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SportsTuesday

By Jim Coffman

Besides the fact that I was ready to kill someone when the Bulls did exactly what the Spurs wanted and inbounded the ball to Joakim Noah with 13 seconds remaining last night, I enjoyed the hell out of the win that gave them the most improbable three-game win streak in team history. Okay, so that's probably overstating the case a smidge, but the fact that the Bullies have won these last three games absolutely defies belief.

More about that later, but first we'll be breaking down the sequence that led to my murderous urge. With a tenuous two-point lead, the visitors managed a crucial defensive stop (capped off by Luol Deng's extra-large blocked shot) and then hustled the ball into the frontcourt as the clock ticked under 20 seconds remaining. The Bulls ran the high pick-and-roll that they'll be running just about exclusively for the next dozen years or so (because it is the best way to give ever-better point guard Derrick Rose both time and space). And after the Spurts doubled the dribbler, Rose passed to Noah and the Spurs couldn't foul him quickly enough, given Noah's slightly less than fundamentally sound shooting style. Clearly the Spurs wanted Noah taking the free throws that would determine what San Antonio would need to do the next time it had the ball.

But the Bulls caught a break.The Spurs hadn't yet reached the limit and therefore the non-shooting foul resulted in the visitors being awarded the ball on the side (teams shoot free throws on all fouls starting with the fifth in a quarter overall or the second in the last two minutes). There had been about a four-second differential between the shot-clock and the game clock when the Bulls took possession, meaning they would have had to put up a shot before the game clock ran out if the Spurs had chosen not to foul. But when the home team hacked Noah, the shot clock would have re-set to 14 seconds. It would have but it wasn't because there was less time remaining on the game clock. When that happens, the shot clock is turned off.

The visitors, needing two free throws to essentially clinch the victory and knowing the Spurs would foul immediately, found themselves with a prime opportunity to inbound the ball to one of their better shooters. Except Derrick Rose couldn't quite break away from the defense on the ensuing inbounds play and the Bulls didn't seem to have a solid second option other than Noah breaking free right in front of the inbounder (as part of the Spurs' plan). Sure enough Kirk Hinrich, who otherwise played an awesome game, passed the ball in to Noah, who was again fouled immediately. You had a timeout remaining! Why not use it and find a way to not pass to your worst free throw shooter? Coach Vinnie, is that the best inbounds play you could come up with?

So Noah and his sideways-spinning, "How did they let him out of high school shooting this way, let alone college?" shooting style went to the line and missed the first free throw. The second one was the big one. The second free throw would give the Bulls a three-point lead and severely limit the Spurs' options. I wasn't optimistic but I must pause now and offer up some words of praise for the Bulls' center, who is just about the most-improved player in the NBA this year.

Noah, who has averaged a double-double and has received serious All-Star team consideration, played on Monday despite painful plantar fascitis in his foot that forced him to sit out the Bulls' victory over Houston on Saturday. I couldn't have been more unhappy that he was on the line with 13 seconds left, but he has been the best story of the season so far for the Bulls.

And he made the second free throw. After a timeout, the Spurs got the ball to Manu Ginobili, who drove toward the basket. Ginobili had single-handedly given San Antonio a five-point lead early in the fourth quarter, sinking a hustle three-pointer (after tracking down a rebound of a missed free throw) at the end of the third quarter, and then setting up another jumper with another offensive rebound and hitting two free throws sandwiched around a couple offensive foul calls drawn at the other end.

But this time Manu, who was looking for a foul and a basket, tried to draw contact that would cause a ref to blow his whistle but failed. He could only manage an off-target heave off the backboard. Noah grabbed yet another rebound, was fouled and hit two free throws to account for the final score: 98-93.

One more thing about the Bulls' big man - with the game tied at 93 in the final minute, Noah set the strong screen out by the top of the key (there's that pick-and-whatever play again) that released Rose toward the basket. The relatively uncontested layup that resulted seemed certain to go in and give the Bulls the lead.

I'm betting that at that point, at least 90 percent of NBA big men would have slowed down to watch Rose's shot bank in - but not Noah. Noah followed Rose's shot and sure enough, when it dribbled off the inside of the rim he easily tipped it in.

A few more Bulls notes:

* The first half of this game was just flat-out wacky. The Spurs outscored the Bulls 34-14 in the paint during that time. Led by powerful forward DeJuan Blair, regarding whom analyst Stacey King noted "you better hold your ground against him because if he gets even a little bit of position on you, you won't get it back," San Antonio out-offensive rebounded the Bulls 11-3. But the Bulls still led 52-50 at the break. They did so because they shot the lights out (58 percent from the floor as a team in the first 24 minutes). In particular, Hinrich (6-for-9, 13 points) and Rose (7-for-9, 14) caused at least a partial blackout all by themselves.

* Brad Miller splashed down two more huge second-half three-pointers on Monday. Miller also tossed in a couple pivotal trifectas for the Bulls in their Saturday victory over Houston. And kudos also to Luol Deng, who struggled to get his offensive going in the first half and tossed away a couple of brutal turnovers during a Spurs third-quarter comeback.

As for that win streak . . .

Most observers thought the Bulls would need to win at least one of their first two games on their current road trip to have any chance of it not being a disaster. Before facing five potential playoff teams in a row on the road, the Bulls traveled to Golden State (Warriors) and Los Angeles (Clippers) to kick things off against teams that have struggled. So of course the Bulls went ahead and lost both games to fall to 18-22 on the season. Another terrible trip seemed certain for the team that at that point had a 4-15 mark away from home in 2009-10.

Up next were the Phoenix Suns, who had stumbled since starting the season 14-3 but were still formidable; the Houston Rockets, who have had a fine season despite the absence of Yao Ming (broken foot); and perennial championship contending San Antonio. At that point it seemed the Bulls would need a miracle just to pull out one of the three to avoid a big losing streak. Instead the red-and-black put together a sweep. Will sporting wonders never cease?

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Jim "Coach" Coffman rounds up the sports weekend in this space every Monday, except on the occasional Tuesday. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Dec 6, 2019