Shorthanded Bulls fall to Warriors in Oakland

The Bulls really didn’t have much chance Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors even if there’s this sporting theory of mortals being imperfect. The Warriors have come as close to rejecting that notion in recent seasons, and again they are doing so in climbing to 44-8 with the 123-92 victory over the Bulls.

But consider, the Bulls were missing Jimmy Butler for a third consecutive game with a heel injury. Dwyane Wade was taken ill and missed the game, there going 44 points the team can generally count on each game. Paul Zipser started for Butler and went out in the second quarter with an ankle injury. Remember, this was the Warriors team that broke the Bulls all-time regular season winning record and then added Kevin Durant. And had three off days and their last game a loss, thus the further motivation of trying to avoid two straight losses for a record 138th straight game, back to April, 2015.

“Tough team to play against with that type of rest,” acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

And though the Bulls never led in the game and trailed 30-17 after the first quarter, they really didn’t allow the high scoring, fast paced Warriors to run away, getting the deficit into single digits late in the second quarter and down to 11 late in the third before the Warriors made a mockery of the result with a 23-7 run in the last six minutes of the game.

“Every time we had a nice run going they’d hit a tough three or had us spread out and get an uncontested layup,” said Taj Gibson. “They took advantage of some of the matchups they had with Klay (Thompson with a game high 28 points) coming on that screen/roll. I felt if we could have gotten a couple of stops.”

It would not be and probably was too much to ask in a game in which the Bulls held Stephen Curry to 13 points on five of 11 shooting. But Kevin Durant had 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists—that’s right, he’s no Russell “Triple Double” Westbrook—and Draymond Green had 19 points making five of six threes. That’s always a deficit for the Bulls as Golden State was 15 of 28 on threes to four of 24 for the Bulls.

But what the Bulls had that made the Warriors work and sweat just a little has been their two big guys hiding in plain sight all season.

“They posed a lot of problems even without Wade and Jimmy Butler,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “They are still strong on the interior and you have to keep them off the boards. That was a problem; they had 15 offensive rebounds.”

The Warriors did outrebound the Bulls 46-44, but Robin Lopez alone had seven offensive rebounds to six for the entire Warriors team.

Lopez led the Bulls with 17 points and 10 rebounds and Gibson added 15 points and nine rebounds.

Though they were surrounded by an inexperienced, young group probably overwhelmed by the circumstances—Zipser and then Denzel Valentine trying to defend Durant—Lopez and Gibson continue to quietly show a reliability and a resilience that makes them arguably one of the better front court tandems in, for sure, the Eastern Conference.

With absences and changes all around, Lopez and Gibson have been the foundation of the Bulls sometimes shaky structure. Sure, Butler and Wade get the points and publicity and plaudits. But Lopez is the only Bulls player not to miss a game this season while Gibson has played the second most games.

They don’t get the super numbers and attention of some of the East’s big men, like Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside. But they continue to battle and give the Bulls, now 26-27, hope and even confidence that they can make a late-season run and then prove a playoff problem for someone. After all, in a slower, more physical playoff series, the Bulls have two guys who back down from no one.

“They go out there hard hat and lunch pail and do all the dirty work,” said Hoiberg of the only two players he pretty much can write in that lineup card every game.

That proved troublesome at times after Lopez and Gibson scoring inside got the Bulls even at 11-11 early. But then with their apprentice heavy lineup, the Bulls fell into errant long shots, lost balls and missed opportunities.

The Warriors are the class of the league even if the Cavaliers are champions. They’re 44-8 and still figuring out rotations, leading the league or close in virtually every significant offensive and defensive category. But with the Bulls 15 offensive rebounds and 17-6 margin on second chance points, the Warriors had to go to double teams and pressure against Lopez and Gibson.

Let the others shoot. It was mostly blanks.

One of nine and three points for Michael Carter-Williams; three of 10 and 10 points from Nikola Mirotic; two of 11 and five points from Denzel Valentine, two of six and four points from Doug McDermott. Cristiano Felicio did return from his leg injury early and converted a pair of lobs and had six points and three of four shooting. Jerian Grant was efficient with 12 points on three of six shooting. And Rajon Rondo had 12 points, six rebounds and eight assists.

But those Bulls shooters have to make more shots to balance trying to defend the likes of Durant, Curry and Thompson. They couldn’t.

“We felt our opportunity to score with that first group; we wanted to get the ball inside,” said Hoiberg. “I thought we missed numerous times to get in it in there when they had guys on their back. We ended up turning the ball over. We need to do a better job of getting the ball in there when those guys have position.”

Though this Bulls season has been upside down with lineup and rotation changes, there could be some focus thanks to Gibson and Lopez. With Butler and Wade back able to score and handle the ball, that begins to look like a formidable group for more halfcourt playoff-type basketball.

Lopez and Gibson, right there all along, could be those X factors.

“I appreciate Taj’s game,” said Lopez. “He’s always out there busting his (butt), hustling. Makes it so easy for me to want to throw him the ball. I know he’s going to go to work against anybody in the league. When you have something like that, some kind of backbone, kind of spine you can always rely on, count on, that makes it that much easier when there are variables with the other team, with your own squad. I always love that big man ball, that bully ball, looking for Taj down there and he looks for me.”

They’ve actually known one another as rivals for years, back when Gibson left Brooklyn to attend prep school in California his sophomore year of high school.

“I knew those guys since high school, two seven foot, humble guys,” Gibson said about the Lopez twins. “I have a great relationship with both those guys. He’s one of those guys who wants to win; I want to win, too. Whatever it takes.

“You can tell the way we play we don’t care about stats, just try to get wins, do whatever it takes to get the team in the right state of mind and get our guys going,” said Gibson. “Tonight we had a heavy order. They kept trying to give us the ball down low, but we had to adjust because they were sending double teams. It was frustrating at times. I told Jimmy if we had this little bit, a couple of defensive stops, we could be right back in it.”

It would not happen, and probably could not with the Warriors leading 55-41 at halftime and 86-70 after three quarters. But there is a formula there with Wade and Butler. Slower, work the ball inside, hit the boards with Lopez and Gibson, Lopez with that ever reliable 15 footer, Gibson powering inside. Former Bulls assistant Ron Adams, now a Warriors assistant, was marveling afterward that if Gibson got the step inside on you there was no stopping him.

There’s still the need for some of the other guys to make a shot or three, but Gibson says to step back, see a 2-2 road trip with two teams coming up with below .500 records and some good vibes lately.

“I think we are coming together,” said Gibson. “Ever since that meeting, a little turmoil. But having D-Wade, he’s been talking, the way Jimmy’s been talking. Everyone has been playing a lot harder for each other. Minus the fact we lost, guys are out there playing hard, fighting. I can live with that knowing we went out and played hard. These last couple of games, something about the road brings us together.”

Guys named Lopez and Gibson keep bringing it together, and that could make a big difference.