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Bulls offensive mostly to their coach
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 8
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Here’s the worrisome part for the Bulls about losing their second straight Friday, 105-99 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Their best players, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng, played their best. Yes, yes, I know. Coach Tom Thibodeau and about everyone else said the lack of aggressive defense was the problem as the 76ers, whom the Bulls beat by 45 points last month, shot an opponent best 56.3 percent, but more than 65 percent through the first three quarters.
“I’m confused,” said Derrick Rose, who had 27 points and nine assists. “We’ve just got to find a way, get everybody on the same page. We’re not stopping people. They’re scoring at will now. We’ve got to get back to ourselves.”
But this may be who they are.
Rose not only had 27 points, nine assists and three steals, but he went to the free throw line 10 times. Yes, he got the calls. Carlos Boozer had eight points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls still lost. Overall, Boozer had 31 points and 13 rebounds. Luol Deng was big in the fourth with seven points and had 22 points overall.
Philadelphia coach Doug Collins in noting what a big win it was for his team, now 15-21, pointed out the Bulls were second in the league in fourth quarter comeback wins with seven. Only the Jazz, with that miracle series of late wins earlier in the season, had more at eight. What it suggests is the Bulls margin of victory isn’t that great, and when they were winning games it wasn’t always with domination but late determination.
But now without Joakim Noah for at least another month there’s little shot blocking at the basket, the rebounding is tougher and the help defense is a problem. The Bulls thus start Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, who combined Friday to play 36 minutes and attempted three shots and both failed to score.
It’s tough to get past two starters not giving you anything.
The Bulls did increase the offensive tempo to start in scoring 30 points in the first quarter, including eight fast break points, more than in most recent games. But they allowed the 76ers within 30-28 after one, which, effectively, wasted that terrific offensive effort.
The Nets shot a shade under 50 percent Wednesday, and that only was because of a terrific Bulls closing effort, holding New Jersey to 33 percent fourth quarter shooting. A Sasha Vujacic offensive rebound clinched that win, and again Friday, it was the failure to corral the last rebound, which Andres Nocioni retrieved with the Bulls storming back again, this time from 11 down with five minutes left.
“Again, it was a one possession game and we’ve got to come up with the rebound at the end of the game, a critical rebound,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
It was 102-99 76ers after two Rose free throws with 37.6 seconds remaining.
Lou Williams missed a short jumper with 17.9 seconds left, but Nocioni, the former Bulls seeing Deng going to help on the shooter, dashed for the rim and got the miss. Deng fouled him and Nocioni made both, and Rose missed a three with 11.9 seconds left to effectively end it.
“I knew I could get the rebound,” said Nocioni, the popular former Bulls who actually fractured and dislocated the middle finger on his shooting hand in the first half but returned to play. “Luol is a great player. I knew I can get the rebound because Luol was going to double a lot. When I saw him go to Williams I went to the basket.”
It left the Bulls dizzy figuratively, and somewhat literally for Deng, who sat a long time after the game with his head in his hands in the locker room. He finished the game strong despite being knocked down by an inadvertent elbow from Nocioni with about four minutes left. Deng was wearing a large welt on his forehead afterward. He said the team would check for a concussion.
The little bubbles jumping around in his head weren’t a nice glass of Prosecco.
The Bulls fell to 23-12, still with a massive eight game lead in the Central Division.
So perhaps it’s just fortunate the Bulls were able to build up a comfortable cushion with close wins and the ball bouncing their way and some relatively easy opposition. Because the schedule begins to turn again with three of the next five home games against Boston, Miami and Dallas and another four games in five days next weekend.
The 76ers Friday continued a trend teams are taking against the Bulls. They went small as the Bulls don’t have size to punish opponents with Noah out and Thomas and Omer Asik not scorers and Taj Gibson struggling this season to regain offensive form playing with Boozer.
Jodie Meeks, who had a combined 14 points in the last four games, exploded for 24 points with four threes against the Bulls weak shooting guard spot. Improving point guard Jrue Holiday had 19 points and elusive Williams off the bench added 20 as the guard game seemed to negate the Bulls defensive priorities and pushed the Bulls into a trading baskets game they led into the half but lost with another loose third quarter.
When you go small like that, you get beaten off the dribble on pick and roll, and now you don’t have big men to protect the rim and your small guys are hanging outside to protect against the shooters and aren’t giving help at the basket.
So why doesn’t every team do that?
Well, sometimes you have big guys who will take advantage of their size, which the Bulls didn’t have enough of with only Boozer, really. Gibson becomes more a defensive player when playing with Boozer.
The Bulls are supposed to drive the pick and roll to the baseline for help, though with the smaller lineup it doesn’t come, leaving the rim open.
Though the Bulls scored enough, they don’t really have another perimeter player other than Rose to run a pick and roll with, so they also can’t play Rose off the ball. Thibodeau did play Rose more with C.J. Watson against the smaller lineup, and Watson did hit a pair of threes on a night the starters were one of 11 on threes. But Watson was beaten badly late by Williams after the Bulls pulled within 98-94 with 1:55 left and thought they might steal another one.
So, yes, they are in all these games and basically haven’t played all season with their full team. But this is setting up as a regular struggle with the injuries.
This time it was 32-18 76ers in the third quarter as Philadelphia hit its first nine shots—it wasn’t all bad defense as they hit some terrific shots with hands in the face—and 14 of 18 in the quarter for an 86-74 lead.
By the time the Bulls combined energy and urgency midway through the fourth still down 95-84 with about five minutes remaining, there just wasn’t quite enough time left.
“We both (with Rose) felt we let the team down in New Jersey and came out with a different mindset and tried to lead us to victory,” said Boozer. “But we fell short.”
The mini Boozer benching brouhaha of Wednesday was long taken care of and mostly dismissed, which made Friday’s loss tougher to accept. The Bulls threw their best playing pretty much their best at the 76ers and lost to another sub-.500 team. Yes, it’s now 15-4 against teams with losing records, pretty darned good.
But not good enough.
“(The defensive problems) were from A to Z,” Thibodeau said. “Our catch and shoot defense was not very good, containing dribble. They got in a rhythm early on us, and when a team gets confidence it’s much harder to slow them down. Our defense has to be a lot stronger to start the game. We’ve got to be ready at the beginning to get stops.”
Thibodeau is not an excuse guy. No one really is. The players genuinely were disappointed in the loss. But Noah means so much. You see how hard it was for Dallas when Dirk Nowitzki went out. Kurt Thomas tries. Keith Bogans tries. But they are hardly defensive stoppers. Boozer gets taken out for defense. Rose? Deng?
Thibodeau has the Bulls playing way above their talent level on defense with increased demands which are taken well and pursued and a solid, reliable system of play. But it’s difficult to maintain without the talent level and the captain of the defense, if not the captain of the toes.
“Right now, we’re not moving in the same direction we have to move in,” said Thibodeau. “We’re struggling and have to work our way out of it.”
It looked like it would just be one of those Eastern potholes in the road as the Bulls, really Rose and Boozer, were sharp to open the game, combining on the Bulls first 16 points in a 30-point first quarter in which the Bulls shot 61.9 percent.
But Bogans in trying to help constantly lost Meeks early, though the way Meeks had played of late you wouldn’t pay that much attention.
“We never did pull away because we did not get stops,” said Boozer. “We scored, they scored. So they had confidence the entire night and never felt we could stop them. They kept hitting shots and if you give a team confidence, they’re going to have confidence the entire game. If you shut them down early, let them know whatever they are running is not working, they’ll have a tough night.”
The Bulls couldn’t make it tough, and this was one of those games the 76ers would be circling after that 45-point loss when they trailed at one time by more than 50.
“We wanted to make a statement,” said Meeks. “We wanted to come in and play hard.”
Initially, the Bulls reserves started to open up the game in the second quarter, taking a 47-39 lead midway through. Which is pretty much where Collins thought the game turned for the 76ers. Williams, Holiday and Meeks were beating the Bulls on the perimeter, and even with Thomas coming back in there wasn’t enough help at the basket. The 76ers pulled within 56-54 at halftime thanks to Williams scoring seven points in the last two minutes of the half.
Collins said his assistant Michael Curry likened the 76ers to a boxer coming into his next fight after a knockout and being tentative until finding out the other guy isn’t really that tough.
“I did not think we were aggressive,” said Collins. “I think it was big at halftime that we were within two. I told our guys, ‘Guys, we can beat this team.’”
No, the Bulls aren’t scaring anyone.
The 76ers battered the Bulls to open the third with only Rose and Boozer scoring for the Bulls the entire quarter until two Deng free throws with under a minute left in the third.
No one but Rose, Boozer and Deng even attempted a shot in the third quarter. So that was six other players combining for 28 minutes without a single shot. Yes, the Bulls scored enough, but suddenly there’s not much being run for Kyle Korver. Gibson is almost primarily a defensive player and Brewer despite averaging a shade under 10 points the last five games got just three shots.
“Coach told us about leaders coming out with more energy,” said Rose. “I tried my hardest, but it wasn’t enough.”
I’m not saying nobody else defended because they didn’t get shots, but players always are more engaged in the game when they are involved on both ends. It wasn’t happening for the Bulls with just two assisted baskets in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, the 76ers weren’t missing, Elton Brand having his way inside and the 76ers sinking shots. When Meeks made back to back threes late in the third quarter, Thibodeau angrily called a timeout 50 seconds after a previous one.
“We had energy from an offensive standpoint,” said Thobodeau. “From a defensive standpoint, we have to correct it and get back to being a defensive team first.”
And then the Bulls were trapping and pressuring and the 76ers were taking quick jumpers and throwing the ball away. Rose, Deng and Boozer went to the free throw line in three straight possessions, but combined for four of six. Though the Bulls overall shot 76.9 percent on free throws, good for them.
But getting back within 98-94 with 1:55 left and spaced out with small players, the Bulls were unable to stop Williams, who scored twice, the second on a drive with no backside help. Watson made a three to bring it back to 102-97 with 1:02 left. The Bulls then trapped Holiday into a bad pass and Rose ran out and was fouled, making both as he was 10 of 10 at the line.
But Nocioni then got Williams’ miss and the Bulls came up just short again.
“We can’t have excuses,” said Boozer. “We’ve got to win no matter what. But when we do get healthy and are swagged out and Jo is back and we’re all on the same page, we’re going to be a scary team to play against.”
Though it may be scary until then, and for me scary that I quoted someone saying “swagged out” and had no idea what he was talking about. Sort of like the Bulls on defense lately.