Bulls grounded by Rockets

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By Sam Smith | 2.5.2015 | 7:28 a.m. CT

The Bulls shot poorly Wednesday losing to the Houston Rockets 101-90. The Bulls were badly beaten in fast breaks playing without much speed and didn’t score a single point from turnovers. There were at least a dozen Bulls attempts forced up as the shot clock was about to expire and the Rockets with multiple layups from passive pick and roll coverage.

So how was your evening?

“It’s (the team’s intensity) there,” insisted Derrick Rose, who had 23 points while Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 27. “But we can’t pick and choose when we want to show it. We’ve shown glimpses of it throughout the game, but it’s all about just playing the whole game together. We’re trying to figure out the answer right now. Who knows, but give it time and we’ll have the answer. The effort and lack of communication on the defensive side (is a problem). We’ve been saying this for a couple of weeks now, but it is so true. Teams have 10-0 and 13-0 runs against us and we have to find a way to stop that.

“I’m trying my hardest,” Rose added. “I’m in control of what I can control and right now I’m trying to lead by example and going out there and giving it my all. It’s not a one man sport. It’s a team sport, so everyone has to be on the same page somehow, someway. We just haven’t gotten things clicking yet. Things can quickly change in this league. Remember back when we won 11 out of 13, and it changed very quickly to where we are on a slippery slope now. So who knows. We could go on a winning streak right after this game. Who knows?”

No one really knows with this Bulls team, which appears to be heading for a derailment.

“We need to get wins if we don’t want to fall off the train,” said Pau Gasol.

The Bulls have lost three straight and four of five to fall to 30-20. Since that December run that was 13 of 15 and concluded with an impressive victory over the Rockets to get the Bulls to 25-10, they have lost 10 of 15 and have been among the poorest defensive teams in the NBA. Perhaps more significantly, they’ve showed little enthusiasm and even less joy, characteristics that have been plentiful the last few years even when Rose was out.

The Bulls do plenty of good things, as they did again Wednesday with Butler and Rose combining for 50 points and Rose’s plus/minus when on the floor the best on the team. Joakim Noah had 19 rebounds, including six offensive, and both Gasol and Taj Gibson had double/doubles. The Bulls had a whopping 60-47 edge in rebounding, so it hardly seems as if they’ve stopped trying. Though James Harden scored 27 points, including 15 in the second quarter when the 34-15 Rockets took a lead they would not surrender, the Rockets shot 41.3 percent. And the Bulls even had a higher three-point shooting percentage at 32 percent to 29.6 percent for Houston.

So what’s missing?

How does a team that has all the elements of a championship contender with size, Rose back and seemingly healthy, the amazingly quick development of Butler and additional depth turn into a team at 50 games searching for itself?

“We play hard in spurts, but we just can’t do it for 48 minutes right now,” said Noah. “We need to figure it out or it’s going to be a long year.”

Not that there is panic, and you get the sense with this Bulls group they’re waiting to get to and through All-Star break. But there continues to be a disquieting lethargy that too often defines them. They walk into offense, drop off one pass and a take a shot. Their perimeter shooting with Mike Dunleavy missing a 17th straight game with a bone bruise and little help from rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott doesn’t merit attention. So opponents sit in the paint, closing off driving lanes for Rose and Butler. Starters Noah and Kirk Hinrich were a combined one for 14. And while Rose is often questioned about shooting too many three pointers—two of nine Wednesday—with so little movement and five defenders standing in the paint, little has been open other than jump shots. Similarly, the Bulls get little in transition and walk into much of their offense. Then as a result of the lack of spacing and perimeter shooting, numerous shots become forced as the 24-second shot clock winds down.

“I feel I’m giving it every thing I’ve got,” said Gasol, who added his league leading 31st double/double. “We really haven’t found consistency all year long. It’s not a matter of effort; I think it’s a matter of working together, communicating and getting the job done. We have to figure out what needs to be done individually and what needs to be done collectively. We all have to look ourselves in the mirror and see what we’re doing that’s working, what can we do differently because obviously right now we are not playing at our best.”

Who is the fairest of them all? Yes, this fairy tale of a season has taken on a grim tone.

There’s no winning the Eastern Conference the way the Atlanta Hawks have played. The streaking Cavaliers now are tied with the Bulls atop the Central Division with the Bucks just two losses behind. Still, no matter what the Bulls do the rest of the season they’ll be in the playoffs. And perhaps other than the Cavs, who still are dominated by players who never have been in the playoffs, it’s not a daunting Eastern Conference.

The skill is there.

Rose healthy—he played another 38 minutes Wednesday—two All-Stars other than Rose; Noah, as coach Tom Thibodeau says “lively again.” That’s a lot of stuff. Good stuff, really. And though the reserves stumbled with the rotating rotations as Tony Snell went again from starter to not playing at all, Gibson did have 12 points and 10 rebounds. So there seems to be enough to win games. But how?

“Where do you get your intensity from?” asked Thibodeau in his regular Bill Belichick lecture. “You get it from your concentration and maximum effort. How do you build that habit? You build it through repetition like you do every thing else; practice is important, practicing together is important, your meetings are important, shootarounds are important, it’s all important.”

Thibodeau, unfortunately, just doesn’t have any opposing coach at this time giving the most shots to Kostas Papanikolaou.

The blame of late for the Bulls has been slow starts, which suggested perhaps more offensive on the starting lineup. But the Bulls got off to a 24-18 start late in the first quarter as Rose shot well and Gasol got to the free throw line. But when Thibodeau took out Rose, Hinrich and Noah late in the quarter, the Rockets rocketed to a 9-3 run to close the first tied at 27.

“I thought we started the game well,” said Thibodeau. “And we broke the lineup and got hurt there (at the end of the first). We started the fourth quarter and they went 13-0 to start the quarter. Our margin of error is real small; it’s hard to overcome that.”

That was four reserves playing with Noah to open that fourth quarter. Thibodeau quickly went back to Rose and Butler earlier than usual with just two minutes gone in the fourth. But the damage was done as the Bulls already were behind by 16. The Bulls would get the deficit under double digits for about a minute late in the game.

“We outrebounded them pretty good,” noted Thibodeau of the team’s determination on the boards. “We have to figure out those lulls and how we’re going to score. You can’t allow a team to start the fourth quarter thirteen to zero. You just can’t do that.”

The defense, or lack of it or change in it, has been much discussed this season. It’s not close to where it was in any of Thibodeau’s previous four seasons coaching the Bulls. But it is a different team with more offense, at least in theory, and fewer lock down defenders. Or, really, less of a defensive system. Not that Thibodeau has abandoned it. The Bulls practice the same principles. But with position changes (Noah more at power forward), Gasol in the middle where he is less threatening than Noah and the addition of young players like Mirotic and at times Snell, there hasn’t been similar continuity. Thibodeau played a much tighter rotation in recent seasons, which was easier to practice a defensive edge. Now with so many players in and out and at different positions, the aggressiveness seems diminished.

“You can’t put it on one person,” said Rose. “It’s the entire team. It can be me not icing the ball (pushing the pick and roll toward the baseline and away from the lane); it can be help side not coming over, it can be us not contesting shots. It can be all those little things adding up to this huge problem we have right now where we lost three in a row and we have to manage all the little things so we can get on the right track.”

The advice can be plentiful: Play McDermott, at least after police finish their missing persons investigation. After all, the team needs three-point shooting/spacing. Maybe different pairings, different rotations. Though Thibodeau has tinkered with that and it’s seemed only to lead to more uncertainty.

Maybe take the team bowling, which Cavaliers coach David Blatt did. The Cavs then won 11 straight and Blatt got a four-year extension. OK, but at least it ended the firing talk.

“The thing for us is it’s not one guy,” said Thibodeau. “We have a lot of guys who have been out. We are trying to overcome that. It’s tough; it’s not easy. But that’s our deal, that’s what we have to do.”

It was MVP candidate Harden who broke down the Bulls in the second quarter, scoring 13 consecutive Rockets points in one stretch as Houston took a 57-48 halftime lead. Harden had 22 points in the half, but Rose had 15 and was six of 10 shooting. Noah had 12 rebounds by halftime, but the once firm defense was soft again. You need a team to contain drivers off the pick and roll. As good as Butler is, there’s no stopping Harden around screens without big men helping. It hasn’t been consistent. The Bulls also used to stunt more with their big men, jumping out at the ball handler over the screen to direct him away from the basket. They don’t seem to do that much anymore.

But perhaps more noticeable was the lack of extra effort. Not all the time. Butler and Gibson were down on the floor scrapping for balls. But Josh Smith with nine points and 13 rebounds repeatedly outhustled the Bulls for loose balls—yes, Josh Smith—and the Bulls were unable to take advantage of their size. Though they won the backboards, the Rockets frequently put the Bulls big men in mismatches playing Donatas Montiejunas as their biggest player. It led to numerous open jump shot as Gasol doesn’t have the quickness to get outside and Noah doesn’t always have the movement after knee surgery.

But then you have to score more, and again the Bulls missed too frequently with too many difficult attempts.

It looked like they’d be swept away when Houston took a 67-52 lead four minutes into the second half as the Bulls opened the third quarter with 11 consecutive misses. But behind Butler, the Bulls rallied back to within 75-70 after three quarters. Trevor Ariza with 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter started that 13-0 run with a three to open the fourth. And although Rose and Butler threw back a 9-3 run, the Rockets were too far away to be challenged.

“I think the second quarter was the key when they had that 13-0 run,” aid Gasol. “I think that’s when it kind of got away from us and we were playing catch up the rest of the game. The start of the fourth quarter, another tough break for us. So we have to make sure we do a better job in not allowing those runs because it puts in a very difficult position. Home, road it doesn’t matter.”

Losing on the road now in addition to at home. Maybe that’s the problem. Where else can they play?