The journey of a thousand miles, the proverb goes, begins with a single step. For the Bulls, it too often begins with an empty gas tank.
“I didn’t think we started the game the way we needed to,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was saying late Saturday after the Bulls 102-96 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. “We dug ourselves a hole, climbed out of it; our second group gave us great energy. Had some good looks early on we should have finished and that kind of carried over throughout the night, but we absolutely dug ourselves a hole out of the gate.”
This time it was a disappointing 12-3 deficit to open at home, a failing that made for a tug-of-war that left the Bulls letting go of the rope after 13 ties, eight lead changes and a tie game with 2:09 left on a Doug McDermott three pointer.
It could have been very different with a little good fortune, the kind the Bulls have mostly been getting this season with several narrow wins because of strong defense down the stretch and a timely shot or two. But this time McDermott’s three with 1:16 left that looked like a winner—and with Jimmy Butler signaling three after grabbing the key rebound of the Derrick Rose driving miss and passing to McDermott—spun out.
The Hornets got free throws from a slashing Cody Zeller. Then Butler saw his three spin around and out with 46.9 seconds left and Charlotte got a Kemba Walker 20 footer on a switch with 28.9 seconds left for a 98-94 lead. It was basically over when Butler threw away a pass on a drive with 24.9 seconds remaining.
“We missed a lot of shots that went in and out we normally make,” said Butler, who led the Bulls with 25 points and added eight rebounds. “We had a few defensive lapses. We just have to know where everyone is on defense and execute on offense. An L is an L in this league. We’ve just got to play better as a whole; the main thing is coming out of the gates and not digging ourselves a hole so we can play with a lead.
“We’re all right,” Butler added. “We have a winning record; that’s a good thing. We still have a long way to go, learn how to close the game, learn how to hold leads, how to start out the game the right way. We score enough points. It’s all about our energy level, guarding at times and know the other team’s personnel. We’re a good team. We mess up here and there, but we’ll fix it.”
The Bulls are 11-6, which is good for third in the Eastern Conference, just a half game behind the first place Cavaliers and Heat. The Bulls actually went into Saturday’s game first in the conference, which is encouraging for a new coach, new starters and a new system of play.
Of course, the Bulls also are a game and a half out of 10th place in the conference and missing the playoffs in an improved and tightly bunched Eastern Conference. Charlotte, which won for the second time in three games against the Bulls, is 11-8 and a game behind the Bulls. They were led by Nicholas Batum with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
The Bulls got 19 points from Derrick Rose on eight of 17 shooting, three of six on threes and seven rebounds and five assists. Pau Gasol, playing in his 1,000th game in the NBA, had 13 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks and McDermott added 13 points and three of five three pointers.
Still, it was a lost opportunity with the friendliest stretch in the schedule as the Bulls are tied for fewest games played in the league and in the midst of nine homes games in 10 overall. They are 2-1.
“To me this was a good opportunity to gain ground, separation from other teams and we didn’t take advantage of it,” reminded Gasol. “It feels good to be where we are, but we have to take advantage of games like this at home against anyone, make sure we capitalize and we try not to look back.
“Obviously we are hoping we are going to pick it up and start making plays and the energy level and then the intensity,” said Gasol. “But put yourself at a disadvantage, for sure, when the other team does a better job of being ready to play and setting the tone. We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole, got out of it and at the end it was a little bit of a tossup and that’s what happens, the consequence of it. Everyone has to come out ready individually and collectively; we have to do our part to start with the right tension, the right, attitude, the right energy and setting the tone well and being more aggressive from the beginning.”
Yes, everyone knows what to do; it’s just how to do it.
It sounds easier than it actually is: Play harder! What’s so difficult about that?
Well, if it were that simple they would just do it. The Bulls do often, though hardly always.
There’s probably a few elements involved in this, though it’s perhaps not that easy to quantify; no analytics explains this.
The Bulls have defeated the Cavaliers, Spurs and Thunder thus far this season, three of the best teams in the NBA and all considered title contenders. It’s given the Bulls the toughest wins in the conference. But the Bulls have lost to Minnesota, been blown out by Charlotte, and lost to Detroit, the latter which could be a playoff team. No shame there. You can’t win them all—OK, unless you’re Golden State—and this isn’t a potential 60-win Bulls team.
It’s really a good start to the season.
But it’s also a team that probably can’t wait to get to the post season.
They’ve basically been there so much the last five years with disappointing results that sometimes you get the sense, especially in those games against the top teams, that they can morph into playoff form faster. So get up for the good teams and not otherwise? That’s simplistic and probably a small part of several of these games they looked like they filled up with diesel fuel by mistake.
“We were right there, a layup, had two open looks,” noted Rose. “We just have to deal with it. I understand what coach was saying that we need to start off right because if we started off right I think everything would have been different.”
The Bulls, as Butler notes, are talented. They have more talent than the Hornets, more than many teams with Rose, Butler, Gasol and Joakim Noah all former All-Stars. It enables them to win several of these games when they are not playing at their most enthusiastic.
But they also are not particularly emotional people. Noah is, but not many are, and now especially among that starting five. Neither Rose nor Butler truly are; Tony Snell is exceptionally quiet. Gasol isn’t particularly emotive. Neither is Nikola Mirotic. So they’ll often start out following the game plan, looking for their plays, and also perhaps accustomed to the static style they’ve played. They’re trying, but there’s no one really to push. Then they become desperate.
It’s also not a group that runs the floor well compared say with players like Noah, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and even McDermott, who is good in the sort of side to side movement that opens up shots and what the Hornets used effectively as Batum made four of six threes, twice being fouled on threes.
“All my shots were made off great passes and great screens. I was wide open every time,” said Batum. Ouch.
Hoiberg has made it clear this is almost a season long experiment building toward the playoffs in examining, analyzing and promoting the style of play and the players who fit best together. He’s made it clear that no lineup, starting or otherwise, or rotation, is established or finalized.
“We have the personnel; I feel we can get it going more in transition,” said McDermott. “Other teams run it at us. Why can’t we run it back at them? We’re starting to figure that out a little. Tonight obviously wasn’t a good example, but we do it in practice. Our offense looks awesome in practice; it’s only a matter of time before it carries over.”
he blend still may not be right to start games, though it’s hardly been a fatal flaw given the overall success. Still, it seems likely there’s tinkering with that engine still to be done. Those race cars always need some fine tuning.
The Bulls closed after that Hornets 12-3 start to trail 26-22 after one quarter and had a 32-29 lead with 8:37 left in the first half.
Hinrich and Gibson were big parts of that as Hinrich runs the offense probably better than anyone else with the sort of pace Hoiberg talks about and the side to side movement after giving up the ball. But Hinrich has to be limited in playing time given a susceptibility to injury. Hinrich actually led the team in plus/minus Saturday. Gibson has quietly been perhaps the team’s most active and aggressive player the last few games. It rarely shows up in the box score and occasionally results in him being caught spinning into the defense on the post. But he’s all over the court on defensive switches, both inside and outside, changing sides and ends with a passion. Noah, of course, plays similarly, though lacks the shooting ability Gibson has, at least from mid range.
“The bench gave us great energy,” Hoiberg agreed. “They came out and played hard and got us back in the game, got us the lead. Had a lead going into the fourth; just couldn’t hold onto it.”
Though subtle, Hoiberg seemed to be giving some of Snell’s minutes to E’Twaun Moore as Snell played just the starting rotation in each half and didn’t attempt a shot in 12 minutes. Rose shot the ball better and the starters got a roll going when they took the baton from the reserves late in the first half. Butler had a terrific one hand dunk on a Gasol lob after a Rose three, though the Bulls still have trouble with those lob passes too often becoming turnovers. The Bulls with their size had a 52-50 rebounding edge, but they lost numerous second shots to Charlotte, which had 17 second chance points. The Bulls had 29 assists on 37 baskets, which is impressive. But it was deceiving as the half court movement still was limited.
Charlotte led 52-50 at halftime, and again the starters were slow to start, isolating three straight times to open the second half with teammates as audience. Rose then got the Bulls going with a three and a pair of driving scores.
“It was good to see Derrick knock down some shots,” said Hoiberg. “He been working extremely hard at it and hopefully this will get him going a little as we move forward.”
Then Butler picked it up with a three and a finish on a Gasol pass and the Bulls led 69-64 and 75-72 after three quarters.
Charlotte actually seemed to benefit from Al Jefferson being out as their offense looked much better without Jefferson holding the ball for shots. They moved almost continually, getting Batum those shots. The fourth quarter featured five ties and three lead changes. Butler made a jumper for an 84-83 lead with 6:53 left, and then Noah found him for a backdoor cut and basket, but Butler missed the three-point play. It was one of three free throws the Bulls would miss in the last six minutes as Nikola Mirotic, back starting after an apparent concussion Wednesday, missed two straight trailing by three with 2:44 left. Still, McDermott tied it with a three soon after and both McDermott and Butler were fractions away from threes that might have turned the momentum. Though the point was at home and rested after two off days perhaps it should not have come down to being that close.
“We weren’t playing with pace coming out of the gate,” noted Butler. “They came out playing harder than we did as a whole on both ends of the floor. When we are playing like that we are not a good enough team to play lazy and expect ourselves to just outscore people.
“It’s a surprise anytime because as we said many, many times we know what it takes to win,” Butler added. “Having high energy from the gate. Truthfully, that’s on the starters, definitely on the guards, myself and Derrick for allowing it to happen. The bench did their job, high energy, got us back into this game. So it’s on us, the starting five, to get out there and start with energy.”