Bulls could use a break as they lose to Spurs


Feb 12

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The Bulls took a look in the NBA mirror Monday at the United Center and didn’t like much what they saw in a 103-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

“We have to grind,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, pretty much defining this Bulls team without Derrick Rose. “That’s what allows us to be successful. If we don’t, we’re not going to be successful. “This thing is going to be a fight. Our road is a tough one. If were not committed to the grind, it’s not gong to be good.”

It wasn’t particularly good as what the Bulls saw in the Spurs were themselves, but not as good. Part is obvious as the Spurs have the league’s best record at 41-12 with 13 wins in their last 14 games. The Bulls fell to 30-21 with one more game, in Boston Wednesday, before Joakim Noah and Luol Deng head off for the All-Star game.

Carlos Boozer“It’s amazing when you study them,” said Thibodeau of the Spurs. “It’s a machine.”

The Spurs are very much like the Bulls: Thibodeau and the Spurs Gregg Popovich are the last two coaches of the year; both have a disciplined defensive system that emphasizes unselfishness and sharing the ball with a star point guard, the Bulls with the injured Rose and the Spurs with MVP candidate Tony Parker.

And both have teams that rise to the challenge with depth that’s accustomed and prepared to step in for starting players and produce. The Bulls have basically done it for two seasons with the injuries to Rose and lately Joakim Noah with plantar fasciitis, though Noah played 38 minutes and had seven points and 15 rebounds, Kirk Hinrich still out with an elbow injury and Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer missing time previously with hamstring injuries. This time for the Spurs Parker was a surprise last minute scratch with swelling in his knee after their Sunday win in Brooklyn. So Parker sat out along with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and with veteran reserve Stephen Jackson leaving the team for personal business.

In their place, the Spurs started Kawhi Leonard, who had a career high 26 points with a tough defensive job in controlling Luol Deng, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and rookie point guard Nando De Colo.

That’s right, the league’s first ever Nando.

Though the Bulls dominated the Spurs on the boards 49-26, the Bulls’ biggest rebounding margin in a loss in 13 years, had a 17-2 edge in offensive rebounds with the Spurs not even getting one until the fourth quarter, a 20-4 margin in second chance points and a 46-36 lead on inside points, the Spurs’ Bench Mob was more resilient in seeing a 14-point third quarter lead shrink to one in the fourth quarter before pulling away.

They were all the things the Bulls usually are with starters out, but better than the Bulls this time. The Spurs moved the ball more smartly, totaling more assists than the Bulls, and were more precise and disciplined, committing just eight turnovers while the Bulls threw the ball all over the place for 19 turnovers the Spurs turned into 29 points.

The Spurs sunk into the lane to deny penetration, leaving the Bulls shooting too many jumpers and two of 12 on threes. They turned drivers into help and stayed down and in front of shooters, making those shots difficult and stripping the ball repeatedly as the Bulls players lost sight of where the help was coming from, many of the traits that have enabled the Bulls to shock the league the last two years with excellence despite numerous injuries.

“They really compacted the lane the same way we always do,” said Taj Gibson. “They really got out on the break and got a lot of layups.”

And they kept coming deep off the Spurs bench: DeJuan Blair, a guy who can’t tear his ACL because he doesn’t have any in either knee; Matt Bonner, the likeable Red Rocket and Spurs upgraded version of Brian Scalabrine; Australian Patty Mills and undrafted Gary Neal, the shooting guard playing point guard.

But this group sizzled with 52 percent shooting as the Bulls perimeter was constantly broken down, the big men late to react and the Spurs dropping the ball off for easy jump shots and layups like the Bulls suffered in Denver last week and against the Nets. It’s been something of an alarming trend as an understandably exhausted Bulls team facing so many injuries stumbles toward the All-Star break with five losses in their last nine games, Deng in one of the longer shooting slumps of his career after a four of 13 game and Noah playing through his plantar fasciitis. Noah’s statistics were good with also five assists, a block and a steal. But he obviously was a step slow reacting to Splitter, who had 16 points while the Spurs third team off the bench outscored the Bulls reserves 24-21.

The Bulls also fell to 15-12 at home while they are 15-9 on the road.

“That (turnovers) was probably the difference in the game,” said Thibodeau. “When you outrebound somebody like we did and to be in the position we were in, we beat ourselves. It is a compilation of things (on the lately weak defense with four of the last six opponents shooting over 50 percent). We have to get our intensity back, our discipline back. Right now there are people looking for bailouts. You can’t have that. We are taking some shortcuts and we are paying for it, both offensively and defensively. We have a lot of random possessions where guys don’t know what other guys are doing, so it’s leading to people being stuck with the ball, trying to make something out of nothing, going one on one. Then you have five guys staring at you and that leads to turnovers. Right now we are not getting it done.”

Thibodeau, of course, is not about excuses, and neither is this Bulls team. And one fat one around the NBA is that time before the All-Star break, and especially for a team like the Bulls, as Thibodeau says, which has to grind given it’s deliberate offensive play and basic lack of easy baskets for everything it gets. It has to wear on players as impressive as it appears when it works, and especially players who are constantly changing roles and positions with all the injuries.

In fact, the game and momentum turned in the fourth quarter after Thibodeau substituted Nate Robinson for Noah with 9:50 left and the Bulls trailing 76-75 after a roaring Taj Gibson dunk on one of Noah’s five assists. It seemed an inevitability now the Bulls would win after being stunned, behind at halftime 51-42 to this band of backups working on their third game in four nights on the road, all without Duncan and Ginobili and now Parker, too.

“One would hope that you could play with anybody in your system,” said Popovich.

We thought this was the Bulls’ trick.

Popovich, who prides himself on the long view of the season, became even more famous for holding his top three players out when the league fined the Spurs $250,000 in November when Popovich sent all three home before a nationally televised game with Miami. The reserve crew hung in tough into the fourth quarter and wilted at the end 105-100.

The same script seemed to be playing out as Robinson with 20 points and seven assists, including 11 third quarter points, and Richard Hamilton with eight of 11 shooting in his most efficient game with the Bulls, combined to shoot the Bulls back into the game and down 76-71 going into the fourth quarter.

The Spurs still shot 52.9 percent in the third quarter as the Bulls defensive reaction remained slow. But the Bulls still were dominating the boards, 15-4 in the third quarter. And it looked like the Bulls would steal this one when Gibson with eight rebounds and one of his two blocks swatted away a Neal attempt, the Bulls began applying more defensive pressure on the ball with the occasional trap and Noah found first Jimmy Butler and then Gibson for scores to open the fourth.

“I don’t think we took them for granted,” said Gibson of their Big Three all out. “I just think they came out and played harder than us. They made a lot of tough shots early and got a lot of confidence. They’re still a talented team whether they have Duncan or not. They almost beat the Miami Heat earlier this year with that same group. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come back the way other teams came back to beat them.
We have to come out with a lot of energy. We cut it to one, but it’s still an uphill battle. We’re down one. You still have to continue to push.”

But how much can you ask?

In taking out Noah at that point, Thibodeau acknowledged the group that got the team back had expended considerable energy. He thus ended up with a relatively small team with Gibson at center and Deng at power forward while the Spurs had Splitter and Diaw in the game.

“We had a group that was playing well, but they were in there a long time,” said Thibodeau. “We had to break the lineup. We gave up the same thing, turnovers that led to easy baskets. That was the big thing.”

In that crucial stretch, Splitter turned inside and was fouled, taking Gibson inside with little help. Danny Green scored driving on a hesitation drive, and then Thibodeau got Noah back in for Deng. But the Spurs are an intelligent team as well. And when Noah went to front Splitter, the Spurs threw over the top. Gibson came across to help and Diaw dove for rim and got a three-point play on a slick pass from Splitter for an 87-79 lead with 6:13 left when Robinson was late and fouled Diaw. It’s not like Robinson is the classic help defender. But with so many changing lineups and rotations for the Bulls these days with the injuries, it’s been much more difficult to retain that defensive discipline.

It was slipping away, surprisingly.

Butler drove and made a poor interior bounce pass that the Spurs threw ahead to Leonard. He outran all the Bulls for a power dunk and 89-78 Spurs lead with 5:55 left.

“We did not play well,” said an obviously frustrated Deng with short, clipped sentences. “They played well. We’ve got to play better. They’re a good team. No matter who we’re playing we feel we can win.”

The Bulls came out of the time out with a quick jumper from Carlos Boozer that missed. Boozer made a nice defensive play fronting Splitter to get a turnover. But the rookie from France, De Colo, a second round pick in the 2009 draft who looks like another coup for the Spurs, snuck up and stripped Noah as the Bulls usual on court communication seemed relatively silent. Green missed a corner three. But Boozer threw away the outlet pass. The Spurs gave it back in a sequence suggesting two weary fighters late in the 10th round. Then Robinson stepped up for a pull up. But no one else saw the ball and there wasn’t much movement or the cross court passing the Bulls usually emphasize to move and tire the defense.

Leonard took a screen from Splitter and no one stepped up as he had room for an 18 footer for a 91-80 Spurs lead with 4:15 left.

“We just shared the ball,” said Splitter sounding like the things we’d hear from the Bulls. “We tried to shoot only when we had an open shot. Then Kawhi and Danny (18 points) were hitting their shots tonight, which was big for us. The other thing was the turnovers. When they turn the ball over, we can get easy fast breaks and score. We also play well five on five by moving the ball and not turning it over.”

Luol DengIt was beginning to seem surreal as it was the Spurs pulling away. Robinson walked up again, took a pair of screens from Noah and Boozer, didn’t pass the ball as everyone basically stopped moving, and fired a 20 footer that was long.

“We didn’t make shots down the stretch; we couldn’t get stops,” said Robinson, who did his post game interviews with a towel to his mouth to hide a swollen lip. “They have best record in the NBA for a reason. Nobody is perfect. It’s not like we go out and try to make turnovers. We try to make the right play. We weren’t connecting.”

They just seemed mentally as well as physically worn down, not reacting, settling for quicker shots without as much ball movement. It’s not like the Bulls aren’t playing hard. You don’t have a rebounding margin like that unless you are. But the movement, the unselfishness, is not there as much. Not likely because they don’t want to. But sometimes the body won’t cash the check the mind is writing.

“We’re not playing good basketball right now,” said Noah “We’re on top of eachother offensively. We’re not trusting eachother defensively. We know we’re capable of playing better.”

Green took the rebound off that Robinson miss. The Spurs moved the ball around nicely and Leonard, whom Popovich jokingly calls a Bruce Bowen with skills, hit another jumper as he effortlessly moved past Deng.

“He’s terrific,” said Thibodeau. “Throughout the game he was just so solid. He put it on the floor. I (also) thought Neal hurt us in the first half (hitting six of seven). They play smart and they play tough.”

That made it 93-80 Spurs with 3:43 left and the Bulls players pretty much just looking blankly at one another after those made baskets. Robinson drove and passed to Boozer for a short jumper he missed, and then with 3:06 left Green drove by Hamilton and was fouled, making both for a 95-80 and the game pretty much over. Boozer had a nice driving slam dunk as the arena began to empty, and Splitter answered that as Noah left Splitter on a switch and Splitter drove past Boozer and was fouled for two more free throws.

That also continued to raise the question about Noah, who is playing with his plantar fasciitis.

Thibodeau, who doesn’t care to answer health questions, said Noah was “fine,” and when pressed added, “I watch what he’s doing on the floor, so that gave me a pretty good indication. I don’t know if you (media) guys realize. But I do have a trainer, and we have medical people, too.”

Though playing generally comes down to a decision between the player and the coach once it is deemed a player won’t worsen his injury.

Plantar fasciitis is a difficult condition often requiring rest. But it also can go as quickly as it came and can be played through as Gibson did one season without missing games. There was talk of Noah not playing in the All-Star game this weekend in Houston. But once you play in the games leading up to the All-Star game, you must play. Players have come in before, like Kobe Bryant a few years ago, feeling they need rest for health reasons. But the league requires them to at least make an appearance in the game, which Noah surely will have to do. The league has threatened suspensions for players who won’t play in the All-Star game but do in the regular season.

“I’m not worried about it (foot). I feel fine,” Noah said. “I didn’t do much for the last two days. Just rest. I’ve got to figure out something that works because I’ve got to practice, too. I just don’t have a good answer to give you guys. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just trying to find something that works.”

Just like his team.

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