Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Wednesday after a discouraging and dispiriting Bulls 113-90 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks that he asked his players to look themselves in the mirror during the coming midseason All-Star game break.
But what happens if there is no reflection?
“It has been a bad, bad stretch of basketball,” Hoiberg admitted of the Bulls 13th loss in the their last 18 games, fourth straight overall and fifth consecutive at home for the first time in almost six years. “The biggest thing is we have to get back to playing winning basketball. It has to be a sacrifice. You have to give everything you can to help this team win. Right now we are getting beat for loose balls and getting beat down the floor, 19-4 fast break points. They outscored us on second chance points. Everything.”
Maybe it isn’t the bottom as the Bulls are 27-25, seventh in the Eastern Conference.
But you can almost see it from where they are in this tumble that is probably going to take more than wishing and hoping and even trying.
The Bulls were 23-15 in the last full game Joakim Noah played before suffering a shoulder injury and going out for the season. They are 4-10 since. The Bulls went into Wednesday’s last game before All-Star break with Jimmy Butler out three to four weeks with a knee injury, Nikola Mirotic probably out another several weeks after appendix surgery and complications, Mike Dunleavy just starting the season after back surgery (he played 11 minutes) and then Taj Gibson, the team’s most reliable warrior mentality player, finally giving in to complications from his off season ankle surgery and leaving the game just after halftime. Gibson was limping in the locker room and needed a cart to drive him to his car.
As Gibson was leaving, one of the security guards said, ‘How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” Gibson responded. “Tired.
“It was sore the whole road trip,” Gibson revealed. “I kept it to myself, trying to play through it; tonight it got extremely achy. It’s a buildup of a lot of games; just trying to play for my brothers. We’ve got a lot of injuries. (I get) fatigue of the ankle after awhile. Then the foot kind of gets into it, the buildup of games. Out there playing my heart out, trying to do what I can to help my team, trying to play the right way.
“They said I have to stay on top of it,” Gibson related of the doctors’ orders. “It’s going to be hard with the amount of minutes and you have to look how hard I play. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes, diving, but the wear and tear of it. I’m trying to play through things; it’s frustrating.”
Some seasons are like that.
Everyone was disappointed, and the effort and interest waned after the Bulls fell behind as the Hawks blew open the game with a 38-point third quarter.
Pau Gasol led the Bulls with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Doug McDermott had 17 points off the bench, Derrick Rose had 14 points and Bobby Portis mostly during the blowout stages had 12 points and 10 rebounds. The Hawks had eight players in double figures led by Dennis Schroder with 18 points.
The Bulls looked bad after halftime, a lot of quick shots, one pass and up, isolations while the Hawks moved the ball quickly for better shots and pushed in transition. Of course, the Bulls also had to use Cameron Bairstow for long stretches trying to defend Al Horford.
The Thunder last season lost Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka and went from title contenders to missing the playoffs. The Pacers lost Paul George and went from the conference finals to missing the playoffs. And in the Eastern Conference, where you didn’t need to be .500.
The Bulls aren’t giving up, and the message from everyone—other than the usual confusion about why this all is happening—was to get the week long break and reassemble with a renewed mission and determination.
“We have 30 games left,” noted Rose. “We have to give it our all for 30 games. Hopefully this break gives us a little time to get away from it. We come back we have to decide whether we are going to play or not. You can say (the problems are) communication, you can say effort, you can say a lot of things. I really can’t put a finger on it. I’ve been trying to figure it out the entire year. It brought me back to when I first came here, seeing the same things; we used to lose games like that. We have to come out and play harder for the fans.”
Though the reality is the missing and aching Butler, Mirotic, Noah and Gibson represent more than half the regular rotation and the team’s top three defenders. It’s fashionable to talk about playing better defense, but it’s not quite that easy without your best defenders. Just because you want to do it doesn’t mean you can do it. The truth is players like McDermott and Dunleavy were brought in more for offense and floor spacing. Portis is a rookie who obviously never was asked in college to play help defense or shown what it looks like. So he’s learning as well.
It sounds like an arena filled with excuses, and perhaps it is. But it’s also their current reality.
Still, it doesn’t disqualify them since the Bulls have defeated all the top contenders in both conferences other than the Warriors, and they were a few possessions away from a very different outlook, those three blown fourth quarter leads on the road trip.
It did seem to affect them even to the point of Rose and Gibson drawing technical fouls Wednesday for disagreements with the officials and Gasol as vocal at the officials as he’s been all season.
“There’s a couple of games we should have won that really hurt us (mentally),” admitted Gibson. “Then you see the indecisiveness. It’s confusing and frustrating because, I think, we have way more talent than we did the year we went to the Eastern Conference finals.
“We had guys back then who played for each other; they were willing to do whatever it takes and have fun playing the game. We’ve got good guys (now),” said Gibson. “We all get along with each other; sometimes you need more than liking one another. You’ve got to deep down love each other and play hard knowing that guy is going to battle for you.
“It comes down to, I think, believing in yourself,” said Gibson. “After the shellshock of a couple of guys being injured it takes a toll. You see the energy, shrugging their shoulders, getting down. That’s where it’s good that you have a coach like Fred who keeps believing in you. We’ve got a lot of talent in this room. We’ve won games without much talent. I think it’s mental at this point. We’ve got to have the heart to execute and go out there and play and go back to having fun.”
It’s been no fun lately with the 13-day road trip criss crossing the country and closing with six games in nine days in four time zones with two sets of back to backs that left them questioning themselves even more.
The Bulls feared this was coming with a friendlier first half schedule. It enabled them to remain among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but it was somewhat misleading as the Bulls failed to give themselves the needed cushion with losses to teams like the Suns, Knicks, Nets and Bucks.
“It’s disappointing,” said Gasol. “But not just this last stretch. To me when we had the full roster when we were losing games we should have won and were giving up wins at home against teams that come in under .500. Those were the things I was more perplexed about. We didn’t take advantage of those opportunities and now you go through tough times with key injuries to players and younger players have to step up and do their job and they still have to figure things out, how to be effective and helpful. So it’s a harder position now. We can’t rely on talent to win games. You rely on hard work, grind, dedication, sacrifice; those are the things we need to get back to.”
The Bulls did start well Wednesday, leading 29-28 after one quarter as Rose was four of eight with a three pointer and Gasol added eight points and four rebounds. The Bulls had nine assists and looked lively shooting 62 percent. But with Dunleavy limited and the injuries, Hoiberg had to open the second quarter with a mixture of reserves who would not normally play so soon—or at all—like Bairstow and Portis with Tony Snell, McDermott and Kirk Hinrich. Where do the points come from?
They barely did as the Hawks were up six within a few minutes.
Hoiberg went back to the starters, who mostly stayed even the rest of the way, though Rose got clobbered once again going to the basket without a foul call and boiled over for a technical foul. Gibson had one later and had to be pulled back by Gasol. Still, the Bulls trailed just 53-48 at halftime.
Rose even opened the second half with a three to cut the Atlanta lead to 53-51. But the Bulls lost Kyle Korver for a couple of threes, Jeff Teague got out running after turnovers and suddenly it was 75-58 Atlanta midway through the third quarter. Rose skipped a pass across to McDermott for a three and made a driving bank to get within 79-69. But without Butler, Gibson and Noah, there wasn’t much or enough defense and the Hawks took it back to 91-73 after three quarters.
Rose already had played about 26 minutes, so starting the fourth with Hinrich, Snell, Portis and Aaron Brooks didn’t portend a big comeback.
“We deserved to lose tonight, to be honest,” said McDermott. “That group out there the last 10, 15 minutes, it didn’t even seem like basketball. I was a part of that, so I take responsibility.”
No one was laughing or happy, though anxious to get away.
Butler and Gasol are going to Toronto for the All-Star weekend, Gasol replacing Butler as a player with Butler an inactive All-Star.
Otherwise players are scattering. They are a serious group of players, disappointed in the way they feel they are letting down one another and the community. You’ll see teams where the post game locker room after losses are light smorgasbords. Not so with the Bulls, who mostly dress quietly and leave, unhappy and confused about the results. They do believe, seriously, they are good enough, as good as they’ve said about themselves all season. They’ve beaten the best this season. They know they need some physical help, and they insist they’ll massage the mental part as well.
It becomes a 30-game sprint to the finish.
“I’ve seen what we are capable of,” said Hoiberg. “Hopefully we’ll get healthy; that’s a big start. If we can get healthy and keep competing and band together, we have a chance because we have proved we can do it. We’ve got to find ourselves. I challenged them to do whatever they’ve got to do over the break, look themselves in the mirror and find a way to get committed to this thing where we can come out and go on a run. That is all we can do right now is look forward.”
Make that mirror fog up a little.