Magic make the Bulls good feelings disappear

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By Sam Smith | 4.09.2015 | 1:09 a.m. CT

Derrick Rose Wednesday returned from knee surgery and a six-week absence and had an encouraging bounce in his step. The Bulls, well, they didn’t look quite as energized in a 105-103 loss to the Orlando Magic.

“Tough loss, bad loss on our part because it’s a game we needed, a game we should have wanted 100 million times more than they did,” said Pau Gasol, who had 15 points and nine rebounds and two free throws to tie the game with 6.5 seconds remaining.

But then Victor Oladipo, who led Orlando with 23 points, scored a shockingly easy winner on a layup. He beat Jimmy Butler off the dribble with the help too late and a stunning conclusion for a team that prides itself on defense.

“They took it,” noted Gasol. “It’s troubling, no question it’s upsetting. This is a time you have to be sharp; you can’t have these types of games.”

So as the Bulls stumble to the finish at 46-32 and now fourth in the Eastern Conference, they remain a team perhaps still better in theory than practice.

With the return of Rose, who had nine points in 19 minutes and didn’t play in the fourth quarter when the Bulls blew an eight-point lead to the 25-53 Magic, the Bulls appear to have with Rose, Joakim Noah, Gasol and Jimmy Butler an All-Star laden starting unit. And as much quality depth as any team with the likes of Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, who both had 15 points, and Aaron Brooks who had 13. Plus, Kirk Hinrich returned from missing two games to give the Bulls a complete team for one of the few times this season and was solid in 15 minutes with five points, two assists and two of four shooting.

But this Bulls team so far into the season—yes, there have been a lot of injuries and changing rotations and playing time restrictions—still doesn’t seem to grasp the urgency of the moment.

It’s not that they’ve given up or don’t try or don’t play hard. They do. They cheer for one another, still fly onto the floor for loose balls and are animated on the floor.

But they have this potentially fatal habit of seeming to experiment with the game, almost as if they believe their biographies more than their results.

This time it was a 15-point second quarter lead, 40-25 over an Orlando team going nowhere, an interim coach on the way out and a roster loaded with inexperienced players. Nevertheless, it was the Magic crashing the boards for the extra shots, causing turnovers (26 Orlando points off turnovers) and attacking the rim with a big edge in points in the paint, an area the Bulls should dominate with their size.

Instead, the Bulls seemed to be seduced by early success with three pointers, nine of 18 in the first half when they led 59-52. Multiple times the Bulls with seemingly more effort—or whatever other clichés fit like intensity, commitment, desire—presumably could have left the Magic to take yet another expected loss. Certainly, their fans didn’t expect much.

But as the Bulls too often do, they experimented with jump shots. They are an unselfish team, often too unselfish. So they try a lot of passes that have little chance, Noah with a couple of lobs to Butler that were easily picked off.

It’s almost as if they like one another too much.

You’ll see them try to get a basket for someone who hasn’t scored in awhile, setting up Gibson or Gasol in the post, isolating Butler or Mirotic, trying to find Mike Dunleavy coming off a pin down. The seem to see a teammate slumping during a game and they try to bring him out of it.

It can result, however, in stagnation to the offense. Lots of standing around to run a certain play, or get someone a basket, less flow and attack and more script. Though there never seems to be a sense of panic. They always seem to play as if they expect to win and are surprised when they don’t. That’s obviously a positive, except, of course, when it leads to regular defeat. The Bulls have been surprised a lot this season, some 16 times against teams with woeful losing records, losing twice each to Orlando, Charlotte and Detroit, for example. Hardly the stuff that inspires playoff confidence.

The cliché for it is that killer instinct thing. They have leaders; they have competitors. They don’t have anyone like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant making them feeling embarrassed and ashamed about their defeats.

Of course, there aren’t many guys like that. “Sometimes we look like we are all over the place,” said Gasol. “It’s why we have had so many turnovers all season long. We’re an unselfish team and we try to hit the open man, but our turnovers are too high. When we get leads in games we tend to get a get a little comfortable and allow the other team to outwork us and outhustle us. We’ve got to be a lot sharper, a lot more focused, a lot hungrier for 48 minutes. You can’t play 12 minutes, have a good quarter and expect to win games. And expect other teams to fold and play a loose game. You have to be tight, be physical throughout the game and do what it takes to win; hustle points, second chance points, loose balls. All those things are something we have to be aware of.

“There is nothing to overlook here,” Gasol added. “We are in a position where we should be sharp and concentrating on each and every game and don’t overlook anyone. At this point of the season in the position we are in we should approach every single game as a playoff game regardless of the opponent.”

So much for that.

The Bulls now fall to fourth in the conference and a potential first round playoff series with the Washington Wizards, who have won five of six and are just a game behind the Bulls. Should the Wizards tie the Bulls, it would give Washington a better conference record for the third tiebreaker and home court for the playoffs against the Bulls.

These are not the happy days the Bulls have been hoping for with the return of Rose from meniscus surgery and the consolidation of their full lineup. The regular starters played for just the 20th time together all season, but fell to 15-5.

Rose, predictably, didn’t shoot the ball well, one of six on threes, though two spun out. But he did look strong, healthy and comfortable. He finished a full court drive late in his stint of 19:24 that ended with 5:34 left in the third quarter and the Bulls leading 71-68. He had an impressive start with five points in six minutes in the first quarter as the Bulls played their best, the offense efficient and effective for a 29-21 lead.

“I thought the first segment was very good,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “I was very pleased with that. His conditioning, which was to be expected, probably kicked in a little bit. It’s a good start; second quarter wasn’t quite as good. Overall, I thought for the first time back very good. So we’ll build from there.”

Rose played seven second quarter minutes with less effectiveness, missing his only two shots but driving to the basket and getting fouled and making two free throws. Still, the Bulls led 42-35 when he left for the half.

Rose played just over six minutes in the third quarter, making one of three shots. He had four turnovers in the game, but three came on good passes that were fumbled. He sat out the last quarter when the Bulls blew an 87-79 lead they had to start the fourth.

“Felt good,” said Rose. “It was good to be moving around playing; bad we lost. I felt all right. It’s going to take some time, but I’ll get there. Just happy to be playing. There was no one thing (that was a problem). I’m concerned with us losing more than anything.

“Very hard, very hard (to watch in the fourth quarter),” Rose acknowledged of his minutes limitation. “But at the same time it’s all about patience. I know I’m going to have my time. Right now while I’m not playing I’m trying to learn a little bit more, seeing what’s open, seeing how they are playing everybody; the only thing I can do is sit back watch and learn. I didn’t feel any discomfort at all. That’s a good sign. We’ll see how tomorrow is. I think that’s the plan (to play Thursday in Miami). I know I’m feeling good. Tomorrow see how it feels and try to give it a go.”

That’s the encouraging part for the Bulls, a healthy Rose with minutes building and 10 days before the playoffs begin.

But it’s still a confounding team that’s as likely to give up a double digit lead as get one.

The winning play from Oladipo was a shocker for this Bulls team that’s supposed to be known for its defense. But they surrendered a layup to lose with little help.

“Defense, it was just defense (the problem in the fourth quarter),” agreed spectator Rose. “We were matching them. We were scoring, but defensively we weren’t getting there. Communication, or whatever. It just wasn’t there tonight. Let them win a game on a layup. Got to make sure we talk a little bit more, make sure somebody is over there.”

It’s also been something of a curse of excess. It was curious to see Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau down the stretch mostly relying on Gasol and Mirotic. Yet, Gasol is an All-Star and Mirotic carried the Bulls the last month with his fourth quarter scoring. So it’s tough to say they shouldn’t be in there. Gibson was as well. Thibodeau never has had this much talented depth to consider, so it’s been a process for him as well as players return. The Bulls used nine players, which was reasonable. And Thibodeau did switch offense/defense late in the game.

“We are trying figure a lot of things out now with guys coming back, rotations and different rotations, guys sharing minutes,” noted Gasol. “That’s what happens when you have a deep team. But we have to figure it out quickly.”

The Bulls did move the ball smartly in the first quarter, but the offense sagged afterward, a lot of standing around, plays into the post to watch Gasol or Gibson operate, quick shots on the perimeter. The Bulls fought back several times when challenged, like a late second quarter burst to go ahead 59-52 at halftime after the Magic reduced their 15-point deficit to three. The Bulls then closed the third quarter with a 9-0 run after the Magic had gone ahead 79-78.

Brooks made some unlikely shots and Butler was three of four on threes, Mirotic three of five, the Bulls 12 of 26 overall on threes and with 31 free throws, though they missed eight. They moved the ball well for 25 assists, eight players with at least two. But Magic point guard Elfrid Payton kept beating them to the boards with 17 points, nine assists and nine rebounds and Vucevic kept popping out for short jump shots.

“You’ve got to get stops,” lamented Thibodeau of Orlando shooting almost 50 percent in the fourth quarter to 33.3 for the Bulls. “I thought where the game swung was the start of the second quarter. We had the big (40-25) lead. I thought we got loose with the lead, took some tough shots and then they got back into the game. The second shot hurt us, dribble penetration hurt us. We had a lot of guys out all season long. You’ve got some guys coming back now, trying to build some continuity, some rhythm. And guys also have to play well. You can’t just go out there and not play well, so that’s the challenge.

“You’ve got to play tough with the lead in this league,” said Thibodeau. “It’s not a show, it’s a competition. You’ve got to go after people.”

The Bulls couldn’t in the fourth quarter.

They made some good plays, but opened the quarter missing six of their first seven shots along with four turnovers, including stepping out of bounds, a 24-second violation as Mirotic jab stepped with everyone standing around watching and Brooks fell down dribbling.

But Brooks, as he often does, came back with a three for a 94-88 lead with about five minutes remaining. It looked like the Bulls would hang on.

But the Bulls kept losing shooter Evan Fornier, who made a pair of jumpers. And after Mirotic untied it with a three with 2:16 left, Oladipo made a baseline floater and hit a three on a nice pass from rookie Aaron Gordon for a 101-99 Orlando lead with 1:30 left.

Gasol had a strong finish for a score and was fouled, but missed the free throw to tie the game at 101 with 1:18 left. Gordon then made a 10 footer on a jump stop. The Bulls survived a Brooks turnover as Rose jumped from the bench shouting instructions several times late in the game. Gasol drove and was fouled and made the two free throws with 6.5 seconds left for the tie. But then the Bulls, the often celebrated defenders, could not contain a drive from the top of the key for a layup past two all-league defenders.

The Bulls had a few ticks left for a last try and didn’t connect on an inbounds lob to Gasol.

“I want to look at the film,” said Thibodeau. “We’ll see.”

He won’t like what he does see.