Wasn’t Groundhog Day Tuesday?
Because like in the Harold Ramis/Bill Murray movie, it seems for the Bulls like a bad day keeps repeating itself in an endless loop as the Bulls Saturday for the third time in a week blew a late lead and lost, this time 112-105 to the Minnesota Timberwolves when the Timberwolves scored the last 12 points after trailing by five with 2:25 left.
It does make you feel like you’ve seen a big rodent again.
“Obviously that’s the theme of this trip, finding a way to close out games,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “You’ve got to find a way to do everything you can, get stops and get the ball back. Collectively in this (locker) room, everybody included, we’ve got to find a way to close out games. You keep working at it. You put the ball in your playmakers’ hands and you try to go out and get good looks and good shots. We did get a few of them. They just didn’t go down.
“This is a tough stretch, four time zones in six days,” noted Hoiberg as the Bulls fell to 2-4 on the road trip. “We finish off in Charlotte (Monday) and go home, and that’s always a tough game after a 13-day road trip. It will take a lot of mental toughness, and hopefully we’ll get a couple (of wins) to get some momentum going into the (All-Star) break. The frustrating thing is when you are getting beaten up on the glass like we did you don’t take a stand and find a way; you knock somebody down, you get the ball and push the other way.
“We’ve battled adversity since Day 1,” noted Hoiberg. “Derrick (Rose) breaks a bone in his eye, Mike (Dunleavy) has offseason surgery, had guys in and out of the lineup; that’s adversity. So guys have to step up and fill those roles. Now we have Derrick playing the way we want him with his pace and push. We’re getting a few guys back, but it’s about getting the five toughest players out there to finish the games for you.”
Hoiberg and the Bulls obviously still are searching, though some of the toughest are either gone for the season or out injured.
Joakim Noah, of course, is lost for the season after shoulder surgery and Jimmy Butler left the team for treatment after his sprained knee Friday in Denver. There was no ligament damage, which was a positive. But the Bulls said there is no timetable yet on Butler’s return until he sees the doctor in Chicago. Nikola Mirotic remains out after appendix surgery, and Dunleavy played his first game of the season Saturday and remains on a playing time limit. Pau Gasol did return wearing a protective glove after missing Friday’s game in Denver with a hand injury.
So is it a team close because it just needs someone back?
Or a team losing confidence at 27-23 with 11 losses in their last 16 games, now sixth in the Eastern Conference and just a game ahead of eighth place Detroit?
“I’m not worried about it,” said Rose, who had his first double/double of the season with 18 points, 10 assists and five rebounds. “We’ve just got to find a way to hold on to a lead in the fourth quarter. There’s a lot of basketball to play. We’ve got two games left. Hopefully we can win these two; we’ve got to catch a rhythm before All-Star.
“While I’m out there, it seems like everybody’s confident,” said Rose. “It seems like everybody’s on the same page. It’s just rebounding the ball. We gave them a lot of opportunities to get second chances. If we want to win we can’t do that. I liked earlier in the season how we were closing games with our defense and our offense was behind; it kind of switched up with our defense we lack now toward the end. We had a chance to win; just we didn’t close it. I’m going to find a way to make sure we close these games.”
Rose again didn’t have enough left after a terrific 30-point game and near triple double Friday in Denver without backcourt mate Butler. Gasol had 25 points and eight rebounds and E’Twaun Moore added 17 points and seven assists.
But Minnesota big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng were dominant with a combined 50 points and 30 rebounds and a massive 45-31 rebounding margin. Andrew Wiggins added 21 points with a big scoring close in the last 90 seconds with six straight points after the Bulls still led 105-103 with two minutes left.
The Bulls were in the midst of a brutal stretch of seven straight field goal misses to end the game, three by Rose, three by Gasol and one by Moore as the baby Timberwolves were the more sophisticated. While the Bulls reverted to isolation play or one pass and a shot and didn’t score a field goal in the last 3:24, Wiggins took advantage of inside mismatches to score against Rose and Moore and have the Timberwolves win going away. Minnesota despite being 16-36 swept the two-game season series from the Bulls.
The week became the loss of that 93-90 lead in Utah with 18 seconds left after the Rose three, the loss of the 16-point fourth quarter lead in Denver and the five-point lead Saturday in a wild fourth quarter with three ties and eight lead changes. So close in the second of a back to back while keeping a rested and athletic, young team in a game with 25 lead changes and 16 ties might be considered a positive for the Bulls. Especially with their two best defensive players missing.
Instead, it’s became a cloud hanging over the team with yet another close loss, one that doesn’t suggest, as it would in Punxsutawney, that there’s spring in their step or that a brighter day is imminent. Is it time like with the fictional weatherman in the movie for a reexamination of who and what they are and where they are heading?
Are they on a swift spiral downward, cursed with second guessing as repetition becomes habit? That’s likely too much of an overreaction to a few close losses, But until those games become wins the players will be asked in all sorts of ways whether either they are not good enough or they have become accepting of defeat and mentally weak.
“Just the same old story, not making plays down the stretch to win the game,” noticed Dunleavy, making his season debut—his first basket a dunk, no less—after summer back surgery. “It definitely can become (mental); I hope it doesn’t.
“We talked about it,” said Dunleavy. “’We’ve got to have a bigger ego, a bigger team ego to the point where it’s like, ‘Look, we go into games like, we’re winning this game. Down the stretch we are going to handle business.’ There’s this doubt that seems to be creeping in and we’re too good for that. We’ve got good players, we’re well coached. We have to execute better and, more importantly, we have to have that ‘We’re going to get this done.’”
It seemed, actually, like the Bulls might get it done with Gasol back after missing one game and Rose continuing to improve his playmaking, averaging nine assists the last three games.
Rose, Gasol and Moore carried the Bulls to start, though it was a harbinger of things to come as rookie Towns had 12 first quarter points blowing by Bulls players and using a medium range jump shot with accuracy. After the Bulls led 19-16, the Timberwolves closed with a 10-2 run to lead 26-21 after one quarter.
Gasol was passing well and making his shots with Towns reluctant to chase him outside as Gasol also added a pair of threes. The Timberwolves with Butler away began to trap and double team Rose. He responded with passing inside to cutters like Taj Gibson as the Bulls took a 43-37 lead and with Gasol’s shooting led 55-49 at half.
“Once I went out and started to get a feel for the ball, taking some shots and warming up and see how the hand felt…I felt like I was going to be a little limited,” said Gasol. “I was still effective and contributed to the team and I wanted to be out there with the rest of the guys.”
Minnesota grabbed the momentum back to start the third quarter as Denver did the fourth Friday. The Timberwolves, repeatedly beating the Bulls to the offensive boards, which has been an on and off issue all season, opened the third quarter with a 15-5 run pushing the ball. But Rose began attacking the rim again and Dunleavy made a three to put the Bulls back ahead 71-70.
Dieng to the apparent surprise of the Bulls and many in the audience showed good shooting range, though Bobby Portis gave the Bulls a boost with 15 points and was on the floor to close the game. But Portis was badly beaten on the boards by the two Minnesota big men as Portis had just three rebounds in 28 minutes. While Portis is a hard worker and runs the court well and has a nice shooting touch, he doesn’t seem to be an explosive player and quick jumper, which seemed to hinder him against Towns and Dieng.
The game was tied at 84 after three quarters, but the Bulls got varied offensive contributions in the fourth: A three from Moore, a runner from Doug McDermott, a jumper and rolling finish from Rose to Portis, and a couple of drives from Rose. It looked like it might be enough to get the Bulls that third road win, which privately would make it a reasonable trip. A 3-4 finish, which is still possible, wouldn’t be bad for such a long and winding road trip.
The Timberwolves still were all over the boards with a 13-7 fourth quarter margin, but it looked like the Bulls might survive.
But after taking that 105-101 lead with under three minutes left, Rose missed on a drive and the Timberwolves charged the basket hard, getting four free throws for Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine. Rose missed a second time and then Gasol did. Wiggins postup 10 footer over Moore with 1:24 gave Minnesota the 106-105 lead.
Moore then missed a three and the taller Wiggins got Rose inside and scored for a 108-105 Minnesota lead with 48.5 seconds left. Gasol tried a three that missed as the Bulls went to quick plays, a pass and shot rather than searching something out. Gasol missed and Wiggins hit again with 19.5 seconds left for a 110-105 lead. Gasol tried another three for the heck of it and missed.
“Just have that belief no matter who is playing,” said Dunleavy. “This team has been through this before of having guys out; hasn’t stopped us. You just show up, do your job and get wins and that’s what we’ve done. So we just have to get back on track.”
And make sure that light at the end of the tunnel is an opening and not, well, you know.