On second thought, the Bulls decided to talk about it.
Bulls players Sunday instead of a planned practice had a players-only team meeting followed by a meeting with coaches and management in the wake of the humiliating record 56-point point loss to the Boston Celtics, a game in which the starting five players were taken out en masse both in the first and third quarters, the second time only after being outscored 5-3. They did not play again as the Celtics continued to pile it on down the stretch with lob dunks, fast break layups and a furious pace that left the home fans upset.
Bulls coach Jim Boylen after the game said he intentionally left the starters out so that the team could have a spirited, teaching-oriented practice Sunday even following the back-to-back set and in the middle of three games in four nights.
The Bulls host the Sacramento Kings Monday and then leave for the league’s annual trip to Mexico City to play Orlando there Thursday and finish the trip with games in San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
The meetings occupied about two hours of what was supposed to be practice, after which a few players shot around and Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis scrimmaged. Both are expected to return sometime this week.
“We had a productive day. I’m encouraged,” Boylen said when he met with reporters in the continuation of a remarkable and unusual 24-hours for the coach on the job less than one week after replacing Fred Hoiberg. “We had a good meeting. I was hoping to have a full team practice and all that. It didn’t happen. Our meeting was what I thought we needed. And I have every right to change my mind with my gut and my experience. That’s what a head coach does. He sees what’s going on and he makes his adjustments. As we learn about each other, as we grow together, as we handle adversity individually and as a collective group, we cleared the clouds out of the way and we’re moving forward.”
Rookie Wendell Carter Jr., emerging as a team leader despite his age, and Zach LaVine addressed reporters afterward. Carter said LaVine and Justin Holiday led the meeting among the players, which was not surprising since LaVine seemed particularly hurt in his comments after the game about why the starters were singled out so much and the toughness questioned.
Though both LaVine and Carter were quick to say that the loss was the fault of the players for the way they approached the game, and that must change. The Bulls are 6-21 and in last place in the Eastern Conference, 1-2 since Boylen was named coach.
“It was something that we needed to do and I am happy with the results,” LaVine said. “I think we just all needed to get on the same page. The main thing that we can tell you (media) guys is that we went in there as a unit. I think we needed to get a lot of stuff off our chest and be transparent. You don't want to hurt people's feelings. I don't think a lot of people in the business are (jerks). At least I'm not. I am a genuine person. I think I'm very kind. Sometimes the truth hurts, but you have to get to that point where you have to be productive.
“He (Boylen) says he is still learning,” LaVine noted about the career assistant in his first NBA head coaching job. “But we respect Jim. He's the head coach; we do what he says. But I don't think the players' toughness should ever be questioned. I think that's on us. I think that is a little bit of what we discussed in our meeting. We're the ones out there playing. We have to take more control of that.”
There’s still a long season ahead, though the question is how much of a tipping point these events could be. Sometimes a team will respond with aggressiveness and enthusiasm to any sort of challenge. Sometimes players will back down. These Bulls players, by most accounts, appear to be high character people. Their consensus seemed to be they wanted to take care of these concerns and not allow them to linger.
“We were really disappointed in the way we played last night,” said Carter. “I wasn’t disappointed at what the coaching staff decided to do in terms of practice. I knew something different was going to happen and I feel like that was needed. So I’m glad with what we did today. I feel like it was real productive. We didn’t want to take what was said behind closed doors and bring it all out into the open. The big, main topic for that whole meeting was being truthfully honest and direct. Everybody chimed in, every single player, every single coach. Everybody told each other how we really, really felt about what happened last night, how we feel about each other in terms of the team, how we feel about everybody as a whole.
“We can blame it on coach,” Carter said. “We can do that, but after looking at the film, we didn’t take responsibility for what was happening on the court. We continued to let them get open shots. On the offensive end we just weren’t making shots. We can control how good of a defensive team we can be. We all want to compete; we always want to go out there, we just want to play. Coach has got to make tough decisions. When they saw the game going bad, they wanted to give other people an opportunity to change the game around. I respect that decision. We've just got to be better in those times when we're on the court.”
Which isn’t simple with players returning from injury, Lauri Markkanen last week and Portis and Dunn to come, which also changes roles, rotations and responsibilities. Added to that is a new coach with a somewhat altered staff, at least in terms of responsibilities, and trying out lessons and tactics built up and stored away through decades of apprenticeships with the likes of champions like Gregg Popovich and Rudy Tomjanovich.
Boylen noted how Popovich often executed the so called “hockey line” substitutions as one of many motivational tactics of one of the most successful coaches in NBA history.
“I’ve moved over the 18 inches,” Boylen noted about the famous measurement of distance versus responsibility for being an NBA head coach. “They’re still learning how I want it. There’s been a little shock and awe here in the last seven days. There’s an adjustment to that. That’s OK.
“I’m the leader of this group,” Boylen said. “Ultimately, it is my job to get us going in the right direction. Last night is a step in that process of handling a game when we didn’t play as well as we hoped to play. We chose to operate practice this way with some of our guys getting work and some of our guys getting off their feet. I think that’s called leadership.
“You guys have to understand something,” said Boylen. “Nobody is going to make more mistakes than I do. I have a lot of responsibility and make a lot of decisions. I’m not going to get them all right. But this is not a hobby for me. We’re going to keep working and grinding and communicating and hugging and crying and laughing and moving forward. They’re learning how I operate. They’re learning what I value. If I think a group out there isn’t doing what they need to be doing as a collective unit, I’m going to sub. Maybe I’ll sub three, maybe I’ll sub five. We’re cleaning up what goes on. You’re obligated to do the things I ask. They’re obligated to play the right way. And when they’re not, my job is to try to fix that.
“I think we’re all remorseful in how we played and what happened, and we’re moving on,” said Boylen. “They know I have every right and they know my heart and they know if I’m subbing, it’s what I think is best for this team. I’m going to do my job here, which is to develop this team to represent the city of Chicago in the way I think it’s supposed to be represented. We haven’t wavered from what we’ve talked about. We are going to be in better shape, we are going to try to honor the defensive end of the floor with our effort, toughness, physicality, things we can control. We’re going to try to rebound better, and we’re going to try to play better offensively.
“This is all part of this process,” said Boylen. “We are changing the way we do things because that’s the direction we want to take it, I want to take it and my staff. So there’s going to be some bumps in the road. We’re not easing into anything.”
Words, Shakespeare wrote, are not deeds. We'll see whether these lead to ending the drama.