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Bulls Cough Up Another Close One in Indy
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 1
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Isn’t this just the way it is for Chicago teams?
Ones without Michael Jordan, at least.
Never easy. Making you feel like you don’t want to watch or can’t watch. So close, but out of reach. Just excruciating.
And so this is what it’s beginning to look like for the Bulls, who gave up an eight-point fourth quarter lead in the last six minutes and were outscored 11-2 to close the game and lost Tuesday 107-105 to the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls to even have a chance for the playoffs now probably will have to beat the Charlotte Bobcats April 11 when the teams meet in Chicago.
That’s because with a Bobcats win over the Lakers Tuesday—could Phil Jackson have been paying back Michael Jordan for all Jordan did for him with the Bulls?—Charlotte pulled within one game of the Bulls for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. More significantly, Charlotte is tied with the Bulls in losses, the key statistic in such races, and Charlotte has the tiebreaker if the teams are even at the end of the season.
So the Bulls now, effectively, have almost zero edge over the Bobcats. Other than a supposedly favorable schedule with five of their last six games at home and only one, April 9 against the 76ers, against a team with a winning record. The Bobcats close with six of eight on the road, starting in Boston Wednesday.
The Pistons also lost Tuesday, leaving them a game ahead of the Bulls, but with two fewer losses. Thus Detroit has a big edge, though the Bulls could limit that with a win in Detroit April 13 in the penultimate game of the season.
Meanwhile, as devastating as Tuesday’s loss for the Bulls was, it would be a shocking and humiliating end to the season now if the Bulls were to miss the playoff after looking just days ago like they had a chance to move even to sixth in the East.
That’s likely over now with consecutive losses to two of the worst teams in the conference, the 14th place Raptors and 11th place Pacers. It also explained an agitated Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro after the game, as Del Negro was unusually brief in his postgame comments, apparently less angry with anyone than frustrated with how close the team is to both winning and missing the playoffs, the latter a fate which again will raise questions, fair or not, about his future with the team.
Such losses as Tuesday’s also show no schedule is easy no matter the conventional wisdom. Yes, those games were on the road. But the Bulls had chances to win both and collapsed down the stretch or in overtime against Toronto in a welter of mindless possessions and lax defense.
This is where the Bulls’ season long inability to develop a solid defensive system is coming back to bite the team.
Big offense looks nice and feels good when it’s going well. I’ve often argued this Bulls team was primarily an offensive-minded team given its personnel, so they may as well continue to play that way. They have. But without that defensive resolve and lack of accountability on defense, there’s little ability to make defensive plays when needed. Which is what wins big games.
No, the Bulls aren’t playing for anything but to improve, and they have. But now they happen to be in the first games that really matter all season, and their casual approach to the defensive side of the ball could prove fatal.
“We had the game and we just let it go,” said Derrick Rose, who had a remarkable line of 24 points, 11 rebounds and six assists without a turnover. But Rose was constantly blitzed by T.J. Ford, who made the game winner over actually a good Rose defensive move with three seconds left.
“He made a fall-away jump shot, and that’s what you want people to take at the end of a game,” said Rose. “We should have gotten to the hole a little more, and tried to get to the free throw line. But we didn’t do it. We have to learn how to finish games more. It feels good that we battled tonight. But it hurts a lot that we lost this game.”
I had fewer specific issues with Tuesday’s game than the general inability to impose your will defensively on the opponent. It turns out the Bulls got Mike D’Antoni, after all, in Del Negro, another Phoenix Suns style game. Just a less experienced version since the Bulls have to outscore you to beat you.
And it looked like they would.
I thought Del Negro made most of the right calls Tuesday, and the players gutted out a tough situation with Luol Deng still out and John Salmons being held out with a groin issue so he could finish starting Saturday at home against the Nets. I don’t see anyone among the Bulls not competing and not caring.
It’s actually an exciting finish to the season if you can enjoy the action as much as the result.
Kirk Hinrich, who was very good with 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists and the best any of the Bulls defending Danny Granger, collided with Granger early and went out with five stitches. Hinrich played 39 minutes even as he turned his ankle before halftime. Rose played 40 minutes and spent the time he wasn’t in the game getting treatment on his hip. His wrist remains wrapped, and probably was crucial in a missed fast break layup with the Bulls leading 95-87 with just under seven minutes left. It was a ball Rose usually would have dunked, but apparently could not since hurting his wrist dunking in Washington. Still, he was marvelous playing 40 minutes again through so many injuries.
Tim Thomas played 30 minutes despite a sore back and Gordon, who was a disappointing five for 18 and missed a shot to tie at the buzzer, was also getting treatment from the trainer in timeouts for leg issues.
Perhaps it was one reason for the Bulls being outscored on fast breaks 29-11. It was tough getting back with the Pacers pushing the pace.
It’s clearly a team grasping for the finish line, which keeps moving just barely out of reach.
“We had this one and let it go,” said Hinrich. “It’s disappointing, but you can’t dwell on it.”
Yes, sometimes it is tougher being the fan.
This one looked in the win column for the Bulls, a nice cushion heading for that last home stretch when Brad Miller pulled a clever fake on the Pacers, hardly interested in defending as well, and acted like he was shooting. He lobbed the ball to Tyrus Thomas for a slam dunk and 103-96 lead with 3:46 left.
“Down the stretch they made big shots and we didn’t not cover guys on defense,” said Thomas, who had 20 points but just one rebound. “Things happen. We need every win right now. To lose this game is really tough for us. We just have to forget about this and take care of the rest of our schedule. I don’t know how we lost the lead.”
Ford, who had 22 points and nine assists, got a questionable foul call and made two free throws. Rose missed on a runner. The Bulls stripped Kareem Rush on the next possession, and here was the first key. Hinrich ran out and was fouled. But he missed both free throws for what could have been a seven-point lead with three minutes left.
“It’s disturbing,” said Ben Gordon. “We’ve been doing a poor job of closing games out all year. This was a game we definitely needed. It was definitely a winnable game. It was definitely disappointing.”
It’s, perhaps, an easy time to point to Del Negro’s tight rotation even with the injuries and failure to use reserves to give guys a rest. But it’s really been the guards who have played the most, and there’s only Lindsey Hunter and Anthony Roberson. In games like this and this late in the season, I’d do it the same way and stick with this group. So you maybe give up some free throws as Hinrich could have with tired legs.
I can’t quibble with many of the moves Tuesday given the limited roster with injuries. Though the Pacers got a big contribution from onetime Duke star Josh McRoberts, who rarely plays. He had a career best 10 points off the bench in 18 minutes, scoring three key baskets early in the fourth quarter as he was too quick for Miller. You might have wanted Joakim Noah on him then since McRoberts is mostly an energy player. Noah barely played after halftime again. But Miller was making plays, passing beautifully to lead the team with eight assists along with 14 points, and Noah wasn’t scoring. And it was becoming clear the Bulls needed to score to keep pace since they weren’t stopping anyone. Though Noah has been the better center defender.
After Hinrich missed those two, Troy Murphy suckered Miller in with a pump fake and made both free throws to get Indiana within 103-100 with 2:45 left.
The Pacers continued to trap Rose on the screen/roll. So he got the ball back from Miller, but lost it out of bounds on a drive, the first of four devastating empty possessions that inevitably doomed the Bulls.
“Tough game,” said Del Negro. “Guys played hard, but we didn’t execute down the stretch. T.J. picked us apart and Granger was tough. We have to get back to work.”
There’s three days off now, but this group likely needs rest.
Because it was mental breakdowns more than physical that costs the game.
First, Hinrich overdribbled, as he’s done in previous years, and ran into a triple team at the basket and threw it off the bottom of the basket. Granger, who would end with 31, shot quickly and missed a wide open three that would have tied the game at 103.
Gordon came around a screen and was trapped with Murphy rolling back to get Miller. Gordon softly threw it right to Murphy for the turnover. Ford ran out with it and missed. But Granger followed it up to pull the Pacers within 103-102 with 1:25 left.
Rose dribbled up casually and held the ball, running off 18 seconds before he passed back to Miller, as the Bulls obviously had nothing called. Miller was near the three point line. So he threw to Tyrus Thomas at the free throw line with three seconds left. Bad idea. Tyrus spun and passed to Hinrich in the right corner. He was covered, so then tried a drop pass to a cutting Thomas, though too late and the Bulls were called for a shot clock violation with one minute left.
It was the end of a brutal sequence of four awful possessions.
The Pacers then worked the ball inside and out and found Granger on the right side for a three and 105-103 lead with 47 seconds left.
“Granger is tough,” said Del Negro. “We don’t have our small forwards. He’s hand full. He’s got range and size.”
I don’t mean to pick on Thomas because he is playing hard and being a factor. But his defense tends to be built too much on statistics and weak side help.
If you are going to guard anyone at a time like that, it has to be Granger, who is Indiana’s scoring leader and top three point shooter. But Tyrus got lost again waiting in the lane for Ford and Granger got wide open and made the three. There’s a lot more to basketball than just making the plays.
It’s also thinking the game. A good shot isn’t just when you are open. It’s when your teammates are in position to rebound and to get back to defend. On defense, you identify who is most likely to shoot and you stay with those guys. Troy Murphy, Jarrett Jack and Brandon Rush also were on the floor then with Ford and Granger. Yet Granger was the most open.
The Bulls came out of a timeout and got Gordon hitting a tough 17 footer off a Miller screen to tie the game at 105 with 38 seconds left.
Ford then penetrated and kicked back to Murphy for a too quick 18 footer. It missed, but went off the Bulls with 26 seconds left, giving the Pacers that last possession.
“We told him to take a shot near the end of the shot clock to not give them much time,” said Pacers coach Jim O’Brien.
Ford took the ball and dribbled away the clock on top. You might have trapped him to give up the ball at this point since Ford is their primary playmaker, though Jack also was in the game.
“I think everybody on the team knew the play was called for the last shot, and I was pretty much going to take it unless they helped,” said Ford. “I was able to get to my spot and elevate up.”
Ford went with about eight seconds left with the court spread and Rose isolated on Ford. Ford drove right and cut left to his strong hand. Ford drove to about 10 feet and this time the Bulls stayed home on their men and nobody helped Rose. Ford made slight body contact and fell back and shot a high arcing rainbow which dropped through for a 107-105 lead with 3.9 seconds remaining.
“I just stuck my hand out,” said Rose, who was in good defensive position and played it as well as he could have. “He made a fall-away jump shot, and that’s what you want people to take at the end of a game.”
The Bulls went with Gordon out of the timeout. No miracles this time.
Gordon took the pass on top from Rose and circled right. Rush was trailing, but the taller Granger switched and stayed in front of Gordon, forcing Gordon into a tough shot which came up short of the basket. Tyrus Thomas seemed to have a chance to catch it and put it in. But Miller crashed into him and knocked the ball loose as he buzzer sounded.
“I got the switch on Gordon that gave me some size at the end,” said Granger. “We knew he was going to get the ball and we knew what we had to do.”
The Bulls had to win some on the road, but they fell to 12-28 away from the United Center, hardly the stuff that is deserving of the playoffs.
They fell behind 28-24 after one quarter as they had trouble locating Granger late in the first and he hit three straight jumpers. A word about Granger. He made the All Star team and puts up big numbers. But for a guy his size he doesn’t attack the basket much, and when Hinrich played him physically, it was the best success the Bulls had against him.
This is where the Bulls really missed Salmons, though Indiana was without Jeff Foster and still Mike Dunleavy. Salmons helps spread the court for Gordon better with his drives and offense, though Hinrich was sharp. But Gordon was five of 18 and missed eight of his first nine shots.
The biggest first quarter shot, though, was when Hinrich hit heads with Granger trying to guard Granger and both left for stitches a minute into the game.
The Bulls inched ahead by seven in the second quarter as the Pacers began firing off threes, Granger with 10 for the game. Del Negro has tended to rely on Miller late in games, and this time Noah, unlike when he scored but played little in the loss to Toronto, was going up softly with passes and was without a field goal in 20 minutes.
The Bulls led 52-50 at halftime. But Noah’s night was effectively coming to an end when Noah let Roy Hibbert get deep for an easy score and a second basket easily past Noah for a layup to take a 59-54 Pacers lead.
The Bulls then looked sharp. And when Rose penetrated and pitched back to Hinrich for a three, the Bulls has taken back the game and led 69-63 with about four minutes left in the third. The Bulls led 79-76 after three and then scored the first four points of the fourth quarter and kept the lead until Granger’s three with under a minute left.
But once again, they couldn’t finish. Many more like that and they are finished.