Salmons' shooting struggles mirror those of the Bulls

Kirk Hinrich whipped a pass across the top of what passed for New York's defense. John Salmons caught it and ducked under a lunge by Knicks guard Chris Duhon, whose momentum carried him by. That left Salmons, at 3-point range, with a clear view of the rim late in the Chicago Bulls' game at United Center on Thursday. And almost too much time to think about it.

Instead, fortunately, this time, Salmons did not. He simply hoisted his shot and watched it drop, bumping an 87-81 lead up to nine with 47.7 seconds left, a game-icer that elicited a brief but discernable little hop off the floor from the normally stoic Salmons.

So that's one in a row now. Can he and the Bulls make it two? Can Salmons do it night after night, or at least more often than not?

The questions hanging over Salmons aren't any different. He and the Bulls just hope the results are.

If there is one player who has been the poster guy of Chicago's disappointing 9-15 start to 2009-10 -- the victory Thursday was only their third in 14 games -- it is Salmons. He's the player who came over last February in a trade with Sacramento who proved to be such a help and a bonus. He's the guy who was going to step into the void left by Ben Gordon, after Bulls management decided not to negotiate for the streaky scoring guard at the $55 million nose-bleed level established by the Detroit Pistons.

Salmons is the one who was supposed to help the Bulls take their next step. Instead, he's the one catching most of the flak for what so far has been a stagger. So in the locker room afterward, even if the seventh-year swingman wasn't showing or admitting to much relief, it was there on the faces of Salmons' teammates and even in the tone of the queries lobbed his way.

"Going through a struggle like that, you've just got to keep your faith,'' Salmons said, after finishing with 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the 98-89 victory. "Eventually it will come. I'm still feeling my way through. Trying to get it all together.''

The pressure, Salmons admitted, had been mounting, as much from within himself as from the boobirds at United Center or the critics around the league. There was his four-point effort Saturday in a dismal loss to Boston, and then a two-point non-performance against the Lakers Tuesday on a night when a little more might have made a difference.

"It's definitely been tough. Especially after last game. I think that's when it hit me hardest,'' he said. "The only way I can get through it is through God and keeping my faith. If it wasn't for that, I don't know where I'd be right now.

"Even today, I had a turnover. I was on a semi-break and I kind of hesitated a little bit and threw the ball away. It was not being 100 percent confident. It's been tough. Hopefully, I can keep getting better, back to where I was. It's one of them things, for whatever reason, I'm going through. People struggle at their jobs all the time. It's just, mine is a little more public.''

Salmons' struggle is not over. His 20 points against the Knicks were misleading, because he had only six on 2-of-5 shooting in a first half in which the Bulls trailed by as much as 17 points. They only got within two at the break because New York went so three-crazy (launching 29 in the half, including 2-of-16 in the second quarter). Salmons had only 13 points by the time he hit his key three, then he added four free throws in the final 47.7 seconds that weren't exactly crucial.

"He's struggling in some areas, there's no question about that,'' coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Tonight it was good to see him hit a couple of big shots for us. Penetrate and make plays. ... Y'know, we need him to play well. We need his points, we need his activity on the defensive end, his versatility. So it's a long season. Hopefully he'll build from this, because we need him to play well.''

For Salmons, it was only his sixth game with 20 points or more this season, and only the third time both he and forward Luol Deng (24 points, 13 rebounds) managed it in the same game. Salmons is averaging 13.5 points on 38.7 percent shooting, compared to the 18.3 and 47.3 percent he contributed last spring when so much less was expected.

Chicago has several other issues -- no low-post scoring, no 3-point marksmen, lots of injuries -- but until Salmon becomes more reliable, the victories come more frequently or, preferably, both, there will be scrutiny. And noise.
"It'll come for John. It's been a slow start, but it'll come,'' Deng said. "He's fine. He's been in the league for a while. He's gone through ups and downs. If he was a rookie, then we'd be worried. But he understands that he has to stick with what he's doing and trust it.''

Said center Joakim Noah, as open in his emotions as Salmons appears closed in his: "A lot of pressure is put on him. It is a different situation for him -- when BG [Gordon] was here, it definitely opened up the court a little more. I think it's just a question of him figuring it out, and also putting him in better situations where he can be more comfortable on the court.''

About then, Salmons quietly slipped out the locker room door that is next to Noah's stall. "I know it's frustrating for him at times,'' the Bulls center said. "But today he hit a big shot to seal the win. I just wish he could express that, y'know what I'm saying? I guess everybody's different ... But let me make a three like that to win the game [and see how I'd react].''

The Bulls care less about the reaction, frankly, than the action at this point.