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Bulls again find it’s no vacation in Cleveland
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 1
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Well, at least they didn’t have to go by bus.
Then it really would have been a zoo compared to the bizarre circus the Bulls just endured over the last two weeks.
The Bulls Saturday concluded their annual November road trip, almost 7,000 miles through the Rockies, Derrick Rose’s second season-ending injury, which left a much greater mountain to climb, through the West Coast and back around the Midwest with a 1-5 record and yet another head scratching defeat, 97-93 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The loss left the Bulls at 7-8, though with the grace and good fortune of playing in the Eastern Conference just a half game out of third place and actually with the third best play in the East in the first month.
It seems difficult to believe as Saturday was the second time in less than a week that Carlos Boozer missed, in effect, a putback in the last seconds that either would have won the game, as in Utah, or sent it into overtime, which was the situation Saturday.
The Bulls got terrific games from Luol Deng with 27 points and a career-high equaling 11 assists, rookie Tony Snell with another career-high, 18 points with three of five three-pointers, and Taj Gibson with 18 points in just 24 minutes off the bench.
But Joakim Noah, seemingly having the most difficulty shaking off the effects of the loss of Rose, was bullied, this time by a season high 20 points from Andrew Bynum. Noah had four points on two of 10 shooting, but with eight rebounds and seven assists. Mike Dunleavy continued to slump and is three of 18 the last three games and zero for seven on threes. Boozer had 12 points, but again missed the crucial shot at the denouement that could have made this trip a success.
Still, undefeated at home, the Bulls are just one of five teams having played 10 road games already. Two of the statistics used to measure a team’s strength early in the season with odd schedules are road wins against home losses and point differential. The Bulls trail only Indiana and Miami in the Eastern Conference in both those measures.
Yes, they’re looking for hope in a season in which Rose will not play and the Bulls still have backcourt mate Jimmy Butler out with turf toe.
“Right now, I think we have to get our concentration back and our edge back defensively,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I think everyone is worried offensively about how we’re going to score and I like what we’re doing offensively. I thought the guys shared the ball and made plays for each other; turnovers were low and we shot a good enough percentage. But the defense and the rebounding really hurt us. So we have to get that straightened out. We’re not playing defense the way we’re capable of. I know we can be a great defensive team. They’ve already shown me that.”
That will be the message with every loss this season, and those losses should have plenty of company.
This Bulls team without Rose doesn’t have much margin for error on the offensive end. They’re 26th in the league in scoring and 23rd in shooting. They’ll win enough games because they play hard, defend and rebound.
Though against the 5-12 Cavs Saturday, they were outrebounded 41-36 while Bynum had those 20 points along with 10 rebounds and five blocks for his best game since he was with the Lakers. Dion Waiters off the bench for 20 points and constantly got to the basket against late Bulls coverage. The Cavs made seven of 15 threes as the Bulls remained 29th in the league defending the three-point line, better than only the geriatric Nets.
“We have to do better,” said Gibson. “We learned a lot just being on the road. Guys have to play a lot harder. We’re too sluggish starting games and we just have to do better.
“Just because we are going home (Monday to face New Orleans) doesn’t mean anything,” Gibson added. “It’s even harder when you’re coming home because teams tend to come in with a chip on their shoulder coming to Chicago thinking they can get a win. We just have to come in straight, get things right. Just because we’re going home doesn’t make it easy.”
You can sense nothing is going to be easy for this Bulls team.
Though looking back on the last week since the Rose injury, the Bulls mostly have played well.
Yes, the Clippers game with the shock of the Rose injury the game before was understandable.
The Jazz was 1-14, but the Bulls had chances to win, two at the buzzer before losing in overtime. They came from behind to blow out a high scoring Pistons team and absorbed the best game Bynum has had in years and were in position to win after coming back from 14 points behind in the fourth quarter to take an 88-87 lead on an impressive Snell drive and floater with 3:39 remaining.
If there’s anything to be gained by the injury to Butler, it’s the surprising emergence of Snell, who likely would not have played this season with a healthy team. But drafted into the starting lineup, the rookie has been the team’s best three point shooter (six of 10 the last two games) and shooting 53 percent overall and averaging 33 minutes.
“I’m trying to go out there and make plays,” said Snell. “They’re trusting me that I can make plays, too. We’re just really trying to build that trust with each other.”
Snell has been a revelation while Marquis Teague, the hoped for new back up with Rose out, has backed up. Thibodeau Saturday benched Teague for veteran Mike James and Teague didn’t play. Teague was zero for 11 and scoreless the last three games and shooting 16.7 percent for the season.
Still, even with Bynum having the game of his season and the Cavs guards outrunning the Bulls, the Bulls somehow seemed to have a chance to steal another. So, yes, they did play defense and they did make plays and they never gave up. But they made a few too many errors in the end.
The Cavs came out of that timeout after falling behind in the second quarter going to Bynum, who made a step through layup against Noah to get back the lead, 89-88 for the Cavs with 3:35 left.
Noah was trying, but Bynum probably outweighs him by 50 pounds and is a few inches taller. The Bulls were sending help at times. But Tristan Thomson had 14 rebounds and Gibson had to stick with him. The Cavs kept Kyrie Irving, who had 19 points but shot seven of 21, on the court along with Waiters. You can’t come off them. But they had Alonzo Gee in the corner. He’s not a good shooter, but the Bulls were late coming off him to help.
There was a timeout with 14 seconds on the shot clock. Deng, who was getting basically every play out of the timeouts and quarter starts, threw in and appeared to be setting up on the right side for a drive and shot, where he’d had success.
Kirk Hinrich, who’d played well, dropped the ball. Irving picked it up and drove all the way for a 91-88 Cavs lead with 3:08 left. Hinrich couldn’t contest much with five fouls.
The Bulls clearly were looking for Deng as he’d been the go to guy down the stretch against Detroit and has basically assumed that role without Rose. Hinrich circled some and then found Deng, who dribbled into the middle and faded back and shot an air ball short with Gee doing a good job contesting.
“If there was an unsung hero in tonight’s game, I thought it was Alonzo Gee,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown. “Luol Deng was hurting us in the first half. So we kept our biggest perimeter guy on him. You’re not going to stop a guy like Luol. He’s an All-Star. But what you try to do is slow him up as best you can. I thought Alonzo worked his tail off to try to force Deng into some tougher shots than what he was facing when Alonzo wasn’t on him.”
Deng this time got to Bynum more quickly as he turned on Noah and Gibson came late along the baseline and blocked Bynum’s shot. It was a good defensive possession, but also an indication of how difficult it was to defend Bynum moving like that.
The Bulls went back to Deng, who drove left. He got too deep and threw a poor pass, much too low for Noah into the paint and Waiters got it and went all the way for a layup and 93-88 Cavs lead with 2:09 remaining.
Bulls with another timeout. They faked to Deng going left and ran a pick and roll with Snell and Gibson on the right side. Gibson slipped the pick, but came up short on his drive when he collided with Bynum.
The Cavs went back to Bynum on the left block. Snell fell back into the lane to help, leaving Waiters open. Bynum passed out and Waiters made a 17 footer for a 95-88 lead with 1:32 remaining.
“They came to double two or three different ways,” said Bynum. “I was able to pass out of it and as long as the team keeps making shots like that, then I’ll get one-on-one opportunities and it’ll be a lot easier to play. Sometimes we get stagnant with that iso ball, but we moved the ball. I won’t lie to you; it felt good.”
Not to the Bulls, though they, surprisingly, still had another shot.
Hinrich circled along the baseline starting from the right and found Deng sneaking into the left corner, from where he made a three to tie his season-high with 27 points. That brought the Bulls within 95-91 with 1:21 left.
Irving began dribbling out the clock. Then trying to go left past Hinrich, Gibson did a good job coming out to help and by the time Irving got the pass off the shot clock had run out for a turnover with 56.8 seconds left.
The Bulls came back with Boozer for Gibson, apparently for offense after Gibson had missed on that previous drive. Deng ran a pick and roll with Noah, who got the pass. When Thompson stepped up to help, Noah passed to Boozer, who made a strong move for a layup to get the Bulls within 95-93 with 40.8 seconds left. Noah did an excellent job pushing Bynum toward the baseline on the next Cavs possession and Bynum missed, Deng getting the rebound with 19.5 seconds left and a chance to steal the game.
Deng inbounded on the left side to Noah and took a handoff going around the screen to the right and down the lane. Deng drove, shooting a runner from the right side, a sort of running hook. Bynum came to help, giving Noah a clear run when the shot was in and out. Noah got the rebound and pushed it up two handed, but too high over the rim. The ball came back to Noah, who tried to push it back as Thompson came toward him and bothered the second one.
But now Boozer was wide open on the left side for an easy put back to tie the game. Boozer’s layup line shot hit the backboard and rolled off the rim to the stunned amazement of the Bulls with nine seconds left.
Boozer screamed in disgust. Noah clasped both hands on his head, a half smile of disbelief. Players on the bench stood stunned. Boozer fouled and the Cavs made both to effectively end the game as the Bulls searched out a three before Deng drove to the basket too late.
You don’t have many as disappointing as that. The Bulls will look at it, once again, as a game they could have won. Though it also was the kind of game they’ll play a lot the rest of the way in which they cannot afford to have much go wrong, especially at the end, to have success. Certainly until Butler returns.
When he does, he’ll go back in the starting lineup. But that will give the bench a boost with Snell having gotten valuable playing time and confidence. But with Teague apparently having regressed so much and losing the confidence of the coach, the Bulls will be more reliant than ever on Hinrich.
It was a brutal start once again for the Bulls, falling behind 9-0 as Irving pushed the ball on every possession. The word is out on the Bulls: Run them. They don’t have many guys.
“I thought Kyrie set the tone early with his pace,” said Brown. “I thought he did a nice job pushing the basketball, trying to get some easy looks in transition and early offense. That’s something for a guy with his speed we encourage him to do every game because I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that can stay with him in the open court. We want him to push that pace and I thought he did a nice job of it, especially in the first half. That set the tone for what we wanted to do offensively.”
The Bulls got control of the game and slowed it some as they trailed just 27-25 after the first quarter. It’s also seemed like Irving has taken a step back from last season. Perhaps it’s the publicized issues with Waiters. But Irving seems more out of control, taking charge less often and uncertain with his shot.
The Bulls then seemed to find their way in the second quarter with Gibson making a big impact. The Bulls nosed ahead 37-33, though they fell back 56-51 at halftime as Anderson Varejao was left alone and made three jumpers.
And then the Cavs jumped on the Bulls starters again with a 13-4 run to start the third quarter on C.J. Miles and Gee three-pointers.
The Cavs went on to push that to 71-56 before rookie Snell got the Bulls coming back with a three, an off balance shot as the clock expired and a steal and drive for a pair of free throws. Though the Bulls still went into the fourth quarter trailing 77-66.
Again it was Snell with a three and a follow of his own miss as the Bulls fought their way back with an 11-0 run to get within 82-79 with 6:56 left. The Bulls then took that brief lead a few minutes later, only to see missed opportunities leave them heading home and hoping perhaps some clowns remained as they could use a few laughs after this trip.