Bulls' Rip Hamilton proves set for next stage

Bulls' Rip Hamilton proves set for next stage

Rip Hamilton has four games under his belt since returning from a right shoulder injury that sidelined him for almost one month, and although he has looked uncomfortable at times, the veteran shooting guard made a strong case in Tuesday night’s 98-86 win over the New York Knicks as to why he is ready to receive more playing time – rather than being regulated to the unofficial 20-minute limit set by coach Tom Thibodeau.

Hamilton dropped a team-high 20 points, five assists and four rebounds in just 20 minutes, 35 seconds of action. However, he found his groove in the third quarter when he erupted for 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting. The 6-foot-7 product wreaked havoc all over the court in that frame and gained confidence as it wore on, knocking down four jump shots, two layups and five out of his seven free throws.

For some perspective on Hamilton’s outing, Tuesday marked the first time he scored in double figures since March 2 and the first time since he had a 20-point effort since January 23. Bulls fans have maintained high expectations for him, and he has had stretches in which he’s looked like exactly the type of two-guard the team was missing during last season’s deep postseason run. However, Hamilton simply hasn’t been able to stay on the court for a consistent stretch of the season, as he’s missed 38 contests overall.

Still, the Bulls know they will need Hamilton to have many more nights like Tuesday’s, especially without Derrick Rose (ankle) in the lineup. A former NBA champion, Hamilton has shown that he can elevate the Bulls’ offense when he’s on the floor, whether it’s by creating shots for himself or teammates.

He has missed plenty of makeable shots over his last four tilts, though, so there is certainly room for improvement – and he knows it.

“It felt real good,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “I thought C.J. [Watson] did an excellent job of getting me easy baskets, especially on the break. Guys did a great job of setting screens where I can get to my sweet spots. I still missed a lot of easy shots that I usually make 90 percent of the time, but it’s coming together.”

But how long can Hamilton continue to put the puzzle together, continue to search for his offensive rhythm, if he is playing limited minutes?

The Bulls have made it clear that they will err on the side of caution with any injured player at this stage in the season. And it’s also clear that Thibodeau is limiting Hamilton’s minutes as a precaution because of the 34-year-old’s health – which has seemed fragile at times this year.

However, Hamilton is admittedly in great basketball shape, given the fact that he was able to run a lot when he was sidelined with the shoulder injury. Thibodeau recently said performance would factor into Hamilton’s minutes on a nightly basis.

As of right now, obviously, Hamilton’s issue isn’t based on performance, and it could very well be time to let him go and allow the chips to fall where they may. He produced in a big way Tuesday, and his running and jumper looked fluid in doing so, even though he did not play in the fourth quarter.

“Rip got in rhythm … and there’s going to be some ups and downs,” Thibodeau said. “He’s missed a ton of time, but he’s putting a lot of work in. He’s getting more comfortable. You can see his rhythm is coming around. I thought 20 points in 20 minutes is outstanding, and he did a lot of things. He was playmaking; he got us into a good rhythm.

“That’s who Rip is. He’s great at creating separation, and when he’s coming off the screens, he’s usually open. Even if they’re trying to get to their blitz, he knows how to create that separation. So I think the game is slowing down a little bit for him. He’s got a better feel for when to play-make when there’s two on the ball, hitting the open man, who’s open. ... Right now, I’m just going with the flow of the game, whatever we may need.”

The Bulls had all-around performances across the roster against the Knicks. Luol Deng banged his left wrist, on which he has a torn ligament, in the first half but managed to drop 19 points and 10 rebounds in a game-high 40 minutes, a yeoman’s effort Chicago fans have come to appreciate. Kyle Korver poured in 14 points and made several multiple-effort plays to lead the “Bench Mob” group that outscored the Knicks’ reserves 33-18.

With the victory, the Bulls (44-14) have a three-game lead over the Miami Heat (40-16) atop the Eastern Conference standings. Now, a highly anticipated matchup between both clubs looms Thursday night.

Even so, it was Hamilton who stole the show Tuesday with the third-quarter surge in which he accounted for 20 of the Bulls’ 25 points. As the playoffs are right around the corner, the Bulls understand the importance of heading into the big stage with momentum. They know how crucial Hamilton will be to their success when it matters most.

“Tonight was a great night for Rip,” Carlos Boozer told the assembled media. “He was shooting from everywhere. He was hot in the third quarter, very aggressive. It was the first time we saw him that aggressive, and it was good. It gave us a huge lift.”

Added Deng: “He just needs more games to get his legs. He’s going to get it going; he’s a competitor and he knows the game.”

Hamilton hasn’t been able to crack the 20-minute limit since he returned to the fold, due, in large part, to the Bulls’ decision to play it safe.

Yet, he proved on the national TV stage Tuesday that he’s ready and capable to move onto the next step in his comeback process as he looks to find a pre-playoffs flow – it starts with more faith and increased minutes from Thibodeau, who has pushed all the right buttons over the past year and a half.

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