Bulls with a bad time in Washington


Jan 27

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There’s some debunking to be done. There’s this popular belief about the Bulls that one of their biggest problems is playing down to inferior opposition, as they supposedly did Saturday in losing 86-73 to the Washington Wizards after wins over the Lakers, Warriors, Celtics, Hawks, Heat and Knicks this month.

“When we play against good teams, we really execute, really pay attention to detail,” said Richard Hamilton, one of five starters failing to score in double digits. “Really do a lot of things to win basketball games, swing the ball and stuff like that.

“When we play against teams under .500,” Hamilton continued, “I think we kind of get away from that a little bit, thinking that we’re just going to show up and win. We have to get away from that. It’s a long season, so you have to find ways to motivate yourself. Some games you’re going to have and some games you’re not. You have to trick yourself sometimes to get up for these back-to-back games.”

There is something to what Hamilton said with the Bulls’ precise, unselfish play, especially with Derrick Rose out all season and Luol Deng out with a hamstring injury the last week. Deng is expected to return Monday against Charlotte.

Jimmy ButlerIt’s just that as terrifically as the Bulls have played this season now at 26-17, they are a seriously flawed team.

Yes, they have two-All Stars in addition to Rose: Joakim Noah, who admits he’s an All-Star more for effort than expertise, and Deng, who relies on a combination of eclectic talents than any one in particular. But they are one of the least athletic teams in the league, nicely countering that with perhaps as sharp fundamental play as any team, moving the ball, players constantly in motion, boxing out on the boards, rebounding furiously.

It’s another reason why it’s a team so easy to admire and support. Their shooting is not great, average at best in threes. They don’t get easy points with few fast breaks and don’t particularly force a lot of turnovers.

It’s just not true they’re some ’86 Celtics or ’96 Bulls occasionally unable to get up for teams beneath them.

The Bulls are 1-5 against the six teams with the best records in the NBA. By the gift of geography, they are in the Eastern Conference, where only one of those teams reside, the Heat.

The Bulls are so good because they just play harder than everyone just about all the time. They didn’t Saturday.

“We played tired basketball tonight,” said Noah, probably the only Bull who could make that excuse as among those playing Saturday he’s played by far the most this season. But Noah also was the best Bull on the floor, which wasn’t a difficult choice, with nine points, 10 assists and 17 rebounds, virtually holding off the Nene and Emeka Okafor on his own and basically running the offense. And certainly the best playmaker with Kirk Hinrich in early foul trouble and coach Tom Thibodeau opting to go to Nate Robinson, who departed from his happy face, at least for those watching, with a J.R. Smith-esque “I’m taking every shot and dribbling the rest of the time” exhibition as he led the Bulls in points with 19, shots, turnovers and misses from both two of and three.

“This ain’t Pleasantville,” Robinson offered afterward. “We can’t make every shot. We didn’t make our shots… tonight they wanted it, they wanted it more than us. We dug a hole and we tried to dig ourselves out, but it was too late.”

I loved Nate’s reference to the late 90’s movie–if only to give the Peter Pan stuff a rest–about the perfect town that really isn’t and that utopia is more in the mind than reality.

Perhaps the theme is a reasonable parallel to the Bulls, who also are not always what they often seem.

You see these wonderful wins over Miami and New York and Boston and you get to thinking this is a team with a serious chance to make a significant mark. And they could.

But it requires them to play with that unique energy and style and effort and substance that makes them special, a season long running of some of those great moments they have, like the first quarter domination of the Warriors Friday.

When the ball moves side to side, back and forth, the screens are bruising, the cuts like a steak knife through warm butter. Players constantly find open space, big men roll and seek out every loose ball like a guided missile system. No team does this as consistently, as often and as relentlessly as the Bulls.

They often remind me of a Rube Goldberg chain reaction type machine–in a good way–where one action leads to the next to the next to the next, like the kids’ Mousetrap game, a weight pulls something and a string lifts something and a door slides open and a ball drops successfully in a barrel. But if all the parts don’t cooperate, the whole mechanism breaks down and it looks like just someone’s bad idea as the ball bounces out of bounds.

And then you have the Bulls/Wizards Saturday.

“It’s a five-man offense, five-man defense,” said Thibodeau, who sometimes is criticized by media for his technical explanations but who usually has a precise way of identifying the issue. “When you start taking shortcuts, the results aren’t going to be good. So then everything is random so nobody knows what the other guy is doing, and then you’re going to end up with low percentage shots. Your defense is going to break down, you’re going to have poor floor balance, you’re going to give them easy baskets in transition. It’s very difficult to win that way on the road.”

And so it was after a pretty good first quarter in which Noah was making plays, four assists and six rebounds. The Bulls shot 58 percent behind Hinrich continuing his hot three-point shooting and leading 24-23 after one quarter.

“In the first quarter, we came out with good ball movement and we executed well on the offensive side,” noted Thibodeau. “After finishing the quarter up by one, we were not able to sustain the ball movement nor the defense in transition. The discipline and our ball spacing became very poor. It didn’t allow us to get off good shots. When our spacing broke down it killed the offense, and that’s when everything just became random. Washington was able to take advantage of the miscues.”

The Wizards have won seven of 10, which is good. They went to 11-31, which is not good. But they got out of 30th in the league, which is something.

“We have back all the players,” said Nene, who led them with 16 points while Emeka Okafor and John Wall had 15. “What I can say is that is the kind of potential we have. Now we’ve started proving a point. Now we’ve started playing our game, there is our team. We going shut up people’s mouths.”

I’m not sure the Wizards are making anyone apologize too much as they really didn’t play very well. Wall and Nene were out most of the first two months. But Wall is an awful shooter and Nene and Okafor are smallish for playing inside. Rookie Bradley Beal, a shooting hope for the future, was two of 10.

But it was the Wizards pulling away as the Bulls began to snooze, especially after halftime, and especially after the Bulls were leading 40-35 midway through the second quarter. They had a group in that went cold with Robinson, the slumping Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer, the latter who finished with just six points and two rebounds, a technical and a flagrant foul as he got tired of wrestling with Okafor and threw him around some.

“I thought we were as physical tonight as we’ve really been,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman. “Delivering blows and rebounding the ball. Every time you play Chicago you know it’s going to be a bloodbath. It’s going to be scratch, claw, fight for every point and every rebound there is and it was like that the first game we played them. For us to come out tonight and hold them to 29 in the second half, that is what won the game.”

Yes, I’ll get to that. After working to that five-point lead, the Bulls missed eight straight shots and committed three turnovers, and the Wizards don’t exactly have a hand in your face when you shoot. Sometimes it looked like Okafor was being ordered to attention. Wall then committed three consecutive turnovers throwing the ball all over the place, though the Bulls interior was unusually porous (48-26 Wizards in the paint and 10-5 on second chance points) and Washington went ahead 50-44 at halftime.

When the Bulls left to return to Chicago.

Or may as well as they hardly seemed to return to play.

By the time Thibodeau had a timeout three minutes into the third quarter, the Bulls were trailing 60-46 to end a 23-6 run. A few minutes later after missing seven of 10 more shots, committing four turnovers and Boozer getting a flagrant and a technical, the Bulls were behind 69-51, a deficit they’d still have heading into the fourth quarter after a season low 11-point quarter.

“I thought our help was a step slow,” said Thibodeau. “We didn’t react. We didn’t get in, get out. So, it was a compilation of things. Other than the first quarter, I didn’t think we played up to our capabilities.”

The easy reaction is second of a back to back, tired, yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah. It was back to earth for Jimmy Butler with nine points and six rebounds. He played 45 minutes, but he’s hardly played until the last week. Thibodeau generously used the bench again, as he has all week. Noah played 43 minutes after the excitement of being named an All Star. He could have been tired. He was great.

So forget that.

The Bulls made a little run in the fourth to cut a 20-point deficit to 10 with more than seven minutes left. But Robinson missed twice, Butler a three and Thibodeau gave former three-point shooting champ Daequan Cook a look and he missed four.

It was worth a try.

“The intentions were good,” said Thibodeau. “We were trying to get out of a hole. When we got it down to 10, we settled for the long, quick three and there was a lot of time. There was still time to work the game, so that part was not good and we were searching. We were searching for some energy and unfortunately, we didn’t find it.”

It’s always easy to blame Robinson in these moments. But you can tell he’s trying and wants to help and do well. He’d like to save Thibs’ cat from the tree. But sometimes he’s just too colorful in his own little pleasant villa.

Though it’s hardly just him.

When the Bulls succeed, and they do it often, they do it, as Larry Brown famously put it, “playing the right way.” It means unselfishly, moving yourself and the ball, all activity and energy and good intentions, thinking of your teammates before yourself. Competing, making that extra pass and perhaps another, running down the clock for the better shot and also with your defense set to get back. And the big thing is doing it on every possession. Every time. As its said, if it weren’t hard everyone would be doing it.

And for the Bulls, they have to keep that ball rolling down the ramps and through the doors and up the stairs and down again all in concert without an improper movement so it all looks so easy.

The Bulls being in the East have been somewhat fortunate with the schedule. They’re still third in the East, but they’ve played the fewest road games in the NBA. That changes after Monday with 14 of their next 20 on the road, 13 against winning teams including the Thunder, Heat and Spurs twice, the two top teams in the West and the top team in the East. Just about all should be without Rose.

So it will be vital to be tied together all the time, as Thibodeau likes to say. So when the parrot jumps and grabs the cracker which releases the cord that opens the pickle barrel for the ball to be off the Hancock building and nothing but net.

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