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Bulls can’t solve their problems in Houston
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 19
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
Sometimes it’s such a beautiful morning and a storm comes up unexpectedly and ruins the day. Sometimes you are so certain about something, perhaps a stock or a friend, and maybe even a sports team, and it’s just not what you ever imagined.
Wednesday when the Bulls were in Houston in what would become a 109-94 loss, the Bulls 12th loss in their last 15 games, the story taking up most of the front page of the Houston Chronicle was about the NFL Houston Texans likely to get the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and a possible selection.
The same Texans, incidentally, who last season won their division for the first time in franchise history and were projected in preseason rankings in all the major media to win the division again and generally ranked in the top third in the NFL.
Now they are the worst team in the league.
“It’s unbelievable,” sighed Taj Gibson of yet another game in which the Bulls fell behind by at least 20 points. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. As soon as I came in the NBA, my rookie year we had Vin ball. Any single win we got or a little bit of success was a plus. We were celebrating and cheering. Now we’re trying to get back to that, trying to scratch out wins and get back into that winning state of mind. The way we’re losing and how we’re losing some of these games… it’s real deflating.
“We’ve just got to get that taste of winning of going toward achieving something,” added Gibson. “Our previous years, even the beginning of this season, we had that spunk about us. Like we never panic. We knew what it took to win games. Now I feel we’re still trying to search and trying to figure out a whole different concept of the team we have now. We’ve been digging, we’ve been grinding. It’s real deflating. But we’ve just got to keep pushing.”
It is in some respects why sports brings us back, even if this season it isn’t very pleasant for the Bulls and their fans.
You never truly know what will happen. Good and bad. It is the great mystery when the human body and mind is involved. And don’t we all like a good who dun it? Or who can’t. It doesn’t take much to change what was supposed to be to what was never envisioned.
Sure, Derrick Rose was injured again and the Bulls built so much around him for this season, so much in the game as well as so much hope. But they have All Stars, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah being two of the more highly regarded players in the NBA. Carlos Boozer, if not near his best, remains close to a double/double offensive player. Jimmy Butler is a rising talent. It certainly seemed like there was enough to compete.
But there is always so much more to sports and team play than the numbers and the talent. There’s the human alchemy that takes the basest talents and turns them into the gold of team success. There’s a connection and those so called intangibles that aren’t always recognized but can send a team zooming beyond its projections or plummeting beyond comprehension.
The Bulls are falling into that well of sporting despair, now 9-15 as they head into Oklahoma City Thursday for another national TV game, and against one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
“We’re losing, so mentally it’s tough,” shrugged Joakim Noah, who had six points and 10 rebounds in another difficult game against Dwight Howard. “When you lose, it’s not fun. We just got to keep battling. The games keep coming and nobody feels sorry for us and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to play harder.”
Nobody much knows what to say and nobody much knows what to ask. That’s what happens around a team when things begin to spiral away like they are for the Bulls now. When you are losing like this it feels like you’ll never get another win and have little idea how.
It was that way again Wednesday as the Bulls were down double digits by late in the first quarter in another brutal shooting start. They recovered in the second quarter and even scored 30 points, though still trailed 57-46 at halftime.
“The second and fourth quarter, I thought the offense was very good,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We scored (59 percent shooting and 30 points in the second). We didn’t play the other end (33 points and 65 percent shooting for Houston).”
The Bulls got within 68-65 with 5:24 left in the third quarter Could this finally be the time? Sometimes it only takes one game, especially against a good team like the Rockets with Howard and James Harden, the latter with 19 points and six assists, though seven turnovers playing with a bad ankle. But, oh right, they are a good team and the Bulls are becoming their own nightmare.
The Bulls defense was at both it’s poorest and most porous.
Omri Casspi shook open for a three as Noah got caught inside while the Rockets went with a stretch four that spaced the court better. Carlos Boozer had his shot blocked trying to go against Howard, who led Houston with 23 points and nine rebounds.
Howard also made his only free throw attempt to finish a three-point play in the first half.
It was a sign of the Bulls continuing retreat on defense, a major surprise. The Rockets shot 53.7 percent overall with a season high 66 points in the paint. Though perhaps even more telling was that Howard had just one free throw attempt. So much for force, the NBA defensive byword. You at least foul Howard, a notoriously poor free throw shooter, and force him to the line to get those points. But if these are the same Bulls players, they aren’t acting similarly, and certainly not on defense.
“At times we get a spark, but we’ve got to be accountable for our defense, me included,” acknowledged Gibson, who is always forthcoming. “I think our defense kind of is not what it’s supposed to be. Tonight we had assists (26 on 38 baskets and nine for D.J. Augustin in his first Bulls start) and a lot of chances to score. But we’ve got to play much better defense.”
It’s hardly unpredictable. When the will is difficult to sustain, as it seems to be of late for the Bulls under the natural disappointment of events, it most manifests itself in the team’s identity, defense. They never were a high scoring team, and only Rose truly excelled on that end. They hung their hat on defense and effort. But it’s blown off amidst the winds of misfortune this season.
Harden missed a three, but Boozer lost the ball again trying a spin move around Howard. Then Howard got loose for a slam dunk to make it 73-65 Rockets with 4:08 left in the third. The game was still there to be contested. But as it developed, only for a few more minutes.
Deng, with 18 points to support Jimmy Butler’s game high 20, drove and was fouled, making one of two. Boozer then made a nice defensive play in stealing a Harden pass. But Harden came right back and took the ball from Gibson as turnovers remained an issue, this time with 17 for the Bulls. Marshall’s Patrick Beverley, who had a strong game with 15 points and a pair of threes, missed one. But Deng threw away the inbounds pass, the fourth turnover in five possessions. The Rockets, 17-9, had enough then of letting the Bulls hang around.
Casspi was fouled and made a pair of free throws, Augustin missed an 18 footer, Chandler Parsons scored on a drive as he was all over the place with 19 points and nine rebounds. Boozer and Mike Dunleavy missed jump shots. Casspi was fouled again, this time by Gibson as the Bulls had trouble chasing the quicker fours outside. Harden got a rebound and drove full court for a score with basically no one doing much but observing. The Bulls made plays, but more on offense. They worked as they had 19 second chance points. Was it becoming time to get yours when things are going badly?
Gibson was fouled and missed both free throws. Greg Smith put back an Aaron Brooks miss and it was a 15-1 run; the Rockets now led 83-66 going into the fourth quarter. It was time to pad some stats as Gibson had 10 points and Butler seven in a bit of fourth quarter playground ball as both teams shots at least 60 percent in a wide open my turn/your turn quarter.
“We worked our way back down three, had another travel. We didn’t play well,” said an exasperated and searching Thibodeau. “So when we look back we can see games are winnable. (But) we didn’t take anything away (defensively). So they hurt us in the paint and they hurt us with the three and they shot 53 percent.
“We have to be disciplined and just do your job,” said Thibodeau. “You can live with certain shots. They are a great offensive team, so you have to decide what you are willing to live with. If they are taking the shots you want them to take, then you’re OK. But, you have to take something away and that’s what we didn’t do. I did like the ball movement tonight. I thought that was better. You can’t miss the amount of time that we’re missing without having it show. Offense is timing and spacing. We have guys who have missed months; guys who don’t practice. So you get into a game it shows. It shows.”
It seems a constant battle now.
Players are hurt, coming back from injuries, obviously trying to get some rest with the short rotation. But then they don’t practice or sit out a few and Thibodeau obviously cannot countenance that. They are some of the issues with a team in transition. Players want to save their energy for the game. The coach needs them to practice to develop their synchronization and timing for the game. Then the losses keep piling up. More practice? More rest?
“At the end of the day it comes down to the fact we have to get guys healthy,” said Boozer as Kirk Hinrich remained out with a back injury. “It seems like we are always missing somebody. But we’ll do the best we can and fight through it. This is one of the toughest stretches we’ve had with our group together. We need wins bad.
“We are playing hard and we’re trying,” insisted Boozer. “Sometimes we are getting bad bounces. We try to stay positive and try to correct our mistakes and some things aren’t going our way. As a group of guys we have to fight through it like we always have. We are never going to give up; that’s the make up of our team. Going to keep fighting and hopefully tomorrow will be a better night.”