There’s a famous story from the 1998 playoffs I was reminded of watching the Bulls submit and lose to the Utah Jazz Tuesday, 132-108, the team’s fifth consecutive loss in falling to ninth place and, at least for now, out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
The Lakers were trailing 3-0 in the Western Conference finals and just finished up what everyone knew was their final practice of the season before Game 4. Players usually gather at the end of practice for some sort of unity exclamation. The Lakers was, “One, two, three, win.”
So the team huddled and all stretched their arms in and in unison began, “One, two, three…” when Nick Van Exel quickly added, “Cancun.”
Yes, the season was over and it was time for the beach.
And while the Bulls have 19 games remaining and are just a half game out of seventh at 31-32, they clearly are playing the poorest of all the bottom contenders for a playoff spot and are facing even more injuries with Luol Deng scheduled for an MRI Wednesday morning for a calf strain he suffered against the Jazz.
It’s looking like an early vacation.
Deng is not likely to make the road trip to Orlando and Miami this week. Taj Gibson, according to coach Vinny Del Negro, had a flareup of his plantar fasciitis in his poorest game of the season with zero points and one rebound in fouling out in 13 minutes.
Plus, the Bulls, who recently had worked up to No. 1 in opponents field goal percentage, the league’s key defensive barometer, gave up better than 52 percent shooting for the third consecutive game and now have given up at least 100 points in the last eight games and an average of 115 per game in the current five game losing streak.
Mike D’Antoni and Paul Westhead would be proud.
“We don’t (have answers),” said a somber Del Negro after the game. “We can’t control the paint right now. We didn’t have any answers for them defensively.
“We emphasize defense all the time,” said Del Negro. “It’s not like it’s a one game thing here. Before the injuries (Noah out three weeks with plantar fasciitis), we led the league in field goal (defensive) percentage. We were all on the same page and working. The trade deadline came, we incorporate a few new players….Joakim being out is a big factor. There have been some injuries to deal with, Luol’s knee. We had a few days of practice, but most guys were on the sideline trying to heal up.
“We’ve got to keep battling,” said Del Negro. “There’s no question we’ve won this season by holding teams to a low field goal percentage and controlling tempo better. We’ve proven when we try to outscore teams, the way we’re made up now we haven’t had much success. We have to reevaluate. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played. Hopefully, we’ll play much better and get guys healthy. Now we have to try to weather the storm, stay confident, stay together and keep working.”
No, it’s not time to give up . The Bulls have two games left with Charlotte, two with the Nets and games with the Wizards, Bucks, Raptors and Pistons. There are wins to get, at least once the Bulls get through this stretch with the road trip to Orlando, Miami, Memphis and Dallas and then Cleveland at home.
Say they lose them all, which seems likely the way they are going now, and fall to 31-37? Over? No. But they’d probably need a strong close to nine or 10 of the next 14. So, yes, it would be tough. Because the teams ahead of them like Charlotte, Miami and Milwaukee, all were involved in tense, low scoring playoff type games Tuesday. And Toronto got beat at the buzzer in L.A. by a Kobe Bryant shot.
The Bulls gave up a season high 132 points.
It’s not only what you are doing, but how you are doing it. And right now this Bulls team has lost its edge. No, I wouldn’t say they’ve given up. But you get the sense watching and being around them they are closing in on accepting their fate.
“It seems like we’ve gone away from what’s been successful for us,” said Kirk Hinrich. “We’re scoring the ball at a high rate (averaging 112 the last two games), but we’re having a hard time getting stops right now.”
The obvious answer is the lack of size and length and athleticism at the rim with Noah out, Tyrus Thomas traded and Gibson now slowing with injury as well. The Jazz, 41-22 and in the Western Conference race, have been a high scoring team this season and always run an offense that produces a lot of layups and inside scores.
But they also hit a dozen threes, half by reserve C.J. Miles, as the Bulls concentrate on shutting down the paint in their defense.
“I’d rather have them taking contested jump shots instead of points in the paint on layups,” said Del Negro. “But tonight they got them both.”
It’s also a delicate point for Del Negro, though he alluded to it: The team made deals to insure it’s position this summer in free agency, moves they had to make in case they’d have a shot at star players like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer.
But in doing so—and with the injury to Noah—the roster which had become defensive oriented with speed and size and was working well together with continuity, which is the key to team defense, changed drastically. Coaches aren’t supposed to say they’ve got to have the players, and that wouldn’t exactly endear Del Negro with management.
But it may be too late to change.
Derrick Rose got a lot of the blame for those Miles threes. Rose was brilliant on offense with a memorable duel with the Jazz’ Deron Williams. But you could see Rose trying to adhere to the team’s defensive principles to close the paint and form that defensive shell inside. It just so happened Miles was hot with four threes in the fourth and one late in the third when the Jazz broke from a close game.
So Rose has to react to the hot shooter. Or someone has to tell him to forget the inside help and get that guy! Apparently, he didn’t and no one did.
But the Bulls hardly lost because of that, and, as usual, they’d have been nowhere near competing without another brilliant game from Rose, who had 25 points and a career equaling 13 assists. The Bulls were no slouches, shooting 52.9 percent for the game, which was just about what they Jazz shot, and the Bulls shot 62.5 percent in the first half.
The Bulls still trailed at the time 63-61, which was the disturbing news, but it also showed that Rose can be a high assist player if teammates make shots, as well as a high scorer.
“Rose played a great game and put pressure on us all night,” said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. “I like to see guys compete out there. It doesn’t matter if it’s practice or in a game. Tonight those guys (Rose and Williams, the latter with 28 points and 17 assists and both with double/doubles by halftime) competed hard the whole game. With Deron, we’re fortunate that here we have had two great point guards (with John Stockton). He knows how to play the game. It’s really pretty simple. The game needs to be played with other people involved. He knows that and does a great job with his teammates.”
Williams was terrific, and he got the highlight play on a two-on-one break with Rose retreating with the Jazz ahead 81-77 with just under four minutes left in the third quarter.
It was a game.
But Paul Millsap got the ball from Deng in a turnover, who soon went out for the game, and Williams got a pass from Wesley Matthews and dunked in the face of Rose.
I don’t know if it was a collective shock among Bulls players to see Rose be victimized by one of those dunks. But the Bulls were outscored 11-4 to end the third, and them after pulling within 92-87 early in the fourth with an active group of reserves pressuring, the Jazz outscored the Bulls 20-12 with Miles hitting a trio of three pointers and pulling away as Del Negro gave up and pulled the starters down by 14 with 3:26 remaining.
Though it isn’t any group I’d like to see in the game regularly—Jannero Pargo, Chris Richard, Hakim Warrick, James Jphnson and Flip Murray—the fivesome played the best defense of the game for the Bulls, pressing in the backcourt and causing a pair of Jazz turnovers to open the fourth and outscoring Utah 6-1 to get within 93-87 with 10:22 left.
But Del Negro, as he’s done of late, went back quickly to his starters, though no one but Rose really was much help after halftime. I actually thought Warrick finally was having an impact with his activity and even Richard was doing some nice things bothering Boozer and Johnson was active.
Sometimes you need to shake up the starters, who have played huge minutes this season, and go with a group that’s getting some things done. It didn’t happen, and when the regulars came back they made little impact and had no legs left as they were fouling and sending Jazz players to the line, getting beaten to loose balls and not getting out to Miles making those threes and ending with 26 points.
“We had a couple of opportunities,” said Del Negro. “But they got their hands on (balls) and got in the open court and made layups.”
There were a lot of layups in an another entertaining, high scoring, Phoenix Suns style game with the Bulls trailing 35-30 after one with both teams shooting over 60 percent and the Jazz ahead 63-61 at halftime and the Bulls shooting 62.5 percent and trailing.
The Bulls got a dozen from Deng in the first half and 15 from Brad Miller. But Rose was alone in the second half as no other starter had more than five. Rose added 15 in the second half with some stunning drives as Williams defended him and Rose on one occasion blew by Williams and beat both Paul Millsap and Matthews at the basket for a slick reverse layup and foul. That three point play got the Bulls within 113-102 with 5:19 left. But Kyle Korver answered with a three and as the Bulls scored on the next two possessions the Jazz scored on seven of he next eight.
You can’t catch up when they keep scoring.
The Jazz answered the Bulls early surrender with their bench players, who included D-league callup Othyus Jeffers, the U. of Illinois/Chicago product who had more than 100 family and friends at the game for his dream of playing in the NBA in the United Center.
Jeffers is from the West Side and came through the hard way having had two brothers shot to death. He also was shot in 2007 defending his sister. He went to Italy this season but came back to the D-league, where he starred last year, to get a chance at the NBA.
He earned it.
It also was a relatively quiet game for Carlos Boozer, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds and had seven of the Jazz’ 39 free throw attempts. He’s one of the so called second tier of free agents this summer, and though there have been questions about his health and commitment, he supposedly has talked about wanting to play in Chicago and would have looked good at power forward for the Bulls Tuesday. Before Boozer arrived, he told the Salt Lake Tribune the Bulls are “a good, young team that plays hard every night” and Rose is “something special, a stud.”
Rose was again Tuesday, but it hasn’t been nearly enough for the Bulls.
“When somebody scores like that, no defense,” agreed Rose. “They weren’t missing any shots either, so that didn’t help. When you lose a guy like (Noah), it’s always going to hurt the team. Some guys have come in and they are trying to pick up the slack. But there really can’t be any excuses in the NBA. (We have to) just come in and work on it. That’s really all you can do. Come in to practice, work on it and hope that it transfers to the game. We just have to find a way.”
Asked if the team’s confidence was shaken, Miller, who finished with 20, agreed.
“Obviously a little,” he said. “But you just have to keep your head up and know that there are a lot of games left to play. In this league you can win five games in a row just as quickly as you can lose five games in a row. We have to find a way to right this ship.”
Before someone brings up Micheal Ray Richardson, a famous maritime man in his own right, who once observed about his team, “The ship be sinkin.”
Not yet, but the Bulls are taking on lots of water.
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