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Bulls with a most unmerry Christmas against Houston
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 26
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Each time you watch the Bulls you can feel proud of them and their behavior. Just like Tuesday, Christmas Day, in the United Center. The Bulls players honored the holiday like most Americans by taking the day off.
Unfortunately, the NBA had the gall to schedule the Bulls to play a game. Well, the Bulls showed the NBA and the ESPN national TV audience that they weren’t going to work on the holiday no matter what anyone said.
“They scored the ball easily,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau observed about a Houston Rockets’ domination in a 120-97 thumping of the Bulls. “Transition, open shots. We did not control the ball. We did not get back. We did not make multiple efforts and had low energy on offense. We gave them everything. They got in transition, they got into the paint, they got open looks at threes. Give them credit. They played well right from the start. We created a lot of our own. They completely outplayed us.”
Thibodeau got no arguments in what is probably the low point during Thibodeau’s tenure coaching the Bulls. The Bulls fell to 15-12, the same record as the Rockets, but teams clearly going in opposite directions as the Rockets have won six of seven. For the Bulls, it was their second straight blowout loss with Saturday’s meltdown in Atlanta.
“We didn’t play with the right edge,” said Joakim Noah. “It’s a real disappointing loss. Our defense was not really good. Everything was bad. Terrible Christmas.”
In many respects, the NBA puts out its best products on Christmas Day, generally featuring the team the league believes put on the best shows and have the best chances to do something significant.
With the five games and 12 hours of broadcast, we can see the Heat, Thunder, Knicks, Lakers and Clippers are legitimate. The Celtics and Nuggets are possibilities. The Bulls and Nets didn’t belong.
The Bulls were led by Nate Robinson’s 27 points, though he was scoreless in the first half when the Bulls trailed 58-41. By the time Robinson entered in the second half, the listless Bulls were trailing 73-45, the home crowd was booing — yes, on Christmas Day leading you to feel like you were in Philadelphia — on the way to falling behind by 35. Robinson got on a little run hitting four three pointers as the Bulls got within 15 with about eight minutes left.
But the Rockets went back to James Harden and Omer Asik, and it was basically over.
Yes, that Omer. You remember. The one who couldn’t shoot free throws, catch the ball in the pick and roll, make one on one moves. But that was then. It appears now Asik’s evil brother, at least toward the Bulls, was on the court.
Asik was by far the best big man in the game, catching and dunking lobs, beating the Bulls along the baseline for dunks, basically owning the boards as the Bulls were demolished 45-31 in rebounding. The numbers were ridiculous: 66-32 Rockets in the paint; 31-8 Rockets in fast break points; the Rockets shooting 56.1 percent for the game, more than 60 percent in the first half.
You can’t lose much worse than that. Except if it’s on the NBA’s premier regular season day. Ooops.
“I’m just happy we won,” said Asik, who was one off his career highs with 20 points and 18 rebounds. Asik added three blocks and had one fewer rebound than the entire Bulls starting lineup.
James Harden added 26 points with just 13 shots and Jeremy Lin — he was supposed to be too slow — blew by the Bulls perimeter defenders with ease for 20 points and 11 assists as the Rockets starters outscored the Bulls’ 99-47. These are the kinds of games that get stopped when your kids are playing. The Bulls looked like kids against the fast breaking Rockets, waving at big guys holding the ball over their heads.
And it doesn’t look that great as Luol Deng was limping noticeably after the game. He said he twisted his ankle in the first quarter.
“We’ll see how it feels,” said Deng as the team headed out for a Wednesday game in Indianapolis. Deng is likely questionable for that game.
The Bulls’ play turned out to be even more questionable for this Christmas Day game. The 120 points allowed and the 23-point loss were season worsts for the Bulls. The Bulls lost back to back by at least double digits only once since Thibodeau was coach and that was early in his first season.
But Thibodeau suggested this is a greater concern as the Bulls finished poorly even though they beat the Knicks last Friday and have been basically uncompetitive since then.
“My job is to have them ready,” said Thibodeau. “Obviously we were not ready. That part is on me. The thing is, we had a bad fourth quarter in New York, we had a bad performance in Atlanta and we followed it up today. Things can change very quickly in this league. If you are not right and ready and don’t have an edge, you are not going to win without playing with the right amount of intensity. In the last three games, they were putting up 120 points. Obviously, we did not understand and I did not do enough of a job of delivering the message of what we were going to have to do to be successful.”
It was nice enough for Thibodeau to accept blame, though somewhat irrelevant as his starters, especially, got taken out of the game from the beginning for a second straight time. The Rockets are a good team, and if the Bulls were in the Western Conference they probably wouldn’t make the playoffs. The Rockets are 11-2 against the Eastern Conference and outscoring East teams by double digits per game. But they are sixth in the Western Conference and only a game ahead of the ninth place team.
“If we are trying to outscore people, we have the wrong mindset right now,” said Thibodeau. “You have to fight for the ball. Right now we’re not doing that. We are not quick to react to the ball. You have to have floor balance when you shoot, you’ve got to sprint back, you’ve go to protect the basket, you’ve got to stop the ball. You’ve got to find the most dangerous man and be tied together and you have to do that time after time after time and not let your guard down. So we gave them confidence early and it just snowballed. We’re closing short to shooters, not ready for drivers, not stopping penetration, not giving the proper stunt help, not finishing our defense the correct way. Offensively we’re not sustaining our spacing. We’re not playing with energy. Those are things we have to change, put the work and energy and intensity back into it.”
That sounds like an awful lot of stuff to do in one walk through before Wednesday’s matchup for the Central Division lead.
“We’ve got to get back to how we were playing,” said Deng, who might not. “We did not play well the last two games. They did a good job not letting us settle. They pushed the ball, got easy layups. It’s a long season. We’ve got to see what we were doing wrong and try to get better.”
This was going to be a difficult game for the Bulls, anyway. Not so much they were coming off that stinker in Atlanta where they played indifferently. But the Rockets may be the best transition, running team in the league. But the Bulls without Derrick Rose cannot match up with that kind of team that plays like the Phoenix Suns under Mike D’Antoni, running after misses and made baskets, shooting early in the clock, spreading the floor and challenging you to run with them.
The Bulls are a defensive, half court type team. Which means playing hard, obviously, but also settling into a physical half court method. The Rockets never let the Bulls do that. The Bulls, obviously, don’t have that kind of offensive producer without Rose. But the Rockets were also coming off a win over Memphis, which like the Bulls is in the top five in most defensive categories. The Rockets imposed their game on both, and in some respects you want to run with the Rockets if you can given their transition defense isn’t very good. But the Bulls don’t push the ball much or look for breaks much and tend to settle into a half court game when they can. The Rockets never let them and it was from the start.
Houston bolted out leading 20-10 halfway through the first quarter and the signs already were there. Harden got a dunk for the first score. The Bulls mostly kept Deng, their best defender, on Chandler Parsons, who had a big game when the Bulls lost in Houston just before Thanksgiving. But Parsons was big again, scoring 23 points and running out every time Deng shot. The result was several dunks as no one got back in time to protect Deng’s back. It’s usually a staple of the Bulls’ defense, but it was not there.
The Bulls put Carlos Boozer on Asik as Boozer usually guards the lesser front line scorer while Noah defended Marcus Morris. Asik was phenomenal, and though we knew he was good many fans and media members the last two years lampooned Asik’s ability to catch and ball and produce. Asik obviously heard.
“We did a good job on the boards,” said Lin. “Omer was a key to that and we tried to get out and run from there. Having him on the floor is a game changer. He is an incredible help and individual defender. He’s now getting to play heavy minutes and showing what he can do. He has great hands that can also finish at the basket. He is a very large human being and tough to stop. My first week of training camp I saw and knew he has potential. People his size can’t usually do what he does with his passing and catching the ball. He has great hands.”
That’s right, great hands. Yes, our Omer Asik. Well, now theirs.
“Omer is a big time player in the middle,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, a Hall of Fame forward/center. “Tonight he was blocking shots, being big, getting rebounds, getting outletting, He’s got a big body and set wide picks for us. This was a very good game for him. He’s finishing with slam dunks, finishing around the basket.”
McHale also agreed he wasn’t sure about Asik, either, at first.
“You don’t really know,” McHale said. “You liked what you saw in short minutes. Every coach really wants to win, so if the guy is playing short minutes, (you wonder) why is he playing short minutes? In Omer’s case, it was really just a matter they had a really solid front line. They have Noah, who is fantastic. (Taj) Gibson is really good. O filled in and did a great job. For us, he’s a mainstay. He’s our best post defender. He’s a big guy who can rebound in a crowd. He’s tough, rugged. He’s been fantastic.”
As for Asik, not much with the media, he shrugged and said, “What happened happened. I hope to play better.”
Isn’t this torture enough for Bulls fans watching him now?
The Rockets have put together a good team from their free agency summer and the big trade for Harden. It’s a young group, but Lin is a capable point guard, if not great; Asik is an All-Star level center and Harden is turning into one of the elite scorers in the game. He’s fourth in the league in scoring, averaging more than 25 per game. And the points seem to come so effortlessly for him as he draws fouls as well as anyone in the league with unique quickness and strength that enables him to get through the slightest openings and take the contact and finish.
“He just keeps coming at you,” marveled McHale. “When he stops and make that last move, it’s a lot of power and strength. He’s a tremendous finisher. When he’s playing like that it’s a lot of trouble for people out there. I’d hate to be on the other end of that rundown.”
Which is right where the Bulls were, back peddling instead of taking aggressive action, taking the hit instead of delivering it.
They hung in early a bit, falling behind only 27-22 after the first quarter. But you didn’t sense confidence in what the Bulls were doing. Maybe it was because they got the worst uniforms in a day of ugly uniforms as the NBA had each team wearing one color. The Bulls, predictably, had red, but it was so red on red you could barely make out the jersey numbers. It was back to the 1930’s in style. And offense the way the Bulls played it.
The Rockets began to blow it open in the second quarter, taking a 55-34 lead late in the quarter that produced the first booing of the evening, though there would be more. Yes, so much for good tidings and having a merry day and evening. The Rockets shot 72 percent in the second quarter as Lin scored on all five of his shots like he was back in New York. Asik had 10 rebounds by halftime. Deng, Boozer, Noah and Taj Gibson combined for 12 by then. It was 18-4 Rockets in fast break points and 36-18 in inside scoring at the half. The rout was on and the Bulls showed little interest in changing it.
“We’re not going out there trying to lose,” said Robinson. “We’re not at the highest level, I guess you could say. Guys come in and try to give it their all. Some nights it ends up like this. The whole time they were in attack mode, coming down hill. We did not build our will to stop them. They’re one of the best fast break teams, if not the best in the NBA. Harden, he’s one of the best offensive guards. He’s one of them guys, like Kobe and LeBron, Melo, KD. And they got Parsons over there and Lin.
“So for us it was us looking at them going fast,” added Robinson. “We’d go down and score and they’d score right back after a make. It’s back to the drawing board and back to school for us to do our homework. Atlanta straight up kicked our butts. Tonight coach emphasized coming out and attacking, keep them on their heels. We did the total opposite. We got to bounce back and be ready for the next game and hopefully we’ll to bounce back.”
The Bulls showed a little fight before halftime, getting to the basket and shooting some free throws, Marco Belinelli, the leading starter with 15 points, getting a three point play. It got the Bulls within 58-41 at halftime.
But the Rockets buried the Bulls after halftime. Morris and Harden came out with jumpers, Asik dunked over Noah, then finished a tip on a second offensive rebound. Deng put his head down and scored on a drive and Chandler ran out and scored an open layup. The defense was a mess and everyone was pointing at everyone else, Noah was mumbling in frustration. The Rockets got it to 82-51 when the Bulls were escorted into a timeout with probably the loudest booing in several years for the home team.
Thibodeau went back to his energy lineup he tried to shake the team up against Atlanta with Robinson and Marcus Teague. But Teague turned it over coming out of the timeout, and Asik came back with another tip score to make it 86-51 with about five minutes left in the third.
Robinson in the playground game it was becoming began hitting some threes, getting the deficit under 30 going into the fourth quarter and waking the crowd a bit getting it to 15 with 8:09 left. But Harden put his head down and was fouled, Asik ran out after a Bulls miss for a score and three point play and Parsons sprung open for a three when the Bulls tried to trap.
The Bulls didn’t even play as intelligently as they usually do, letting Asik continually go up without fouling him. He is a better free throw shooter this season, about 60 percent. But the Bulls only fouled him twice despite him taking 13 shots.
Merry Christmas? Not so for the Bulls, who don’t need a new year as much as they need a new attitude.
“We’ve just got to go out and play with a better edge,” said Noah. “Collectively we haven’t played good basketball for a couple of games now.”