Bulls lose lead and game in Charlotte

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By Sam Smith | 3.14.2015 | 12:35 a.m. CT

The NBA season is often called a marathon. If it actually were, the Bulls would be approaching 22 miles and about to pass out. What to do? Push on and perhaps fail miserably at the finish? Or slow down, take a look around at others trying to regain their strength and realize you want to come bursting across that finish line?

That’s metaphorically, perhaps, where the Bulls are now after Friday’s 101-91 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, blowing a 19-point lead and collapsing with their poorest second half of the season.

“Everyone is going through the same thing right now,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “You are heading down the stretch. Everyone is dealing with injuries (Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson remain out for the Bulls), everyone is dealing with playoff positioning and it’s going to come down to how badly you want something. You are playing a team that is fighting to get in and so if you don’t have that desperation, will and determination that they do, they are going to get to the loose balls. Every game you are playing for something. If your house is not in order now, you are in trouble.”

For the Bulls with playoff positioning fairly well set as it’s unlikely they could fall lower than fifth in the East at 40-27, it’s perhaps time to reassess.

The players, especially the gallant Pau Gasol with 18 points and eight rebounds and playing the most minutes in the game again, appeared absolutely exhausted. Is it time, like so many teams are doing now—though I don’t agree with these massive “rest” sessions and believe they should be punished by the NBA—to give Gasol a breather? Especially with just one game before a big Eastern Conference home matchup with Indiana Wednesday? The Bulls close this road trip in Oklahoma City Sunday.

Gasol, according to ESPN stats, remains on course to be the first player in NBA history in his 14th season or more to average at least 18 points and 12 rebounds. Gasol has been a savior for the Bulls this season given the injuries and the inconsistent play of Joakim Noah, who returned from missing the 76ers’ victory and had one point and six rebounds with five fouls and a technical in 24 minutes. True, the Bulls are down to a threadbare roster. But how much more can Gasol continue to push given he has missed one game since Thanksgiving as the team’s primary offensive option, played through the All-Star weekend as the East’s starting center, leads the NBA in double/doubles and leads the Bulls in total minutes played even as the oldest player in the regular rotation?

The Bulls were led by Aaron Brooks with 24 points and Tony Snell with 17. Gerald Henderson led seven Charlotte players in double figures with 20. The 29-35 Hornets are 2-1 against the Bulls.

“It’s about will,” said Gasol. “It’s about determination and how bad you want it. I don’t care how tired you are. I might be tired. I might be sore. You can’t really think about those things. You have to think, ‘What can I do to help my team to win.’ You have to figure out a way and find a way to do it. We just have to have more of a sense of urgency consistently for 48 minutes in every single game. We have to try to give ourselves a chance, like we have for the most part. But there are certain opportunities we just haven’t done that very well.”

Friday’s game in Charlotte was one that featured a 35-19 Bulls first quarter lead that Thibodeau called as well as the team has played all season, shooting 70 percent, seven of eight on threes with Brooks and Snell a combined five for five and outrebounding the dazed Hornets 11-7.

But pretty much from that point on the Hornets outplayed, outworked, outhustled and outthought the Bulls with an aggressive small lineup the Bulls failed to exploit as they were lulled into the perimeter shooting game they prospered with in the first quarter. It was your classic “fool’s gold,” as the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich likes to say, because the Hornets were without their best two big men, Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller. So they went to a small lineup that featured four guards and undersized forward Jason Maxiell.

But instead of punishing the Hornets inside with size, the Bulls continued to fire away with jump shots despite seemingly tiring legs while also getting beaten to the boards by essentially a team of guards. The Hornets had a shocking 55-36 edge in rebounding, 17-4 on the offensive boards against not only one of the league’s top rebounding teams—the Bulls are third overall and fifth in offensive boards—but against a team 25th in offensive rebounding. And not even playing its best big guys.

It screamed a fatigued team worn down by the succession of injuries, bad luck and constant demands. It happens; they aren’t robots. You can only keep pushing so long. They know help is on the way with Butler and Gibson perhaps a week or two away from returning and Rose due back not long after that. But how far can you push the limits of human endurance?

After all, it’s not like this has been one of those part time teams that rest groups of players like at kindergarten nap time, the Grizzlies Thursday and the Warriors Friday. Sure, the Bulls are in a tight race for positioning in the Eastern Conference, realistically at this point competing with Toronto and Washington for the third through fifth spots in the Eastern Conference and home court advantage. It’s likely Atlanta and Cleveland will be one-two in the East.

They are the questions all teams weigh on the scales competition: How hard to push for a place and perhaps home court against being in the right health and frame of mind when the playoffs begin. It’s an annual concern and question for all teams. Sort of like whether you can cry under water and what disease cured hams had. There are no good answers. Though few have faced such a season as the Bulls have with the avalanche of cascading injuries and curtailment of playing time to try to limit their recurrence.

“No one is going to feel sorry for you,” reiterated Thibodeau. “The challenge for us is bounce back, bounce back. Came up short tonight, did some really good things. The defense and rebounding are two things you have to count on. I thought we had great (ball) movement that gave us rhythm into shooting our three pointers tonight (15 of 32). Sometimes you play great defense and give up a second shot, and that takes a lot out of you.”

In some respects the game was lost in the second quarter, though it was a 25-10 Charlotte third quarter from which the Bulls never could recover. The Bulls gave it one push late to pull within 95-89 with about a minute left and Gasol shooting an 18 footer. He missed, the Hornets rebounded, the Bulls fouled and Mo Williams made both and the Bulls scored one more field goal the rest of the way.

“When you’re hot like that and get a lead so early like that, it a double edge sword,” said Gasol. “All of sudden you’re like, ‘I’m up 20, I’m winning this game.’ That’s a mistake that young teams make. We made that mistake today. It’s tough to lose a game like this when you are in such an advantageous position. Hopefully we can learn from this experience. That’s what life is. You go through experiences and you learn and you don’t let them happen again to you. You’re ready for the next time when we find ourselves up 20 in the first quarter we understand there’s 36 minutes to be played, especially on the road; when the home team is going to keep fighting and try to give themselves a chance. There’s no time for relaxing or being complacent or thinking that it’s going to be an easy path.”

The intriguing point in the game, however, was early in the second quarter. The Bulls had taken that 35-19 first quarter lead, were shooting fabulously, swinging the ball, though there were unspoken concerns. They had that huge size advantage but kept taking jump shots. It’s sort of like the Josh Smith effect. You hope he makes his first two threes; because then he’ll forget to drive and keep shooting them. That’s what the Bulls did, in a sense.

The Bulls opened the second quarter with another confident run from Doug McDermott, who made a pair of threes and scored on a drive for the team’s first eight points of the quarter. The Bulls moved ahead 40-21 and Charlotte coach Steve Clifford went to that even smaller lineup. McDermott hit another three with that sweet stroke on a cross court pass from Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls seemed beyond reach, especially by a shorthanded, low scoring team 27th in scoring.

The Hornets guards started driving the ball at the Bulls and Henderson scored twice against McDermott. But Maxiell also got a pair of offensive rebounds from Noah and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist beat Snell. It was a compete breakdown. Thibodeau lifted McDermott even though he had 10 points in five minutes. Thibodeau said it was a matchup issue with the Hornets going small.

It’s also a frequent subject of debate and second guessing with generally no wrong answer. Like whether to foul with a three-point lead in the last seconds. We saw the Bulls do that and give up three free throws and lose a game. Coaches have their preferences and it’s less right and wrong than opinion. Do you try to match to them or make them match to you? The Bulls still failed to take advantage of their size in the post and Charlotte got back in the game, pulling within 51-47. The Bulls led 60-51 at halftime, though it was thanks to late threes from Snell and even Gasol.

That could not last and it didn’t.

The Hornets absolutely buried a somnambulant Bulls team in the third quarter, the Bulls recording season lows in points—almost a franchise low until the last minute—and shooting. The Bulls scored 10 points, five in the last 1:06 of the quarter, and shot 17.6 percent. Charlotte had a 16-6 edge in rebounding and 6-1 on the offensive boards. And this Charlotte team is one of the poorest shooting teams in the NBA, ranking 28th. They would only shoot 37.1 percent for the game. You don’t lose shootouts to them. But you could see this was a Bulls team without the requisite strength anymore. It’s not an excuse; it’s a reality. The question is getting through it and coming out the other side whole.

“I thought (rebounding) was the difference in the game,” said Thibodeau. “That first quarter may have been as well as we have played all year. In the last three quarters, the second shot attempts got us. We gave up 27 second chance points, 17 offensive rebounds and that was the difference in the game. So much of rebounding is will and determination. Those guys (Hornets) are playing for a playoff spot. The group when they were small in the second quarter, they went after it. When that ball was on the backboard they were going. We can’t rely on one or two guys. You need your whole team and you have to put a body on people. That didn’t happen.”

”The thing is you build a cushion like that and if you let your guard down even a little bit you are going to be in trouble,” Thibodeau added. “That is basically what happened. We made 15 threes. They shot 37 percent, but when you give them two and three cracks at it at it, they got threes off the second shot. It was a problem.”

The Bulls despite all that still were in a manageable 77-70 deficit entering the fourth quarter. But their body language screamed could not translate.

Thibodeau went mostly with a group including Mirotic, McDermott, Gasol, Brooks and E’Twaun Moore. They closed within that six after falling behind by 18 with about five minutes left. Though it never looked like a game the Bulls would take back.

“You just have to get through it and hope for the best,” Gasol said about the Bulls woes. “You can’t really think about how difficult it is or the type of toll it will take on different people. You just get through it. You just fight through it, you work hard and try to do your best. At the same time, regardless of the situation with almost a 20-point lead in a game with a lot to play your mental focus has to be better. The first quarter was excellent. We made a lot of shots. You can’t stop playing hard and getting into bodies, especially with a team that’s so desperate as these guys are. They crashed like crazy all night. You have to put yourself in there somehow. I don’t think we did that for the most part of the game.”