Bulls’ shooting drought brings new Dust Bowl


Feb 25

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How’s that old joke go about the condemned man facing a firing squad and asking if he has one last request?

“Can the Bulls players shoot?”

At least not Sunday night in Oklahoma City as the Bulls established an NBA season low 29.1 percent in a game that was mostly uncompetitive throughout as the Bulls were behind 10 late in the first, got within seven early in the second and then pretty much were trailing by at least 20 points after the first few minutes of the second half.

In a sense, the Bulls appeared to be doing their devoted fans a favor by not requiring them to tune away from the annual Oscar movie awards show for too long.

That season worst 29.1 percent shooting? Well, the Bulls had to get hot to get there after shooting 20.8 percent, 10 for 48, in the first half when they actually were still in the game thanks to Thunder players practicing for the summer one-on-one tournament.

Carlos Boozer“It was bad tonight,” said Joakim Noah, with eight points and nine rebounds. “We took steps backward. That’s what’s frustrating. There’s really no excuse. We’ve just got to bounce back ASAP. The way we competed was embarrassing. It’s not the time to feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got a home stretch coming up and things move fast in this league. We’ve got to bounce back fast.”

This was a game in a worrisome trend in which the Thunder, 41-15, treated the Bulls, yes still missing Derrick Rose and also Kirk Hinrich out with his elbow issue, like little kids at the park, seeming to let them stay close just to give themselves some competition and then pulling away whenever they felt like it.

The Bulls without Rose and Hinrich certainly aren’t in the same class as the title contending Thunder. But these kinds of losses, and especially to quality teams, are becoming something of a trend for the Bulls of late.

The Bulls now are 2-7 against teams with winning records this month with double digit losses to the Spurs, Nuggets, Pacers, Heat and now Thunder.

Russell Westbrook led with 23 points and Kevin Durant had 19. But you’d hardly say it was a well played game by the Thunder, who were sloppy with the ball for 19 turnovers and shot six of 17 on threes.

But they seemed to intimidate a Bulls team, now 32-24 and led by Luol Deng and Nate Robinson with 13 points each, with their long arms inside on defense and ability to fast break. The Bulls, though they had a slight edge in offensive rebounds 16-14 (52-44 Thunder overall), the Bulls let the Thunder have an unusual number of uncontested defensive rebounds as Bulls players retreated quickly after shots to shut off fast breaks. Even with that the Thunder had a 17-15 fast break edge.

But the Bulls also seemed easily run off attacking the basket because of the long armed Thunder defenders in Durant and Serge Ibaka, especially, combining for 26 rebounds. They played well off Noah, daring him to shoot, and, in fact, daring anyone among the Bulls to shoot.

It turned out to be a sagacious strategy.

“I thought we took the wrong shots,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We were quick shooting the ball and we didn’t get the ball moving side to side. You have to do what’s best for the team. Not necessarily what’s best for yourself or what will get yourself going. You can’t get stuck in what ever problems you’re having individually. You have to do your job for the team first.”

Robinson was two of 14, and Taj Gibson, who left the game with a knee strain in the fourth quarter, was two of 11. Carlos Boozer was one of five for two points while Marquis Teague was one of six. Starters Noah and Richard Hamilton combined for four of 16.

And this from a team whose coach had lambasted them for poor defense in giving up an average of 113 per game their last four.

“We’ve been scoring the ball quite a bit lately, and we lead the league in scoring,” noted Scott Brooks. “It’s always a fine line. We have to use our athleticism and our ability to score, but we can’t forget about the defensive end. Defensively tonight, there are no complaints. We played lock down defense, we got the rebounds, and we contested and made then miss a lot of shots.”

All of which comes at a bad time for the Bulls because after playing the Cavs, 76ers and Nets at home this week, the Bulls have a brutal road schedule against the Pacers, Spurs, Lakers, Kings and Warriors. A tough streak now could literally have the sixth place Bulls fighting for a playoff spot within a few weeks.

Though Nazr Mohammed did power in a dunk early in the fourth quarter… to pull the Bulls within 80-58.

There’s not much to break down in this one, though it was curious to watch Oklahoma City. You don’t much want to criticize a team that wins by 30. But they do play an unusual amount of individual, one on one ball. The Thunder actually play the seven-foot Durant at point guard a lot, starting the game with him there. Perhaps because one of Westbrook’s weaknesses as a point guard is he doesn’t like to pass the ball.

It does seem a vital requirement, though they are second to the Spurs in the Western Conference and third overall in the NBA behind Miami. Westbrook did have three assists among their paltry 17 on 36 baskets, and you’d have trouble remembering when. He mostly gets them handing the ball to Durant who’ll take a three pointer.

Though Westbrook is one of the most powerful and athletic dunkers in the league and attacks the basket with a fury. He plays with it as well, and generally had to be retrained by teammates various times in the game after he got a technical foul early in the game. He, Durant and Kendrick Perkins have 30 combined, the most for any threesome and are second to the Clippers for most technical fouls in the league.

Most are in complaining to officials in the frenzy that becomes their game. You wonder if their style without the more composed James Harden is good enough anymore to seriously compete for an NBA championship.

Yes, the Bulls should have such concerns.

Against an athletic team like the Thunder, and few are like that with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the Bulls struggle to get to the rim and can find themselves getting lured into trying to match the Thunder. It’s natural for a pro to try that. But the Bulls rely on ball movement, a sort of basketball sleight of hand to keep the opponent off balance. But they were a bit too anxious Sunday, rushing their shots often as with the long and quick Thunder defenders there seemed always the sense a shot was going to be blocked or a dribble stripped.

“Against good teams, you’ve got to get to the second and third options,” reminded Thibodeau. “You’ve got to get the ball moving and have lots of energy. You have to sprint into screens, you have to separate screens, you have to pass the ball on target. You have to have timing and spacing.”

You really also need all your guys. No excuses is nice and inspiring. But as the saying goes you can’t get water from a stone. Though I think Moses did once when he thought he was doing his job. There’s only so much you can ask of people, especially when the other guys are really good.

Ibaka closes unusually fast, and a few times Gibson, who doesn’t shoot quickly, was into his baseline jumper when Ibaka was on it in two steps. He had three of the Thunder’s nine blocks.

Ibaka started against Boozer and fronting him with his size, the Bulls were unable to even get Boozer the ball. The few times Boozer did get it he was fading away for jumpers. Kendrick Perkins stayed way off Noah, who though he can shoot is a reluctant jump shooter. Perkins didn’t even attempt to come out on Noah or raise his hands when Noah did shoot, though Perkins doesn’t move much, anyway.

The Thunder packed back into the lane so much they got called for several defensive three-second technicals. In a statistic you don’t see much, the Bulls in the first half had 14 points on free throws and 22 on field goals in their 49-36 halftime deficit.

Deng did as good as possible on Durant, who is an amazing distance shooter with perhaps the most effortless shot in the game, especially from long range. In something of an off game he had 19 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. Yes, that’s a poor game for him.

Kevin Martin had just five points and it’s apparent his poor defense is keeping him off the floor. That could be a huge loss for the Thunder as it was hoped Martin’s scoring would offset the loss of Harden at least for this season. But that’s seems unlikely for now.

When Martin came in late in the first quarter, Deng was able to get to the boards twice in a row for putbacks that got the Bulls within 24-16 after one quarter even though they shot six for 30. The Thunder wants to play fast, much unlike the Bulls. But sometimes it’s difficult not to be drawn in as quickly as they shoot with many long rebounds. But they rely on that to enhance the pace and will take the risk of shots that would give Thibodeau a stroke to get you out of your game.

Again in the second quarter, the Bulls were shooting so poorly they were handing out hard hats to fans sitting near their basket as Durant took over after a powerful Westbrook slam and isolated his way to a 46-27 Thunder lead. Robinson pushed the pace after a pair of Thunder miscues late in the second quarter and even tried a crossover on Ibaka and dunk attempt as the Bulls amazingly got within 49-36 at halftime.

Though you didn’t see the Thunder losing this one. And they came out with the lightning as well after halftime with Ibaka, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds, opening with a three and 12-3 start to take a 61-39 lead three minutes into the third quarter and effectively end it.

“It starts with myself,” said Noah. “I’ve got to play better. Everyone needs to look themselves in the mirror. We’ve had a tough stretch right now (losing eight of their last 14). It’s very humbling to lose like that. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and do better. This isn’t getting it done and it’s tough.”

Westbrook slammed another on a backcut on Robinson and uses a pistols pantomime on threes. They are much more popular and politically correct in Oklahoma. Former Bull Thabo Sefolosha made a three so wide open he could have sketched the arc first, and by the start of the fourth it was 80-54 and at least the starters were getting some rest.

“We started off the third quarter with low energy, tough shots, and no defense and it was game over,” agreed Thibodeau. “We’ve got enough (to win). We have to do our jobs. When we do that, we’re capable of beating anyone. We have to be mentally tougher, we have to be stronger. When you face a little bit of adversity, if you’re short handed you have to get the job done. We head home and we’ve got to play a lot tougher. Our level of intensity has to be much higher. We’ve got to get that part right quickly.”

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