Teachers understand this syndrome best. You make it so simple, go over it and over it and over it, almost tell them what’s going to be on the test, the questions and the answers. And then half the kids flunk. What the heck were they thinking about?
“Going into these games we put the biggest key, if you want to have a chance to win the game it’s getting back in transition,” sighed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “It’s all we talked about the last couple of days, but we didn’t get back, didn’t execute it. They drove it right down our throats. Got right to the rim and spread it out for open shots and that was the game.”
And so another test failed for the Bulls, who in their supposedly urgent playoff quest seemed to be thinking more of summer vacation. With a chance to maybe knock out one of the teams chasing them for the final playoff spot after the impressive Monday win in Toronto, the Bulls, instead, gave the Washington Wizards life and momentum in a runaway Washington 117-96 victory.
The Bulls, 33-33, hung onto a tie for eighth in the Eastern Conference with Detroit’s loss to Atlanta. But the Wizards, who also gained the tiebreaker over the Bulls, moved to 32-35 as John Wall had a triple double with 29 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Wall also had eight turnovers, but it didn’t much matter as the Bulls committed 18 for 23 point and trailed by double digits the entire second quarter in never making a run and suffered yet another injury loss.
New center Taj Gibson, with Pau Gasol out, aggravated a tight hamstring and pulled up shortly after returning to the game with 4:56 left in the second quarter in a 45-45 tie. Shortly thereafter, Gibson grabbed at the right hamstring he said bothered him in Toronto and came out. He didn’t play the second half. Hoiberg said he would be reevaluated back in Chicago Thursday, but doubted Gibson would play against the Nets. Similarly, Hoiberg acknowledged Gasol probably is out through the weekend with swelling in his knee.
And Mike Dunleavy didn’t look right in his return from the flu, scoreless in 18 minutes with three fouls.
That left rookie Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic to open the second half as the Bulls interior power with the Bulls trailing 63-52. The Wizards had a 17-point lead within two minutes and pretty much made it look like a light practice the rest of the way with 25 fast break points.
Hoiberg also said Cameron Bairstow is unavailable with a bad back, leaving Cristiano Felicio, who has two points in 23 minutes the last two games, as the primary big man coming in. Hoiberg said it’s possible the Bulls will have to go to a small ball type of game with the likes of Doug McDermott, who led the Bulls with 20 points, playing more power forward, perhaps along with Jimmy Butler.
Butler had 17 points, Derrick Rose 16 points and Justin Holiday another solid effort with 13 points and six rebounds. But it’s also obvious Butler isn’t quite confident in his return from a knee injury.
Butler has had two of his poorest games of the season, shooting a combined nine of 30 and zero for four on threes. He was the only starter in Toronto with a minus rating in the plus/minus statistic and was by far a team poorest minus 26 Wednesday. Plus, the Bulls made their only sustained run Wednesday to start the second quarter without him.
After trailing 32-25 in the first quarter as the Wizards pushed back at the Bulls at every opportunity, the Bulls took a 43-38 lead four minutes into the second quarter on a combined 21-6 run behind McDermott’s shooting and Rose’s driving layups.
Butler then returned and within five minutes the Bulls were trailing 53-45, and then got a three-point play from Gibson. But then Garrett Temple made a pair of threes off Wall passes among Temple’s five in the first half and the Bulls never would get their deficit into single digits.
“Terrible,” Butler volunteered about his play. “Can’t make a shot, as you can tell. It will come. I didn’t expect it to come right away, but I need it to come sooner rather than later. I have to produce. That’s why they got me here. So if I’m out there, it doesn’t matter if it’s bothering me or not. I’ve got to play basketball.
“I don’t think about knee or no knee,” said Butler. “I have to play better and I have to play better starting tomorrow.”
But it obviously remains an issue as Butler has lacked his usual ability to get past defenders and get fouled. He took long stretches on Wall with little effect, as well, as the Wizards were quicker, more aggressive and accurate with 13 of 21 threes. But Wall got them so many open looks with his penetration and passing. The Wizards in 10th place now trail the Bulls by just 1.5 games.
“Just weren’t disciplined,” Butler commented in a refrain heard among all the players blaming themselves. “We knew make or miss they were going to push the ball, get to the paint, kick it out for threes and they made shots. We’ve been down guys all year, so you can’t continually blame it on the personnel. You’re short guys you still have to get back, still have to guard, take away the three, rebound. We didn’t do any of that tonight.
“We’re just not the tougher team,” chastised Butler. “All the way down this roster we’re not the tougher team every night and it shows from the jump ball to the end. When there’s a loose ball, we’re not getting that. When there’s a rebound, people have to fight for it. I think we have a lot of guys who have the potential to go out there and go hard; we just forget how hard we have to play sometimes, a lot of the times, actually.”
But Butler wasn’t giving up hope or optimism with 16 games left and now a crucial stretch for that playoff possibility with four consecutive home games against teams with losing records and, overall, six straight games against teams with below .500 records.
“Why would we not have confidence in ourselves?” asked Butler. “Do you expect us to say we are not a good team? There are not going to be any pullouts that we don’t believe in each other. I don’t think anybody in this locker room would ever say that. I think we have confidence in one another. I think we can still win games and find ourselves in the playoffs; that’s all that matters now. No matter what seed you are in, it only matters if you are playing the best basketball at the right time.”
And Hoiberg knows the team needs Butler.
“The biggest thing with Jimmy is getting him back in that rhythm,” said Hoiberg. “I’m confident that will happen. Got it going a little bit and got to the free throw line a few times in the third quarter. Jimmy is one of the top players in the league; he’ll get it back soon.”
So there is time, though tick/tock, it’s speeding up as the Bulls more resemble a swimmer in trouble, bobbing up and down, gasping for air and help as the surface is that .500 mark. They’re determined not to go down, but just how much strength is left?
It seems unlikely this season a record below .500 will be good enough to get into the Eastern Conference playoffs. So this sets up as a crucial next 10 days. Because after that seven of the following eight games are against teams with winning records and half of those on the road.
“The challenge is pretty tough right now,” acknowledged Rose. “But that’s why we are pros.”
They didn’t look like it at times in Washington where, like some of the presidential contenders, they’re in the race but running out of mathematical possibilities.
“We’d stand for two seconds before we got on our horse and sprinted back,” said Hoiberg. “It was an all out sprint to get back, load, show a wall to Wall and we didn’t do it. It’s a concerted effort to get back, show bodies and try to make them kick it out and close out. But Wall was penetrating the seam and was able to kick to open shooters and they made us pay all game long.”
There wasn’t much to break down but more Bulls.
Rose had some good stretches in his return from missing two games with a hamstring strain.
“I thought (Rose’s) burst looked good,” said Hoiberg. “We wanted to play him short stints, no longer than seven minutes and the one stretch we had it going where we took a five-point lead after getting down double digits Derrick had a key part in that. We got back in transition in that stretch.”
That stretch also featured another big burst from McDermott, who had 13 points in 12 first half minutes. Hoiberg admitted they didn’t do a good job finding McDermott after halftime as he played six minutes in the third quarter without a shot as the Bulls fell behind 92-74 after three.
But Hoiberg noted the subtlety that doesn’t show up in the analytics, like Gibson picking off a defender in transition. There was no Gibson after halftime.
<p“The big thing is Taj did a really good job the last game coming down in transition and finding where (McDermott’s) man was and pinning him,” Hoiberg explained. “He got him a couple of great looks. Especially with the quarter he had he freed himself and guys did a good job of screening for him, but we have to get him the ball. A team like this that pressures you, and that’s (also) where you really miss a guy like Pau.”
That’s with Gasol’s shooting that can slow the pace when teams are scoring in bunches like the Wizards did. And clean up those misses and put them back like Gibson has.
“Tight, tight hamstring,” lamented Gibson. “Frustrating. Tried to go out there and give it a go, but have to listen to your body on this one. Understand the playoff race is close, so we’re going to need everybody. I don’t know how many days it will take, but trying to be there for the guys. I feel something positive is going to happen (with the team). The games are coming back to back to back, but I still feel we have a chance; just got to keep going, stay positive and keep working.”
Which now may take some different looks, even an extreme version of the speedball Hoiberg has talked about at times. After all, with Joakim Noah gone, Gibson out and Butler slowed, that’s your defensive core. Perhaps very small ball with shooting and just try to outscore them. Maybe just take your five best players left standing and see what they can do.
“I think it can be good for us, especially on offense,” said McDermott, 15 for 21 the last two games (seven of 11 on threes) for 49 points in 66 minutes. “We can spread the floor a little more and they’re going to switch a lot of screens on me. So they’ll get Aaron (Brooks), or Derrick or E’Twaun (Moore) a big guarding them. I think it can be really effective.
“I think Jimmy is capable of playing the four also; him trailing the play is pretty dangerous,” said McDermott. “We’ve got to get used to it. We‘ve had a lot of injuries. Some guys are not used to playing with each other at certain positions. So we have to build on it and find a way to get on a winning streak here.”
Which is the only way to truly learn.