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Bulls don't have enough in Charlotte

Slow start hurts Bulls in 108-91 loss to Hornets

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By Sam Smith | 2.9.2016 | 8:00 a.m.

Did you know the Energizer Bunny was arrested? He was charged with battery. I’d be condescending, but I’m not sure anyone would understand. You have to lose those great memories. You know, when you can cherish the misconceptions you had about someone.

There, now haven’t you smiled a little and forgotten about that brutal Bulls 108-91 Monday loss to the Charlotte Hornets in which the Bulls, playing without injured/ill Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Rose, trailed the last 42 minutes by double digits.

Who says everyone makes a run in the NBA?

“We lost that game in the first quarter,” observed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg of the 38-20 deficit after 12 minutes. “They were comfortable out there. The last three (quarters) we actually outscored them. I thought the one thing we did do we executed our stuff very well. It’s hard to shoot 38 percent (and) you have 25 assists. Missed 55 shots. So they were sharing the ball out there. After that first quarter, we dug ourselves that hole and it was hard to climb out.

“We’ve got one big one left on Wednesday,” reminded Hoiberg as the Bulls concluded their 13-day road trip 2-5. “It’s not All-Star break yet. We’ve got to put this trip behind us. It was a long, grinding trip, four games in six days in four different time zones. It took a toll on our guys. Lost Jimmy (who is doubtful for Wednesday) for the last couple and Jimmy has been our best clutch player. To miss him down the stretch in those two games we lost (with big leads) was difficult for our guys. The thing is you have to go back, regroup and come out swinging on Wednesday.”

And so will conclude the Bulls’ dispiriting first half of the season in NBA arithmetic since the Bulls at 27-24 will have 30 of the 82 games left. And now in a race to just make the playoffs. What once seemed an inevitability will become a dash to destiny with the Bulls now seventh in the East and just a game and a half ahead of ninth place Charlotte, which has the tiebreaker with a 3-1 series win over the Bulls this season.

Still, the Bulls also are three games behind third place Boston with a playoff race to make things interesting, if less perhaps for the team.

The Bulls were led by Pau Gasol with 22 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks. Doug McDermott had 14 points, but 10 in the fourth quarter in mostly mop up time as Charlotte led by 22 points after three quarters. E’Twaun Moore, who started in the backcourt with Kirk Hinrich, had 12 points.

One tends to forget Taj Gibson, who had 11 points and seven rebounds, since he’s usually not at the top of the statistical lists. It’s too bad since the way sports journalism works is the comments come primarily from the coach, the star players and high scorers. Gibson is generally none of each.

He’s also in a relatively media inaccessible place in the Bulls new home locker room. His dressing stall is between the team’s two big stars, Butler and Rose. The way Bulls post game access generally works, Rose speaks first. So media gather around him in a widening circle that often makes it difficult for Gibson to even navigate to his seat. Butler takes longer to shower, so them the media builds an even larger circle waiting for him, almost pushing Gibson into the wall. So he generally leaves. Then everyone rushes to the other side of the room to listen to Gasol in several languages. Then it’s time to go.

But Gibson in his Brooklyn way, which I can appreciate, is perhaps as generously forthcoming and keenly analytical as anyone on the team.

And for all the head scratching in this up-and-down season of inconsistent efforts, blown leads, good wins and bad blowout losses, Gibson attacked the issue as he does the rim, with accuracy and serious intentions.

“What was our identity?” Gibson wondered rhetorically. “Our identity was defense. Then we went offense. But we have a whole different group of guys from previous years; previous years we had defensive guys, dawgin’. Now we have a bunch of young guys, offensive mentality; now we’re just trying to figure out a new system. The defense is there with the veterans, but we have to hold each other accountable, including myself; we have to do better.

“Every year we go through this stretch, a couple of guys banged up and we’ve got to keep fighting, pushing our young guys to keep getting better and hopefully soon everyone comes back right,” said Gibson. “We’re in the East, so we’ve still got a shot. I feel like with this long big road trip, we had a lot of good games; we just didn’t finish them and then we get a lot of guys injured.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Gibson reiterated. “Great group of kids; just different from what we had before. We had straight defensive guys, hungry dawgs. Now we have guys who are coming in offensive minded, shoot the three. We’re trying to mold these guys into being scrappy. Every day we’re trying; now a lot of teams smell blood. Just got to figure out a way to get over it.”

Which seemed to sum up well in a few paragraphs what everyone has been trying to say all season.

It didn’t work that way the last time; the defensive, grind-it-out every possession wore everyone down for the playoffs and broke everyone down physically. Plus, everyone in the league changed. Even walk-it-up Memphis has tried to, and they’ve fallen back some in the West unable to change enough. So the Bulls are trying to change as well. But it takes time and teaching, and in the midst of that there went four or five key guys again.

Noah, the top big man defender, is lost for the season. Mirotic had appendix surgery and could take weeks to regain strength. Butler hurt his knee and likely won’t play until after All-Star break. Mike Dunleavy just played his second game of the season after back surgery and is on a minutes limit. He played 16 Monday starting. Rose was a game time decision not to play with soreness.

It may have been the best thing the Bulls did Monday.

“Derrick was not moving well in shootaround this morning,” said Hoiberg. “That’s when we started thinking about it. We got over here and he wasn’t moving much better. The decision was made to not play him tonight; it was our fifth game in seven nights. Derrick just came off a back to back; he’s playing really well, with pace. We made that decision and hopefully we get him back on Wednesday.

“The big thing with Derrick right how is he’s had his best stretch of the year and we want to continue to keep that going,” said Hoiberg. “We were a part of that decision. It wasn’t Derrick saying I’m absolutely not playing. It was the way he was moving around in shootaround today and he wasn’t getting any better as the day went on.”

We’ve seen this act before with Rose and other players. Team is shorthanded; the guys need you. Get out there. So someone pushes themself and everyone marvels about the toughness, and then we don’t see them for weeks, or weeks later we don’t see them when it most matters.

Rose has been playing his best ball of the season. He’s played two sets of back to backs on the trip with Monday’s game the fifth in seven nights. He is averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds the last six games on the trip in about 34 minutes per game. Yes, the Bulls could have goaded him to go out there as before. But as Hoiberg noted, there’s a vital 30-game stretch to come and hopefully the playoffs.

Of course, if top players miss enough games you could miss the playoffs. But at the same time, it seems apparent the team has decided when they take their shot if they get it, it better be as healthy as possible. After all, the last several playoffs have not gone particularly well with players breaking down all over the place.

So it’s one more game, a tough one at home against a Hawks team that ran circles around the Bulls last month in Atlanta, and then the much-awaited All-Star break and seven days off until resuming in Cleveland February 18, which is also the trading deadline day.

It’s unlikely with all the injuries the Bulls could do anything even if they tried. And for all the rumors about perhaps trading Gasol, good luck reaching 70 points without him.

He’s likely not going anywhere.

It doesn’t look promising now, but Butler has become, as Hoiberg said, the Bulls most valuable clutch player down the stretch, which may have cost two games on the road trip with late blown leads. A 4-3 trip would present this Bulls team much differently than 2-5, and that came down to just a few possessions.

“It is what it is right now,” said Hoiberg. “Obviously, it’s tough when you have injuries, especially to your key guys like we’ve had. But you’ve got to have that next guy up; these guys are all pros. We’re confident going into the games, but again Jimmy is your best wing defender. So you have to change around schemes based on who you have out there guarding and Jimmy has been our best clutch player this season down the stretch; he’s a guy you can give the ball to and he can get you a basket That’s where we missed him the most.”

The Bulls missed a lot Monday, though mostly the basket with the Hornets leading by double digits four minutes into the game and essentially the rest of the way. They shot 58 percent in the first quarter with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist making jump shots. Charlotte, trying to get over the Super Bowl loss, closed the quarter with back to back threes. And without Rose and Butler there wasn’t enough offense to make much of any run.

“We had some wide open shots in that first quarter,” noted Hoiberg. “When you are missing your shots like that you can’t let it affect you on the other end, and obviously it did tonight. The thing is we were still fighting. Even after that first quarter I thought our guys competed, moved the ball, played the right way; our assist numbers were up. The guys kept moving the ball, played unselfish.”

The Bulls made a little move with Dunleavy and Moore threes. But then Kemba Walker with a game high 30 got five free throws in one possession with the first of two Bulls clear path fouls and being fouled on a three. Gasol with one of his three three pointers got the Bulls within 57-42 at halftime. The Bulls bench, now basically the third and fourth group, had four points in 40 combined first half minutes.

Gasol had some nice passes as he ran the offense with restraint and authority and Dunleavy had a three and a fancy driving scoop for his eight points to get within 65-51 early in the third. But the Hornets buzzed around with Kidd-Gilchrist, usually a poor shooter, making a three in a 13-2 dash that left the Bulls again trailing by more than 20 after three quarters. Not many teams blow those kinds of leads.

So it’s one more, they’ll still be above .500, and then comes the test: Thirty games to see who they are and what they have. This time every game does matter.

“Derrick playing the way he has, hopefully we’ll get Jimmy back soon and Niko, get a full roster with the exception of Jo,” noted Hoiberg. “I thought Mike had some good flashes in the two games he’s played and he’ll continue to get better. So the big thing is moving ahead as full strength as we can be and hopefully making a run after the break.”

By the way, what’s another word for synonym? C’mon, smile. These last two months should be fun.