded rookie wall. And while I agree with the idea of letting Gordon try and carry the team, good game or not, Skiles obviously thought so little of Gordon's performance that night he thought Piatkowski would give them a better shot down the stretch. May have been the wrong move, but you can't look back and assume Gordon would've suddenly found his stroke again. 

Now I sound like a Skiles apologist talking, but perhaps I've finally seen the light and have converted to one. Sure there's the odd fixation with Duhon, and the inconsistencies in terms of who he gives the quick hook to and who gets to play through mistakes. But Skiles may be coach of the year in the NBA. He has rookies playing like veterans, finally coaxed consistency out of Curry and Chandler, and has an extremely young team playing disciplined (turnovers aside) at both ends of the court. This does not happen by accident, its not all Paxson's drafts and signings that got it done. Former coaches Bill Cartwright and Tim Floyd couldn't conjure up half of this progress with the lottery talent they had.

This discipline and determination the Bulls have shown is a testament to the things Skiles does that we don't see. The meetings, the strategy, the practices, the huddles, the overall attitude he projects and teaches with. To get this team playing winning basketball  makes me believe that what Skiles does beyond the scope of a television audience is more important than whether he decides to keep Ben Gordon off the court at a certain time.

Former Bulls coach Doug Collins was fired because he couldn't take his team to the next level. And as we all saw as a result, Phil Jackson brought the team there. Maybe Skiles is in the role of Collins as far as this team's development is concerned. But we are thinking way too far ahead to even entertain who will be next. For now, Skiles is here, and he's the true reason this team is where it's at.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Lowered Expectations", and other awful MadTV sketches...


"The team has played 11 of its last 15 at home. Of their 11 victories during that stretch, just three have come against teams with a winning record."

So wrote Chad Ford on Monday. Ford (and I don't know why) actually has shown a lot of pro-Bulls slant over the years, so I will cut him slack. I will concede the point about the dearth of road games. But winning at home is much better than losing at home. And its common wisdom in the NBA that a team has to learn to win on their home court first before branching out and winning road games, so maybe this stretch was a precursor to future road success. (OK, I'm grasping at straws...moving on...)

That all said, the fact that only 3 wins have come against teams with winning records is misleading. Look at the East, there are exactly 6 teams in the whole conference who have winning records, a futile mark punctuated by the fact that nobody in the Atlantic division has won more games than lost. That got My Man Sam(tm)'s mind workin:

More likely, the bigger concern [than the Atlantic divison winner] for the NBA will be the team in sixth. That team would face the Atlantic winner in the first round, but the team with the better record would have home-court advantage. That means if the Bulls could finish sixth, they could get the home-court edge and probably earn a trip to the conference semifinals.

Well I'll just worry about the 8th seed first.  The Bulls would need two among Miami/Detroit/Washington/Indiana/Orlando/Cleveland to falter, and I just don't see that happening (although Orlando is a good candidate to do so). Just get in for now. As I said before this homestand:

here is only one question: There are 3 spots left, and 8 teams going for it. Are the Bulls in the top 3 of those 8 (the fact that one of these playoff spots have to go the Atlantic division winner could complicate things)? If they perform well on this homestand against their standings competition (along with similarly-talented teams from the west), you'd have to give them a shot.

Well not only did they 'perform well', they won every damned game.

And as I also noted back then, the rest of January isn't too tough even if they won't be at home, with only a game (at Detroit - 1/22) that would have you heavily favor the opponent. February does get a little tougher, but listen: as bad as the Bulls may play against some of the elite, they don't have to be that good. Just better than the dredges of the Eastern Conference. And as this homestand proved, that may not prove to be too hard of a task.


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.