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Game 78 | Bulls 102, Timberwolves 87

Bulls hot in Minnesota and eying 50 wins

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How does that slogan go about the NBA playoffs? Forty days and forty nights? No, that’s the Noah movie. And no, there’s not a movie about Joakim Noah, who had yet another triple-double Wednesday in the Bulls’ 102-87 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not yet, anyway. Come see our big, sweaty ballerinas? No, that’s not it.

It’s that you want to be the team that is the healthiest and playing the best down the stretch.

Yes, fans, meet your Chicago Bulls, now officially the hottest team in the NBA with their sixth straight win and eighth in the last nine, their rock solid Magnificent Seven excelling once again with D.J. Augustin with a game-high 21 points, Noah with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, six players scoring in double figures and yet another sharp offensive performance, the team’s fourth game scoring at least 100 points in the last six games.

And that’s with their regular defensive efficiency in holding the fourth highest scoring team in the league below 90 points for just the fourth time this season.

“It was a good win for us,” said Noah, who also set a franchise record for assists by a center in a season and is tied for the most triple-doubles in the NBA this season. “It feels good to play well. But the important thing is winning. We’ve got four games left; just trying to stay focused and keep our mind on progress. And the (accolades) that come with it, it’s a bonus. We’re focused and excited for the playoffs.”

And why not? Suddenly 50 wins seems a possibility with only Charlotte on the last day of the season having a winning record. But with Indiana and Miami both slumping and facing physical and mental hurdles (the Pacers sat all their starters and played their best game in weeks Wednesday), who’s to say how far this Bulls team playing its best ball of the season — and better than any team in the conference — can go. It’s the stuff, certainly, no one among the Bulls will discuss publicly under punishment of being forced to watch 1980’s Clippers’ game film with coach Tom Thibodeau. It’s also what’s supposed to get you laughed at with Derrick Rose gone for the season and Luol Deng traded, in part, because this wasn’t supposed to be possible.

If not inexorably, but also not suddenly, this Bulls team has been quietly building their own monument to excellence.

“Guys are stepping up, guys are getting more playing time, more shots,” said Taj Gibson with 13 points and three blocks off the bench. “Guys are taking advantage of it. We are learning from playing without players and the confidence has been growing. Everybody is just up when we are down great players.”

Down is up, as it turns out.

It’s not supposed to be this way, but it has been.

Augustin has been a revelation, his fourth game in the last six with at least 20 points and three of the last four. He’s also 16 of 31 on threes in the last four games. Jimmy Butler had 14 points, five rebounds and seven assists without a turnover in another relentless 46 minutes of stifling defense. Kirk Hinrich had 16 points and Mike Dunleavy 15 as both added a pair of threes.

And then there was Noah again, not only the emotional leader and all around contributor, but leading the Bulls from a 53-48 halftime deficit to begin to pull away in the third quarter with an extraordinary defensive game against the high scoring Kevin Love. Although Love hurt his shoulder earlier the game, he stayed in but ended with 17 points on seven of 20 shooting. Noah was a constant in fronting Love and denying passes, keeping a body on him, never letting him run out and get away, thwarting his outlet passes and beating him down court on every break.

“He’s extremely tough,” Love said of Noah. “In my opinion, he’s the Defensive Player of the Year. They are a good team. Thibodeau has them working hard on both ends of the floor.”

Though the Timberwolves are out of the playoffs, they’ve been one of the West’s hottest teams, beating the Grizzlies, Heat and Spurs in the last week. But the Bulls thwarted Love and Ricky Rubio like no other team has been able to in a defensive overcoat that had to warm the hearts of all the Bulls.

“D.J. and Taj played at a real high level,” said Thibodeau. “Mike Dunleavy, (too). I thought Hinrich set the tone at the start of his game with his aggressiveness. Jo was terrific throughout.”

It really was something to behold after the Timberwolves had pretty much outplayed the Bulls the first half with a 26-12 rebounding edge and 52.6 percent shooting.

There was a terrific sequence to open the second half in which Noah missed a tip on the Bulls end and Love took off. Noah ran him down and forced Love into missing a layup attempt. There was another with Noah again beating Love down court and then Noah beating Love to an inbounds pass to force a turnover. There was Noah fronting Love so hard that Love kept retreating farther and farther out to shoot. Love’s a great three point shooter. But the Bulls were forcing everyone outside and the Timberwolves shot 33 percent in the second half. The defensive stand to start the second half with Hinrich bumping and pushing Rubio away from every play ended in a 22-9 run to open the quarter with Noah crossing over Love on a drive to score a layup.

“The usual, energy, toughness, heart,” Gibson said about Noah. “When we were lackadaisical on offense, he was the one who gets us sparked, he and D.J. He just kind of brings the energy.”

The Timberwolves closed within 75-70 at the end of three. But you could see how much the Bulls’ effort had taken out of them. Timberwolves’ players and coach Rick Adelman talked afterward about “running out of gas,” and the fatigue with a back to back. But it’s the way the Bulls played defense, making every play difficult, Love unable to get position, Rubio detoured from wherever he wanted to go, Butler making third option Corey Brewer a non factor, among others.

“Jimmy every night he goes everywhere,” said Thibodeau. “Whoever gets a hot hand, that’s where Jimmy is going. The way he is playing he made three threes, put a lot of extra time into his shooting, also his playmaking, He had seven assists, no turnovers. We got a number of guys playing at a high level and have to continue to do it.”

And it’s no coincidence the recent run of good health has the Bulls coming into these playoffs as strong as any time in Thibodeau’s tenure. No, not as talented. But it’s the best the Bulls have played offensively in two years.

The spacing is ideal, and with the same players in a regular rotation playing with one another so long, the movement and passing is much better in addition to Noah’s stellar work. The offense isn’t slow or stagnant with so many shots coming at the end of the shot clock. The ball, as Thibodeau has pleaded for constantly, moves more quickly. The shots come with regularity as the movement, cutting and passing in the offense has been as good as anywhere in the NBA. When you have a group of guys there every game it makes a difference. Yes, plenty of teams boast of the benefit of rest for the playoffs. But playing enables you to become sharp, and you want to be your best coming into the playoffs. The Bulls have been at theirs.

I probably shouldn’t talk about Noah because it would suggest a contradiction. He’s all about winning as a team. He repeats it, as does Thibodeau. They did so again after Wednesday’s win. Thus if that’s the situation his accomplishments, like the triple doubles or assist record, should not be mentioned because they are personal milestones. I think Noah would be fine with that.

Still, Thibodeau is always asked about his star center, who was so dominant against Love that Love eventually retreated away from defending Noah. And Thibodeau offered a stirring soliloquy regarding Noah after briefly insisting it’s only about team.

“The best thing about him is the winning part of it,” said Thibodeau. “There’s a lot of guys who score more than he does; the rebounding is obviously terrific, but the passing also tells you how he sees the game. He’s always going to hit the open man if you move without the ball and you are open. He doesn’t care about his own statistics; he only cares about winning. When your best players are like that it sets a great tone for the team.”

But here’s where Thibodeau began to rhapsodize, and you know that’s not a top talent.

“When you look at Jo, in college and the start of his career and the four years I’ve been with him, he’s gotten better every year,” said Thibodeau. “I talked to (Noah’s college coach at Florida) Billy Donovan this summer quite a bit and we talked about his career in college and he’s basically done the same thing (improving year to year). For Jo, it’s hard to measure all he does for your team. When you see him make three or four or five efforts on the same play, is there a stat for that? No. When he swings the ball quickly to someone where he doesn’t get the assist (because) there’s a trap, a kick out and another swing. There’s not another stat for that. But all those things lead to winning. When you talk about leadership… OK, what is leadership? It’s more by what you do than by what you say. When you make great effort, great hustle plays, those things unite and inspire your team. That’s what makes him who he is and what makes him so good. But he’s never satisfied. He’s a very talented guy. To say he’s not talented is to sell him short. He’s very talented, very smart, very driven. So when you combine those things, those types of guys always improve. He’s gotten real comfortable, knows his teammates well, knows the league well. He knows how to take advantage of things. The most important thing is measuring the win and that’s what makes him what he is.”

It was too much for the Timberwolves, more like a boxer feeling those hot poker body blows in the early rounds and having nothing left in the late rounds. The Timberwolves were trying to hold on. But the Bulls were throwing haymakers by now, 56 percent fourth quarter shooting as they got stronger the longer the game went.

The Bulls scored in six of the first seven possessions of the fourth quarter with Gibson taking defenders deep for easy scores, Butler making another jumper and Augustin closing that run with a three. That gave the Bulls an 87-76 lead less than four minutes into the fourth quarter. Augustin came back with another three as the Timberwolves were reeling, falling quickly behind 95-79 a few minutes later to effectively end it.

“We’re playing comfortable basketball now,” said Noah.

And there aren’t too many others that are.

Toronto has been as they remained tied for third with the Bulls at 46-32. Toronto has the tiebreaker. But Charlotte moved into sixth in defeating Washington, which fell to seventh in losing the tiebreaker to the Bobcats. So the Bulls could get to the final game in Charlotte with an outcome determining the first round matchup. The Nets likely will be fifth while Indiana and Miami still play it out for the top two spots.

The Bulls stayed with their regular rotation, which Thibodeau indicated they would the rest of the way. That left newcomer/veteran Ronnie Brewer on the bench, where he will be joined later this week by former Bulls Mike James and Lou Amundson. That will bring the roster to a maximum 15, and while those players would be available in emergencies as playoff qualified, the moves are more an interesting innovation from the Bulls.

Because all are veterans with at least seven years, they come at a higher salary rate than, say, second round picks or D-League players. Because all have been with the Bulls previously they are unlikely to cause any chemistry issues with a team playing well and should fit in seamlessly. But perhaps more importantly, their contracts under the new collective bargaining agreement can be combined in the summer to potentially put the Bulls in position to add a higher salaried player that might have previously been out of reach without their additions. It’s a complex formula, but with their unguaranteed contracts they could be included in deals to provide more salary on the Bulls side for a potential match. It also helps the players as they could be in deals and again find themselves on rosters and in the playoffs.

Win/win. It’s what the Bulls have been doing lately. Which is pretty important this time of year.

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