The defense was better Wednesday in Orlando, but this time it was the offense as the Bulls lost 102-89 to the Orlando Magic.
The Bulls endured a familiar script, falling behind 33-23 after the first quarter, trying in vain to recover with the likes of Cameron Bairstow, E’Twaun Moore and Justin Holiday trying to make up the difference. It comes across as an excuse—and not one heard from the coaches or players as they continue to reiterate there should be none–but the Bulls in crucial situations Wednesday were trying to overcome four top 10 lottery picks and savvy, young center Nikola Vucevic, himself a top 16 pick, with a cadre of second round, free agents and players barely in the first round of their drafts.
“I think the record always shows who you are,” said Pau Gasol. “I don’t think we are better than what our record is.”
The Bulls record now is 30-30, the latest the team has been .500 since the 2009-10 season. They’ve lost four straight and nine of 12 and some element of the optimism now is the misfortune of others as the Bulls are tied with the Washington Wizards for 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
Hey, it’s the East.
“Honestly, we have a lot of holes everywhere,” said Mike Dunleavy. “Not getting into our coverages, not going with the game plan, not going with the individual tendencies of our opponents and having that grit, getting it done whether in the rebounding game, the post ups, hitting people; it’s kind of all across the board.
“We’ve got a hodge podge group of guys going right now,” noted Dunleavy. “Practices are limited (with Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Joakim Noah and now Taj Gibson out injured). “We’re going back home; have to protect our home court, have some confidence playing there. Playing in front of our own crowd can provide some energy. Hang in there and stick with it. We continue to struggle, but we’re not losing too much ground, amazingly, in this playoff race; we’re still in it and we just have to hang in there.”
Though there have been few signs of late with the relative lack of competitiveness, few games now being competed in the fourth quarter, a rarity for this group of players.
“This is foreign ground to a lot of us in this locker room, including myself,” said Derrick Rose, who led with 16 points and six assists. “So we’ve got to find a way to make it happen.”
Rose thought he could the way he once did. Breaking out with a vengeance in going to the basket, three of four shooting in the first quarter and four of five in the second with a team high four assists by then. And then as the team trudged off the court at halftime, the Magic was leading 60-50, another Bulls double digit deficit that was up to 20 points four minutes into the third quarter. And then, again, too far below to see the light in the night.
“I wish I could put my finger on (the slow starts),” said Rose. “I can’t. First time I’m ever going through this; all this is new to me. Just trying to figure things out, thoughts, plays, everything going everywhere, an overload mentally. But we’ve got to figure it out.
“Even to be behind (in the playoff race); from the beginning of the year, before we even started, our goals and everything, are we trying to get into the playoffs?” wondered Rose. “You have to ask those questions. Just got to come out and play. Our actions should be everything. There are no excuses. Whoever steps on the floor has to do their job and try their hardest to come out here and compete every night.
“At the beginning of the year we said we wanted to get into the playoffs (and beyond),” said Rose, who has looked fast and certain after three games out with a hamstring issue. “The question came up, are we trying? Do we have to come out and play a lot different? The season is not over with. We still have 20-some games left; we still have a shot to be in the playoffs.”
It’s fading fast, though there are not the usual signs of discontent, of giving up, of finger pointing and assessing blame elsewhere. They don’t point to injuries, insisting the players there can perform well enough, and supportive of one another without resentments or jealousies.
“I don’t think anybody is maliciously doing anything,” said Aaron Brooks, a veteran of locker rooms that have deteriorated. “This is probably one of the best locker rooms I’ve been in. That’s positive and it’s a negative. There are so many good guys. Probably needs to be some (jerks).”
Brooks added a bit of that with a pair of technical fouls and an ejection in his own frustration with 6:31 left and the Bulls trailing 95-74.
“Everybody gets along,” said Brooks. “I don’t think it’s malicious; just have to go out there and play harder. That’s the key. Just going out there and taking stuff personal; you want to leave the game better than when you came in. I think everybody should take pride in stats, not just from the stat sheet, but make sure you are contributing something positive when you are in the game. That boils down to plus/minus, really; when you go in you want to make sure you left the game better than when you came in. If everybody does that you’ll come out on top.
“You just want to go out there and be positive, diving for a loose ball,” Brooks added. “If you are not making a shot, make sure you are blocking out harder, everything just has to be harder.”
Unfortunately for the Bulls, it’s the wins that have become the hardest to find.
No one made this excuse, but I did note in the fourth quarter with Vucevic (No. 16), Victor Oladipo (No. 2), Aaron Gordon (No. 4), Mario Hezonga (No. 5) and Elfrid Payton (No. 10) on the floor the Bulls were answering with Doug McDermott (Ok, 11th pick), but also rookie Bobby Portis, Brooks, Tony Snell, working on his 10th scoreless game of the season until the fourth quarter and Holiday, who’d recently been playing in Hungary.
Perhaps Butler will return Saturday or Monday, as coach Fred Hoiberg speculated. Maybe Taj Gibson isn’t out long—he’s listed day to day—with his hamstring injury; possibly Nikola Mirotic regains enough strength and health to get back soon enough for the Bulls to make a run. After all, it’s not like anyone after the first four or five teams in the Eastern Conference is streaking or out of reach. The Bulls have a winning record against the top teams in the conference even with their early season inconsistencies. So it is there; somewhere.
It will rest on the Bulls, who had Gasol with 12 points and McDermott 11 while Vucevic had 24, Hezonja a career high 21 and dunking fest star Gordon 13 points and 15 rebounds as the Bulls were again battered on the boards, 59-48.
That deficit on the boards was most evident in the second quarter when the Bulls failed to rebound a missed free throw and Orlando had two three-point play chances on one possession. The Magic shot 22 free throws to 11 for the Bulls, and as we are told the aggressor get the benefit. The other guy gets frustrated and sometimes ejected.
“Lack of awareness, lack of communication,” said Gasol. “Once we go to help a guy, the next guy is not there; there are a lot of defensive breakdowns. Transition the first half was not good. All those issues make you go down in games and have that bad difference.
“Teams come in and they see us struggling; they know we are struggling, so they see opportunities,” warned Gasol. “They come in confident. They know shots when you are tighter there is a little more pressure. All these teams are just coming in hitting, what it was five for six from the three-point line (5-7 in the first quarter). They smell blood and go for it. That doesn’t make things any easier, but at the same time we have to step it up and set the tone earlier and make sure the games don’t start the way they have been.”
Dunleavy, usually so reliable, missed two point blank layups on the same possession in the second quarter. He hit a three, however, on the next one. The Bulls tried some different things on defense after halftime , a light trap in the half court, some double teaming from different directions with Rose and Moore taking turns. But the Magic seemed rarely phased, reacting quickly as Payton had a season high 12 assists. Hoiberg sat Rose, Gasol and Dunleavy in the fourth quarter.
Transition defense was lacking as Orlando had 19 fast break points, and though the Bulls had just eight turnovers and a healthy 24 assists, the help defense and offensive rebounding was again uncertain.
“Believe it or not they’ve been focused at practice, focused at shootarounds, focused in the locker room this morning,” said Hoiberg. “Have to find a way to carry that over and gain confidence. Once those lights turn on you have to have that confidence to go out and compete.
“That’s all we’re going to talk about, work on the next couple of days, coming out and getting off to a better start, however that needs to happen,” said Hoiberg. “Whether change warmups; it’s winning that first five minutes, that first quarter. And gaining confidence ourselves. We’ve got 22 games to get it figured out. We’re on the outside looking in now. I would hope pride would kick in and you come out with a defensive mentality and get off to a better start.
“It’s a mindset to come out with an aggressiveness,” reiterated Hoiberg. “We talked about it at halftime, after the game; we talked about it this morning, we talked about it before the game and it happened again; we have to find a way to fix it.”
Because it’s now not so many games left.
“Things don’t look too good right now,” admitted Gasol. “But hopefully we can change things around and get some momentum starting the next game at home. Then things will look a lot better, but it is not supposed to be easy the way the situation is now. Every game that goes by we don’t get to win, it will be more difficult. So we have to play every single game like it’s our last one, like it’s extremely meaningful because they are. The coaching staff is trying to send those messages, but you have to bring it on the floor and make it happen.
“The record always reflects who you are,” said Gasol.” And where you deserve to be, so let’s see if we can improve it.”