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Bulls continue to be too welcoming at home
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 22
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The Bulls’ face of frustration Thursday in their mostly one sided 99-89 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was wearing a pony tail.
“We got smacked; we got smacked,” Joakim Noah said in clipped comments after the game.
Asked what the team could do differently, Noah was direct: “I don’t know.
“It’s disappointing, it’s really disappointing,” he said. “It’s tough. We’re not playing great right now, disappointing. It’s the final stretch and we’re not getting it done. We’ve got to find a way.”
Again, about changes?
Noah shrugged: “I don’t know.”
You don’t want to lose your spirit and your energy, which Noah manifests in basketball form for these Bulls, now a fading 36-31 and losers of six of their last eight and 14 of 22 since the end of January.
That’s right: If the season began in February, the Bulls would be the Washington Wizards. The Bulls are going to make the playoffs since they’ve got more than a 10-game lead on ninth place with 15 games left. And they’ve still got a two-game lead on Milwaukee to avoid Miami in the first round of the playoffs and holding the tiebreaker with the Bucks with the better division record after splitting the season series.
But the Bulls fell to 18-16 at home with another frustrated effort, tied for 19th in home record and being routed—they trailed by 27 after three quarters—by a non playoff Western Conference team winless thus far on their road trip and with the 26th ranked defense.
And you could see and almost feel the frustration oozing from every pore of Noah’s competitive frame, from pounding the basket stanchion with angry fists in the third quarter with the Bulls down 19 to yelling going to the bench a few times and off color anger directed at himself after scores by LaMarcus Aldridge, who led Portland with 28 points.
“He’s a tough cover,” Noah acknowledged. “That guy can really shoot the ball. He scores in the post a lot of different ways. Give credit where credit is due. We didn’t execute our game plan very well and that’s disappointing.
“It was good to have Kirk (Hinrich) and (Taj) (Gibson) back,” said Noah of the return of those two after missing 10 games for Gibson and seven in for Hinrich in his latest absence. “I felt like those guys played really hard. Right now it’s disappointing. We’ve got to stick together and find a way.”
Which is the scary part for the Bulls and perhaps why Noah was so frustrated.
Yes, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau called for better defense and rebounding, like he always does when the Bulls lose.
“We have to be up on them more than we were,” said Thibodeau. “You give them space, (they’re) going to make (10 of 21 on threes for Portland). We got to play better. We have to be well balanced. What we should be able to count one every night is the defense and rebounding. You shoot the ball better some nights than others. We still want to be able to count on ball movement. We can get the rebound and make people miss, get some easy baskets. That helps. It gets confidence going. Right now we are not getting stops. We’re not rebounding, so we can’t get out and run. We need to rebound and get out and run. We’ve got to clean that up.”
Actually, I thought the Bulls did play hard, like they always do. It’s easy to look backward and see the box score and that they were outrebounded 45-41 (21 for J.J. Hickson) and the Trail Blazers shot 48.8 percent and 53 percent through three quarters and decide the Bulls didn’t compete hard.
But they did, which really is cause for more concern.
Noah was up and bumping and getting his hand in front of Aldridge, who was banging in jumpers from all over.
“This is one of my top three cities to play in, all the tradition, they traded me on draft night, so this is always fun,” said Aldridge, bringing up the forgettable deal to acquire Tyrus Thomas. “Lately, I have been in a good rhythm. My moves have been pretty good and with my rhythm going tonight, it allowed me to play loose. It was not a mismatch. I just made a number of tough shots against them I also told the guys at halftime that we needed to come out strong in the third quarter because I knew they would. I said we needed to turn it up first before they got it going.”
With their 15-point halftime lead, the Trail Blazers continued to pour it on with a 13-6 second half start that had Noah doing a Mike Tyson on the basket support after yet another Aldridge jumper that Noah had forced Aldridge another step farther out.
There will be all sorts of theories: The players are tired from the long season with so many injuries; they have to become accustomed and adjust again with injured players coming back into the lineup; the pressure to defend with such a limited offense with Derrick Rose still out is too burdensome; they just can’t get a break like that Denver loss Monday that could have been a momentum changer for the last quarter of the season.
I thought Noah played very well. He had 18 points in just under 27 minutes and his passing was terrific with some brilliant back door bounce passes from the high post for scores. Few big men in the NBA do it as well. But Noah competes to win; less for style points, obviously.
And it’s worse when you get the feeling that you are doing all you can and to no avail, that the harder you play the farther behind you get.
“Jo did a great job,” insisted Carlos Boozer, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds. “He made him (Aldridge) take tough shots with a hand in his face. But he hit them. Obviously, we want to have a high (playoff) seed. The healthier we are the better team we will be. We are trying to get everyone back and hopefully for the playoffs be healthy. It’s a grind every game now because we are short handed (Richard Hamilton remained out with back problems). Every game is a grind out game.”
Sure, the Bulls play like that, deliberate on offense, setting their defense, physical and relentless. They felt they were doing all those things to little effect. But that’s also the fine line. If you believe you are and not getting results, maybe you are not. Is it you or is it them? That’s what Noah seemed to be saying in both his words and his actions. As hard as you go and if this is all you get out of it, is there more there?
That’s what they’ll be asking and searching for these last 15 games. And even if Rose is walking through the door (see earlier post/story for Rose’s comments that he remains uncertain about a return), it’s hardly as a savior after being out the last 10 months with major reconstructive knee surgery.
“Now we’re scratching,” said Gibson, who had 14 points and nine rebounds. “We’re fighting for our lives.”
Aldrich got it going early, but the Bulls did go inside to Boozer to counter that and were ahead 21-20 after one quarter even with Boozer spinning out three jumpers. Jimmy Butler, who was matched up much of the game with former Marquette teammate Wesley Matthews, who had three three pointers, got the crowd going with a special one handed slam dunk on a lob pass from Nate Robinson.
And it wasn’t like the Bulls stopped playing hard as the game slipped away with a 14-0 Portland run to start the second quarter. Thibodeau, less angry in his post game comments in the wake of the Denver confusion than searching in his own way, identified the middle two quarters when the Bulls were outscored 60-32 as the culprits. Obviously.
A team giving up doesn’t get a pair of blocks and deflections when outscored 14-0 as the Bulls did. But rookie sensation Damian Lillard with 24 points and seven assists made one of his four threes and sub Eric Maynor added a couple of strong plays in relief.
Maynor is an interesting case for a different comparison with Rose. There are more Maynors than Adrian Petersons. He looked very good and strong. He had the ACL surgery in January 2012. But he wasn’t able to contribute much for the Thunder given his slow recovery and they traded him in February to Portland. Now, 14 months later he’s finally playing well again. And Iman Shumpert, who suffered his ACL the same day as Rose, felt a pop in his knee Wednesday, though it is not considered serious.
“The second and third quarters we gave up 32 and 28 points. That’s not going to get it done,” said Thibodeau. “We got off to a good start. We gave up 20 points in the first quarter and last quarter 19. The second and third is where they got whatever they wanted.”
The Bulls were fighting. Noah got a double foul tussling with Aldridge under the rim, and the Bulls came out of a late second quarter timeout with a nice Marco Belinelli to Boozer to Noah play that ended in a dunk. To get within 15, though.
After being blown out in the third as the starters failed to get much going, the culmination of the frustration being coming up empty late in the fourth on one possession as they hustled to retrieve three misses and missed all four shots. It was like that in symbolizing the night.
Thibodeau then went with an eclectic group with Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Gibson, Butler and Belinelli, and they gave the crowd some entertainment, including Robinson’s second dunk of the season as Mohammed played pulling guard by running rookie Meyers Leonard out of the paint. And Butler continued to run down everything and made a pair of threes. But the final score was the closest the Bulls were since the middle of the second quarter.
“The spirit of that group was very, very good,” said Thibodeau. “They played with great energy, very good team spirit, hustled. Made them miss some shots. They got out in transition, shared the ball. The hustle united and inspired that group. One they got going we were able to cut back the lead. But it’s important to play with the lead. Once you give up points the way we did and now they’re up 12, 14 points, the game becomes easy for them, they get more confidence and it’s hard to shut them down.”
And, right, there’s no player in the Bulls limited offensive repertoire without Rose to lead that big charge from behind. Luol Deng had just five points, but the offense seemed directed away from him and he had just three shots in the first half. The Bulls tried to get him going to start the third, but to little success. Belinelli also had just four shot in the first half as the Trail Blazers did do a good job denying the perimeter.
“I thought this was one of our better defensive or best defensive games of the season,” said Portland coach Terry Stotts. “The performance of our guys on the pick and roll defense was good and active. We covered the paint well. Our stops allowed us to play in our flow and hit shots. We would like to be a team like Chicago where our defense is something we have every night. The message to the team was that we had given up 57, 58 and 58 points the last 3 games in the first half. We know we can score in bunches, but we need to focus on defense. Our team is better and our offense goes when we push the ball and play up tempo. The Bulls are a good team but bringing back players like Hinrich and Gibson causes a need for adjustment.”
An explanation, but a small one. Both Hinrich and Gibson started slowly as they were a combined three of 10 shooting at halftime. They seemed to come out of the game reasonably well, though Gibson appeared to pull up a bit early. He said his MCL sprain will still hurt, but he’ll play on. Hinrich said he felt good afterward from his foot injury.
“I felt good at times,” said Gibson. “I just have to keep playing. It’s not going to be perfect. There’s still going to be pain here and there. But it’s coming down to the wire and all about pushing through.”
But it seems like the weight of the season is sitting on that boulder as well and the Bulls for now are playing the Sisyphus role. They keep trying to push that boulder of expectations up the hill to the top. But it keeps rolling back against them like they are no longer getting anywhere.
“Other than getting drummed like that, I was happy with the way it (foot) felt,” said Hinrich. “Hopefully it will keep getting better and better. Right now, it feels fine. We haven’t been playing as well of late and we’ve got to get it turned around. We want to be playing our best basketball going into the playoffs, and right now it’s just not the case.”