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Bulls fail to depose Kings

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If it’s Thursday, it must be Sacramento.

Too bad, because this Bulls Western tourist group doesn’t find much precious in those hills near where the famous gold rush took place. Instead, the Bulls came up empty and frustrated again in yet another double digit loss in Sacramento, this time 103-88. But getting better: The last two were by 42 and 29.

“Frustrating game,” murmured Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls for a third straight game in scoring, this time with 23 points on 11 of 18 shooting along with eight rebounds and two steals. “We are a physical team, also. I think we were worried about the wrong things in the game instead of just playing the game. We did a lot of things right. We’ve just got to play better. We’ve got to guard. Offense isn’t the problem. We just didn’t guard anybody.”

The Kings led by DeMarcus Cousins with 22 points and 14 rebounds and Rudy Gay with 20 points outran the Bulls with 15 fast break points and shot 51.4 percent for the game. But it was a foul prone Bulls team playing without the injured Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol—both considered still questionable for Friday in Portland—seeing Nikola Mirotic drawing a fourth foul early in the second quarter and Joakim Noah having to go out during the pivotal Kings third quarter run with a fifth foul.

Noah, who had a memorable meltdown here last year in calling out officials and being ejected and find $15,000, leaped in anger and frustration with that fifth foul against the rugged Cousins with the Bulls trailing 65-59 and 4:30 left in the third quarter.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had to bring back a cautious Mirotic, who had played well earlier, and Cousins overwhelmed Taj Gibson and Mirotic to race the Kings lead to 15. The Kings went on to lead 80-68 after three quarters and the Bulls never got closer than eight in the fourth quarter even as the Kings had blown double digit leads in their last three losses. Not this time as the Bulls went to 8-4. The Kings are 7-5.

“They’re a good team; they play hard at home,” noted Noah, who had 10 points, 11 rebounds and six assists and again leads NBA centers in assists. “They’re starting to build something; defensively they are better. DeMarcus is better. You can tell there’s been a lot of growing on his side as a player. He is playing more efficiently. I feel sometimes he gets frustrated and that works in our favor. I feel this year, he’s the one getting guys frustrated and it’s worked for them.”

Noah afterward was contrite once again about his outburst, though tame compared with his finger pointing assault of last season.

“I think I’ve just got to calm down a little bit in those kind of situations, those frustration situations,” said Noah. “Tic tac foul. I think frustration is part of the game; you’ve got to control your emotions the best way possible. I’m an emotional player, but I want to win the game. So just got to be smarter, learn from mistakes, keep moving.

“Two years in a row would not have been good (to be ejected),” Noah admitted. “Disappointed we lost. In these frustrating situations I’ve got to keep my cool.”

I didn’t think Noah’s reaction was much out of the ordinary or a big issue since with five fouls he was coming out, anyway. And he did play more than 37 minutes.

Of more concern was the reaction of Kirk Hinrich, walking bent over after several brutal shots to the chest, the last taking a close-your-eyes charge against Cousins with 7:35 left and the Bulls trailing 88-77. The scene was time for one more run, the Kings getting shaky with a lead, and few are diving in like Hinrich. He’d been banged around moments before and seemed to be holding his hand, though it had been another chest hit. He had an X-ray post game, which was negative. He was reported to have a bruise. A bad one. It had to raise concern about his availability in Portland Friday. But more so that Rose still is out with his tender hamstring and Hinrich came in healthier this season. The Bulls cannot afford to wear him out early.

Aaron Brooks did play well with 12 points and four assists, though four turnovers, and almost got the Bulls on a late run with a terrific finger roll over Cousins for what looked like a basket with the Bulls trailing 90-82 with 5:32 left. But it was ruled a charge. Darren Collison with 17 points and 12 assists, went right back at Brooks and was fouled; Butler answered with a short jumper. But the Bulls could not stop the Kings as Gay scored on a drive and Cousins closed it out with an offensive rebound and put back.

“Aaron had that drive that I thought could have gone either way,” noted Thibodeau. (It) would have cut it to (six) with about six to go and that would have given us a chance. But it didn’t go our way. The rebounding (42-40 Bulls) I thought was good; just have to do better.”

It really wasn’t a bad loss, especially since the Bulls were able to get that first road win against the Clippers. Portland’s also been a tough stop for the Bulls (Rose was hurt there last year and losing the last six there). But the Bulls can recover going to Denver and Utah next week and then to close the trip in Boston and Brooklyn.

The larger issues, obviously, are the health of Rose and Gasol and now Hinrich.

And this was a game that missing that scoring proved too much to overcome.

The Bulls had a terrific start, making five of 11 three pointers in the first quarter for a 29-22 lead and thwarting Cousins, who was one of seven. Cousins still takes a lot of those head scratching jumpers when he was practically knocking Noah into the stands on post ups. Though it’s actually encouraged by the Kings. It seems they’ve found Cousins gets rattled and loses concentration if he goes inside often and isn’t productive. So they give him jump shots to calm him like you would a hyperactive kid needing a cushion to bounce on. Imagine how unstoppable the guy would be if it were just about basketball.

Cousins drew a foul to open the game and I loved Hinrich getting a technical about three minutes in. It was as if watching Jerry Sloan. Hinrich latched onto Cousins and tried to swing Cousins down on top of him to draw his second foul. And thus out of the game. But the officials caught it and gave Hinrich the technical. The guy is an amazing competitor, though Hinrich has suffered in the past when competing too hard and going out with injuries. The Bulls hope this one is minor.

Still, Brooks came in against one of his many former teams and was dashing with his moves. Rookie Nikola Mirotic added a three after terrific ball movement that ended a 16-4 Bulls run and 10-point lead that was seven after the first quarter.

Noah completed some excellent rolls on plays with Brooks. But Mirotic soon drew that fourth foul as he is caught reaching a lot when chasing to close on shooters and drivers. The Kings took advantage behind Gay’s shooting and an ineffective Bulls reserve group to start the second quarter to tie the game six minutes into the second and take a 52-47 halftime lead.

“I thought the first half we got really good shots,” said Thibodeau. “I thought we got good penetration, good kick outs. And then the third quarter was choppy. We’ve had a lot of different combinations (playing with the injuries and minutes restrictions). So we have to iron that out. Floor balance hurt us. In a game hard fought like that one those are big buckets. When there is penetration, we have to make sure our wings are back; our bigs guys cannot jog. If you have one or two guys jog it’s going to cause a problem.”

Thus the 54.1 percent Kings first half shooting after a 30-18 second quarter. With the new faces in different places the Bulls defense—Cousins after the game labeled Thibodeau a “defensive genius”—wasn’t always as balanced and reacting as it should with Kings players getting behind for layups. Tough to be on a string when you’re not always asked to hold the rope.

The Kings opened it up to start the second half behind Cousins. He banked in a Collison miss, made a jump hook getting deep in the paint—there’s hardly anyone strong enough to keep him out, though he sort of gives up when he misses—and passed out for jumpers as the Bulls tried to double him with either Gibson or Mirotic. He does give up the ball and had five turnovers. Though he also had 10 points, six rebounds and three assists in that vital third quarter. The Bulls didn’t have enough options this time to make it back as Noah at least held it together to stay in the game. It didn’t matter much in the end with the Bulls failing to make a three after the first quarter.

“Jo’s an emotional guy,” noted Thibodeau. “You don’t want to take that away from him. You’re on the road, you’re not going to get calls. It is physical out there. It’s the way it is. There was frustration to deal with, but you still have to find a way to pull that out in the end.”

But for the third straight season here, though this time at least a Kings team with a winning record, the Bulls could not make it close.

“They’re a talented group,” added Mike Dunleavy, who had 12 points along with Brooks and Gibson. “It seems they are starting to find their way. They could be a really good team in the conference. Over the course of an NBA season, some teams you play well; some you don’t. They are one of the ones for whatever reason plays us well. We’ve had our hands full with them.”

If it’s Sacramento, it must be a loss.

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