Bulls vs. Celtics
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls late rally falls short against Celtics

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By Sam Smith | 11.09.2014 | 2:32 a.m. CT

Remember when the Bulls looked like potential NBA champions, scoring impressively, shooting the ball as well as they have in years, a deep bench coming in to grab the baton from the starters and race ahead to finish off teams, a conference best record with the only loss in overtime?

Oh, right. That was Friday.

And then came Saturday when the Bulls were beaten 106-101 by a Boston Celtics team playing its third game in four nights and on the road; a team without its best player, Rajon Rondo, and top rookie, Marcus Smart; a small, relatively unathletic team that outrebounded the Bulls 45-38, the sixth consecutive game the Bulls have been outrebounded and outrun, beaten in fast break points as well for a sixth consecutive game; trailing by as much as 19 points to a Celtics team that came in below .500, and a closer look at the Bulls 5-2 record coming against seven teams all currently at .500 or below and basically from the weak Eastern Conference.

Just what was everyone thinking?

“They made shots,” shrugged Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of a Celtics team shooting 51.9 percent. “We‘ve got to challenge shots better. Our ball pressure wasn’t great, our defensive transition wasn’t great, our rebounding wasn’t great. So there’s a lot we can correct.”

There you go. Big positive. Just imagine if they didn’t have so much to work on.

It’s perhaps no major source of worry as Derrick Rose remained out with sprained ankles and backup Aaron Brooks came in and almost saved the Bulls with 19 of his game high 26 points in the fourth quarter.

That erased a 17-point Celtics lead with six minutes left to where the Bulls pulled within 100-98 on a Brooks running bank shot with 37.7 seconds remaining. Fittingly, the lack of rebounding caught up with the Bulls at the end as they came in as one of the league’s poorest offensive rebounding teams, 24th overall. The Celtics ran down the clock and Evan Turner missed a drive. But what’s happened so often happened again. Taj Gibson missed the box out and Kelly Olynyk slipped inside for the offensive rebound with 22.9 seconds remaining. He passed out and Turner was fouled. He made both for a 102-98 lead.

The next play was for Pau Gasol, who had 19 points and nine rebounds. Gasol fumbled the ball. Jimmy Butler with 16 points picked it up and missed a short jumper. Bill Russell, err Olynyk then rebounded again and was fouled, making both as he finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds for a 104-98 Boton lead with 8.8 seconds left and the game.

Asked about the rebounding deficits, which have been an ongoing storyline even with the winning start, Thibodeau was asked if it’s a matter of more practice, different drills, changing personnel?

“Any of the above,” said Thibodeau. “We’re more than capable. It’s hard right now because we are limited in terms of where we are in the schedule in terms of practice. It’s a team wide thing and I know we are capable of doing better than we are now. We have to do something to change it. It is happening game after game. In order to do something special, you have to be a great rebounding team. That is something we have to correct.”

Asked about taking out Joakim Noah with 2:03 left and trailing 99-91 even as Noah was having his best game of the season with 13 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, Thibodeau said: “Jo’s got restrictions.”

Noah had played 31:26 after almost 31 minutes against the 76ers Friday. The presumption is Noah had reached his playing limitation imposed after offseason knee surgery. Plus, he’d missed two games this week with a virus.

For his part, Noah sounded like Luol Deng had been traded again.

When asked about the minutes limitation, Noah remained silent. Then he got up and left, though he did sit for a while to see if there were more questions. A bit earlier in truncated comments, Noah was asked if the players were surprised about the rebounding issues.

“Yup,” said Noah. “It’s been a problem all season. Just got to figure it out.”

Asked if the team was trying to identify the reason, Noah said, “That would be good.”

So how’d your Saturday night go?

It really wasn’t all that bad. After all, it was the Bulls’ fourth game in five nights, the toughest NBA stretch even against sub-.500 teams. The previous two were on the road and three were without Rose. It also appeared Gibson tweaked his bad ankle again, which could be good reason why he’s been out of position on the offensive boards. Though Gibson says he’s fine.

Gibson is averaging the fewest rebounds per minute in his career, though a career high 15 points per game. He had eight points and four rebounds in 28 minutes Saturday.

“This is about effort,” said Gibson, who always is the most accessible Bull with media and most candid. “It takes five to rebound. We could point fingers, but we’re not like that, not that kind of team. At the end of the day, it’s wins and losses; not individual stats. Rather have it now and adjust and not have it come midway through the season and still have this problem.

“It’s a part of bumps in the road,” said Gibson. “The season is not going to be a straight to the finish type thing. Bumps in the road are going to happen. Every team has got to adjust and that’s what the rest of us plan on doing.

“I feel we got after it,” Gibson said, shaking his head. “I feel we really go after (the ball). At times we just can’t get a grip on it. It’s sometimes like that. You can say effort, technique, all this. But I know we just have to correct it.”

Suggested that there are new players, players injured, different rotations, the starting five basically never together, Gibson declined to reach for the excuse raft.

“You’re taught how rebound in college,” he said. “You’re taught how to rebound in high school. Don’t worry. Thibs is going to get after it.”

Thibodeau will as there’s few coaches as prepared. They all work hard. But it’s hard to find someone that detailed.

It was interesting that afterward when reporters were asking Brooks about his big game and how his play inspired a late 14-2 run that got the Bulls within three with 1:02 left, Brooks credited Thibodeau for helping him once again find his confidence and game after playing with five teams and in China in the last four years.

“I came in here lacking confidence,” Brooks admitted. “Even when I doubted myself, he (Thibodeau) told me. ‘I watched you play. You’ve done well; keep working hard.’ It’s been a breath of fresh air for me. When you have a coach working with you instead of against you, it gives you more confidence to go out there and play hard. It gives you confidence in yourself. It allows you to do a little more. Even when I do lack confidence at times, he’s there to help me out.”

Brooks barely missed helping the Bulls out of their deep well of game despair.

“Just (coming off the bench to) be aggressive, “Brooks said. “Attack. The shot was falling a little bit, especially in the fourth. Just attacking, trying to get back in the game.”

The Bulls issues aren’t all that surprising or difficult to understand as long as no one is fooled by the start, the team now 5-2. They’re working in four new players and using rookies extensively. Noah is trying to adjust both to his post surgery knee and playing outside more. Gasol has become the interior factor, in part, because of his lack of movement to defend the perimeter. Gasol has been terrific and put up good numbers. But he’s not a great rebounder away from the basket. And unlike Noah in the middle, Gasol doesn’t come out and greet the driver as well. So when the Bulls are beaten off the perimeter, penetrators get deeper into the paint. It produces more trips to the free throw line for opponents. And Noah hasn’t been as quick to react, though he was good Saturday after the starters played a lackadaisical first half.

Defense is played on a string, as we so often are told by coaches. The Bulls’ is frayed with the players in and out of the lineup, the longer rotation and introduction of new players. The rebound is how you finish your defense, and the Bulls just haven’t been in the correct position often enough given all the changes and new faces. It’s more difficult to accept than analyze.

Then there was the obvious fatigue to start as the Celtics took an easy 12-2 lead. The Bulls came right back as Noah looked his most jaunty of the season with an impressive spin move off the fast break for a score. Mike Dunleavy, who had 13 points and three more three pointers after five Friday, made two more in the first quarter as the Bulls pulled ahead 25-20. Dunleavy clearly was on a roll, but unlike Friday, the Bulls didn’t add the butter after the first quarter as Dunleavy had just four more field goal attempts the rest of the game. The Bulls also continue to have difficulty getting good shots for Doug McDermott.

The rookie was three of four in 15 minutes, but had to manufacture most of his shots himself on drives. The Bulls could benefit getting him more shots. Fellow rookie Nikola Mirotic played just five minutes with a pair of reach in fouls as he remains hesitant on offense, continuing to pass up shots to fake and drive the ball. He needs to catch and shoot more. Tony Snell also had a rough seven minutes. So Thibodeau went back to the starters with about five minutes left in the second quarter trailing 38-35 and they had nothing. Figuratively and literally as Kirk Hinrich couldn't get anything to go down and was scoreless in the game.

The Celtics closed the half 18-6 as Turner beat them everywhere on his way to a team high 19 points. That gave Boston a 56-41 halftime lead.

“I thought we played a low energy game in the first half, particularly in the second quarter,” said Thibodeau. “We had low energy offense and low energy defense. The urgency came in the second half when we were in a big hole trying to scratch our way out of it. We started the second quarter in a little bit of a lull and then we sort of worked our way out of that. When we brought our starters back the end of the second quarter that wasn’t good.”

The starters tried again to start the second half and still had little. Gasol got it going with a few jumpers and a half hook. But there was more left unavailing as Gasol was often defended by Jared Sullinger, who’s about six inches shorter, and didn’t make the Boston coach regret it. There was one Turner drive in which Butler got picked off as Turner scored. Butler looked around to see no one moving to help. Letting go of the rope, as it were.

Late in the third quarter, McDermott made a nice cut and took a slick pass from Brooks for a score. Then Gibson went to the floor to save a loose ball and then falling out of bounds passed to Butler for a three to close the third quarter trailing 83-67. Gibson then came out of that limping and seemingly favoring his ankle sprained last week.

Then, oh brother, it was Brooks, a pair of Gibson runouts for scores, a Butler three; and the Bulls were finally awakening themselves and a somnambulant United Center. But it came one offensive rebound short, appropriately.

“We had to play great tonight and we did for the better part of the game,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “And then Aaron Brooks went nuts at the end. Just glad we didn’t play a 49-minute game.”

It might have made the difference for the Bulls. Instead, it’s back to it Monday against the Pistons, one of the league’s top rebounding teams.

“Everybody has the same schedule,” pointed out Brooks. “Everyone has four in five nights sometime in the season. To be a good team, you have to battle through it and we didn’t do it.”


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