So much for the easy part of the Bulls two week Western Conference road trip.
The Bulls, after losing 104-97 Wednesday to the now 19-22 Clippers after Monday’s loss to the then 11-27 Warriors, starting Friday in Phoenix face five teams all with winning records and all in a desperate fight for the playoffs, thus making every game for them important.
Yes, the Bulls are staring dead into a seven-loss trip and closing in on what could be the beginning of the end of their season.
And everything looked so promising a few days ago.
“We gave up too many points tonight,” offered Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “There were times we settled and we did not follow our shots and we let easy baskets go. We had the numbers to convert, but did not follow through. I am disappointed that we lost. But I am happy that this young team is trying hard.”
Though you wondered at times with the halting first three quarters and then a frenzied finish.
“We were short handed tonight and the rest of the team tried very hard to step up their game and get shots,” said Del Negro. “Some of our key players shot well and had their confidence taking the ball to the basket. As a young team we go through the ups and downs. We are playing hard, we competed well and its all about confidence and opportunity. We need to make better decisions and execute better. Their veterans came back, hitting big shots.”
That was Baron Davis, who ruined a perfectly good comeback as the Bulls, after trailing by 14 with just over six minutes remaining, got within four points four different times, the first time with more than four minutes left.
Plenty of time to steal a game the Bulls had to have after Monday’s brutal loss in Golden State against Monta and the D-leaguers.
I asked a scout friend about that game and he said he watched it because he works the D-league games a lot.
“Those guys weren’t even the best guys down there,” he said. “We wondered what they (Warriors) were thinking.”
So the Bulls are there in this game, up nine early and trailing only 75-70 going into the fourth quarter. This despite being outscored 24-10 in fast break points, the category the Bulls must win to have success given their lack of outside shooting. But the Clippers would miss 16 free throws, giving the Bulls plenty of chances.
And it wasn’t your typical road crowd. The Lakers fans’ are into the Lakers. The Clippers fans tend to be curious about the rest of the NBA, and on the day when the NBA announced Derrick Rose’s jersey was the fourth most popular in sales, there were many in a crowd that often seemed as supportive of the Bulls. Yet, it was a worrisome sign for the Bulls to play without great thrust—as Del Negro likes to say, through much of the first three quarters as they were dominated both off the boards and in fast break points, for example.
Marcus Camby was having a huge rebounding game and would finish with 25 rebounds. At one point in the first quarter, he had 11 rebounds, matching the Bulls total. And this was against the league’s No.1 rebounding teams coming into the game.
But the game began to get away from the Bulls to open the fourth as Jannero Pargo and Brad Miller missed and Kirk Hinrich, back from his bout with flu, committed a turnover while the Clippers reserves with Al Thornton, Sebastian Telfair, Craig Smith and Ricky Davis were scoring and adding in a steal and block.
Hinrich was throwing himself around impressively chasing loose balls, apparently replacing whatever hurling he was doing in his hotel room in Golden State. But Hinrich was a nauseating three of 14 shooting. John Salmons replaced Hinrich on the sick list with stomach flu, though it’s apparently not true that he had eaten a bad piece of salmon.
Del Negro rushed Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng back into the game with 90 seconds gone in the fourth quarter and the Bulls trailing 81-70.
It was unusually soon given Del Negro’s habit of leaving those regulars out for about the first five minutes of the fourth. It suggested Del Negro’s desperation as well and knowing this was the game to get.
It didn’t get much better right away as the Bulls missed six of their next seven shots, though Tyrus Thomas, making a rare appearance for almost the entire fourth quarter, was earning it with aggression, helping keep the Bulls close with a steal and dash and getting fouled, and a block of a Smith attempt.
Thomas would finish with his best performance in three weeks with 18 points on an efficient eight of 11 shooting, six rebounds and three blocks.
The Bulls would bottom out at 88-74 with 6:36 left, and then finally seemed to grow as desperate as Del Negro.
Deng, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds, hit a three. Thomas made a steal and then ran out and got a pass from Rose for a slam dunk. Rose made a steal from Telfair and drove for a score, and Noah took the ball from Chris Kaman and put back his own miss.
Rose would finish with 23 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two blocks, though he’s still not getting the calls with just four free throws. There’s this odd notion as I travel around the league as coaches and executives say to me Rose is not having the year he had last season. And I say he’s way better, that he was injured and insisted on playing through it and his numbers suffered, but the guy has been playing great and without Ben Gordon asked to do so much more. But it seems if you repeat a lie or a misrepresentation, it doesn’t matter what the reality is. Rose has been terrific, and Wednesday he just ran out of time.
Suddenly, after that great sequence of desperate anxiety, the Bulls trailed just 90-86 with 4:09 left.
But Davis, who finished with 23 points including 11 in the fourth quarter, hit a long three over Rose. Thomas answered with a 20 footer, but Davis hit again, this time from about 20 feet.
“Toward the end I wanted to take it upon myself,” said Davis. “I had a good rhythm offensively just from being aggressive defensively.”
Davis, really, can do that anytime he wants, but he’s one of the more mercurial players in the NBA. Given his strength and abilities, he can dominate just about any guard in the league. But he’s known to come committed to play about once a week, or in spurts. Sometimes he seems to take off whole seasons, like he did last year. And he doesn’t have much relationship with coach Mike Dunleavy, not that Davis has been a favorite of any of his coaches. But something got into him late Wednesday, and he was his unstoppable best.
Thomas was fouled and made one of two and then Noah got a Camby shot and Rose drove all the way, making it Clippers 95-91 with 2:25 left. Kaman, who has been terrific this season and ended with 20 points and eight rebounds, missed a jumper and it seemed the Bulls had a good chance.
But Rose got too far under on a drive and missed, and Thomas committed the blunder of the quarter, going for a Davis fake 28 feet from the basket and fouling him. Davis made two of the three free throws for a 97-91 lead with 1:51 left.
Thomas then slipped inside and took an alley oop for a dunk from Hinrich, though you hate to see Thomas just about every time he scores complain openly to the referees for a foul. He did it again with an exaggerated hand motion with arms outstretched and you know this isn’t helping at all the officials’ feelings toward the Bulls. I know. It’s supposed to be objective. But if you keep showing someone up, they remember.
Kaman then got deep post position on Noah on the right block, and Kaman is deadly there when he spins right, and he did so and banked in a six footer for 99-93 lead with 1:19 left. The Bulls came right back as Noah, with 14 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks, beat Kaman down court and dunked again to get the Bulls within four, though time was running out.
Just one more stop.
But Davis, again, hit a runner this time with 48 seconds for a 101-95 lead.
Timeout Bulls. They weren’t making up enough ground, but the Bulls don’t have that three point threat to get them back in games quickly. But they gave it a shot, a long shot, as it were. The Bulls ran a play for Deng to shoot a three, at least from the short right corner. But Deng missed—the Bulls were two of 11 on threes—and Thomas fouled Camby, who conveniently missed both free throws. And then it became a game between two losing teams. Kaman picked off an awful crosscourt pass from Thomas, and threw ahead to Davis. Who for some reason tried to score right away and missed. Kaman got the rebound, but threw the ball into the backcourt for a turnover.
Thomas then missed a jumper, but Rose forced himself in for the rebound and scored and it was back to four again, though with 22.4 seconds. The Bulls fouled Davis, who made both, and Rose effectively ended it with a bad, desperate pass off the backboard for a turnover and a rare show of angry frustration from the usually unflappable guard. That made it 0-2 for California. It was storming in usually sunny L.A. as the Bulls added to it with their tears.
“We came up short tonight,” said Rose. “We have a tough team coming up on Friday. We are going to have to play harder. We have to come out with much more energy. The shots that we usually hit were not falling tonight. We need to try to get the lead and keep it. Our focus was not there. Our foul trouble down the penalty caused us a lot of trouble. They have great players. They played defense and executed throughout the whole game. That is why they got the win.”
So here’s what the next week looks like:
Phoenix with Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, 25-18.
Houston with nobody and averaging more than 100, 23-18.
San Antonio with Duncan, Parker and Manu, 25-16.
Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant, 24-18.
New Orleans with Chris Paul, 22-19.
The Bulls fell to 18-22 and pretty much in a battle for just the final playoff spot with Charlotte, Miami and Toronto seemingly taking those five, six and seven spots after the Cavs, Celtics, Magic and Hawks. And still a half season to go after the Bulls hit the official midway point in Game 41 Friday.
It’s supposed to storm even in Phoenix. Yes, a dark cloud seems to be settling in over the Bulls season as well.
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