Bulls lose 27-point lead and game to Bucks


Nov 27

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Defeat isn’t a tragedy, though no one among the Bulls’ players was feeling particularly sanguine Monday about a 27-point third quarter lead at home that turned into an inexplicable 93-92 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“I’m stunned by simple fact that we have a 25 point lead (even he didn’t know it was worse) and the way we defend we never expect a team to make a run like that,” said Richard Hamilton, who had 30 points, his most as a Bull, and sat afterward for almost a half hour in front of his locker in his game uniform in an unusually funereal scene. “And (to) especially play harder than us in the fourth quarter.”

But a Bucks group of all reserves coach Scott Skiles rode for all of the last 15 minutes and most of a 31-4 turnaround run from midway through the third quarter to early in the fourth stuffed and stymied a stunned group of basically all Bulls starters who played virtually the entire second half.

“We were very loose with the lead at the end of the third quarter,” acknowledged Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of the 10-2 close in the last 2:29 of the third that pivoted the game. “That game changed in four to five minutes of the third and the first two of the fourth and we couldn’t stop it.

Richard Hamilton“We couldn’t get stops, couldn’t get to the free throw line,” noted Thibodeau. “We had 15 free throws in the first half, four in the second half. They had 12 blocked shots. It can happen fast. You can lose 10 points in an NBA game in a minute. Everyone says that doesn’t happen, but you see it all the time. If you don’t play tough with a lead this is what happens.”

And if you don’t respond quickly to this kind of thing you can begin losing a season.

This is one that can leave a mark.

The Bulls knew there would be hurdles they haven’t had to master for several years with Derrick Rose out. This is one giant one, reminiscent of the 35-point lost lead to the Kings in Vinny Del Negro’s final season as coach that led to a shakeup. That, like this, will stand out as one of the worst losses in franchise history, in part because it happened at home and to a Bulls team still with competitive beliefs.

This wasn’t a 50-point loss in the Tim Floyd era when you only speculated on the margin of defeat. This is a team that many believe could still win the Central Division and be a playoff contender even without Rose.

But this sort of game can stay with a team. Much classic literature, and I can’t quite make that leap yet, has as it’s plot a defeat to start, leading to shattered hopes and ultimately the measure of the protagonists, of whether they can master their environment or submit to their weaknesses.

We’ll see how the Bulls come out of this. You can point in the right direction, or point fingers.

“We played terrible,” said Luol Deng, who had 10 points and eight rebounds, but five turnovers in playing all but 42 seconds. “I’ve got to look at it again. We’re not playing how we need to play, how we used to play. We’ve got a lot of stuff to work on offensively and defensively. We’ve got to do a lot better.”

Actually, Deng seemed almost in shock, initially answering to “What happened in the second half?

“What you saw. They scored more than us.”

“Why did that happen?” he was asked.

“I don’t know.”

At least no one wondered how it felt.

Asked what Thibodeau said to the team after the game, Deng paused and said, “I don’t remember, to be honest with you. He’s disappointed, obviously. I don’t exactly remember what he said.”

It’s difficult to remember all everyone said because there are so many questions after a curious loss like this. Which was too bad after the Bulls played so well into the third quarter, Hamilton running Monta Ellis out of the game, Kirk Hinrich with a season high 17 points, Carlos Boozer with his fifth double/double in the last six games with 19 points and 11 rebounds, the Bulls about to win a 10th straight from the Bucks to move into the Central Division lead. But instead the Bulls fell to 6-7 with Milwaukee at 7-5.

So questions arose about the lack of play for the reserves as Marco Belinelli got his first coach’s did not play of the season and no one off the bench played more than three and a half minutes the second half. Were the players tired? No one much admitted to that.

The paradox was Thibodeau was questioned earlier in the season for using the bench too much, especially down the stretch in games with his preference for defensive players to close games. But the Bulls came up short in several fourth quarters and to open second quarters when Thibodeau tried to rest his starters.

So with Saturday’s win in Milwaukee when Boozer and Hamilton had a strong finish, and then again Monday, Thibodeau made earlier substitutions of the starters in the first quarter presumably to give them more time down the stretch. Also, Thibodeau had been questioned about the use of scoring oriented Nate Robinson late, which would cause the offense to stagnate. So Thibodeau was using Robinson more in spurts, which better fits his streaky game.

And it was going well for the Bulls, who opened the third quarter making the game look like a blowout against the mostly indifferent Bucks starters: Boozer score, Hinrich steal, Boozer score, Hinrich miss but Noah tipin, Hamilton 12 footer, Hamilton steal and miss but Boozer with a follow putback.

The Bucks after being pounded on the boards in the loss Saturday, started big men Samuel Dalembert and John Henson. But other than an early flurry by Henson, they were too slow and outplayed, and the game was quickly getting away from them after halftime.

Skiles took out both three minutes into the second half, but the Bulls continued to pile it on: Hamilton with another, Noah a block and a steal and then Deng with a three as the Bulls were even making them, five of 11 for the league’s worst three-point shooting team. It was now Bulls by 19 four minutes into the third. Then Hamilton hit Boozer for a layup, Noah with four blocks and four steals swiped another and Boozer hit again. Ellis stopped it briefly, but bang, and Deng lined up a three good and then Hinrich followed with one. And with 2:50 left in the third quarter — yes, just a few minutes to the fourth and maybe a Vladimir Radmanovic sighting — the Bulls were leading 78-51 over a team that long has signaled for the check, to start up the bus and to forget last call.

Kirk Hinrich“I never thought of putting the starters back in,” said Skiles. “You have to be blind to not see there was a noticeable uptick in our pressure and we weren’t giving up offensive rebounds and we go off on the break with the group that was in there. It’s one of those funny things (not ha ha funny to the Bulls, though). When you start to come back like that it’s hard for the other team to hold you off. This won’t happen another time this year where we come back in the second half from a 20-point deficit, especially on the road. They played well for a large part of the game. We played well for a quarter and were able top steal it.”

The Bulls come back at it at home Wednesday against Dallas, Saturday against the 76ers and Tuesday against the Pacers before going back on the road. When this occurred to the Del Negro team with Rose in 2009, the Bulls lost the next game, but then won eight of 11 to save Del Negro’s job for a few more months and eventually lead to a stirring playoff series against the Celtics. But the Bulls did have Rose. He remains a spirit for now, only the stuff dreams are made on. The dream of his return is months away, if that close.

When Rose was hurt last April, one of the questions raised toward Thibodeau was why Rose would be in that game with a double digit lead. Though the 76ers had cut a huge deficit down to about 10. Thibodeau protested that leads in the NBA disappear quickly. He emphasized his point Monday as in less that eight minutes the Bulls lost all of a 27-point lead.

Which pretty much woke them up, and they played much tougher the last six minutes. But they couldn’t overcome Ersan Ilyasova, breaking out of a season long slump with a dozen points in the fourth quarter and three for three shooting for rookie Deron Lamb, who came into the game having played 35 minutes all season and having hit a total of four shots.

“They put the second group in, hit a lot of shots and the lead shrunk fast and it became a dog fight at the end,” said Boozer. “You’ve got to give them credit. They hit a lot of shots, got some layups. Some was not being there, but for the most part give them credit. It’s tough. I wish we could go back out there and finish it differently.”

Which raises the question of whether things will go differently for the Bulls and Thibodeau, who when asked about whether he thought about playing reserves more at the end simply said, “No.”

Noah, particularly morose afterward — and it is a tough time to expect cogent answers and explanations — was asked about missing Rose and defense.

“There’s a lot of guys not here who were good pretty good defensively,” he said. “We were up 25 points and lost. Yeah, that’s disappointing.”

And with that he left.

Though none of the Bulls players declined to speak to reporters or were rude or abrupt. It is a professional group, and a prideful one that cares. There was no joking. Noah stood in the locker room afterward in annoyance gesturing at a copy of the box score along with Robinson. Hamilton, who’s been through painful losses in a long career with great teams, stared at nothing.

Players like to have fun, and since Saturday’s game Noah and Bucks reserve and former Bull Drew Gooden were tweaking one another on Twitter. Gooden, who seems perfectly happy not playing, offered his two tickets to the game to any fan who sent him a picture of a Bulls jersey in a toilet.

Talk about symbolism.

Noah called it a fun Twitter war as he remains close with Gooden and took some shots back.

But it was business at game time, and no one can accuse the Bulls of taking things lightly. If anything, it was being too tense as a form of panic that cost then, often what you witness during these things when a game gets like that. Suddenly, there were forced interior passes that ended in turnovers, extra dribbles, too many jumpers on the perimeter and too few passes to others with a better opportunity. It’s as much a sense of guilt for letting this happen, and then trying to resolve it on your own, which is hardly what got you that big lead.

“You let your guard down and that’s what happens,” said Thibodeau. “Obviously, you build a lead like that you have to do a lot of good things. But you never have a game won until the final horn. You have to play 48 minutes (we’ll be hearing that one a lot again). As soon as you start feeling good about yourself you’re going to get knocked on your ass, and that’s what happened.”

And even with all that, Hamilton just barely missed winning it at the buzzer.

It’s the Catch-22 issue as well that Thibodeau faces. He needs Hamilton and Boozer for offense to close, but you also give up something. Which is why Thibodeau has liked to close games with defense. But his defenders, particularly Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, haven’t been scorers, and his other reserves, like Belinelli and Robinson, aren’t defenders. So Skiles continued to put Boozer in pick and rolls knowing Boozer tends to lay back in the lane opening the play and enabling Udoh to roll as Noah came late to help.

That made it Bucks 93-92 with 57.5 seconds left.

The Bulls continued to run Hamilton off those baseline plays we saw so often with Kyle Korver, and again Hamilton came up over a screen but shot short. Noah grabbed it, but was stripped as he tried to go up by Beno Udrih. Udrih missed a three, but the Bucks retrieved the long rebound with 10.7 seconds left and the Bulls had to foul. Despite being a 91 percent free throw shooter this season, Udrih missed both. Yes, this could go back to the Bulls.

But Ilyasova rebounded the second miss over Boozer and the ball went out of bounds to the Bucks. It was a heck of a finish, even if the Bulls didn’t feel so good about it. The Bulls forced the Bucks last timeout on the inbounds and Hinrich then poked away the Mike Dunleavy inbounds pass and it went off Udoh for a Bulls last possession with 7.5 seconds left.

Exciting, eh?

Hinrich inbounded as Hamilton got a baseline screen from Boozer. Hamilton was going one on one against rookie Lamb, who stayed strong in front of him. Hamilton dribbled into the lane just in front of the free throw line, and he’s excellent at creating space for his shot. He did, falling back for a 14 footer… that hit the left side of the rim as the game ending buzzer sounded.

I loved a furious Skiles running to yell at the officials even after the amazing Bucks comeback win.

It was obvious to go to Hamilton, who was having his best game since April 2011 after a prior season high Saturday against the Bucks.

“We had a shot,” said Hinrich. “We had a steal and couldn’t capitalize.”

It was too bad for the Bulls as they led 26-19 after one quarter with Hamilton punishing Ellis. Brandon Jennings, whose sprained ankle seemed fine, was wild and shooting difficult fallaways as Hinrich played him physically. Boozer got going in the second quarter as Thibodeau stayed with Boozer and Deng and reserves to open the second. Gibson had a terrific rebound and long outlet pass for a Hamilton score as the Bulls also began to push the pace, Boozer scored 10 and Hamilton closed the half with a pair of scores for a 50-40 lead.

Then there was that Bulls run to open the third that seemed to end it when Skiles went for reserves he’d rarely played all season. As much a white flag as you’d see. But the Bucks woke up with that close of the third.

“We really let up on defense, were in cruise control,” said Hinrich. “Jogging back, everyone standing up straight, not communicating and they took advantage.”

When Udoh ran down mostly uncontested and made a 20 footer to get Milwaukee within 80-63 at the end of the third, the feeling was there suddenly. Then in a matter of a few minutes to open the fourth, Noah missed close, Boozer a 15 footer and a turnover, Hamilton an 11 footer that went awry, a turnover and a missed layup, Thibodeau with two timeouts, the Bucks with a pair of layups, a Udrih three, a Lamb floater over Hamilton and Udoh a runout for a score with eight minutes left to bring the Bucks within 80-76 on a 19-0 Milwaukee run. And you knew then it was a game and one when those things happen doesn’t usually go well for the team with the big lead.

Which then becomes the one with big questions.

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