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Bulls have another problem in Houston
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 22
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How’s that coaching bromide go? You’ve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to take Nate out…
Or something like that.
Not to blame Nate Robinson for the Bulls 93-89 loss to the Houston Rockets Wednesday. Actually, if not for Robinson’s second half boost and one of the most amazing layups you’ll ever see on the way to a team high 21 points, the Bulls might not have even been in another one down the stretch.
But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who has been talking so much in this three game losing streak about searching for a missing combination he may as well be wearing an Indiana Jones hat, just stayed at the table too long. Thibs was like the guy drawing aces and kings at the blackjack table and thinking it would last forever. He was the guy sticking with his stock after it went up 100 points.
Thibs bought ice cream and it looked so wonderful. And then after a few minutes it had melted away, just like the Bulls’ 84-79 lead with under five minutes left.
It’s not like we all haven’t done it at one time or another. He just flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami.
I think I’m out of metaphors and similes for tonight, but we must remember that a basketball season is a journey and not a vacation. Hey, I had one left.
The Bulls didn’t have much left after 43 minutes of basketball good enough to win. Because with Thibodeau riding his second unit defense with Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler and the explosive but unpredictable Robinson, the Bulls’ engine stalled. They missed 11 consecutive shots and committed a pair of turnovers.
So by the time Robinson ended the 4:35 drought with a layup, the Rockets had taken an 89-84 lead with 7.1 seconds remaining. The Bulls could then only foul, and the Rockets made their free throws to send the Bulls to their first three game losing streak since Thibodeau was coach, their fourth loss in the last five and under .500 for the first time this season at 5-6.
“We have to execute better in the fourth quarter,” said Joakim Noah, who had 11 points, seven rebounds and four blocks, but was scoreless after halftime. “These games are close and we are just not executing in the fourth quarter. We have to play better together. We’re not playing great right now. Our defense is not what it used to be. It’s not what it was last year, that’s for sure. We have to do better. Losing three in a row is unacceptable. We’re better than that.”
The defense wasn’t the problem after the Bulls had given up more than 100 points in each of the last three games. The Rockets shot 43.2 percent led by James Harden with 28 points. The Bulls outrebounded Houston and forced 23 turnovers.
It was, instead, another disappointing, if hardly shocking, failure to run much of any offense down the stretch that doomed the Bulls.
“The fourth quarter is different,” said Thibodeau. “Your intensity is higher, you have to stay disciplined on the defensive end and understand on the offensive end everything is going to happen quicker. So you can’t try to thread the needle in those situations. You’ve got to make the first, simple pass. We have to know what our looks are in order. That’s something we have to work on.”
This season without Derrick Rose and seven new players among the 12 regulars now is obviously about developing a defense, a regular rotation and consistency. Thibodeau has been experimenting with rotations and player combinations all season, but with a pair of losses obviously trying to get that win before Saturday’s game in Milwaukee.
Thibodeau Wednesday went away from the reserve rotation he’d been using with four reserves and one starter, and the Bulls pulled through the second quarter blues without major issues after leading 22-20 after one quarter.
Players were asked after the game about Thibodeau changing the starting lineup, which would seem foolish as the Bulls generally have led all season after the first quarter. It’s been the close of the game that’s been the problem without the so called closer, as it was especially Wednesday.
“We’ll see,” said Thibodeau as he’s answered the question about changes the last three losses. “I’m looking at a lot of things. There are a lot of things that go into winning and you have to do things the right way.”
Thibodeau was riding his defensive group with Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, the latter at shooting guard — exchanging Noah early in the quarter for Carlos Boozer — and also Luol Deng and Robinson.
But when it came down toward the close, the Bulls were virtually unable to run any offense. Robinson is a luxury, and when asked after the game about Robinson, Thibodeau, who never singles out players for public criticism, termed it “some good, some bad.”
That’s often the impulsive Robinson. After turning 360 degrees to finish a layup in a remarkably athletic move and then hitting a three — the Bulls were 0-11 at the time and Robinson is one of the few who even looks like he can make one — for that five-point lead, Robinson fired another three with 21 seconds left on the shot clock on the next Bulls possession. It began a bizarre run of offensive incompetency, low percentage, forced jump shots all around, little passing or players moving and Robinson with a wild air balled three and a pass out of bounds after about 30 dribbles and the Bulls trailing by two with 20.7 seconds left.
“You have to understand how the game is going,” Thibodeau said. “What’s a good three and what’s a bad three, the rhythm of the offense. That’s a big part of understanding your teammates, the offense and what we’re trying to get accomplished.
“As the ball moves, you have to understand what your looks are in order, and everyone has to fulfill responsibilities,” said Thibodeau. “You have to stay disciplined. You have to sustain your spacing through a second and third option. Your decision-making is critical.”
The Bulls effectively had one more chance after two Toney Douglas free throws as Douglas was terrific after Robinson had helped run Jeremy Lin out of the game. Douglas hit a big step back three when Robinson dropped far under a screen that gave the Rockets the lead with 1:11 left. Thibodeau called timeout and lit into Robinson.
Rockets acting coach Kelvin Sampson said he left Douglas, shooting under 30 percent on the season, in the game because of he felt it was an advantage against Robinson.
“I felt like Toney gave us our best chance to win,” said Sampson. “He was a better match up with Nate. I’m big on heart. I’m big on toughness. I always put a huge value on it.
Thibodeau’s been uncertain about his starters, mostly Kirk Hinrich, Boozer and Richard Hamilton, though they are three of the better passers on the team. He stuck with the guys who got him there, which is his tendency.
So the Bulls had perhaps that last gasp with 17.4 seconds left and trailing 88-84. Noah got an inbounds pass on the left wing and saw a lane to the basket. He drove, and of all guys, Omer Asik, who had a quiet game and mostly had been outdone by Noah, swooped in to block Noah’s shot to a teammate. The Bulls fouled and Harden made one of two for that five-point lead before Robinson’s streak breaking layup.
Asik finished with four points and six rebounds, well below his season averages. But he walked back for the free throws with a satisfied smile at applying the apparent finishing touch against his former teammates and the player who kept him from a starting job with the Bulls.
“We’re finding ways to lose,” said Robinson. “We just have to back to the drawing board and get the next one. We seem to be thinking too much. We just have to go out and just play. Whatever happens, happens. Each guy is pulling for each other I think, too much, instead of everyone trying to do the right thing. We just need the game to come to us.”
That’s a bunch of good clichés. Actually, it doesn’t appear the Bulls are thinking nearly enough, especially on offense, and though Thibodeau talked about defense again after the game you’re not about to hold teams to 50 points. The bigger decisions are going to be about settling on a rotation and sticking with guys who can deliver an offense. I understand why Thibodeau took out Boozer, who had 13 points and 15 rebounds in 25 minutes.
First, the was a brutal play when Harden drove late in the first quarter and Boozer backed off like a bee was chasing him. Thibodeau immediately sent Gibson into the game. The Bulls would end the first still ahead 22-20 and lead at halftime 46-42, though after a 12-0 second quarter run the Bulls were ahead 35-30 and later 44-35. But Harden and Patrick Patterson, who had a season high 20 points, combined for the last seven points of the first half.
“Our defensive discipline really got us in trouble in key parts of the game,” said Thibodeau.
With Houston not a big team, Thibodeau sat Nazr Mohammed. He played Noah the entire 24 first half minutes, though that was because Asik played just under 22 minutes in the first half. Actually, the Bulls had a nice edge with Asik guarding Boozer and Boozer on the non-scoring Asik. Boozer stepped out for open jump shots, and Hinrich made his first two jumpers as the Bulls took an early lead.
Hinrich has been struggling with his shot and he tends to press when he does. But after shooting two of three in the first quarter with five assists and starting Jeremy Lin toward a bad night, Hinrich sat the second quarter and finished two of five for four points. Thibodeau also played Marco Belinelli sparingly, just six second quarter minutes during that 12-0 run, which left Belinelli with the team’s best plus/minus rating of the game. Richard Hamilton didn’t get much going, shooting two of 10. And he also never made it back in the fourth quarter as Robinson was squeezing off 14 shots. Many coaches go with the hot hand, which is understandable. But Hamilton can make plays when an offense breaks down.
The difficulty for Thibodeau is he’s a defensive oriented coach and looks toward defense as the best path to victory. But then it’s a delicate balancing act, and it’s hard to blame him. If you go back to the offensive guys, then maybe the other team scores too much and you can’t catch up. But if you stay with the defensive guys, then the offense can break down. And you can hardly count on Noah and Deng, the latter with 19 points and 10 rebounds but shot seven for 20, to break down defenses and score under pressure.
In the cross match, Noah was playing against Patterson, who is much smaller. But Noah isn’t your classic post up center, though he has been better offensively this season. Though late in the game he was matched against Asik.
Thibodeau obviously will continue to sort through this as it’s only 11 games in. Though he did spend two seasons running offense though Derrick Rose, especially late in games. But losing that much scoring, there is a need for more offense in the game. Still, as the Bulls refrain has gone in most of these losses, they were right there with a chance to win in the last few minutes.
It’s little surprise there’s not much margin for error for this team without Rose. Was it supposed to be otherwise?
The Rockets opened the second half fast, taking a lead to finish a 14-1 run. Boozer made a couple of nice inside moves for scores, though he got yanked again in the third after a tough pass inside went for a turnover and Patterson scored inside without any interior defensive help. Though the Rockets have mostly been rebuilt, Harden, obviously, proves a difficult assignment. The Bulls opened with Deng on him with success. They went to Hamilton, who had some problems, which got him taken out, and then Butler finished on him.
The Bulls righted themselves late in the third after trailing by six with a strong finish from Boozer with a follow up and tip score for nine points and eight rebounds in the quarter as the Bulls trailed 66-65 going into the fourth. But in the fourth Boozer would get just under five minutes and one shot.
Robinson had a good run to open the fourth, and Butler with eight points in 30 minutes had a strong three point play and enthusiastic response to tie the game at 75 with 8:06 left.
The Bulls defense was strong despite the various concerns, and the Rockets, one of the league’s higher scoring teams, then were held to four points in the next four and a half minutes while the Bulls took that 84-79 lead. Noah even had a nice block on Asik in there. But the offense became offensive in a negative way, and look how far you had to read to get to a bad Thanksgiving pun. Yes, this was still another turkey.
The Bulls are now under .500 for the first time since after Thibodeau’s fifth game as Bulls coach in 2010. They’re also stumbling a bit in what was not supposed to be a tough part of the schedule.
Record of teams Bulls have defeated:
Record of teams Bulls have lost to:
Oklahoma City 9-3
“These games are hard-fought and they’re going to (be decided on) one or two possessions down at the end,” said Thibodeau. “You’ve got to make tough plays. It’s hard to win on the road. You have to eliminate is all the ways in which you beat yourself. So you start with your defense. The rebounding is OK, average at best. The turnovers are high. It’s difficult to win. Particularly when you’re shorthanded. We have to play real hard, we have to play real smart and we have to be tied together.”
Instead, the Bulls were just tied up in confusion and uncertainty once again.