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Bulls, like much of America, frustrated by Washington
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 17
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It wasn’t too long ago the Bulls looked like a championship team. Actually about four days ago with the dramatic, national TV come from ahead overtime win over the Miami Heat.
But with Monday’s stunning 87-84 home loss to the 15-46 Washington Wizards, the 46-15 Bulls for about the last month look more like a .500-type team, half broken down, worn out and beaten up, a team constantly losing big leads, even to poor teams, and on the verge of losing the top seed in the conference while seemingly losing its edge.
Then listen to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
“The season is coming to an end quickly,” said Thibodeau, almost spitting out his words in a terse post game media session. “Then you have to be ready. Putting things off, putting things off. It is not good. When you are on the floor, everyone has a responsibility to do their job. Everyone has to Do Their Job! Do Your Job!”
I capitalized that last part of the quote for the emphasis Thibodeau put on each word as he said it distinctly. Yes, Derrick Rose was out yet again, this time with a foot injury sustained against Detroit Sunday that left him limping Monday. It seems somewhat connected to his ankle injury, though the team says it’s minor after negative X-rays and Rose is day to day. Really. Luol Deng also sat out after suffering bruised ribs in the Pistons game, and he is, likewise, day to day.
So maybe you say this is temporary, something of a deep breath before the playoffs after this unusual, lockout-shortened 66-game, 124-day rush to conclusion. But with Rose missing his 24th game (16-8) and Deng his 10th (6-4) and still with torn ligaments in his left wrist, perhaps this is one of those seasons where the players never are going to get right and the push to the finish has them gasping.
The Bulls are 6-5 in their last 11 games, and then needed unlikely three pointers at the end of regulation to win the previous two before Monday. They were blown out by the Thunder, lost at home to the Rockets, were blown out at home by the Nuggets (the Western Conference is looking way too much), and they were fortunate to beat Toronto twice after trailing in the fourth quarter of back to back games and outplayed by Toronto in both before the Bulls won the second in overtime. Basically in the last month, since a big home loss to Portland March 16, the Bulls have been, at best, a below average team fortunate to pull out a few games with confidence and veteran savvy.
Is the tough season and the injuries finally catching up to them? And at just the wrong time? Or is it an appropriate deep breath at the right time?
“These guys have played been all year,” Thibodeau said, dismissing the injury issues. “We are 60 games into it. You have to eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourself first. Then you establish who you are as a team. The low turnover is a big part of winning. Defense, rebounding, low turnovers are the three musts every night. That has to resonate with us.
“There are certain amount of mistakes that are going to happen in a game,” allowed Thibodeau. “But it doesn’t absolve you from sprinting back and protecting your basket and not conceding two points. Now we’re turning it over, not getting back and giving up the easy buckets, which also gives your opponents confidence. That has to be corrected. That has to be corrected. I’m always concerned (about Rose’s various injuries). He’s missed a lot of games. I’m concerned about that, but disappointed. We’ve got to play a lot better. That part is on me. I’ve got to get the team to play well. We have more than enough to win with. We didn’t do our job tonight. I didn’t do my job tonight. It starts with me. I’ve got to have them ready. That edge and that sense of urgency has to be there from the start of the game. We were scrambling and executing well at the end, but that’s not the way you win.”
It also shows you how quickly a team can go from creating a monster of expectations and optimism, which was the case after the daring comeback win over Miami Thursday, to questioning just who and where you are.
Miami, hosting the Bulls Thursday again on TNT, closes with four of the last six at home and could win them all. The Bulls, who could change all that with a win in Miami Thursday, then likely would have to beat Indiana on the road next week to claim the top spot in the East. The way the 76ers have been sliding, they seem likely to fall to eighth in the East, the presumably easier first round matchup.
Though that is more speculation for now as opposed to the reality of a Bulls team that continues to give up big fourth quarter leads and either barely hold on, or lose as they did in New York last week and Monday at home to the Wizards.
The Bulls led 68-57 early in the fourth quarter and then just collapsed in a maze of missed jumpers, turnovers and soft defense as Washington scored 13 straight points. And let’s not give too much credit to this Wizards team which hadn’t won in Chicago in seven years. I’m not sure they had anyone starting who could make the Bulls 10-man rotation. Yes, including John Wall, who is one of the poorest shooters I’ve ever seen and basically after almost two years in the NBA has virtually no game other than his speed in throwing himself at the basket. And he obviously doesn’t think the game much as he continually flew by on shot fakes as C.J. Watson almost stole another one after the Bulls got down 82-77 on a James Singleton fast break dunk with 1:40 left.
Though the Wizards off loaded two of their wackiest guys, Nick Young and JaVale McGee at the trade deadline and sent home Andray Blatche, they still have the Singletons. I think it’s the other one who spent $10,000 on lottery tickets a few weeks back. Apparently, he didn’t win as he played 16 minutes of the bench.
Anyway, with Washington ahead by five, Wall and Shelvin Mack took turns either losing Watson off threes or falling for his fakes when all they had to do was stand there with a hand up. Watson, who had been three of 11 until then, hit three straight jumpers for seven points in just over a minute to get the Bulls within 85-84 with 16.5 seconds left. The Bulls fouled Maurice Evans, who made a pair of free throws for an 87-84 lead after Wall, to his credit, had as well. They could have screamed, “We aren’t Rodney Stuckey!”
So here was the chance for Watson to do it again, and thanks to another brain lock from Wall he almost did.
The Wizards covered the three point line pretty well with perimeter switching, showing at least Randy Wittman is no Lawrence Frank. They forced Richard Hamilton into a three, which came up short and out of bounds. But on referee review it was determined Chris Singleton blocked it. So one more Bulls chance with 5.9 seconds left.
Hamilton threw in and for some reason Wall left Watson to run and hedge toward Kyle Korver. Hello, the guy just hit three straight shots and Thursday’s big one! Do you have cable? Now, Wall sprinted to Watson standing above the three point line as Hamilton smartly threw him the ball seeing Wall leave. Watson caught, faked and Wall flew three feet by. Watson stepped in just as he had against Miami, then stepped back and shot.
But this time it hit front rim and there would be no shocker.
“The game wasn’t lost at the last possession,” said Hamilton. “We’ve got to do a better job during the game. When we’ve got a team down and a lead by 10, we’ve got to put them away. Not just tonight. It’s been happening the last couple of games. So we’ve just got to get better at it.”
If there was something positive for the Bulls, it was the play of Hamilton as he finally played 34 minutes and led the team with 22 points. It wasn’t a good game for Korver, who was zero for four, all on threes. Korver has been terrific of late and has a vital role with the team. But Hamilton showed why he was brought in to be the starting shooting guard and why his increased playing time is vital for the team.
Though Hamilton is regarded as a player who doesn’t create shots for himself, that can be misleading.
You don’t throw it to him in the post to make an isolation move. But he’s way more than a baseline runner and down screen and spot up player like Korver. Hamilton can create his own shot with ball fakes and shot fakes and step ins and curls and is an offensive weapon. He has good shooting range and is going to get up shots and be a threat. Korver is more like John Paxson was with the old Bulls, a great shooter who doesn’t take a lot of shots because he is so fundamentally sound and waits for the best opportunity.
Hamilton has more dash and daring, which is why he has to, and I assume will, eventually finish the games. He got more time and fourth quarter time with Rose and Deng out, which could be expected. You can understand some of Thibodeau’s reluctance given Hamilton’s porcelain like durability this season. But there’s no point having him on the shelf to admire.
Put him out there and subject him to the rigors of the game, and if he breaks down again, well, that’s the chance you take with veteran players.
Or young players.
Thibodeau admitted he was concerned about Rose given a fifth injury on a different part of his body, this time the right foot. I’m told Hasbro is making a Rose version of the Operation game. I hope it’s easier as I always buzzed trying to get that spare rib. Hopefully, Rose’s ankle isn’t the wish bone.
There was turf toe, a back injury, a groin problem, an ankle injury and now the foot. Again, tests were negative, which means positive, and Rose could play in Charlotte (almost impossible to lose to them) and/or Miami Thursday. But the frequency of injuries has everyone uncertain for obvious reasons. After all, most seemed to be unrelated and exceptions. Yet, they keep coming.
I think he’ll be fine, though I do keep repeating that. In Derrick we trust?
“It doesn’t really affect us much because we’ve been playing shorthanded all season,” said Taj Gibson. “Guys on this team are always ready to step up. It was a tough one. We turned the ball over too much and had a couple let downs here and there and it affected us a lot.”
That has been the mantra for the Bulls all season, the superior play of the reserves and the ever optimistic Thibodeau always insisting the team had enough players to win. It’s a terrific tactic as your leader doesn’t make excuses, so why should you? It seemed Thibodeau’s belief became the team’s achievement.
But when is enough too much?
The reserves were outscored by Washington 35-17, though two Bulls irregulars, Watson and Ronnie Brewer, did start. Deng had suffered a rib injury, also considered not serious, Sunday. But he struggled mightily in that game as well and, as been noted, leads the league in minutes played.
Joakim Noah, who was brilliant against the Pistons Sunday, was run over by Washington backup center Kevin Seraphin, the player the Wizards drafted with the pick they extracted from the Bulls when the Bulls had to get someone to take Kirk Hinrich’s contract so they could get into free agency. Seraphin, a fellow Frenchman who can best be described as lumbering, pushed Noah all over the place on the way to 21 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Noah did have five blocks and 11 rebounds in hustling, though he had trouble holding off Seraphin.
The Bulls also got 16 points and 13 rebounds from Carlos Boozer, who now is the team’s version of Cal Ripkin as teammates come and go and Boozer never misses a possession. Who would have thought?
So the Bulls did outrebound Washington. But they were outscored 20-2 on fast breaks and 48-22 inside, which gives you an idea how disinterested the Bulls were in competing.
“It was a tough one,” said Gibson. “We just didn’t play with a lot of energy. They played with a lot of heart and a lot of energy. They outcompeted us. We turned the ball over too much. We gave up a lot of rebounds late. When you give guys confidence early, that’s what’s going to happen. Seraphin is playing well. He dominated.”
I’ll stop there momentarily as that was one of the sentences I never expected to hear.
“Nobody tries to turn the ball over,” said Gibson about Thibodeau’s fury regarding the team’s 17 for 27 Washington points. “Sometimes it’s just mishaps. It’s going to happen in the course of a game. It’s up to us to adjust. Tonight we adjusted late and it really hurt us.”
It really didn’t seem like it would be much trouble even without Rose and Deng, which probably was part of the problem. Perhaps you say like a lot of top teams losing games lately, like Oklahoma City and Miami, the Bulls are just another long having clinched the playoffs and taking a breath before the vital season. It makes sense. Really, how motivated can you be for a Washington team with half its personnel from the D-league? And you just can’t push every game, though Thibodeau isn’t exactly in agreement. Which is one reason he is so good.
“I didn’t do my job tonight,” said Thibodeau. “It starts with me. I’ve got to have them ready. We had two fast break points; we‘re not getting easy buckets. We’re missing a lot of layups. We’re making the game hard now. It’s clear to me why we’re not playing well. That never changes. Readiness to play, defense, rebounding, low turnovers. That never changes. That should be constant. Those three things have to happen. Then it’s inside out and share the ball. When we do that, we’re a good team. When we don’t, we’re not very good. Believe me, there’s clarity on that.”
So it was clear, at least to Thibodeau, things were not going well even was Washington shot 35.2 percent in the first half. That’s because the Wizards, now 7-24 on the road, were ahead 43-40 at halftime. But the inevitable seemed to be happening after halftime as the Bulls shut down the Wizards as Hamilton has a terrific bounce pass for a Noah reverse, Boozer hit a pair of jumpers and Hamilton began to get to the line. The Bulls took a 63-57 lead after three and began to extend it to open the fourth before they failed to control Seraphin, Mack and Evans. Which isn’t exactly LeBron, Wade and Bosh. Or even Carmelo, Tyson and Amar’e.
Where’s the killer instinct? Where’s the fury? And the sound of enthusiasm? Where’s Derrick? The Bulls after all this time seem still to have some questions to answer.