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Bulls lacking much wizardry against Washington
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 14
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Games like Monday’s 102-88 loss to the Washington Wizards in which the Bulls never led illustrate why the rest of this season is going to be so difficult without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
The Bulls, in theory, should beat a team like the Wizards, though not just because they were ahead in the standings while both now are tied at 17-19. It’s that the Wizards, indeed with an athletic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and a strong frontcourt of Nene and Marcin Gortat, still are one of the league’s poorest defensive teams, 26th in opponent shooting. Plus, they’re really only an average offensive team, 19th in both overall and three point shooting. You are home and on a five-game winning streaking, playing your best since Rose was injured Nov. 22.
But this Bulls team, even at home and even on a roll, cannot rest for a moment on offense or defense. They have to play almost constantly with a fury to have a chance to win. As the league’s lowest scoring team and next to last in shooting, their margin for error is minuscule. They have to make up for it with relentless pursuit on defense, crashing over every screen, bodying constantly, flying around to help and recover, again and again and again.
And when they relax, for a bit, or for an hour or so, they have no chance. Like Monday.
“I don’t think we ran out of emotion,” said Taj Gibson. “We understand we’ve been doing a lot of great things. I just think at times our defense fell short. We just didn’t have the energy at times. You are going to have bumps in the road. It’s always get good to get humbled. We could’ve been a lot more focused. Games like this are kind of like a wake up call. Right when you’re feeling too good about yourself and feeling invincible, a team comes in and smacks you and wakes you up to reality.”
And the reality for this Bulls team is wins only equal extraordinary effort.
The Bulls were better than most Monday in their energy and enthusiasm. Just not good enough for them to win with what they no longer have.
“Thibs said we did not play with enough of an edge and gave up a lot of points,” related Joakim Noah, who had eight points and 16 rebounds, his ninth straight in double figure rebounds and 17th in the last 20 to move to sixth in the league. “I think they shot the ball well. Overall, our intensity was pretty good. But we are definitely capable of playing better.”
Carlos Boozer led the Bulls with 19 points and rookie Tony Snell was the most aggressive he’s been in a month with 12 points off the bench. But the Wizards put six players in double figures led by Nene and Wall with 19 points each, shooting 52 percent and becoming the first team in the last eight to score more than 91 against the Bulls. The Bulls have lost all eight times they gave up 100 points and all six times teams have shot at least 50 percent against them.
There is no Sabbath for these Bulls, no days of rest.
“Sometimes when you feel good about yourself, you don’t play quite as hard,” postulated Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “In this league, if you let a guy get into rhythm, you are in trouble. I don’t think we were anywhere near them (physically on defense). Body position is so important. If you are not on a body and you get hit with a screen before you make contact you are behind the play; you are dead. We kept saying we will work our way out of it. You can’t keep saying; you have to do it. I’ve got to make sure that we are ready.”
It’s a consistent refrain when teams lose, about being sharper, playing harder, competing. It’s the basic formula for the Bulls. But it’s also what makes it so difficult to be a .500 team that way. No one—no matter how much Thibodeau thinks you are capable—can play with this unyielding and inexorable exertion constantly. Any team, every person, requires balance. In basketball, it’s having the offense take over sometimes. The Bulls basically don’t have that sort of option any longer.
Mike Dunleavy wasn’t sharp. But he did hit a trio of three-pointers. Plus, he plays off others and doesn’t create his own shot. Fortunately, the Bulls added D.J. Augustin as they are behind most teams with the number of players who can create a shot. It becomes a negative for the Bulls because they are in so many end-of-shot clock situations when they need someone to make a play. They just don’t have enough of those players anymore.
Snell, who in recent weeks had been unusually passive to the point of seeming disinterest on offense, gave the team an impressive boost coming in late in the first quarter with rare—for him—dribble drives and a three, seven straight points to get the Bulls within 26-19 after one quarter following an 8-0 Washington start to the game.
But Thibodeau like most coaches is tough on rookies. Snell barely played in the second and third quarters as the Bulls fell behind by 13 points at halftime and by 10 going into the fourth quarter as Snell was late covering some corner threes.
“I thought he was good offensively; his defense has got to be better,” Thibodeau said when asked about Snell.
But the Wizards did do two things well that caused a lot of those defensive breakdowns for everyone. They’re an athletic team with a fast backcourt. So they pushed the ball whenever they could for quick shots before the Bulls could set up their defense.
“Everybody probably thought they were tanking and they were going to try to redo their team,” said Wall. “They’re still one of the best defensive teams in the league.”
The Wizards also brought their pick and roll up higher, around the three point line. That had the effect of opening the court more. Their quick guards took advantage and they moved the ball well with 21 assists on 31 baskets.
Not that the Bulls haven’t seen this stuff before. And they’ll see it again as they head out on the road, Wednesday to Orlando and Friday to Washington. They’re usually among the best in the league countering with physical play that slows the opposing offense.
It’s not that the Bulls didn’t play hard Monday. They did. They just didn’t contest as much as they often do, which is likely more than anyone else in the NBA does on a regular basis.
“I thought they got their confidence early,” said Thibodeau. “It is hard to shut off a team once they get going. I thought we came out to start the third quarter and we had some juice to us. Even the Charlotte game (win Saturday) our defense was not very good. We have to get that corrected. I did not think we had an edge tonight. On that part, I’ve got to make sure we understand what we need to do to win. We have to come out with a very high intensity level to have a chance to win.”
The Bulls can survive falling into a scoring hole at times as they did last week against the Bucks. But it’s more difficult for them overall with their scarcity of scoring. Boozer is now their leading scorer at 14.7 per game. It’s the lowest average in the league for a team leading scorer.
The Bulls are 8-2 when they score more than 95 points. Five of those were in the 11 games Rose played. They are 9-17 when they score 95 or fewer.
So the Bulls have to be a bit quicker with the ball, make their threes and free throws (just six of 10 at the line) and get into a half court game. They can do it more often than not. To ask it all the time is less likely in the response than the request.
It actually was Kirk Hinrich who finally got the slow-to-start Bulls going with some fancy ballhandling maneuvers after they were down 11-4. And despite Thibodeau’s overview, Snell was active on defense with a pair of late steals and defensive pressure plays in the first quarter that kept the Wizards from blowing it open then.
“They are a very good offensive team,” said Hinrich. “Maybe we were a little soft early. And they got going. There’s going to be nights like that. We’ve got to make sure there aren’t a lot of nights that are like this and we’ve got to get back to who we are.
“We have been playing well,” said Hinrich. “Tonight, not so much.”
Not much known for their defense, the Wizards were aggressive. But in their general lethargy, the Bulls did not take advantage of the Wizards overplaying passes and the passing lanes with back cuts. The Wizards aren’t the Heat. But they put some heat on the Bulls passing, which caused 18 turnovers the Wizards ran into 22 points. The Bulls could have and should have countered that. Just not on this night.
The Bulls fell behind 36-21 early in the second quarter with another lethargic start and Nazr Mohammed going out with a finger injury. The Bulls got it back within 47-40 as they began to counter the Wizards’ quickness with three guards. But it seemed every time the Bulls made a run someone on Washington made a shot. And the Wizards remained at just under 60 percent shooting at halftime.
The Bulls biggest sign of an offensive pulse was to open the third quarter with an 8-0 run to get within 56-51 behind Boozer taking advantage of Nene not bothering much to chase him around. Though it seemed Nene was saving himself for offense as he powered inside and stepped back for short jump shots and late in the game would practically bounce Noah into the fifth row on a power slam move.
Then pushing the ball, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster hit back to back threes to push Washington back ahead by a dozen. Garrett Temple ended the third quarter banking in a prayer after the Bulls had scored with 3.9 seconds left.
That made it 78-68 for Washington.
The Bulls had a last gasp, again with Snell who played only about 16 minutes. He poked the ball away from Beal after an Augustin three brought the Bulls within 87-80 with just over five minutes remaining. Augustin was fouled and made two to get the Bulls within five. But Beal shook a pestering Hinrich just as the shot clock went off to make a three. Gibson then threw away the inbounds pass leading to a Wall jumper after a Gortat offensive rebound and 91-82 lead with just over four minutes left. You knew the Bulls weren’t scoring nine more points.
Because on this night the rhythm and the beat just wasn’t there.
Which sort of brings you back to Gortat and the Wizards, who continue to have a much better road record than home.
“We just play more freely,” explained Gortat to reporters. “We can focus in the hotel. In the locker room, we’re just sitting in one little room and trying to get ready for the game. I don’t know. At home there’s just too many rooms, too many places where you can go. Too many places where you can dance and sing.”
Perhaps the Bulls will get moving better Friday in those rockin’ Washington locker rooms.