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Bulls fall flat in loss to Cavaliers

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By Sam Smith | 1.20.2015 | 2:38 a.m. CT

The Bulls basically had one wish, one hope this season, and, really, it’s occurred. Just give the team a healthy Derrick Rose steadily increasing his production as the season progressed and the rest would take care of itself. It seemed the only missing element for the ultimate riches the team has been pursuing.

Rose is back, but the Bulls everyone remembers have disappeared along with the wins as the Bulls Monday in the national TNT game on Martin Luther King Day were dominated by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a 108-94 loss masking a 25-point deficit blowout much of the second half.

“Everybody has to be on the same page,” said an openly frustrated Rose, who had 18 points and three of five threes in 30 minutes and sat out the fourth quarter. “Until then we are going to continue to get our (butts) kicked.

“Everybody’s quiet (on the floor), and until (that changes) we’re going to get the same results,” said Rose. “Trust plays a part, too; communicating on defense in a team sport. I think communication is huge. We’re quiet while we’re out there. We’ve got to give a better effort. It seems like we’re not even competing. It’s (bleeping) irritating. It’s just compete, compete, when you go out there, compete. Competing wise it seems we’re not there. It should be fun, basketball should be fun.”

The game these days seems anything but enjoyment to this Bulls group that under coach Tom Thibodeau has long been one of the league’s most entertaining and enthusiastic teams, swathed in camaraderie and bonhomie, their collective joy generally transcending their accumulated talent.

They made the game enjoyable and entertaining for themselves and especially for everyone watching. They did it with Rose’s flash and elan and a team wide joie de vivre, human endeavor turned into unexpected excellence through the alchemy of passion and nurturing.

Now they look like production line workers trudging to the night shift. The game seems like a job; teammates act like strangers. Mistakes are met with blank stares and shrugs. The process of the game seems like an ordeal, drudgery.

“It’s just that no matter who is on the floor or who is out or who is coming back we just have to compete,” reiterated Rose. “My biggest thing is competing and making sure we let the opponent know we’ve come to play. We’re midway through the season; it’s no excuses. When you don’t have that edge you are going to get your (butt) whipped.”

And so it was in Cleveland in yet another game the Bulls never had a lead with yet another lethargic start with their slack offense lacking movement, speed or any of the obvious principles of ball and player movement. It’s generally walk into a play, make one pass and watch that guy go one-on-one.

Though players and Thibodeau point mostly to the flaws on defense, which has been the business card for this team since Thibodeau became coach in 2010. The Bulls no matter who was injured were a top five defensive team every season. In the last month, according to ESPN statistics, the Bulls rank in the league’s bottom six in defense.

It’s especially rankled Thibodeau, who called a Tuesday practice despite the team’s first two-day break in a month. Thibodeau for the first time as Bulls coach talked about possible lineup changes and almost gave one of those Rick Pitino “Bird and McHale are not walking through the door” speeches in annoyed post game comments. Thibodeau said this is the Bulls group and roster for the season, and they are the ones to figure it out. He challenged the players, in effect, repeatedly saying it was up to them to decide when “enough is enough.”

It does sound like doomsday sort of stuff with six losses in the last eight games and the schedule turning brutal with seven of the next nine on the road and opponents including the Spurs, Mavericks, Warriors and Rockets, who rank among the top 10 teams in the NBA. The new Las Vegas odds have the Bulls slipping to fifth best chance for a title from tied for first a few weeks ago after the Bulls had won 10 of 11. So much for just playing down to poor competition.

Though it all sounds dreadful, it is hardly hopeless.

Joakim Noah remains out with a sprained ankle and could return the end of the week. Though Noah hasn’t been in top form this season after offseason surgery, his absence shows how much his presence means. It’s not an outspoken team as Rose and Jimmy Butler more lead through actions; both wear masks of restraint and composure. Pau Gasol, likewise, is a cerebral contributor. It’s hardly the place for young players or recent additions to take over. So it often falls, albeit naturally, to Noah both on and off the court. He didn’t make the trip to Cleveland to accelerate his ankle healing process. And as Noah knows and the Bulls again discovered, Cleveland is no vacation land.

Noah's return would help as would that of Mike Dunleavy, who missed his 10th game with his own ankle problem. His presence would return Kirk Hinrich to the bench and fewer minutes, which seemingly would increase Hinrich’s effectiveness as he was scoreless for the second time in the last four games.

Butler led the Bulls with 20 points, though 10 in the fourth quarter after the Bulls trailed 84-62 after three quarters. Rose had 18 points and three of five threes, but shot five of 14. Butler was six of 16, though he did a serviceable job on LeBron James, who had 26 points. J.R. Smith added 20 points with six threes.

But a further sign of the surprising lack of engagement was the rebounding, where the Cavs crushed the Bulls 54-40. Timofey Mozgov had 15 points and 15 rebounds, Tristan Thompson had 10 rebounds, six offensive, and Kevin Love had 16 points and 12 rebounds. Gasol had 11 points and 11 rebounds, but was four of 14 shooting while Taj Gibson had 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. Aaron Brooks off the bench had 16 points while Tony Snell had 12 points with a pair of threes. Though the symbolic lowlight of the night was when Snell made a pass to Cavs coach David Blatt during an offensive sequence.

It’s destined to become an ESPN not top 10 with the funny music, also symbolizing the Bulls transition to inelegance.

“We’ve got to decide when enough is enough,” said Thibodeau in exasperation. “We’re going to look at everything, come in, look at the film, get to work; we’ve got to get better. It’s that simple. The way we are playing is not acceptable, so we’ve got to change it.

“Lot of moving parts, hard to build continuity, hard to find continuity; maybe we look at different people,” added Thibodeau in a rare personnel threat for him. “I’m going to think about it. We’re not playing well in any aspect of the game, so we are not giving ourselves a chance to win.

“Usually if you are playing great defense and rebounding the ball and keeping your turnovers down, you are going to be in position to win no matter who you are playing or where you are playing no matter who is playing,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve been able to overcome injuries because we’ve been able to do that. Now we’re not a multiple effort team; we’re not concentrating. We’re not doing our jobs.

“To me this is a totally different team than we’ve had in the past,” Thibodeau went on in as close to an excuse as he gets. “We’ve got two important pieces working through injuries and trying to get back and both are key players for us and we are trying to integrate new players. But we are halfway through the season; we should be past that. Somehow the notion, ‘We’ll be OK, it’s all right.’ No, no, it doesn’t work like that. This is what we have; it’s on us to figure it out. No one’s coming in to save the day. We have to find the answer. When we’ve had enough we’ll take care of it.”

Perhaps it’s not rock bottom at 27-16, but it’s in much clearer focus now.

Perhaps most discouraging and surprising is the Bulls never even hinted at being competitive against the Cavs, with whom they were considered preseason Eastern favorites. That notion is long gone with the surge of the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards beating the Bulls twice in a week. Now for the Bulls it’s about putting their egg back together. A team that once was hard boiled now simply doesn’t want to crack.

The opportunity was there for the Bulls Monday in a poorly played first quarter by both teams, the Cavs perhaps a little on edge given their week of drama regarding coaching future, James’ frame of mind and Love’s playing time. They shot just 36 percent. But the Bulls walked out and into their dreadfully slow, walk it up game with little push.

Eventually, the Cavs would get it going and double the Bulls in fast break points.

“I think guys are holding onto the ball too long on the offensive side,” said Rose. “But to tell you the truth I’m not worried (about offense). It’s defensively. We give up so many easy baskets. Over time it gets to you.”

Though if the Bulls were to play faster with more energy, pushing the ball into transition as players generally prefer, that also can lead to more spirited defense. It’s difficult to keep walking the ball up into set isolation plays, as the Bulls often do now, and then create the emotion and frenzy for great defense. You can; it’s just more difficult.

So the Cavs brutalized the Bulls on the boards in the first quarter for numerous second shots and a 24-19 lead. Plus, it was clear the Cavs were the more motivated team, outhustling the Bulls everywhere. Late in the first quarter in a harbinger of things, the plodding Love beat E’Twaun Moore to a ball going out of bounds for a save as Moore even seemed to duck away. Thibodeau immediately took him out.

After starting Snell three games and then not playing him the next two, Thibodeau went back to Snell, who broke a Bulls drought when he came in with a three. But Snell continued to throw passes to opponents as well as teammates.

The Bulls were hanging around in the second quarter against a similarly tight Cavs rotation behind the scoring of Snell and Brooks. But Nikola Mirotic had some more rough sequences on defense. And with the Bulls shooting 29.8 percent in the first half, the Cavs took a 54-39 lead.

“We’ve got to play with some energy,” added Gibson, who did lobby for more practice. “We’ve just got to find a way to push ourselves out of it. The games are going to keep coming. It’s tough, but everybody has to take responsibility. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. This is going to test our character. We have the tools, we have the personnel. It just comes from within. Nothing more you can say. Just how much heart you have, and how determined you are going to be. Like Thibs said, everyone has to put a little more into the jar, everyone has to give themselves more to the team. Once we overcome and dig ourselves out, I think we’ve got something special.”

Rose broke out in the third quarter for 11 points, making three of four three pointers. But the rest of the team shot three of 11 as the Cavs took their biggest lead at 84-59. It became a circus of pratfalls for the Bulls as Kyrie Irving with 18 points and a career high 12 assists missed a free throw on a three-point play attempt. The Bulls had three players finally all boxing out, but Gasol dropped the rebound out of bounds. Snell then ran up court and fired a pass right to Blatt that bounced off his shoulder for a turnover. For the Bulls. It was becoming like a Globetrotters routine. And you knew who were the Generals.

“Not playing with a lot of confidence,” observed Gasol. “We don’t have a good flow out there and defensively we have too many breakdowns. We’ve just got to keep it simple, but at the same time have a better, bigger sense of urgency, aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive end. I don’t think it’s lack of will. It’s not having that edge on the floor, not paying attention enough and not emphasizing enough that aspect of the game, which is critical. We have a lot of talent, but we can’t rely on our offense to win games.”

It’s perhaps also a matter of semantics.

It’s generally disparaged to talk about trying to outscore the other team, though technically that’s the formula to win games. The macho world of sports demands Defense! And Stops!

But if you score a little more, why not? It’s not like you don’t compete. You just don’t have to play on the edge, having to win each possession down the stretch. The Bulls are mostly missing activity, moving the ball on offense. They had a puny 12 assists Monday on 30 made baskets. That’s way too much one-on-one. You can put energy into the game on offense as well. That also makes the game fun.

And how about some zone defense. Another macho no for so many coaches. But it then doesn’t require your big man chasing outside all the time and being lined up in pick and rolls. The Bulls switch on defense often. But lately teams have exploited that to seek out favorable mismatches, especially with Noah out.

Again, a win or two does a lot to change attitudes and circumstances. Teams typically go through these sorts of stretches, and after 42 games with so many changes in the lineup, like the Bulls have had, it isn’t that surprising. So let’s see what they come up with.

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