Sometimes you can hold your tongue and say the right thing, the political thing, for just so long. And this was just too much for Jimmy Butler, what with the Bulls shockingly uncompetitive 115-107 loss Wednesday to the going nowhere New York Knicks, the Bulls outrebounded a stunning 53-34, giving up 52 percent shooting and 56 percent on threes, trailing by 22 at home in the fourth quarter in what is supposed to be an urgent final sprint to the playoffs.
So Butler said, in effect, enough with everyone’s feelings, enough with trying to be popular.
It’s time—sorry to say—to point some fingers.
"I see things wrong. He (coach Fred Hoiberg) is supposed to say it’s a team thing. I don’t think (it is) right now," Butler said after avoiding media for a few days. "I know this is a team game. But if one of your so called best players is not doing what he’s supposed to do, that’s what’s going to happen."
Derrick? Pau? Dunleavy? Taj, nah, couldn’t be Taj.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the worst of them all?
"You see the way I’ve been playing lately, it’s sad," Butler said in his self described flaggelation. "That’s what you call it, piss poor, terrible. My teammates won’t say it, my coaches won’t say it, but I’m a realist. If I continue to play like this, I am hurting this team.
"I don’t know what it is," said Butler. "But it has nothing to do with the knee (which cost him a month out and a second opinion for certainty). My body is fine. Nothing wrong physically. Now, it’s mentally. Ball’s not going in. I let that affect me on both ends of the floor. It better turn around quick because I want to help this team get to the playoffs.
"They made shots, but we didn’t take them out of their stuff," noted Butler about the Bulls mostly passive effort until a fourth quarter rally got them within 107-98 with 3:45 left after a Derrick Rose three pointer.
Rose had 21 points with his 10th game in his last 13 shooting at least 50 percent. Though the comeback was driven by Nikola Mirotic with five fourth quarter three pointers and 20 of his career high 35 points in the fourth quarter. Mirotic’s nine of 13 threes tied Ben Gordon’s franchise record for three pointers.
But Knicks star rookie Kristaps Porzingis, who tied his career high with 29 points, beat Mirotic on a backdoor cut for a layup and 109-98 lead with 3:25 left. Mirotic came back with that fifth three pointer, but no big defensive stands again as Carmelo Anthony with 24 points made a tough three with Butler draped all over him for a 112-101 Knicks lead with 2:37 left. The 29-43 Knicks had survived.
Reports of Anthony’s demise, as I digress here, have been much exaggerated. He gets pummeled in the New York media, but he not only remains a heck of a shot maker but is playing smart ball. He moved the ball, isn’t forcing shots and could be a force for a few more years when he teams up with LeBron James and Chris Paul. Wait, that’s too much of a digression. Maybe for another day.
The Bulls, meanwhile, then rolled into intense desperation mode and began searching out threes.
Mirotic suckered the Knicks into one with a foul for three free throws. But Butler air balled a drive as he’s continued to look almost awkward in his offensive play. Mirotic missed a three and Mike Dunleavy tossed the ball away trying to find someone else to attempt a long one.
The Bulls Monday barely survived a losing Sacramento team, saving themselves with a late fourth quarter rally. This time they were too far behind, an obviously worrisome sign in what they called pressure must-have games, badly outplayed the first three quarters of both games with a minus 10 on the boards Monday and minus 19 against the Knicks.
"They got what they wanted to get," noticed Butler. "They were too comfortable. That’s supposed to be my job, to start it on that end of the floor. So when I get my mind off offense and making shots and start to guard, maybe, just maybe everything will turn around. I don’t know what it is. I know how much work I put in; it has to show sooner or later."
Butler has been playing poorly; he won’t get any arguments about surely his worst stretch since he became an All-Star player the last two years.
Since returning from his knee injury, Butler is averaging 13.8 points and shooting 36.8 percent in the six games. And it’s getting worse as he’s averaging 10.3 points on 34 percent shooting the last three games.
"I’ve got be better," Butler said. "This group of guys we have is very talented. But if I am going to go out and play like this, it’s not good. You’re not making shots, pass it to the guys who are (Butler had eight assists and the team a good 29). Moving on into the game my team needs for me to score, be aggressive, not as passive as I’ve been and I know it. Hopefully I’ll make some shots tomorrow (playing the Knicks in New York Thursday)."
Though he and Hoiberg say his health is good, it’s obvious watching Butler he’s not moving with the same speed, lift or confidence. Perhaps he’s worried about his knee as he did seek a second opinion after being cleared to play. After mssing a month, it does take time to get the rhythm the players like to talk about that is essential for NBA success. And maybe it’s just a slump like everyone else has had.
"Everybody goes though this, has some tough games," said Gibson. "Like I told him, ‘Don’t worry; you have to work your way out of it.’ Everyone comes around eventually. The NBA is about having a good rhythm to go out and make your normal shots. He just has to get back in the gym and work his way out of it. Everybody has those tough spots. He’ll be fine."
And while Butler aimed his fire at himself—about the only thing he was aiming at that he did hit—he has been hardly alone in his frustration and lack of productivity of late.
Mike Dunleavy is averaging just four points and not moving well since the virus that hit him in Canada. As one of the team’s best shooters, he’s shooting 26.9 percent in those five games back. Pau Gasol had just four points and five rebounds in 25 minutes Wednesday as he’s on a playing time limitation since his return from knee problems. He’s said he doesn’t expect his knee to be right this season. Gasol is averaging nine points and shooting 35.3 percent in his two games back.
More worrisome is his lack of movement. Never one to react explosively, the Bulls have been pounded on the boards in Gasol’s return. Though Gibson had his poorest game in a while with just two rebounds as the Knicks giants in Porzingis and Robin Lopez were too much inside for the Bulls. Lopez had 11 points and 13 rebounds. And it still doesn’t even look like he knows how to run.
Though the Bulls have many more flaws, certainly beyond Butler and even some uncertain play from others.
There has been this frequent refrain all season about the lack of urgency and this energy thing and too much offense and all those generalities.
But the Bulls, now 36-34 and, oh by the way, in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with Detroit’s win Wednesday, continue to make so many fundamentally obvious errors it has to be exasperating.
Here’s something to watch: When teams swing the ball, the Bulls invariably have a defender on the weak side move in to help. Whom he is helping remains unclear as there already are three defenders facing the strong side opponent. So the ball swings back and there’s another open three.
Not only did the Bulls do this relentlessly, but even with Butler, the team’s best defender, in position. Yes, I understand about collapsing the paint. But when a team is seven of 11 on threes in the first half, maybe get out by that line? After all, who exactly goes to the basket in the NBA anymore, anyway?
"We talked about in the triangle offense making them feel us. We’d do it for a stretch, but we could not sustain the defensive intensity out there," said Hoiberg. "They won the loose ball battle, the rebounds, all the 50/50 balls. They got all of them tonight. They out rebounded us by 19. They just outhorsed us, out toughed us all night long."
Then there’s that rebounding.
The Bulls are generally pretty good overall, second in total rebounds, though about 50th in protecting their defensive boards. The league lists it as 30th since there are only 30 teams, but it seems worse.
There is a simple rule in rebounding. Feel your man with your body—it’s not like Lopez or Porzingis can jump—and then stand between him and the basket. It’s an automatic foul, basically, if he tries to jump over you, over the back. Yet, time and again Bulls players, though this is not unique to them as NBA players today like to see themselves jump, simply jump around for rebounds. The Knicks got 14 offensive rebounds, nine from Lopez, who I think someone was able to stick a box score under his feet when he jumped. I think because I’ve never actually seen him jump over a piecve of paper.
"A team outrebounds you by 20 is a big differential," agreed Gasol. "They’re long, but we didn’t put enough pressure on their big guys. They shot the ball well, so we didn’t have as many opportunities for defensive rebounds. And they had more as we didn’t shoot the ball as well. They were more active overall."
It has to be a concern, surely, when all anyone talks about is the urgency of this time after all the disappointment, indifferent play and injuries. Still, a chaace to save the season and then the East isn’t all that great, and LeBron is talking about retrofitting another team and, c’mon, Toronto is second!
And with three straight wins it seems things are finally coming together and here come back to back on consecutive nights the Knicks and the Jose Calderon/Sasha Vujacic backcourt. Maybe it will work in the Balkans.
Instead, it was a balky Bulls game from the start, trailing 12-7, though with a nice late first quarter from the lately maligned bench for a 30-23 lead after one quarter. Though they gave it right back to start the second quarter with Porzingis firing away and 17 first half points. Rose with a dozen and Mirotic with nine helped the Bulls within 57-55 at the half.
The Bulls didn’t even have a turnover in the first half, and just six in the game. They had a 19-6 margin in fast break points and made a season most 15 threes. Actually, lots of good stuff.
Though it still didn’t feel right.
"The energy wasn’t there. I could feel it from the beginning," said Gibson. "The energy wasn’t right even when we had the lead. In games like this playing against a team not really playing for anything you can’t give them any encouragement and once we started exchanging baskets and they started getting open looks….we were losing our man on coverages. They were draining threes and once the confidence started going it was a trickle down effect. Their bench came in and did well. They played a lot harder than us. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Not much more I can say."
Oh, but there was more in a third quarter during which the Bulls played like it was preseason. It was 35-18 Knicks for a team among the lowest scoring in the NBA and one that rarely scores 100 points. They shot 62 percent, continued to drop in threes—is anyone going to get out there!—and pretty much ended the game with a 92-73 lead after three quarters.
"They had a two-point lead on us at halftime; I didn’t think we played very well in the first half," acknowledged Hoiberg. "But we were still right there. The biggest things we talked about was getting control of the game in the first five minutes (of the third quarter)."
Sorry, coach, did you say something?
"I told them," Hoiberg related afterward. "They have two choices now: One’s to tuck your tail between your legs and walk out of here with your head down; or tough it up, suck it up, and go find a way to get a win tomorrow and finish this out the right way. I don’t get with this amount of time left to come out with that amount of energy."
But it has been who they have been.
This team doesn’t deserve proper grammar.
Just when you think they are out of it, they are pulled right back in.
"We just put more pressure on ourselves," said Gibson. "We had a chance to help ourselves and tighten the playoff race, the seventh seed. I think we like difficult tasks, I guess."
You knew they weren’t going to win them all even with the three straight momentum. Seeing the last 70 games, perhaps losing to the Knicks was little surprise. But now there are not so many games left.
"Tough blow to our team, especially at home," said Gasol. "We are supposed to capitalize against teams that are supposed to not be playing for anything. We should come out with a different level of aggressiveness. It’s a tough blow and hopefully we’ll utilize it to regroup and come out with more intensity. Hopefully, we won’t have this type of game for the remainder of the season. We can’t afford it and if we do have more games like this one we’ll be off much earlier than we expected."