Despite the fact that the locker room is looking like a MASH unit right now, with Derrick Rose (toe), Joakim Noah (ankle), Taj Gibson (ankle), John Lucas III (groin) and Luol Deng (wrist) all nursing various injuries, the Chicago Bulls continue to roll along, improving to a league-best 15-3, 7-0 at home, after a 95-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday night.
The Bulls understand what Rose, Noah, Gibson and Lucas — all of whom missed the game — bring to the table. But the team’s confidence did not waver against the Bobcats and it knew starting point guard C.J. Watson and his backup, Mike James, Omer Asik and Brian Scalabrine would fill the voids.
Watson made his third start of the season in Rose’s absence and posted 11 points, nine assists and two steals in 31 minutes of action. He himself is admittedly dealing with pain, which will subside as the season wears on, because of a dislocated left elbow he suffered New Year’s Day. However, the 6-foot-2 Watson is impacting the game on both ends of the court and in the midst of probably his best shooting stretch in Chicago, knocking down a blistering 13-of-27 three-pointers through nine contests.
James, whom the Bulls signed out of the D-League last week, replaced an injured Lucas, his good friend, in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, and the 36-year-old guard nearly had a double-double, pouring in nine points and 10 assists. He also shot 4-for-6 from the field and had a plus-minus of plus-nine. The 10-year veteran provided the Bulls with a calming presence, having already garnered the respect of his teammates and coaching staff, and looked very comfortable orchestrating the pick-and-roll, which he and Carlos Boozer ran effectively early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 19 points.
“I thought Mike played extremely well, as did C.J,” Thibodeau told reporters after the game. “I thought both guys were terrific. And Mike got us into rhythm … obviously this guy’s done it before. He’s a veteran, experienced, you know he can run a pick-and-roll, he’s going to get a good shot for you in most cases and I thought he played really hard.”
Added Watson, matter-of-factly: “When someone goes down, the next man steps up.”
Yes, that has been the Bulls’ mantra during the Thibodeau era. As the reigning Coach of the Year proved with veteran center Kurt Thomas a season ago, it doesn’t matter if a player hasn’t appeared in a game for a while. If he’s needed because of injury or foul trouble, Thibodeau will call his number and display the ultimate level of faith in him. And if a player is struggling to get the job done, Thibodeau is not afraid to go deep into his bench. Of course, the former hasn’t happened much this season, but the United Center crowd did see some of the latter on Saturday night.
Scalabrine played almost six minutes in the first half and gave fans plenty to cheer about, despite the fact that even they didn’t expect the veteran forward to check into the contest in the opening quarter. His highlight play of the evening came in the second quarter when he tipped a pass, collected the loose ball for a steal, made a left-handed drive and had an up-and-under pass to find a cutting Kyle Korver for a layup.
Continuing the theme of reserve big men producing when their number is called on, Asik made the first start of his NBA career and grabbed a season-high 15 rebounds (five offensive), had three steals and blocked two shots while playing a career-high 38 minutes.
“I thought he was great. [He played] 38 minutes, which is a lot for him,” Thibodeau said of Asik. “His rebounding effort was very, very good. He had a tough cover with [Byron] Mullens playing away from the basket; he’s geared toward help. So he made a lot of multiple effort plays. … His attitude and approach are tremendous. That guy comes to work every day. And he just keeps getting better and better.”
Almost everyone at the United Center was caught off guard by Noah’s absence — including public address man Tommy Edwards, who introduced Noah in the starting lineups but it was the Turkish center who walked out for Noah. Yet, Asik had one of the best games of his young career, giving the Bulls his high-energy play and stifling defense, as usual.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can play on this team,” Boozer said. “I think we’re the deepest team in the league. [When] we have guys that are out, guys step right in. Like you look at Omer. [At] the last minute, we find out that Jo can’t go. Omer comes in and has 15 rebound, plays like a man in there. We’ve got guys that come and step in.”
Indeed, the usual suspects had a strong outing — Boozer, Deng and Rip Hamilton scored 23, 22 and 20 points, respectively. Thibodeau praised Deng and Hamilton, but he knew the microscope that Boozer’s under and raved about his starting power forward after the game — and deservedly so.
Boozer has clearly found his offensive rhythm, averaging about 21 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 54.1 percent from the field in the last five games. He’s taking — and making — the mid-range jumper with lots of confidence and is finally looking like the former All-Star that Bulls fans had watched drop double-doubles on a consistent basis early last season. He appears to be running with a purpose on both ends of the court, even collecting three steals against the Bobcats, his sixth straight game with a takeaway.
“Carlos has been playing at a very high level now for a number of games,” Thibodeau said. “He’s in rhythm, he’s walking into his shots, he’s got great balance. He’s mixing it up — it’s jump shots, post moves, rolls to the basket. And I think his defense has been very, very good.”
Still, the men filling the shoes of the wounded is what has impressed players and coaches of the 2011-12 Bulls.
“We have the right guys,” Thibodeau said. “No matter who’s out, we have more than enough to win with. The next guy steps up, he knows what he has to do, he knows what his role is. These guys all play for each other and they play to win. And when you have a group like that, good things are going to happen.”
Added James: “When you play with a team that really wants to make the extra pass for the next player and there is not a lot of selfishness on the team, you just have to blend in. You can’t be the lone wolf and think it’s all about you.”
Last season, the knock on the Bulls was that too much of the scoring burden was placed on Rose’s shoulders. A year later, the Bulls are a supremely confident bunch that, given the multiple players who have shown they are able to elevate their game in a time of need, feels they can win night in and night out — with or without the reigning NBA MVP.
“It’s great that we have a deep [bench],” Boozer told the assembled media afterward. “In this season, the deeper teams are going to have more wins than other teams. You’re going to need guys [during] four games in five nights, three in a row, the long road trips when you have eight, nine games. Your bench is going to be crucial for you. And that’s the luxury that we have — we have a very deep bench that gets us over on a lot of nights.
“That’s the mark of our team: We’ve got guys that step up every time we’re a little short-handed.”
The Bulls were more than a bit short-handed against the Bobcats. But they improved to 4-1 without Rose, once again finding a way to win fairly easily thanks to much-needed performances from many sources. It’s a trend that is nothing but positive for a team that has championship aspirations.