Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was bewildered Saturday following the Bulls 102-93 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in which the Bulls not only were scoreless in overtime for the first time in franchise history but also missed 19 of their last 20 shots.
“I don’t understand how we play with as much energy as we did the other night (in a win over the powerful Oklahoma City Thunder), and then show up the next night just expecting to win the game,” said Hoiberg. “It’s tough to fathom how that can happen. We get 82 opportunities to put on a jersey and go out to play for your team; we need to do everything we can to win. We obviously didn’t do that tonight. I wish I knew why that happens. I would like to think when I played this game a million years ago one thing I did was break through a wall every time I stepped on that floor. That is something we have to do. We have to fix it. Our team needs to play extremely hard no matter who we are playing against.”
Coach, coach, pick me, pick me! I know, I know.
Sure there are technical problems with the 4-3 Bulls, who were led by Pau Gasol with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins had 31 points and rookie Karl-Anthony Towns had 17 points and 13 rebounds as the Timberwolves outrebounded the Bulls 58-50 and dominated inside scoring 50-36.
It’s doubtful many Bulls players know the 70s Sly & the Family Stone band, but their hit song “Stand” could be an anthem for this Bulls team. Which despite Hoiberg pleas to the contrary seems to be having difficulty breaking out out of its half court habits of standing around watching someone take shots. They so rarely swing the ball for better shots in the half court and look like plays are called when they are not. Their defense is adequate as after a fast start, the Timberwolves shot 40.6 percent for the game. Though Hoiberg’s objective was to feature a spaced out three-point shooting team, one problem has been he doesn’t have that many good three-point shooters.
Doug McDermott is the best with Mike Dunleavy out with a back injury. McDermott started again and made three of four threes for 11 points. But he was limited to about 20 minutes for defensive blemishes. Nikola Mirotic, who started the season impressively, is one of 13 on threes the last three games with foul trouble Saturday and defensive flaws that also has kept the fellow young player to limited playing time. Plus, both Mirotic and McDermott, while skilled, are not great athletes and can be taken advantage of by young teams like the Timberwolves.
Though the larger issue seems to be a state of mind.
The majority of this Bulls team for five years has had memorable playoff experiences without any ultimate satisfaction despite great expectations. Two of those seasons the Bulls led the NBA in wins. Of course, there were devastating and relentless injuries and personnel changes. And now Gasol and Joakim Noah are free agents after the season and the health of Derrick Rose always is questioned and to some it may be a team closing in on the end of a run for this group.
So it’s looked often like this Bulls team, with wins over LeBron James and the Cavs and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, and losses to Kemba Walker’s Hornets and Wiggins’ Timberwolves doesn’t seem to want to bother itself with the teams that likely won’t be in the playoffs. They’ll show you what they can do against the teams everyone believes will be there and then beat them in the spring. Make statements now.
But what this Bulls group will have to understand and embrace is teams don’t reach that occasion by competing seriously only on occasion.
“It’s all about effort,” agreed Rose, who along with Jimmy Butler had 11 points and combined to shoot seven for 28. “We’ll get tired of getting our (butts) whipped one day. It’s all about bringing that championship caliber of effort every night. We have to stay together while we are out there. Just coming out and playing harder, playing more aggressive. It’s something we have to figure out as a group. I think this is the worst you’ll see us play and hopefully in a couple of games you’ll be able to tell the difference.”
Not that it’s time to be that concerned or that it is not understandable.
The Bulls have a new coach trying to implement a new and different style of play, a coach experimenting with different and varied rotations less than two weeks into the season without one of his starters and thus two new starters. And with Rose, who missed basically all of training camp and the preseason with an orbital fracture that is not completely healed.
Look at the good teams with new coaches: The Thunder is 3-3 and the Pelicans are 0-6.
So there’s thinking, and sometimes they say about professional athletes that thinking gets in the way of playing fluidly and naturally.
It seems that way with the Bulls thus far as Hoiberg’s pleas to increase the pace of play and half court movement has been met with uncertainty, if not indifference. The players seem like they want to do the right thing. They always say they do and blame themselves when they don’t. But they can’t quite yet get themselves to do so. Though it was just the first home loss, so not quite time to give up yet.
“I think it was a lack of aggressiveness, a lack of desire and a lack of intensity,” agreed Gasol, whose tip in basket with 21.5 seconds left sent the game to overtime. “There are certain things you have to bring every night in the NBA in order to win games. We did not. We kind of just let them hang around all game long. At the end we paid the price. We need to make up our minds and figure out what we want to do going forward and what kind of team we want to be. It’s not too concerning. We still have a long way to go. There are still plenty of opportunities to show improvement. But if we have high expectations we have to prove it. We have to bring it and we have to earn it.”
Really, the Bulls even with their occasional ennui seemed like they were going to win this game and were well positioned to do so.
They had played “keep it close” with the athletic Timberwolves most of the game. But a vigorous fourth quarter defense and a couple of well timed scoring possessions seemed enough when Tony Snell made a three pointer with 6:33 remaining for an 89-83 Bulls lead.
It seemed enough for the Timberwolves as well as Wiggins had his best game of the season and Towns returned from early foul trouble to be effective. It should have been one of those games a young team considered uplifting just for playing a good team close on the road.
But after Wiggins made one of two free throws, the Bulls missed three pretty much point blank shots with a Rose floater, a Snell drive and a Gasol jumper that probably would have put the game away while Kevin Garnett was whiffing on a pair of free throws. The Bulls’ defense was good enough as Butler tied up Wiggins on a drive and the Bulls won the jump ball and the Bulls denied Towns twice inside.
But the Bulls unraveled on offense in coming to a stop with a pair of turnovers, another open Gasol miss and then an official decision that proved costly. Gasol with about three minutes left threw a beautiful lob pass to Butler, who’d lost Wiggins on a backdoor cut. Butler threw it in with what seemed like a foul and three-point play possibility. But referee Tony Brothers whistled one of those “Oh, Brother!” calls as he ruled the foul on the floor without continuation. It seemed highly questionable. Still, with that much time left you cannot blame an official for a debatable decision.
The Bulls still had plenty of opportunities as Butler air balled a drive with teammates virtual spectators. Meanwhile, Wiggins completed an impressive slam dunk on a spin move losing Butler and veteran Tayshaun Prince had Snell leaning the wrong way on a drive and made a layup with 27.9 seconds left in regulation for a two-point lead. Gasol tied it on a follow of a curious Mirotic drive out of a timeout.
The overtime was not unlike the overtime loss in Detroit when the Pistons scored the first seven points and the game was basically over. The Bulls are now three of 19 shooting in the two overtime periods combined. Maybe they need to practice five-minute periods.
But for those half filled people, two overtime losses makes it seconds away from maybe being 6-1.
It probably wasn’t a surprise it went this way for the Bulls with a casual start in which the Timberwolves led by Wiggins’ highlight reel led 30-28 after one quarter. Yes, another one of those Charlotte-like 30-point opposition quarters. Snell had his best shooting game and he and McDermott combined for 14 of the Bulls 28 points. But the emotion from the team ebbs too often. It’s not difficult against players like James and Durant. But otherwise the Bulls seem to revert to their reserved individual personalities.
Taj Gibson provided a bit of a spark in the second quarter with a nice high/low pass for a Mirotic score and with a slam dunk on a nifty Rose assist. Rose was then fouled on a drive as the Bulls eased ahead 39-35. Rose also finally made a three after 10 misses to start the season. But going back to a lot of standing jump shots—Mirotic and Butler were a combined zero for 12 on threes and the team 11-32—the Timberwolves took advantage of the long rebounds for a 12-0 run. There were 33 lead changes or ties in the game and the Timberwolves led 58-57 at halftime.
The analytics of shooting a lot of threes works better if you make them.
It was an unusual 5 p.m. Saturday start for the game to accommodate an international audience. The NBA has started to do this so the games can be seen at more reasonable times in Europe. And this game had Spanish favorites Gasol and Ricky Rubio. Plus, we know they don’t go out for dinner in Spain until about midnight.
Garnett got into his typical attempts to intimidate non physical players and got a technical foul for elbowing McDermott and was seen yelling often at Mirotic in that second quarter. Garnett never says anything to players like Butler. Then he returned to the bench when they sent word in his AARP monthly magazine had arrived.
Butler finally got going in the third quarter as the Bulls eased ahead, fell back and were leading 77-76 going into the fourth quarter. The Bulls held the Timberwolves to one of three and two turnovers to start the fourth quarter, and then let that six-point lead at home with six minutes remaining slowly disappear without enough urgency.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well pretty much the entire game and at the end we had good looks but they didn’t go in,” noted Gasol. “Too many turnovers tonight (19 and five each by Rose and Butler). For the most part, we got the shots we wanted. They just were not falling. We didn’t do enough. They went after it, and they wanted it more than we did. We are a team that strives to get into the playoffs. We have a lot of talent and it would be a waste if we didn’t play differently than we are playing now.”