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CHICAGO -- When they're at their best, these Chicago Bulls are Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, unbridled talent and abundant energy coalescing before our very eyes.
|Derrick Rose played like himself most of Tuesday night, which meant he took advantage of a couple of Lakers players while attacking the perimeter.|
Those Bulls are crossover dribbles, transition buckets, two-handed dunks and tip drills. Those are the Bulls you pay $100 to watch.
When they're at their worst, which has been more often than not through 23 games, these Chicago Bulls are Jannero Pargo and James Johnson, missed shots and greener than a dollar bill.
Those Bulls are also John Salmons, with expectations falling shorter than fourth-quarter jumpers. Those are the Bulls that miss Ben Gordon like Chicagoans miss summer. Those are the Bulls, just 8-15, that could get their coach fired.
Before Tuesday's game, someone asked Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan's heir as a cold-blooded, cold-corporate shooting guard, what his advice to Rose would be, and he answered, in all seriousness apparently, "Just do it."
Now Rose shills for adidas, so he can't exactly make the Nike mantra his own, but perhaps a better piece of advice would be, "Just make it."
That's what I was saying when I watched Rose, who was plenty aggressive, abuse Lamar Odom at the 3-point line with a crossover before bricking a layup.
Just make it, Derrick.
If the Bulls could've hustled the ball through the net, like five Noahs, they would've upset the Lakers. But the bigger, badder defending champions wore down Chicago's seven-man rotation, and tired legs meant bad shots.
The Bulls missed 21 of 27 shots in the fourth quarter, and that includes Luol Deng's last-second, spread-covering 3-pointer.
"Everybody got kind of tired," said Kirk Hinrich, who missed both of his shots in the fourth. "They wore us down a little bit."
The only Bull to play all 12 minutes in the fourth, Salmons missed all three shots he took -- all 3-pointers -- while Noah missed all five. Rose missed four of five.
Rose played like, well, himself most of the night, meaning he was attacking the basket while taking advantage of Odom and Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar at the perimeter.
But while Rose needs the ball in his hands at the end of the game, and there's no debating he's the team's best scoring option, there is no player with Gordon's fourth-quarter swagger, and that deficiency is killing this team. There was talk the Bulls were trying to move injured forward Tyrus Thomas to Thursday's opponent, New York, for forward Al Harrington. He can score, but I'm not sure he's what the Bulls need.
|The Bulls desperately miss the scoring swagger of Ben Gordon, who got his cash in Detroit.|
"There isn't the outside threat that Gordon presents or the streak scorer that he was," Lakers coach Phil Jackson told reporters, reiterating the obvious.
Despite his obvious benefits, the Bulls couldn't re-sign Gordon at the end of last year. He was a casualty of the salary cap. I was fine with it. Deng signed first, and there was no room at the inn for Gordon. He was fine with it, too. He got his cash in Detroit.
The Bulls owe it to their fans to chase the 2010 superstars that might be available this summer. So for now, these Bulls are a disjointed bunch, not old, not young, not a playoff threat, not a lottery team. The Bulls are caught somewhere between frustration and reverie.
"They're growing," Lakers forward and reality TV star Lamar Odom said after the game. "A team needs time together. As far as their core of players, this is their first or second year playing together. They need time to grow."
Vinny Del Negro, the captain of this seasick crew, played his seven regulars every second of the second half.
Rookie forward Taj Gibson played 23:16 and Deng 38:32 and everyone else somewhere in between. Pargo got 7:14, all in the first half as Rose rested his rib strain, and Johnson got five minutes of burn, also all in the first. The Bulls desperately miss Thomas, still out with a broken bone in his forearm.
And still the Bulls almost won. Well, almost is a little strong, considering Bryant torched them for 42 points, but they competed, and for a team that couldn't close out the one-win New Jersey Nets, possibly one of the worst NBA teams in modern times, that's something, right?
"We played hard, but it always sucks to lose," Noah said. "If we play with focus and energy, I think we'll have a better chance to win games in the future."
I know, I know. If you play hard, you have a better chance to win. It's like an aphorism born of John Wooden and children's sports book author Matt Christopher. But if you watched the Bulls crash the glass against the Lakers, you can see the truth in Noah's words.
No one on the Bulls used the words "moral victory," though plenty of reporters did, but everyone was pretty satisfied with the effort. The Lakers noticed, too.
"This time they had more of an idea about what they wanted to do," Bryant said. "When we played them in L.A., they were a little indecisive, and in those moments, we sensed that and we capitalized on it and broke open the game. This time they had more of a sense of purpose."
Surprisingly, the Bulls are 6-4 in games with "clutch" situations, according to 82games.com. Last night didn't count, as "clutch" time is defined as being a five-point game, either way, with five minutes to go. The Lakers had a six-point lead at that juncture.
Despite the team's better-than-expected record in close games, Salmons is struggling in those situations, shooting 33.3 percent. Deng is even worse. His average dips to 31.3 percent, from 45.5 percent. Rose is a slightly better shooter in clutch times, improving from 44.6 to 46.2 percent. But it's obvious, especially with Hinrich struggling with a hand injury, that Rose has no one waiting on the wings to dish it to.
The best sign of the night was how the Bulls dominated the Lakers on the boards, out-rebounding them 51 to 37. Noah had 14 offensive rebounds, some off his own misses as he went 4-for-16 from the field, but it was still an impressive display.
"You've gotta respect them," Chicago native and Lakers guard Shannon Brown said. "They had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half. That says a lot."
Noah's maturation, his newfound discipline in the weight room, has turned him into an untouchable as far as I'm concerned. Like he proved in college, he has championship attributes. Do you think there's a team in the league that wouldn't want him now?
"I've watched him grow," said Odom, who played in the same AAU program as his fellow New Yorker. "It doesn't surprise me. He plays with the two E's, and if you play with them, you'll be productive. That's energy and enthusiasm. He brings them every night."
Noah and Rose bring the two E's. They are the foundation of this team and they brought their best stuff against the Lakers. But without a closer, the Bulls will keep losing these games and they'll keep getting blown out, from time to time.
"It's a long season," Del Negro said of the team's uneven efforts. "We hope to build on this, but that's a question you always ask. Our guys are fighting."
But winning in the NBA isn't all about fighting and hustle plays. Energy can only take you so far. The Bulls need scorers and the one they thought they added last year is letting them down. Salmons, who scored more than 18 a game last year, was expected to take Gordon's place as the scoring guard alongside Rose, but his shot has been woeful, 13.3 points on 38.1 percent shooting, and on Tuesday, MIA. In almost 29 minutes, Salmons only took five shots, making one and finishing with two points. Pargo took four, missing all of them, in a quarter of the minutes. The Bulls are shooting 42 percent this season, giving Noah a lot of chances for those offensive boards.
"The biggest statistic," Del Negro said, "is the score."
And that is the truth.Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com