As the Bulls jet traveled back to Chicago following the disastrous 111-89 loss to the Orlando Magic, a somber Saturday night transitioned into Easter Sunday, and it was a Bulls team seeking a resurrection of its own.
A lively playoff chase has quickly become a death spiral with Saturday culminating perhaps the Bulls’ worst week in a decade, three consecutive blowout losses to not only teams with losing records, but teams mired in long slumps.
The Magic had lost six straight and 10 of 12 and were playing without three of their top six players and in the second of a back to back. The Knicks, who beat the Bulls back to back, had lost eight of 11, foundering under a new coach amidst the usual media turmoil of a team gone bad.
Instead, both came alive against the Bulls, Orlando leading the entire game, by double digits the last three quarters except for a few seconds and a staggering 68-50 lead at halftime. The Bulls made one brief attempt, reducing their deficit to 74-65 midway through the third quarter. But Orlando ran off 10 straight points to resume an 18-point lead after three quarters and then score the first 11 points of the fourth quarter.
The Bulls suddenly have become a welcoming salve for the unfortunate and downtrodden of the NBA
“I sure hope not,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said afterward when asked if the team had quit. “Obviously, what I’m saying right now, my message isn’t getting across. We’re going to sit in a room and hopefully get it figured out tomorrow.”
No festive Easter brunch for these guys.
“Truth hurts sometimes,” added Jimmy Butler, who continued to struggle with 12 points and just two of four free throws. “I can respect it. Do we have sensitive guys? I guess we’re going to find out come tomorrow. If somebody has a problem with somebody, if they don’t like the way they are doing something, now is the time to speak up on it. We’ve been talking about it all year long. We don’t really have that much confrontation. Maybe that’s a good thing, sometimes that’s a bad thing. I just hope things get changed because I think we all want to be in the playoffs.”
As poorly as the Bulls have played in sliding back to .500 and 36-36, they remain just two games out of seventh place with both Indiana and Detroit losing Saturday. The Bulls play both this week.
“Teams around us loss tonight,” noted Mike Dunleavy. “We are hanging around. This thing can turn good or it can turn bad. We’re just a little lost as opposed to not having the talent. We just have to find our way.”
It’s been a constant refrain, and Hoiberg and Butler touched on two touchy issues.
One was in Hoiberg saying his message isn’t getting across.
That would suggest a team that has turned off or tuned out a coach.
But what about them? There was similar talk at the end of last season with the uneven playoff performances and losing the last three games and going out meekly.
A coach often gets too much credit and too much blame. If you fail a course, is it the teacher’s fault? These are veteran players, celebrated in the NBA with All-Star game appearances, post season awards and eight figure annual salary contracts. Butler not so obliquely pointed to the criticism he’s made of Hoiberg before about not coaching hard enough, not being more confrontational. Perhaps, but is that a reason for you to give up? Where’s the personal pride?
Players love to use military imagery, like being in battle or war, or with someone in a bunker. Do soldiers always love their commanding officers? What we always hear from good soldiers is fighting not only for the cause, but for the guys next to them. Will the Bulls do that? Can they?
“I remember the year we went to the (conference) finals and it was like two or three cliques ,” noted Derrick Rose, who like Butler was overwhelmed and outplayed by the Magic guards. “I didn’t hang with guys like that, but still came in and we did our job. So as far as being close as a team and hanging out, that is cool. But when we come in here, be professional and do your job.”
It hasn’t been happening of late, but, really, only of late. The Bulls seemed a week ago back on the right track, one of their better games in a win over the Utah Jazz in what was part of a three-game winning streak. And then came this inconceivable trio of losses, each one worse than the previous given the urgency and goal. It would suggest they don’t care, which was the theme of the post game inquisition. Though the players essentially insisted otherwise.
Dunleavy, who had 10 points, offered an interesting observation.
“It is just a team that is a little bit lost in terms of going out there every night and knowing what it takes to win,” Dunleavy said. “We give off that impression that we are beaten down, but I don’t think anybody has given in right now…I just don’t think we are good enough.”
Which perhaps is worse.
Maybe they aren’t as good as they believed, as they told us they were, as we thought they were.
At least now.
The absence of Joakim Noah and his inspirational play and message seems more significant now than ever. Back to when he was a rookie and calling out Ben Wallace, Noah has had the pulse and respect of the locker room like no one else. Like no one seems to have now. The Bulls were 23-15 his last full game before shoulder surgery.
They’ve moved spasmodically since, a few wins, losing, streaks both ways. And burdened by Butler and Nikola Mirotic out a month each, productive reserves coming in, like E’Twaun Moore, and then him being hurt. It seems to have worn them down, if not out.
And now they are on the brink of playoff elimination, or worse. It’s one thing to play your way out; it’s completely different to surrender meekly. Especially for a team with, if not realistic championship expectations, certainly that of a serious contender for the conference finals.
“I don’t think anybody has quit,” reiterated Butler. “I think we just hit adversity. You can say it’s at the wrong time right now being in a fight for the eighth seed. We have to fix it. You (media) guys ask the same questions, we give you the same answers. But what we are telling you is the truth. We’ve shown it before this year when we have played really, really, really bad we bounce back. We didn’t bounce back tonight, obviously, but that is not saying that we can’t. We know what we have to do. We’re optimistic. We are in this thing together. Win or lose. We don’t have a choice. I think everybody wants to be here; everybody wants to win.”
It didn’t look like that Saturday with the exception of Taj Gibson, who led the Bulls with 16 points, making his first eight shots and almost throwing Magic high jumping forward Aaron Gordon aside in powerful inside moves. All this despite some sort of discomfort with his left side, which he often grabbed, and hot words at times with teammates failing to help, cover and recover in an abominably poor defensive game.
Rose had nine points on four of 14 shooting with four turnovers. Gasol had seven points and eight assists and Doug McDermott had 12 points off the bench.
A badly depleted Orlando team shot 60 percent through three quarters and outrebounded the Bulls overall 50-40. The Bulls have been beaten by double digits on the boards each of the last three games, which screams a lack of effort and fundamental, intelligent play. The Magic was led by longtime reserve Dewayne Dedmon with a career high 18 points, which he set in the first half with his previous high 12. He also had 13 rebounds. The five Bulls starters combined for 18 rebounds.
“Just a lack of competitiveness,” said the bewildered Hoiberg. “All we talked about is getting off to a good start tonight, giving ourselves a chance. We win games, more often than not, when we win the first quarter. They came out and scored 36 on us in the first 12 minutes.”
Though the Bulls weren’t sharp or much enthused, it wasn’t a runaway until Hoiberg went to the bench. Gasol was back playing and with Rose making a pair of driving layups and hitting McDermott for a transition jumper and Butler an inside score, the Bulls trailed 23-20 with three minutes left in the first quarter.
Hoiberg subbed in Justin Holiday and Bobby Portis for Butler and Gibson and Aaron Brooks for Rose and the Bulls collapsed in a hail storm of turnovers, bad shots and little reaction on defense.
The Magic closed the first quarter with a 13-2 run for that 36-22 lead on 73 percent shooting. The Magic would build up their biggest lead of the season later even with the circumstances of poor health and being on a back to back.
The start of the second quarter left the Bulls in a deeper hole. Brooks, who would be ejected with a second technical foul late in the game, fired up a quick jumper as teammates were ambling up court. The Bulls amble a lot these days. Orlando grabbed the long rebound for a fast break layup. Brooks then handed the ball sideways to Brandon Jennings for another breakway layup and 44-27 Magic lead.
Hoiberg ran the starters back in, though Gasol is definitely limited in playing time returning from his knee swelling. Butler and Rose are supposed to be, as well, and Butler again had difficultly beating his man, often making two or three spin moves and than handing the ball back to someone with a few seconds on the shot clock. He did refute he may need surgery after the season, though he hasn’t looked the same since his return from his knee injury.
The starters gained a measure of competitiveness behind Gibson powering inside and made it 49-40 Orlando on a Gasol to Butler back door lob. But the Magic hit the Bulls with a 12-2 run. Neither Rose nor Butler could stop perimeter penetration as the Magic guards had high occupancy vehicle lanes to the basket. Then if anyone tried to help, there was a big man getting a pass for a layup, Gibson and Gasol several times bickering over responsibility.
Orlando led 68-50 at halftime. Rebuilding Orlando is 5-12 this season in the second of back to back games. Two of those wins have been over the Bulls.
“We’ve been pretty good against the Bulls this year and we were pretty confident playing against them,’’ said Fournier, who was defended by Butler.
After making those nine of 13 threes against the Knicks Wednesday, Nikola Mirotic was one of seven and one of 10 on threes the last two games. Mirotic, Holiday and Portis were a combined three of 21 with Portis continuing to launch the most unusual collection of shots with little chance of success.
But among the starters as well, there’s no thrust on offense, no outlet to push back the defense, not much movement. There’s a lot of side to side, dribble handoff action and then someone to make a play. Someone makes a mistake or gets beat, they go right back in a one-on-one to make up for it. It suggests they do care, but are misdirected. It’s surprising for a mostly veteran team.
The Bulls started the second half with the sort of determination to make a comeback with Bulls defense forcing three missed shots and four turnovers. The young Magic team often has gotten rattled and lost in such situations and the Bulls got within 74-65. Magic coach Scott Skiles called time out, and it was the Magic players in a fury, demanding more and better results.
“Basically, we just told each other to wake up in a lot more vulgar of words,’’ said Gordon. “Everybody was talking and barking at each other in a good way. At this point, we’re too old to be sensitive about what somebody is saying because we want to win.’’
That was supposed to be the Bulls.
Instead, it was Orlando with a 15-4 run as the substitutions again set back the Bulls to an 89-71 Orlando lead after three. And then a fourth quarter Bulls lineup of reserves gave the Magic an 11-0 start to fall behind 100-71 with nine minutes left.
And now there are 10 games left for the Bulls to salvage, if not the season, at least personal pride in their competitive spirits.
“They’re locked in at shoot around,” insisted Hoiberg. “They’re getting after it. They’re paying attention to what we’re doing, and then we go out there and get slapped in the face. When we’re in the film meetings, when we’re on the floor, you’ve got their attention, you’ve got eye contact. It’s just not carrying over onto the floor right now for whatever reason. We went out and competed at the beginning of that third quarter. They got it back up. Then we started heaving up home run shots and step backs and that kind of thing. Everything that we weren’t doing when we were getting back into the game; you can’t do that. You can’t get it back all at once. We were trying to do that, and again adversity hits us and we struggled. It’s very disappointing.”