Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Now or never

Sam Smith writes that the struggling Bulls need to turn things around this week to make a run at the playoffs

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By Sam Smith | 3.28.2016 | 9:30 a.m.

How’s that Einstein definition of insanity go?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

It is time for the Bulls to try something new in this vital week, which probably is their last realistic chance to not only make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, but dispel the notion they’ve surrendered.

The Bulls Monday host the Atlanta Hawks. Then Tuesday they play seventh place Indiana with a chance to win the season tiebreaker, and then Saturday host the eighth place Detroit Pistons, also with a chance to gain an edge in the tiebreaker.

It’s a week that could save their season or break their hearts.


It may take an Einstein to fully discover what’s wrong with these Bulls, who with the three passionless losses to losing East teams last week started to become molecules in the NBA playoff formula. The Bulls still are mathematically involved at 36-36 and two games—one in the loss column—behind the Pistons.

So there are plenty of possibilities and opportunities. Despite the theory that last week’s relatively emotionless play has left the Bulls fighting for their playoff lives.

"It's a do-or-die week for us,” Mike Dunleavy said after Sunday practice that involved more bad movies and some supposedly frank discussions about the team’s physics and chemistry.

So what to do?

Maybe first bench Pau Gasol.

No, not because of the way he’s played or because he’s on a minutes limit with knee problems or because it’s his fault. It’s probably less his than others’. But desperate times—and we’ve heard that from Bulls players for weeks now of this do or die thing—demand some desperation.

As Einstein warned, keep doing the same thing and you’ll get the same result.

So perhaps a little shakeup to start. And against the Hawks would be a good time as they have dominated the Bulls this season as few teams have, averaging 112 points and a winning margin of almost 18 points per game in the three Atlanta wins. And at third in the East now they’ve been one of the league’s hottest teams.

The Hawks’ matchups are bad for the Bulls because Atlanta plays fast and with big men shooting outside. I’d start Taj Gibson on Al Horford since Horford has feasted on the Bulls shooting jumpers. I’d move Jimmy Butler to power forward against Paul Millsap, who isn’t that tall, and have Doug McDermott start and defend Kyle Korver.

Get more scoring and spacing on the floor, and Korver is not about to put the ball on the floor and take advantage of McDermott. Plus, McDermott has been one of the few Bulls players who does move around constantly. With E’Twaun Moore out play Justin Holiday on Kent Bazemore. They’re not going to him. Then bring Gasol in against the Mike Muscalas of the Hawks world and let them figure out how to matchup to you.

There’s nothing to lose here as most everyone thinks this is a lost season already.

And nobody can really figure it out.

Injuries? Given up? Disconnect among the players? With the coach? Worn down by the expectations? Trying to do too much? Too little? Different airplane? New locker room? Itchy socks?

“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Dunleavy said after the loss in Orlando. “It’s not just one little thing here or there. It is not on the defensive end or the offensive end. It’s both. It’s just a lot of stuff. So to say one thing that we are not doing right that would solve everything, but that’s just not the case. It is just a bunch of things we are struggling with not only with effort, but execution, discipline, continuity; you could go through the whole thing. From that standpoint, I can’t even sit over here and say it is one thing or we are not playing hard enough, we need to do everything better.”

“We are taking it one game at a time, trying to figure things out while we are out there but still losing games,” said Derrick Rose. “We are trying to be on the same page. Guys are trying, but it is just hard. We have lost three in a row. I wish all three of them could have been wiped away, but the reality of it is that we lost three. Right now all we can do is just try as a team to go out there and play as hard as we can. As far as losing being contagious or anything like that, I don’t know about it. This is the most I have ever lost in my career as far as on the NBA level and, like I said, we are trying to figure things out.”

The players obviously have become weary of the same what’s wrong and why questions for weeks now. It’s difficult to blame them.

But there’s also a chance.

The game against Atlanta will be difficult the way the Hawks are playing, but at least the Bulls can begin to make a stand. If you are going down, at least go out with spirit, hustle and effort, diving toward the playoffs. They still could get a burn, but at least feel good about the end.

And then there are the Indiana Pacers Tuesday.

The Bulls are 2-1 against them this season and they’re still in reach with only two fewer losses than the Bulls. A win clinches the tiebreaker for the Bulls and opens up more possibilities with Indiana still having to play the Cavaliers and Raptors.

The Bulls are in Houston Thursday against a Rockets team under .500, and then perhaps the deciding game back in the United Center Saturday against the Pistons. The Bulls are 1-2 against Detroit this season with both losses in overtime, including the four-overtime game in December.

That game proved to be one of the season turning points as Butler condemned Hoiberg after the next game, a loss in New York. It led to another loss, at home against Brooklyn before the team righted itself beating the Oklahoma City Thunder Christmas Day. That led to the high mark six-game winning streak that took the team to 22-12 and predictions around the NBA the Cavs were feeling the heat from the Bulls. The Bulls then were pummeled in Atlanta, Joakim Noah was hurt, and soon Nikola Mirotic and Butler went out and the spiral began.

By the way, the Bulls would be returning Gasol to the starting lineup by the time they got to Houston and Dwight Howard and Detroit and Andre Drummond. Hoiberg doesn’t have a lot of options with the disappointing and inconsistent play of so many off the bench.

But it also is a time to challenge players. Not necessarily by calling them out or being confrontational. But perhaps playing a different position, trying it another way, challenging them to show the talent that led so many even near mid season to consider them conference contenders. You can’t lose that much in that short a time period.

This is the week to show it. Because the same thing has been producing the same results. And it’s driving the fans mad.