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Bulls have rocky start in mountains of Denver
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 22
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The Bulls were chased out of Chicago by the circus, and what do you know, they couldn’t get away from the clown.
Yes, it was Nate Robinson, the team’s favorite former prankster from last season, whose two three-point shots to open the fourth quarter led to a 13-0 run and a 97-87 victory for the Denver Nuggets.
“We got caught by some dribble penetration,” lamented Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who drew a technical foul to add onto one of Robinson’s threes. “We lost Nate a couple of times and that gave them a cushion and it got away from us. You can’t let your guard down against them. I thought their bench hurt us.”
It was a reserve mismatch as the Nuggets’ bench outscored the Bulls’ 49-21 with the Bulls getting 14 of those points in the fourth quarter. That was after the Nuggets broke open a relatively close three quarters to take an 83-62 lead less than three minutes into the fourth quarter.
That from a game the Bulls led 25-24 after one quarter, trailed 50-48 at halftime and then were behind 70-62 heading into the fourth quarter. But after Luol Deng, who was just three of 18 shooting but had 13 rebounds, several off his own misses, failed to score out of the post, the Nuggets took off down court and found Robinson for a three and 73-62 lead.
The former Bull who has shown no animosity toward the Bulls not inviting him back and continues to say how last season was the greatest in his basketball career and how much he enjoyed his Bulls teammates, then made another three pointer after Taj Gibson missed following Deng having a shot blocked. Thibodeau picked up a technical foul going into that timeout with 64 seconds gone in the fourth quarter and the Bulls now trailing by 14.
They came out of the timeout going to Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 19 points, but 15 in the first half. Rose missed and as Denver did all game they ran to force crossmatches. The Nuggets got little used Jordan Hamilton again in a mismatch and he made a three, his second of three in the game on the way to a team high 17 points off the bench.
The Bulls, who have these scoring droughts and basically always have, went back to Deng. He missed, but the Bulls continued to pursue on the boards, probably the best thing they did in the game as they outrebounded Denver 58-48 and had 22 offensive rebounds. But the Bulls continued to fumble the opportunities, missing a pair of putbacks as Denver went again for another Hamilton three to cap that 13-0 run, and, in effect, the game as the Bulls went 21 down.
They would rally to within 11 with 3:21 left on some Mike Dunleavy shooting as he had 15 points with two of five threes. Dunleavy then had a shot at a three with a chance to cut the lead to eight. But he missed and Kenneth Faried, with 12 points and some mighty dunks, rebounded a Ty Lawson three and got the ball to Robinson for a clinching bank shot and 13-point lead with just over two minutes remaining.
“We just couldn’t make any shots in the second half,” said Rose, who was two of eight in the second half and sat out the last seven minutes. “They hit some shots, a lot of threes. Shots weren’t falling for us. Eventually, we tried different things and it wasn’t working. If anything we can learn from this. When we’re playing a team like this we have to be disciplined and get back in transition. They are a team where anybody can shoot anywhere.”
Actually, Rose did a nice job on Lawson, holding him to 10 points. And Deng kept Wilson Chandler scoreless in 27 minutes. But the Bulls lack of depth with Jimmy Butler out was noticeable with the bench scoring disparity.
Though that’s not why the Bulls lost the game.
They lost it because their defense was uncharacteristically slow to react. The box score looked reasonable with the rebounding edge. But Denver hit eight of its first nine field goals and shot more than 50 percent in the first half.
The Bulls defensive rotations were slow and they continually allowed the Nuggets to get to the basket for layups and dunks.
They seemed to lack their defensive edge, which could lead to another lineup change going into Portland Friday.
Thibodeau elected to start Dunleavy for the missing Butler at shooting guard. Thibodeau explained he wanted to keep the reserve group together and thus have similar rotations. Which make sense. Though it didn’t work.
“I did not like the way we started defensively in the first quarter,” acknowledged Thibodeau. “The second quarter we had a little lull. Third quarter not so good. We fought back, but then we had a couple of mistakes we have to correct.”
This Bulls team, really all the Bulls teams under Thibodeau, have been known for their relentless and spirited effort. But that’s been more in spurts this season, saved for games like against the Pacers. It’s not unusual with a veteran team looking toward the playoffs to start a season that way.
But that was complicated by the loss of Butler and decision to start Dunleavy. It seems possible Kirk Hinrich will start against Portland Friday. The Trail Blazers have explosive starting guards in Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, and the Bulls cannot afford to play catchup so much with their limited offense.
It’s not Dunleavy’s fault as he played his role perhaps better than anyone on the Bulls. But by starting he fell into tough matchups and the Nuggets took advantage with Randy Foye getting 12 points in 13 minutes and Evan Fornier following him with nine points in just under 10 minutes.
The Nuggets got ahead to open the game, 14-10, and then to open the third quarter with an 8-3 start. To have success on this Western Conference trip, the Bulls need to start strong defensively and gain momentum on the defense side. Which presumably would lead to more attention to detail on pick and roll plays and transition, where the Bulls were also unusually slow to get back.
Light air, perhaps?
Dunleavy needs to play a lot given he is shooting so well. Though putting him out against the quick guards can compromise the defense as well and is asking him to do quite a bit. It would seem to make sense to have Kirk Hinrich starting with Rose more often while Butler is out to have that stronger defensive unit to open the first and third quarters and be in better position as the game unfolds.
“We didn’t play our normal solid defense,” agreed Taj Gibson, who was ejected late in the game with a second technical foul, though Gibson insisted he was misunderstood by the official while talking to Robinson. “I think it starts with our defense first. Free games where nobody really plays defense are really rough on us because we kind of lose focus on the defensive side. When we get stops, it gets us in the right rhythm and it gets guys good looks.
“We got to try to slow them down,” Gibson added about the blazing Trail Blazers. “We’ve got to go in there with our heads up. Games like that against a tough opponent like Portland coming up you have to hit them first and set the tone the right way. We have to get back to playing the defense that we know we are capable of. The main thing is defense and trying to slow them down.”
Which would suggest seeing Rose and Hinrich to open the game, though that remains uncertain.
What remained certain Thursday is the way the Bulls generally were outplayed to end their five-game winning streak, fall to 6-4 and in a game in which they were leading for about four minutes out of the 48.
“You have to bring energy to the game,” said Thibodeau. “I think sometimes when you are taking the ball out of the net you aren’t playing with the offensive energy you need to play with. You have to play for 48 minutes to get a win on the road. We are working our way towards that.”
That seemed problematic right from the beginning as the Nuggets made eight of their first nine shots and shot 61 percent in the first quarter. That the Bulls led 25-24 wasn’t a great sign as it suggested they were playing the way the Nuggets wanted to play, more in transition and less concerned about defense than their own numbers. The Bulls can win games that way, though basically when their defense produces run outs and opportunities.
“When they missed, that’s when we got open threes, open layups and things like that,” said Lawson. “That’s what we wanted to do, get stops and just push it.”
This time the Bulls were trying to fight back and match Nuggets shots, not a way to win where the Bulls had lost 11 of their last 12 and six straight.
The Nuggets had six layups or dunks in the first six minutes of the game. And though the Bulls hung in down 16-12 and leading 25-24 after one quarter, it wasn’t the sort of defensive game the Bulls generally play. Perhaps Deng’s offensive woes distracted him some as his shots kept rolling off. Carlos Boozer started well and overall had 15 points and 10 rebounds. But the Nuggets were stripping the ball from him as he had three early turnovers.
Rose, however, was terrific to start and holding the Bulls together with a series of driving scores and a three. And even when he missed, Noah and Boozer got easy lanes to the basket for tipins and followups as the defense pursued Rose. That enabled each to have a put back at the end of the second quarter that rallied the Bulls from a 48-40 deficit to trailing 50-48 at halftime.
“I thought he had a great first half, attacking with quick explosive moves, good plays and terrific defense,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “It’s coming and you can see it. I just want him to continue to focus on improvement and get better each game. His confidence is growing. He is playing better and better. Our team needs to play better. We have to find ourselves.”
Noah finished just short of a triple-double with 11 points, 12 rebounds, including seven offensive, and eight assists. And Gibson added nine points and eight rebounds again working hard in the post.
But the Bulls again stumbled defensively to open the third quarter and went dry offensively. Rose after a terrific floater to open the quarter went cold, shooting a line drive air ball and coming up short on a floater. The problem, though, was the other four starters were a combined two of 11 in the quarter (Rose was two of five). When they have those dry periods, as they do, they need Rose more than ever to carry them.
That’s, really, more than his last second shots where Rose’s strength is, carrying the team in those three and four minute stretches when this group goes cold and cannot find a shot. It’s why Thibodeau has Dunleavy in the game, though the Nuggets were attacking him off the dribble and on movement as Foye scored eight straight points. The Bulls also got called for several offensive fouls, generally on moving screens which are a point of emphasis for officials this season, and offensive fouls as frustration with the offense led to more individual play.
The result was a brutal 14-point, 30 percent shooting third quarter. But the defense tightened and the Bulls hung in with Gibson coming up strong with a followup slam dunk, after which he drew a technical for demanding a foul call, and 17 footer with his improved jump shot.
With Butler out, Thibodeau gave Marquis Teague a look and said Teague did “some good things.” But Teague played tentatively, seemingly afraid of making mistakes like last season. When he took the ball hard to the rim, he scored, his one basket. That’s when he’s most effective. But his limited playing time seems to have him playing cautiously again.
So the Bulls were hanging in trailing 70-62 after three and ready to make a run when the clown car blew up all over them.
“Nothing to prove,” said Robinson, who was three of 13 overall for 11 points. “I just want to play well every game. Going against my former guys I used to play with and being alongside of those guys, we had a special season last year. It got cut short. We lost to the champions, the Miami Heat, but it’s a special group over there; they do everything together. That’s something that I’m going to cherish for life, friendships that last forever. ”
Even though the Bulls couldn’t be that happy.
“He’s a spark plug,” Lawson said of Robinson. “Nate is never down and out. If he misses the whole first three quarters, he is going to come through with something for us in the fourth quarter. That’s what he did for us.”
And the Bulls took their first fall without a net. Yes, that one hurt.