Lethargic Bulls come up short in Phoenix

Taj Gibson was sitting on a stool somewhat befuddled after the Bulls mostly aimless 115-97 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Sure, the game was disappointing, the Bulls essentially outplayed all game by the Western Conference’s worst team, one that hadn’t won at home in almost a month. But it was the Bulls curiously favorable place in the Eastern Conference, still seventh even as the Bulls lost in a second straight blowout on national TV to plunge to 26-28, that has Gibson perplexed and bemused.

“Awful, awful,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said in curt post game comments. “They outcompeted us in every category, every category tonight, rebounding, loose balls; transition 19-6. That tells you all you need to know.”

And yet as Gibson pondered the bleakness around him, Jimmy Butler unsure about whether he’ll play Sunday in Minnesota with ongoing heel problems, Dwyane Wade with two big bags of ice on his wrists after a brutal fall, Gibson shook his head about the state of the conference. The Hawks, Pacers, Pistons, Bucks and Knicks had lost again, and there were the Bulls stumbling home from this road trip, now 2-3 and still a game and a half ahead of falling out of the playoffs.

“If you look around you really can’t dwell because you have like nine other teams (in the East) doing the same things you are doing,” noted Gibson. “Just up and down, up and down, take two steps (forward,) take two steps back; that’s how everyone is going. It’s tough. Really tough. Just have to go with the punches; it’s part of the NBA, I guess.”

At least for now for the Bulls, and what doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon.

Butler led the Bulls with 20 points but on six of 16 shooting and Wade had 18 points on seven of 16 shooting. Robin Lopez had 12 points and seven rebounds and Gibson 10 points and six rebounds, and Doug McDermott 11 points off the bench, but just on four of six shooting.

Though the significant numbers were the Bulls being outrebounded by a Suns team without center Alex Len suspended and Tyson Chandler out early in the game with a sprained ankle. Wide body reserve Alan Williams, who spent part of the season in the D-league after last season in China and has been a perennial Summer League All-Star, bounced Bulls all over the place with 14 points and 11 rebounds. The Suns guards shot by the generally out of position Bulls for the 19 fast break points and 50.5 percent shooting with 58 inside points. And even with their height and strength advantage inside, the Bulls kept firing up jump shots.

“Every team doesn’t do that,” Wade said firmly when asked about the Bulls inability to string together multiple wins and perhaps separate themselves from the bottom of the playoffs. “We (Miami) didn’t do that last year. We didn’t win that many games in a row like that. It doesn’t happen for every team. We’ve had a streak where we’ve won three a couple of times this year. No four or five. I’ve played on teams where we haven’t. It’s not about that. This one is behind us. We still have a chance to have a good trip; 3-3 is a good trip. We’re playing a team who beat us last time at our place (Minnesota Sunday). We have to go in there and take care of business and have a good trip.”

And it would look pretty good with a split, but it’s not happening the way the Bulls played Friday, and even beyond the obvious.

“A game like today if you look at it statistically, the thing that we gave up is how we lose games,” said Wade. “We turn the ball over a lot, give up a lot of transition points and not have a lot of ball movement. And we lose the rebounding war. Those are the things that don’t give us a chance to win.”

It was more so a lethargy on offense and defense. The Bulls repeatedly gave up wide open mid range shots as the Suns penetrated and pulled up off screens. The Bulls faded back into the paint instead of challenging shots. The floor balance was awful with shots going up and both Wade and Jerian Grant caught in corners or on the wings and not getting back in transition. The Suns basically packed the lane with three or four players as Butler had multiple shots blocked.

Though that also seemed a function of his heel injury. Butler was uncertain right up to game time, and then he seemed to tweak it coming down after a driving bank shot late in the game. A few plays after that, Bledsoe rolled into Butler’s knee, knocking Butler to the floor. Butler stayed in the game, though not for long as Hoiberg soon cleared the bench with the Bulls trailing 104-87 with 4:20 left in the game.

“In a little pain, I guess,” Butler said after the game. “I want to play basketball. Not going to say I’m out there completely healthy. I’m not. But I want to compete. I want to win, I want to lose with my team, my guys. I’m just hoping that this thing goes away so I can get back to not favoring it. And it’s crazy because the way the game goes, sometimes you gotta use that (right) foot. You try and avoid it, but you can’t back away from it.’’

Butler was practicing before the game shooting those one foot runners like Dirk Nowitzki.

Asked if he will play Sunday, Butler responded: “That’s a good question. That’s a really good question.’’

And so the questions continue about this Bulls team that has gone through all manner of trial and tribulation this season with buoyance from a positive start, losing streaks, team meetings and again trying to work their way back to .500 for the 11th time this season. Their statistics now that it no longer is a small sample translate to a .500 type season with the road win/home loss ratio now 11-11 and the season’s scoring differential just below even with 102.3 points scored and 102.7 given up. It now looks like a race to the All-Star break to recalibrate. And Butler even being asked whether he should play in the game given his mounting aches and the team’s pain.

“I think it’s the will, focus and understanding,” Butler said. “When a team likes to get out like that, as soon as the shot goes up everybody has to get back. If you’re above the free throw line get back. Bigs get back. At times, I think it’s good to be aggressive and go in there (on the offensive boards) to get that ball. But the way that ball was bouncing, I think we should have been getting back more.’’

And should have been going inside more.

“We have a lot of different ways to win games, but we haven’t yet found a niche,” acknowledged Gibson. “We have the ability to become a defensive team, but at times a lack of shot making affects our defense. We can’t dwell on it; we have to stay optimistic and still hope for the best.

“They were getting out quick, but we had different matchups we kind of could have taken advantage of,” Gibson noted. “We could have pulverized them down low; they went small. We didn’t do that and then they were able to get out on jump shots, the opposite of what we wanted to do. We wanted to get in the lane and get fouls and dominate the paint, but we took a lot of jump shots and their guards were real crafty. It was frustrating because we didn’t do the job on the wing. We didn’t shut down their guards between (Devin) Booker and my guy (Eric) Bledsoe (combining for 50 points). They were on fire, they were getting into the lanes and creating havoc. That’s something we have to keep learning and hopefully we’ll see it some day.”

>p>This one was a bad one all around from failing to take advantage of the size and recent effectiveness of Gibson and Lopez, to McDermott looking good with his shot as soon as he came in the game but then rarely seeing the ball again for long stretches, to the perimeter routinely taking shots with teammates not in position to get back, and just so many untimely turnovers.

>p>Like when the Bulls still had a glimmer of a chance trailing 89-80 with just over nine minutes left after a nice McDermott back door cut for a score. Jared Dudley missed a three and the Bulls got out running. Denzel Valentine had McDermott open and threw the ball past him for what would have been an easy layup. So the Suns go down and Dudley makes a three and it’s 92-80 instead of 89-82. Valentine was then fouled and missed both free throws and there went the last chance for momentum. A few more Suns mid range shots later, the starters were on the bench wrapping themselves in bandages.

“That’s all we talked about,” said an exasperated Hoiberg. “We said don’t be surprised they are going to get out with pace, they’re going to run and they ran right by us. They scored their first six (points) in transition. They got behind us (immediately). We found a little bit of a rhythm, the only rhythm we had all game, got a six-point lead (at 20-14), didn’t finish out the quarter. They went on an 8-0 run (to end the first half). We never got the momentum back.”

Actually, the Bulls did take a 25-16 first quarter lead with Lopez scoring three baskets. He would get three shots in the first 10 minutes and then six more the rest of the game against, in some cases, players three to five inches shorter. Nikola Mirotic with a three and McDermott with a jumper got the Bulls to that 25-16 advantage. They were two for three in the first quarter, but ended with six shots each.

The Suns closed the first quarter with a pair of threes for a 28-26 lead. The Bulls started the second quarter adeptly with a McDermott three. The next shot he got was five minutes later; he missed and was taken out. By then the Bulls 37-33 lead had become a 39-39 tie, and that’s when the Suns essentially burned the Bulls.

Phoenix, now 17-37, outscored the Bulls 17-4 the rest of the quarter for a 56-43 halftime lead. The Suns scored in nine of 10 possessions with mostly mid range jump shots after penetration with limited resistance.

Wade scored 11 points in the third quarter with a fast start and Mirotic and McDermott came off the bench late to again combine for two of three makes. But the starters, Wade playing after being out with a sinus infection, could not stop the young Suns. They shot 50 percent in the quarter with Bledsoe taking over the shot making. So it was 86-76 Suns after three quarters, and again the Bulls put up little resistance and circled around aimlessly on offense.

“Our identity is what our identity is,” said Wade when asked what is the team’s identity.

Play like that again, and the next arena may be asking for ID cards.

"But what are you going to do?" asked Wade. "You’re going to show up tomorrow and the next day and try to figure it out. That’s all you can do. You’re not going to blow up every time it happens. Just have to continue to keep learning. We’ve been playing good basketball lately. You lose tonight, come in tomorrow, try to learn from it and correct it.”