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No lightning this time against Thunder

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By Sam Smith | 3.15.2015 | 7:55 p.m. CT

At this rate, it’s going to be difficult for the Bulls to be in good position in their regional.

Oh, right. These were the big guys. But maybe it was the 33 rebounds for the Bulls Sunday against 52 for the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 109-100 Thunder victory that made it seem a bit like the Bulls were kids competing against men.

It was the Bulls fifth loss in their last six games.

“The rebounding was a problem,” agreed Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, of late with less “we’ve got more than enough” rhetoric than hoping for the best. “I thought our guys did a lot of good things to hang in there and be in position and we couldn’t close it out at the end. We’ve been an excellent rebounding team all year. Now the last two games we haven’t; we’re really shorthanded so that’s what we have to deal with.

“(Nikola) Mirotic (with a team high 27 points) spread the floor, but again when you are playing a stretch four like that you are going to give up some rebounding and that’s what we did,” said Thibodeau. “It was good at times offensively (with Mirotic), but defensively it was problematic. The guys we do have got to get in there and we have to get it done; that’s our reality.”

And so the Bulls carry on, 40-28 with 14 games remaining, fourth in the Eastern Conference and hanging on like a trapeze artist whose partner missed the connection. There’s a net; the Bulls aren’t likely to fall any farther than fifth in the Eastern Conference, though that would mean starting the playoffs on the road. That isn’t as worrisome as getting their partners back, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, all still out with injuries and all having missed at least the last nine.

“Tough; we really miss those guys,” said Mirotic, who had 17 in the fourth quarter as the Bulls trailed by a point with under two minutes remaining. “The last couple of games we are not doing a good job rebounding. But it’s not just about the big guys; it’s about everybody. Everybody needs to be there to rebound. We need to find a way to win these games.

“We really play well, but right now we are in complicated moment,” said Mirotic. “Hopefully, everybody recover soon. We need to be in good situation when they come back. We need to stay together. No one heads down, everyone heads up, working together because there is a great atmosphere on the team and we need to put everything we have of ourselves on the court.”

No one likes to complain about injuries or make excuses; but there is only so much you can do not only with so much offense and defense out, but with your principal scorer--Pau Gasol with 20 points, 12 in the first quarter, and eight rebounds--continuing to stretch himself much more than anticipated or even imagined.

“I’m just trying to hold myself up, be as helpful as I can,” said Gasol. “It hasn’t been easy; it’s been a tough stretch of games with a lot of frequency and the result not really rewarding the hard work. But I can’t complain. I’m healthier than some and I’m going to continue to do my best to take care of my body and be productive and get to the last stretch of the year in the best shape possible.”

It’s the fate of this band of brothers as the schedule begins to ease now and the hope is injured players begin to return over the next two to three weeks to again assemble a reasonable starting group to make a playoff run. After all, the Bulls are 15-4 with the primary starting group. Of course, the unknown remains not just if Rose will return, which is expected, but when he does how much he plays and how effective he’ll be. Plus, Thibodeau said Joakim Noah, who had 15 points and seven assists through just three rebounds in one of his best offensive games in weeks, is back to a 32-minute playing limit after sitting out the game in Philadelphia last week.
Thibodeau said he “ran out of minutes” regarding Noah in the fourth quarter, though Noah played about the same as Gasol in the fourth quarter and was on the floor, though not his fault, when the Thunder made the clinching play with about 40 seconds left. Though Noah played two games of more than 40 minutes back in late January, Noah averaged 31.5 minutes in February, is averaging 30.5 minutes this month and played 31.1 minutes Sunday, which seems about right. After all, why would you want Noah, who declined to speak with media after the game, playing much more than that with playoff positioning not much in question and having had knee issues all season? Plus, Thibodeau Sunday did do a very good job balancing playing time and rotations given the circumstances with limited play for Kirk Hinrich, who did well in his time, and more for E’Twaun Moore and Mirotic.

The Bulls Sunday did play a good game against a team without its main star, Kevin Durant. But with Russell Westbrook getting 36 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, just the third time in his last nine games he did not record a triple double, the Thunder won at home for the 16th time in their last 18 home games. So not an easy opponent.

But falling behind and then crawling back all game like the turtle in the race, the Bulls with that Mirotic fourth quarter scoring spree were in position to steal yet another game from the Thunder, as they did back in Chicago earlier this month on that Moore game winning three pointer.

The Bulls trailed 94-92 with 2:55 left when Mirotic took a rebound and found the lane to the basket. But instead of going in hard with a dunk, he tried a soft finger roll and short armed it as it hit the front rim and came off, a lost opportunity.

The Bulls had mostly done a good job against the Thunder’s still potent offense even without Durant. The Thunder rebounding even without injured Serge Ibaka was devastating. Enes Kanter had 18 points and 18 rebounds and Steve Adams had 14 points and 11 rebounds. The Thunder repeatedly got second shots even on missed free throws, getting 17 offensive rebounds to nine for the Bulls and 19-12 on second chance points, categories the Bulls often dominate.

Again, it sounds too much like excuse making. But with Gasol and Mirotic having to carry so much offense and the offense badly needed with about 50 points out of the lineup, it’s difficult to expect them to dominate on both ends. Especially with Gasol leading the team in minutes played. And he did have a respectable eight rebounds to lead the team, four on the offensive boards, also a team high. Though he did offer a message for the guards.

“We do need our guards, our forwards to get in there and hit bodies,” said Gasol. “Every time there was a penetration and I had a shot to the opposite rebound, the weak side wing was cracking my legs, getting me out of those rebounds. That’s what we need to do. Recognize on the floor and find bodies. A collective effort, being physical, understanding this part of the year the physicality is going to increase and you have to match that physicality.”

Still, the Bulls were a few plays down the stretch away from a different outcome. There was the Mirotic finger roll. Though he did come back with a strong left handed drive for a score to get the Bulls within 96-95 with 1:41 left. Westbrook was unchained at that point, dribbling through traps and double teams and attacking the basket. He would be 10 of 13 from the free throw line overall, though Mirotic almost matched him at nine for nine.

Westbrook was fouled with 1:27 left and made one of two for a 97-95 lead.

Then came the second of the three crucial turn arounds, the first of two Bulls turnovers in the next 15 seconds that would doom the Bulls.

The Bulls set up to find Mirotic in the left block. But Westbrook overplayed Aaron Brooks’ pass, got the steal and then drove full court for the score and a 99-95 Thunder lead with 1:12 left.

Moore, who had that thrilling winner against the Thunder was again finishing, which explained in some sense the Bulls predicament. Moore’s a good reserve guard, smart and versatile. He doesn’t make many mistakes, plays confidently and cleverly. He’s not one of those world class athlete types, though good for regular work. But asking to close yet another game is a bit much. After all, the Bulls were finishing the game against one of the tough Western Conference teams with four of the five players not much considered for fourth quarter duty when the season began, Mirotic, Brooks, Tony Snell and Moore.

Moore drove the ball and had it stripped by Dion Waiters, initially called to the Bulls. But an officials’ review resulted in a changed call, the ball going back to the Thunder with a minute left. Thibodeau brought back Noah for defense after sitting him most of the previous five minutes. Westbrook drew the defense and found Anthony Morrow cross court for a three pointer to make it 102-95 Thunder with 40.6 seconds left. That would make it time to fold ‘em.

Gasol hit a short turnaround, but Westbrook frantically—does he play any other way—drove back through the Bulls scattered defense for another layup, 14 points in the fourth quarter, just for the fun of it.

“Westbrook attacks so much and forces help from bigs, especially when he gets so deep in the paint,” said Gasol. “They are going to have (rebounding) opportunities and they have size, they have strength, they pursue. They were very productive.”

The Bulls really were as well despite their thinned ranks.

Though the Thunder got away at the end, the Bulls defended well, holding the Thunder to 38.6 percent first half shooting. It was a brutally slow first quarter with the Thunder leading just 17-15 as both teams shot under 30 percent in the nationally televised ABC noon start.

Gasol had 12 of the Bulls points as the rest of the team shot one for 14 in the quarter. Gasol has been having fast starts and, understandably, slowing as the game goes on with extended playing time and demands to be on the boards and run the court. Remember, centers run 94 feet and guards just between the circles. Gasol even led a fast break once with Snell trailing and made a three. Gasol’s shooting percentage on threes is nine of 19, the best on the team. He is a bit below the league mandate to qualify among the league leaders, though. Sure, he lost a few offensive rebounds as the Thunder’s twin seven footers banged around. But Gasol sure is doing his share.

The Bulls did get going in the second quarter behind Mirotic, who is a rare rookie with his aggression and the respect he’s received from the officials. It’s unusual when rookies get to the free throw line as much as Mirotic. It shows his aggression, enough to have impressed hardened NBA officials. Mirotic should be a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate for all he’s done with a contending team, the only rookie playing a pivotal role for a playoff team. He is averaging 19.5 points and 8.6 rebounds this month and about eight free throw attempts per game, most on the team.

Mirotic had 10 second quarter points and Brooks broke out his array of circus tricks with the basketball, spinning a few in as even the home audience oooed and aaahed.

It was 47-47 at halftime. The Bulls were closing faster on threes as the Thunder would get just 12 attempts through three quarters (four of 12 while the Bulls were seven of 23 through three). The Bulls also did excellent work cutting off the Thunder’s improved pick and roll with Kanter and Adams as the guards were aggressive over the top and big men were showing well and getting back.

“We’re good enough,” said Thibodeau. “We could have won this game; we could have won the Charlotte game. We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

Westbrook got going in the third quarter after a relatively quiet first half with 10 points. He scored a dozen in the third and Kanter, aggressive on the offensive side, added 10, including a back breaking tip in of a missed free throw to end the third quarter and put the Thunder ahead 75-70. But the Bulls battled into an early fourth quarter lead behind the scoring of Noah and Mirotic. The Bulls led 80-78 on a Noah driving score. Oklahoma City surged back with Westbrook.

The Bulls had enough responses, mostly from Mirotic, basically staying within a basket for the next eight minutes until that sequence of errors the Bulls could no longer overcome.

“The good thing about today was we gave ourselves a chance,” said Gasol. “We were right there; a couple of plays didn’t go our way, went their way and they won the game. As shorthanded as we are, as tough as our schedule has been of late, we’re still giving ourselves a chance. We’re still a couple of plays away from winning meaningful games in tough conditions.

“With the guys we have we shouldn’t have those letdowns like the game in Charlotte,” added Gasol. “A lot of teams are fighting for their lives, so we must also play with that sense of urgency. We are in a very similar position. We are fighting to finish as high as we can, get into the playoffs with the best chance possible. That’s what we need to understand and not dwell on all the negatives. The results are tough at this point, but there are things we can build on, things we are doing well.”