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Bulls burned by the Suns

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By Sam Smith | 1.31.2015 | 4:55 a.m. CT

Could the Bulls have stumbled upon something Friday while yet again trying to climb out of one of those deep holes of despair that have kept them from achieving the brilliance so many expected?

It would require a charge of heart, if not mind. But the possibilities are intriguing even as the Bulls headed back to Chicago for a four-day break in the wake of a 99-93 loss to the Phoenix Suns.

“If we want to get to where we want to go, we have to find ways to win these type of games,” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 23 points. “It’s hard losing these type of games, but at the same time if we had came out and played with the same energy throughout the whole game it would’ve been the other way around. They’re a hard matchup when you have two point guards on the floor at all times and you’ve got the fours that can really pick-and-pop and make a long closeout for our bigs. It’s kind of tough to defend sometimes. They’re a hard team to defend the way that they play. We did a poor job of getting back (in transition) in the first half. In the second half, we did better but it was a little too late.”

That’s the speed game of the Suns with guard Eric Bledsoe scoring 23 points with the effective game winning driving score with 10.9 seconds left, and Goran Dragic with 21. Confusing enough that they are twins, but Markief Morris and Marcus Morris each scored 12 points and no one is still sure when either was playing.

For the Bulls, Jimmy Butler had 22 points and Aaron Brooks, technically off the bench but playing extensively with Rose and Butler, added 21 points. He was also the only reliable three-point threat going three of five. Overall, the Bulls were four of 18 on threes. The result of that poor long distance shooting with Mike Dunleavy missing a 16th consecutive game and coach Tom Thibodeau hesitant to much use Nikola Mirotic or Doug McDermott is the defenses collapse in the paint against the Bulls. It’s sort of a go-ahead-and-shoot defense, which also crowds out Pau Gasol and makes Rose’s driving lanes much tougher. It’s one reason Rose has missed so many close in this season. He’s had multiple players at the rim challenging his shots as the defenders do not worry about stepping outside against Bulls shooting.

And while the Bulls didn’t start as poorly as in some previous games in trailing 26-23 after one quarter, they saw an uneven reserves opening to the second quarter lead to a 17-2 Suns run and 40-25 deficit four minutes into the second quarter. It’s when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau went to the three-guard lineup with Butler at small forward and Rose and Brooks. It enabled the Bulls to come back and take a lead, only to be beaten to some crucial late rebounds and loose balls and fall just short.

The Bulls record fell to 30-19, though it proved to be a highly contested first half of the road trip with a pair of overtime games split and a down to the close loss to a hot Suns team.

“The second half I thought the starters along with Aaron, they did a really good job to put ourselves in position,” said Thibodeau. “I thought Jimmy was really, really good. Pau (ninth straight double/double with 10 points and 19 rebounds) was terrific rebounding, Jo’s (Noah again all over the court) got a good bounce to him. So those are plusses. We just talked about on the trip all three games were winnable games and were one or two possession games. You’ve got to find a way to get that done. Hopefully, we can improve to get it done.”

Perhaps one way would be to start games with those three guards since Butler is considered a small forward as well. And Rose likes the way the game opens up when he is playing with Brooks, who took the time away from a slumping Kirk Hinrich.

“I played with other guards before,” said Rose. “But playing with Aaron is something different because all the attention goes to him whenever he has the ball. I’m used to playing with Jimmy, but having AB that third guard on the floor, it makes it a little tougher on the defense.”

It’s not Thibodeau basketball because it makes for two small guards and Rose having to defend the shooting guard. But Rose has played good defense lately. He made it difficult down the stretch for Stephen Curry in Golden State, and Friday according to ESPN stats Bledsoe was 3-9 when defended by Rose and 5-7 when defended by others.

It might be moot as Mike Dunleavy could return to play next week, though maybe he could come off the bench.

Thibodeau’s preference and passion, as we know, is defense. The Bulls have lost some of their defensive edge this season, though they still are ninth in shooting defense. Some of the difference is starting Gasol at center and thus Joakim Noah playing power forward and outside on defense more often. The Suns take advantage of that with Morris shooting from outside with Noah having to chase.

But Noah has been terrific on this trip, the best he has played this season. His activity and aggression is reminiscent of last season and he’s begun to be less hesitant with his shot. He had nine points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. He’s not quite as mobile side to side as he’s been, but he’s close.

“What got Jo going was he had four great work days, high intensity,” said Thibodeau. “He was disappointed in the Miami game, came over to the gym and started working and I think that was a springboard to what is going on now; he’s playing with great activity and we need it. He’s huge for our team.”

The Bulls issue to start games has appeared to be a stagnant offense. Perhaps sacrifice some defense, and maybe not that much, to energize the offense, help spread the court and take some of the ball control pressure off Rose as well. And have Butler in better position to attack from the wing at small forward. The three have played together at times, usually when Thibodeau wants to put offense into the game. For his part, Thibodeau has been flexible with rotations this season given the injuries and earlier playing time restrictions. But both Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic have been uncertain, and now heading onto Game 50 Thibodeau would likely be shortening the rotation, anyway.

Thibodeau said Friday was an exception because of the way the Suns play small, though at 28-20 it doesn’t seem to hurt them that much.

“You have to look at their matchups because they were playing a good chunk of the game with (P.J.) Tucker at the three,” noted Thibodeau. “If they have the two point guards in you can get away with it. I felt we couldn’t play small with Tucker at the three and Marcus Morris has good size and can play both positions; even though they are small in the backcourt, they are big in the other areas. That is what makes them unique. Aaron has played a lot with both Derrick and Kirk; he’s played effectively and has very good energy and the shot making is what we need. We’re not shooting the ball as well as we’d like and that is one of Mike’s (Dunleavy) strengths.”

But the Bulls have two much better big men than the Suns or most any team, Gasol and Noah. Perhaps playing them with the three guards, you are more vulnerable defensively. Or maybe not. But consider the offensive possibilities as Rose continues to make impressive progress even if his shooting remains inconsistent with eight of 23 Friday. But many of those are tough, driving layups into collapsing defenders, which might not be the case if the Bulls had more and better perimeter shooting.

In many respects, Friday’s was a milestone game for Rose. Not because he dunked in the second quarter, which he rarely does anymore, or he shot from midrange, where he is very good, or because of the highlight lob dunk play to Butler in part of the guard-inspired 22-6 run that rallied the Bulls to a late third quarter lead before going into the fourth quarter trailing 68-67.

Rose played his third game in four nights and the second of a back to back not only without physical issues or restrictions, but he averaged 40 minutes for the three games and had six fourth quarter points Friday. Brooks had eight and a pull up three in yet another desperate rally that brought the Bulls within 95-93 with 31.9 seconds left.

“Every game is going to be different, every game is a different lineup so you have to be ready,” said Brooks. “We just had a back to back game and everyone logged a lot of minutes, so just needed some extra energy.”

Brooks always brings that, which it seems why he functions well with those starters. As for Rose, it’s continued improvement with seven for nine from the free throw line and even several more he might have gotten.

“It’s coming,” said Rose. “It’s a lot of runners, layups and shots that I normally make (not quite going in yet). But as long as I’m attacking it’s all positive. It’s the second game we play, a back-to-back, and I attacked the basket. That’s something at the beginning of the season I wouldn’t have done. I’m getting there. I just got to take my time. These three games that we played, they were tough games. I had to play a lot of minutes. It was a load. But I’m happy with how my body feels afterward. I’m happy with my performance. I’m mad that we lost, of course, but I’m trying to take something positive out of every game.”

Which is as positive as you can get after a loss. Rose played big minutes three in four nights with travel and arriving in Phoenix after 2:00 a.m. Friday morning and playing with aggression. Noah has been enthusiastic and ambitious again. And maybe a solution presented itself to the periods of unwelcome opening lethargy that have forced the Bulls to extend themselves so much more just to compete. And that they do doesn’t go unnoticed.

“I was talking with (P.J.) Tucker,” said Dragic. “They played last night and they probably came into town about 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m. And they still played hard. It was just amazing to me. Everybody is a professional over there.”

It suggests progress for now, if not quite as many wins as they’d like.

“Fatigue was a factor, no question,” noted Gasol of a rare zero for seven first quarter Bulls free throw shooting (17-27 for the game). “We knew that, but it wasn’t going to be an excuse. We fought through and gave ourselves a chance. It was a tough game we played because we did not have much left in the tank. We gave it a good shot. We know this team has spirit and potential, but we just don’t do it consistently and we don’t do it every night. Tonight we kind of felt the load of playing an overtime game in Golden State and double overtime game last night. Here these guys are a tough team; they play up tempo and attack and we had a tough beginning of the second quarter, which put us in a deep hole. We came back and gave ourselves a chance again and they finished off the game well, or better that we did.”

It was that second quarter that proved discouraging and raised questions, even for Thibodeau, about declining bench performance.

“They’ve (reserves) got to play better,” said Thibodeau. ”Part of it is with Mike being out we are moving more guys around, so they’ve lost a little bit of their continuity. But there are things they can do a lot better that they are not doing now that we have to correct.”

There’s also that issue of defense, or the defense the Bulls were known for. Though it was a locker room chorus of demands for a return after the loss to the Lakers, it still remains problematic with the personnel changes whether this group can defend like those groups. But they can score more, and more points still translates to a win. The Bulls average about 102 now. Maybe they could average 107. Then who cares if you give up a few more?

It’s tough to curtail the Suns’ speed with their guards as they are second in the league in fast breaks. They showed the Bulls with 16 first half fast break points which led to that second quarter Suns lead and 23 for the game.

“The first quarter we missed seven (free throws) in a row, very unusual,” said Thibodeau. “The missed shots you can deal with. That’s part of the game. The things you want to avoid are the mental part and the discipline. You are playing a team like this and you know transition is such a big part of what they do. Make sure you’re doing the right thing, that you are back on the raise of the shot and you are sprinting and you are not going forward when you should be going back and that’s something we can correct.”

The Bulls did correct in a strong 25-13 third quarter that featured three-guard lineups. But even though the Bulls were energetic enough to have another strong close, they lost key defensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, leading to a basket; the Suns chased down a loose ball for a score, got another basket on a loose ball and three offensive rebounds on an earlier possession leading to free throws. The second chances proved too much. And then needing one score, Bledsoe lost Rose on a screen and put in a bank over Noah for what proved to be just enough in the last 10 seconds.

“We are still a work in progress,” said Noah.

It will be interesting to see how that progresses and with whom.

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