Bulls can't dig themselves out of early hole in Boston

And then Saturday in Cleveland when ABC-TV inaugurates it’s national Saturday night schedule of games the Bulls will face what figures to be a highly motivated LeBron James trying to show that his buddy Tyronn Lue in his first game deserves to be the new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Wait, it gets worse.

The Bulls, losers of six of eight, will be playing back to back after a dispiriting 110-101 loss Friday in Boston in which the starless Celtics outhustled, outran, outshot and outworked a rested Bulls team that hadn’t played since Monday.

That’s right, nobody is really counting the Wednesday 31-point loss to Golden State at home as actually having played.

Yes, and then depression set in.

“Until we understand the urgency we have to come out with, especially on the defensive end–you give up 34 again in the first quarter tonight–we’re going to find ourselves in the same position,” said a further exasperated Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s such a fine line in this business of being a great team and a very average team and we teeter on that line.

“If you come out and get off to slow start they (Cavaliers) will bury you,” warned Hoiberg. “Get a lead instead of fighting from behind. I anticipate them (spurred with a coaching change) coming out with a ton of energy and we’re going to need to match that and weather spurts a heck of a lot better than we have these last couple of games.”

This one Saturday with the national media pouring in to scrutinize James and the Cavs on national TV—anyone know who the tackling dummy is?–has all the markings of a basketball disaster, though that seems to be when these Bulls most respond.

We’ll see Saturday after a particularly disappointing loss in which the Bulls never led, trailed by double digits much of the first three quarters and as much as by 16 in the third quarter and then, remarkably, were in position to take a lead with 4:39 left.

Jimmy Butler had 28 points and 14 rebounds and Derrick Rose with three of four three pointers had 27 points and seven rebounds, the backcourt duo taking turns dragging the Bulls back into a game that seemed lost from the early moments.

But then Rose’s nifty bounce pass to Nikola Mirotic apparently for a layup and the lead went off his hands and out of bounds. Isaiah Thomas drove for a Boston score and a struggling Mirotic followed that with a missed three. Then after an exchanges of misses, Jared Sullinger laid the ball in for a 101-96 lead with 3:21 left on a beautiful connection from Kelly Olynyk after the Bulls were caught out of position on a deft pick and roll.

Butler followed that with a miss and a turnover, Rose missed and Bobby Portis missed a pair of free throws and had a shot blocked as the Celtics closed out the game comfortably.

“This is the first time I’ve been on a team like this where we are going through this problem,” admitted Rose. “I’m trying to take everything in, digest it, look at it from afar; there are so many angles, but we got to figure out a way. It’s about being on the same page. All the hustle plays and all that is effort. Loose balls, rebounding, saving the ball from out of bounds, all that takes effort; we’re not giving the extra effort to be a championship team right now.”

This could get really bad.

The Bulls play nine of their next 11 games on the road, including twice in Cleveland and criss crossing the country to California, back to Utah, back to California and then to Minnesota and Charlotte, almost two straight weeks on the road leading up to one home game against Atlanta before the All-Star break and then back to Cleveland, where they fired their coach because they believed they were dysfunctional at 30-11 and six and a half games ahead of the fourth place Bulls.

“Was a surprise,” agreed Pau Gasol as few knew quite what to say as most everyone was asked about LeBron’s latest palace coup. “They’re first in the conference, they played in the Finals last year. That’s not enough to keep your head coaching position. It’s an internal decision. It’s their issue, not ours.”

Gasol, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds but struggled on defense against another team with perimeter shooting big men, was correct. The Bulls have plenty of issues of their own.

They were sleep walking from the start for a change and gave up another 60-plus point first half. The bench was outscored 30-17 as Mirotic continued to falter, one of seven shooting and six of 35 the last five games. Doug McDermott played 23 minutes and got one shot. Tony Snell played 17 minutes, most against Thomas, who is maybe 5-8, and attempted one shot and got one rebound, two fewer than Thomas.

Taj Gibson suffered an eye injury and is uncertain about playing Saturday with Kirk Hinrich still out and Joakim Noah gone likely for the season. Rookie Bobby Portis had one of his better games with eight points, hustle and some physical play in 18 minutes, though he was taken out once after repeatedly being beaten on the defensive boards. Still, he’ll probably see his minutes increased with the uncertain play all around him off the bench.

Butler and Rose continued to isolate on offense, though it would be difficult to blame them with as little production as they are seeing around them. But as a result, the Bulls had a weak 11 assists on 38 baskets while the Celtics had 26. No Bulls reserve had an assist.

It got so bad with the nimble and opportunistic Celtics forcing 20 turnovers for 26 points and 14 steals that Hoiberg even said the Bulls were better with Rose and Butler pretty much ignoring everyone because the passes weren’t connecting and players were having balls routinely stripped.

“Anytime we tried moving the ball too much they were getting into the passing lanes,” said Hoiberg. “So the thing that was working was ball screens in the middle and that’s when we were in attack mode and that’s when good things happened for us.”

And as has been the habit of this Bulls team, with games like against Golden State the exception, they came back from a large deficit and were in position to steal a victory. But then you have to be perfect and opportunistic, and that tempts fate and circumstance too much and too often.

“That’s on us starters,” admitted Butler, who played through what was called flu-like symptoms. “We have been digging ourselves a huge hole a lot of these games because we know how talented we are, how good we can be. We can score the ball. But defense is all about grit, will. We try to outscore teams too much and when our shots are not falling we get in a deep hole and try to come back, which we do the majority of the time because we have guys who can score. But if you trade baskets you’re not going to win.

“I think it’s lackadaisical,” said Butler. “We don’t come in thinking we are going to beat guys by 50; we just come in maybe thinking we’ll get a few shots to fall and get an easy lead and then just continue to outscore them the rest of the game. I think we look at it like that because our coaches are so great at drawing up plays to put guys in great position to score the ball. And if we get scored on we’ll just go back down and score again, but then you miss a shot and they score and you miss and they score and they score, fast break, and before you know it we are down 15 points.”

Yes, just like that.

The Bulls are familiar with the pattern and there it was again Friday after Rose’s fast start kept the Bulls even the first seven minutes. But as the subs rolled in the Celtics hit the Bulls with a 9-0 run as Snell went almost 11 minutes without a shot despite being defended, as much as he can, by the mini-me Thomas. With Gibson not a scorer it puts extra pressure on Rose and Butler. Gasol’s shot wasn’t going early nor was Butler’s with his miseries.

“At first I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, but then it changed,” said Butler, who was scoreless in his first 10 minutes but with five rebounds. “Nobody cares, nobody feels sorry for you; you’re playing so you have to go out and do what you are supposed to do.”

Though they don’t much play off one another, Butler and Rose did what they are supposed to as Rose is averaging 23.5 points and shooting 50 percent since missing the game in Philadelphia Jan. 14 when Butler scored 53.

Still, the Bulls trailed 34-23 after one as the aggressive and zealous Celtics constantly snuck in from behind Bulls players for steals, roughed them up on drives and beat the Bulls to second shots.

Portis gave the Bulls a strong stint to open the second quarter as the Bulls pulled within 40-36, running the floor on a fast break, setting jarring screens and following shots.

“I feel for them (McDermott and Mirotic),” said Hoiberg. “When you are struggling there is not a worse feeling in the world. I thought the guy who really turned around things for us when he was out there was Bobby. He was sprinting into the ball screen, making contact; we were getting to the rim and that’s when we got it going.”

But this time when the starters went back in, the Celtics hit them with a 15-2 run as Sullinger banged in several long jump shots with little response. Thomas led Boston with 22 points and Sullinger had 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

The Celtics went back ahead 64-49 at halftime, but a big 16-point third quarter from Rose brought the Bulls all the way back. They were on a run of scoring in seven straight possessions when Aaron Brooks missed an open three and Portis and Mirotic missed point blank layups to give the Celtics 90-82 breathing room after three quarters.

Then it was Butler’s turn with his 10 fourth quarter points and the two key sequences.

First, the Bulls got within 97-94 on two Butler free throws with 6:39 left. Then there was a Rose turnover, Butler miss and Gasol miss. The Bulls’ defense stiffened and forced five missed long jump shots. Butler then bulled himself to the line for two more free throws to get within 97-96. But then came the Mirotic bobble and miss and the last true opportunity.

Look, we missed some great opportunities,” lamented Hoiberg. “We missed a point blank layup, we missed a dunk, we missed a wide open three there in three consecutive possessions. We cut that thing to one; we had two key turnovers. So the biggest thing for us is you come out, you get off to a good start you’re not in that position; it’s a different outcome.

“The fire we had in that comeback is what we have to have,” emphasized Hoiberg. “We’ve had moments where we have it and we’ve had a lot of moments where we haven’t. When they get a 10-point lead you put your head down it grows to 15 and compounds instead of bucking up and finding a way and getting back in the game. We had that stretch in the second half, but you dig a hole it takes too much energy to climb out.”

The Bulls are starting to dig a hole for themselves this season. When you do there’s not much chance of climbing out.