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By Sam Smith | 1.15.2015 | 2:37 a.m. CT
Some months you look like a title contender, like December when the Bulls defeated the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Raptors, Pelicans and Wizards.
And then there’s January.
Which has produced losses to Utah, Orlando and now twice to the Washington Wizards in less than a week, the latter Wednesday, 105-99 despite 32 points from Derrick Rose.
And, hey, only six games left this month against some of the top teams in the league, including East leading Atlanta Saturday.
Beware the ides of January?
“Can’t play this sport and be perfect,” said Rose. “Just going through a little adversity right now; seems like guys are trying their hardest. It’s just not going our way right now.”
Rose did his best Wednesday with the season-high 32 points and six of nine three pointers.
But not that much else went right as Joakim Noah missed the second half with a sprained ankle, Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott remained out injured, and the Bulls lost to the conference rival Wizards and are fourth in the Eastern Conference.
It was a discouraging loss not only because it was to the Wizards, now a game and a half ahead of the Bulls. But it was Washington on the road—maybe better to avoid them in the playoffs after a 4-1 playoff series loss last season—playing the second of a back to back while the Bulls were rested and Rose came out with maybe his best game in almost three years, which included 17 first quarter points when the Bulls took a 32-26 lead.
“I just played the way I normally play,” said Rose. “Taking shots I normally take. They were just going in. Just trying to give us a little bit energy on the offensive end (to start after a 30-13 Wizards first quarter lead last week). Just trying to get us going. I’ve been working on my game a lot. Just trying to improve every game and give us a boost.”
Rose did and the Bulls recovered from the defensive debacle against Orlando Monday to hold Washington to 44.7 percent first half shooting with a 50-44 Bulls lead. But so much for wanting to see Pau Gasol play with Taj Gibson instead of Noah. Gibson was sharp and aggressive, probably the only Bull other than Rose to play well with 12 points and six rebounds. But with Noah out in the second half, the Wizards scored 61 points and shot 57.5 percent and pulled away in the last five minutes.
“I thought our team played well in the first half,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “The ball pressure was a lot better, the effort was much better. We did not sustain it. In the first half, I thought we played well on both sides of the ball. I thought we lacked energy on both sides of the ball (in the second half). It is something we have to correct. We’ve got a lot of guys playing multiple positions. We are going to have to figure out how to handle that.”
It’s not likely time to panic, though someone asked Rose if it was time to have a team meeting.
“We didn’t lose 20 games,” Rose said with a quizzical look. “We lost two.”
And the Bulls are 26-14.
Someone needs an All-Star break fast.
But there are issues beyond the latest round of injuries, the big positive of course being none involve Rose. Noah left the United Center in a walking boot and has had serious ankle sprain issues before. It seems unlikely he’d play the upcoming Boston/Atlanta back to back.
And that already was with Tony Snell starting for Dunleavy. Now, Gibson likely will start for Noah.
It was a rough game for Gasol against the Wizards’ Nene, who proved the difference against the Bulls in last season’s playoff series and who is the kind of player who is toughest on Gasol. Nene is physical and strong and pushed Gasol far off his sweet spots, forcing him into awkward offensive positions and shots.
Defense isn’t Gasol’s strength, and the Bulls suffer in the pick and roll with Gasol as he doesn’t aggressively attack it like Noah does. But Gasol makes up for it with his offensive versatility scoring and passing. However, Gasol Wednesday had 13 points on four of 11 shooting after 12 points against Washington last week on five of 12 shooting.
“I look at it as a part of the path and an opportunity for us to understand we still have a lot of work to do to improve,” said Gasol of the loss. “I think it’s important to go through obstacles and adversity and utilize it to make your stronger. So that’s what we have to do.”
If not a crisis, it is a time of uncertainty, and even Thibodeau seems to be crying out for help. Some suggestion of how can we do the job these days compared to just doing your job.
“It’s not that we’re going to the hot hand,” said Thibodeau. “It’s who’s available. It’s tough to build continuity that way when you have guys in and out. That’s our reality; we have to figure it out, we have to deal with it. There’s times we have three point guards on the floor and they have (Paul) Pierce out there. But we still have to find a way to win. We can’t hang our heads and we can’t make excuses. We’ve just got to find a way to win.”
Suddenly all that depth is looking a bit out of its depth.
Rookie Nikola Mirotic, a crowd favorite, had 12 points and had a fourth quarter three to bring the Bulls within 78-74 early in the quarter. But he shot just two of eight and nine for 32 the last five games. Instead of catch and shoot, which should be his strength, he’s driving, often wildly, and he’s yet to learn how to finish at the basket. He’s made great advances and shown toughness and a feel for the game. But primarily on the offensive end. He played more in the second half when the defense suffered. And on a pair of crucial Washington scores late in the game, he was in position to help but ran back to cover his man and allowed easy layups.
Though the Bulls covered the paint better than against Orlando as Washington shoots (and makes) a lot of mid range shots, Thibodeau had to use Mirotic and Aaron Brooks for offense in the fourth quarter to get back in the game. But both are inexact defenders. With Noah out and defense not Gasol’s strength, it becomes a revolving door of offensive/defensive substitutions with Kirk Hinrich going back in for defense, but then unable to score (scoreless in 19 minutes) and then Snell, who was good defensively, out because of a series of unexpected threes and three of nine shooting overall.
“It’s a team sport,” said Rose. “We’ll find our way through this. It’s still early, still have a lot of basketball to play. Just that we’re going through a tough stretch now. We know we’ve got a room to improve, so that’s the upside of it.”
And then there’s Jimmy Butler, who remains mired in his worst shooting stretch of the season. He had 13 points on three of 10 shooting. Though Butler still leads the team in scoring, in his last nine games Butler is averaging 13.4 points and 35.8 percent shooting. He’s 13 for 36 on threes, is down to six free throw attempts per game in the last 10 and had just two rebounds in each of the last two games. And both Victor Oladipo and Bradley Beal had big games against him the last two. The Bulls have relied on the offense of Gasol and Butler much of the season. But both have struggled in spots, Gasol basically against the Wizards.
“Dealing with some injuries like every team does,” said Gasol. “We just have to (have) whoever is on the floor do the job and play together and play hard and things will happen. Nothing to worry about as far as different combinations (because of injuries). You’re just going to have different guys out there and you are supposed to do what you have to do. Stay together, keep working, don’t let your heads hang and win the next one. That’s how you improve. Snap out, bounce back and get yourself on the right track.”
What’s compounded the problems of late has been the offense geared more for Butler and Gasol given Rose and Noah feeling their way into the seasons and both with minutes limitations. Though Rose played 36 minutes Wednesday, one fewer than his season most in a game.
The Bulls run more isolations plays, primarily for Gasol and Butler, than previously. It results in a lot of standing around and late shot clock attempts when the defense is active, like the Wizards have been. Also, the Bulls could and should play faster, especially because they have Rose. They need to push the ball even after made baskets and run transition pick and rolls, especially against a team like the Wizards with their two big men inside who set up well against a deliberate offense. Yet, again the Bulls walked into the trap of enabling Washington to set up and thus had just two fast break points.
The Bulls have the players to run, especially with Noah at center. Mirotic also runs the court well for a big man. They seem caught often in their defensive mentality from previous seasons of controlling the pace to set their defense. But it’s much different personnel without Luol Deng and Noah often having to chase shooters outside. It’s more a team that can score, and they can win playing fast as they did in one of the best games of the season over Houston. But Washington was much sharper.
“They’ve got good players on their team,” said Rose. “They execute great and the ball goes where it is supposed to go.”
The Wizards were led by Pierce with 22 points and 21, 10 in the fourth quarter, from John Wall.
“We’re not putting two halves together right now,” said Rose. “I remember last year or a few years ago, offensively we were struggling. This year it’s defense. We’ve just got to put two halves together on the defensive side. Just let them know that (defensive) presence is always going to be there. But right now we are not doing it. We lost two in a row; nothing to be down about. We’ve got another game Friday, Saturday and can just pick it up there.”
It was an impressive first half for the Bulls in the national ESPN game with Rose showing off some with a career equaling 17 points in the quarter, concluding with a half court heave at the buzzer. Noah did a good job on Nene and Rose was spectacular, making a trio of three pointers and several bursts by Wall for layups. Rose doesn’t say much, but apparently he’d had his fill of Wall in last week’s loss.
Though the reserves weren’t sharp, they were mostly outplaying the Wizards bench to start the second quarter. Snell had a nice drive for a score and after a Mirotic three, the Bulls led 43-32 midway through the second quarter even as Washington was again controlling the boards. But misfortune struck as Jimmy Butler dribbled down the clock for a last shot to end the half with the Bulls ahead 50-44. Cutting for the rebound of the miss, Noah stepped on Nene and twisted his ankle, going down for at least a minute. He finally was able to walk off with some help and even came out to warm up to start the second half, but he could not go.
“Obviously (no Noah) was a factor,” said Gasol. “We were up when he was in there and we were down when he wasn’t. Jo does a lot of things for us defensively. His activity and length are important for us. It’s unfortunate he got hurt and wasn’t able to play.”
Gibson, who is more physical, defended Nene. But Marcin Gortat then got going against Gasol with 10 third quarter points. The Bulls were concerned with the sweet shooting Beal, so Butler defended him. But the Wizards took advantage of Snell as Pierce got going with 11 points in the quarter. That enabled the Wizards to shoot almost 60 percent and take a 76-69 lead after three.
Thibodeau went back to Mirotic and Aaron Brooks for offense to start the fourth quarter and they responded as Brooks had a pair of threes and Mirotic another. The Bulls still were in the game trailing 85-83 with 5:45 left in the game.
But Mirotic missed an off balance three, Hinrich was stripped for a breakaway score and Brooks missed a layup. Unable to produce much defense with that group, the Wizards went ahead 95-85 on a Pierce three with 4:10 left. A Wall three wrapped it up soon afterward. And Butler never could get going with one shot attempt his last 10 minutes. Gasol had zero attempts in 5:31 playing in the fourth quarter.
“It’s not the end of the season,” said Rose. “We lost two, play Friday, Saturday; we’re over .500. We’ve just got to tighten up some things; tonight we improved from the previous night. We just didn’t play two halves. The second half it showed we’re not there yet.”