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Asik injury forces Bulls to turn to Kurt Thomas

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With backup center Omer Asik out for the rest of the playoffs with a fractured fibula, Kurt Thomas will join the Bulls' rotation off the bench. And it's not just a lame rationalization to think the Bulls could benefit from the move.

The 38-year-old Thomas not only adds a dimension offensively with an outside jumper, but he's had an uncanny knack for making a difference as a veteran off the bench. When the Milwaukee Bucks lost center Andrew Bogut to an injury, it was Thomas who stepped in to help the Bucks win five of their last seven games to secure the No. 6 seed in the East.

In fact, in his first start for Bogut last April 6 at the United Center, Thomas grabbed 14 rebounds and outplayed Joakim Noah in a 79-74 victory over the Bulls -- a game that nearly prevented the Bulls from making the playoffs.

He nearly parlayed that success into a playoff upset. With Thomas playing the Udonis Haslem role -- playing tough defense in the low post, hitting occasional jumpers and taking charges -- the Bucks took a 3-2 lead in their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, only to lose the series 4-3.

With his team down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was offered several factors that could help the Bulls reverse their fortunes against the Miami Heat -- better shooting from Derrick Rose or Kyle Korver, more shots for Keith Bogans, more free throws, playing C.J. Watson with Rose in the backcourt. And of course, home-court advantage at the United Center for Game 5 tonight.

''The most important thing is that we have to play well,'' Thibodeau said after the team's shootaround at the Berto Center on Thursday morning. ''You have to give your fans something to cheer about. So we can't count on them to get it done for us. We have to get it done. We have to play better.''

On paper, the task is daunting. Since 1981, 20 teams have fallen behind 3-1 in the NBA conference finals, and none of them has recovered to win the series. Teams that had home-court advantage in that scenario are 0-7.

By Herb Gould
Calling his $50,000 fine for responding to an abusive fan with an anti-gay slur ``fair,'' Joakim Noah said he wanted to put the incident behind him and concentrate on helping the Bulls advance their playoff cause.
``It's fair,'' Noah said. ``I made a mistake. I'll learn from it and move on.''
 Asked about being receiving a lower fine than Kobe Bryant, who was fined $100,000 for making an anti-gay remark to a referee, Noah said that didn't matter to him.
``I didn't really know what my fine would be,'' he said. ``I was just ready to face the consequences and move on and get ready four this game. I don't want to be a distraction to this team.''
What was on Noah's mind was helping the Bulls find a way to win Game 4 and even up this Eastern Conference final.
``It's the biggest game of the year,'' Noah said. ``Winning this game and going back to Chicago for Game 5, that's what we want.''
The Bulls center said he wasn't thinking about the reception he might receive at American Airlines Arena. Nor did he put in a request for extra security around the Bulls' bench.
``That's the last of my worries, to be honest,'' Noah said. ``I'm not worried about extra security at all.''

THE KING'S TAKE
LeBron James, who has taken his share of abuse from heckling fans, sympathized with Noah and the situation.
``It's unfortunate,'' James said. ``I don't think Joakim is that person. Like he said, he's not that guy. He made a mistake and he's paying the price for it.
``All of us understnad there are times when you become emotional. Things get said that you don't mean. You just have to be more careful. Understand that there are kids watching, people watching, that look up to us as a role model.''

ABUSE ELUDES ROSE

While highly supportive of Noah in his moment of controversy, Derrick Rose said he doesn't take the same kind of abuse.
``I don't get that type of stuff,'' Rose, one of the NBA's most popular players, said when asked the worst insult hurled his way. ``If anything, people say the SAT thing, and that's about it. I laugh it off.''
The SAT taunt is a reference to allegations of improprieites on Rose's SAT score, allegations that landed Memphis, where he played college ball, in NCAA hot water.

Bulls center Joakim Noah said the $50,000 fine levied by the NBA for his slur at a fan during the first quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals was ''fair'' and he's ready to put the controversy behind him as the team prepares for an all-important Game 4 tonight at American Airlines Arena in Miami.

''I made a mistake. I learned from it ... and move on,'' a mellow Noah said prior to the Bulls' shootaround at the arena Tuesday morning.

Asked if he was surprised his fine was less than than the $100,000 fine against the Lakers' Kobe Bryant for a similar infraction aimed at a referee earlier this season, Noah said, ''I don't know. I was just ready to face the consequences and move on and get ready for this game. I don't want to be a distraction to my teammates.''

Noah scored one point and grabbed five rebounds in the Bulls' 96-85 loss in Game 3 on Sunday night. The Bulls, trailing 2-1 in the series, face the Heat in Game 4 at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

A report that Derrick Rose said the NBA has a performance-enhancing drug problem is news to the Bulls star.
``Regarding the quote attributed to me in ESPN The Magazine, I do not recall making the statement nor do I recall the question being asked,'' Rose said in a statement before the Bulls took on Miami in Game 3 Sunday night. ``If that was my response to any question, I clearly misunderstood what was asked of me. But, let me be clear, I do not believe there is a performance enhancing drug problem in the NBA.''
Rose was denying a report in ESPN the Magazine that the NBA has a PED [performance enhancing drug] problem.
The magazine said it asked Rose, as part of a survey for its May 16 issue, ``If 1 equals 'What are PEDs [Performance Enhancing Drugs]'? and 10 equals 'Everybody's Juicing' . . . How big of an issue is illegal enhancing in your sport?''
It said Rose gave this response: ``Seven. It's huge, and I think we need a level playing field, where nobody has that advantage over the next person.''
How the confusion arose was not clear, but it appears something was lost in translation when Rose talked to the magazine.
``Derrick doesn't feel there's a steroid problem,'' a team official after talking to Rose about the report. ``All he said was, `Why in the world would I say something like that?' ''
Miami star Dwyane Wade also seemed perplexed when asked about Rose's supposed comment that the NBA has a PED problem.
``I haven't seen that; I haven't heard anything,'' Wade said. ``I don't think there is [a PED problem]. I've never experienced it, never seen it. I don't think that takes place.''

The Bulls' series with the Atlanta Hawks is predictably getting more contentious, with tempers flaring between the Bulls' Carlos Boozer and the Hawks' Josh Smith in Game 5 at the United Center.

It figures to get even more chippy in Game 6 tonight. But both Boozer and Smith say they do not expect any repercussions of the previous incident, which was instigated by Boozer's shot to the face of Smith after Smith scored on a dunk.

''I'm just trying to win a game. He's a non-factor to me, from a mental standpoint,'' Smith said. ''I'm just trying to win.''

Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew confirmed that Jason Collins, who was scoreless in Game 5, will start at center against the Bulls in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series tonight at Philips Arena.

Drew had started Marvin Williams in Games 1-3, but opted for the 7-0 Collins after the Bulls outrebounded the Hawks 58-39 in Game 2 and 47-34 in Game 3. Collins had four points and no rebounds in 12 minutes in Game 4 and no points and two rebounds in 15 minutes in Game 5, but the Hawks minimized the Bulls' advantage on the boards -- 37-36 in Game 4 and 37-33 in Game 5.


It would be bigger news if he hadn't made it, but Derrick Rose is a first-team NBA All-Star as well as the league's MVP, NBA officials announced Thursday.
Rose, who is making first appearance on the All-NBA first team, is joined LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant on the first team. James was the only unanimous first-teamer.
One voter among the 119 sportswriters and broadcasters who had ballots didn't make the Bulls point guard a first-team selection. Howard also had 118 first-team votes.
The second team: Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook.
The third team: LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Al Horford, Manu Ginobili and Chris Paul.

In the wake of the Bulls' big Game 5 win, here are two important developments that ought to serve the Bulls well as they move forward.
1. The Carlos Boozer controversy is going to heat up, but it shouldn't.
The Boozer bashers are going to clamor for Taj Gibson to be on the floor more. That's understandable after Taj played a monster fourth quarter, delivering 11 points and uncountable energy.
But that doesn't mean Taj should play ahead of Boozer, who brings different things to the equation. Where Taj is more mobile, Boozer is a better post presence. He's also a veteran who's going to give you what he's got. Better to let Taj dart in than to put the weight of the world on him from the start.
Especially because he's banged up, Boozer might not effective in some situations. That's fine. Then you go to Gibson. But Boozer is the first option. When he and Derrick Rose are in synch offensively, that's big for the Bulls. And Boozer vs. say, Miami, is a whole different deal than Boozer vs. Indiana or Atlanta.
Interestingly, Boozer doesn't seem at all threatened by the rise of Taj. Then again, $15 million a year is a nice security blanket.
2. By playing Gibson, Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Tom Thibodeau showed me a lot.
Long apprenticeship or not, he's still a rookie head coach who has been more secure with predictable veterans, as evidenced by his increasing reluctance to go to his bench since the playoffs began.
Against the athletic and skilled but spacy Hawks, the bench gambit was absolutely the right move. The Bulls' reserves not only had young, fresh legs. Their energy gave the Bulls a boost when they needed it most.
Make no mistake. When we look back at the fourth quarter of Game 5, it will loom large, perhaps the pivotal moment in this playoff run. Lose that quarter, and you're heading to Atlanta down 3-2, your backs to the wall. Lose Game 6, and this season ends with a very bad taste.
By winning Tuesday, though, the Bulls not only put themselves in the drivers' seat.
We also learned that Thibs, who always insists that ``We don't have to change a thing,'' is flexible after all, and that's very good.
It wasn't easy for him to rely on Gibson, Brewer and Asik, but it was the right move--and it showed that Thibodeau is growing, too.
After the game, I asked him to talk about that fourth quarter, and what it said about his team that three reserves could shoulder the load like that.
His answer: ``It's the playoffs. You're going to be in tight quarters. You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We hung tough. We stayed together. We got some timely baskets and we got some stops. I thought the energy of that group was really good.''
As I think about it the morning after, when Thibs said, ``You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,'' I have to think he was talking about himself as well as his players.
He put his post-season in the hands of young bench guys, who had delivered all season, but had been largely ignored in the post-season.
That was more than a big step for Thibodeau. It was a sign of growth that's very encouraging for whatever the Bulls confront during the rest of this playoff march.

When Gar Forman succeeded John Paxson as general manager of the Bulls, the obvious question was,"Who's in charge here?" It appears fellow NBA executives are asking the same question.

In a mystifying quirk of the process for choosing the NBA's Executive of the Year, both Forman and Paxson received votes for the award, even though they work for the same team and by their own accounts share player personnel duties.

Forman was the co-winner of the award with Miami president Pat Riley. Paxson -- the Bulls' vice-president of basketball operations -- was third, ahead of the San Antonio Spurs' R.C. Buford. Neither salary-cap maven Irwin Mandel, the Bulls' senior vice-president for financial affairs, nor Steve Schanwald, vice-president of business operations, received a single vote.

When Forman was named the Bulls general manager and Paxson was named vice-president of basketball operations, it was seen by many as a cosmetic move designed to make Forman the "face" of the team with regard to personnel matters, while Paxson would still hold the authority on most, if not all, personnel decisions.

Clearly, even the rest of the NBA isn't sure how "Gar-Pax" actually works.

So which is it?

The Bulls added another trophy to their award-winning 2010-11 season when general manager Gar Forman was named co-winner of the NBA's Executive of the Year Award. He shares the award with Miami Heat president Pat Riley.

Forman, who succeeded John Paxson as the Bulls' general manager when Paxson was promoted to executive vice-president of basketball operations in May, 2009, revamped the Bulls' roster after a 41-41 season under Vinny Del Negro in 2009-10.

Building around a core of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, Forman replaced 11 of the 15 players and hired Tom Thibodeau to replace Del Negro. The Bulls went 62-20 -- the best record in the NBA -- and are among the contenders in a wide-open playoff for the NBA championship.


Joakim Noah is on the NBA All-Defensive second team announced Monday. Noah received three first-team votes. Narrowly missing the second team was Derrick Rose, who received four first-team votes. Luol Deng, who also had four first-team votes; Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer also received support.
The first team consists of Dwight Howard, Orlando; Rajon Rondo, Boston; LeBron James, Miami; Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers and Kevin Garnett, Boston. Joining Noah on the second team are Tony Allen, Memphis; Chris Paul, New Orleans, and Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia.

DENG SNUBBED AGAIN
In a way, it's surprising that Noah and Rose received more support than Deng among the league's 30 head coaches, who voted for the teams. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau repeatedly had stumped for Deng for the NBA's All-Defensive team.
In another way, it's not surprising. With Rose deserving the spotlight as MVP, Carlos Boozer the high-priced free-agent signee and Noah the charismatic man-child, Deng often shapes up as the most under-appreciated Bull.
One of Deng's strengths is that while he generally guards small forwards, Thibs has not hesitated to put him on power forwards and shooting guards, even occasionally on point guards.
``I don't mind it,'' Deng said. ``I've played the longest at the four [power forward] that I've ever played. It's the most I've guarded the two guards. Sometimes [I've guarded] the one a little bit, but it's the three most of the time.''
Thibidodeau has never under-appreciated Deng, though.
``I always had a lot of respect for the way he played; I always though he was a complete player,'' Thibodeau said. ``What I didn't undersantd is how great a leader he is. And he can handle big minutes. We ask ask him to do everything, whether it's guarding a tough premier cover, score, rebound, play-make. He moves extremely well without the ball. He complements Derrrick and Carlos really well.''
Deng, in turn credits Thibodeau with helping make him a better defender.
``The main thing he helped me with is preparing for each player,'' Deng said. ``Before, I'd just go play the game. It's also about trusting your teammates and taking [opponents'] strength away.''

With his team in desperate need of a victory, Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew made a lineup change for Game 4 against the Bulls, starting 7-0, 265-pound Jason Collins in place of Marvin Williams on Sunday night.

Drew indicated it primarily was a response to the Bulls' dominance on the boards. After the Hawks outrebounded the Bulls 38-37 in a 103-95 victory in Game 1, the Bulls outrebounded the Hawks 58-39 in Game 2 and 47-34 in Game 3. The Bulls had 14 offensive rebounds in Game 2 and 18 in Game 3.

''It gives us a different look,'' Drew said, ''It helps us on the glass -- 18 [offensive] rebounds the last game. And we did have some success with that lineup against Orlando. I think it's time for a change.

''Jason plays a physical game. He's not a finesse guy. His physicality was a big reason for our success against Orlando. So we decided to go with a bigger lineup. And defensively we're tweaking some things.''

ATLANTA--A year ago, the Bulls were one of the teams Joe Johnson was looking at.
``I thought [Chicago] was a good fit,'' the Atlanta two-guard said Sunday. ``There were a few places I thought were a good fit. I thought this was the best fit for me.''
It's easy to understand why Johnson thought the Hawks' six-year deal reportedly worth $120 million was an offer he couldn't refuse.
In light of the Bulls' success this season, he was asked if he ever looked back and wondered how things might have turned out if he'd come to Chicago.
``No,'' Johnson said. Once he made his decision, ``I was stuck with it.''

HOME ON THE ROAD
The Bulls were expecting another big contingent of their fans at Philips Sunday night. And they thank them for their support.
``Our fan base is very very good,'' Derrick Rose said. ``We have a lot of fans here. It feels good when you go away and everybody's cheering for you.''
Coach Tom Thibodeau said the Bulls' road backing might even exceed that of his former team, the hallowed Boston Celtics.
``They had a strong following,'' Thibodeau said. ``I don't know if it was like this. It seems like every arena we go into is half ours. We certainly appreciate the support. You see that type of following more in college. It says a lot about our fans. We feel we have great fans.''
It's a function of transplants as well as current Chicagoans, the Hawks believe.
``Atlanta has a lot of people here from different cities,'' forward Al Horford said. ``That's just the way the city's made up. We just need to come in more focused and know that we have our fans rooting behind us. We can't control what other fans do.''


RONDO'S A TOUGH OUT
When Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo dislocated his left elbow with 7:01 left in the third quarter, the replay was not for the squeamish. Amazlingly, Rondo returned for the fourth quarter, hardly using his left arm, to help Boston finish off the Miami Heat 97-81.
``I saw the injury,'' Rose said. ``I think [his return] surprised everybody. I don't know how he even played, but he came back and played a great game.''
Thibodeau, who knows Rondo well, was not surprised, though.
``That's Rondo,'' Thibs said. ``Rondo's as tough as they come. It was a tough play, but there's a lot at stake. Those guys understand what it takes. They're going to play. That kid is something else.''

Kyle Korver never sweats a poor shooting performance -- especially when the Bulls win.

Korver shot 1-of-9 from the field, including 1-of-5 on three-pointers, in the Bulls' 86-73 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference series.

''I think I just rushed it a little bit,'' Korver said. ''I was trying to be aggressive and really come out and missed my first few shots and just didn't get into a rhythm. The one [field goal] was probably the hardest shot of the night.

''But we won. Bad shooting nights happen. And when they happen on nights that you win, it makes it that much easier to deal with it. Hopefully we're saving it for a different night.''

Carlos Boozer vs. Josh Smith has been an interesting matchup in this series. Boozer has been ineffective because he continues to go to his strength even though a toe injury prevents him from doing what he does best. Smith's downfall has been his penchant for shooting too many perimeter shots instead of doing what he does best. If they switched strategies, they might both be doing much better than they are in this series.

Though Smith blocked four of Boozer's inside shots in the second half of Game 2 at the United Center, Smith said he still expects Boozer to come at him again in Game 3.

''I think he's still going to be aggressive,'' Smith said Friday. ''It's my ability to keep stopping possessions and making easy plays. He's going to try to bully his way down on the block and get inside position. But I think me and Al [Horford] are doing a good job of using our length and matching his toughness down there.''


Will the real Hawks stand up? Or was that first game a hot-shooting aberration?
I asked Atlanta coach Larry Drew to explain how a team that had lost 10 of its last 15 regular-season games, including a huge blowout to the Bulls, could knock off Orlando in six games and be a second-round threat?
``After we got the fifth spot, I limited a lot of minutes,'' Drew said. ``I was more focused on trying to get guys well for the playoffs than trying to win games that have no meaning.''
That group including Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jason Collins and Joe Johnson.
``Come playoff time, the guys flipped the switch,'' Drew said, ``and we came out with a very strong showing vs. Orlando. I'm m not a big fan of that. I believe it's important to finish the regular season on a positive note and go into the playoffs with momentum. We didn't do that. But we were very fortunate to come back and have a good series vs. Orlando.''


The Bulls cleared their first hurdle Tuesday.
Derrick Rose was on the practice court after X rays were negative on his left ankle, which he rolled at the end of Monday night's Game 1 loss to Atlanta.
Rose will be formally introduced as the NBA's MVP at 4 p.m. While that honor is richly deserved and greatly appreciated by Rose, who publicly made that his goal af the start of the season, the next order of business is figuring out how to bounce back vs. the Hawks in Game 2 on Wednesday.
Top priorities are starting faster--the Bulls trailed 9-0 at the start--and tightening up the defense after allowing Atlanta to shoot 51 percent.
The slow start continued a playoff pattern that's puzzling and irritating to the Bulls.
``We have to play to they way we're capable of playing,'' Luol Deng said. ``Indiana did that, too. They came out aggressive from the start. Guys get confidence when we allow them to do that. We have to get back to playing with an edge.''
Even more baffling was the Bulls' proud defense, which allowed Joe Johnson to go off for 34 points and ex-Bull Jamal Crawford for 22.
``Some of the shots were tough, but that's going to happen with good players,'' Deng said. ``The problem is the ones that weren't tough shots. Those are the one you have to take away. [It's] little defensive mistakes. What are we doing out there on screens? We have to take those things away.''

Boozer will try to play tonight vs. Hawks

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Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, recovering from a turf toe injury to his right big toe, participated on a limited basis in the team's shootaround Monday morning and said he will try to play in Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks tonight at the United Center.

''It's painful, but it's the playoffs. So if I can be out there, I'm going to be out there,'' Boozer said after the shootaround at the Berto Center.

Tom Thibodeau, who led the Bulls to a 62-20 regular season and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in his first year as a head coach, is the NBA's coach of the year.
``I'm flattered, humbled and honored to receive this award,'' Thibodeau said in accepting the award Sunday. ``But I think it represents a lot more than just me. I think it's more of a team award. This is a team game. You don't achieve by yourself in this game.''
He is the fourth Bulls' coach to receive the honor, following Johnny ``Red'' Kerr (1966-67), Dick Motta (1970-71) and Phil Jackson (1995-96).
Asked how he'll celebrate, Thibs said, ``Hopefully, have a great practice tomorrow. That would be a great celebration for me.''
Thibodeau, 53, who was hired last June to succeed Vinny Del Negro, took the Bulls job after 21 years as an NBA assistant coach. His reputation grew on Doc Rivers' staff with the Boston Celtics after the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008.
``I knew the first couple of weeks that he was here that we'd hit a grand slam,'' said general manager Gar Forman, citing Thibodeau's work ethic. ``Tom's been everything we knew he'd be, and more. We're thrilled that he's here.''
Thibodeau's 62 wins leave him tied with Paul Westphal, who won 62 in 1992-93 at Phoenix, for most wins by a rookie head coach.
His players were ecstatic:
* ``I'm happy for him. He's very well deserving,'' Joakim Noah said. ``Coach is one of the hardest workers I've ever been around. I feel like your coach is your leader. We have the personality of our coach. The city's proud of the way we're playing. The way we play is the way he is.''
* ``I know it's coach Thibs' name on it, but that makes all of us feel great,'' Luol Deng said. ``Any time one of us wins something, that's an award for all of us. He's an awesome coach, a great coach on and off the court.
``The way we approach things, approach games, you can take that into everyday life, in just being a man, handling your responsabilities. He holds us responsible. Becoming winners, winning 62 games, it just became a habit. We all bought into it. That's how you become a winner.''
* ``He deserves it,'' forward Taj Gibson said. ``He's a great coach. He watches every detail, critiques your game. He's been phenomenal with me in my growth as a player. He's turned us into a whole new mode of team. Our passion, our aggression toward every game is pheonomenal.''
Derrick Rose, who shares Thibodeau's dedication to every little detail, has developed a special bond with Thibodeau. Even Rose has been taken aback by Thibs' thoroughness.
``I've never played for a coach that was this focused,'' Rose said earlier this season. ``Where there's nothing else. No kids. No wife. No leisure time just to watch TV. I'm dead serious.
``I've never heard about Thibs being out eating anywhere, never ran into him anywhere. Never. No matter what city we're in. I've never been around, or ever met, a coach that's like that.''
Rose doesn't worry about his coach, though.
``No. He's healthy,'' Rose said. ``We're winning. He seems like he's enjoying himself. So I'm fine with it. As long as we keep winning, he can keep this going.''
In response, Thibodeau played along with Rose's comment that he's so single-minded about coaching the Bulls that he's never been spotted in a restaurant.
``Yeah. I don't eat. I don't sleep,'' he said.
Told it had been suggested that Rose ought to give his coach a dining gift certificate to get him out of the video room, Thibs smiled.
``He should,'' Thibodeau said.
On second thought, he quickly added, ``Actually, I should send him one.''
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