It’s not difficult to find out what happened. The Bulls Thursday lost 109-101 to the San Antonio Spurs, falling to 32-31 and into ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
The most common explanation was, in addition to the missing players with Joakim Noah lost for the season and Jimmy Butler out with a knee injury, though not serious and expected to return soon, the surfeit of turnovers, this time 21.
“That (turnovers) was the game,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We did enough, outrebounded them by 10, limited to eight in the fast break, 19 free throw attempts. Played well for the most part, except for the turnovers.”
But why, why, why, why, that is the question.
It’s one thing to say stop committing turnovers; it’s another to do so.
And, frankly, it’s not likely to be resolved for this Bulls team given who they are and whom they have left.
Pau Gasol, who had 21 points 12 rebounds, four assists and seven turnovers, delivered the best explanation for the ongoing issue, and not only because he was familiar with a third of them.
“The way we’ve been playing lately with a lot of ball movement, a lot of sharing the ball, not so much isolations, turnovers are going to happen, especially against a team with long, athletic players, pretty good defenders and in the right position most of the time,” said Gasol. “We shouldn’t have forced some of those passes, some actions that cost us possessions in a game we were pretty much in the entire game; it makes a difference. They are a good team and make you pay for your mistakes and we committed too many tonight.”
It was as succinct and learned an explanation about a game as possible.
None of the clichés or the player/media dance that goes on constantly:
So what happened?
We need to be more aggressive/We were more aggressive.
The Bulls did play a pretty good game.
Derrick Rose had 21 points and six assists with just two turnovers. E’Twaun Moore had 20 points with four of five threes. Justin Holiday had 12 points off the bench in further earning himself a rotation spot.
Which is part of the reason for so many turnovers, though not to blame Holiday.
Here he is one of the top eight players and playing about 21 minutes and no one ever heard of him three weeks ago. Moore’s now a starting guard playing a team high 36 minutes. What should have been the starting lineup has played together one game this season, and perhaps not again until next week when it is hoped Butler will return after a second opinion confirmed his knee injury isn’t serious.
The point Gasol was making in actually explaining what was happening as opposed to the usual game of banalities was not an excuse but a reality. It also contrasted well with the Spurs, now 55-10 and 31-0 at home.
Their core of players has been together with situational additions for several years. They are playing the way they’ve played for years and, by the way, they also have the league’s best individual defensive player in Kawhi Leonard and still Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in the starting lineup to make the transition easier for someone like LaMarcus Aldridge, who added 26 points while Parker had 20 and 12 assists.
They are so smart as well.
They started Leonard on Rose, and Rose forced some shots early as the Spurs opened up a 17-11 start. Though the Bulls tied it at 27 after one quarter.
It was reminiscent of the way the 90’s championship Bulls came at opponents. You put the best defender on their primary playmaker. Make someone else make plays. So, step 1: Leonard on Rose. Then you identify a wildcard scorer and take him out, as the Spurs did in smothering Doug McDermott. He had just four shots (and four points) in 22 minutes. Then the other guys can’t do enough to beat you. Even if Moore made four of five threes and the Bulls still were trailing just 96-92 with 5:52 left after a Gibson dunk on a Moore pass.
“It was a game for the taking,” said Gibson. “We played a great game. Turned the ball over a lot, plays you wish you could take back, easy bunnies, especially that last play (of mine). I put (the dunk) in two hands and it came out. One of those nights we had great looks; the energy was there, just came up short.
“I felt we did a great job all around,” Gibson added. “We were playing hard; we just turned the ball over a lot. I can live with us playing hard and playing tough, especially against a great team like that. Keep playing hard, good things are going to happen.”
The Spurs demonstrated what championship caliber is about with an 11-2 run at that point. It was aided by three more Bulls turnovers and that miss Gibson slam which didn’t earn a foul call, but did get Hoiberg’s first ever technical foul call as an NBA player or coach.
“I love it,” said Gibson. “I’m used to a guy last year screaming all the time. I’ve got a lot of respect for Fred. He is a good coach. He jumped in at the right time. I thought I got hit; it’s a part of the game, got to play tough. When you are trying to make the playoffs, when you are fighting for your life, things are going to happen. I felt the energy, felt we had a good chance to win that game.”
More on the historic Fred moment later.
As for those recurrent turnovers, this is who this Bulls team is. You know, it is what it is.
It’s a team attempting to employ its talent with a more open style game. But you cannot flip that switch from a controlled game with limited movement to a more free flowing game without a regular rotation and not face games with errant play.
Hoiberg often talks about making the simple play, but it’s also in the eye of the beholder to see that play. This type of play takes time to master and players familiar with one another working together. Sure, they could return to the slowdown rules of recent seasons. But you can’t succeed in the NBA today that way, and certainly not in the playoffs. Look at a team like grind-it-out Memphis; they play much faster now as well. There is a trick to defense when you play slowly. If you limit your rotation and walk the ball up to be in position to defend, your statistics are better on the defensive end. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a great defensive team, especially without your best defenders, who happen to be Noah and Butler.
If you limit the rotation and stretch the same seven guys to 40 minutes each, you can maintain more defensive continuity and cut down on turnovers with isolation play and less passing. If you dare try to play to your offensive talents, you may have to accept more mistakes.
You can overcome them against most teams with the talent and faster play; it’s more difficult against a team so smart and savvy, like the Spurs.
“This team has won 40 in a row at home,” noted Hoiberg. “You shoot yourselves in the foot by giving them so many opportunities. Instead of getting the ball to Derrick, we just tried to go down and hit home runs; we have to make the right play, get it swung. We had movement, but when you turn the ball over and don’t get a shot up on the board you pay for that. The big thing is keeping things simple. When we do that good things happen. Our assist numbers have been good lately, but we missed so many point blank shots. We could have had higher assist totals as well.”
The Bulls did do a lot of good things.
Moore shooting continued to impress; Gasol, for the most part, was too much for Duncan. Rose after that shaky start shot the ball well, especially after a slow start to the third quarter and trailing 60-48. Rose rallied them back with a pair of jumpers and a three.
Actually, Moore’s three late in the second quarter pulled the Bulls within 50-47 with about two minutes remaining. The Spurs led 54-47 at the half, and the Bulls basically never led but for a few minutes early in the second quarter.
Bobby Portis gave it an effort in a return from an eye injury Monday, but veteran David West ran him out of the game quickly with short jumpers and physical play. Holiday, who had been deferring, looked for his shot and played well. He did a better job on Leonard, though no one did that well, after Mike Dunleavy struggled defending Leonard with Butler missing.
The Spurs kept pulling away, but then the Bulls would be back in it, again down 66-65 on another Moore three midway through the third quarter, within 75-70 later on a Gasol three and then trailing 84-74 after. But after the Spurs opened the fourth ahead 90-78, Rose and Holiday made shots to get back within 90-87 with eight minutes left in the fourth and then hung in a few more minutes until the Spurs were just too much.
“So experienced, so talented and they know the game,” marveled Rose of the Spurs. “They know basketball and it’s hard to play it against a team that’s so experienced like that. It’s been the story of the year (turnovers).
“I wouldn’t say one play (away), a couple of plays away,” Rose added about being close throughout. “On the defensive side we had plays; let them get all the way to the lane and didn’t box out and they pitched it out for shots. It’s been happening the whole year and something we did not do tonight.”
Then there was The T.
There’s been this specious debate about Hoiberg as coach and getting a technical foul. Butler first raised the issue back in December in the veiled remarks about Hoiberg needing to coach harder. There’s been the connection made that it involves getting a technical foul, that being a symbol of real coaching. Yes, acting like an idiot at work.
Though we know this type of behavior often is explained as coaching, a motivational technique. I’m not personally a fan, believing that pro athletes don’t need someone screaming hysterically to be serious about their jobs. Especially when they are not permitted to do so themselves. Though that behavior generally has been equated with serious coaching even in its apparent contrivance. As Hoiberg is a mature human being, screaming at a co worker—that being the man trying to resolve the debate—isn’t viewed by him as productive activity. But sports is not exactly real life.
So some like it.
“It shows the players you are out there fighting for them; you’re involved, and you need that from the coaches. You need to know someone has your back, especially the coach,” said Rose.
And some don’t as much.
“Not something that makes me feel any better or any different,” said Gasol. “He (Hoiberg) felt Taj got fouled and he let it be known to the referees and he got emotional; once you are involved in the game, it’s a good time, I guess, to see some emotion; didn’t make that much difference.”
It was with 2:38 left and Hoiberg wandered onto the court after Gibson somehow missed a dunk after getting Patty Mills switched onto him. Gibson objected, Hoiberg threw his arms up and came onto the court. Official Kevin Cutler signaled the historic first. Fred also referenced cattle droppings in his objection, though it was unclear if any Bulls ran through any walls afterward as the arena seemed solid structurally.
The Bulls hope to get more so with Butler returning, possibly against Miami Friday or more likely in Toronto Monday. Hoiberg doesn’t have any technical fouls outside the United States, so who knows what the weeks ahead promise.