Bulls burned and bummed in Atlanta


Jan 8

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In basketball, as in life, there occasionally are times like the Bulls’ unusually uncompetitive 109-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Call it: Saturday happens!

“In this league,” offered Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, “you usually get what you deserve.”

It was stunning in many respects as Derrick Rose with eight points, six assists and five turnovers likely had the poorest game of his pro career. Carlos Boozer was the only Bulls starter in double figures with 12 points, but his defense was so leaky that when he was on the court the Bulls were down 40 points.

I don’t usually place much significance in the plus/minus statistic, but I’ve never seen numbers like this for the Bulls: Minus 40 for Boozer, minus 39 for Rose, minus 29 for Joakim Noah, minus 26 for Luol Deng. The only times the Bulls demonstrated much efficiency was when the reserves played, particularly Omer Asik and Taj Gibson.

John Lucas III led the Bulls with a career high 16 points as perhaps the continued absences of Richard Hamilton (groin) and C.J. Watson (elbow) finally began to have a greater effect. The Hawks got huge performances from Josh Smith with 25 points and Vladimir Radmanovic with five threes off the bench as they never trailed, led by double digits in each quarter up to 29 points in the third and led by at least 20 points most of the second half.

None of the Bulls starters played in the fourth quarter, which was a good thing as it likely would have been worse if they had.

Rose was blitzed hard and regularly by the Hawks after he led that improbable comeback win in Chicago last Tuesday and was unable to break out. Deng got caught up dribbling and going one on one too much, which is a weakness of his. Noah continued his uneven play in seeming to get lost chasing the offense and not going aggressively after drivers. The Bulls got off to still another slow start, seeming to run on scripted plays like a football team and failed to get into their transition game, like the slow start Friday in Orlando.

The Bulls were behind 12-1 after just over three minutes, and this time there were no Rose heroics to carry them back. They trailed 33-18 after one quarter and then fought back behind the reserves to within 45-43 with just over four minutes left in the half.

But with the starters back, the Hawks closed the first half with an 18-2 spurt that gave them a 63-45 lead and effectively ended the game.

The Hawks opened the second half with a 12-4 run and despite seeming to lose interest thereafter still led 85-62 after three.

I’ve rarely seen this with this Bulls group led by Rose. They lose games, but they never give up on games. They seemed to this time.

“They came out aggressive and played hard,” said Rose. “They got us out of our game. I give them credit. They came out and played the way they were supposed to play. Our defense gave up too many easy baskets, especially in transition. If you give anybody easy baskets it’s going to hurt you. We just weren’t clicking tonight. I take the blame because I didn’t push the ball and they were trapping me as well.”

The Hawks punched it out to 95-68 with 7:48 left in the game. But the untypical group of reserves with Lucas, Jimmy Butler, who showed why the team is excited about him with aggressive play, Brian Scalabrine, Gibson and Kyle Korver cut the deficit to 95-81 and, at least, forced an embarrassed Hawks coach Larry Drew to bring his starters back into the game to keep the Bulls from really making Atlanta burn.

Perhaps you say this was the seventh road game in nine this season and fourth game in five nights, the last three on the road. But the Hawks were playing their ninth game in 12 nights, third on consecutive nights and had come off four overtime periods in the previous two games.

So, no, the fatigue excuse isn’t a good one.

The Bulls play their one three in three nights starting Monday with five more games in six nights next week, though every team that’s played a three in three nights so far has won the third game.

But the Bulls are 7-2 and headed home for eight of the next 12. Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

But is it?

You are what your record is, we are all told, but the Bulls stole victories from defeats opening day in Los Angeles down 11 with under four minutes remaining and trailing the Hawks, who also had a double digit first quarter lead in that game, by 14 in the fourth quarter last Tuesday.

Rose turned in some amazing performances supported by an All Star level Deng. But perhaps the question is whether is that who they are or who they have to be?

Are the Bulls a 7-2 team in the elite level with Miami in the East? Or really a 5-4 team that had a couple of games amazingly fall their way?

What it does suggest is what Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau alluded to after it was the Bulls who were burned down in Atlanta.

“I thought we were prepared,” said Thibodeau. “I did not like the way we started the game. We started the same way we did in Chicago. We got in a big hole. They came out with a lot of intensity and were up into us. The rebounding was OK (43-31 led by Asik with 13). High turnovers (20), no defense (56.6 percent Hawks shooting and 75 percent on threes). You can deal with missing shots if the ball is moving and you are taking your shots. But we never established our defense. Too much one on one, too much dancing with the ball (overdribbling). (That) equals high turnovers. It starts with rebounding, defense and taking care of the ball.

“We want guys to play to their strengths,” said Thibodeau. “When guys start trying to do things they are not strong at they are not going to be successful. We want to attack before the defense sets, and then (if in the half court) move the ball and player movement. For us our defense is so important because it gets us in the open floor. This is the NBA. You’ve got to come every night. You’ve got to bring great intensity and if you let down just a little bit this is what happens. It was a compilation of things.

“The intentions, I think, were good,” said Thibodeau a bit more pensively than usual. “These guys want to win. Where you’ve got to be careful is trying to do it yourself, and we’ve got to stay committed to being a team even when things aren’t going our way. Get the ball moving, share the ball. We do that and we play defense tied together, we’re good. If we don’t do that….”

Saturday happens.

It perhaps comes back to the issue that hangs over this Bulls team. Is there enough star talent? When the team does the things Thibodeau talked about it has enough. The front line size and secondary depth give the Bulls the edge on most teams in this era of growing economies. But the Bulls also have little margin for error in the appealing way they play relying on Rose’s brilliance, ceaseless defense, ambitious activity and unselfish attitudes.

But against the Hawks Saturday there was little of that, especially to start. The Bulls played slowly the first two games of the season, but remedied that afterward. But they’ve reverted more to that deliberate game to start the last two nights.

They were careless with the ball, which could happen. But in the lack of movement, there was Deng dribbling and dribbling until being stripped. And the defensive principles, particularly the cardinal rule of denying penetration to the middle of the floor, seemed overlooked.

As a result, to paraphrase Al Horford, Radmanovic happened.

As Hawks ballhandlers waltzed into the middle in their own dance, the Bulls defense had to shift. So with a big man coming over to help, the baseline was open. The Hawks’ driver then would pass baseline, leaving the guard or wing player to come down from the top to protect the corner. That left Radmanovic open. Again and again.

Last Tuesday he missed those, shooting one of four overall. Saturday he hit those, shooting five of seven and hitting all five threes. Likewise, Josh Smith, whom home fans generally boo when he even just sets to shoot, was remarkably and unusually accurate, shooting 11 of 17, mostly on jump shots, including his first three of the season.

It happens.

What Smith does more often, or can do, is defend, if not the classic style. He tries to block everything and he gambles. Smart teams, which usually mean the Bulls, practice a form of basketball tai chi on Smith, moving away in response to the aggression. This time, instead, the Bulls played right into the volcano as Smith registered six blocks and four steals.

“This one’s on the people that started the game,” said Noah. “The second unit got it back. It was embarrassing tonight.”

As for those starters, perhaps it starts some with Noah. He had another desultory effort in a so far personally disappointing season. Noah is averaging 7.7 points and 7.4 rebounds and below his career averages in both along with blocks and shooting, which is at a lowly 38 percent. While it is Boozer who usually endures the wrath of fans when the team loses, Noah had four points or fewer in three of the last four games and four rebounds in two of the last four. As a result, his playing time is being reduced with two games of fewer than 20 minutes in the last four. It is not what the Bulls expected from Noah with his big extension kicking in this season.

Whereas until he broke his hand late last November he was becoming a substantial double/double accumulator, the Bulls have been getting better defense this season from Asik, who was on the floor when the Bulls made their only runs Saturday.

The Hawks opened with that 12-1 burst. And if the offense was uncertain, the defensive middle was soft as Hawks players went strong and over Noah at the rim. Noah, at times, seemed distracted chasing his man or trying to help and is losing positioning to remain a defensive force in the lane.

The Bulls awoke with a Boozer post move and a Ronnie Brewer three and Deng following his own miss, which he does so well, and it appeared the Bulls would recover quickly as they drew within 18-10. But the Bulls continued to allow penetration, which enabled the Hawks to move the ball and find Radmanovic for threes as they shot almost 60 percent for the quarter and led by 15.

The Bulls second unit came in with purpose as Gibson spun baseline for a score, Korver hit a three as Tracy McGrady (wow, he was awful) stood in front of him and watched and never even tried to raise his hand. He never got back into the game. Asik, finding some inner offense, made strong moves along the baseline for a layup and powerful one handed slam dunk. The Bulls were now starting to play faster as Rose returned and finished strong on a three-on-two on a nice pass from Brewer. Korver then hit another three and Rose found Boozer on an inbound pass to make it 45-43 Hawks with 4:09 left in the first half.

The scare, it seemed, was over.

First a digression about Korver. He’s shooting the three ball well again, now 17 of 33 on the season for 51 percent. But Korver is just eight of 13 for 61 percent on free throws and 30 percent on two point shots. I will consider this privately.

Anyway, just when it seemed safe to come out, or come back from the football playoff game, Smith hit that three and the Hawks broke down the Bulls defenses again, getting to the middle with ease. Joe Johnson, who had 17 points along with Radmanovic, just walked by Deng with no help at the basket for an easy layup and 50-43 lead. The Bulls defensive reactions were exceedingly slow, if at all. They did appear to get good views of the action, though no one made them pay for those good locations.

Rose continued to walk the ball into the defense, and the Hawks after being burned by Rose in his 17-point third quarter last week collapsed on his drives and blitzed and closed off his pick and rolls. Rose didn’t react very well this time, and again there was a strip.

Al Horford beat Noah to the middle and as Deng dropped down to help, Johnson came open for a three and 53-43 lead. Deng missed a drive and the Bulls got lost in transition and Radmanovic spotted up for an open three, and the Hawks were building the lead again, now 56-43.

Boozer scored on a nice pass from Korver though the Bulls kept walking it up. Johnson got inside and burned Deng once more. So Noah stepped up, leaving Horford. Korver ran to Horford, and no one covered Radmanovic who hit another three. Again the Bulls sashayed into the half court and Rose lofted a lazy pass over Deng’s head right to Horford, who led a fast break that Jeff Teague finished with a layup for a 61-45 lead.

Johnson then held for the last shot, dribbled between his legs a few times, crossed over Deng, who practically fell down, and lofted in a runner as the Hawks closed the half ahead 63-45.

You knew this wasn’t going to go well for the Bulls when they opened the second half with Noah tossing lazily into Boozer, who didn’t come to the ball and it was stolen by Teague. Johnson then just brushed Brewer aside and made a 16 footer as Brewer stumbled and asked for a foul.

Deng missed and then Rose shot a quick three off the offensive rebound by Boozer and missed. No miracles this time. Johnson then moved almost in slow motion into the lane with little resistance, this time Brewer on him instead of Deng, and lifted in a six footer and it began to get worse from there as Radmanovic hit another transition three for a 75-49 Atlanta lead just about three minutes into the third quarter. The Hawks would have 32 assists to 21 for the Bulls and a 27-17 edge in fast break points, the formula the Bulls were employing in their six game winning streak.

Could Atlanta blow this one? It seemed highly unlikely, although they gave it a go. Thibodeau ran the starters back for one more sequence. Predictably, Smith blocked Deng, Noah dribbled out of bounds off his leg, Boozer was stripped after holding the ball and looking around and then Korver threw the ball away in the backcourt (16 Atlanta steals) and though the Hawks would miss nine of their last 12 shots of the quarter they still led 85-62 after three.

The Bulls then got some reward from rookie Butler, who made a three point play and was aggressively overplaying on defense while Lucas knocked in a pair of threes. Remember, Lucas had 60 points in a summer tournament shootout with Kevin Durant in New York as Lucas hit 22 of 41 shots. The kid isn’t afraid to shoot. Korver was fouled on a three point shot, Butler, who scored 12 points with six of six from the line in 12 minutes, scored on a pass from Scalabrine and Lucas banked in a runner, at least getting the Hawks to bring back Horford, Smith, Teague and Johnson to keep the Bulls from an amazing steal. So, yes, maybe it still is in the backs of their heads.

But I also assume what Thibodeau will put back in the front of the Bulls eyes is what happens when they approach a game like a team everyone says has the best Bulls opening record since 1996-97, though one not quite with that level of talent.

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