I’d hate to be the Sacramento Kings Saturday. Actually, I’d hate to be the Sacramento Kings most any time having to play with DeMarcus Cousins. But that’s another story.
The story for the Bulls Saturday in the United Center after Friday’s deplorable 102-93 loss in Atlanta, a game in which the Bulls trailed by 30 points or more most of the game, should provide perhaps the best view all season of who this Bulls group is and what they are capable of. Are they the kinds of guys to bounce back from a humiliating loss and make baskets? Or perform just like another basket of deplorables?
“We have to come out better,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 19 points, but was part of the starter meltdowns to begin each half. “We have to start playing better from the jump, a full 48 minutes. It’s terrible basketball. That’s not the way we’re supposed to play. Starting with me and going all the way down the line, we have to be better as a whole, as a team. Otherwise we’re going to keep getting our (butts) beat. Losing is something I don’t accept, we shouldn’t accept. We have to go out and do better. Frustrated, pisses me off because I know what we are capable of in this locker room.”
So we’ll see Saturday after probably the Bulls’ poorest played game of the season, and maybe because of the way the reserves turned a 30-point fourth quarter deficit into a Hawks fright night, the Bulls within 95-90 with 1:09 remaining on a Nikola Mirotic drive and inside pass to Bobby Portis for a dunk.
The Hawks with their starters back got a jumper from high scorer Dennis Schroder, and then forced yet another turnover and got free throws to avoid even greater mortification.
“I can’t put a word on (what’s occurring),” said Butler. “It’s just talk. No matter what we say, if we don’t go out and do it, what is talking about it going to do? We’ve been up and down like this all year. When we decide not to guard and turn the ball over, games get out of hand very quickly. If it wasn’t for our second unit and how hard those guys played, who knows what the outcome would have been.”
It might have been so bad, the Bulls trailing by 22 points after one quarter, by 29 at halftime—the Hawks biggest quarter and halftime leads of the season--and by 34 with a minute left in the third quarter that coach Fred Hoiberg might have been ready to go with the reserves to start the next game.
Sounded like he maybe was thinking about it.
After all—and, sure, it was so called garbage time and they were playing against mostly Hawks third stringers—those guys led by Denzel Valentine, Portis and Jerian Grant did all the things the Bulls talk about often. Butler said they do them in practice. Like pushing the ball out of the backcourt instead of dribbling slowly, outlet passing, holding the ball two seconds or less and moving it with multiple passes. The great Tex Winter always used to preach to the Bulls every second after two you hold the ball it helps the defense. And this group was defensive instead of on the defensive. They were picking up at least at half court, eschewing the switches to fight over screens. You know, basketball stuff like you want to win the game instead of just enjoy the benefits. Like you’re excited to play.
“We’re going to look at everything,” warned Hoiberg. “We’ll have discussions and see what we want to do. We’ll see how we go out and start tomorrow and a couple of days after that, and hopefully try to figure some things out. I give our bench all the credit in the world for fighting, playing the right way, playing with enthusiasm and talking out there in the fourth quarter. They played all the way to the final buzzer. To be honest, they gave us a chance. We cut that thing to five with about a minute to play, so I give those guys credit for going out there and doing what they’re supposed to do, and playing the right way.”
Not so much the regulars, who lollygagged the ball up court, lollygagged into the offense, lollygagged back to the bench trailing 20-8 seven minutes into the game. It made them lollygaggers.
It was 24-13 with three minutes left in the first quarter and then Atlanta closed with 11 straight as the Bulls were firing up threes. Yes, the Bulls. It was 49-19 minutes into the second quarter after former Bull Mike Dunleavy made back to back threes. C’mon, really? Then after a little bit of a Butler show, the Hawks had a 16-10 close to the half, the Bulls with turnovers in their last two possessions, 13 in the half, three of 17 on threes, a dozen layups for Atlanta.
It was so bad that Dwyane Wade, who was two of 10 for four points, apologized on his Twitter account: “That performance was AWFUL!!! I apologize to all the Chicago fans and Wade fans.”
Because the Bulls were fully healthy with Taj Gibson back from missing one game with ankle soreness, had two days off coming into the game, the Hawks were coming off a 23-point loss in Detroit after having traded away high scorer Kyle Korver and Butler had just been named a starting All-Star. It’s uncertain if any Hawks player even makes the All-Star team.
But Schroder with 25 points led a layup drill that saw 20 Atlanta points in the paint in the first quarter. Paul Millsap had 14 points taking just five shots and the Hawks ran the Bulls into 25 turnovers that Atlanta turned into 28 points. Through three quarters of Bulls starters’ indifference, the Hawks were shooting 58 percent with a 33-26 rebounding edge while the Bulls were firing up quick three pointers, four of 21 from deep with seven free throw attempts, five from Butler.
The Bulls fell to 21-23 as the Hawks went to 25-18. And suddenly all this talk about the bunched Eastern Conference isn’t looking so much with the Bulls tied for eighth, now with four more losses than sixth place Indiana. And the “easy” part of the schedule is almost over. After this next stretch of four of five at home, the Bulls play six in the Western Conference before Toronto and Boston going into the All-Star break.
“With the importance of every game where we are now fighting for a spot in the playoffs, it’s got to be something inside you to want to go out and compete and give yourselves an opportunity to win basketball games, and tonight’s effort didn’t allow that,” said Hoiberg.
“It’s about going out there and finding a way to fight when that opening tip goes up,” Hoiberg said. “You have to give yourselves a chance. We never gave ourselves a chance to give ourselves an opportunity to win that basketball game.”
So the question becomes can they? Will they? Do they really want to?
We’ve never doubted the commitment and work ethic of this Bulls team, but, as Butler appropriately said, it’s just words now. Either you go out there and do it or not.
The players and Hoiberg talked about intense and spirited practices the last few days.
“When we go against each other, we’re tough,” said Butler. “Hard to score on, hard to guard. When we go up against someone else, it’s way too easy. It doesn’t look good.”
The Kings are 16-26 and also playing the second of a back to back. They’ve lost nine of 11, seven of those at home. But it is a statement game for the Bulls. A chance to make a statement about yourself.