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Bulls don’t find promise in a Rose Garden
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 8
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The I-was-snubbed-and-I’ll-show-you tour continued Monday in Portland, and once again the Bulls were victims of the injustice as well.
After being lit up by Monta Ellis’ 33 points Saturday in a 101-90 loss, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge scored a career high 42 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, to lead the Trail Blazers to a 109-103 victory. Portland scored a season high 34 points in the fourth quarter with just three players scoring, Aldridge, Andre Miller and Rudy Fernandez.
The loss dropped the Bulls to 34-16 and 1-2 on this road trip with the Carlos Boozer/Kyle Korver/Ronnie Brewer return in Utah Wednesday.
Good thing for the Bulls Deron Williams made the All-Star team.
But it’s a bad time for the Bulls, likely feeling the effects of the season, though coach Tom Thibodeau dismissed that, in the so called dog days before the All-Star break with Joakim Noah not slated to return until Feb. 23 in Toronto.
The Bulls defense, which has been a point of pride and honor all season in carrying the team to unexpected heights and ranking first in the NBA, has collapsed under the weight of perhaps expectations and exhaustion.
In any case, a Bulls team which hadn’t yielded 100 points in 13 games now has given up more than 100 points in consecutive games and is facing the prospect of its first three game losing streak of the season.
“Every aspect of the defense was missing,” said an annoyed and perhaps more exasperated Thibodeau. This is two games in a row where we’ve put ourselves in a bad position because we’re not guarding. Miller got wherever he wanted. Aldridge basically got whatever he wanted. We weren’t able to take anything away from them, so it was an easy game for them offensively. Then you’re playing with fire. You’re trying to outscore them. That’s not our game. We can’t win like that. We can’t win on the road like that. We have to get back to playing defense. There’s not one aspect of our defense that we’re doing well right now.
“We’re closing short,” said Thibodeau. “We’ve been a multiple effort team all year and now we’re not doing that. We were slow reacting, reaching and gambling, which led to fouls (Portland shot 37 of 40). There is not one aspect of our defense we are playing well now, from defensive transition to post defense to catch and shoot defense. Once we correct that we’ll give ourselves a chance to win, but we’re not going to win trying to out score people, I know that.”
What, that’s all?
You don’t want to make excuses, and no one among the Bulls did, certainly not Thibodeau, who also said he had to be better in planning. Nor did Derrick Rose, who had 36 points.
“I think our offense is there,” said Rose. Defensively, we’re terrible right now. What did they have, 109, something like that? There’s a lack of communication and we’re not bringing the intensity to the defensive side and it’s killing us. (I) did a terrible job with Miller, jumping in the air, stupid fouls. If anything I can learn from this. Now we’ve got to go out and get this next win.
“No excuses,” said Rose. “Our whole mindset has to be winning. We cannot be thinking vacation, All-Star. Losing this game feels terrible. It’s even worse because we’re not playing back to back so we can’t go out (Tuesday) and play. Hopefully, we’ll get this next one. We’ve got work to do.”
Still, you kind of wondered at times how this Bulls team was doing it, especially shorthanded without their best defensive big man, Noah.
The Trail Blazers, 28-24, are a tough minded team, not necessarily in talent but in playing through a succession of serious injuries.
And they have the right formula to attack the Bulls at their weakest point on defense without Noah, the interior.
Kurt Thomas is solid, but got in foul trouble as did Luol Deng, who was scoreless in just eight first half minutes and ended with 15 points.
The defensive weak link up front is Boozer, though the Bulls don’t have a single all-defensive player. They rely on an active, aggressive team defense with relentless play and toughness. No one player matters all that much. They rebound well, and outrebounded Portland, 41-31. The Bulls are No. 2 in the league in blocks, but had just one Monday. That suggests some overall fatigue as well.
Though Thibodeau pointed out Deng played under 30 minutes and Rose played 38, they both are in the league’s top 10 in minutes played. Boozer had 17 points and 12 rebounds, a credible contribution. But he is not a strong pick and roll defender and generally plays the non scoring big man inside, which Monday was Joel Przybilla to start.
That leaves Thomas, a relatively spry 38, to start on the active Aldridge, who has been on a rampage since commissioner David Stern chose Kevin Love as an All-Star replacement over him. Similarly, Golden State’s Ellis is sixth in the league in scoring and also was left out. They’ve shown the Bulls they are deserving.
“Not to take anything away from Love,” said Thomas, “but I am partial to Aldridge.”
Aldridge joked in the home locker room that he also was taking notes after having been traded on draft day by the Bulls, though you’d also assume if the Bulls had Aldridge they’d never been bad enough to qualify to get Rose.
So get over that one.
“Me getting 42 tonight isn’t going to change their mind, so what is it going to do for me?” Aldridge said of the All-Star voting. “I thought tonight I just came out and got those easy dunks early and that was my big thing that got me going.”
Again, it was a poor defensive start for the Bulls as they fell behind 28-26 after one quarter.
The Trailbazers gave Rose all sorts of different looks, opening with long armed forward Nicolas Batum on him, then rotating through Miller and then Wesley Matthews. The Trail Blazers switched on defense early and played some zone later, and though the Bulls scored more than 100 points and shot 49.4 percent, the changes perhaps made them work enough to distract from their defense.
Of course, these are excuses, and the Bulls could have done some things better. Both as Thibodeau suggested, but also apply more pressure to Miller, who had a season high 27 points and shot 13 free throws, and maybe double teamed Aldridge more. Hello, he was shooting just about every time.
Though there does come a point where the little engine just can’t anymore, or at least all the time.
Portland reporters reported Batum said afterward in the locker room he felt Rose was a great offensive player but a poor defender. And when Thomas was out and Taj Gibson played Aldridge, Boozer had to move onto Batum. So the Trail Blazers then went to the athletic Batum, who was able to beat Boozer off the dribble. And when Gibson came off Aldridge to help, Aldridge rolled and was able to score or get fouled as Aldridge got 14 free throws.
But Thibodeau said defense is a team responsibility and it was the team letting down.
“The pick and roll is a five man deal,” said Thibodeau. “It’s not one guy. It’s everybody tied together (that’s that defense on a string concept). If one guy is not doing his job or slow to react, you are going to give up an open shot.”
Of course, it was more than that.
The Bulls were unable to get back in transition, the opening element to team defense, and Portland, not exactly a race horse team, led 18-4 in fast break points. Portland actually is one of the league’s poorer shooting teams, ranking 27th, and they shot 51.5 percent. Plus, Aldridge simply was beating the Bulls big men down the floor constantly.
“We’ve got to tighten it up,” said Boozer. “I’m not sure what the problem is, but we have to fix it. (Aldridge) got a lot of easy ones. He ran the floor and we did not do a good job of getting back. He had a lot of spin out and lobs. He might have had 15, 17 points running the floor and spinning out for lobs and he shot a lot of free throws.”
Not that it was a blowout. In fact, the Bulls got a strong start to the second quarter, going ahead 35-28 with Kyle Korver and Omer Asik giving the team some nice efforts. But when Ronnie Brewer missed another open dunk for the second straight game, the momentum seemed to change again, and then Portland surged behind Aldridge against Boozer as the teams were tied at 50 at halftime.
Korver ended with 14 points, though he sat out the entire third quarter when Portland nudged ahead 75-72. Again, the Bulls scored enough, but you’d like to see Korver get more shots than the seven he got, making three of four three pointers. When he is going like that, he needs more touches and he needs to play more with Rose.
Also, Asik gave the team some nice minutes, getting nine points and five rebounds in 11 minutes and might have been useful against Aldridge more. Thibodeau commended Asik’s play and said he considered using Asik more in the fourth quarter, but backed off because of concerns with matchups against Portland on defense.
Still, if the Bulls are getting hurt with a small front line as they were playing Boozer and Gibson most of the second half, they have to consider Asik more until Noah returns. Especially if your concern is defense. You’ve got to get more size on the floor, and also take a chance with the fresh legs given the regulars have been stretched out on minutes played all season.
“It’s not the end of the world, we just have to get back to playing defense,” said Deng. “The last two games haven’t been our best. It’s something that we’ll probably watch film and talk about. It’s clear when we don’t play defense it’s a lot harder to win the game. It happens. We know what the problem is. We have to fix it. We’re going to bounce right back.”
The Bulls continued to have no answers for Aldridge in the third quarter as Thibodeau eventually went to Asik, though Rose kept answering back and keeping the Bulls in position. Aldridge was running out and scoring even after made baskets, which was untypical of this Bulls team this season. But also perhaps a product of the long season and injuries catching up. Rose added 10 more in the third quarter of the team’s 22, and the Bulls trailed just 75-72 entering the fourth quarter in the always raucous Rose Garden.
Though this night it would be Aldridge’s field.
The Trail Blazers edged ahead 91-83 with 5:14 left after Fernandez faked Rose into fouling him on a three and Miller pushed himself into the lane, as he’s wont to do, and was fouled, making both.
Rose had a bigtime crossover and two handed slam to draw the Bulls within 91-87 with just over four minutes left, but the Trail Blazers held on.
Aldridge posted Boozer and was fouled and then was fouled when Boozer went onto Batum and was beaten and Gibson was out of position on the help.
The Trail Blazers went into a zone, forcing a Deng air ball. But Deng recovered with a reverse on a pass from Rose to get the Bulls within 98-93 with 2:17 left. Fernandez missed a runner, but Deng lost a pass from Rose for a turnover and Aldridge came back with a 20 footer with 1:11 left for a 100-93 lead. Rose gave the Bulls a last gasp with a three, but Aldridge went right back over Gibson for a score to effectively end it.
Perhaps you have to sit Boozer late in games like this, especially if you are leaking on defense and the Bulls don’t post him much at times like that, anyway. Though it was hardly him alone. The Bulls probably should have gone under on Miller more to force him to shoot and pressured Aldridge more.
“We’re going to have to make some changes,” said Thibodeau, though he added not in personnel and likely not in the lineup. “Our intensity has got to be greater. Our concentration has to be greater. We have to challenge shots. When we’re not challenging shots, we’re not very good.”
If Aldridge saw a hand in his face it had to be his own admiring his form.
“We’re not playing our defense, so we have to make the necessary changes. Until we change out approach, the defense isn’t going to change,” said Thibodeau. “We’re capable of doing better. All of us, including myself. The plan has to be better and we have to have a clear understanding of what we have to do. Until we correct the defense, we’re not going to win. Trying to outscore people is a recipe for losing.”
And so now it’s on to Salt Lake City, where Boozer is expected to get a rough reception after leaving as a free agent.
“He did a lot for that organization,” said Brewer, also a former Jazz player along with Korver, one of the most popular Jazz players ever. “He was an All-Star there. They became division champions. He should be honored (by them). But you know how fans are when an opposing team comes in.”
As for Boozer, he didn’t have much to say as yet.
“We need a win,” he said. “That’s my main concern. I’ll see how it feels when I get there (yes, he already was asked the ‘Feel’ question). It’s going to be a big game.”
Maybe more so for the shaky Bulls.