The Milwaukee Bucks looked hungry Friday in the United Center. The Bulls looked like they hadn’t eaten. It was a night in the rematch for the Bulls to hear friendly bells. Except it was the sound of a garbage truck backing up. And right over them. Dwyane Wade led the Bulls with 12 points, which is never a sentence you want to hear as a Bulls fan.
“This team had our number the last two nights, obviously,” said Wade, the only starter to score in double figures as the Bucks backed over the Bulls for the second straight night, this time in a 95-69 domination. “We weren’t able to get anything going; we weren’t able to stop them from doing anything. They just had our number.”
Which is now .500 as the Bulls fell to 13-13 and behind the 13-12 Bucks. It was the Bulls third straight shocking loss, giving up a 21-point lead at home Tuesday to Minnesota and then blown out on consecutive nights by a Bucks team coming off four losses in their last five games. The Bulls have lost six of eight.
This was as bad as it’s been for the Bulls in years, trailing by 19 points after one quarter, by 24 in the second quarter and later in the second half by as much as 30. That after trailing by more than 20 much of Thursday’s game in Milwaukee until a late rally.
Sure, momentum with that comeback, carry it back to Chicago, catch the big, long, athletic Bucks kids satisfied with their win.
Instead, led again by Giannis Antetokounmpo with 22 points and Jabari Parker with 12, the Bucks took a 19-point first quarter lead and kept building until coach Fred Hoiberg emptied the bench early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls were outrebounded, shot a season low 30.4 percent, were outrun on fast breaks again, pounded in the paint and facing other issues, like Taj Gibson out of the game with a hip pointer and Nikola Mirotic benched for a second consecutive game after missing the pregame practice in the United Center. The Bulls said Mirotic simply forgot, but will be fined.
Bobby Portis playing for Mirotic had 10 points and eight rebounds, the only other Bull player to score in double figures. Jimmy Butler had a season low seven points on three of 14 shooting and in the last five games is averaging fewer than 20 points on 37 percent shooting. Forget back to the drawing board. This felt like the need for a super collider.
“Collectively, we have to find a way to get out of it,” said Hoiberg. “We have to have our best practice of the year heading into our (Detroit) game Monday. We have to find a way to regroup. Do it together, stay together through this rough patch. The only way we know how is to work. I still believe in these guys. I believe in us collectively. We have to find a way to do it together. That is going to be the big theme. Get back to doing little things to win basketball games.”
Like scoring points.
“It would be nice if the ball went in a little more for us,” agreed Wade. “I understand the game is you win a championship through your defense, but you also have to put the ball in the basket. Tonight we missed layups, all kinds of things. We have to get some movement going, get some better opportunities; we have to get back to make sure we take care of the transition, take care of the rebounding and from there it’s a make or miss league.
“Miracle is not going to happen,” said Wade. “It’s the old thing, not as good as you think, not as bad as you think. Come in, learn from it, things you did wrong. You have to get back into a rhythm, a flow, a confidence, and we’ll get back into it Sunday and move onto the next game.”
Wade’s calm in the churning waters of passion and discontent—the Bulls were booed in the game—is the sort of leadership the Bulls require in times like this. It’s not a championship type team, but it is a team that rolled through November among the best in the Eastern Conference. So something is there.
But with a third game in four nights this week, all against young, athletic teams, the Bulls flaws were perhaps most on display. Wade scored 12 points in two of the last three games and was among many unable to keep up in transition. The things that worked so well for the Bulls last month, pace, ball movement, mid range shooting and dominant rebounding have been lost in an inability to put any pressure on teams. Opponents being able to set up defense with the Bulls walking the ball out of the backcourt have clogged the lane, switched and played zones to force the Bulls into outside shooting, pressured Butler and Wade to give up the ball inside with double teams and generally stopped the Bulls. Flat footed on offense, they’ve forced passes that became turnovers and run outs, seemed slow to react or help in the right place on defense and needing tailors to build some shoulders into their suits because theirs have slumped.
“Off night,” said Butler. “I’m never going to say we won’t compete. They made shots, we didn’t execute. They did. Offense is never going to look good when the ball isn’t going in the basket; if we got the ball down at one second and threw it up from half court and it went in nobody would say the offense was bad because we scored points.
“I think everybody is trying their best,” said Butler. “I’m not going to say we are out there free styling or anything. We have to pay attention more and make sure we are doing better on both ends of the floor. We’re all we have; you have to be confident in everyone up and down this locker room. We’re the ones out there playing and competing. If we don’t believe in ourselves and our teammates, it can get bad really fast.”
Some would say it has, and it was Friday in one that was as uncompetitive as this Bulls group has played.
Mirotic sat out on coach’s decision Thursday for the first time in his career as he’s fallen below his career averages in scoring, shooting and threes. Hoiberg said the two talked Friday morning about the decision, and it didn’t look great that Mirotic then missed the pregame practice. But it seemed an honest oversight.
“I am surprised (being benched),” Mirotic said. “It’s been difficult; first time in my career this is happening. It’s a coach’s decision, so I have to respect that. Stay positive; that’s the only thing I can do.”
Hoiberg also moved away from Isaiah Canaan and used Doug McDermott, Portis, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio as the primary bench. Though it was the starters responsible for the 18-11 deficit to open. And after trailing 56-37 at halftime, the starters stepping aside as Milwaukee stretched that to 66-39 in the first four minutes of the third quarter. And then former Bull Tony Snell added back to back threes for a 72-44 Milwaukee lead with five minutes left in the third quarter. And the Bulls in the last 17 minutes couldn’t even reach that total.
So it was one game, as another saying goes.
“As I continue to tell these guys, obviously we have things we need to fix,” said Wade. “But if we came in today and they won by a game winning shot or the way they did, it’s one loss for us. In this league you are going to go through tough stretches and through times where everything is clicking; so we have to fight through the tough stretch together and stick together.”
Just back to work. Butler says no team meeting; no crying in basketball.
“I think I have to play better, but that’s what tomorrow is about,” said Butler. “Getting in the gym and figuring it out. I never settle. I’m actually smiling because I have an opportunity to do better. I hope everyone in this locker room takes that the same way. I don’t want to hear no boos; nobody wants to hear no boos. We’ll be better next game; back in the lab and do what we love to do.
“We know what we are capable of,” said Butler. “You don’t need to sit in a circle and hold each other’s hands and talk about it and all that. We don’t talk that much on the floor. That’s where the problem begins. We have to help each other, be vocal. We are not going to feel sorry for ourselves and sit in a circle and pat each other on the back.”