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Friday, April 22, 2011
The $76 million question

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Edvard Munch would love Carlos Boozer. The man who painted "The Scream" could do a real number on Boozer.

Because while Boozer's offense might take a night off, on occasion, and his defense is best described as "help," his mouth never stops moving on the court.

He screams, he yells, he talks incessantly.

Boozer All I care about is winning. I don't care about my numbers. I don't care about if I shot great without getting no foul calls. All I care about is winning. This whole team is like that.

-- Carlos Boozer

He generally makes Joakim Noah look like Derrick Rose.

"Everybody in Chicago says that, man, like, 'Booz never shuts up on the court,'" Rose said. "But it's been helping us, so we can't complain about it."

When the Chicago Bulls signed Boozer to a $76 million, five-year contract, they knew exactly who they were getting: an undersized power forward with an All-Star jumper, rebounding chops and the classic "motor."

They knew his liabilities, too. The injuries, the defensive lapses, the size disadvantage in the post. Everyone has something.

Boozer has pretty much performed as advertised. He missed a bunch of games, and he's dominated offensively at times, showed up on the boards more often than not, witnessed a lot of backdoor alley-oops and talked a lot of junk on the court.

It's not unfair to call him the basketball Alfonso Soriano, right down to his perceived defensive weaknesses.

But like Soriano with the Cubs, the Boozer deal was made because Chicago thought it was getting a playoff-tested veteran who could take his team to the so-called next level.

Soriano hasn't been able to do it. Is Boozer that guy? The Bulls will tell you a thousand times, yes.

Like most skeptics, I'm not as sure. But I'm still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Carlos Boozer
Carlos Boozer scored just four points on 2-for-10 shooting in Game 3, which leads Ronnie Brewer to expect a big performance in Game 4.

With the Indiana Pacers on the ropes, Boozer could use a big game Saturday at Conseco Fieldhouse. He's 1-for-3 so far, with a 17-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 2 sandwiched between two lackluster statistical showings.

In Game 3, he scored just four points on 2-for-10 shooting and never got to the foul line in just less than 32 minutes. He did have a team-high 11 rebounds, three assists and one important steal. He also had three turnovers.

Was that a bad game? Depends on whom you ask. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said he "thought Carlos played well." Whether or not he used more colorful language in private is unknown, but Thibodeau isn't worried when Boozer doesn't score his share.

"The thing for Carlos is he just has to play," Thibodeau said. "You guys all worry about all that other stuff; he's got to play and get his job done. He's got to do what he's supposed to do for us. If he's rebounding the ball, running the floor, getting deep post-ups, screening well, he doesn't have to score big points to play well. If they're good shots, and they're his shots, and he's missing them, that's part of the game. He's still got to do all the other things to help your team win. So you have to have the ability to play well when you're not shooting well."

Thibodeau also said he liked Boozer's play late in the game. Like the Bulls, Boozer can make plays late after sleepwalking for three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Kyle Korver hit a 3 off one Boozer assist and another off a Boozer steal. Boozer also had a fairly big dunk, which looked even more impressive considering how badly he botched an earlier attempt.

"That's part of the responsibility when you're one of the best players on a team; that goes with the territory," Thibodeau said of expectations. "He's handled it extremely well. I thought he showed great poise in the fourth quarter. It wasn't going his way early, but he stayed the course and kept fighting. It's the same thing -- people collapse on him in the post. And you have to; if you leave him single-covered, he's going to score."

Unlike Rose, who is an epic postgame self-flagellator, Boozer prefers not to dwell on the deficiencies in his own game. Sometimes, the joke goes, Boozer's best defense comes in the locker room.

When pressed, often delicately, about his own shortcomings after an off night, Boozer will just wink and smile and say he's more concerned with wins and how his teammates play rather than sweat the "small stuff."

"We'll just call it, 'It's how the game went,'" Boozer said of his struggles in Game 3. "Didn't get any free throws. I guess I didn't get fouled out there. But we'll call it like it is. We'll keep playing. And I don't care about that stuff, man. All I care about is winning. I don't care about my numbers. I don't care about if I shot great without getting no foul calls. All I care about is winning. This whole team is like that. All we want to do is win. And that's why we're in the position we're in. We don't care about stats."

But despite what he says and how he says it, Boozer has rabbit ears when the media pokes around. And Boozer does take these bad games hard, Ronnie Brewer said. Brewer, who played with Boozer in Utah, said he's excited to see what the power forward will do Saturday in the possible series finale.

"Being around Booz, he knows when he doesn't play his best basketball," Brewer said at practice Friday in "The Jungle" at IUPUI. "He takes it personally. It excites me when he has a bad game, because his next game, whenever the media is on him and critical on him, he's going to come out that much more hungry to please his teammates."

For example: Boozer was benched for the fourth quarter in a 96-94 loss to New Jersey in early January. The next game, a loss to Philadelphia, Boozer had a monster game, 31 points and 13 rebounds. So maybe Brewer is right and Boozer will have a big game Saturday.

One way to do that is get to the line more. Because he is not the focal point of the offense and is a great shooter, he doesn't get the consistent looks down low to rack up free throws. Before his goose egg in Game 3, he took 14 in the first two games. In last year's playoffs, he took just 37 free throws in 10 games, including six games in which he went to the line two times or fewer.

That pretty much goes along with his regular-season output. Boozer got double-digit attempts four times this season and only three times last season. He averaged 4.2 attempts this season, just more than his 4.1 career average. (Rose, who has significant advantages in getting to the line, averages around seven attempts a game.) Boozer's defensive problems are another area in which there's some dissonance between reality and perception, but frankly, I'm not sure where I side. I see him get beat, but at the same time, I know there could have been a defensive breakdown that allowed his guy to get the ball in a good position.

"You're playing against the best players in the world," Brewer said. "You're not going to lock down every possession. People are going to score; that's what they get paid to do, to score. Sometimes, he gets scored on, but it is team defense, it's not one-on-one defense. So whenever he does get scored on, we might need to help him a little better."

It's a two-way street, of course. Boozer needs to help the Bulls, too, and he has several ways of doing so. With his rebounding and his energy, he did help Thursday night, but for the Bulls to win the East, they'll need some elite playoff performances from Boozer.

This is why Chicago brought him here. Boozer can talk all he wants, but it's time to prove his worth, however you judge it.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.