After missing 10 January games because of a strained left groin, Chicago Bulls shooting guard Rip Hamilton appears to be over the injury and has not missed a beat in each of the three games he's played since returning.
The 6-foot-7 Hamilton is continuing to show his versatility, impacting contests in a variety of ways and fitting right into the tight-knit locker room. He returned from an eight-game absence on Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns and scored 11 points and dished out six assists. Then, he dropped a season-high 20 points -- 10 of which in the third quarter -- on 9-for-15 shooting in Saturday night's 95-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.
Not only have Hamilton's teammates and coaches constantly raved about his ability to score, but also the 13-year veteran's passing vision and how smooth he helps the team look for the most part. Hamilton has praised the way coach Tom Thibodeau has handled his minutes, and after playing 21 and 26 minutes on Tuesday and Friday, respectively, he received 32 against the Bobcats. When Bulls general manager Gar Forman signed Hamilton early in the condensed training camp, fans knew Hamilton would be an upgrade over Keith Bogans, last season's starting two-guard. But they probably didn't expect Hamilton, who played alongside Bulls and NBA icon Michael Jordan in the 2000-01 campaign, to exhibit the type of playmaking ability he's shown this season.
"Every day, every game [I am feeling more comfortable]," Hamilton told reporters after Saturday night's game. "I feel good out there. Like I've said, my job is not just to score, because we've got a lot of scorers on this team. But most importantly just make plays. If it's a shot, or finding a open guy to get him an open look, or a big guy to get him an open dunk and things like that. Just trying to make everybody's job easier, and make it a little bit more exciting and have a little bit of fun."
Indeed, many of Hamilton's teammates have benefited from his presence in the starting lineup, especially big men Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. At 33 years old, he still gets plenty of attention from opposing defenders and remains both a shooting and passing threat coming off screens.
While they have only played eight games together, Boozer has repeatedly spoke glowingly about Hamilton's passing. And, clearly, Boozer has a point. The 6-foot-8 power forward is putting up over 17 points per game when Hamilton is in action, including averaging 20.6 in the past three games. Obviously, the two players have a good rapport with each other and Boozer was one of the first Bulls in December to give his approval on the potential signing of Hamilton.
Following years of watching Hamilton post up then-Bulls guards such as Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon, fans are surely glad the tables have turned. Hamilton is more than willing to back down smaller defenders and had his way with the Bobcats backcourt of Kemba Walker and D.J. Augustin, generously listed as 6-foot-1 and six-foot, respectively. It's an underrated, effective aspect of his game, as Derrick Rose pointed out before the season.
As Hamilton has found his groove, Ronnie Brewer has hit a skid. Brewer filled in at shooting guard admirably when Hamilton was out, but he's scored a combined 10 points on 4-for-16 shooting in the last three games, including a scoreless outing against the Bobcats. Still, Thibodeau has stated he is not worried about Brewer, given the six-year veteran's consistent defense and playmaking ability. Brewer had five assists against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, while Kyle Korver poured in 14 points.
Shooting guard was regarded as the Bulls' weakness a season ago. Now, it's a position of strength and depth, headlined by Hamilton, and certainly formidable enough to tussle with Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade in a likely Eastern Conference playoff rematch.
"When you go into the game, I always look at who's going to be guarding me," Hamilton said. "And I attack it in different ways. If I've got a little guy, I know I'm going to have to go to the post. If I've got a bigger guy, I'm going to run him off screens. If I've got a slower guy, I'll run him off screens. So, every game is different. And I kind of mix it up, I never go into the games saying I'm going to play the same every night."
Polishing act: Through the Bulls' first five home games, they had given up an average of 66.8 points at the United Center. At 7-0, the defensive-minded squad is one of two NBA teams that boasts an undefeated home record. However, as expected, Thibodeau is not pleased with the fact that his team has given up 97 and 89 points to the Phoenix Suns and Bobcats, respectively, in the last two showings in Chicago.
The Bulls rank first in the league in rebounds per game at 45.5, but they were beat on the glass against the Bobcats, 44-37. Although, that should not come as much of a surprise given that Thibodeau's bunch was without Noah (ankle), the starting center, and Gibson (ankle), who's typically the first big man off the bench.
"Our defense was very poor tonight, so that's something that we're going to have to clean up," the reigning Coach of the Year told the assembled media on Saturday. "Our rebounding was poor. But the offence was good."
Of course, the Bulls will not be looking ahead any time soon. But an 18-3 record is within reach for them ahead of Sunday's highly anticipated, nationally televised (ABC) showdown against the Heat.
This week, the Bulls will close out their four-game homestand Monday, Wednesday and Friday against the New Jersey Nets (5-12), Indiana Pacers (11-4) and Milwaukee Bucks (6-9), respectively. All three teams won on Sunday night. Most impressively, the Bucks pulled out a 91-82 victory over the Wade-less Heat (11-5) in Miami, while the Nets earned a 97-87 home win over the Bobcats and the Pacers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 98-96 at Staples Center.
With or without Rose (toe), the Bulls should be able to get past those three clubs, which would give them a six-game winning streak heading into Sunday afternoon's game, the first Bulls-Heat matchup of the season.
Injury list: Here's a quick rundown of the Bulls' current injury situation:
- Rose: Sore left big toe. He has sat out four games in a row and five of the last seven. He will be a game-time decision on Monday against the Nets. The guess here is that he misses that contest, though.
- Noah: Sprained left ankle. He was out Saturday night against the Bobcats. He hopes his injured ankle will make steady progress in the next day or two and is confident he will be able to return on Monday.
- Gibson: High left ankle sprain. He missed Saturday's game and will most likely be out a few more days, if not longer, despite the fact that he badly wants to be back on the court.
- Luol Deng: Sprained left wrist. He suffered the injury against the Bobcats but brushed it aside and is expected to play on Monday. He has spoken at length over the past few years about how much it means to him to play every single game. Dating back to 2009-10, he's played in 108 consecutive regular-season contests.
- John Lucas III: Strained left groin. He was out on Saturday as a precaution and should be ready to go against the Nets.
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