As he returned to the bench exhausted and on the receiving end of a standing ovation from every one of his teammates, you had to wonder what was going through the mind of Omer Asik. In four short months, the 24 year old Bulls rookie has gone from relative unknown, to wild card, to playing crunch time minutes against NBA superstar Dwight Howard. On Friday, Tom Thibodeau made Asik the first man off the bench, and in return the Turkish center made his coach look like a genius. With Noah in foul trouble and Boozer struggling, Asik filled the void with 5 points, 13 rebounds and one hell of a defensive presence in the middle.
ESPN analyst and former coach Hubie Brown, a man who has seen his share of NBA games, went out of his way time and time again to praise Asik’s play during the course of the Bulls 89-81 victory. He understands that an active big man patrolling the paint directly translates to victories. When you out-rebound the league’s 5th best rebounding team 50-30, wins will follow. For the Bulls, Asik’s development means they now own one of the league’s deepest front lines, one that puts up double digit offensive rebounds on a near-nightly basis.
Along with Noah’s trademark scrappy play, Asik and the Bulls frustrated Howard all night, including a second quarter technical foul when the Magic star was whistled for swinging his elbows after the play. It would be easy to look at this win, the Bulls first in Orlando since the 2007 season, and find few faults. However Carlos Boozer’s struggles, which began when Noah returned to the lineup, are becoming less of a coincidence and more of a trend. Boozer went 5-17 from the floor for 12 points and 9 rebounds, and looked out-of-sync from the opening tip. Granted it has only been four games since the Bulls have featured their entire roster, but Thibodeau must find a way to get his star power forward untracked.
The Bulls bench set the tone, scoring 32 points to the Magic’s 13, with Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson combining for 18 points. It took a few minutes for Chicago to shake off the hangover from their second-half collapse in Atlanta. But from the halfway point in the first quarter on, the Bulls played stone-cold lockdown defense.
Derrick Rose (24 points, 4 assists) did enough to get the win, but struggled once again going 0-5 from behind the arc with 5 turnovers. More than once he hesitated when given the open shot, and is now 6 for his last 36 from distance. He has not looked his normal, amazing self since the Bulls beat the San Antonio Spurs in Chicago before the All-Star break.
Regardless, a road victory in Orlando should be celebrated, even more so as the Bulls notch their 42nd win of the season. With 22 games left on the schedule, Chicago already has more victories than either of their past two Playoff seasons under former coach Vinnie Del Negro.
With the Miami Heat lacking an interior presence, the Boston Celtics trading away their front court depth at the deadline and the Orlando Magic struggling outside of the aforementioned Howard, the Bulls arguably have the deepest, most talented front line in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps it is optimistic outlook, but Asik’s ascendance may be the thing that pushes Chicago from playoff team to title contender.
Follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks