One of the long-standing criticisms of the NBA is you need only watch the last two minutes to know what happens in a game.
Well, the Bulls have proved this week that the fourth quarter isn’t everything.
They outplayed Boston in the fourth quarter Monday, but lost the game. Then on Wednesday in Phoenix, the Bulls were terrible down the stretch, but recovered to win 112-106 in overtime after squandering an 18-point lead.
“The lesson we have to learn is we have to play tough with the lead,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the game. “I thought we got a little loose. We were throwing lobs and not strong with the ball.”
It’s interesting to examine Thibodeau’s fourth-quarter lineups. In the majority of games this season, starters Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich have been on the bench late in games.
Against Phoenix, Boozer led the Bulls with 28 points and 14 rebounds, so he was deservedly on the court during most of the fourth quarter, as was Hamilton. But the Bulls didn’t play very well and neither player contributed much. Boozer had 2 points in the fourth quarter, while Hamilton hit 3 late free throws.
When the Bulls made their futile comeback against Boston, Thibodeau stuck with a defensive-minded lineup of Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and rookie Marquis Teague.
The two constants are Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. Discarding the blowout win at Cleveland on Nov. 2, Deng has played 79 of a possible 84 fourth-quarter minutes. Deng has also been the Bulls’ fourth-quarter scoring leader with 40 points.
Evidence is mounting, though, that Noah has actually become the team’s best clutch scorer. He finished off the overtime with a hook shot, then drained an 18-foot jumper with 29.5 seconds remaining.
“I think he’s shown that he’s a lot more than just a hustle guy,” Thibodeau said after the game. “The thing right now I think he’s doing great is screening. The better the screen he sets, the more he’s open. The more he’s open, he’s making his moves a lot quicker.”
Noah did a little of everything against the Suns in overtime. He blocked a shot by Shannon Brown, fed Hamilton for a jumper and kept an offensive rebound alive for Hamilton to finish off.
With his improving jumper, Noah now qualifies as a tough player to guard. He is capable of driving past most NBA big men and finishes well with his left hand. And now all those players who got used to daring Noah to shoot his sideways-spinning jumper have more to think about.
“Usually when I catch the ball, I’m thinking pass first and I have to keep my eye on the rim,” Noah said after the game, according to espn.com. “I just try to make a quick play first and usually when they try to take that away, that’s when I go into my shot.”
Finding the right mix to put on the floor with Noah and Deng in the fourth quarter figures to remain a challenge. Hamilton has hit 1 of 10 shots in the fourth quarter this season. Backup Marco Belinelli scored all 9 of his fourth-quarter points in the same game — Minnesota last Saturday. Boozer scored 7 of his 9 fourth-quarter points in the opener against Sacramento.
The Bulls now have two days off before moving on to the next stop of the five-game circus road trip. They’ll take on the Los Angeles Clippers, which just beat Miami, on Saturday at the Staples Center.
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