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Bulls cannot weather Oklahoma City’s storm
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 20
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There’s ice and there’s electrical stim and there’s massage and there’s ultrasound and there’s heat and manual therapy and soft tissue and joint work and muscle relaxation and all the conventional remedies for treating injuries.
But now with Jimmy Butler Thursday on crutches after a sprained ankle during the 107-95 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Luol Deng in a walking boot after sitting out with a recurrence of his Achilles injury, Kirk Hinrich not quite in traction yet though out with worsening back problems, Taj Gibson playing through a right wrist injury in which he’s wrapping his arm like it’s being mummified after games and, of course, Derrick Rose out for the season with a knee injury, it seems like it may be time for the mosque, the church and the synagogue.
Noah’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?
“It’s part of it,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau after the team’s 13th loss in the last 16 games to fall to 9-16. “I think that sometimes it goes against you.”
Thibodeau took a long pause as reporters waited.
“I don’t know what else to say,” he added finally.
Deng said he’ll be out until at least the Christmas Day game in Brooklyn next week and perhaps a game longer. Butler will get a full examination back in Chicago, though he also had pushed to get back with his turf toe injury on the same leg. Complicating that with a sprained ankle left him open to being out for a while. Thibodeau didn’t sound optimistic about Hinrich’s ongoing back problems talking before the game and his return remains unclear.
So the Bulls started Butler against league scoring leader Kevin Durant, who finished with the most casual 32 points you’ll see. Not long afterward, rookie Tony Snell playing 41 minutes had to take on Durant. D.J. Augustin, continuing to impress with strong play and 15 points and five assists, had to take on all-league star Russell Westbrook, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists, though was not a dominant factor.
But overall the Bulls played one of their better games Thursday on national TNT, fulsome in its passion if not its ultimate goal. This hasn’t been a team for moral victories. But the Bulls did show promise from some desultory efforts in recent weeks with crisper ball movement and bolder attacks at the basket that led to 39 free throws (making just 29) and 20 assists on 29 baskets.
“I don’t think we can do that,” Noah said of giving up or giving in to the circumstances. “I think we’re in a situation where we’re losing games, but we still represent the Chicago Bulls; we still represent Chicago. Chicago’s a city that deals with a lot of adversity. I think that we’re dealing with a lot of adversity. We just got to go out there and fight. That’s the nature of this city.”
Noah was relentless with a season-high 23 points along with 12 rebounds and Taj Gibson rebounded from some shaky efforts of late with 16 points and more of the powerful post moves that had been successful for him a few weeks back.
But it also was a product of a livelier Bulls game, a bit more pace, if perhaps not enough, sharper ball movement that led to the defense having to shift and leaving openings for Noah slashing to the rim and Thunder defenders off balance and committing fouls.
It was a welcome change from the stagnant ball and player movement of recent games, though still difficult to sustain given the number of injuries and the Bulls essentially down to a seven man rotation. And that was with Butler playing as Marquis Teague continued to struggle and played 12 minutes.
“I like what D.J. (Augustin) is bringing to the team,” said Thibodeau. “He got us quality shots at the basket. (Now) we got to find some other people and get them to step up. We’re shorthanded. Our margin of error is small. I liked that we made quick decisions. There we a lot of good things. But I didn’t like our defense in the last two games. We’re going to get that straightened out.
Or the shooting, again below 40 percent for the sixth time in the last eight games at 37.7 percent. The Bulls ended up eight for 29 on threes after starting zero for 10. Noah made the only jump shot in the first quarter, which was another reason to go inside.
“I loved the quick decisions,” Thibodeau said. “I thought (they) led to the free throws and high percentage shots. I thought we never went away. We hit a rough patch, but always fought back. Didn’t cover the line (nine for 15 Oklahoma City threes) maybe as well as we could have. When the ball was going from side to side real quick and nobody was holding it the defense couldn’t get set. So then when we turned the corner it opened (Noah) up to get to the basket on rolls and opened easy scoring opportunities versus the long twos. I thought that was a big plus for Jo. I thought he set the tone for that. You’ve just go to keep doing the right things, keep grinding and we get guys back and continue to improve the wins will be there.”
The Bulls can only hope in a potentially demoralizing stretch they haven’t seen the likes of for years. They’ve fallen to 10th in the Eastern Conference tied with Brooklyn. They’re two and a half games behind Washington and Charlotte and only two and a half games ahead of the 76ers, who are next to last in the Eastern Conference. And none of those teams are in the sort of downward fall gripping the Bulls at this point nor with so many injuries.
It’s perhaps the most stunning reversal in the NBA for a team in preseason generally considered one of the top eight contenders for a title. And even after losing Rose for the season last month, there was no indication of a trip to the top of the draft lottery. It’s where the Bulls are, and many say the team should accept that fate and begin over. Though that’s not for this group of players, and certainly not for Thibodeau, who not only believes in this group but also believes it’s not as far away as the latest streak suggests.
“They’re pros,” said Thibodeau. “We’re in rough stretch of a lot of games on a short amount of time. When you start backing up the games and you look at exactly what transpired, we unfortunately couldn’t pull out some of those games. But we were right there. So, I think the challenge for us is not to accept what’s going on, but to keep fighting and to believe that, ‘Hey, we’re going to be getting these guys back at some point.’ And so we’ve got to keep grinding, finding ways, developing.”
It was as difficult a challenge as you’ll get in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder is now 13-0 and overall with eight straight wins.
Durant is in many respects the most amazing player in the NBA.
LeBron James is rightfully regarded as the best. But if Durant had the attitude of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, he might average 50 points per game. He’s essentially unguardable as he can get to basically any space he wants and turn and shoot over anyone with one of the best shots in the game.
He reminds you somewhat of the kid in the park who doesn’t want to beat you that badly so you’ll come back and play. Jordan and Kobe wanted to send you home crying.
Durant attempted 20 shots in 33 minutes, making 13 along with nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. He doesn’t look like he’s trying that hard sometimes with his languid gait and easygoing manner, though he did draw a technical foul early for challenging his second foul.
Both he and Westbrook picked up their seconds late in the first quarter with Oklahoma City, now 21-4, ahead 29-18. But even with both going out, the Bulls couldn’t much change the margin until a closing surge at the end of the second quarter when they got back to back threes from Snell and Augustin, Augustin’s a four-point play, and went into halftime trailing just 55-52.
“Like Thibs said, ‘Show me that Brooklyn toughness,’” said Gibson.
The Thunder got good production from backup point guard Reggie Jackson, who has become a big find and finished with 18 points. He was 24th in the 2011 draft, just behind Nikola Mirotic, whom the Bulls traded up to select because they believed the Thunder wanted him. Jackson has become a big contributor with the losses of James Harden and Kevin Martin the last two seasons. Though he didn’t score much, they got rim protection from Serge Ibaka with three blocks, two on Noah in one possession. Former Bull Thabo Sefolosha added 10 points, his first double figure scoring game since the opener, taking advantage of some mismatches and Bulls turnovers, a regular problem now, that led to 26 Thunder points. The Thunder, like Miami, prospers in the open court and had 24 fast break points. But the Bulls gained some baby steps with 10 of their own as they finally began to push the ball a bit more and not run down the clock on every possession until being forced to shoot.
As an aside, Noah got into a little postgame dispute thanks to Sefolosha. The two were close as Bulls teammates and Noah went to visit Sefolosha after the game. It’s not unusual, if not common, for players to visit opposing locker rooms after games. Not the Bulls with the Heat or Pacers, but old friends do. Ronnie Brewer was in the Bulls locker room in Houston Wednesday. But when Noah was walking in with Sefolosha, fake tough guy Kendrick Perkins confronted Noah and this was the exchange reported by the Oklahoman newspaper:
Perkins: “They just let anybody in the locker room?”
Noah: “C’mon man.”
Perkins: “I’m just asking, though.”
Noah: “C’mon man.”
Perkins: “Just let anybody in the locker room now?”
Noah: “You want me to wait outside?”
Perkins: “I’m just saying, though.”
Noah: “If you want me to wait outside, I’ll wait outside.”
Perkins: “Get your ass up outta here.”
More words were exchanged as Noah walked to the Bulls’ bus.
And they say they’re friendly in Oklahoma City. Don’t believe it.
“I thought we still had a shot in the second half,” said Thibodeau. “I thought we were within striking distance. But we couldn’t get the key stops when we needed them. They’re (Thunder) good. You’ve got to give them credit. I thought our guys fought hard. We got hurt with the easy baskets and mostly off our turnovers.”
It’s sort of that chicken and egg thing, though steak and eggs if it’s breakfast. Are you close because you have played well? Or is it because they didn’t take you seriously enough given who was on the court and your record of late?
Thibodeau believed he saw progress in vital areas and that improved, spirited play from Noah and Gibson along with Augustin.
The Bulls opened the second half against some Oklahoma City pressure, Snell blocked and Noah committing a turnover when Carlos Boozer didn’t come to the ball. Durant scored on the turnover, Westbrook ran out as well and slammed, Sefolosha cut inside for a layup on a pass from Durant, Ibaka hit a jumper and a three and the Thunder was back roaring ahead 74-61 midway through the third quarter.
Of course, the Bulls hadn’t planned to be starting Augustin, Snell and Dunleavy along with Noah and Boozer. Next man up and all that.
“D.J.’s been playing phenomenal,” said Gibson. “He’s still learning our sets, learning our defense. He’s getting a lot of assists. He’s getting us good looks. I think that’s a positive. We’ve been scoring the ball real well. I think our defense just hasn’t been there to help us out. We are normally a great defensive team. We just got to get guys more reps, especially now that we lost Jimmy with the ankle. These injuries guys are having you really have to rest them. Guys keep pushing through injury, pushing the limit. No matter how hard it hurts they are still going. It’s frustrating. There’s nothing we can do but go out and play hard.”
They did give it what they had as Thibodeau had to stretch Snell after he hadn’t played much of late along with 36 minutes for Augustin, who has looked amazingly comfortable for such a short time with the team, finding guys for good shots and creating space for his own.
The Bulls did fall behind by 15 late in the third and got within 84-72 going into the fourth quarter.
They had a chance with Durant and Westbrook off the floor to open the fourth playing against a group with Derek Fisher, Nick Collison, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Jackson. After Collison opened the fourth with a three-point play, Dunleavy made a three, Augustin scored on a drive, Noah slammed and Augustin made a three to get the Bulls within 89-82 with 8:50 left.
Lamb then missed a three. But the rugged Adams got the rebound and was fouled, making both. The Bulls then had three shots in the next possession but missed all. After Jackson missed, Augustin lost the ball and Lamb ran out and dunked it. Snell, not shy shooting four of 15 and two of 11 on threes, missed a three. But it was encouraging the Bulls shot them and put some spirit back in the game. Oklahoma City got the long rebound to Durant for a three that pretty much ended the Bulls chances with the Thunder ahead 96-82 with just over seven minutes left. Durant hit two more jumpers, one an amazing Dirk Nowitzki fading back wrong footer over Gibson, to match Noah scores. Thibodeau waved the flag with about three and a half minutes left as the Bulls gathered up their wounded and headed home.
“I had a lot of swelling up today, so we made the decision that I got to try to put it behind me and then start playing instead of being in and out,” said Deng as the Bulls went with their 12th different starting lineup. “You just never know how your body will react. I want to be back as soon as possible, but I want to be smart about it. I want to shoot for Christmas day; if I can’t, then the game after that.”
“It’s one of those seasons so far, tough,” Deng added. “We just got to keep playing hard and hang in there. We know what we’re capable of when everybody is healthy. Right now it seems that nothing is going our way. But it’s a long season. A lot of things right now aren’t the way we want it to be. We got to just turn it around and keep going.”