Posted May 23 2011 10:46AM
Abandoned by their defense, betrayed by their offense, the Chicago Bulls trudged off the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena Sunday night with less than 48 hours to fix what they could not in 96 between Games 2 and 3 against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Time is running out on the Bulls even if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade rarely are. The transition stuff that is hurting Chicago most hasn't been Miami's dreaded and thundering fast break but rather, the Bulls' own transition from a 10-armed, 10-legged defensive beast to something way less snarly. And their change offensively from a diversified and potent-enough attack built around an explosive MVP to something, well, quite constipated.
After the 96-85 loss Sunday night, the Bulls found themselves down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, only it felt worse because they're near enough to the edge now to peer over. One more Tuesday night like the last two and it will be 3-1, which in this league is as close to done as a team with a pulse can get.
The Bulls were beaten and battered in Game 3 and, judging from their reactions and body language, battered was worse. Beaten, to Chicago, is what happened to them offensively: A 15-point showing in the first quarter, 41.6 percent shooting, 13 turnovers to 15 assists and the struggle all night by Derrick Rose to create something for himself or his teammates against two defenders driven to separate him from the basketball.
Battered, though, is what the Bulls feel when someone -- anyone -- romps through their defense the way Miami did. The Heat got their Big Three up in their lethal range, with 73 points (76 percent of their total); James and Wade were "held" to a combined 39 by Chicago's determination to avoid a repeat of Game 2, but Chris Bosh got active (and neglected) for 34. It's like squeezing a water balloon sometimes with these guys -- the damage just shifts.
Miami caused enough havoc inside to earn 29 free throws -- James, Wade and Bosh shot 25 to the entire Bulls team's 21. And then there was this stain on Chicago's performance: The Heat hit 50.7 percent of their shots.
Nobody is supposed to hit 50 percent of their shots against the Bulls, against a Tom Thibodeau defense, against the stingiest group in the NBA.
In 95 games prior to Sunday (82 in the regular season and Chicago's first 13 in the playoffs), opponents had made at least half of their field-goal attempts in a game just 11 times. The Bulls' record: 2-9.
That's why they seemed so rattled and a little peevish after this one. Difficult offense is business as usual for Chicago, which has only one player (Rose) who can create off the dribble, needs at least another shooter to spread the floor and never has quite figured out how to mesh Carlos Boozer's game with the rest of the attack.
Bad defense, on the other hand, hits the Bulls where they live. They rely on and define themselves by holding down and often stopping the other guys. If they're giving up 50 percent shooting, they really start to lose some of their identity. Offense is what the Bulls do, defense is who they are.
The NBA postseason is the wrong time to be looking in the mirror and not knowing who you see.
"We've been known as a defensive team. I haven't seen a team shoot 50 on us in a long time," guard Keith Bogans said. To refresh his memory, it was Game 1 of the Atlanta series; the Hawks shot 51.3 percent and startled Chicago 103-95 that night.
"If they're shooting 50 percent, they're not doing our job," Bogans said. "We definitely have to bring the energy, that gets everything going. Our offense and our defense."
You would expect Bogans to feel that way. As a defensive-minded and offensively limited player, he is the hammer to whom every problem is a nail. But this lament was coming from all corners of the cramped, steamy visitors' dressing room at AAA.
"If anything, you're going to miss shots, but our defense, that was the key of the game," Rose said. "Something like that [letting a team shoot 50 percent], in the playoffs, and we call ourselves a defensive team. That's definitely not going to work against a team like that, where they've got great players and great shooters on their team."
Sure, this is Thibodeau, internalized. But that doesn't mean it's not real.
The Bulls aren't absolved from their responsibility to score. Rose is getting ganged-up on and ground down, and yet Chicago's best bet might be to lean on him even more, letting him go free in isolations rather than running pick-and-rolls that bring an extra defender into the area.
Deng has been having trouble getting where he wants to go against James' size and strength. Joakim Noah had a forgettable night, dropping an alleged gay slur on a heckler -- "I got caught up. I apologize," he said after -- while dropping only one point on the Heat. The Bulls center looked reluctant to shoot (he was 0-of-4) and not only got outplayed by the Heat's robotic big man, Joel Anthony, but outscored.
Boozer had a huge game with 26 points and 17 rebounds, but one issue with the veteran power forward is that, when he giveth, he also taketh away. Chicago needs Boozer's offense but cannot always survive his defense.
At this point in a conference championship series, both teams should be at this point, taking away the other's strengths. But where the Heat still are strong -- with Bosh to make up for whatever James and Wade don't -- Chicago is scraping in its weaknesses.
Defense was supposed to protect the Bulls from that. Instead, it dragging them down.
"When we play good defense, we get easy baskets," Deng said. "And guys feel better when they get stops. You don't worry so much about your offense when you get stops. When the [other] team is scoring, you think about your next shot. That's how it is."
That's how it is and it is not good.
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