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Bulls lose to another sub-.500 team

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By Sam Smith | 2.21.2015 | 1:06 a.m. CT

There was some very good news for the Bulls Friday in their 100-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons, their 10th loss this season to a sub.-500 team with eight of them to teams at least 10 games below. 500.

None of those teams will be in the playoffs.

Yes, you better laugh after this one. Or you’ll cry.

The Bulls, missing close to a dozen layups and committing 20 turnovers for 26 points against one of the league’s poorest defensive teams that was starting a D-league point guard and had just 10 players after trades Thursday, blew a double digit first half lead and never much competed down the stretch.

Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 30 points and five assists, Taj Gibson had 15 points and nine rebounds off the bench and Joakim Noah had 10 points and 14 rebounds. But Pau Gasol with 12 points and eight rebounds had his double/double streak stopped at 14 and Derrick Rose never got much going in his poorest game in more than a month, finishing with eight points on two of nine shooting and six turnovers.

The Bulls fell to 34-21 and 19-10 on the road. The Pistons are 22-33 and 11-18 at home.

“Just couldn't find my game tonight,” said Rose. “Thank god we've got another one tomorrow (home against Phoenix) because this one hurt tonight. Just missing shots. Not touching the ball in a couple of days and coming back. I've just got to catch that rhythm. Just trying to feel the game, wasn't trying to force anything. We were up a couple of times in the game, so I just had to learn from my mistakes."

The narrative then after the game became Rose Wednesday missed the first of two post-All Star weekend practices with travel problems. Rose said afterward he apologized to teammates for being late in his return.

“You’re going to open yourself up to criticism when stuff like that happens,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Obviously we’ve got to do better; everyone has to do better. If you’re not bringing great intensity and having a great edge... we beat ourselves tonight.

“We handle that stuff internally,” Thibodeau added about Rose’s tardiness. “Obviously, we want a commitment made by everybody to the team. Anytime there’s a break like that you’re mindful of the circumstances and you have to give yourself plenty of time; if anything does go awry you can still get back in time. It didn’t happen. Hopefully, he learned from it and we can all learn from it. He had an issue that can happen. The point is you can’t put yourself in that position; we dealt with it and move forward.”

The issue, however, seemed more like a red herring—red meat for the media—to distract from the larger issues with the team and in the game.

Gasol playing in the historic All-Star game against his brother had an intense weekend with constant demands. He appeared to have little energy while the Pistons relentlessly attacked him with Andre Drummond, who had 18 points and 20 rebounds, and Greg Monroe, who added 20 points. Noah, though lively on the boards and moving well, failed to finish at the basket several times with point blank layups. And there was Thibodeau in the usually difficult spot of trying to figure out what kind of team he has. It’s been a recurring issue this season of the square peg and round hole analogy.

Can you force a defensive identity into an offensive lineup? This Bulls team seems better suited for offensive play with more shooting—in theory—and skilled offense from someone like Gasol. But they seem to continue to try to succeed with defensive oriented lineups.

Thus the Bulls again seemed to revert to slower play, and a defensive lineup that failed to employ enough three-point shooting to open the court. That inhibited Rose’s ability to get to the basket after Rose had played so well surrounded by more shooters with the Bulls winning four straight before the All-Star break last week.

Thibodeau is a defensive-oriented coach, and his methods have proven successful. And teams without a strong defense cannot be considered serious contenders. So perhaps the question is the balance. Perhaps a little less defense offset by a little more offense?

Tony Snell got just 15 minutes and three shots after four impressive games before the All-Star break. Another good three-point shooter, Mike Dunleavy, played just under 19 minutes and Nikola Mirotic played nine minutes while making his only three.

The result was a slower paced, defensive oriented team that could score just 91 points against the team not only missing several players but 17th in points allowed and 25th in opponent shooting. Against Detroit with immobile big man Drummond, whom the Bulls intentionally fouled late, and Monroe, you have to move the ball, stretch the floor and make them chase you for threes.

Instead, the Bulls again and again tried to challenge them at the basket. It’s difficult to even make layups against those two big men. Plus, it enables them to stay in the lane and wall off Rose when he tries to attack the basket. Especially, when you don’t play with much speed.

Defense wins championships; it’s accepted and proven in sports.

But the Bulls in these final two months of the season may have to consider with what has been staring them in the face all season, that with Gasol at center and Noah after surgery they aren’t going to be the defensive team they were. But they are well equipped to score more with Gasol, Rose back seemingly in good health, Butler and young players who shoot well in Snell and Mirotic.

Still, much of the fourth quarter, Thibodeau continued to ride his defensive group with Noah, Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, who played well in his return from a turf toe injury, Butler and Rose. With Rose not having a big offensive game and few three-point threats to open the floor, the Bulls were playing at such a small margin of error.

Once the Pistons made one run after the Bulls got within 77-74 with 8:42 left, the Bulls didn’t seem to have enough offense to counter. Also, it was yet another game—whether against lesser competition or style of play—in which the Bulls played without much enthusiasm until the desperate final minutes when Butler scored seven points in about a minute. The Bulls got within 94-89 with 55 seconds left. But the Pistons made their free throws to extend the final margin.

“I thought we played decently in the first half, second half 55-38, lot of turnovers,” said Thibodeau. “The Pistons are a good team; if you would take away their start you would understand they played very well since they made their changes (releasing Josh Smith). They played at a high intensity level. If you let your guard down you are going to get beat.

“The first half I thought (the Bulls’ intensity level) was good,” said Thibodeau. “Second half you’ve got to play, you’ve got to play the whole game. We’ve got to bounce back, quick turnaround tomorrow. You come back (from All-Star), it’s the first game; you have to get that edge back. I didn’t like the way we closed the last two minutes of the first half, but overall I liked the way we played the first half. Second half, they came out hit us right away. Those first five minutes of the third quarter (14-4 Detroit) were critical and gave them the belief they could win. And it made it hard on us.”

It also could be just one of those games, a veteran team off a long break and a young team with changes going on and thus having more energy as players try to prove themselves.

There were some curious results around the NBA Friday in addition to the Bulls loss.

The Wizards lost to the Cavs by almost 40. With Anthony Davis back the Pelicans lost by double digits in Orlando. The Raptors beat the seemingly unbeatable Hawks by 25 in Atlanta. The Jazz blew out the Trail Blazers. And the Spurs gave up at least 110 points for the second consecutive game.

Strange things can happen after such a long time off, which is unprecedented in the history of the NBA with the extended All-Star break. So perhaps to the Bulls as well it was just a late wakeup call.

But Rose said he felt badly about his delayed return and told his teammates so.

"Being one of the leaders of the team, flew the day of practice, thought I was going to make it, didn't make it in time and missed a practice,” Rose said. “This is my first time ever missing a practice not due to injury. Or not due to going to the dentist or the doctor.”

But the Bulls had five players making multiple turnovers and were outscored in the paint. And outhustled. Drummond on one play early in the second quarter had five rebounds before finally putting the ball back in. Only Hinrich and Snell battled him while the other three Bulls on the floor at the time, Gibson, Noah and Aaron Brooks, waited down the other end of the floor and didn’t to help. It hardly seemed like the sort of committed effort familiar to this Bulls team.

The Pistons also had a whopping 22 fast break points, and that was without their regular point guard, Brandon Jennings out for the season, substitute D.J. Augustin traded and newly acquired Reggie Jackson unable to play yet. So rookie second round pick Spencer Dinwiddie, whom Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said was slated for D-league assignment before the trades, had 12 points and nine assists against Rose.

“For this to be the first time he gets major minutes and for it to come against one of the best players in our league matched up against him, I think he handled himself really well,” said Monroe.

It really wasn’t a great start for the Bulls, though they took an 8-2 lead as Rose went full court for a score and Noah active from the jump put back a miss. But the Bulls quickly devolved into lethargy with three straight turnovers and two deliberate possessions with shots as the shot clock expired, the second with Rose scoring.

By then the Pistons had taken a lead with the Pistons bigs attacking Gasol, even the offensively challenged Drummond. Jimmy Butler with a strong game made a pair of threes and the Bulls nudged ahead 23-22 after one as Monroe drew a second foul.

It looked like a game the Bulls would control with a big finish to the second quarter to take a 53-42 lead and 53-45 at the half. That run occurred with Rose back in along with Gasol and Gibson, the latter who had a big game off the bench and perhaps was the team’s most emotional player. Jimmy Butler passed the ball well as the primary playmaker in that stretch and found Mirotic for a catch-and-shoot three. But it also left you wondering at times about the lineups. There rarely were two of the three-point shooters on the court at the same time, though Dunleavy got off to a tough start and was zero for five. Still, you have to make the decision even when they are missing of the ancillary benefits of having the court more open for driving and getting to the basket.

The start of the third quarter seemed to doom the Bulls with more Bulls turnovers leading to fast break scores, Drummond surprising Gasol with rare post moves and Caron Butler making jump shots. Both Caron Butler and Dinwiddie were making their first starts of the season. The Bulls then began to settle for isolation jump shots with little ball or player movement, a bad habit from their poor stretch last month and fell behind 77-68 after three. Thibodeau to his credit substituted reserves to try to create some energy.

The Bulls did get a bounce starting the fourth quarter with a mixed lineup of Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, Brooks and Snell with Brooks snaking his way to the basket and the defense holding firm. But when Thibodeau went back to his mostly defensive unit shortly afterward—and understandably as the Bulls got within 77-74 and needed just a few more Detroit scoreless possessions—the tactic failed, the Bulls couldn’t score as the court shrunk and the Pistons hit the Bulls with runouts after turnovers and long missed jumpers.

Rose then tried to get it back. But with poor spacing, Rose lost the ball with the defense collapsing on him and then Rose missed communication with Hinrich on a routine pass for another turnover. Gasol then went one-on-one with everyone watching and Jimmy Butler threw away a pass when trapped.

Thibodeau doesn’t like the hack strategy, but finally went to it against Drummond (four of 13 on free throws) with just over three minutes left and the Bulls trailing 90-80. Drummond made two of six in three possessions. But the Bulls scored just once in those three possessions to negate the strategy. Noah then fouled Caron Butler, an excellent free throw shooter, with still one more chance to foul Drummond. Though it would not matter as even with the Pistons missing 15 free throws and shooting six of 22 on threes, the Bulls could not get within 10. Suggesting various issues and still questions ahead.

The Bulls have lost this season to the Pistons (11 under .500), Magic (21 under), Jazz (14 under), Nuggets (14 under), Kings (15 under), Celtics (12 under), Pacers (11 under), Lakers (28 under), Nets (nine under) and Heat (seven under).

Bring on the Warriors and Cavs.