We hear so often in sports and business and life about the rewards of hard work, that if you give the effort and commit to success it’s there for you. But often the reality of talent interferes. Sometimes no matter how hard you try and how much you care and crave success and commit to it, it can elude you because the other guy is bigger or stronger or faster.
And so it is happening to the Bulls, who Saturday did about all they could with who they had, though it wasn’t enough in a 103-95 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I thought our guys competed and battled tonight and played the right way,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “It showed with our movement with all the assists and open shots. Defensively we got back in the game, but we just couldn’t get that big one when we needed it. We cut it down to a reasonable number, but just couldn’t get over that hump. It’s obviously tough. I would be lying if I told you it wasn’t.”
The Bulls had an impressive season high 33 assists on 39 field goals. They got Pau Gasol’s first triple double as a Bull with 22 points, 16 rebounds and 14 assists. Doug McDermott with 18 points had his fifth straight game scoring in double figures for the first time in his career. Bobby Portis had a terrific game on the defensive boards with a career high 16 rebounds and 10 points. E’Twaun Moore had 19 points, 15 in the third quarter when the Bulls rallied from a 51-41 halftime deficit to within 71-68 late in the third quarter.
But the Bulls could not stop Damien Lillard with 31 points and couldn’t make the big shot when they got within 96-90 with 3:35 left in the game after a Mike Dunleavy three. Lillard then couldn’t control an inside pass from Mason Plumlee. But Moore dribbled too far under and his pass out was intercepted. The Trailblazers pushed ahead as they had a dominating 19-2 margin in fast break points. Plumlee was fouled on a breakout and made both free throws for a 98-90 lead.
Gasol countered with a 20 footer and Lillard missed. Gasol missed inside, got the rebound and found an open Dunleavy cutting for the layup. Ed Davis swopped in from the weak side to block the shot that Portland coach Terry Stotts called the play of the game. Lillard missed again, but Moore got blocked on a drive for a jump ball. The Bulls would lose the tap for the second time in a fourth quarter jump. Portland would miss yet again in. In their previous game, they blew an 18-point lead and lost to Houston. They led the Bulls by 15 in the first half.
But after Plumlee was fouled and made one of two free throws, McDermott missed and Gasol missed the follow. And even though Lillard missed again, there was just 42 seconds left when Gasol was fouled and made one of two to pull within 99-93. Without Derrick Rose, missing a third game with leg issues, Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic, the latter two out since before the All-Star break and presumably for a few more weeks, the Bulls just didn’t have the resources to prevail against a developing Portland team.
“You can’t really dwell on it or be frustrated and think about it every day,” said Gasol. “We wish certain guys would be back and we wish that things were a little different. But they’re not. So you just go out there and do your best, play together, play within the game, help each other out, play harder than your opponent. That’s how you give yourself a chance regardless of the level of talent in this league. And then hopefully we’ll get some guys back. Guys that are important to our team that would help us quite a bit.”
But it doesn’t look like they’re coming through the door anytime soon, to paraphrase an old rant by one time Celtics coach Rick Pitino. Hoiberg said he’s uncertain if Rose will play in Miami Tuesday and Butler and Mirotic have yet to begin any serious practices. Joakim Noah remains out for the season after shoulder surgery.
So it’s a difficult time for the Bulls, who fell to 30-28, eighth place in the Eastern Conference and just a half game ahead of ninth place Detroit. The 10th place Wizards are just 2.5 games back, two in the loss column. And now as the Bulls finish February, they play five of their next eight games on the road. They close with 13 of the last 24 on the road, perhaps the most difficult schedule among the group of perhaps seven teams competing for five playoff spots. And likely without at least Butler and Mirotic for now.
And without Rose, that’s three of the team’s top four scorers accounting for 50 points per game missing and leaving just one player, Gasol, averaging in double figures.
“You try hard, try to play your best,” Gasol said. “When there’s not the reward of the win everything doesn’t taste as good. We’re in a team sport. The team wins, everything is good and everyone is happy.”
There’s not much joy around the Bulls these days as they fade toward the lottery for the first time since 2008. There’s obviously almost two months still to play and 24 games. That’s plenty of time to get on a streak, though it’s difficult to imagine for now given the continued absence of four of the team’s top six players from the start of the season and three former and current All-Star players. No one cares for excuses, and no one among the Bulls’ players is making them. But the reality is if you are in the fourth quarter with Tony Snell, Justin Holiday, Aaron Brooks and Bobby Portis, as the Bulls were, there’s only so far they can take a team..
While Portis played perhaps his most fierce game in weeks, Snell had his ninth scoreless game, Brooks had three fouls in his first minute of play and was two of seven shooting and just acquired Holiday missed his only shot in 16 minutes. Snell and Holiday thus were on the court for 44 minutes combined without a field goal and Cristiano Felicio added another few minutes without a point. That’s not replacing the 50 points of Butler, Rose and Mirotic.
“We hope to get some guys back,” said Hoiberg. “We got some good reports today on some of the guys. We hope to get them back soon. We need to keep the same kind of movement when we get those guys back, and we will have a chance to win some games down the stretch. It is what it is right now. Other guys are getting a chance to go out and show what they can do.”
It’s been sporadic, and understandably so. There’s a reason why you haven’t started in your career until now or haven’t averaged in double figures or were undrafted or a low draft pick. Everyone wants a chance to do more. It doesn’t mean you are capable. You can do 2,000 pushups a day; it doesn’t mean you can be an Olympic weight lifter.
“We know what we’ve got,” said Taj Gibson. “We just know that we have to play harder and can’t mess up. We have a small window for mistakes now and that’s the biggest thing. But we’ve got a lot of good guys in here preaching the right things and wanting to win for the right reasons.”
It’s true. It’s not a divided locker room. Players aren’t pointing fingers, assessing blame or hiding from responsibility. They are trying, and it looked good to start with a 12-5 lead as Gasol was deftly finding cutters on back door plays and nice actions off his screens.
“Guys are getting opportunities and getting to play through Pau,” noted Hoiberg. “He is passing the ball and getting guys moving and cutting.”
But the Bulls could not thwart the explosive Lillard. Snell started against Lillard given defense is Snell’s strength. But Lillard is tough for anyone to control and had 15 first quarter points. It was 21-21 after one. The Bulls were finally getting tough on the defensive boards thanks to rookie Portis, who was taking the initiative to keep the opponent off the offensive boards for a change. If Portis continues to concentrate on rebounding that way he’ll be tough to keep out of the lineup.
McDermott also was inspiring with constant movement and hard cuts, looking like Reggie Miller in perpetual motion. He added yet another driving dunk, eschewing an open layup to slam the ball with derision in what should be inspiring to teammates. Movement like McDermott’s team wide could eventually pull the Bulls out of their swoon with some returns. It would seem for now Rose is the closest to a return as he remains game to game. Hoiberg, though, said before the game he worked out Rose and Rose wasn’t moving well.
The Bulls fell behind 51-36 late in the first half and were down 64-51 midway through the third quarter. They got within 71-68 on a Moore three with two minutes left in the third quarter. But Portland scored four straight baskets as this became the 13th straight game the Bulls have yielded at least 100 points. Though it was overall a better defensive effort with three Portland starters scoring six points or fewer.
The Bulls got within a basket at three points down with 7:15 left in the game after McDermott was fouled on a three and made them all. That time Portland scored eight straight points as the Bulls missed four straight shots, and later when the Bulls got back within six they failed to score in four of the next five possessions.
There’s no substitute for the down-the-stretch scorers who can make big plays, get to the free throw line and welcome the challenge. There just aren’t enough of them left in the lineup for now.
“I thought we competed,” said Hoiberg. “We gave ourselves an opportunity, but the ball just didn’t go in the basket. It was just one of those nights.”
One too frequent of late.