The Bulls are approaching the halfway point of the NBA season, which is generally by when teams have established their identity. But this Bulls team that Monday slipped to 22-14 with a lopsided 114-100 home loss to the Washington Wizards more resembles the chameleon character from the Woody Allen movie, Zelig.
No one still seems to have any idea, including themselves, who or what this team is.
“We go on a nice streak, things were going well,” offered perplexed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “And then hit a little adversity, put our heads down and lose our fight. We did not come out of the gate with the energy we needed to. It is beyond me how that can happen in consecutive games.”
And so the Bulls after winning six straight games, half over tough Eastern Conference rivals like Toronto and Indiana, have been routed the last two games by undersized teams who did all the things the Bulls have talked about this season but too often failed to execute, like outlet passing, ball movement and attacking the basket with aggressive starts.
The Bulls have scored at least 100 points in 11 consecutive games for the first time in more than 20 years. But the opponent points are coming like jackpot Powerball tickets. The Bulls have given up at least 110 points in five of the last 13 games and in three of the last five; they’ve yielded at least 105 points in eight of the last 13. Four times in the last six games they’ve given up at least 60 points in the first half. There’s no radar on the way to the Bulls basket; the speed limit signs are down and the lanes are clear.
“Right now we are giving up pretty much 120 points the last couple of games and we’ve been giving up over 100 the last few games,” noted Pau Gasol. “Something we need to focus on and understand how important it is if we want to win games.”
Gasol had 15 points and 10 rebounds. Derrick Rose in moving into 10th all time in franchise scoring led the Bulls with 23 points, though with a pair of late costly turnovers. Jimmy Butler added 19 points but on a forced six of 15 shooting with plenty of his own defensive lapses.
“You can see (the defensive problems),” said Butler. “Teams are going wherever they want to go on the floor. We’re not doing what we are supposed to be doing coverage wise; we’re not talking like we are supposed to be talking (on defense) and you can tell. We’re just not being the tougher more physical team. I think we have a group of guys who can score the ball so well, so many weapons, that we forget how important the defensive end is. You still have to play offense, but we’ve got to man up. Everybody has to try to win their matchups; we’ve got to do it on the defensive end. That’s where it has to start for us right now.”
There’s always the predictable defensive-do-better talk after games like these last two. The postgame watchword was communication. Basically everyone identified that lack of talking on defense to call out switches and help as the reason for the defensive breakdowns of late. Hoiberg even said the players are more vocal sitting on the bench about what to do than when they are in the game.
I don’t really subscribe to that as the cause of the problems.
The team may not care, but I will go on, anyway.
Sure, better and more direct communication on the floor should help, and it’s a vital part of playing defense.
But Hoiberg had it right when he first became coach. It seems clear as the team bears down on 41 games that this is an offensive oriented team with a passable defense, good enough to win with but not to reply upon. The overall defensive statistics are respectable. The Bulls actually are No. 1 overall in opponent field goal percentage and fifth in defensive efficiency in points per 100 possessions. But that is offset by poor protection of their defensive boards, and that showed again as the Wizards had 13 offensive rebounds—seven by Drew Gooden, of all people—for a 21-7 margin in second chance points. The Bulls also gave up 20 fast break points with 16 turnovers. The Bulls rank next to last in the league in opponent rebounding and in forcing turnovers.
What it adds up to is a team that does try hard; despite what it may look like with slow starts too often and too much lately, they do compete.
But they are a team that often is slow to react defensively and not particularly athletic. So rather than not trying to defend they seem sometimes like they are too slow to recognize the circumstances. Also, on offense they get trapped trying to do too much. Like against Washington. The Wizards with starters Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat out injured, played primarily small lineups, often with three guards and with Jared Dudley at power forward.
So in trying to exploit the 6-6 Dudley defending Taj Gibson, the Bulls began walking into their offense and trying to isolate Gibson and Nikola Mirotic for mismatches. The result was the stagnant, isolation play that slows the team. They were unable to get much going to Gibson early, resulting in forced passes for turnovers and a 17-9 Wizards lead.
Hoiberg came into the season with a plan to accelerate the pace of play, spread the court and move the ball. The Bulls are best when they do that. But in often trying to do the right thing, like identifying mismatches, they forget the basics of offense and revert to the slower, matchup oriented offense they practiced previously. And while their defense is good, it’s not good enough to make up for the scoring droughts.
That’s because there’s a game plan to attack the Bulls’ defense.
It starts with the high pick and roll, which is no innovation in the NBA as most every team uses that attack. Gasol is notorious for his zone play in the pick and roll where he more defends the lane. Perhaps you’d like him to be more aggressive to stunt and recover, but that’s not what he does.
But Gasol scores, rebounds and blocks shots (14th straight game with a block) and makes up for his flaws on the offensive end. The Bulls’ larger problem Monday was that neither Bobby Portis nor Joakim Noah could.
The Wizards were putting Gasol in the pick and roll early, but he was scoring enough with eight in the first quarter and Rose with nine to offset that as the Bulls trailed only 28-25 after their slow start. The problem was in the second quarter when the Wizards went at rookie Portis and suddenly the Wizards were ahead 50-35. It’s probably why Portis didn’t play in the second half until Hoiberg emptied the bench with 4:36 left and the Bulls trailing by 18.
Portis hasn’t scored much lately after a nice entry into the rotation. But the bigger issue rookies have is the colleges don’t defend the pick and roll much like in the pros. Rookies generally are lost on defense and Portis was. The Bulls got Noah back after missing nine games with a shoulder injury. Noah was scoreless with seven shots, though mostly missed tips, with nine rebounds and four assists. But Noah also tended to lay back on defense and not attack the pick and roll until too late. Perhaps he was protecting his shoulder, which he did seem to hurt when John Wall blocked his shot. Noah grimaced some afterward, but said he was fine and looked forward to playing Tuesday in Milwaukee in the second of four in five nights.
But with Noah not particularly effective and Gibson limited fighting his matchup, it’s not otherwise a strong defensive group. Offenses routinely go after Mirotic and Doug McDermott, who both can counter that with scoring. They’re good enough to do so. But the Bulls went through these long spells of stagnant play. McDermott got just four shots in 20 minutes and Mirotic eight in 29 minutes. Those are not the kind of players you want to try to win with in isolations and individual play. They need screens and movement and then are good with catch and shoot. But you don’t want them working to try to create for themselves with everyone else watching.
“We turned it over quite a bit in the first half, especially and that led to run outs and easy fast break points,” said Gasol. “Their pressure hurt us; we didn’t attack their pressure well. We tried to force things. We just didn’t recognize how to attack them and be effective. It’s more the pressure, turnovers. They played harder than we did, basically, and they wanted it more than we did and that’s an issue.”
There were also some terrible lapses, like when Aaron Brooks basically signaling to Hoiberg to empty the bench veered off on a Wizards fast break. Ramon Sessions all alone missed the layup. But Brooks gave up and Garrett Temple came in from behind to finish for the 107-87 lead to end an 18-4 run and effectively the game.
It wasn’t the greatest of Bulls efforts as former Bull Gooden in his 14th season with his 10th team and rarely playing got three offensive rebounds between two and three Bulls players each time in four possessions in the third quarter. Each led to a score as the Wizards went from leading 69-63 to 76-65 with 4:56 left in the quarter and another exasperated look and timeout from Hoiberg.
So, yes, there were so called effort issues at times.
“It seems to be a trend for us lately, slow starts,” said Butler. “We can’t do it. We know it, dig ourselves a hole it’s hard to get out of. It’s always surprising when you win a few in a row and then do something else. Just have to go out there and play harder, be the tougher team.”
The Bulls are a tough team and even with these first quarter failures they generally always are in position to win the game. They trailed 62-48 at halftime with an 18-2 Wizards run in there. The Wizards kept running three guards at them and the Bulls repeatedly could not capitalize on their superior size, much like against Atlanta Saturday. That, too, is an issue in this evolving NBA. More teams play small, so you have to take advantage of your strength. But you can do so with speed, spacing and passing and movement as well.
Rose was terrific after halftime with eight points in a 10-0 Bulls run, making a pair of threes and drawing two offensive fouls. Again Butler had a steal in his 44th straight game leading to another score. Gooden’s surprising efficiency kept the Wizards ahead 83-74 after three quarters when the Bulls were in position to be right back in the game. They got there to open the fourth quarter with Brooks’ own 7-0 run to get the Bulls within 85-81 with 10:48 left, in position to steal back the game like the Bulls were in Atlanta getting within three points late in the third quarter.
But there was a McDermott turnover and then a miss, a long rebound and runout and no one back, Noah with a pair of missed tips as the Bulls miss so many of those. That enabled the Wizards with seven players in double figures to get back up 10. Rose then got caught up in the air, making a pair of turnovers as the Wizards trapped him and the Bulls deflated. The Wizards are now 17-19.
“We were outscoring people, but we’ve had a lot of breakdowns, lot of mental breakdowns and that’s on us,” said Butler. “When we are out there we are not talking early enough, loud enough; we’re not doing it whether it’s the big telling the guard what to do or the guards telling the bigs. Nobody is opening their mouth on that end of the floor.”
Sure, it would help, but teams are making a book on the Bulls: Push the ball, move, swing it, draw them into apparent mismatches with their weakest isolation players, attack them with the pick and roll. They are strategies that can be countered because the Bulls generally have more talent than these teams. But they can’t only get caught up playing a power game and waiting for defense to bail them out. They have to be the offensive aggressors.
“You go through ups and down through the season and that’s normal,” said Gasol. “There are a lot of stretches where you are going to be tighter and more focused, others where you might slip off a little. It’s how fast can you regroup and be on the right track. That’s something we need to do right away.”
They get another chance Tuesday to unwrap that mystery of a riddle embodying an enigma.