Bulls blow 35-point lead and lose to Kings


Dec 22

That was historic stuff Monday night at the United Center, the kind of stuff only long suffering Chicago fans can understand. Like the ’69 or ’05 Cubs. Like No. 1 DePaul in the NCAA’s. Don’t get anyone started on the Bears. The Black Sox?

No, the Bulls didn’t throw Monday’s 102-98 loss to the Sacramento Kings, though you could make that case after the Bulls had a 35-point lead with 8:50 left in the third quarter.

Perhaps never in the history of the NBA has there been a worse loss. There was a bigger collapse, Nov. 27, 1996 when the Utah Jazz came back from down 36 to beat the Denver Nuggets. But that game was in Utah.

This was at home in front of a big crowd against a sub-.500 team the Bulls already had beaten on the road.

This was truly astonishing. Just about every good play made on TV in every sport is called “unbelievable” by the broadcasters. No, this one was unbelievable.

And, worse, it probably, finally, establishes the point where the Bulls will have a chance to make the playoffs or collapse and fall toward the bottom of the league.

Denver was a 5-9 team when it was stunned in 1996 by that remarkable collapse. They went on to lose the next nine in a row and finished the season 21-61. That’s what this type of loss can do to a team.

Bulls players and coach Vinny Del Negro talked of being fine, not letting this carry over and it being the time to fight back. But the words seemed hollow and practiced.

Del Negro’s eyes were bloodshot as he spoke after the game, insisting as he often has like when the team was suffering blowouts and big losses on the western trip and earlier this month that he is a fighter and teams have to fight through this stuff. He sounded a bit less convincing this time.

The irony is Del Negro seemed to move away from the end of the coaching plank last week with nice wins over New York and Atlanta. But with the team 10-16 he seemed to have stepped right to the edge again. Joakim Noah, who’s been cooperative all season with reporters, was not rude. But he left the locker room saying he had nothing to say after sitting, seemingly unconscious, in his chair for perhaps 15 minutes, not moving and wearing a stocking cap over his head and face.

Luol Deng, who confirmed he suffered a small fracture on the tip of his left thumb a week ago and led the Bulls with 26 points, agreed “everybody’s down.” But he pointed to a chance to play again Tuesday in New York.

Derrick Rose, who along with Deng was brilliant in the team’s best half of the season when they led 67-43 at halftime and finished with 24 points and seven assists, supposed there was a “first time for everything” and did concede the players tightened up as the Kings inexorably drew closer down the stretch.

Rose tried desperately to finish as the Bulls went to him for the last three shots and he missed all as his drives from the top were met by a gang of Kings defenders and Rose came up short each time.

“Knowing we were up this much and did not finish (hurts),” said Rose, who had dominated the matchup with Memphis rookie Tyreke Evans until Evans took over late and won the game with 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter. “I wouldn’t say hang our heads. We play tomorrow. That’s the great thing about the NBA. We can take out this anger on New York. That (getting tight) happens with any team (when you lose a big lead). We did. You start thinking about some of your shots or your passes and you are overthinking.”

The only other player to address reporters was John Salmons, who had 14 points and six steals. The others dressed quietly and quickly and left for the team plane to New York. But in missing three of four threes, Salmons, meanwhile, was no threat down the stretch as the defense was able to collapse on Rose’s last attempts.

“It’s a tough loss. I don’t even know what to say,” Salmons said with that same stunned look that permeated the locker room. “Yeah, it’s embarrassing. First time all year we had a lead like that and we blew it. It’s tough. But you gain victory out of adversity. Our whole mentality in the fourth quarter—offense and defense—was disappointing.”

Sure, one of 82 and all that, but this kind of thing sticks with you. You’ve seen it with teams, like closers in baseball and all of a sudden all they can think about is giving up the run, or field goal kickers missing those chip shots at the end and invariably being cut.

What was unusual about this game is the comeback didn’t come in a rush of fast breaks and dunks and momentum changers. It was more an unyielding, inescapable drip of points as the Bulls players first seemed overconfident in dropping their defensive aggressiveness and starting to trade baskets. Then they started missing and the Kings didn’t as Donte Greene and Sergio Rodriquez came off the bench to hit threes and the Kings inched to within 88-69 after three.

No sweat, right?

But the Bulls had stopped running like they did in that impressive first half in which they led 8-0 on fast break points, 12-5 on second chance points and 34-14 in the paint. It was as complete an effort the team has had this season with Deng with 20 in the half and running Andres Nocioni out of the game and Rose with 19 while pestering Evans into five points and zero assists.

But perhaps one big flaw was that the Bulls who were the magnificent seven in the first half were less than special afterward and kept playing.

Once again, Del Negro failed to use anyone beyond that seven and who knows if that was the reason the Bulls were two of 10 shooting in the fourth quarter with seven turnovers while being outscored 33-10.

“I don’t think fatigue was an issue,” Del Negro insisted, noting Tyreke Evans played 44 minutes, though the Kings used 10 players and all for at least 15 minutes. “It wasn’t a back to back game for us. I don’t think that was the case. I think it was us not executing and not being smart on either end.”

It was so bad the Kings didn’t even need a buzzer beater to win and went ahead with more than a minute left. That left it to Rose as the team’s go to guy and finisher, and the Kings were ready. Rose isn’t.

Rose drove right as he often does on that last play. He was blocked off trailing by two with 7.9 seconds left, spun back and missed short in what seemed like an open shot.

“It was a good look,” said Rose. “I usually hit it. My shot was kind of flat. That was a shot I usually make when I turn around. Tonight, it did not go in. If I do cry about it, it’s a foul. He did not touch me at all. I just missed the shot.”

Beno Udrih, who kept the Kings even within 24 with 14 in the first half, was fouled and made two free throws and, stunningly, that was it.

Del Negro agreed he’d never experienced anything like that before, but added, “It happens. It’s happened before. It’s frustrating. It’s difficult. But what are you going to do?

Put your head down and feel sorry for yourself? You’ve got to go play.

This is the NBA. This is pros. Everyone thinks they’ve got all these schemes. When someone gets on a roll, it makes it difficult. You get confidence. That’s all that happened.

“We started turning it over and quick shooting,” said Del Negro. “They got some easy baskets, got some confidence, started moving the ball, hitting some shots. We couldn’t contain them when we had to. You turn around and you’re in a tight game and it puts pressure on you and we didn’t make any shots down the stretch or put pressure on them. It’s difficult.”

It was difficult to watch, for sure, or listen to the home crowd booing as the inevitable began to come into view and to watch the young Kings celebrating and now 13-14.

“I was thinking this would be a long ride home (to Sacramento), but it turns out to be the best ride I ever had,” said Kings owner Gavin Maloof in the joyous Kings locker room. “It was a fun night. If they don’t know who Tyreke Evans is now, they know him now. And how ’bout Jon Brockman? And Ime Udoka? It was magical.”

No one could even take the time to be upset when with the score tied at 96, Kirk Hinrich and Brockman got a jump ball, which Brockman won. The ball was loose after Brockman stripped a driving Rose. Evans then faced up Hinrich and was fouled. He made the first and missed the second, but Brockman got the rebound.

Like the guys from Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid might have said, “Who are those guys?”

Evans then faded back and launched a high arcing ball over Deng that swished for a 99-96 Kings lead with 50.1 seconds left.

Evans ran back excitedly to the huddle as a timeout was called by the Bulls, Evans cupping his two hands below his waist in a provocative suggestion that he is a big time player.

“Wow. All I can say is wow,” said Evans, who led the Kings with 23 points and eight rebounds.

It was difficult for the Bulls to argue as no one among them was able to stop anything the Kings were doing or Udoka, whom the Bulls kept leaving open in the corner to collapse on Evans and Udoka hit three threes in the fourth quarter and totaled 15 of his 17 points.

So who are they?

Udoka was undrafted out of the College of Eastern Utah (I never heard of it, either) and Portland State and has kicked around with five NBA teams after stints in the IBA (whatever that is), the D-league, France and Spain. Brockman is a 6-7 bruiser from the U. of Washington drafted in the second round last spring by Portland and traded with Rodriguez for the rights to Jeff Pendergraph.

I know. It gets worse and worse.

“What can you say?” said Kings coach Paul Westphal, another guy shaking his head. “It’s unheard of to do what just happened. I’m not even sure I believe it. But it sure was fun.”

The shame of it all for the Bulls was had they kept playing or been able to, it would have resembled something of a turnaround, a third straight win after an impressive win over the Hawks. Instead, the Bulls are looking at an explosive Knicks team coming in late and likely weary with their short rotation.

Don’t anyone wish the Bulls a happy holidays. They are not happy.

It’s too bad because it was a perfect first half.

After mostly slow starts for weeks, the Bulls jumped on the Kings with Rose blasting down court and Deng lining in jumpers. Noah scored on a crossover dribble. Hinrich came in and hit a three. The Bulls shot 70.8 percent and led 38-19. The Bulls staggered to open the second quarter, but exploded again. Rose took a backdoor bounce pass from Brad Miller and dunked forcefully, Deng picked up everything around the basket and put it back. Rose closed the half ahead 67-43 scoring over his Memphis point guard successor and Rookie of the Year coleader thus far, Evans.

“We had it going pretty good in the first half,” Del Negro noticed.

The Bulls kept the pressure on after halftime, and that should have been enough for a team on the last game of a road trip playing its third game in four nights. I told you it gets worse.

“We’re a young, exciting team,” said Jason Thompson. “Being so young you never know what’s going to happen. Even though we even won 17 games last year, we’re trying to make the playoffs. The sky is the limit for this team.”

Still, it didn’t look that way as the Bulls went on a 12-1 run to open the second half with a Deng three, Rose running out and hitting Salmons and Noah with an inside drop step move. It was 79-44 Bulls. It was still 81-48 Bulls with eight minutes left in the third when Rose lobbed to Noah for a dunk. Everyone was up and partying.

The Bulls were outscored 52-15 in the next 20 minutes. At home.

“We stopped being aggressive in the third quarter,” said Del Negro. “It got contagious. And in the fourth quarter we couldn’t get any stops when we had to. We went cold. We wanted to attack the basket. We didn’t play together. One pass and a shot. We’re not good enough to take a minute off never mind a half.

“They penetrated, we helped, they kicked it out they swung it, he (Udoka) made a couple of nice shots,” said Del Negro. “You let teams back in games they gain confidence. At the end their confidence is up. Evans is very difficult to contain off the dribble.

“We got in a time there where we were just making one pass and not making them guard,” said Del Negro. “We missed a few shots, we turned it over, they were out in the open court, attacking. Their confidence is up. That puts us back on our heels a little bit. They make a couple of big shots, they isolate Tyreke, we can’t control him and we did not make any big plays down the stretch.”

“It was not efficient recognition of what we were doing,” said Del Negro. “Knowing they’re in the penalty and settling for jumpers and one pass. These are all things we work on and it comes down to execution in the game. This one stings. Players (have to) win games. You have to execute. We kind of got a little bit complacent there and they jumped on us and took advantage. Everyone takes a little blame. It’s me, the players, the coaches, everybody. It was almost as if we were playing not to lose than to win.”

Remember Dec. 21. It could change everything.

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