The Bulls suddenly are out of aphas. Calling betas, gammas and deltas. Are they ready, or will it be Greek to them?
That’s the urgent question as the Bulls head to Washington—crossing paths with President Obama, who perhaps anticipated—with Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo likely out when the Bulls play the Washington Wizards Tuesday. Butler, though ill, tried Monday in the Bulls 109-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. He scored just one point, his first game without a field goal in more than three years, and he wasn’t able to travel with the team to Washington. The Bulls hope he’s well enough to play Thursday in New York and the sight of a big apple won’t bring on a recurrence. Wade won’t play on the second of the back to back in a scheduled rest, and Rondo continues to be out of the rotation. Coach Fred Hoiberg said “potentially” when asked if Rondo might play.
And so now back at .500 at 19-19, the Bulls are left to rely on the wisdom of the man who has most endured this over eight years, Taj Gibson.
“I tell the young guys we have more than enough to win,” said Gibson. “’You’re in the NBA for a reason.’ Just got to believe in it; from previous years we always battled and dug it out. If you go in with the right mindset, go in there battling, the confidence is going to come. Every year someone is down. So looking forward to seeing Jerian (Grant), Bobby (Portis) and the rest of the guys; who’s going to go out there and give it their all? The odds are against. But they have a shot to prove themselves, so I’m ecstatic and looking forward to seeing how we are going to respond.”
So here come the Bulls in the midst of perhaps their most difficult schedule stretch of the season with two sets of three in four nights in just over a week with a starting lineup Tuesday of perhaps Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant, Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez, and with Cristiano Felicio, Bobby Portis and Isaiah Canaan waiting to enter.
Actually, it was a fivesome of Grant, Portis, Felicio, Canaan and Paul Zipser who gave the Bulls their best run of the game and most energy in the fourth quarter with the Bulls trailing 95-71 with about nine minutes remaining. They did shave 11 points from a 24-point Thunder beard.
“That group went out there and competed; they were cutting hard, the ball was moving, they were setting screens; it’s how we have to play for 48 minutes,” said Hoiberg. “We’ve had solid movement the last few games, especially Jimmy taking over in the fourth quarter to get guys involved; the movement, it wasn’t there in the first half. Some of that had to do with our physical shape; with that first group there wasn’t enough movement, it was stagnant. The shot went up, we weren’t getting back in transition.”
And thus a summary version of a game in which the Thunder led basically the entire game, by six points after one quarter, by 15 at halftime and 89-67 going into the fourth quarter.
The Bulls were led by Dwyane Wade with 22 points, Michael Carter-Williams with 15, Grant with 11 and Felicio with 11 points and 11 rebounds. But the Bulls big guys with Lopez getting three points and four rebounds in 26 minutes were dominated by Oklahoma City’s guys. Steven Adams had 22 points on 11 of 14 shooting, most rolling in for dunks on pick and roll with Russell Westbrook. And Enes Kanter added 20 points and 11 rebounds, shooting nine of 11 and similarly scoring easily.
“That was the key to the game,” said Hoiberg. “We talked about their bigs being the best rim runners in the league. Going down and getting deep position in transition. Obviously, Westbrook is a one-man fast break. I said that game is going to be won or lost in transition, and that is exactly what happened. (They had) 25 fast break points to four. They had their way with us in there tonight (60-36 in points in the paint).”
Oklahoma City, 23-16, also outrebounded the Bulls and had 30 assists to 18 for the Bulls.
And the much anticipated matchup between Westbrook and Butler obviously never materialized with Butler ill. He missed morning practice, but tried to play, obviously weakened and ill. The team sent him home at the end of the third quarter with orders not to go to Washington.
“Jimmy wasn’t talking much; he wasn’t his jolly self like he usually is, so you could tell,” said Jerian Grant.
Butler had that one point in 29 minutes. He shot zero for six as the Thunder often trapped him. He had seven assists and two rebounds.
Westbrook had 21 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds, though he apparently tried to chase the triple double by returning in the fourth quarter with the Thunder ahead by 22 points and less than eight minutes left. Westbrook needed two rebounds at the time, but only got one.
Wade tried to do what he could knowing Butler was out and he wouldn’t be playing Tuesday. It’s possible Wade doesn’t play the second of back to backs the rest of the season after struggling previously in those games.
“I was in a better groove tonight,” said Wade, who also had six assists and was two of four on threes. “Jimmy was kind of a decoy; he was passing to guys and they were denying him. So when I got my opportunities, I tried to be aggressive and get other guys going; it just wasn’t enough. We have to understand Jimmy is not going to average 40 points (every) week and guys have to be prepared for that and be ready to step up and do their job and tonight we didn’t do our job as a collective unit with our main guy being sick.”
Hoiberg tried Lopez with Felicio a few times, a lineup the Bulls rarely use. But it also wasn’t enough with Westbrook able to break down the defense and then drop off passes or lob to Adams and Kanter.
“Those big guys are good, very underrated for what they do down there,” said Wade. “They get nasty down there; they came in and kicked our butts.”
The Bulls did have one second quarter run behind Wade doing his Butler imitation and drawing free throws on three straight possessions and then making a three. That cut a 17-point Thunder lead to 43-40. But the Thunder again going to Adams with Westbrook jetting up court closed the half on an 18-6 run, and then the outcome was not much in doubt.
“It’s hard to beat a team like that when you don’t have a lot of firepower,” noted Wade, who added he expects Westbrook to average that triple double this season.
“Definitely,” said Wade. “We’re almost half way through. He has the ball in his hand a lot to get 10 assists; he’s going to average how many points he feels like averaging; then he goes and get rebounds on both ends. It’s incredible. We haven’t seen anyone average a triple double. When you (media) guys were around Big O was playing. I haven’t seen it. To be able to witness his greatness, Harden, those guys. As a fan of the game, it’s great to see what those guys are doing every night.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Wade. “You can’t compare him to anybody. When he gets done playing it will be, ‘Who is the next Russell Westbrook? Who can do that?’ He’s a very unique player; he’s figured out how special he is; he’s showcasing it.”
But as the Bulls approach the halfway mark of the season this week, and despite the loss, they are 3-1 in the new year. They hope to have Butler back later this week, and their muse, Gibson, knows about hardship, about competing and still believes what this team can do.
“We’re in the hunt,” said Gibson. “I’ll take it. Everybody in the East is still jumbled up; we’re still fighting and so far we look pretty good in 2017, so we’ll ride with that. You won’t hear anything negative from me. We have things to work on, but I look forward to the long term.”