David Liam Kyle/NBAE

Bulls fall to Cavs for the first time this season

Bulls remain confident they can turn season around after down stretch

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

By Sam Smith | 2.19.2016 | 8:45 a.m.

Plutarch said the true measure of a man is how he bears up under misfortune.

Taj said the bandwagon is empty now, the odds are against you. You have to rally with your brothers because they are all you have. Those are the guys to roll with.

Only one of those great philosopher/observers was talking about the Chicago Bulls after Thursday’s 106-95 Bulls loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though the message was similar, if some 2,100 years apart: Nobody’s coming to help us now. It’s up to us and it’s our time to show who we are and what we are made of.

As for me, I’m just thrilled to reference Plutarch in a basketball story in Cleveland. If the price is ending a sentence with a preposition, so be it. A little better.

Character is a long standing habit.

“We just have to get a win, get that feeling, get a taste of winning again,” said Bulls forward Taj Gibson after the Bulls fell behind by double digits early in the second half and never recovered. “Once we get that one taste of getting back on track and winning again it builds up. We’re in a real rough skid now; first time I’ve been in something like this. It’s new. Like Pau told me, ‘You’ve got to put more into it.

“It’s the first time really we are fighting for our lives,” added Gibson. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way, to go through it with guys like these, the ones you have been around a while. It’s going to be great. Just have to prove people wrong. Our bandwagon is empty now. That’s the thing you have to realize now, your bandwagon is empty, odds are against you. All you have is each other.”

That pretty much was the bunker sentiment after Thursday’s TNT national game loss in which the commentators leaving the arena afterward were overheard observing that what once seemed like a certain contender suddenly looked not so much or at all. Could that be?

It could be as the Bulls lost their 14th game in the last 19 and fifth straight. They’re tied for the last playoff spot in the East, a half game ahead of Detroit, which loaded up with three new rotation players at the Thursday NBA trade deadline. The Bulls only traded Kirk Hinrich to Atlanta for financial and future considerations. The 10th place Wizards, just two losses behind the Bulls added talented, if erratic, Markieff Morris in their playoff chase. Plus, the Bulls Friday play another team, like the Cavs, whom they’d defeated twice and likely would be looking for revenge.

And as Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg noted, “The biggest thing is we play tomorrow; we’ve got a big one. We’ve lost a lot of games at home this year. We’ve got to get ourselves back ready. You can’t walk out of that locker room with your head hanging and your tail between your legs. You’ve got to find a way to buck up and play a game against an excellent basketball team that sounds like they’ve been in Chicago two days waiting on us.”

It’s as low as things have been for the Bulls since the desperate days under Vinny Del Negro six and seven years ago when the Bulls had to close the season fast and furious to make the playoffs and get to .500. Not much was expected of those Bulls, who as it turned out were just beginning a promising run that would not yield as much promise as hoped.

Now that run appears to be winding down with Pau Gasol and injured Joakim Noah to be free agents, and now Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic out extended periods with injury and surgery and Mike Dunleavy still on a playing limitation just returning from back surgery.

Derrick Rose, suddenly the team’s best and most reliable scorer, most athletic player and only one who truly can create his own shot, scored 28 points on 11 of 19 shooting with two of three three pointers. Rose against a loaded Cavaliers defense with him in their sights astonished the home crowd with several driving scores through unimaginable thickets of Cavaliers arms and bodies.

“I’m mad we’re losing these games, but I only can control what I can control,” said Rose. “I’m out there playing hard. On the offensive side of the ball, shots weren’t going down. Defense got us back in the game playing scrappy (cutting the halftime deficit to 48-42 with Rose scoring 18). We let go of the rope toward the end of the game again.”

Pau Gasol after a slow start had 14 points and nine rebounds, but his 10 third quarter points didn’t do enough as the Cavaliers pushed their lead to 78-64 after three quarters. Bobby Portis had 13 points and 10 rebounds, but shot six of 16 (more shots than anyone but Rose) while everyone but Rose shot below 50 percent and the Bulls missed nine of 22 free throws.

“I hope we all understand what position we find ourselves in at this point and without adding it’s go time and the margin of error is very, very, very small and we have to figure out ways to win games starting tomorrow,” said Gasol. “There are certain things you can’t anticipate when you go into a season. Adversity comes and hits you at some point. We have to fight through it and if we do come out of it successfully we’re going to be stronger at the end and hopefully with the whole roster ready to face the next challenge. You’ve got to face reality. Can’t think if things happen another way how nice it would have been. You have to face the present and do your best.”

It’s where the Bulls are now down three of their top six rotation players, the trade deadline having passed and this being their team for 29 more games to prove they are a playoff team. The bar wasn’t supposed to be set so low.

“You’ve got to love the challenge,” insisted Dunleavy. “Our backs are against the wall, no question about it, as much as any time I’ve been here. We’re fighting to get in the playoffs right now. There was a lot of talk coming into the season about Finals and Eastern Conference championship and all this stuff; now we’re trying to get in the playoffs. Guys know that and are aware of that. It’s going to take a lot to do it.

“I believe in this group, the coaching staff, the players,” Dunleavy continued. “We’ve been in tough situations before. Especially with injuries and crazy situations. I know we’ll hang in there, get wins and end up in the right place.”

There is no lack of confidence.

One player after another testified about understanding the circumstances, confident they can survive and prosper, aware few others share that belief and satisfied their finish will surprise the doubters.

Having Butler and Mirotic back would seem essential, though neither figures to play the rest of this month and likely longer.

So weaknesses became magnified Thursday.

Dunleavy, tentatively back and all, had to start defending against James with Butler out. That made it an 8-2 James start over the Bulls. Rose kept the Bulls close the first eight minutes until he took a rest and then again finishing the second quarter with an active Portis helping on the boards.

“I thought we competed,” said Hoiberg. “It was (trailing by) 15 in that first half, cut it down to six. Gave ourselves a chance. Coming out of the break, I thought it was our defense, obviously. Offensively, we missed a lot of shots, a lot of good ones, forced some as well, but missed nine free throws. That’s an excellent basketball team and they came out and built that thing up in the third quarter pretty quickly. Got to come out and compete; the recipe for us if we want to win games is taking care of the basketball, rebounding the ball. If we do those we’ll have a chance.”

But with so many missing, the flaws become too pronounced.

Portis will obviously have to play more given his aggression and size on the offensive boards. He had a game high seven. But he continually gets offensive rebounds and instead of taking it out and setting up routinely forced a shot. He’s not much for passing.

Tony Snell scored late, but through three quarters was mostly invisible. Doug McDermott was one of six for three points and continues to foul just hard enough to not prevent three point plays. He’s there for offense and needs to make those threes. E’Twaun Moore and Aaron Brooks are taking Hinrich’s backup point guard time, and they have to think about passing as well. The Bulls had just 12 assists, though it was less the numbers (46 missed shots don’t equal a lot of assists), but the general lack of ball movement with one pass and a shot.

Without Butler, other than Rose there’s really no one who beats the defense when they are pressuring, like the Cavs did. It resulted in 13 Bulls turnovers for 21 Cleveland points. They took Gasol out early and then overplayed the passing lanes. The Bulls didn’t move the ball adroitly, and the Cavs were ready.

“As far as the offensive end, obviously our margin of error is smaller,” said Dunleavy. “We’ve got to give a little more support to Derrick and Pau. They can have big nights, but then we have to fill in the cracks. That’s the recipe now until we get some guys back. We’re capable.”

And they’re all they have for now.

“We’ve just got to stay together,” said Rose. “Even though it’s hard times; we’ve still got young players on this team, people waiting to come back. So we just have to stay together through the good the bad and the ugly; it’s the ugly right now. We know the only place we can go is up.”