Preview: Bulls defense solving Heat bigger issues than referees

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The Chicago Bulls have much, much bigger issues right now than the referees.

You couldn’t tell that from the talk around Chicago or even at times from coach Tom Thibodeau. It’s about the foul calls, it’s about LeBron James the flopper. For the coach and his $35,000 rant, that was simply him trying to influence the officials going forward — the Bulls know they need to be physical and aggressive to win Game 4 to even this series. They want the latitude to do that.

We like the intensity because these teams really don’t like each other. This feels like a playoff rivalry, like we want the playoffs to feel. For some fans that can go a little far. Conspiracies are great ways to explain away what we don’t want to accept — that one man with rifle in a book depository window can kill a president, that weather balloons landed at Area 51…

And that the Bulls defense hasn’t been good enough this series to slow LeBron and friends.

That is the key in this series — Miami shot 60 percent in Game 2 and 50 percent in Game 3. On the season the Bulls allowed opponents to shoot 44.3 percent, ninth best in the NBA. Or, look at it this way: During the season the Bulls allowed opponents just 100.3 points per 100 possessions (fifth in the NBA), the last two games the Heat have scored 125.3 and 120 points per 100. Miami adjusted to the physicality after Game 1.

Part of that comes back around to why Thibodeau is lobbying referees — the Heat have had a parade to the foul line the last two games. The Bulls want to be physical but without the fouls. (Although part of this is the Bulls new trend of taking the “Euro foul” — fouling a guy at midcourt to stop a fast break opportunity. Chicago has gone to that and it ups their foul count.)

Bottom line heading into Game 4 is the Bulls defense isn’t getting it done — they forced the Heat into more jumpers in Game 3 but Miami hit them. Chicago doesn’t have the offensive weapons left to compensate for that.

Miami comes into Game 4 with the goal of getting points closer to the basket again — starting their sets earlier in the clock and attacking the paint off the dribble. Look for the Heat to try and post up Dwyane Wade, who has struggled a little this series. The Bulls defense has thrown the Heat’s spacing off at times, just not enough.

Chicago needs to get Nate Robinson more space (27 points in Game 1, 28 points the next two games). They need a huge night out of Joakim Noah. And Jimmy Butler. They will not have Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich. Or Derrick Rose.

And they need to get back to the physical defense that can win them games in this series. Not the over-the-top pushes of Noah on Chris Andersen or Nazr Mohammed on LeBron. They have to stay within the play and make it happen.

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.