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Bulls stung by the Hornets

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By Sam Smith | 2.26.2015 | 2:01 a.m. CT

The Bulls Wednesday got their latest look at life without Derrick Rose, and it wasn’t particularly lively in a tedious 98-86 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

“We all were affected by it,” admitted Pau Gasol, who had his league leading 38th double/double with 25 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in an 11th loss this season to a team well below .500. “This is the third time this has happened (to Rose), so you feel really bad for your friend. It was a blow to the team and you could tell emotionally it was tough for us. We tried to fight through it and give ourselves a chance. It just wasn’t perfect. But we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We have to pick it back up, understand this is part of what we do. If we want an opportunity to do something this season, we need to pick it up and put that on the side and focus on winning games.”

Which is again the Bulls predicament and challenge.

Can they get through the depression and disappointment of losing Rose yet again while positioning themselves to remain competitive in a not very demanding Eastern Conference?

“It’s tough,” said Joakim Noah, who had four points, eight assists and 11 rebounds. “I don’t really know what to say. We didn’t play well. Everything we did was pretty soft. We’ve got to play a lot harder. Mentally, I think we were a little bit drained with everything that happened. I just know we have to play a lot harder if we’re going to be successful.

“Just really sad (about Rose),” added Noah about his emotions. “Angry. Sad. Just he doesn’t deserve it. Just really disappointing.”

There was nothing new late Wednesday after the game about Rose. The speculation was he would have surgery this week and then once a method of surgery was determined to declare a timetable.

And perhaps even a return this season in the most optimistic projections. Unlike Rose’s previous knee injuries in 2012 and 2013, the hope is given this came without an event on the court it may not be as severe and not require the sort of surgery that would sideline Rose until next season. No matter the kind of surgery chosen, a full recovery is expected. But it also remains possible it could come yet this season.

Jimmy Butler, who added 14 points and seven rebounds in a mostly quiet game, was among the few Bulls to speak with Rose after the MRI result of the meniscus being torn again. Most of the players and coach Tom Thibodeau said they texted or emailed with Rose, whom Butler described as in good spirits Wednesday. Though friends said, predictably, Rose was initially despondent with the disappointment of yet another knee injury and surgery.

“We’re not even worried about basketball right now; we just want to make sure he’s OK as a person,” said Butler, which probably wasn’t a good omen for the game. “Yeah, I talked to him this morning. Little bit last night. Seems like he’s in good spirits. He’s high spirited. Sounded like he was OK.

“Because he’s out for an extended amount of time we’ve got to figure it out,” said Butler. “Next man up, unfortunately. It’s hard. He’s your leader, your point guard. We love having the guy around as a person; when we don’t it’s a lot different in this locker room

“I think we’re all optimistic about it,” Butler said when asked about a Rose return this season. “We all want him back and I’m sure he’s going to try to get back as soon as possible.”

So perhaps excuse the Bulls this one, a game against a depleted Charlotte team missing its high scoring point guard, Kemba Walker, and now 23-32 as they try for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls fell to 36-22 and 17-12 at home.

“Obviously for them mentally, losing Rose last night after he practiced, there is no question it will take a few games for them to get used to playing without him,” agreed Charlotte coach Steve Clifford.

This wasn’t a particularly energetic Bulls team, which we’ve seen before at home, of all places. It wasn’t the devastated team from last season after Rose’s injury that lost 11 of 14 and by 39 points the game after Rose was hurt.

But the Bulls Wednesday lost numerous rebounds, even when they boxed out, that were simply pulled away from them by the more aggressive Charlotte players. The smaller Hornets outrebounded the Bulls 45-43 with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist leading with 18 points and 12 rebounds. The Hornets also had a huge 17-5 edge in fast break points, and the Bulls getting those last two with 7.9 seconds left and trailing by 14 when Charlotte had stopped playing and was waiting for the game to end.

“Outrebounded us, played harder than we did,” observed Butler. “Defense is all effort. It’s if we want to play or not. We haven’t been playing too much defense all year; just offense and look where it got us.”

But that may be the problem and even worse no one is getting it.

This is no longer a strong defensive team; just because you say “Bulls” and “Thibodeau” it doesn’t mean great defense. The Bulls can be a good defensive team; just no longer extraordinary. They’ve imported several offensive oriented players, like Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks, the latter who started for Rose at point guard.

Brooks had 12 points, but surprisingly didn’t shoot well; just three of eight from the free throw line, the poorest in his career as an 85 percent shooter. The Bulls overall were 15 of 23 on free throws.

“As far as me personally I missed a lot of easy shots, especially free throws, uncharacteristic,” said Brooks. “I was just a little bit off. I was comfortable (starting). I missed a few easy ones. Defensively we did an OK job, but it didn’t go our way the fourth quarter and we let it slip. Our philosophy is pushing the ball, getting easy baskets, but I don’t think we got any today. We had good looks; just didn’t knock them down. I think everyone was just a little off. Hopefully adjust and keep going; it’s one game.”

The adjustment is going to have to come on offense.

The game against a low scoring Charlotte team continues to demonstrate that. This Bulls team needs to score more, and they can. Lamenting your defense all the time doesn’t make you a defensive team. Noah isn’t the same player given not only his offseason knee surgery, but also playing with Gasol and often away from the basket. Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy aren’t noted for defense, but both are excellent shooters. Similarly with Tony Snell, who kept up his marksmanship with two of four threes, though the Bulls overall were three of 17 on threes.

But you’re not getting good three-point looks playing the way the Bulls do, walking the ball up court and then engaging in some dribble handoffs, basically going side to side with the clock running down as they search out a post option and then someone forcing a shot. The Bulls finally have some excellent catch and shoot players in Dunleavy, Snell and Mirotic. They need to use them more and get better three-point opportunities.

Initially, the Bulls should play faster, which is where they most miss Rose. For all the criticism of his shooting or not driving enough, Rose was instrumental in pushing the ball out of the backcourt and into a play. Brooks can do that. He’s not brilliant at orchestrating an offense, but he ran a nice two-man pick and pop game with Gasol. Brooks had nine points in the first quarter in a 22-22 game. Gasol had six.

This would be a back and forth game until midway through the fourth quarter, 15 ties and 18 lead changes the first three quarters before the Hornets controlled the fourth quarter.

The Bulls simply need to push the ball up quickly into, for example, a pick and roll or pick and pop. Then pass cross court and then another pass to the corner for a spot up with Snell or Mirotic or Dunleavy. That would open the court, give them better three-point options and turn it into a faster game.

It’s understandable that Thibodeau probably wants to keep the game close with one of his best players out. You can do that generally with a slower game on offense in which your players are in position to get back on defensive more quickly. But this Bulls team also is sloppy with the ball, though not in a bad way. They are unselfish to a fault and try a lot of tough interior passes. Many result in turnovers and the Bulls gave up 15 points in turnovers to seven for Charlotte.

There’s nothing wrong with playing that way, with some panache. You sense the players would like to do that. You can take some risks. You just need to score more. It’s OK; they count the wins by who scores the most points; not who holds someone to the least. But if defense wins championships, the Bulls without Rose just are looking to win some games.

“It is a tough day because of the concern for Derrick,” said Thibodeau. “I mentioned earlier how our team does feel about Derrick. We are concerned about him. With that being said, we have to get the job done because the games are going to keep coming. We are going to have to figure it out and we’re going to have to improve. I thought the intensions were good tonight. It was a tough day, but tomorrow we will gather ourselves and get ready for the next one.”

It was 44-44 at halftime and then a see saw with the Hornets inching ahead 67-65 after three quarters as Mo Williams burned the Bulls with 13 points in the third. But then neither Gasol nor Noah could hold off Al Jefferson in the fourth quarter while Kidd-Gilchrist was beating the Bulls with cuts to the basket. The Hornets shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter even as Thibodeau had his theoretical best defenders often on the floor. But when he does, the offense suffers and the Hornets piled up the points down the stretch to lead by 17 with 2:25 remaining.

“We are still capable of playing good defense,” insisted Thibodeau. “I thought the defense in the first half was very good; in the second half we didn’t finish our defense as well as we could have. That is something we have to continue to work on and improve on, figure out the rotation a little bit. You want the fourth quarter to be the best quarter, and obviously tonight it wasn’t the case for us.”

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