The Bulls have been thinking this season they could be going to the moon, the NBA’s celestial championship destination.
But, Chicago, you’ve got a problem.
“We’ve got to pick it up. The way we are playing is not good enough,” said Jimmy Butler, whose career high 36 points Wednesday wasn’t enough as the Bulls lost 105-100 to the Boston Celtics.
It was the Bulls’ third consecutive loss and fourth in the last six games, their 11-8 record good for just eighth in the Eastern Conference. It was the third consecutive game the Bulls have given up more than 100 points and at least 30 points in the fourth quarter with opponents pulling away down the stretch in each game.
“We have to learn to build on leads,” said Butler. “That fourth quarter is huge. We know what we have to do. As much as y’all (media) keep asking us the same questions we keep giving the same answers, so we have to make it happen.
“Sometimes we forget how hard we have to play,” said Butler, who tried to rally the team with 17 fourth quarter points. “Guys get it and it’s contagious; go hard on both ends of the floor. Looking at the guys on our roster, on paper we are good, really good. But when we go out there and go to work that’s not saying the same thing. You have to go out and make it happen. Sometimes we get caught up in the hype and the (new) offense and we have to learn to get stops, make defense lead to offense.
“We’re not doing what we are supposed to be doing,” Butler acknowledged. “I don’t think chemistry has anything to do with it; there are no excuses with the way we are playing.”
Instead, it’s almost a collective shrug now as lineup and rotations have changed all season with Taj Gibson Wednesday getting his first start as Nikola Mirotic went to the bench. Hoiberg said he wanted to change up to help Mirotic get more aggressive and provide some second unit perimeter shooting. It did help produce one of the Bulls’ better starts of late, leading 8-2 and 15-7 before first quarter substitutions led to Boston pulling even at 24 after one quarter.
Gibson finished with eight points and seven rebounds, but played just 35 seconds on the fourth quarter. Tony Snell was scoreless again in 22 minutes while Joakim Noah had a tough minus-18 when he was on the floor. Pau Gasol had 16 points and 15 rebounds and Derrick Rose had 12 points and six assists, though at five of 11 shooting Rose still has not had a 50 percent shooting game this season.
“I wish I could (identify the team’s issue), but I really can’t right now,” said Rose. “This is our first time (with this group) ever really going through it. We’ve been together for a long time and we’re just trying to figure things out. I don’t think it has anything to do with fighting the system or anything. I’m gonna try my hardest to push the ball, even on dead balls just to get up quicker so we have a couple of more seconds for our offense. We’re just trying to figure it out, seeing the lineups, seeing who’s out the there at certain times; just trying to figure it all out.”
They’re really not that far away, a blown 16-point lead at home Monday and a pair of open threes missed in the last minute Saturday to Charlotte while trailing by a basket. They’ve been good enough to beat top teams and to push streaking Golden State to the last minutes.
Perhaps one of the ironies is the health may be too good.
Yes, Mike Dunleavy remains out, which moved Snell in as a starter and he’s mostly had difficulties. Still, he has shot the three well and defended well at times. And new coach Fred Hoiberg in trying to implement a faster offensive game that the players welcomed has seemingly made the right moves, putting in the three-point shooters to space the floor, separating Gasol and Noah to theoretically open more driving lanes for Rose and Butler, trying to balance the two units to bring in a talented group in reserve like the Golden State Warriors do.
But this also is a group of veterans accustomed to the stability of a static rotation and lineup, and they’ve seemed troubled playing freely with changing lineups. Hoiberg has mostly limited the minutes played, in part to preserve the health of players. Everyone wants to play. The big men have fought for minutes with Noah coming off the bench for the first time in his career. Now Gibson started, though Hoiberg said that could change. So Hoiberg has taken to juggling to fit situations and circumstances, defenders to match up against offensive opponents, different coverages according to opponent changes, offense to try to create separation. It’s a lot of what the San Antonio Spurs do. But it’s new to these Bulls players who excelled with routine.
No one is making such excuses, and the players are insisting on individual accountability.
“It’s on us,” said Butler. “He (Hoiberg) can do all the talking he wants to do; he’s not out there playing. We are supposed to be a team full of leaders. We know the common goal. We have to win games. The coach doesn’t win the game, the players do.”
Rose feels he’s pushing the ball faster, and Hoiberg agreed Wednesday.
“For the most part, it (pace) was pretty good tonight,” said Hoiberg. “That start of the fourth (12-2 Boston) we got stagnant and we weren’t moving very well. Then we got Jimmy going and we were scoring much better. But to start off that fourth, we got very stagnant again.”
The Bulls were one for 11 with two turnovers to start the fourth quarter, and it proved too far behind even though they did get within three with three minutes left. But Isaiah Thomas, who led Boston with 20 points but was scoreless in the first half and shot five of 15 overall, made two free throws and a driving score around a Rose miss and the Bulls never got closer. The Celtics had eight players in double figures.
Butler, who played 39 minutes and nine in the fourth quarter, said he asked Hoiberg to leave him in the game to start the fourth with the game tied at 75 after three.
“I told Fred not to take me out at the beginning of the fourth,” Butler said. “I wanted to play because that’s when we give up those leads at the beginning of the fourth; nothing against my teammates, but I think if I am out there and I get the energy the right way then take me out, let me rest. But the energy is flowing. I’ve got to start playing at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“I understand what he’s trying to do,” said Butler. “But we have to win games if we want to find ourselves in the post season.”
Though Butler did get back in with the Bulls trailing 83-77 with 9:15 left and played the rest of the way, scoring those 17 points with seven of eight free throws.
There were several games within the game as Butler was in an aggressive battle with former college teammate Jae Crowder. Crowder had three of the Celtics’ 10 steals as the Celtics are the best at forcing turnovers. The Bulls committed 18 turnovers for 25 Boston points. Also, Chicagoan and longtime Rose rival Evan Turner stripped Rose in the second quarter and ran out for a fast break dunk after a 360-degree spin.
“That was dope!” said Turner. “It was a great dunk, got the steal. The place was going crazy, the reaction I expected.”
Rose later engaged in some talking with Turner after a Rose block on Turner in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls shot ahead to open the second quarter, though lost and regained the lead, five lead changes and seven ties in the first half as the Bulls led 54-51 at halftime. Doug McDermott chipped in a pair of threes in the half and 11 points and seven rebounds for the game.
The Celtics scored eight straight to open the second half. But the Bulls came back behind Gibson’s short jump shots and went back ahead 67-65 on a Gasol score. McDermott added another three, but Thomas tied it at 75 late on a three-point play to end the third quarter.
“I think overall it was a much better effort,” said Gasol. “We just had a rough ending of the third with the ‘and one’ where they tied the game up and the bad start in the fourth quarter put us down We tried to battle back and do enough of the good things to try and get a win. We’ll see how we react, see how we bounce back, how this teams responds to adversity. This is the first tough stretch of the season for us. Let’s see how we react and how we turn it around and start building some momentum.”
Because that can be a tough landing if they cannot.