Bulls lose to Portland in a blaze of misses


Mar 17

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Sometimes there just isn’t anything left. You can squeeze the orange for just so long, and eventually the juice is gone. No matter how much more you squeeze.

Yes, the Bulls had that wonderful Derrick Rose-less victory over the Miami Heat earlier this week. But with Friday’s 100-89 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, you are starting to get the feeling there isn’t that much juice left.

Coaches like to use the word “juice” as a shorthand for energy, and it’s been in limited supply for the Bulls lately as they gave up almost 50 percent shooting to a muddled Trail Blazers team that was playing its sixth straight road game in the last 10 days, had just lost by 40 in New York, fired its coach and traded away two starters. They were playing two guys named Smith–one wearing No. 83–I wasn’t sure I’d heard of, and the two of them still almost outscored the entire Bulls bench.

“I’ve said many times, once you start feeling good about yourself and start taking shortcuts, you know what is going to happen,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, still two wins short of 100 for his short head coaching career. “No energy offensively, no energy defensively. Settling. Not making the effort. We gave them confidence early. Got outworked.

“Settling, not executing, not screening, not putting work into it, taking short cuts,” continued Thibodeau, who apparently was so upset he even refused to use personal pronouns.

I’ve seen coaches frustrated before, but rarely with an attack of that sort on first person plural.

“You don’t put work into it you’re not going to win,” said Thibodeau. “They came out and they played with great intensity, great energy. If you don’t put the work into it, the results aren’t going to be good. You’ve got to play hard. You’ve got to put the work into your preparation to win. You have to understand where intensity comes from. It comes from your concentration and your preparation. It’s not from emotion. If you prepare well you’ll play well. If you practice well you’ll play well. You start taking shortcuts the results aren’t going to be good.”

Thibodeau’s answer to everything is to work harder, which is commendable. It’s been a formula to get him within hailing distance of the fastest coach ever to 100 wins. But I hate to break this to him: You do not have enough to win!

I know Thibodeau says that all the time, and I commend him for it. Your message to your players always has to be you have confidence in them and have their back and will put them in position to win. Thibodeau is among the best at that, and the results show as the Bulls still are an Eastern Conference best 36-10.

But how long can you go with a backup backcourt and a third string reserve whom just about every team passed on several times? Derrick Rose missed his second straight game with a groin injury and while the Bulls are 8-4 without Rose, they are 2-3 against teams with winning records.

Richard Hamilton remains out and Luol Deng’s game has been adjusted down since his wrist injury with less slashing and movement. That’s an awful lot to continue to overcome. That the Bulls do it often is pretty remarkable, but Thibodeau can see the slippage. Which is why he is appealing for more. But do they have more to give?

The Bulls have pretty much led the league in fewest points allowed and field goal defense much of the season, giving up about 88 points per game. Over the last six games even though the Bulls are 4-2, opponents are averaging 100 points and the fewest the Bulls have given up is 97, nine above their season average.

The Bulls field goal defense on the season is about 42 percent. But in those last six games only once have the Bulls held a team to 42 percent, and that was in a loss to Orlando when the Bulls shot 40 percent. Opponents have averaged about 47 percent in the other five and 49.4 percent and more than 52 percent on threes Friday by the previously dysfunctional Trail Blazers.

Yes, the Trail Blazers got the boost of a new coach and teams generally respond as everyone plays for their jobs again, at least for a few games. But every Portland starter but Joel Przybilla, who doesn’t shoot, shot at least 50 percent. Portland shot just under 50 percent as a team even with Jamal Crawford launching a three for 12.

“Our defense has been lacking for a while now. We need as a team to hold everyone accountable, defensively,” said Joakim Noah, who had 12 points and nine rebounds, five offensive. Noah generally has been playing some of the best, most consistent basketball of his career.

And when there is a vague “hold everybody accountable” reference it usually means something about Carlos Boozer. Though it seemed to me way more than that.

Actually, I thought one of the big issues Friday was the Bulls forget about Boozer in a shot happy guard offense while Boozer was having one of his best offensive nights of the season. Boozer finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds and four assists and his shots were barely grazing the netting as they went in. Yet he got just 14 shots compared with 23 combined for C.J. Watson and John Lucas. I know Lucas had a terrific game against the Heat. But the Trail Blazers were barely coning out on Boozer with Przybilla often taking him on switches and backing off. Likewise, when Kurt Thomas came in for Przybilla to play, he’d lay back on switches leaving Boozer open outside.

Boozer was nine of 14 overall and nine of 12 through three quarters. Yet, the Bulls barely went to him after halftime and in the fourth quarter when the Bulls went nuts shooting three of 23 and one of 10 on threes Boozer got just two shots.

But it is the price of not really having a point guard in the game. Though Watson and Lucas have been useful guards and Watson is playing through an ankle injury that clearly is not healed, neither truly has point guard instincts. It doesn’t show as much when they are making threes. But they were four of 15 combined on threes Friday. The Bulls attempted a staggering 27 threes, but that’s what those guards do. This for a team, by the way, averaging 16 threes per game and one of the most efficient shooting three point teams, ranking fifth in three point percentage. Heck, you’d think they had traded for Nick Young.

It’s why the Bulls so desperately need Rose, who remains day to day though seemingly doubtful for Saturday against the 76ers. Look, the Bulls are in first and there’s no point rushing anyone through a groin injury. If there’s a tear, there goes the season. But the Bulls best passers in the game were Noah and Boozer, who combined for nine assists and shot a combined 15 for 26.

Guards shoot eight for 25. Bigs shoot 15 for 26. Hmmmm, let’s see. Where should the ball be going?

But it wasn’t going there much as the Bulls seemed to fall in love with the hero ball. Which is too bad since they basically controlled most of the game and had Portland playing like they would be happy to have a close loss with their new coach, Kaleb Canales, whom I thought was that bad Bears quarterback from last season.

The Bulls actually led from midway through the first period until 10 minutes left in the game and by 77-70 with about a minute left in the third quarter after Taj Gibson hauled in a lob pass from Lucas behind his head and slammed it in with a fabulous athletic move.

Lucas is the best lob dunk passer on the team, but as the Bulls don’t have a particularly athletic team it’s hardly a priority. Stat man Jeff Mangurten says the Bulls have only four lob dunks this season and two on Lucas passes. Not so Lob City!

“They just out competed us,” said Gibson, who had seven points and five rebounds. “It was a tough game. They hit tough shots, they got confidence early, and we can’t do that. We can’t just expect to win. It’s frustrating because we have good guys in this locker room who believe in doing the right things. Tonight we fell short. Thibs prepared us, he told us what it would be like (with a new coach). He told us that in this league, whenever there is a coach change, it’s really hard because that team is going to come out and play even harder. Guys who haven’t been playing are going to get minutes. You saw that from the jump. New faces, everyone coming out and playing tough. We gave them too much confidence early and it was really hard to shut them off late. They just played a great game.”

Gibson has been playing well of late, but that’s another issue the Bulls have when things aren’t going well. When they are, it’s nice to have Gibson’s defensive component to come in for Boozer, whose defense is limited. But Thibodeau’s conundrum was more on display in a game like Friday’s.

The Bulls were cruising along nicely all game, if not particularly sharp defensively. Portland players like Nicholas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge were getting open looks, which was why Thibodeau called a timeout three minutes into the game after both had wide open jumpers with no one near them.

“We were (flat),” said Thibodeau. “No energy offensively (to start). No energy defensively. Settling. Not making effort.”

The Bulls led 32-29 after one quarter, a warning sign for Thibodeau as Portland shot 54.5 percent in the quarter. But it didn’t seem that worrisome as the Bulls shot 66.7 percent and Boozer even had four assists in the quarter.

The second unit came in strong again as Omer Asik showed a good offensive finish as he isn’t stopping to gather the ball as much, and Noah had a beautiful high/low lob pass to Boozer for a layup as the defense fronted Boozer. Noah finished the quarter with a drive and kick pass to Ronnie Brewer for a basket and 53-50 halftime lead.

And then the Bulls were cruising along extending their lead to 69-61 midway through the third when it seemed they’d pull away. The Bulls had increased their effort after halftime after Thibodeau certainly had delivered some message. But Watson got consecutive lazy passes picked off, and when Boozer was late and fouled Aldridge on an offensive rebound and score and then didn’t step out to help on a Ray Felton jumper off a screen, Thibodeau went to the bench for his defense with Gibson.

But generally when Thibodeau goes with Gibson, he’ll also bring in Kyle Korver to balance the offense, which is a key philosophy for Thibodeau. But then Portland went at Korver, who is a better defender than advertised, though still not quick enough for Portland’s perimeter. They got two free throws and a basket going at Korver, and then Nolan Smith and Crawford closed the quarter with threes when the Bulls guards lost them. That brought Portland within 79-78 after three and it was a game for them now to win.

Thibodeau stuck with his defensive group to open the fourth along with Deng, who had 19 points but was one of seven on threes. They missed their first six shots as Portland took an 84-79 lead before Jimmy Butler hit a three.

Boozer got back in, but the eight minutes out had cooled him. He missed both his fourth quarter shots. The Bulls were hustling, particularly Noah, who made a brilliant steal and going out of bounds save with the Bulls behind 89-86 with about five minutes left. But the Bulls continued to shoot bricks. That came right after Boozer dove on the floor to save a ball and get a jump ball that the Bulls would win, and a double technical with Przybilla for his trouble.

But the perimeter players–Deng, Watson and Lucas a combined two of 17 and zero for nine on three in the fourth—were mostly overdribbling and hoisting up jumpers. It’s where, obviously, the Bulls missed Rose, who could draw the defense for easier shots and break droughts. There was no stopper this time, and as the Bulls clanked away Aldridge hit a pair over Noah, Wesley Matthews dropped in a long, step back three and Crawford did his isolation thing and scored. The Bulls had no answers other than missing six threes in the last two minutes.

“Someone stepped up each time down the stretch as we needed it,” said Crawford. “The odds were against us. But we played together. Coach had put in some different options and movements for the game. After the game he just walked in and said ‘I love you guys.’”

Wait, it’s Norman Dale!

Now it’s the 76ers, who have given the Bulls trouble. The 76ers have gotten center Spencer Hawes back, but he cannot play back to backs yet. So they elected to sit him against Miami Friday so he could play Saturday against the Bulls. Is the league sensing weakness?

“That’s the challenge,” said Thibodeau, “the challenge is to be ready.”

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