Perhaps this is what it’s come to. Are the New York Knicks better than the Bulls?
Watching the last two nights, an unbiased observer would have to say yes considering Knicks’ back to back victories by an average of 10 points with an average of a plus-15 rebounding margin and shooting more than 51 percent in each game.
“Hell, yeah, I’m embarrassed,” said Taj Gibson in a mostly empty Bulls post game locker room as players moved most quickly out of there. “I take pride in wearing this jersey. I love wearing a Bulls jersey, especially with what we’ve been through. I take pride in playing for Chicago. When I wear that jersey, I try to go out there and play my heart out.
“It’s frustrating when we come up short and we look at ourselves. We are losing to—I don’t what to criticize anybody, (say) trash teams (because) everybody is in the NBA for a reason–but we are playing against teams not playing for anything and we are just laying down. It feels like now we are a target. It feels like teams are not taking us serious; teams are eager to play us. It was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It’s hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It’s really hard to sleep at night knowing that it’s coming down to the wire and our effort isn’t there. It’s really frustrating.”
And so continues a seeming downward slide out of even a playoff position as with the consecutive losses to the Knicks, the Bulls fell to 36-35. They are now ninth in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half behind Detroit and a game ahead of 10th place Washington. So it’s not over. But the style of play and lack of passion suggests more than the mathematical possibilities.
Once again, for the second straight game, giving voice to the urgency and the necessity of serious and motivated play, the Bulls performed without much enthusiasm. Sure, there were moments, several Derrick Rose jaw dropping drives on the way to 30 points and 13 for 23 shooting, Rose even with his first dunk of the season, a modest two hander on an outlet from Jimmy Butler.
Nikola Mirotic had a followup slam dunk of a Doug McDermott miss in the first half, but Mirotic’s shooting magic from Wednesday was gone as he was two of nine for eight points. The reserves again stumbled, shooting a combined seven for 28, both McDermott and Bobby Portis without a field goal.
Mike Dunleavy’s woes continued with three of 10 shooting while Butler came back some with 19 points. But he was unable to control an efficient Carmelo Anthony with 26 points. Rookie Kristaps Porzingis again looked like the best big man on the floor with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Pau Gasol sat out for the Bulls with knee swelling again, though he could play Saturday. Cristiano Felicio started at center.
So even as Rose and Butler were the better backcourt this time, especially Rose with his fourth gear, the desperation for the Bulls became obvious as coach Fred Hoiberg had to play both 39 minutes to stay close even though they supposedly are on playing time restrictions.
Of course, why save them now as the playoffs are slipping away?
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” said Hoiberg. “It’s two extremely tough losses. Looking at the winning streak we had, won three, and four out of five. We came out with a defensive mindset (in those games), we set the tone. The last two nights that hasn’t happened. It has been different things. One day, it is transition (defense). One day, we don’t communicate well enough. One day, we get out toughed and out rebounded. I wish I could tell you it was one thing. We were very solid all the way up through the new year on the defensive end of the floor; we were top five in defensive efficiency. It’s gone the other way. There is no denying that.
“The big thing is to keep swinging,” said Hoiberg hopefully. “We’ve got a lot of basketball left to be played. You cannot walk out of here and have your head down and feel sorry for yourself. It’s going to come down to these last 11 games. You have to come together, look in the mirror, look at what you can do to help this team find it’s way out of this tough stretch we’ve had and bring it the rest of the season. Get back after it Saturday.”
Yes, it is sounding much the same after every loss.
Double away from the good shooter, hang onto the ball and shoot, fall into a hole and try to come back, rinse, repeat.
“I’ve never been so frustrated and mad before,” said Gibson, sitting for several minutes with his fist on his chin like Rodin’s The Thinker.
That sculpture sits above the panels in the famous Gates of Hell sculpture that depicts a scene from the Devine Comedy and Dante’s Inferno. So perhaps Gibson’s pose was symbolic for this Bulls’ journey trough a hellish close to the season that they still hope will lead them to a heavenly playoffs. That the famous poem begins the night before Good Friday, as it was for the Bulls Thursday, brings attacks by their own beasts of narcissism and chagrin.
The Bulls fell behind to start, trailing 31-27 after the first quarter in another wide open quarter in which the Knicks shot 58 percent. The conventional wisdom at times like this is the narrative of a team that has given up and given in. It doesn’t seem that way as they seem genuinely upset and frustrated, the concern there. It just doesn’t seem to make it full court.
“Disappointing man, just real disappointing,” repeated Gibson. “I’m tired of having the same talks with you (media) guys every night of how we have to do better, or something is not too good or we got to do this or that.
I look at myself in the mirror every night and I try to do different things every night. How many more games left? We have 11 more; it’s really do or die.”
The reserves faltered to start the second quarter as neither Mirotic nor McDermott could find the range this time, and Hoiberg rushed Rose back in. He made three straight to get the Bulls within 38-35, but the rest of the team was four of 18 and the Knicks slid ahead 53-45 at the half.
“The majority of us haven’t been in this position since we’ve been in the league,” said Butler. “We’ve always been at the top of the Eastern Conference. Right now it’s a fight. But when it’s a fight, I think everybody has to man up. We have to stay in this thing together. I don’t think anybody has a bad intention. Maybe it‘s, ‘I have to make this team win.’ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Yeah, we have to play as a team. I think maybe at times people think, ‘Hey, I can be the one to do this.’”
It was the Knicks out first again in the second half, Rose and Butler trying to rally them back and the Knicks against limited resistance going ahead 80-65 after three.
Perhaps indicative was the Bulls cutting the New York lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter and then Langston Galloway sneaking behind the Bulls for a dunk on a full court pass from Jose Calderon and three-point play. The Bulls never got it under double digits.
“Sometimes I feel we want it; sometimes I don’t know if we are kidding ourselves or not,” said Gibson. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what you have on paper. If you have six guys that are seven feet tall, but if you don’t have the heart, the energy, the will to want to go out and fight for the guy next to you, fight for the right reasons, you won’t succeed. The last couple of years we fought for each other, we fought for the right reasons, we played hard.”
Rose didn’t comment after the game. But before the game, he said, “It’s been this whole year. From the beginning if I could put a finger on it, I would. It’s just something not only for myself,f but everyone who is a part of this. It’s been difficult, but we’re still in the place to fight for a playoff spot. Were in the ninth spot right now, but we still can make a jump and make a run for it. It’s going to take all of us being on the same page and come together.”