Bulls find you can go home, but it ends unhappily


Feb 3

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The Bulls Tuesday in their first home game in more than two weeks were badly outplayed by the Los Angeles Clippers in losing 90-82. The Clippers made 11 steals and got seven blocks and shot 54 percent through the first three quarters to lead by 15. The Clippers made Derrick Rose look bad with aggressive trapping and Rose shot seven of 20. Luol Deng led with 18 points, but just two after the first quarter. The Bulls were slow, routinely outhustled, outshot and careless with the ball and fell back to 23-23.

Yes, and that was the good news.

The bad news was that Joakim Noah, the relentless spirit of the team, had perhaps his poorest game of the season with eight points, six rebounds and four turnovers, and despite sitting out practice and doing nothing the last three days his foot problems seem as bad as ever.

“It bothers me,” Noah conceded after the game. “I’ll see how it feels tomorrow (for the 76ers in Philadelphia). It’s frustrating to go day to day not being able to practice. It sucks not being able to jump the way you want to jump, run the floor the way you want to run the floor.

“A lot of my game is based on energy,” Noah acknowledged. “I’ve got to find a way to fight through this. I wake up in the morning and see how my foot feels and try to get through my warm up. It’s frustrating.”

It was frustrating for the Bulls and their fans to have the team return home riding the high of the stunning five-game winning streak against top Western Conference teams, and then produce a sluggish, lackluster effort.

Now, the Clippers did have a lot to do with that as Eric Gordon had 24 points, 15 in the third quarter when the Clippers took final control of the game, and Chris Kaman had 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Kaman is the Clippers’ oft injured center whom the Bulls flirted with before last season and almost traded for. He missed much of last season, and when he went out the last two games the Clippers were routed in Minnesota and Cleveland, trailing all of the last 11 quarters until they scored the first basket against the Bulls Tuesday.

But with Noah occupied with Marcus Camby, who had 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, Kaman had his way with the shorter Taj Gibson, and the Clippers did a terrific job beating the Bulls slow double teams and help to open shooter and cutters. They shot 64 percent in the first quarter, and that included missing four of their last five shots of the quarter.

“He’s the guy we can go to when we need a basket,” said Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. “Eric [Gordon] got some open threes because they rotated to Chris, leaving him open.”

Still, the Clippers scored just 90 points and the Bulls did outrebound them 47-42.

But this Bulls team is driven by Rose’s scoring and dynamic floor play and Noah’s hustle and desire. Noah’s desire remains strong, but he’s having difficulty with the activity.

So as a result, the Bulls slowed down to, in effect, accommodate the Clippers half court preference more, and Noah even got beaten down court several times on runouts, almost unheard of for him.

Without the classic postup scorer or bigtime three point threat, the Bulls, even with those five straight wins, don’t have that much margin for error. They can least afford an average Noah. It becomes complicated, like Tuesday, when Brad Miller, his backup, is missing his shots, hitting just one of seven, though most were open looks, and the lately reliable bench shot seven of 24.

“We can’t come down and throw the ball into the post or space out with our shooting,” agreed coach Vinny Del Negro. “We were sluggish from the get go. We got back to too much holding of the ball. And we didn’t make any shots. We didn’t put enough pressure on them (with our offense). We couldn’t convert anything underneath or get any easy baskets on the break. We didn’t have that extra gear, which is unfortunate. We’re not a team that can take anyone lightly. No one played particularly well. When your top players don’t play well it’s hard to beat good teams. It’s hard to beat any teams.”

Yes, if Rose is seven for 20 and Noah doesn’t come close to a double/double, it can get bad. Del Negro did make a slight adjustment in passing on James Johnson’s regular minutes and going with newly acquired Devin Brown, who had five points in 12 minutes and hit a three. Johnson came in when it was lost with the Bulls trailing 90-74 with 2:30 left, and the Bulls made it look better scoring the game’s last eight points.

“It felt good to be out there running around chasing people,” said Brown. “But it was disappointing we didn’t get the win. I feel I can be a defender, come in and spread the floor, being able to attack. It’s an unselfish team. At times tonight the ball did stick, but the two games I saw before very unselfish and there’s going to be a lot of opportunities.”

The Bulls will need Brown, who also may serve as guard insurance in case the Bulls make a trade later this month to move below the salary cap far enough to offer a maximum contract this summer. It is generally expected.

Still, this group has to play the games, and it’s easy to say you can become complacent on a winning streak, especially one so impressive, and you can relax with time off after such a long period on the road. But those are excuses for the final result. The Bulls were outworked from the start, in large part, because they lacked the usual spark from Noah’s ignition, and thus the Clippers were able to capitalize on surrounding Rose and daring someone else to do something.

“Just one of them nights,” said Rose. “I couldn’t hit anything. I can laugh about it now because I have confidence in myself. We can’t afford for everybody to play like this. If I’m off, somebody’s got to pick it up. We’ll be fine. Hopefully, tomorrow we come out and jump out on them.”

Deng did step forward, at least early when his shot was on and he hit his first five shots, scoring all the Bulls points in a 12-8 start, including back to back threes.

But as so often happens with the Bulls, they don’t milk a hot shooter. And then what happens with Deng, who is an opportunity player who moves a lot, he gets something called for him four minutes later and the movement stops and he is asked to break down his defender or beat his man one-on-one, which is not his game.

“We probably should have gotten him the ball a lot more,” agreed Del Negro. “But our activity was so complacent as far as our ball movement. We didn’t run anything special to get him those 16 points. It was the same stuff we were running when we won five games in a row and when we played better. It’s everyone playing better. It’s the same sets we’ve been running. You have to make plays.”

The Clippers, whom the Bulls lost to the game before the start of the five-game win streak and now have won 15 of the last 20 over the Bulls, absolutely blitzed the Bulls to open the game, hitting nine straight shots midway through the first with the other four possessions amidst that two free throws and three Deng steals.

Deng was super sharp to open the game, but he was allowed to fade from view, and he then could never get it back.

The Bulls hung in during the second quarter, highlighted by a nice running dunk from Taj Gibson beating Kaman on a crossover move and Noah losing Camby as they collapsed on Rose and tipping in a miss. At that point, the Bulls trailed 43-40 with about two minutes left in the half. But the Bulls were staggering along with under 30 percent shooting in the second quarter, and Rascual Butler’s long three to end the half with a 50-42 Clippers lead seemed to drain the Bulls’ emotion.

“We kind of played their tempo the whole game and they kicked our butts,” said Kirk Hinrich, who had 10 points and whose three of 10 was representative of the Bulls 38 percent shooting. “It’s a difficult game preparation wise (after a long trip), but that’s an excuse. We weren’t ready and paid for it. We played a little too slow, methodical.”

Hinrich opened the second half with a jumper off that pin down they run for him. But he couldn’t contain Gordon, Camby slapped a ball away from Noah, which rarely happens, and then later got one from Rose. Rose tried to carry the Bulls back after a two of 10 shooting first half, hitting a pair of jumpers and running out for a two hand dunk after a Baron Davis miss from the deep corner.

That got the Bulls within 64-58 with just over four minutes left in the third. That would be the last the Bulls would be in the game.

“(They were in a) soft blitz, contain, making sure to get the ball out of my hand and close out to the other guy,” said Rose. “They did it good this game. They were closing out quick. They made us take tough shots. They were paying attention to the pick and roll and when I came off Kaman stayed up. My shot was not falling tonight and it made things tough.”

It was a game the Bulls needed more isolation for Rose, but the court go too crowded.

The Clippers hit the Bulls late in the third with a 14-2 spurt before a Brown three at the end got the Bulls within 15 going into the fourth.

Davis bullied Rose to the basket and scored on a bank, and Butler ran out on a Deng miss and scored as the Bulls weren’t covering much for one another. Camby got a lazy pass from Tyrus Thomas and ran out alone and dunked and Gordon ran out and scored and was fouled after stripping Brown.

“Definitely, we didn’t get stops,” said Deng. “We had a hard time with what they were running. We’re not panicking. We played bad. We’ve been playing well. It’s one game we didn’t play well, but we play tomorrow.”

The Bulls made a brief surge to open the fourth as Miller hit a three for his only field goal and Thomas hit a short jumper after John Salmons scooped up a loose ball. But it was the Clippers who were most active and propitious. The Bulls would miss four jumpers and commit a pair of turnovers, and when Gordon got wide open to hit a three, it put the Bulls down 15 with about six minutes left and they had little will to change that.

“Whether it’s the first game back from a long trip, whatever theories anyone has. The bottom line is we lost,” said Del Negro, “and there are no excuses.”

And, suddenly, worries again. Well, that was a nice week while it lasted.

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