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Bulls have no tricks in loss to Magic

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By Sam Smith | 1.13.2015 | 1:21 a.m. CT

It was a difficult night Monday for the Bulls in the Retnec Detinu, where they lost 121-114 to the Orlando Magic, the fifth time this season the Bulls have lost at home to a losing team with now more than half their losses on the season to teams with records below .500.

Welcome to the Bizarro World of the 2014-15 Bulls, who have defeated two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference and four of the six top teams in the Western Conference.

“If I had an answer I could tell you,” said Derrick Rose, who returned from a one-game absence with a sore knee and looked good with 18 points on eight of 15 shooting and seven assists. “We have to go back to the drawing board. Look at film, see what we did wrong and try to correct our mistakes.”

There were plenty, particularly on defense, or actually lack of it, as Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo with a relentless pick and roll each scored 33 points. The 14-27 Magic shot a staggering 59.3 percent with 58 inside points and basically led the entire game. Worse, it’s been a galling and relentless pattern in the Bulls’ fourth loss in its last eight games. The once fearsome defensive five Bulls have shot better than their opponents just twice in the last 10 games. Sure, the Bulls have shot poorly in that stretch, below 40 percent in six of the last nine games. But they can’t stop anyone either, allowing almost 50 percent combined shooting in the last six games. It’s that same old recurring nightmare of being locked outside the gym in 1980’s shorts and Vucevic dunking in your face.

“We’ve got to decide what we are going to be,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in terse postgame remarks. “If we are going to come in and just try to outscore people we are not going anywhere. I know that doesn’t work. We’re not sharp now, win one lose one. You can’t go anywhere like that. We have to decide what we want to be. There’s no shortcuts. If you don’t play with an edge you’re in trouble. If you want to do something special, there’s a serious price to pay. Either you’re in or you’re out; either you are in the circle or you are out of the circle. You want to be in, let’s go. You don’t want to be in that’s fine, too. Let’s go.”

No, they appear not to be supermen even as Pau Gasol led the Bulls with 28 points and 14 rebounds.

The Bizarro World is from the Superman comics. It’s the world Htrae (Earth spelled backwards), where everyone does the opposite, like selling bonds and stocks guaranteed to lose money. It was recently popularized in the Seinfeld TV show, where there was some confusion in the explanation of people saying goodbye instead of hello and the debate over whether they should have said badbye.

Which is some respects make more sense than the Bulls with Carlos Boozer for four years being a far superior defensive team than they are now.

“Some nights we’re good, some nights (the defense), it’s unbearable to watch,” said Taj Gibson. “We get a lot of people talking good about us and start feeling too good about ourselves and we think we can just walk into the gym and come back down from 20 easily. We have to change our whole mind frame around and get hungry.

“We have to understand we have a target on our back; a lot of teams are looking to come in and prove to the league they can beat a quality team, especially a great team like us,” said Gibson of the now 26-13 Bulls. “It takes work to win these games. Like Pau said at halftime, ‘If we want to do something special we can’t be losing games like this.’ We’ve got to challenge ourselves every game, push forward. It takes a lot to win big in this league; every game is a task, every game is a test. We’ve got to get better at that. At times we forget (our defensive identity). When you are scoring the ball so easily, you get relaxed. We get too high on ourselves instead of staying humble and low key and having that dog mentality.”

That’s a lot of generalities about the philosophy of the game, and there is plenty to that lack of energy and commitment to the defensive end that has seen the Bulls of late regularly fall behind early in games. It happened again Monday to a Magic team with six straight losses and missing two of its best players, Tobias Harris and Evan Fornier. The Bulls trailed 29-21 after the first quarter and by double digits much of the second quarter and as much as 91-74 late in the third quarter before a brief fourth quarter surge. This was a bad loss. The Bulls, meanwhile, are just 12-8 at home.

Playing harder and harder more often is a regular remedy, though it’s more complex with this Bulls team. And I suspect it will be much like this the rest of the season. It’s no longer a team built like it was; nor does it have the same kinds of players it did playing like they were. There’s more talent with a better chance of advancing farther in the playoffs, and certainly farther than the teams of the last two seasons because of the return of Rose and the addition of Gasol.

It’s a team with excellent offensive potential that is averaging 102 points per game, almost nine per game more than last season and second most (by two tenths of a point) in 18 years.

Thibodeau doesn’t brook excuses. But it’s a different team with players at a different stage of their playing lives. Rose and Joakim Noah are returning from knee surgeries. So they are not playing as many minutes as they did before, and they have to pace themselves at times as a result of their previous injuries to build toward better health for the playoffs. The three major additions to the rotation have been Gasol, Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic, none of whom is regarded for his defense. All are offensive specialists first. Plus, there have been the usual assortment of injuries with Mike Dunleavy lately out six games. And now with the addition of Gasol, who is playing at an All-Star level, there have been adjustments in the defensive roles of players like Noah, who has to play more perimeter defense instead of inside. And Gibson, who doesn’t play much with Noah anymore. Plus, Jimmy Butler pushing himself with the league lead in minutes played in his breakout season, has cooled of late, shooting 14 of 47 the last four games and having difficulty containing a player like Oladipo, who went off for 33 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls pulled within 106-100 with 4:49 left.

It was enough time to steal a win from a sure loss.

But the Bulls still could not contain Vucevic and Oladipo (53.8 percent fourth quarter shooting and 13 of 19 free throws). And what seemed most obvious was the lack of defensive cohesion that was so familiar in previous seasons. But in those seasons it was a limited roster with all the regulars playing together virtually all the time. That has rarely been the case this season with the changing rotations (11 different starting lineups), additions of so many new players and crucial role for players not regarded for their defense.

The Bulls were noted for their stunting, which is the lightning quick double teams and recoveries. You rarely see those anymore. Thibodeau always talked about defense on a string, that being the ability of players to react in concert with a big man helping and then getting protection from behind with more help. You also rarely see that anymore, and you see more drives all the way to the basket than in the last two years combined.

“Never,” Rose said like witnessing such a stretch. “Not with playing under Thibs or playing with this team.”

Still, the Bulls are on pace to win 55 games and maintain a top four seed in the Eastern Conference and the way the Cavaliers have struggled a division title.

“I think we’ll be fine,” said Gibson. “It’s just one of those processes.”

You hear all sorts of solutions, but this one isn’t going to be easy for Thibodeau. He was sharp and demanding in his postgame comments. But there doesn’t seem that much he can do to change things. Which isn’t essential in January, anyway.

The most popular general suggestion is to play Noah more at center and with Gibson off the bench as the two are accustomed to playing together. So Mirotic joins Gasol. But neither of them is a good help defender and numerous times against the Magic, Mirotic in scrambling to get back to his man even cut off other Bulls trying to help. Mirotic finished with 11 points, 10 in the fourth quarter, and made back to back three-point possessions in the fourth quarter when the Bulls made their best run. But Thibodeau had yanked him earlier for defensive deficiencies, which is certainly understandable as a rookie being asked to do so much with so much unfamiliarity. Plus, as vital as Gasol is offensively and rebounding, he’s not an aggressive, attacking defender on the pick and roll. It’s why Noah has been better than his numbers chasing all over the court to help.

For example, against the Magic Noah had to play long distance shooter Channing Frye and did a good job in holding Frye to five points. But it takes a lot of effort and has him away from rebounding and help positioning on the inside.

There were several positives, like Rose with several tough drives and better shooting.

“We can say all the right things,” said Rose. “We just have to make sure we put it in action. We’re not focusing. The concentration is not there, lack of energy. We have to go back in the gym and come out with the recipe to beat these teams we are supposed to beat. Hopefully tonight guys get off their feet, think about the game, get their minds right and hopefully we can work through this.”

And though Gasol ended up on the wrong side of a late third quarter Vucevic highlight dunk and on his backside, he had 16 second half points as the Bulls tried to fight their way back.

“There was no energy, no aggressiveness, no engagement from our team, no communication; so we have to improve dramatically,” said Gasol. “Can’t give up 120 points to anyone. Something we have to reflect on. And if we really want to do something here that can’t happen. I am upset; giving away too many home games against teams that we shouldn’t and that has to stop. We know our principles; we just have to apply them and be active and hustle out there.”

It’s a credit to Thibodeau and the players that the team still ranks so highly on defense, fourth in opponent field goal percentage. They’re just going to have to live with bizarre stretches like this in their new world. It’s not bad being opposite of where they were, which was early playoff losers.