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Bulls close to disappearing at hands of Wizards
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 27
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As playoff slogans go, the Bulls have completed half. They’re going home after Sunday’s discouraging 98-89 Game 4 loss to the Washington Wizards. Now the Bulls have to win.
“You can’t put it on any one guy,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as his team was badly outplayed, especially from the start, for the fourth consecutive game. “It’s our team, and readiness to play is me. They have to do their job, and they have to get out there and they have to execute. I have to get them ready and so that’s disappointing. It’s got to change or our season will be over.”
That will come Tuesday in the United Center unless the Bulls win as they trail the young, upstart Wizards 3-1 in the first round playoff series.
And it’s not like it’s been a fluke.
The Wizards have essentially outplayed the Bulls virtually all four games, even Sunday with the Wizards’ star of the first two games, Nene, suspended for a dustup with Jimmy Butler in Game 3. It suggested the Bulls could get right back in the series and retake the home court edge going back to Chicago.
Instead, the Wizards led by Trevor Ariza with a playoff career-high 30 points and franchise equaling best six three-pointers jumped on the Bulls from the start by leading 14-0 less than four minutes into the game. Led by Taj Gibson’s rugged play and career-best 32 points, the Bulls got within four points midway through the second quarter with the Wizards’ other big men, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Booker, both getting into foul trouble. But the Bulls couldn’t take advantage with the Wizards remaining the aggressors, John Wall with a steal for a fast break score to start a 13-4 run over the next three minutes. It was one of 16 Washington fast break points to two for the Bulls.
The Bulls committed 16 turnovers for a staggering 29 Washington points, second most the Bulls have given up this season. Washington committed just six turnovers, the fewest the Bulls have forced all season. This isn’t Bob Cousy or Magic Johnson with the ball. It suggests a tired, overwhelmed Bulls team that is being outworked.
The Wizards would go on to lead 55-40 at halftime as the Bulls were fooled on a halftime buzzer beating three from Ariza. And then the Wizards made the Bulls disappear after halftime in running up a 20-point lead after three and allowing the Bulls to get it briefly under 10 with about two minutes remaining in a game the Bulls never led.
“Got to move on; got to watch film,” said Gibson, who was spectacular in dominating the inside, shooting 13 of 16 off the bench.
According to ESPN Stats, Gibson is the first Bulls player with at least 30 points and five rebounds off the bench in a playoff game since starters and subs were first tracked in 1970.
“You’ve got to understand you’ve got to come out the right way,” said Gibson. “Look at how we played last year. It’s really about the quickest to four; we had Brooklyn down 3-1 and they fought back. We have to have that same mentality; it’s a one game at a time mentality. It’s hard because you have to see these guys every game; you know what they are going to do. They know what you are going to do. It comes down to will and determination.
“We just follow Thibs’ lead,” said Gibson. “He watches film night and day; we trust what he says. We just have to come out with the right energy. The main thing is energy to start the game. Look at how we beat them the last game of the regular season. We really jumped on them. Look at how the playoffs have gone; they are coming out with the right mentality, really jumping on us early and really putting us in big holes early and that’s a lot of energy you use in the late third and fourth quarters when their bench comes in full of energy. It’s a slugfest. They beat us to the punch.”
It all raises the question coming into the do-or-vacation Game 5 if there’ll be a change at the start.
The story of this series, as unusual and amazing as this is in this supposedly last five minutes NBA, is just about every game if not decided, the tenor has been set by what happens at the start.
The Bulls this season have been a team that’s prospered by early aggression. In the regular season, they were 22-0 when leading after the first quarter and 33-9 overall. When they trailed they were 13-25.
Overall, the Bulls have been outscored on average in this series 28-22 in the first quarter.
But a closer look suggests a shocking trend.
The Bulls in the four games combined have led in the first quarter for a total of 72 seconds.
The Wizards in the first quarter have led:
By six in Game 1;
By 17 in Game 2;
By seven in Game 3;
By 15 in Game 4 and by double digits for more than seven minutes of Game 4.
“They’ve had that sense of urgency in the first quarter every time,” said Joakim Noah, who had 10 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. “It’s on us to change it. We’re getting punched in the mouth every time in the first quarter. The Wizards have a lot of weapons. That being said, I think they’re beatable. We’ve just got to find a way. I think our issues are that we’re down 1-3. I think we’ve just got to move on, execute better offensively and defensively and try to find a way to win a ballgame. It’s going to be exciting to come home. Big Game 5. It’s not over until it’s over.”
So it’s not over until it’s over, as we know.
But it’s going to be over if the Bulls continue with their first half lollygagging game.
Four games going pretty much the same way suggests it may be time for a change. And certainly a pattern.
We heard all about that after the first two games, and Thibodeau made some changes in the Game 3 win in Washington to run more plays for Mike Dunleavy. It helped lead to a brilliant 35-point Dunleavy barrage and 100-97 Bulls win.
The Wizards Sunday with Bradley Beal relentlessly shadowing Dunleavy–and John Wall with 15 points and 10 assists disrupting the point guards with physical overplaying–helped limit Dunleavy to six points on three of eight shooting and none in the first half. Dunleavy hurt his left thumb late in the game landing on it while trying to draw a change. He had it in ice after the game, but said he should be fine for Game 5 and there apparently was no serious damage. It was called a bruise. Still, Dunleavy was unable to finish the game.
“It’s pretty sore right now, but I don’t think it’s anything dramatic,” said Dunleavy.
The larger question may be whether Thibodeau would choose anything dramatic.
The Bulls tend to play a slower game to basically set up their defense, avoid transition play by being in position to get back and make up for their lack of individual break-down-the-defense scorers. But it’s also resulted in a lack of energy to begin, which usually is the team’s greatest weapon. The Wizards are the ones getting the loose balls. The Bulls had just two steals. And though the Bulls have maintained an edge on the boards, they’ve been outhustled.
Is it time to go with a Gibson energy boost to start?
Thibodeau has stuck with his starting lineup and regular rotation. He went with Carlos Boozer, who had eight points and eight rebounds Sunday and all five of his fouls in the third quarter, and then Gibson to replace Noah in the first quarter. Then the Bulls go with Gibson and Noah the second quarter as they’ve stopped using Nazr Mohammed. They’ve gone a bit more with Tony Snell for some defensive matchups. Boozer comes back to play the third quarter and Gibson and Noah finish. Though in this series it’s been too late.
Perhaps the Bulls wasted their chance Sunday by not taking advantage when the Wizards had to use Drew Gooden for 26 minutes (two points and two rebounds), Al Harrington (five minutes and scoreless) and even Kevin Seraphin. Trevor Boozer was relentless and active, but he’s not a scorer and had eight points and was in foul trouble.
“I felt like we didn’t take advantage of it (Nene being out),” said Gibson. “We were too relaxed. In this league you can’t be relaxed just because one of their starters is out. You have to have that dog mentality; step on their necks right away. I thought Booker did a great job to start the game, set the tone, hustle plays, tip backs and they just jumped on is. We were on our heels from the jump. It’s just so frustrating to watch because we had a great shootaround, we had a great practice and Thibs really told us what was going to happen. We’ve just got to do better.”
The Bulls couldn’t match the Wizards’ perimeter players as Beal added 18. But they’re not supposed to, though Jimmy Butler was the only other Bull in double figures with 16 points. The Bulls’ edge is supposed to be in the front court, especially without Nene, and with energy, emotion and effort.
It’s been missing early, so perhaps a change to start the energetic Gibson? Maybe a different look with D.J. Augustin? Though the Wizards have bottled him up with size and pressure. Augustin was in foul trouble Sunday and shot three of 10. He’s 10 of 40 since his 25-point outburst in Game 1.
Thibodeau is loath to make such radical changes. But the Bulls have to make a radical change, if only in behavior and attitude, to have a chance to extend this series.
“It’s kind of been the theme of the series,” Kirk Hinrich said about the halting starts. “We’ve struggled to get off to good starts. We’re conscious of it. We just weren’t able to do it again. They’re trying to deny wings, pressure and deny elbow catches. You have to give them credit. They’re doing a good job. We have to do much better as well. We knew we would have to take care of the ball and be very sharp offensively. And we just haven’t done that very well at times.
“We know they’re a steals team,” added Hinrich. “They’ve got a lot of guys with length and athleticism. We thought the mistakes we’re making, we could correct them. At this point, we haven’t. Saying that, I think they’ve been a real good first quarter team all year. We knew that coming into the series and we really just haven’t done a good job of handling that.”
That may be more alarming: The Bulls know what to do, but they just can’t catch up to them.
It was even more than that as the Bulls strength, their defense, broke down again and again with a lack of weak side help on the pick and roll with Gortat. There also were frequent late covers as the Wizards were eight of 19 on threes with Bulls defenders uncharacteristically “on skates” running out to shooters and outrun to the basket.
It was from the jump with an astounding 14-0 Washington start in a game the Wizards were supposed to be taken aback by Nene’s suspension. But Nene had missed 29 games with knee injuries, so it was not new to play without him even as good as he was in the first two games.
“We were locked in,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman. “I could tell our focus was back yesterday even with the news of Nene. I saw our guys bond together like ‘That’s ok, big fella’s not going to be here, but that’s OK.’ We were in tune right from the start. I think it (no Nene) was more a blessing in disguise. Book (Booker) started all those games. There wasn’t any worry of mine sticking in a guy that has to now start in a playoff game because one of your main guys is now gone. Book did that for 22 games (late in the season)… It was more a ‘You know what? We know what to do.’”
The Wizards did that from the start against a once again ragged Bulls team with Noah and Boozer committing early turnovers, Beal out for a score on Noah’s and the Wizards pulling up in transition for threes. Thibodeau called timeouts at 7-0 and 14-0 in the first four minutes. There were late shots forced as the shot clock expired, offensive fouls, pounding the ball with extra dribbling, a flummoxed Bulls starting five as Ariza was rolling against Dunleavy while Butler was concentrating on the higher scoring Beal.
Beal, who had embarrassingly predicted he’d shut down Dunleavy after halftime in Game 3 and Dunleavy had 19 after halftime, got into Dunleavy from the start and chased him over screens. When Beal got caught, a big man stepped toward Dunleavy and the Bulls generally failed to cut.
“I didn’t say anything for one,” said Beal. “I took it pretty personal the way he had 30 points on us last game and I guarded him the majority of the game. I definitely took that match up personally. He was going to make some shots, but we need to make it tough on him. We did a great job of that. We’ve got to give credit to the bigs who helped us out a lot, showing on the screens. It was just a personal grudge that we took because he killed us last game. We wouldn’t let that happen again.”
It seemed less fatigue on the part of the Bulls than the aggression of the Wizards on both sides of the ball and taking advantage when they had a mismatch on offense, Ariza against Dunleavy and later Wall when Augustin replaced Hinrich. One downside of overachieving without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, as the Bulls have all season and basically always do, is to constantly match that against superior talent. The Bulls aren’t about to make excuses as it has been a winnable series. After all, the Bulls let double digit fourth quarter leads get away at home the first two games.
“Both teams have been right around the 100 point mark; today was an exception for us,” said Dunleavy. “We didn’t play as well. They played really well, but otherwise his whole thing could be 3-1 either way to be honest with you. Unfortunately, they are up.”
The Wizards without Nene drop off Noah more, and Noah did shoot reasonably well. But the Washington plan has been sound to pressure over the pick and roll and using their young legs to close fast and drive the Bulls off the three-point line, which is a favorite Bulls tactic. The Bulls were four of 19 on threes Sunday. Gortat even was the one to chase a loose ball out and save it off Noah, which is generally Noah’s arc.
It was Gibson entering late in the first quarter that energized the Bulls with strong second chance play and getting to the foul line. He got the Bulls within 24-18 late in the first quarter and would have 20 of the Bulls 40 first quarter points and eight of their 15 field goals.
The Wizards hung onto a 28-18 lead after one. But it was the Bulls with ball pressure and more Gibson to erase most of the Washington edge with Booker and Gortat sitting with fouls. The Bulls pulled within 34-30 about five minutes into the second quarter.
But Booker got a loose ball up to the basket, the Bulls went cold again and with Ariza getting open for threes and the Bulls a step slow on the help, the Wizards broke back out to that 55-40 halftime lead.
“I thought they played a great game,” said Thibodeau. “They came out with a great intensity. They got us in a hole. We fought like crazy to get out of it and then we didn’t close the second quarter as well as we would have liked. Second half, same thing. Third quarter, another big hole. Fight like crazy, try to come back and then you expend so much energy, you have maybe a crack at the end and we couldn’t get to the loose ball, the second shot.”
The Wizards started the second half the same as the Bulls were scrambled in transition after the first miss and Ariza pulled up for a three. The Bulls got a little bit going again with Butler and Boozer each with a pair of scores to get within 65-55. But Ariza beat a closing Noah for a score and three-point play as Noah shrugged with exasperation at the lack of weakside help, a familiar lament in the game.
“I think when you look at it, you’d say defensive transition first and then you go dribble penetration second, and probably pick-and-roll defense third,” said Thibodeau outlining the breakdowns. “But if you have one guy that’s not doing what they should do, it’ll make everyone look bad. So in the end, you look at it and we outrebounded them, they shot 40 percent (44.9 for the Bulls). But the hole we got into to start the game put us at such a big disadvantage and it gave them confidence off the bat.”
The Wizards stretched out their lead to 81-60 late in the third quarter as Boozer drew a flagrant foul and his fifth of the quarter for a push on Gortat and then Augustin couldn’t handle Wall, who closed out the quarter with an 82-62 Washington lead.
“It’s frustrating because we have good shootarounds; really locked in, good practices,” said Gibson. “Thibs really tells us what is going to happen; we’re supposed to know these things. It seems at times we get overhyped with thinking we’re going to be OK, we’re that good. But in this league it’s not about how talented you are but how hard you work and how much effort you put into when you start the game off and I don’t think we did that.”
The Wizards were celebrating a bit early after a Beal three to open the fourth and a couple of Gibson baskets and a Butler three got the Bulls within 87-76 with 5:21 left. But it was Booker outhustling the Bulls for a putback when Gibson went to help and Augustin was too small on the weak side help. That ended a 10-0 Bulls run.
“We always talk about it,” reiterated Gibson. “We start the game, (it) has been like the same thing over and over again. They come out; they always hit us first. Like Thibs says, the games are 15-round slugfests. But for it to go that far you have to have a good start, you’ve got to hit them first, especially on the road. They got the crowd into it real early and we were on our heels from the jump. Just because I scored it’s behind me. I could have rebounded the ball better, other things, help side defense, switching, foul at the right time. I just felt like we weren’t in sync. You kept trying to cut it to five, within 10. They kept rushing their guys in. Their bench played a great role; Booker did a great job starting for them. That’s what it takes.”
Augustin came back with a three to get within 89-79 with 4:49 left. But the Bulls were unusually soft again, failing to get in good position with Gortat on a roll to the basket and fouled him. Hinrich spun a three in and out and though the Bulls got back within eight with two minutes left, there wasn’t enough time left the way they were scoring,
Plus, the defensive lineup down the stretch with Augustin and Hinrich can be problematic against a team like Washington with three athletic perimeter players. Whomever Augustin is on goes to the rim, and this time it was Wall who blew into the paint and handed off to Gortat a layup to effectively close out the game at 93-83 with 1:41 left.
“You try not to think about the big picture,” said Dunleavy. “You just focus in on trying to get one win. And that’s what we’re going to do. Head back to the United Center on Tuesday night and just try to get one win. That’s all that matters now.”