For the Chicago Bulls, Friday night started with the United Center crowd in anticipation to watch Rip Hamilton play for the first time since March 5, but it happily, yet unsightly, ended with a hard-fought 83-71 win over the Detroit Pistons, their former rivals whom they have defeated 14 consecutive times.
The contest was mired by 93 missed shots, 18 of which from three-point range, between the two teams and a combined 26 turnovers. The Pistons scored an even 10 points in the second and fourth quarters, when the Bulls were held to under 20. But it was in those decisive frames when the Bulls outscored their Central division counterparts 34-20, behind relentless, “multiple-effort” plays, as coach Tom Thibodeau likes to call them, on the glass and suffocating defense.
With Joakim Noah’s 12 rebounds, to go along with 19 points, leading the way, the Bulls took advantage of the smaller Pistons and crushed the visitors on the glass, 53-37. While Detroit has several skilled young players, namely rookie Brandon Knight and second-year big man Greg Monroe, they don’t own a single seven-footer on their roster. The 6-foot-11 Monroe is versatile offensively and received the bulk of the minutes at center, but he played out of position. Meanwhile, former Bull Ben Wallace and Jason Maxiell – 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-7, respectively – round out the Pistons’ front-line rotation.
The Bulls have essentially two seven-footers in Noah and Omer Asik, although the former is listed as 6-foot-11, and have Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, a pair of forwards who have proven throughout their respective careers that they’re active rebounders. In fact, Noah, Boozer (11 rebounds), Asik (seven) and Gibson (five) combined for 35 rebounds – just two shy of the Pistons’ aforementioned 37. Of course, the Pistons are just 28th in the NBA in points per game (89.8) – and it showed Friday evening, when they were minus another former Bull, Ben Gordon, who lit up the Denver Nuggets for 45 points last week.
Playing without both Derrick Rose (groin) and Hamilton (shoulder) for the ninth straight game, Noah knew his team would have to do whatever it took against a squad that ranks around the middle of the pack defensively, allowing 95.4 points per game. The Bulls had to claw and get dirty – which they’ve done so many times over the past year and a half that it’s obviously become the backbone of the team.
“We just found a way,” Noah said. “It wasn’t a pretty way, but we found a way to get another win. That’s the only thing that matters right now, and on to the next one.”
On a night when the Bulls struggled from the field and committed 19 team turnovers – which, fortunately for them, the Pistons scored just 14 points off of – they understood it was imperative to win the intangibles. Asik had four of the team's 10 blocks, as the Turkish center came just one swat short of his season- and career-high, while Bulls limited the Pistons to just four fast-break points. Most importantly, the Bulls made it a point to come out on top in the rebounding department, which players believed was the game-changing area. They also created a major discrepancy at the foul line, attempting 21 free throws to the Pistons’ seven – a sign of one team playing much more aggressively than the other.
“I think defense and our rebounding was great,” Boozer told the assembled media. “That’s the reason why we won the game. After the first quarter, we picked up our defense and rebounding tremendously, and that’s why we won.”
Added Thibodeau: “I thought our rebounding was really good and I thought that the guys made the extra pass. … Overall, I thought the defense was good and the rebounding was excellent.”
Even though the Bulls have shown at times this season that they’re prone to offensive ruts, they are well aware that they will be in position to win any game as long as they have a high-energy outing. That means putting their imprints all over a contest by establishing the style of play that has propelled them to the league’s best record (42-11).
On Monday, the Bulls allowed the Denver Nuggets to come into the United Center and score 108 points to set Chicago’s high-water mark for most points allowed in consecutive games this season (209).
Now, Thibodeau’s bunch has given up a paltry 77 and 71 points in their last two tilts against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday and Pistons Friday. That’s the level of defense the Bulls are confident they can play on a more regular basis, and, rest assured, Thibodeau will preach long and hard to his team that they must build on Friday’s effort, with the playoffs seemingly right around the corner.
“It’s always huge [to control the glass],” Noah said. “We feel like if we can win the rebounding battle, we’re usually going to have a pretty good chance of winning the ballgame. Thibs always tells us that.”