Bulls sing the blues against Memphis

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

By Sam Smith | 3.10.2015 | 2:15 a.m. CT

The house isn’t exactly perfect; there are a few holes, but they can be repaired. You’re hammering away and then you slip off the ladder, grabbing for an edge and holding on until help comes. Say hello to your March 2015 Chicago Bulls. Hang on, fellas.

“We’re battling,” said Pau Gasol after the Bulls fell away in the last few minutes and lost 101-91 to the Memphis Grizzlies. “We’re working hard, giving ourselves a chance in these three tough games we’ve had. We keep coming back, keep working and give ourselves a chance. But you make a couple of mistakes, have a couple of rough minutes and all of a sudden you are back down and the teams we are playing are pretty good.”

And so went another frustrating Bulls loss, their third straight to fall to 39-26 and 20-14 at home. The Bulls got Tony Snell’s best game in three weeks with 21 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls took a four-point lead after trailing by 13 early in the quarter. The Bulls also got 18 points and 12 rebounds from Nikola Mirotic. He added 10 in the fourth as the two youngsters almost enabled the Bulls to steal a game they trailed virtually the entire way after the starters opened both halves slow once again and the Bulls were careless with the ball, committing 10 first half turnovers.

Fortunately, this is a mostly deliberate, physical Memphis team that doesn’t run out on the fast break and plays similarly to the Bulls. The Bulls outrebounded Memphis 44-40, but when it mattered down the stretch, the Grizzlies pummeled the Bulls on the boards, 13-7 in the fourth quarter. Memphis got three and four shots on two crucial possessions when the Bulls could have put the game away after taking an 88-84 lead with 5:58 remaining.

“I thought our guys did a lot of good things to put ourselves in position to win,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I thought the second shot hurt us, the loose balls hurt us down the stretch. I thought the fight was strong. We’re short handed. Fourth game in five days bouncing all over the place. We came up short, but I thought they played with great effort.”

It was 1-3 in the four games in five day set against four of the hottest and toughest teams in the league. So perhaps not all that unexpected. It effectively ends the most difficult part of the Bulls schedule this season with just two back to back sets remaining, and all four games against teams with losing records. But the Bulls still await help.

They remain without their two leading scorers and three of their top five scorers in Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. They’re the rungs whom you can use to climb to the top, but they’re still missing. Rose before the game made his first comments since his latest knee surgery last month. He said he plans to return this season and his rehabilitation from meniscus surgery is going well. The Bulls offered a four-to-six week estimate at the time of the Feb. 27 surgery and Rose seemed to indicate that timetable remains, even though he said he could not provide any definite date.

So the Bulls must continue to hang on until help arrives.

It doesn’t make the losses any less painful or frustrating as Joakim Noah sat for a long time in front of his locker after the game with his soaked uniform still on.

“I feel like we had our chances tonight. Didn’t work out,” said Noah in brief comments. “We had our chances to win; we’re a little disappointed. Everybody is tired. Just got to get our rest tonight. We need a win and we need a win bad. I feel the guys are competing real hard. We’re just making mental mistakes that are beating us; we’re beating ourselves a little. There’s a lot of talent on this roster.”

Though it’s critics’ delight how to use it considering the circumstances. There was considerable second guessing when Thibodeau took out Snell with 5:14 left and the Bulls leading 88-85 after Snell had just scored 11 points with a trio of three pointers in less than three minutes to rally the Bulls back from a double digit deficit.

Which became the classic irony for Thibodeau. The coach who often gets blamed for using players too much was being blamed for taking out Snell for a 51-second rest after Snell played 18 consecutive minutes.

“Tony’s in a rough patch right now (shooting eight for 30 the last four games), but tonight I thought he responded great,” said Thibodeau, seemingly more accepting after games these days. “That is a big plus. Niko, I thought he played tough; he hasn’t been shooting the ball well, either, but I thought he played very effective tonight.”

It was the two young guys, and you wonder maybe if the Bulls need some sort of starting lineup shakeup as once again the starters fell behind—a recurring pattern for weeks—9-2 to open the game and 13-4 to open the second half.

“We want to start off games on top,” said Pau Gasol. “We try to do things right, but it hasn’t started that way for us. We’re aware; we try. We’ll try to be a little sharper, but teams are starting off sharper than us at this point. We battle and get ourselves back in games and give ourselves a chance, but the last three games obviously have been rough.”

Still, anything at this point is a cheap second guess given the injuries and loss of players averaging a combined 49 points for a team that has trouble scoring. So Thibodeau tries to wheedle and cajole them through this stretch of 11 games in 18 days since the All-Star break and three to come this week back on the road.

That’s why the Bulls Monday honoring St. Patrick’s Day and not Kermit the Frog were wearing those hideously green uniforms that suggested less envy than something bad you may have eaten.

Other than the slow starts that force the Bulls to exert more effort to get back in games, which cannot be productive with so many players out, the other recurrent issue has been a plethora of turnovers. Sure, there are careless plays. But a lot of the Bulls turnovers come from their good passing. The Bulls have probably the best pair of passing centers in the league and big men like Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy who like to move the ball. Sometimes they’ll try to make passes that are a bit too good. They can go awry; the other factor is the changing rotations with players on the floor with others they are unaccustomed to. So you see guys turning around and going for a rebound when someone is passing to them.

“Sometimes it’s a double edged sword when you have guys who are willing passers and try to get guys baskets,” agreed Pau Gasol “Sometimes you thread the needle too much and turnovers occur; we have to cut them down because they lead to too many easy transition points and that hurts us.”

There’s also Thibodeau’s concern of a lack of practice time after the All-Star break, which is common with all teams. But not all teams are trying to break in several different rotation players.

“There are a lot of different combinations on the floor, so that is part of it,”Thibodeau said about the turnovers. “We are in a rough stretch right now in terms of we really can’t practice; we don’t have enough bodies to practice and also where we are in the schedule with four games in five days, you don’t have practice time. We have to try to correct it in the (hotel) ballroom with the film and things like that. For the most part, we have been a good team with turnovers all year. But with the last two games they have definitely been a problem.”

This was Gasol v Gasol III with the Bulls winning in Memphis in December and the brothers facing off in the All-Star game with Pau winning the tip. He got it again Monday on a Marc violation, though Marc had the last word this time with 23 points, including 15 in the third quarter when he riddled Pau and the Bulls with jump shots. And then when Pau came out, Marc faked and drove by to enable the Grizzlies to lead 73-65 after three quarters.

“He’s playing well,” Pau acknowledged of Marc. “Got himself going with a lot of open shots earlier in that third quarter. He played a good game overall. We’re always competitive, always want to do well whether we step on the floor against one another or not. Sometimes he wins; sometimes I win. That’s just the nature of the game. It’s all about our team. I wish we could have won tonight.”

It was as frustrated as Pau has been this season, some apparently because of being outplayed by his little brother in that third quarter. Pau even slammed the ball out of Marc’s hands late in the third quarter after Pau was knocked down with no call and Marc ran out and dunked the ball. So much for a moment of not so brotherly love.

“Refereeing was frustrating tonight,” said Pau in a rare rebuke. “Can happen, something you can’t control. But it’s tough when it affects your performance or the outcome, so it’s hard.”

It was a gruesome first half, the kind you expect from these two deliberate, defensive teams. It was tied at 22 after one quarter and 41-39 Memphis at half with no player from either team in double figures scoring. Pau would finish with his league best 43rd double/double.

Marc had that huge third quarter shooting seven for 10, mostly on jump shots as Pau waited inside for misses. The Grizzlies then appeared to put the game away with a 5-0 start to the fourth quarter and 78-65 lead. But then it was all Snell, Mirotic and Kirk Hinrich, the latter with a hard drive and a three for 23-6 run to give the Bulls that 88-84 lead.

“We made some big shots,” agreed Pau. “Tony made some big shots, Niko made some big shots, Kirk made a big three that got us in the game and the lead. But they kept working. They got a lot of steals; they got away with a lot of stuff, too.”

Though it started when with that four-point lead, the Grizzlies got four shots on the next possession and scored. Though Noah would play 10 minutes in the fourth quarter, he had just one rebound. But Noah is the best the Bulls have now of identifying a hot shooter, and he was the one screening for and passing to Snell for his threes to give the Bulls that lead. From that point, Memphis would outscore the Bulls 17-3 to end the game.

Again with Memphis leading 92-88, the Grizzlies got three rebounds on the same possession before finally scoring. The Bulls called time and coming out of the timeout, the Bulls had the rare miscue of six players on the court. Good plan if no one sees. The Grizzlies’ coaches were jumping around like dancers’ tryouts.

“I was subbing Jo (into the game) and wanted to move Niko to the three. That was my fault,” said Thibodeau, who stayed extra long in his office after the game before meeting reporters.

“We told Niko to get in the game, but we didn’t really speak who would be out, replacing him (E’Twaun Moore eventually left),” said Gasol. “Just miscommunication, confusion. You don’t see it very often. You can say critical moment, important possession. All of a sudden they get a free throw and they get the ball back; tough.”

It was a free throw the Grizzlies made for a 95-88 lead with 2:04 left. Mirotic eventually would make a three to cut the Bulls’ deficit to four with 1:45 left. But Aaron Brooks would foul a driving Mike Conley up high and then throw a wild pass picked off by Conley as the Bulls would not score again.

So they were dead for the night, and next on the road against the 76ers Wednesday. And as we know given the choice of death and Philadelphia, on the whole you eventually do want to be in Philadelphia.