As Dwyane Wade goes so goes the Bulls?
It may well be as the Bulls Saturday played their first uncompetitive game of the season in what not so coincidently was Wade’s poorest game of the fledgling season.
Wade was one of nine for four points as the Bulls never led, trailing by double digits for more than three quarters, by as much as 27 points and casually lost to the Indiana Pacers 111-94.
Jimmy Butler and Bobby Portis led the Bulls with 16 points each, Portis with all his in the fourth quarter when the starters didn’t play with the Bulls trailing by 24 after three quarters. Robin Lopez and Doug McDermott each had 12 and Taj Gibson, the most lively of the starters, had nine points and 12 rebounds. The Bulls had 17 assists and 18 turnovers.
The Pacers came in giving up the most points per game in the league, 115. The Bulls were the first team the Pacers held under 100 points. The Pacers also shot 54 percent after losing by 18 to the Bucks in their previous game.
“I thought tonight we looked like a tired basketball team right out of the gate,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “They opened up with a 16-point lead (after one quarter) and that’s a tough hole to dig yourself out of. Down 19 at the half it’s hard to come back from that. (We’ve) got to find a way to bounce back and get back to doing the things that made us successful earlier in the season. Eighteen turnovers led to 24 points and that was a big reason that we dug ourselves that hole out there. Now it’s a matter of getting back to work and finding out what we have to do and hopefully coming out and playing well on Monday.”
That’s against the Orlando Magic, who after a poor start are tied with the Bulls at 3-3. That exhilaration from the dashing Bulls 3-0 opening has dissolved in a rush of poor starts to games, lax defense, high turnovers, low assists and limited ball movement. Not that we saw this coming after those three impressive opening victories, but it does seem on one level to mirror the impact of Wade.
The All Star veteran practically carried the Bulls back solo into Friday’s game against the Knicks after the Bulls fell behind 22-6 to start. Wade scored 35 points against New York and had a team high 10 rebounds. He came into Saturday’s game first or second on the Bulls in scoring, minutes played, steals, assists and also averaging five rebounds, high for a guard. Plus he was shooting a career best 10 of 19 for 53 percent on threes.
But with the first back to back set of the season, Wade just didn’t have it after five terrific games as a leader and guiding the team in crucial stretches. It’s a lot to ask of the 34-year-old veteran who has been the heart of the team thus far. He’s been willing, though this time not able.
“Six games into the season we do have to play better,” said Wade. “The starters have to individually get off to a better start. We have to put it on ourselves to determine how the game is going to go. It could be a good thing that we are going through this early on so we have a chance to figure it out and get out of it. We are going to find out how we respond. We’ve got the blueprint for success. We just have to get back to it. If we don’t, we will struggle. We have an opportunity Monday night to get better.”
The NBA is about looking ahead, but suddenly the Bulls have to check the rear view mirror as that riveting start has settled into an early tie for eighth place in the conference.
Perhaps more concerning are the worrisome patterns developing, the lethargic starts that were prominent in the preseason, the return to more isolation play on offense as the sublime ball movement of the first week has faded to the apparent confusion on defense with players regularly out of position after switching.
“Right out of the gate you could see it,” said Hoiberg. “You look back at those three wins and they all had something in common: The defensive mindset right out of the gate, holding our first three teams at 20 points (in the first quarter), including this team (and) a very high powered Boston offensive team. We need to find a way to get that back. It’s going out there and imposing your will the minute that ball is thrown up for the opening tip and again we are obviously capable of doing it. We have done it; we did it for the first three games and we need to find a way to get it back. We started executing it in the second half, but it has to start early. Has to start right when from the jump.”
It was another languid, walking start for the Bulls, three turnovers in the first four possessions and trailing by double digits after seven minutes and pretty much the rest of the game. No, not every team makes a run. Perhaps you can blame the second of the back to back after the emotional Derrick Rose/Joakim Noah homecoming; perhaps the end of a three in four nights and six in the first 10 days as the Bulls were among the last teams to start the new NBA season.
But Rajon Rondo’s turnovers have mounted, the reserves have been inconsistent with Nikola Mirotic zero for six shooting and taken out for a defensive miscue, and Butler hasn’t always been engaged. He had six turnovers Saturday and wasn’t running the wing much. Though it didn’t look much like anyone was passing ahead as the Bulls walked into most possessions. Butler attempted a season low seven shots and matched a season low with 16 points.
The Bulls were the aggressors that first week in impressive wins against Indiana, Boston and Brooklyn. The ball moved rapidly up court and cross court. The defense was bolder. The Bulls have used a lot of switching on defense this season. The advantage is the way it can curtail pick and roll plays. But you need similarly effective defenders. When it doesn’t work, your best defenders often get hung up on non shooters in mismatches. The Bulls have been lacking on those switches in recent games by not being aggressive. They’ve also allowed opponents to get into their offense without much resistance and then walked the ball up court, which is nothing like the blueprint for success that Wade talked about having worked so well in the earlier games.
It was a brutal first quarter for the Bulls, seven turnovers and six field goals, a recipe for being ill immediately. Mirotic, who had played well even in the recent losses, pretty much played exact change gate on a couple of Pacers drives and Hoiberg lifted him early. McDermott bounced back from his concussion absence with an 11-point second quarter. But Indiana kept making those mostly uncontested shots, 64 percent in the second quarter for the 62-43 halftime lead. The switches on defense looked late or lazy much of the time. Gibson chased down several loose balls and offensive rebounds, but with little support.
The Bulls did hold the Pacers scoreless for almost the first four minutes of the second half, but then mixed in their own one of six shooting and a pair of turnovers. Jeff Teague, who was scoreless when the Bulls beat the Pacers last week, then shook loose for nine of his game high 21 points. Pacers star Paul George was ejected late in the third quarter for inadvertently kicking the ball into the stands.
“I meant to kick the ball off the basket stanchion, but my soccer skills aren’t as good as I thought,” George said. “I apologized to (the fan) about hitting her.”
He’ll be fined; the Bulls hope to be fine.
The Bulls might have been the ones apologizing for the lack of a competitive effort, however. Hoiberg went with the reserves in the fourth quarter, Portis with 10 straight points in one sequence that did at least get the Pacers to put back in three starters when the Bulls got within 19 with 5:25 left.
“It has to start on the defensive end of the floor,” agreed Wade. “Teams are starting fast against us. We have to do a better job of communicating and paying attention to detail. We are not moving the ball early on and that is hurting us. We’ve got to get back to (the things that won the first three games).”
It’s looking like they’ll just need a lot more Dwyane Wade.