Game Notes: Bulls at Jazz
Bridging the London gap.
The game of basketball today is expanding globally. From Beijing to Paris and from Yao to Dirk. Last night, however, London was calling and Luol Deng looked to answer. He took center stage, leading his Chicago Bulls against the Utah Jazz. This was the third consecutive, annual NBA exhibition game in England’s capital. As I made my way down to the 02 Arena, I thought of what it would mean for Luol to play in front of his hometown friends and family for the first time as a Chicago Bull. Luol grew up playing basketball in Brixton, just nine tube stops from the 02. I wondered how much this game — and Luol himself — would help highlight basketball in a soccer-centric country.
From the amount of No. 9 Bulls jerseys that descended on North Greenwich, it would have seemed that this was just Luol’s night. This looked to hold even truer when it was announced that Derrick Rose would not be playing due to an ankle injury. This put an end to the potential match-up between two of the best point guards in the League. The only competition between Rose and Deron Williams would be from the day before, as they both had in-store appearances in Central London around the same time. Derrick was signing autographs at the adidas store and Deron was just two blocks down in Foot Locker’s House of Hoops. Both drew big crowds, but Deron won that round after being chased down Oxford Street.
The media was denied locker room access, but was granted a press conference with David Stern. The commissioner breached subjects ranging from sponsorships on teams jerseys (“We absolutely won’t do it unless they pay us enough.”) to the NBA being “intently focused [on] Africa.” I asked David what he thought of tonight’s teams. He talked about how the Bulls “continued to improve” and “continued to get stronger” and how he was “fascinated by Utah.”
At the player introductions Joakim Noah (playing in front of his family), drew loud cheers but, of course, the best reception was saved for the star of Team GB. As he took the microphone Luol told the fans how it was, “Great to be back in the city of London.”
18, 689 eager fans turned up for this sellout, but their attention would need to be kept throughout the game. There was no better way to set it off as Ronnie Brewer stole the ball and completed a breakaway dunk just moments in. Noah replied straight away at the other end with a strong drive and nice lay-up. The fans were yearning for some action from their hometown hero, however. Luol was eager to please, but perhaps a little to eager, turning over on his first possession and then missing his first shot. He made amends by posting up and scoring at the 9-minute mark to big cheers. Chicago rookies Derrick Byars, Taj Gibson and James Johnson got some decent burn from the outset and played hard. They displayed few nerves in showing up on the biggest of stages.
Both teams shook off some postseason rust, and Carlos Boozer and Deron worked the pick and roll. As the midway point of the 1st quarter approached, the Jazz displayed great ball movement. The rock found its way through four hands before being swished from downtown by Okur.
Deng tried to find his range throughout the 1st, and had 9. Jannero Pargo — in for Rose — started strong, passing and shooting well. Deng fed Byars for a dunk, and the rookie was hungry.
Kirilenko entered the game with his trademark spiky hair slicked down and in order. His game at the start needed a comb through, however. As the quarter came to a close Andrei was open for three with all the time in the world, but he found everything except the net. The horn sounded and ‘Team Deng’ was up by 1.
At courtside there were plenty of Premiership footballers and a couple of British Olympians on hand. No sign of Lil’ Wayne, however, who’s doing three dates in London this week. Brad Miller missed from the baseline despite being automatic at practice but Byars cleaned up the mess dunking off the rim emphatically. There was quiet in the arena without Deng, but the other Bulls made noise. Pargo hit from three and created for himself and Gibson shot a poster with AK-47.
Gibson and Byars weren’t the only rooks that made a name for themselves. James Johnson dunked hard off a Deng miss; Tyrus Thomas can rest assured. Johnson not a minute later hit from 3 displaying his range. He smiled the next time he brought the ball up court, he loves this game.
Utah tried to get back. Goran Suton from the baseline tried to put a bit of Jordan on his fade away but missed. Johnson again on the other end showed how it’s done, the Chicago Bulls way.
The Bulls looked to be having fun, especially Noah. As he set up his first free-throw he heard a scream to his right. As he sank it he pointed and acknowledged the fan. There was another scream from directly in front of him as he took his second. He calmly made it then screamed back playfully.
Luol helped the Bulls pull away by 7 at the half with some nice, deep twos… this was his house.
The third quarter started scrappy as teams struggled and fans took their seats and photographs. Kirk Hinrich scored and put all this to rest. I looked at a Japanese basketball publication to my left that read backwards. The game really is moving forward. The Bulls continued to have the advantage. Noah was strong in the paint and Pargo drained another three to give himself 13.
Lindsey Hunter checked in giving these ‘Baby Bulls’ a veteran presence. He greeted Jazz rookie Wes Matthews with a slap on the backside. This drew wolf whistles and cheers from the crowd — we don’t do that over here in the UK. Lindsey then missed his first from the charity stripe… Was he embarrassed?
The Chocolate Thunder was in the house and Dawkins felt the love. There are only a few people who could pull off an orange suit like what he wore and Darryl is one of them. The action on the court got louder than Dawkins’ suit as Johnson gave a big no-no to Okur’s shot attempt.
Wes Matthews made noise with a three. Deron, however, quietly crawled to 12 from the free throw line as the end of the 3rd approached.
It was early, and Brad Miller was fouled hard by Utah sophomore Kosta Koufus. Miller looked to the Jazz bench for sympathy, but Jerry Sloan didn’t seem to care.
Some garbage time difficulties… please standby.
The fans began to chant “We want Deng” in the second half of the 4th. It had been a while but no milk carton. The concerning thing was that the game was tied up late in the 4th, but the stars remained on the bench. Fans began to file out the exits as well when they should have been all EA Sports. I guess this was an exhibition game after all. With four minutes to go, Paul Millsap faked and put it down hard with his knees raised. Shaq would be proud. Kirilenko’s spikes broke out and so did his game, but was it too late? Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Superstar’ played at the next timeout, and London wanted theirs, but Deng wouldn’t finish the evening he started.
Chicago had a young star in the making last night anyway. Johnson broke away for the layup to tie and the foul to possibly lead. JJ was good from the line and his team were better for it.
It was almost over for the Jazz. That was until Byars choked from the line… twice. Utah’s Ronnie Price was then fouled and he and Utah’s game went down to the line. He tied it up with his first. You could feel and hear so many pairs of feet stomping throughout the arena. He then put his team up by 1 with the second. A shot clock, a second and a couple of fractions remained in the bank. Utah 101, Chicago 100.
A few more people left to catch the early tube as Johnson air-balled from the corner; he could have been the man last night.
But Johnson wasn’t to be the man last night… he was to be the hero. As Byars missed, the seconds ticked down. Johnson rebounded, faded away with 0.1 over Kirilenko’s long arms, back-pedaled and beat the odds and the buzzer. Johnson won the game and the attention of the true fans who stayed to the end. Bulls 102, Jazz 101. The London crowd didn’t see the final curtain they envisioned with Deng, but the ending was still a fairytale. There were Bull hugs all around. Noah held two fists triumphantly in the air. Welcome to NBA Basketball, London.
Both teams seemed to have enjoyed and appreciated the experience in London. Luol described the night as “amazing” and “incredible” and Jerry Sloan told us the “nice thing about it was everyone had fun.” Joakim Noah had as much fun as anyone, being heard singing from outside the press conference and looking forward to “Giving it to London” in the 2012 Olympics.
As I asked Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro about the confidence of his rookies, he told me about how “they’re great kids and they put the work in.”
Johnson certainly put the work in, telling me how he liked to “perform big in big games,” treating no game like an exhibition. After an incredible big game performance tonight, saving his Bulls, I asked whether he’d be spared the traditional rookie detail off-court for his on-court efforts. James laughed, but admitted he was “definitely still gonna have to carry the bags.”
So the night proved the city of London had embraced the NBA. The fans filled the seats, but they still needed excitement to keep them in the arena. Utah was a worthy opponent, but it was Chicago that provided the excitement from Deng’s patriotism to Johnson’s heroics.
London looks set to host more exhibition games in the future and hopefully, according to Stern, a regular season match up as well. There is also the small matter of the Olympic Games in three years. As I reminded Noah, the next time he plays on this court with Deng, it may well be against him. To that, he replied, “That’d be great; that’d be fun.” Stay tuned.