Bulls hoping to rev their engines in Indianapolis


Nov 5

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The Bulls, especially coach Tom Thibodeau, do not like to talk about games being crucial or vital, especially this early in the season. But when Chicago visits the Indiana Pacers Wednesday, it’s something of a showdown given Indiana’s undefeated start and that the Bulls and Pacers are considered rivals for the defending champion Miami Heat.

“For us getting off to a 1-2 start, being out of sync, not getting it done right now, we need to go in there and get it done more than anything regardless of the opponent,” said Mike Dunleavy after Bulls practice Tuesday. “Certainly, (Indiana) is a premier opponent. It’s going to be a lot tougher, but we need to get a win.”

But as much as it’s a show down, it’s also a question of whether the Bulls will show up, in figurative terms, anyway, given the early season disappearance of their game.

Against Indiana last year, Luol Deng led the  Bulls with 16.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 2.0 apg in 39.5 mpg.

Against Indiana last year, Luol Deng led the
Bulls with 16.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 2.0 apg in 39.5 mpg.

This Bulls start is less disappointing being 1-2 than the way they’ve gotten there, as arguably the poorest defensive team since Thibodeau became Bulls coach and certainly the poorest shooting group.

Small sample size is the operative phrase after a week, and it is just three games. So, certainly, it’s no time to panic or overreact.

But the Bulls are allowing an astonishing 47 percent shooting on three pointers with both the Heat and 76ers shooting at least 50 percent. The Bulls have been among the league leaders in three point defense under Thibodeau, but thus far rank 29th. Plus, their own shooting has been equally poor, 23.2 percent on threes and 42.9 percent overall, thus 20th overall and 29th on threes.

Some of the fault has been aimed at Derrick Rose in his return from knee surgery as Rose is shooting 28.8 percent overall and 26.7 percent on threes. But the normally reliable Luol Deng is shooting just eight percent on threes and Jimmy Butler 22.2 percent.

The result with few threats otherwise as Dunleavy has gotten just nine three point attempts has been defenses not only trapping and double teaming Rose, but the driving lanes closing down as defenders drop off the other players into the paint to concentrate on Rose. Rose has driven and passed out. But his perimeter shooters have not made shots. So he’s then found himself having to force up shots he would normally not take to try to bail out the team.

Which is one reason why Thibodeau bristled at the criticism of Rose.

“We need everyone,” Thibodeau said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s not a Derrick issue. This is a team issue. This is a Bulls’ issue.”

Thibodeau also has continued to focus his principal concern, if also frustration, on players being out injured during training camp and thus preventing the team from developing its teamwork to be ready for the season. Thibodeau is, as everyone knows, committed to preparation. But he’s seemed exasperated with the many different lineups and combinations that have kept the team from developing a continuity to be prepared for the season. Thus the uneven and inefficient play.

“The good thing,” Thibodeau said about two practice days since the bitter loss in Philadelphia Saturday, “is we had everyone participate. I think that’s critical. I’m not surprised that some people are not in rhythm yet. You can’t miss an entire training camp or a good chunk of it and expect to play well. You have to put the time and work into it. You have different guys that are playing now. You can do all the conditioning on the side that you want. If they’re not participating in the contact and you’re not competing, competing is what gives you an edge. You can ride a bike forever; you’re not competing. You have to get used to competing. This is a competition. It’s not a show, it’s a competition. You’ve got to go after people. And that’s what we’ve got to get back to.’’

Asked about Joakim Noah, Thibodeau replied:

“He’s a work in progress.’’

Noah is averaging an impressive 11.7 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game. But he’s shooting just 31.8 percent and mostly demurring on outside shots.

He’s generally been the manifestation of the Bulls’ energetic play. But his minutes were limited to begin the season in Miami and he’s not always worked into the offense yet.

Thus it’s no surprise even with Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson both playing well that the Bulls have been out hustled with fewer steals and fewer blocks than their opponents.

Thibodeau also noted the complicating factor of not shooting well and the variance in threes. The Bulls never have been a high volume three point shooting team. But their defense has been so good they’ve run opponents off the three point line. Not so much this season with opponents averaging more than 20 three point attempts per game.

The Pacers have been one of the best three point shooting teams this season at about 40 percent. They’ve also been the best defensive team in holding opponents to 38 percent shooting, lowest in the league. Their center, Roy Hibbert, is leading the league in blocks with another seven in their win over the Pistons Tuesday and at 7-2 has given Noah and the Bulls front line problems. Though starting point guard George Hill has been out with a sore hip with former Bull C.J. Watson replacing him, Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson has been among the league leaders in three point shooting.

Which is another reason an enhanced Bulls defensive effort is vital. The Pacers’ weakness without a true point guard has been turnovers, where the have been among the league leaders for most turnovers.

“Every year you have to look at what the strengths and the weaknesses of your team are,” said Thibodeau. “And so we lost a lot of three point shooting from the previous year (Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Richard Hamilton. No, not Vladimir Radmanovic). But the one thing that we did well was we guarded the three. So no one had a distinct advantage over us. We didn’t take a lot of threes, but we also did not allow a lot of threes. So it wasn’t where a team was making 10 and we were making five. It was virtually a wash. You can’t give anyone an edge in any particular area, particularly the three. If you look at, just from the math standpoint, Philly makes 11 threes. If you’re making three, that’s a big advantage to make up.”

Though it’s not like the Bulls have been a team with perfect health in recent seasons. They’ve been a constant next-man-up group that has responded to the hardships and missing players. But Thibodeau says what this season’s team lacks thus far is the building blocks.

“The training camp part of it is so important,” Thibodeau emphasized. “That’s your start; it’s your foundation. You can see when guys miss, particularly early on, it takes something away. We have to regain that and we have to understand how we regain that, and that’s everyone putting forth the necessary work so that the team can improve. You start off putting your game together in the fall piece by piece individually, and then when camp opens it’s putting your team together in totality. You need everyone to practice. This is a team sport, it’s not an individual sport. We have a core of guys that have been here for a long time now. So the challenge now becomes how quickly everyone can get on the same page.’’

Because a story is beginning to be told. If the Bulls cannot defeat the 4-0 Pacers Wednesday, the Bulls would find themselves three and a half games behind Indiana. Not the sort of storybook start the Bulls had been hoping for this season.

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