Chicago Bulls: Brad Miller
"He texted me [Friday] night that he was going to go to bed early," Noah said. "That right there, I knew we had to be on edge because the Duck was going to come ready to play tonight."
Miller, who signed with the Houston Rockets over the summer as a free agent, did come to play against his old teammates. He had 20 points and three assists on Saturday night, but it was one of the free throws he missed late that allowed Derrick Rose and the Bulls the chance to tie the game in regulation.
"One thing he gave us, he gave us a chance," Noah said. "I was talking to him at the free throw line and distracted him. And he missed a huge free throw and gave us a chance and D. Rose did the rest."
Miller didn't seem to mind the outcome that much. He walked around the Bulls locker room after the game, hanging with Noah and some of his old teammates.
Better with Boozer: After two lackluster performances, Carlos Boozer played much better Saturday night, racking up 25 points and 9 rebounds in 30 minutes of play. While there is no question the Bulls are still getting used to Boozer, it's clear that he is starting to get a better hold of the offense.
"The more minutes they play together, the more they will be able to learn about each other," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Like where he gets the ball. Once Carlos knocked down a couple of shots, you could see his confidence grow. He was good in the pick and roll and the more minutes they have together, especially Derrick, they will get a feel for what they like to do. I think they're getting a feel for what we are trying to do defensively as well."
Boozer can feel the difference in his play.
"I think I'm getting better and better every day," he said. "Every day I get a little bit more comfortable with the system. A little bit more comfortable out there on the court; getting in better shape as we play. It's exciting. It's exciting to win. I'm happy about that."
The last word: Rose mentioned his agent and former Bull B.J. Armstrong after the the game, noting that Armstrong told him that superstars come up big late in games. A reporter then asked what Armstrong would know about those situations, considering he didn't usually see a lot of action late in games.
"But he played with the greatest player [Michael Jordan] and he saw what he did, trust me," Rose said. "He did a lot of watching with that guy."
The Bulls struggled mightily in Boston on Friday. Maybe it's just because they were still reveling in the fact they did so well on the annual "Circus Trip". Let's take one more look back at some of the behind the scene stories of the annual sojourn out West.
Monday, Nov. 15, 2010, the Berto Center, Deerfield, Ill., 2:07 p.m. CT
It's just about an hour and a half before the Bulls are scheduled to take off on their seven-game trip, and Derrick Rose is already nervous. The trip hasn't even started yet, and he's already late.
"I might get fined today," the 22-year-old All-Star says before he begins his obligatory media session.
He swears he hasn't even packed yet, but he has already loaded up two seasons worth of shows on his new MacBook Air computer.
"I just downloaded 'Dexter,' the first season," he says. "People was telling me about 'Dexter' and I just got 'The Walking Dead.' The new series that came on AMC. I just downloaded that first season so I can’t wait to get to it, so it should be fun."
Why did he pick those kinds of shows?
"I get it from my mom," he says. "She likes those."
A few moments later, he races off. He knows he can't get through two weeks by just watching TV shows and eating candy.
Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010, the Toyota Center, Houston, 9:42 a.m. CT
What are the essentials when you go on a two-week trip like this, Joakim Noah?
"What’s very underrated is sometimes you can wear a pair of jeans twice," the 25-year-old center says to me. "That’s pretty important. You can pack for two weeks you don’t need a new pair of jeans for every single day. Bring two, three pairs; Once in a while you take them to the cleaners, you wash them. You don’t need to bring eight pairs of jeans for two weeks, you know what I mean?
"You think there will be guys who wear the same pair the whole trip?" I ask.
"This is the NBA," he tells me. "I don’t think the same pair." And then proving his point, he adds proudly.
"I brought two."
By the way, for those of you keeping track at home -- On the D. Rose scale of 1-5 stars, 'Dexter' has come through for Mr. Rose.
"It’s like a four," Rose says. "I’m liking 'Dexter' right now."
Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010, the Toyota Center, Houston, 11:14 a.m. CT
He is busy shooting the breeze with some of his former teammates. Taj Gibson is sitting on the side of the wall just taking everything in. James Johnson comes out to pay his respects; Miller gives him a hard time about his afro. The veteran big man is in his comfort zone -- he still has a nickname for all his old buddies.
"It's fun," he says of facing his old team. "Tajy Woo-Woo. [Taj Gibson]. Jo-kim Duck [Joakim Noah], J.J. [James Johnson], D. Rose, Sweet Lu [Luol Deng, so it will be fun."
While Miller doesn't come right out and say it, it's clear that he misses being a member of the Bulls.
"People always say Houston's always blessed with injuries at some point and I had mine," he says. "They said 'Welcome to the team,' when I turned my ankle. It just seems like the curse of this team, but guys just keep stepping up."
He's just hoping his old buddy Joakim Noah doesn't step up too large on this night.
He continues to joke with his former mates as he walks them up the ramp and back to his car underneath the Toyota Center. He's giving them a ride back to their hotel.
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, San Antonio, Texas, 7:07 p.m. CT
Tom Thibodeau is a little late for his regular pregame media session, so the pack of writers takes a right into the Bulls locker room and bumps into a familiar face: Rose.
He's sitting on a Gatorade cooler calmly waiting for the game to begin. After scoring 33 points the night before, including 17 in the final quarter, he is asked how he was able to get so hot.
"Right before the game I was shooting and I was telling [assistant coach] Ron Adams, I was like, I never have a good shooting game in this arena," Rose said. "And I was missing every shot, almost every shot, I'm like, "Oh, this is going to be a long night." But during the game I guess they were just giving me shots and I was taking them."
So what's it like to be in that kind of zone.
"It feels good," he said. "Where almost every shot you throw up, goes in. The team gets into it. I had my brother and friend on the sidelines. It was a good feeling."
A few moments later, the topic of the length of the trip comes up and Rose is momentarily stumped.
"Actually, I don't even know how many games we play on this trip. Y'all know?"
"Seven," I say.
"That's a lot of games," Rose says.
Did he pack enough clothes?
"I packed. I knew how many days we were going to be gone. Seven is a lot of games, but we're just trying to take it one game at a time."
"You're buying us Thanksgiving dinner aren't you?" another writer jokes.
"Another year where I'm gone. It's going to be hard but I think I should be able to find something to eat in Denver."
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, San Antonio, 11:22 p.m. CT
James Johnson has found something to eat. He wolfs down a Whataburger as the media enters a dejected locker room after the Bulls fall apart in the third quarter against the Spurs.
"The third quarter, we came out, we couldn't hit any shots," Rose laments. "Shots that we usually take we wasn't hitting. With a team like that, you can't do that."
The sky is not totally falling for Rose and the Bulls. There are more games to play, but Noah knows there are things the team must improve upon.
Friday, Nov. 19, 2010, American Airlines Arena, Dallas, 12:37 a.m. CT
Clearly, the Bulls learned from their mistakes. After once again falling into a huge hole early, the Bulls come all the way back to clip the Mavericks. Joakim Noah wants to celebrate. He walks into the shower and starts belting out Usher's latest hit, OMG. "OH, OH, OH, OH, OH MY GOD" you can hear bouncing off the walls.
On the other side of the room, Derrick Rose is in misery. Yes, his team won and he's happy, but he can't believe the cut he has on his nose courtesy of Dirk Nowitzki.
"My swag is a little down right now as you can see," he said in the happy locker room. "I don't like getting my face touched. I'm just mad right now."
When a reporter jokes that Rose's face is perfect no more, the 22 year-old pitchman responds quickly.
"I wouldn't say that," he said. "I'm easy on the eye."
Nov. 21, 2010, the Staples Center, Los Angeles, 10:38 p.m. PT
Kobe Bryant is cruising through his regular postgame press conference with ease.
It's about an hour after the Lakers latest win, and the superstar is carving through answers like he did to the Warriors earlier in the night. Questions come his way, and he answers them with the countenance of a man who has been through this drill thousands of times. Short answers, brief soundbites; you know he just wants to get through the next few minutes and get on with his night. The American Music Awards have recently concluded just down the street at the Nokia Theatre and Bryant, dressed in a purple cardigan, probably has more important places to be than standing in front of his locker at the Staples Center answering questions about another lopsided win. The media horde surrounds his locker and hangs on every word, but Bryant doesn't seem to care.
All of a sudden, he hears a name from his past and everything changes for a moment.
When the reigning NBA Finals MVP, recalls the impact that Tom Thibodeau had on his development early in his career, Bryant's answers change for an instant. He actually thinks about what he wants to say and actually seems genuinely happy to be answering a question he must not hear every day.
"He was crucial," Bryant says. "He was with me when I was 16 years old. 16 or 17 years old. Just doing drills and just working on ball-handling and just teaching me the game. He was there from Day 1."
Obviously, Thibodeau knows what's coming when his Bulls face off against the Lakers in two days.
"His greatness is, you can play great defense, you just try to make him work, and he still has the ability to score big," the veteran coach says. "He's gotten to the point now where he can beat you a lot of different ways."
Thibodeau is just hoping he doesn't use all of them on Tuesday.
Monday, Nov. 22, 2010, Los Angeles, the Staples Center 6:02 p.m. PT
Vinny Del Negro sees a couple old faces from his past and literally stops in his tracks.
The new coach of the Los Angeles Clippers is happy to see a couple of familiar faces from Chicago before heading into a pregame press conference in which one of the first questions is: "Why are you guys so crummy?"
He's in a surprisingly positive mood as he walks out of the room 15 minutes later. He wants to know how Rose, Noah and Gibson are doing. And he wants people to understand that he has moved on from his tumultuous exit in Chicago.
"Obviously, the tradition and the history in LA compared to what Chicago's history is much different," he said. "The cities are much different, but I enjoy it, I really do. Is it difficult? Of course. Is it frustrating? Of course. But that's what gets me going. For whatever reason, I just enjoy the challenge of it all. Some guys do and some guys don't and I love basketball, it's been great to me. And I love the opportunity, I embrace the challenge and we'll see how it all works out."
He works out pretty well for him on this night. His Clippers pull off a surprising win over the Hornets.
Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010, Los Angeles, the Staples Center, 10:34 p.m. PT
Shannon Brown just kind of smiles when the question is asked.
Did you have any contact with the Bulls over the summer when you were a free agent?
"I don't remember," he says, while standing in front of his locker stall.
He has just torched the Bulls for 21 points, and he is soaking in the moment. It sounds as if he would have liked to have played for the Bulls, but he isn't tipping his cards.
A few moments later, Thibodeau and the Bulls get their biggest compliment of the night. Yes, they lost, but Kobe Bryant sees a difference in the team from Chicago.
"They look really good," he says. "I think they play with a lot of energy. And they executed well. They had a lot of spacing and they kept coming."
Given what happens the next night, maybe Bryant has a future as a fortune teller.
Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010, Phoenix, U.S. Airways Center, 10:49 p.m. MT
Noah is exhausted, but he's happy. His team just came back from a 23-point deficit to win in double overtime, and he's having a hard time describing what he's feeling at the moment.
"I'm pretty sore," Noah admitted. "Physically, I'm pretty low right now. But mentally [I'm] 150 percent."
Why shouldn't he be? His team just pulled off its most impressive win of the year.
"I think it's just character," Deng says. He's just played 54 minutes, but he looks like he could play a few more if needed. "We have characters that really care about the game and trying to win."
"It was a huge win," he says. "It feels good to win right now. The thing that sucks about the league is we can't celebrate it for a week. That would have been great, to be able to celebrate a win like this for a week."
"Still a great Thanksgiving day present, though?" another reporter says.
"It's not a week," Noah responds. "But we'll eat some turkey tomorrow."
Friday, Nov. 26, 2010, Denver, the Pepsi Center, 9:40 p.m. MT
Kyle Korver sits in front of his locker with his feet resting in a vat of ice. Like some of the other players in the Bulls locker room, he is just shaking his head.
"We should have won that game," he mutters. "And we didn't even play that well. C.J. played well, but ..."
The C.J. he would be referring to is C.J. Watson, the man who stepped in for Rose because the Bulls' star could barely move his neck all day and spent the entire game getting a massage in the locker room. John Lucas III, who had already worked out for several hours earlier in the day, and was sitting at a Wing Stop restaurant in Houston when the Bulls called him at 12:30 that afternoon, just clanked two free throws that may have helped ice the game. Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony proceed to drain the game winner at the buzzer a few moments later and the team is left to wonder what might have been.
Noah gives some words of encouragement to Lucas before he leaves the locker room. Watson, who exploded for 33 points tries to put things in perspective.
"Coach put him in, and coach has faith in him," Watson explained. "So I know coach [trusts] him in that situation. I think [Lucas] just didn't make them, and that's how the ball falls sometimes."
The Bulls shuffle out into the Denver cold to catch their flight. Luckily for them, there is only one game left on the trip.
Saturday Nov. 27, 2010, Sacramento, Calif., 6:43 p.m. PT
Brian Scalabrine has plenty of energy left. He throws down a tomahawk dunk in the pregame layup line, which leaves his teammates in awe.
"What the [heck]?" Veteran forward Kurt Thomas says.
The Bulls just got an added jolt considering Rose says he is going to try to play, despite the fact that he is still having problems moving his neck from side to side.
"I'm just trying to stay positive right now," Rose says in the visitor's locker room. "Just thinking that I'm going to play the whole game. C.J. played great [Friday] so if I can't [play], I know that he'll back me up pretty good."
Rose gets a jolt from the horde of Bulls fans who stand behind the team's bench during warm-ups. He's ready to finish what he started.
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010, 10:01 p.m. PT
After struggling for years on the annual "Circus Trip," Luol Deng can't hide his excitement at the fact that his team has just completed a 4-3 trip, the first winning trip since 1997.
"It's a good feeling," Deng says in the cramped locker room. "Our mentality this year is one game at a time. A tough one last night, I thought we were a little tired in the first half, but we keep fighting back."
It's evident something has changed in Deng through the early part of the season. He seems much happier on the floor and appears to enjoy playing with his teammates more than ever.
"I think a lot of people in the NBA just overlook [how a] team [is] getting along together off the court," he says. "I think a lot of times you try to put a bunch of individuals together because of what they're capable of doing on the court, but I just think our chemistry on and off the court has just been unbelievable and this trip was great for that."
As he walks toward the exit, I ask him one final question.
Just how much Tom Thibodeau switched the culture of this team over the first month of the season?
Deng smiles and chuckles a little bit.
"You can see it," he says. "He's been around for a long time, so he knows what he's doing."
With that he heads out the door and onto one more bus. The Bulls have to fly home one more time. Given what the Bulls have accomplished over the past two weeks, Deng may actually enjoy the long flight back for a change.
When Miller was traded back to the Bulls in 2009 all those superficial differences seemed to go away rather quickly. Noah and Miller became fast friends because, among other reasons, they respected the way one another played. Miller enjoyed the energy that Noah brought to each game. Noah admired the way Miller, the grizzled veteran, used other facets of his game to succeed. Over time, the pair became so close that it even surprised Noah a little bit.
"It's going to be tough," Noah said of facing off against Miler. "I never knew that I could have a redneck as a best friend. Brad is probably my best friend in the league. Somebody I learned a lot from. And I miss that Duck."
The Duck misses Noah, too. One of the reasons it was so tough for Miller to leave Chicago this summer was because of the friendship he had with Noah, but the three-year deal, $15 million deal from Houston was too good to pass up. He knows it will be strange facing his former protege, but he is looking forward to the challenge.
"It's always fun though," Miller said. "Especially a guy that you were helping try to get his mind right. To see the way he improved in the short time I was there ... I've been watching him this year. Obviously, I don't want him to have too good of a game [Tuesday] against me, but I've been watching his progress."
Miller, who is averaging 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds in 16.4 minutes a game for the Rockets, believes that Noah is on his way to his first All-Star appearance.
"I see it coming in time," Miller said. "I said it early in the year and some people down here were like, 'Really?' And they were listing different centers, and I was like, 'Yeah, he's an All-Star.' Just as long as he's not one [Tuesday]."
If Noah, who is averaging 16.5 points and 13.3 rebounds a game, plays well against his old teammate, he'll be using a lot of the moves that Miller taught him.
"He was always somebody who shared his abilities with the young big guys as soon as he got here," Noah said. "He's somebody who has a great basketball IQ even though his athleticism is pretty limited. He's somebody who definitely understood angles, and he's probably one of the best passing big men the league has ever had."
He's also one of the most popular former Bulls in the league. While it was Noah who grew closest to Miller, the rest of his teammates enjoyed him as well. That's why some of them lined up to see the new Rockets center after their shootaround Tuesday morning. While Miller seems happy in Houston, it's clear that he still has a soft spot for Noah and the rest of his old mates.
"There's positives and negatives in anything," Miller said. "Obviously, you'd like being close to home, but I'm not going to miss the blizzards and the two hours that sometimes [it takes] to get to the games."
"I think it's about our team, and that's going to be the strength of our team … what everybody can bring to the table,” said Noah, who doesn’t worry about Rose being the face of the franchise. “To beat those stars in Miami, that kind of star power, it's going to come down to our best players like D. Rose to our last guy off the bench.
“You look at those championship teams [like the Lakers], Sasha Vujacic was the one who clinched it at the end of the game. So everybody on a championship team has to be into it. Everybody has to be into it for the right reasons, and I think that's the way we're going to win is to all be on the same page and all have a common goal and that's to win."
Noah realizes that the only way the Bulls are going to do that is with Rose leading the way on the floor.
"Now, being the face of the franchise, I think that everybody understands that for us to take it to the next level we need Derrick to play at a very high level, and we need everybody to play at a high level," he continued. "But I think that everybody understands that if we want to take it to the next level, of course, Derrick fits that mold. Especially a guy who doesn't talk a lot, it makes me happy when I hear a guy like Derrick talk like that, because it shows how much he's maturing as a player and the confidence level that he has in his game."
No matter who leads the way, Noah knows that the Bulls' locker room will be much different without veteran leaders Brad Miller and Kirk Hinrich.
"Obviously, those were kind of like my two best friends on the team," he said. "They were guys who brought a lot to the team, on and off the court. I'm going to miss Brad a lot, and Kirky was a helluva captain, not very vocal, but somebody that would always pull you to the side. I loved it when he would just pull me to the side and he would be like, ‘You got to get it together. Calm down.’”
Miller and Hinrich had a way of calming down the emotional center.
"Sometimes I'd get too excited, and Kirk was always that guy to kind of get everybody on the same page,” Noah said. “I think that for me, [being a] vocal leader, it all depends on the situation. We got a lot of new faces, and it depends on the situation. When situations come at hand, it's how you deal with them. It's not one player, I don't think it's one player's responsibility. Sometimes when it's the same guy talking and talking in the locker room it gets kind of annoying, so you also have to know when to shut up when you're a leader."
Noah isn't about to be quiet about his team's chances any time soon. He believes that with the moves the Bulls have made this offseason they can start contending for a title right away.
"If that's not the goal, I'd be really upset if anybody on our team thought anything less," he said. "With everything that we've got in place, of course I think there's a lot of question marks, but I think we've got a lot of talent and it's going to be really exciting. I think we're going to compete against the best of them, and that's what it's all about. To me, it's just being in a position to compete against the big boys -- that's all I want. At the end of the day, it's yours against mine, and I like my chances."
"It's been a long time coming," Miller told the Houston Chronicle. "It almost happened 12 years ago, and ever since [coach] Rick Adelman got here, I wanted to come down here. He has been my favorite coach with his whole system."
LAS VEGAS -- The Duck got paid.
That's the initial thought I had when I first heard that Brad Miller had agreed to a three-year deal with Rockets for $15 million.
I was shocked that the Rockets were willing to give the 34-year-old veteran so much money, but more power to he and his agent Mark Bartelstein for pulling off the coup.
Sure, the third year isn't guaranteed, and there is a solid chance there will be a lockout after next season, but Miller got a bigger deal than most people expected. Certainly, a bigger deal than the Bulls were willing to offer.
The Bulls are going to miss Brad Miller. But I can't fault Gar Forman at all for not trying to match the Rockets offer. Miller played well at times during the season, giving the Bulls a boost off the bench, especially when Joakim Noah went down during the middle of the year because of plantar fasciitis. He was also a respected locker room presence, as evidenced by "The Duck" moniker he was given by his teammates, and was someone Noah trusted and leaned on through good times and bad.
Noah admitted as much in a text message to ESPNChicago.com on Saturday.
"I learned a lot from Brad," he said. "It's going to be very different with him not around. He's a real professional. I wish him nothing but the best. We're going to miss the bash brothers."
Noah and the rest of his old teammates will absolutely miss him, but Miller was not worth a three-year $15 million deal especially for a Bulls team that still has key portions of its roster to fill out.
Miller was awful at the beginning of last season and while he definitely got better as time wore on, you could tell that his body was having a hard time bouncing back from the day-to-day NBA grind. There was never a question about effort with Miller, he gave everything he had when he was on the floor, but I still can't believe a team would invest in him for that much longer. Time is not on his side.
In the meantime, the Bulls need to lock up one more big man and a backup point guard in the next week or two to round out their roster.
It's anyone's guess who will fill out those two roles. The Bulls may decide to go after a veteran such as Jose Calderon or Rudy Fernandez or another big man like Theo Ratliff or Kurt Thomas. They need someone to fill Miller shoes, but they shouldn't have to break the rest of their bank to do so.
Not exactly a summer dream: The Bulls summer league team wasn't expected to be very good, especially considering they only had one guy on the team in James Johnson who has a guaranteed contract. After watching them play on Saturday it's safe to say they lived up to their billing. They lost to a Kings team that looked disinterested throughout but that's beside the point.
The biggest issue for the new Bulls coaching staff is that Johnson still looks lost on the floor. He was just 2-for-14 from the field and couldn't seem to get anything going. You have to give him credit for getting in better shape -- he has dropped over 20 pounds -- but he still can't seem to put everything together. If he continues to play like he has been this week there is little chance he will crack the rotation much this season.
The young Bulls center was sad to hear the news that his veteran mentor was on his way to Texas after agreeing to a three-year, $15-million deal on Saturday with the Rockets.
"I learned a lot from Brad," he said in a text message to ESPNChicago.com. "It's going to be very different with him not around. He's a real professional."
The pair struck up a bond after Miller was traded back to the Bulls in the middle of the 2008-09 season. They could usually be seen joking around about something in the Bulls locker room and Noah consistently referred to his buddy as "The Duck." The Bulls had hoped to bring back Miller to continue to serve as a backup center/mentor to Noah.
"I wish him nothing but the best," Noah continued. "We're going to miss the bash brothers."
The Cavs superstar wanted to check the Chicago Bulls' All-Star, and Rose seemed to rise to the occasion a couple times. He finished with a team-high 31 points on the night, but it was those final minutes with James that really seemed to catch everyone's attention.
"It just showed he was kicking their [butt]," Bulls center Brad Miller said.
It also showed just how dangerous Rose can be when he is locked in, as he was during most of the game.
"It surprised me a little bit," Rose said of James' decision to guard him. "But it was fun out there."
Noah is headed back to Cleveland: No matter what the Bulls do on Sunday afternoon, they are now definitely headed back to Cleveland for Game 5 on Tuesday night. It's a trip that Joakim Noah is looking forward to, but he knows he may have to pick his words a little more carefully this time around.
"I think sometimes I say things, but it gets a little blown out of proportion," Noah said. "But I don't want people to think I'm some kind of circus freak. I'm going out there, and I'm playing my heart and my soul out, giving everything I got on the court and just because I say things like, 'Cleveland Sucks' doesn't mean that I'm not going out on the court and giving everything I got. That's why I didn't to you guys [Wednesday], too."
Taj gets a T: Bulls rookie forward Taj Gibson got so wound up in the third quarter that he picked up a technical foul for arguing with an official. After the game, the mild-mannered Gibson couldn't believe it. "Oh my God. I got a tech," he said. "I got a tech in the playoffs, man. It was so intense. Guys were just talking. Guys were fighting and it was just real aggressive out there. It showed. The refs weren't giving me any calls."
The last word: Kirk Hinrich on what the win means for his team: "We needed a win not to fall down 3-0. That's death. Our back are kind of up against the wall. We responded. And we were able to carry it out through the rest of the game.
Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro, long an admirer of the veteran guard, continually calls him "Kurt."
The Bulls simply weren't going to win Game 3 unless Hinrich started shooting better.
Del Negro knew it, but he never doubted that his veteran guard could turn things around when the team needed him most.
Can the Bulls win if Hinrich doesn't shoot better from the field?
"Yeah," Del Negro said after Wednesday's practice. "But he will. He will. We'll shoot a little bit better at home, that's the hope ... "
Hope turned into reality pretty quickly on Thursday night, and that's the biggest reason the Bulls have a fighting chance in this best-of-seven series heading into Sunday's Game 4. Hinrich finished the night by going 9 for 12 from the field and scoring 27 points as the Bulls knocked off the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-106.
Del Negro stuck with Hinrich when plenty of people, myself included, figured it might be a better strategy to give a bulk of his minutes to Flip Murray if he struggled once again.
But Hinrich never struggled. On this night, it was clear that Del Negro made the right choice, even if he still couldn't say the right name.
"Kurt did not shoot the ball well the first two games, but he does a lot of things for us, intangibles that are not on the stat sheet," Del Negro said. "All the rotations that he does, he's in the right spot, and he provides leadership.
"Stats to me can be overblown. Kurt has been as consistent a player for us in terms of leadership and defensive ability. It was only a matter of time before he broke out. We needed him to play well and he had a monster game for us."
It was a game that couldn't have come at a better time for the Bulls.
"I wanted to have a different mindset," Hinrich said. "In the two games in Cleveland I really didn't get my chance to have a game to help the team offensively. I just wanted to be a little bit more aggressive tonight, and that's usually the difference for me."
It was a difference that was noticeable to his teammates.
"I think it just took him a while to [get comfortable]," Bulls center Brad Miller said. "He shot the ball real well the last couple weeks of the season when we were trying to make the playoff push. Kirk's a vet, obviously. He's been in Chicago the longest, and he's got a lot of pride. He was playing his butt off."
He was also earning the respect of the Cavaliers.
"I think he really was the X factor tonight," Cavs guard Mo WIlliams said. "He made plays off the ball, he made shots, he also got the ball off the screen and roll. We have to make an adjustment going into Sunday about how we're going to play against their guards."
An adjustment against Hinrich would have seemed laughable just a few days ago, but it just goes to show you how important his shooting can be to the Bulls. They are a completely different team when he is on target -- and a much more confident one as well.
In typical Hinrich fashion, he downplayed the effect that this game would have on his confidence going forward.
"It's big," he said. "But it's still one game. We're still down in this series. We're going to continue to try and play like the underdog and fight as hard as we can and see if we can make a series out of this."
By winning on Thursday night, Hinrich and Co. already made this series more competitive than most thought it would be.
By sticking with Hinrich, Del Negro proved that he made the right move when his team's season was on the line.
Now if only he could get his name right.
Basically, the entire Bulls season comes down to Sunday night.
"Yeah, it is," Del Negro said. "All these games your season's on the line. That's the way it's set up right now. That's the position we're in. You usually get what you deserve. We turned it over. We didn't make free throws. If we handled that a little bit better, it would be a different story. Now we got to stick together. Handle this, get our energy back, and go at it for Sunday."
Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich didn't seem worried about the Bulls' ability to bounce back.
"You have to," he said. "The season's on the line. It's basically win or go home. We need this win. And hopefully we'll have one of our better performances."
Bulls point guard Derrick Rose is hopeful that his team will be able to remedy some things at practice on Saturday afternoon.
"This next [game] is going to be very important," he said. "And we need it."
Miller plays well: What will surely get lost in the shuffle of Friday night's loss is that Brad Miller might have played his best game of the season. The veteran center scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 43 minutes. "He played well," Del Negro said. "Brad knows how to play. He's going to make shots. Hit the three. Got a steal. Got to the free-throw line. He was giving it everything he had."
Noah sits late: At the beginning of overtime, Bulls center Joakim Noah was not on the floor. "He's at a 35-minute limit," Del Negro said. "I think he was at 35:50 or somewhere in there. I had to get him out of the game, and that's what I needed to do."
Rose is optimistic: The 21-year-old All-Star took a glass half-full approach to the entire situation as the Bulls head into Sunday's make-or-break game with the Raptors. "I hope this is going to make us stronger right here," he said. "Playing these games is hopefully going to get us prepared for the future and that's the playoffs. I know it's going to be tough. But, we just got to fight through it. And just keep our heads on right now."
"We just went over things," Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We'll hopefully get everybody back, have a good practice [Wednesday]. We walked through some things about [Monday] night's game and just tried to drill on some things I thought were important for [Wednesday]."
The Bulls need Gibson and Miller on the floor as they chase down the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The pair each had 10 points and 12 rebounds in Monday night's win over the Rockets.