Eight is enough. But the losses look like they will keep coming for the Bulls.
The losing streak reached eight Tuesday in Memphis in a curious 104-97 defeat to the Grizzlies without the Bulls’ four top scorers. Yet, the Bulls came back from 25 down to get within four with 3:39 left and twice had chances to cut the lead to one or two.
The first time Brad Miller came out of a timeout with a corner three that was off, and after the Grizzlies missed underneath, Jannero Pargo lost the ball dribbling down the middle for one of the Bulls seven fourth quarter turnovers, three by Pargo.
But Pargo was playing point guard because Derrick Rose was out with a sprained wrist, Kirk Hinrich was suspended from bumping a referee in Friday’s Miami game and Acie Law, who was two off a career high with 18 points, was out late because of cramps in his legs. Overall, the Bulls were without their top four scorers with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah also injured.
“A lot of guys haven’t played together,” understated Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “I was pleased with the effort, but I was disappointed with the outcome. We will just try to get guys healthy. Acie was cramping up a lot. I would have liked to have gotten him back there in the end, but he was cramping up and couldn’t go.”So the Bulls stumbled to 31-35, though Miami and Charlotte also lost in the scramble for the final Eastern Conference playoff spots. No, it ain’t over.
The Bulls gave up at least 100 points for the 11th consecutive game, the longest streak since the 1985-86 season. And they play in Dallas Wednesday before returning home to face the league leading Cleveland Cavaliers Friday.
But Noah went on the trip for the first time since being pulled with his plantar fasciitis at the end of February and said he is getting close to playing. No one is saying, though my guess is Noah returns, though for limited minutes, when the Bulls travel to Philadelphia Saturday. It’s likely Rose and Deng will be back by then as well, perhaps Friday in the home game against the Cavs.
“Let’s see who comes back healthy and when and what the rotation is,” said Del Negro, guessing now from game to game who’ll play. “There’s a lot of basketball left. But we can’t keep saying that. We’ve got to get guys healthy and win some basketball games. I appreciated the way the guys battled, but it wasn’t good enough.”
It’s difficult to quantify a game like this with rookie Taj Gibson, who is clearly moving slowly with his own plantar fasciitis and with just two points and three rebounds and fouling out in 26 minutes, the only regular starter playing. The backcourt was Pargo and Law with Flip Murray at small forward and Brad Miller at center.
You figured this was a no chance game for the Bulls, even as they sprinted out 22-11 to open the game.
“They kept changing lineups and going smaller and smaller, and trying to create bad matchups,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “We were discombobulated early offensively because we saw a lot of mismatches and were standing around trying to take advantage of mismatches instead of just playing. Once we got control of that, we took control of the game.”The Grizzlies did, particularly with a 17-0 run in the second quarter as the Bulls went 10 straight possessions without scoring and mostly firing up jumpers without much ball movement. Really, it is what you’d expected and you could hardly blame the makeshift group. Late in the third quarter, the Bulls were trailing 81-56 as Rudy Gay, who was little factor and seemingly little interested all game, made one of those spectacular twisting drives he can do.
So did the Bulls then fight back and show no quit and make some cases, namely Law, Murray with 25 and Hakim Warrick with 22, for extra playing time and a nice supporting rotation when the regular return?
Or was it one of those tortoise and hare things where the guy was so far ahead he decided to take a nap and before you knew it the little regarded one came crawling up and stole it?
The Bulls still trailed 85-67 entering the fourth quarter as Warrick, playing back in Memphis, ran out for a slam dunk and pulled up for a jumper as the Grizzlies sat back satisfied.
The Grizzlies pretty much emptied their bench after that and Zach Randolph apparently gave away his headband, not expecting to return, which he eventually had to bandless. And he saved the game for Memphis with a couple of tough baskets inside after the Bulls had those two shots while trailing 94-90.
But the Grizzlies’ reserves who opened the fourth couldn’t find a scorer. Warrick had a pair of jumpers and James Johnson got a run out dunk and suddenly the Bulls were getting close to within 10.
Johnson would have started, especially after his best game of the season with 20 points against Miami Friday. But he was late for practice Monday and was benched, and it has become too much with him. He’s been perennially, let’s say, inconsistent about time throughout the season having grown up in the Mountain time zone and played college ball in the Eastern time zone. Or maybe he just needs a battery for his watch. He is a talent. We saw that Friday. And he blocked four shots Tuesday against the Grizzlies, often coming up from behind to surprise shooters or drivers, and twice late in key defensive possessions. But he remains somewhat immature and a bit too fun loving, from the break dancing you’ve seen him do on YouTube to just a general lack of discipline. Though not disruptive. He doesn’t seem to have the anger or attitude of someone like Tyrus Thomas. He’s just seems a bit too playful for being a professional. It’s what people forget. Just because you are in the NBA doesn’t mean you automatically become a pro. It’s a learning process, and Johnson is getting his schooling. He’s still learning, as we can see.
Which is why Murray started at small forward, and he actually did a good job on Gay, who finished with 12 points on five of 13 shooting, six rebounds and three assists.
I’ll admit, I like Gay’s talent. But he’s probably not the guy to invest in for free agency. He does come more cheaply because as a young player his maximum salary is closer to $12 million. He’s a restricted free agent, which means the Grizzlies can match an offer. Though with the stands a third empty again it’s difficult to see how they would do that, especially with a creative, front loaded offer.
That said, the Bulls have seen Gay now twice in the last few weeks and he’s shown no inclination to take over the game or look like he can. Plus, he plays small forward, where the Bulls have Deng. Heck, Murray had 25 Tuesday, though he went into the backcourt at times while O.J. Mayo was the leader for Memphis Tuesday with 24 points and Mike Conley with 19 points and 10 assists. Pargo was one off his career high in assists with eight.
No. 2 overall draft pick Hasheem Thabeet got his first career start with Marc Gasol hurt and Thabeet had a respectable 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. But he was lost on defense and constantly beaten on the pick and rolls as he seemingly had little idea even what to do.
Meanwhile, after that early run to open the fourth quarter behind Warrick, with 10 in the fourth, and Johnson’s dunk, and pulling within 89-77 the Bulls had another brutal stretch. This time the Memphis reserves still were in and collapsing as Johnson had back to back blocks. But the Bulls messed up four straight possessions with Devin Brown having two ugly possessions with a quick, bad jumper and turnover on a fast break as he traveled. Johnson then stepped out of bounds for a turnover as he tried to drive and Del Negro pulled them both. Pargo then went one-on-one on top of the floor and went between his legs on the dribble about eight times standing still and threw up a jumper, and I hate that extra dribbling stuff.
Yes, we know you can dribble.
Anyway, Thabeet gagged a pair of free throws and it was beginning to look like that 35-point lead the Bulls blew to Sacramento. You take a team for granted, and then you tighten up.
The Bulls kept making turnovers, Gibson and Law with one each following a Murray three giving the Bulls four turnovers in seven possessions. Yet, they were still in the game and about to get within 94-90. Amazingly, they could have won this game.
Because Miller then hit a corner three and a cutting Warrick took a pass from Pargo and slammed it facial version over Mayo with Gay looking on curiously. Pargo then drove for a score and was fouled after a Ronnie Brewer air ball and, stunningly, it was 94-90 Grizzlies with almost four minutes left.
“We just have to take care of the ball to put ourselves in a position to win,” said Law, who looked good driving the ball. “We hurt ourselves down the stretch. We were down 25 and we fight all the way to get back into the game and then we kill ourselves with turnovers.” Yes, here they come.
The Grizzlies committed a 24-second violation with Gay stuck with the ball, but Miller missed that three to get within one. Mayo missed a reverse underneath, but Pargo dropped the ball on a drive and went out of bounds with it. Randolph got deep post position and went up for an easy score, and then Pargo lost the ball again as he drove into four defenders.
Randolph scored again and Murray missed a three. Conley got a pass to Thabeet at the rim, and he put it in for a 10-point lead with 1:25 left. But Pargo suckered Conley into jumping into him on a three-point shot and made all three. Pargo then pressured in the backcourt—at least he wasn’t quitting after his misplays—and forced a turnover. Warrick rebounded a Murray miss, was fouled and made both and the Bulls, amazingly, were within five with 1:03 left.
Mayo missed a three, but with a chance to get within two or three, Pargo had the ball slip out of his hands for still another turnover, and that was about it.
“We didn’t value possession of the basketball enough and turned it over,” agreed Del Negro. “There were some costly turnovers and that was frustrating.”
Great effort? Opponent who took them too lightly? An encouraging loss? Still, another loss. And the march goes in. Can you lose 10 straight after the All Star break and still make the playoffs? We’ll likely soon find out. The Grizzlies moved to 36-32 and are pretty much out of it in the Western Conference. Life and basketball can be so unfair.
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