Bulls get burned by Suns


Jan 13

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The stars were twinkling, the night was clear and crisp. The Bulls had themselves a wonderful evening. It just didn’t happen to be the most recent one, Saturday, when the Phoenix Suns, who’d lost 11 of their last 12 games and were playing their fourth game in five nights, dominated the Bulls in 97-81 rout.

“We’re going on the road and beating some of the best teams, then coming home against lower echelon teams and not competing,” noticed Joakim Noah of the most obvious contradiction, the road win in New York Friday a week after the road win in Miami.

Joakim NoahThe Bulls are tied for the best road record in the NBA at 10-5. But the Bulls are 23rd in home record at 10-10, including losses to three of the five worst teams in the league, the Hornets, Bobcats and Suns.

“If we all knew what the problem was, we’d do something about it,” said Noah.

Pick me! Pick me! I know what’s wrong.

The Bulls just aren’t good enough to be that consistent. They are not particularly athletic, don’t have a big scorer without Derrick Rose who can break down the defense and get a shot when needed, a run stopping offensive star or just simply a great shooter.

Then how are the Bulls 20-15 and just two and a half games out of second in the Eastern Conference?

It’s because they compete more consistently than probably any team in the NBA. It’s not that they lack high level talent as you could make the case that Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer are playing at All-Star levels this season. Boozer led the Bulls, who basically trailed by double digits virtually the entire second half, with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Deng and Jimmy Butler had 13 each while Richard Hamilton was efficient making six of nine shots. But it was Deng, coming off that dominating 33-point game in New York Friday, whom the Suns thwarted.

“I thought P.J. Tucker did a great job against them defensively,” said Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “They run everything through Deng and P.J. did not let him get any easy baskets or let him catch the ball.”

Yes, the Suns stole a regular Bulls scheme, fronting and overplaying the opposition’s best scorer and trying to have someone else make plays. It’s not, as Gentry said, that the Bulls run everything through Deng. Deng more takes advantage of what the defense is not doing in a sort of basketball tai chi in trying to react to the strength like in the triangle offense. But Tucker, a journeyman who’s kicked around the minor leagues and overseas, has proven a quality defender and energetic player who gave the Bulls problems when the Bulls won in Phoenix in November. Overall, the Bulls shot 36.4 percent and were outrebounded 46-42 by a Suns team that ranks 27th in rebounding and next to last in field goal defense. The Suns were led by Luis Scola with 22 points as he basically ran Noah ragged and 20 points off the bench from Michael Beasley, mostly against Deng, the Suns’ offense proving most effective against the Bulls best defenders.

Yes, it was that kind of loss, one the Bulls had few excuses to blame bad luck, lack of preparation or fatigue given the Suns were being dominated in Brooklyn Friday while the Bulls were winning in Manhattan. Though the Bulls uncharacteristically came to blame the officiating as they panicked late, bringing on four technical foul calls and Deng at times so angry and frustrated he failed to run back on defense while arguing with the officials, a stance which only can get you a technical or a tryout with the Miami Heat.

“People have been thinking I’m a superhero, so I had to show them I’m human and I get frustrated, too,” Deng joked with media afterward. “I am disappointed that I let my frustration get the best of me. I’ve definitely got to keep my composure. I thought I got fouled a few times, the refs didn’t see it and I’ve got to do a better job of handling it.”

You generally know Bulls players will be contrite, though it was also perhaps that lack of determination that failed them Saturday.

When you have a team at the end of a poor road trip and their season fading away—the Suns were quick to give up Friday against the Nets scoring 26 second half points—you are supposed to attack them to start. Pressure them. Make it difficult for them. Get up into them, as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say. And not just on offense. Take their will. It is something Bulls teams under Thibodeau have generally done well.

But there’s been enough of those poor starts, especially at home, which have befuddled Thibodeau and the team.

“Obviously, it was a much needed win for us,” said Gentry. “It is especially good to get it against a quality team. Yes, this was the 2000th win for the franchise. That’s great, but when you do it against a historical team like the Bulls and all they’ve meant to this league it is really a great achievement.”

Carlos BoozerNice of him to say, though this one won’t stand out much in Bulls’ history.

It wasn’t ghastly to start Saturday as the Bulls led 21-20 after one quarter. Noah had a bad time trying to stay with Scola and his array of head and ball fakes while the Suns hung in there and thus seemed energized that a victory was possible despite the odds.

“We tried to make sure that (Marco) Belinelli and Luol could not get open looks for threes,” added Gentry. “They have been hitting some big shots the last couple games. We wanted to make them play makers, not shooters. “

Again, the Suns took a page out of Thibodeau’s book, which leaves him about 799 left, in not only believing they could win but demonstrating. The Suns did a good job running the Bulls off their threes, which the Bulls have done so well against the Knicks. The Bulls finished two of 11 on threes and no starter, though Kirk Hinrich was in early foul trouble, had more than three assists as that wonderful Bulls interior passing became a rarity.

Yes, sometimes you are the bug instead of the windshield, the nail instead of the hammer, the hydrant instead of the dog, the guy with the excuses instead of the answers.

It was an especially profound Thibodeau after the loss, which included him adding to the technical foul total. It’s not like Thibodeau to question his players. After these kinds of losses, Thibodeau is often curt and on the verge of disgust. It wasn’t like it was acceptance for Thibodeau Saturday night. But it seemed to be his understanding that his is not a team that can ever relax. Thibodeau said this loss was on him and he’d have to respond, though that obviously was not the situation. His coaching this season has been as good or better than in the two previous seasons when he was coach of the year and runnerup. Because the Bulls compete relentlessly and take advantage of what strengths they have and disguise or shelter their weaknesses well.

The formula is no mystery to anyone who has watched the Bulls these last few seasons. But a pensive Thibodeau was more expansive than usual in acknowledging the fate of the team without the usual Herculean effort.

“My job is to have us ready and we have to play with more intensity, more of an edge and we’re not doing that, so we have to correct that,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve got to get intensity out of our team. I’ve got to take a hard look at everything right now. It’s a team wide thing and when you’re having success, you do that together and when you’re struggling, you do that together. We have to circle the wagons. There’s no such thing in the NBA as a ‘non-marquee team’ in my eyes. If you’re a player in this league, you are a great player and everybody that you’re playing against, every team that you’re playing against, is capable of beating you. So I think the teams that ultimately have great success, it comes down to the degree of how hard you’re willing to play each and every night, the degree of how smart you’re willing to play each and every night and the degree of how together you’re willing to play each and every night, and that’s what separates teams. Every team in this league is extremely talented, from top to bottom. It’s your willingness to make that commitment for each other, understanding readiness to play, how important the first quarter is and it’s easy in this league, to get sidetracked and distracted. If they say, ‘We’re playing at midnight on the roof,’ you should be saying, ‘Let’s get the ladders.’ That’s the way it is.”

“I don’t think it’s a starting lineup or substitution thing,” Thibodeau continued. “We have a situation where the starters may play one quarter well and then the next quarter they don’t play as well. It is a team wide thing. You go from winning a game on the road to coming home the next night and you have to get ready all over again. You have to bring that intensity to the game from the start. They got going early. Second, third quarter were big scoring quarters. Scola got off early and then Beasley came in and he has not been playing a lot, he hurt us. We have to be ready for everybody I have to get intensity out of our team. They were into us, they were into the ball. The challenge in this league is you have to own your space and you can’t allow somebody to get you back on your heels. When we attack, not only on offense — everyone thinks when we say, ‘we’ve got to attack,’ it’s only on offense; it’s on defense, too. When we have that mindset, we’re tough. If you’re looking for the officials to bail you out, that’s not going to work. You’ve got to take care of that yourself. It’s a competition. It’s not a show. The teams that understand that get ahead and you’ve got to go after people. That’s the mindset that you have to have. If you have a good win, you can’t think you have it all figured out. You’ve got to come back the next day, ask yourself what you can do better, how you can improve and that’s got to be our mindset.”

Luol DengIt wasn’t quite Shakespeare’s soliloquy in Julius Caesar, but Thibodeau is sort of a monarch. And his message to the people is consistent: If you want to win as currently comprised, you better compete harder than the other guy; every time. It’s probably not possible as humans will be humans.

“I think it’s OK to be wrapped up in big wins,” said Noah, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds, seven offensive, though many of those were his misses. “I think you’re supposed to be happy after you win. But when things aren’t going our way we have to find a way to stick together more.”

Actually, stick to the other guy is Thibodeau’s point.

The Bulls just didn’t have it in them this time. It happens, and it’s happened a lot more this season, like in games against the Bobcats, Hornets and Bucks, losing big leads or to teams that generally don’t have them. The answer is the routine and the effort, and that will remain the issue, especially without Rose.

The Suns began to creep ahead in the second quarter driven by Beasley, the famous No. 2 pick in the draft after Rose who hadn’t even been in the Suns’ rotation of late. But he blitzed the Bulls and Deng with 14 points, mostly on jumpers but with a driving dunk added, in less than nine minutes as the Suns took a 49-42 halftime lead.

“I was shooting tonight like I really wanted to make it,” said the mercurial Beasley, working on his third tam in five seasons. “It is the first time in a long time I have felt that way and had the confidence. There has been sort of a cloud hanging over us. We have been playing well, but then teams would go on a run, we would drop our heads, and lose the game.”

No, the Bulls didn’t seem capable of taking that invite even as they remained close, shooting 41 percent in the first half to 50 percent for the 13-26 Suns.

The Suns effectively put the game away in the third quarter in taking a 77-63 lead as Scola and Shannon Brown riddled the Bulls’ defense. Boozer supplied offense after the Bulls fell 10 behind. But Goran Dragic wore out Hinrich and Nate Robinson. A few minutes into the fourth quarter, Beasley and Sebastian Telfair had dropped the Bulls 19 behind with threes and the Bulls weren’t making any dramatic comebacks. It didn’t seem to help as Boozer, Deng, Robinson and Thibodeau rang up technical foul fines as the Suns raced away with one of their more unlikely victories.

And so it goes for these Bulls. Atlanta at home Monday and then, fortunately, back on the road to Toronto and Boston. We’ll see how well that formula works.

You know about that road to success. Sometimes it’s under construction.

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