There's a famous story about the little Dutch boy intent on saving his country from ruin. He sees a leak in a dike holding out massive flood waters that would otherwise drown everybody. Realizing no one is there to help, he steps forward and uses his finger to plug the hole in the dike. But then, inevitably, water starts spurting through another hole, and then another hole.
Which has become something of a metaphor for this Bulls season, which seems to be springing leaking everywhere with Wednesday's 121-101 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
First it was the defense that needed plugging up, so last month the Bulls went a stretch of seven games in nine holding opponents to fewer than 100 points. But the offense dried up as the Bulls failed to score 100 points in 11 of the first 14 games under new coach Jim Boylen. So the Bulls in the last 10 games have scored more than 100 points in each, quickening their pace of play for their first double digit streak of 100-point games in three years.
But now the defense is leaking once again as the Bulls have allowed at least 117 points and been outscored in double digits in seven of the last 10 games as the Hawks shot 50 percent, made 15 three pointers, outrebounded the Bulls by 14, 16-7 on the offensive boards and were leading by 17 points after one quarter.
The Bulls scored 23 fast break points and were led by Zach LaVine with 23 points and Lauri Markkanen with 22. Kris Dunn added 16 points and answered several questions with a simple sentence, "We gotta guard."
"It's the defense we have to figure out," agreed Markkanen. "We have to contest shots better. Obviously, we can score the ball. But we have to get some stops. Obviously, we are trying to push the ball faster, so there are more possessions. We're focusing on offense, so the basics have been slipping. So we have to get back to work and work on defense more."
And so it goes as the trickle of losses continues toward a deluge as the Bulls record dropped to 11-37. Fellow rebuilding Atlanta moved to 15-32. Hawks first rounder Trae Young was one of 12 for five points, but with 12 assists. Forward John Collins led Atlanta with a career high 35 points.
The Bulls were without Wendell Carter Jr., now out for the season, and the team said Jabari Parker suffered a patella tendon strain before the game and could not play.
Though it was the guys playing who couldn't stop the flood of Atlanta points, particularly with a bad matchup to start. Robin Lopez, as he has been, started for Carter. The Hawks went to Collins for threes and with movement against Lopez, scrambling the Bulls defense. Collins had 15 first quarter points as Atlanta led 42-25 after one. The Bulls also were repeatedly beaten in trying to switch on pick and rolls with smaller players being overwhelmed by the taller Hawks. Though both Dunn and LaVine were frequently beaten off the dribble.
"We weren't going under (the screen) and blitzing," explained Markkanen "They killed us on the switch; that's what we were doing today and we have to make the in game adjustment."
"Poor first quarter start; they stung us from the three-point line," noted Boylen. "We didn't recover well."
The Hawks shot 60 percent in the first quarter and were six of nine on threes.
Though the Bulls even with an emphasis on offense couldn't match an Atlanta team that gives up the most points per game in the NBA, almost 118. The Hawks pursue the modern NBA game moving the ball up quickly, and passing around in search of a three pointer. They were 15 of 40 on threes.
"We have an emphasis on driving the ball and getting into the paint," said Boylen. "We lose the three point line by 21; that's a lot to overcome. Sometimes it comes down to making shots. In Cleveland, we made 15 (threes) like they did tonight. You have to try to make your open looks and contest better. We do need to improve defensively; no argument there."
The Bulls are in the bottom five in the league in three-point attempts at about 26 per game. Before the game, Boylen said that is not enough, but "45 might be too many for this group." The Bulls are 26th in the league in overall shooting and lack consistent three-point threats other than LaVine and Markkanen.
The Bulls did respond in the second quarter behind 10 points from Markkanen. They scored in nine of their last 10 possession of the quarter as LaVine again led the team in assists. Atlanta led 66-60 at halftime.
"Battled well in the second," noted Boylen. "Got it to six, manageable numbers. And then did not start the third quarter well."
Boylen started Bobby Portis for Lopez in the second half to counter the quicker Collins, and it went badly as he and Markkanen seemed repeatedly confused on whom to defend. Boylen called timeout 51 second into the half. He had called two timeouts in the first five minutes of the game.
"We had some missed assignments," Boylen acknowledged. "Our lack of physicality in the first quarter reared its head, multiple mistakes on the same possession and we didn't react to them scoring. We score 60 in a half; I expect us to be in the lead. But we weren't because of missed assignments, shots they made, plays at the rim they had and it's disappointing. I thought physically they manhandled us; it's disappointing. Some is personnel. We have some young guys playing different positions and some guys stepping into roles they haven't played before. The three ball has hurt us, teams making shots on us.
"We miss Wendell's physical toughness and competitiveness," Boylen added. "We had to play real small with the injury to Jabari. I thought that hurt us some. Those aren't excuses, they are facts. Lets cut to the real chase of it: Our grit and toughness needs to be better, our edge to start games needs be better."
The Bulls gathered with 10 points from LaVine to get back within 83-76 with five minutes left in the third quarter. But Alex Len, who usually plods around like Herman Munster, got three offensive rebounds on one possession and a pair of scores and the former Linsanity, Jeremy Lin, looked like he was back in New York scooting in for a pair of scores and a 98-83 Atlanta lead after three. The Hawks had 31 assists with nice side to side ball movement while the Bulls had just 20. Atlanta pulled farther away in the fourth.
Boylen said the Bulls practiced well, but it hasn't relocated to the place with the larger audience.
"It seems we cannot bring it out there," Markkanen agreed. "I don't know what the resolution, but we have to get back to work. I think we weren't sure what we were doing today; kind of misunderstanding with each other. Loose balls and rebounding, we can focus on that. That's the effort part, fighting for the rebound and loose ball. Obviously, losing is frustrating. We are trying our best every day and it is not showing in the scoreboard, so it is frustrating. But we are not hanging our heads. We are staying together; we are going to fight our way through it."
Because it's a season going under water.
"You just can't play offense, got to guard," said Dunn. "To have a good defense, everyone has to be in sync, everyone be one. We all have to know what we are doing. In this league, one little mistake can lead to an open shot. When there are multiple mistakes, it leads to easy buckets. Guys got to knuckle down when it comes to game time, be more in sync, more focused and disciplined. Got to be able to want to guard. We gotta guard."
And try to plug those holes.