Bulls pace themselves a bit much in losing to Pacers


Feb 28

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I remember one time asking the late Cotton Fitzsimmons, the garrulous and popular longtime coach of the Suns, Hawks, Spurs and Kings, what he’d do when one of his teams had one of those nights like the Bulls did Saturday in losing 100-90 to the Indiana Pacers.

When from the opening tip they had virtually no chance of winning the game as they lacked the energy, enthusiasm or ambition to compete after finishing a grueling stretch of games, for the Bulls eight in 12 days and the sixth back to back in February.

“Just go into the locker room and flush the toilets,” drawled Fitzsimmons. “Tell ‘em to get rid of it and get on to the next meal.”

Perhaps the imagery isn’t delightful, but the message is clear. Gather yourselves because there’s a long way to go.

For the Bulls, Saturday was one to forget quickly with nine straight games coming against teams with winning records and a tough fight to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with the Bulls now 31-28. It leaves them in sixth only a game behind fifth place Toronto, but also only two games ahead of ninth place Charlotte.

And the Bulls come more limping than like a lion into March with Joakim Noah out perhaps another week with plantar fasciitis after missing Saturday’s game, Luol Deng day to day with a knee injury though he fought for 18 rebounds Saturday, and Derrick Rose leaving the game late limping after scoring 27 points and banging knees with Earl Watson.

Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro thought Rose would be OK for Monday’s home game with Atlanta, though Noah seems doubtful and Deng is questionable. I remain probable, just in case anyone wondered.

“The guys were dead,” said Del Negro. “We can’t use that as an excuse.  You have to come out and play.”

The NBA made the Bulls do so, but you could see quickly their hearts—and legs—weren’t into it after the thrilling overtime win over Portland Friday. The Pacers figured as much and came out running and attacking, shooting quick threes and going to the basket.

“The Pacers put a lot of pressure on us with their scoring ability,” said Del Negro.  “(Danny) Granger is a handful.  They got their hands on a lot of basketballs.  And we had a lot of times where we could have converted but didn’t.  They went really small, but we weren’t able to effectively hurt them in the post.”

To further speed the game, the Pacers opened with the quick T.J. Ford starting and often went with three guards and perimeter shooters like Granger, who led Indiana with 30 points, and Troy Murphy.

They spread out the Bulls, penetrated and hit shooters, and played more physically, knocking balls loose and running out. The Pacers finished with twice as many fast break points and a big margin in points in the paint.

“Our game plan was to stop the dribble penetration,” said Kirk Hinrch, whose hot shooting ended up mostly front rim and one of six. “That’s when they get their layups, get to the foul line and get their threes..  We just didn’t do a good job of guarding them.  They were cutting, back cutting us, and we weren’t making any second effort plays.”

The Bulls tried, or at least the best they could. But it was like watching someone churning their legs and constantly falling behind in the race. The Bulls kept getting more tired and falling farther behind.

It happens, though the Bulls also continued to give ample evidence of why they are a .500 type team. In their last eight losses back to the middle of January, six have been to teams with losing records.

They did get through this tough February pretty well at 8-6, though 6-4 against teams with losing records. Of their 23 remaining games, only five are against teams with losing records. The Bulls are 14-15 against teams with winning records and 17-13 against teams with losing records. They also are now 17-3 when they score at least 100 points and 14-25 when they score fewer than 100 points.

Which is why Noah is so vital. The Bulls need to run and rebound to score without much three point shooting, and they need a vital and vibrant Noah and Rose for that.

The team likely will add a big man, probably Chris Richard, who was released and went back to the D-League after the trades last week. But Richard—or anyone the Bulls could add—doesn’t come close to bringing what Noah did, like when he came into the Portland game Friday and controlled LaMarcus Aldridge and energized he team with his hustle.

The team is playing it cautious with Noah and trying to nurse him through the season, though if he doesn’t play much in the next few weeks the season could be lost before too long.

Rose provides that inspiration with his scoring, and he did all he could Saturday, including scoring a dozen points in eight minutes in the fourth quarter in trying to rally the Bulls back on his own before bumping knees with Watson with the Bulls trailing 94-83 with 2:56 remaining.

Rose had just scored on three consecutive possessions, but Del Negro wisely kept Rose out as Rose sat on the bench without getting treatment, a sign he wasn’t seriously hurt. If he were, you could forget the playoffs.

Even with him it’s going to be a tough road if Noah cannot return quickly.

“This is one of those bumps in the road,” said Taj Gibson, who had 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks and has been a rock inside for the team.  “We just have to get back on track.  This was a tough one tonight because we were trying to keep that streak (six of the last seven) going.  But they played well and we can’t take anything away from them.  There’s really no excuses.  Guys are playing through injuries.  But we still have a long ways to go.  Tonight was just a tough one and we have to get ready for Monday against another tough team in the Atlanta Hawks.”

The Pacers came out flying with a three from Kareem Rush seven seconds into the game and a Murphy jumper for a 5-0 lead. The Bulls recovered and trailed just 25-24 after one. But they were flailing with the mismatches, trying to take advantage of Gibson and Brad Miller without huge success against the Pacers with Granger at power forward and Murphy at center.

The Pacers got a bit of a boost from center Roy Hibbert, who had 12 points off the bench and even a little pose and dance after a three point play midway through the second quarter. You know it’s bad when you are being taunted by Roy Hibbert, who is a slightly better version of Aaron Gray.

Rose kept trying to rally the team back, and had a pair of exploding drives for scores to get the Bulls within 40-39. And Jannero Pargo had a nice run of jumpers before the game got out of hand later and he began firing, seemingly to make up for previous lost playing time. He finished five for 16 for 14 points, but the Bulls bench was badly outplayed with Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick having their first poor efforts with a combined six points on one of five shooting in 35 minutes.

It was still a game, at least on the scoreboard, at halftime with the Pacers ahead 54-47.  But the Pacers opened the third with a pair of threes and the Bulls weren’t in single digits much the remainder of the game, watching the Pacers lobbing and back cutting and doing everything to speed the game as the Bulls finally went to a four guard lineup to try to match up. But the Pacers were no match on this night as the Bulls ended winning three of the four between them this season.

Sort of the idea of you planning a trip to Indianapolis in February, and are you really thinking about good things?

It’s a joke, of course, as I spent a few years in Indiana one weekend. Take my wife, please. I know. Lame. Actually, I went to graduate school at Ball State and had my first newspaper job in Ft. Wayne. So Deng and I got into an interesting conversation after Friday’s win as the Bulls prepared to leave for Indianapolis.

Arriving late, we knew there wouldn’t be much open. Which is why I’ve been a regular for years at the downtown Steak ‘n Shake, which is the only downtown restaurant open late. Deng wanted to assure me he eats healthy, but he shyly admitted he’s been in there.

I’d say I’m taking my hat off to Deng, but the national TV broadcasters have first dibs on that cliché, though I’ve never seen one wearing a hat.

But I watched Deng dress after Friday’s win and he couldn’t bend his leg, actually sitting and extending his arms so he could put on his pants. I saw Rose do much the same, and it was one leg at a time. See, he sort of is like us.

Deng wasn’t shooting well given the obvious lack of lift with his leg, but he fought on the boards relentlessly. Rose, too, kept looking for some life around him, and seeing none would take over for stretches to even keep the Bulls within 10 or 12.

They gave it all they could. But the ball never moved much, just 14 assists. The Pacers moved better with the basketballs they took from the Bulls, who had 21 turnovers, and the Bulls have gotten even poorer on threes since the trades and were three of 13 on threes Saturday. They have to run to score and run to succeed, and there was just no run in them left this time.

The next three weeks have three breaks of at least two days. But there are few easy ones to play. This is the stretch run. Buckle up. But hopefully not one gets hurt by the buckle.

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