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Bulls have no magic in the end against Orlando
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 17
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Is the Bulls’ 83-82 home loss Monday to the Orlando Magic time to panic?
Perhaps not, but it may be a quarter to.
“It’s not pretty right now,” acknowledged Mike Dunleavy, who in some respects produced an illustration of the team’s recent plight with a half court three pointer at the buzzer that left the Bulls a point away. “We’re battling, we’re trying. But we seem to be coming up short. We can’t get any easy baskets. Defensively we’ve been pretty solid, good enough to win. The other end of the court is doing us in.”
And it’s becoming close to fatal. Not necessarily because the Bulls fell to ninth in the East–no easy feat in itself–at 9-14 with their 11th loss in the last 14 games and ninth in the last 12 since Derrick Rose was injured against Portland Nov. 22.
But the Bulls are just wrapping up what was supposed to be one of the softer stretches in their schedule, at least considering the quality of opponent.
The last six games, four at home even though there was a four in five days stretch, were all against teams not expected to make the playoffs this season and with a combined record of 41-80.
New York 7-17
The Bulls were 1-5, the only victory when Dunleavy banked in a three pointer at the buzzer in Milwaukee last Friday. In the 12 games since Rose’s injury, the Bulls have played just two winning teams, the Clippers and Heat, and yet have those nine losses.
“We’re losing to teams that we’re supposed to be beating,” said Taj Gibson. “That’s the way I feel. I just feel like we have to do better, including myself. This one hurts.”
Yes, Kirk Hinrich was out again with a back problem. He could play Wednesday in Houston or Thursday in Oklahoma City, both national TV games.
But at this point and given the high level of dysfunction of their offense, it’s difficult to say there is any team the Bulls should beat. They certainly can beat teams given losses by five points or fewer and in overtime to the Magic, Bucks, Cavs, Knicks, Pelicans and Jazz in this stretch.
“There is a small difference between winning and losing,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “It usually comes down to one play. The mental part of it is critical. We need to understand what we are doing and everyone needs to do their job. It really is all the little things. That is what separates teams. If you’re asked to set a screen, take your screen to the man. If you have to cut, cut to the basket, cut outside the three. Keep the ball moving. If you are asked to set three screens, set three. Don’t set two. Help your teammates and don’t get wrapped up in any personal dilemmas. If you are not shooting the ball well, there are a lot of other things you can do to help your team win. That is all everyone should be thinking about.”
But there is virtually no margin for error anymore without Rose. The perimeter shooting is among the poorest in the NBA, 28th. So teams sink in the lane, which thwarts the spacing and has taken Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson effectively out of the game given the crowd inside. On almost every possession, the Magic had five players with feet in the paint. In the last six games since the win over Miami, Boozer is shooting 33 percent and averaging 12.3 points. He is averaging 10.5 rebounds, however. In the last four games since a strong five game run, Gibson is averaging 6.3 points on 28 percent shooting. Both are routinely getting multiple shots blocked or missing inside amidst the high level of traffic.
It also was the fifth game in the last six the Bulls have shot below 40 percent, sort of the NBA’s Mendoza line of offensive inefficiency. Monday it was a woeful 34.6 percent as Luol Deng with 26 points and Dunleavy with 14 off the bench were the only players to shoot at least 50 percent. Recently acquired D.J. Augustin had his best game as a Bull with 14 points and eight assists. He replaced Marquis Teague as a starter to open the second half and likely moved ahead of Teague, who was scoreless and without an assist or point and three misses in 10 minutes. Thibodeau yanked him for good with 6:22 left and the Magic going ahead 76-65 on a full court Jameer Nelson dash with no resistance.
“I thought the rebounding is what cost us,” said Thibodeau of the Bulls uncharacteristically being outrebounded 54-45 and with just six second chance points to 10 for Orlando. “The game wasn’t going our way and as a team we lost a lot of layups and just jogged back. In the end when we lose by one point or two points or a possession, if you look back at the game you will see some misses, some mistakes. But the overall issue is not sprinting back. That is something that needs to be taken care of. We have to have the toughness to get through tough times. The ability to pick ourselves up, not hang our head, keep fighting.”
For the most part the Bulls continue to play hard. And they did finish strongly Monday. There were cracks showing in being beaten off the boards and in transition at times. Not every time. But this Bulls group is one when such an occurrence had been rare in recent years. Not so much anymore. It suggests the signs of a team that could go either way, take a deep breath and charge back out or accept what they may deem their fate. Though it doesn’t seem so yet as the Bulls stunningly almost got away with this one.
“We got ourselves in a hole and fought back in the fourth,” noted Dunleavy. “We played good basketball in the fourth quarter (23-16 edge); the prior three quarters did us in. We did not make enough plays down the stretch and that was the difference. They had a big enough cushion and we could not get over the hump.”
Though the Bulls gave it a heck of a climb after still trailing 78-67 with five minutes remaining.
The Bulls with a group of Augustin, Dunleavy, Deng, Boozer and Noah finally got some control of the Magic, who were led by Arron Afflalo with 23 points and Glen Davis and Nelson with 14. But Magic coach Jacque Vaughn may have kept his starters out much too long because when they returned midway through the fourth quarter after a long rest they seemed flat.
The Bulls took advantage of a number of long Orlando jumpers which weren’t going now. Deng went inside and put back his own miss which started a 12-2 Bulls run in which the Magic failed to score in nine of 10 possessions.
“We were just hanging on at that point and it was a game played like the first one to 80 would win,” said Vaughn.
Noah, who had 13 points and eight rebounds after a slow start and early benching, made one of two free throws and then hit a driving floater, a fairly unusual shot for him. But what the heck the way things were going.
That brought the Bulls within 78-72 with 4:02 left and suddenly things seemed possible.
Davis answered with a 19 footer and Augustin missed on a drive. But after a Nelson miss, Deng was grabbed on a cut as he worked with Augustin and made two free throws. Now with the Bulls trailing 80-74, they began to help more aggressively against Afflalo, making him give up the ball. Davis missed a 16 footer.
Deng missed as the clock hit two minutes. But in what would be several near misses to come Noah stripped Nelson. But Augustin missed a breakaway layup as Nelson challenged.
“We are missing a lot of layups right now as a team, and that is on me,” said Thibodeau. “It’s my job to make sure we’re ready to make our layups. We obviously have to work harder in practice on taking layups and making layups and doing them at a game speed. So I’m going to put more into that. We will get that straightened out.”
I’m not sure how that is his fault with pro players. After all, they even do layup lines before every game. Though Thibodeau’s answer to everything is more practice and he even went on about increasing the intensity of shootarounds. That should make everyone happy.
The Magic was still ahead by six with about a minute and half left.
Nelson missed from outside and Boozer went up aggressively to get the rebound.
Augustin threw into Noah, who was backing his way in. But when Nelson slipped, Noah threw back out and Augustin made a three pointer to get the Bulls within 80-77 with 1:16 left.
Afflalo missed again and it seemed it would be a robbery if the Bulls got this one the way the Magic basically dominated the game from a 15-0 run after the Bulls opened the game with six straight points. Thibodeau got Noah, Teague and Jimmy Butler out at that point and Orlando closed the first quarter leading 21-14.
Deng and Augustin kept the Bulls close in the second quarter as Butler continued to struggle with his shot, one of 11 for the game and 31 percent since returning from missing 11 games with turf toe. Deng, meanwhile, is averaging 25.4 points his last seven games though averaging 43 minutes in those. He missed four games in between with an Achilles injury.
The Magic led 43-35 at halftime and then it looked like they wrapped it up as Afflalo lit up the Bulls and Deng and the Bulls switched Butler onto Afflalo at one point as Afflalo scored 13 in the third. The Magic went ahead 63-46 with five minutes left in the third. But Augustin was the one who carried the Bulls back into the game starting a 13-6 run to close the quarter with a three and scoring or assisting on all 13 points. The Bulls were thus hanging in down 67-59 going into the fourth despite their anemic offense.
“We were down big and I thought we started grinding,” said Thibodeau. “We started to play harder, came back and we had a shot at it. You hate to be playing from behind all the time. You like to be playing from ahead with the lead. I think readiness to play is critical.”
After that Augustin three, Afflalo missed again with a strong contest by Deng. But another opportunity went availing as Boozer was stripped trying to make a spin move in the post. It was under 50 seconds now and Orlando by three.
Augustin in the battle of little big men did a good job walling off Nelson, who missed on a drive. Back came the Bulls yet again with a chance to tie. Thibodeau came up with a nice play out of the timeout as Noah faked a screen on top and then slid down the lane and put in a layup on a pass from Boozer. Though this is what’s it’s come to for the Bulls: Going to Noah down the stretch for offense. But he’s making those driving hooks lately.
The Magic led 80-79 with 19.4 seconds left.
The Bulls have been successful, like they were in Milwaukee, getting a jump ball when they would be looking to foul. But this time the Magic kept the ball away as Orlando obviously saw that Milwaukee tape and didn’t stop to wait for a foul call. The Magic successfully got the ball around a spread court for almost 13 seconds before the Bulls fouled Afflalo with 6.8 seconds left. He missed one of two, giving the Bulls a good chance to tie.
And it seemed they had.
“We just missed a layup,” said Thibodeau. “Sometimes that happens.”
The Bulls ran a play they’ve used often with Noah at the right side elbow and Deng hesitating and making a hard cut. You could see Noah and Deng talking as they came out of the timeout and Noah slapping Deng’s hand. The Magic obviously didn’t.
Deng inbounded to Noah, who sets a screen for the guard coming around and then turns to face the basket. Deng hesitates, which relaxed rookie Victor Oladipo. That was enough for Deng, who cutting to the rim got a perfect bounce pass from Noah and went up for the layup… that missed.
Deng fell on his back as the ball rolled off to Davis. Deng then lay on the floor, his hands knitted behind his head in disbelief.
“It was a great pass by Jo,” Deng said. “I missed the shot and I knew I missed it when it left my hand. It was just a bad, bad miss and my fault.”
The Bulls then fouled Davis, who made two for a four-point lead with 1.7 seconds left. Noah then baseballed a pass to Dunleavy at half court, from where Dunleavy swished the ball in. To lose, yes, by a point. When it’s going like that you can only shrug.
“I think guys are playing hard, giving everything they got,” said Noah. “We’ve just got to do a better job of finding ways to put the ball in the hole. Everything seems to be hard right now.”