A look back and a brief look ahead

The Bulls played two games over the weekend.

The results could not have been more different.

Friday night in Orlando, the Bulls forced 18 turnovers and held the Magic to  40 percent from the field while sharing the ball on offense (27 assists on 38 field goals) and shooting lights out from downtown (8-for-14). Chicago led by as many as 17, held off a fourth quarter rally, and won 97-83.

Everybody contributed. Derrick Rose nearly had a triple double (21 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds), Luol Deng scored 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting, Carlos Boozer had a manly double-double (20 points and 13 boards), Kyle Korver blew up for 18 points (6-for-8) off the bench…so on and so forth.

It was the kind of night where you think: The Bulls can beat anybody.

Then Saturday night in Atlanta happened. And the buzz was killed. Violently.

Yes, the Bulls were playing the second of back-to-back road games, and they were missing starting shooting guard Rip Hamilton and backup point guard C.J. Watson. But the Hawks were playing their third game in three nights…and the previous two games had both gone to overtime. And in the first of those three games, they lost at home to the Heat, who were playing without Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.

I’m not saying the Bulls should have been a lock to win this game…but to give up 109 points on 56 percent shooting? To commit 20 turnovers? To fall behind by as many as 29 points? The Hawks shut down Rose (8 points, 3-for-10, 6 assists, 5 turnovers), and the Bulls were carved up by Josh Smith (25 points, 11-for-17, 6 blocked shots), Joe Johnson (17 points on 7-for-14 shooting) and Jeff Teague (12 points, 8 assists, 5 steals).

Even Vladimir Radmanovic (17 points, 5-for-5 on threes) made it rain.

Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “In this league you usually get what you deserve. This is the NBA. You’ve got to come every night.”

Added Joakim Noah: “This one’s on the people that started the game. … It was embarrassing tonight.”

Mind you, the Hawks had a bit of a psychological edge. They were embarrassed last week in Chicago by giving up a 17-point lead and losing, then again at home against the Heat. They played with an edge the Bulls didn’t match.

Look, when John Lucas III is the team’s leading scorer and he drops as many points as Rose and Deng combined, something is really, really, really wrong.

Of course, maybe some slack-cutting is in order. After all, as of Saturday night, the Bulls had played nine games in the 14 days since the season opened on Christmas day…and seven of those games have been on the road. Six of those games have been on back-to-back nights.

That’s a pretty aggressive schedule.

And if you’re watching other games around the Association, there have been other strange, not-so-easy to predict outcomes that are likely the result (at least in part) of the post-lockout hurry-the-season-up schedule.

Still, that loss in Atlanta was a disappointment.

And so’s the play of Joakim Noah.

Going into this season, Jo was considered a strong candidate for an All-Star berth. As of today, he’s averaging 7.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and less than a block a game while shooting a dismal 38 percent from the field. His Player Efficiency Rating is 13.47, which according to the reference guide has him rated as “in the rotation.”

He has scored in double figures only twice this season. He has had double-digit rebounds only three times. His games against the Magic (4 points, 2-for-9, 10 rebounds) and Hawks (1 point, 0-for-4, 4 rebounds) would have been low points in 2010-11. They seem par for the course this season.

That’s troubling.

Also troubling is that, despite Chicago’s strong record (7-2), I have this nagging feeling like something’s wrong. Noah is struggling. Rose is playing well overall but not at last season’s MVP level. And, thanks mostly to Hamilton’s injury, the team’s shooting guard situation is still unsettled.

Again, it could just be the post-lockout scheduling and the front-loading of road games combined with Noah’s uncharacteristic slumpiness and Rip’s sore groin. And the fact that bad losses always make you feel like the sky is falling.

But let’s face it. Expectations are sky-high. The Bulls have championship grade talent, and anything less than a title will feel like a failure. That’s just the nature of this particular beast. The same could be said for the Heat…only they’re playing better than the Bulls. Miami is 8-1, hasn’t suffered an ugly loss, and has managed to win one game minus Wade and another game sans Wade and LeBron.

In other words: As of today, the Bulls are a step or two behind their primary foe in the East.

But the season is young. There’s still time to improve. And it can start tonight, with the team’s first and only three-game back-to-back-to-back set. They play at home against the Pistons (2-6) tonight, in Minnesota (3-5) tomorrow night, and then back home against the Wizards (0-8) on Wednesday.

Not the stiffest of competition. But the Bulls sure looked worn out on Saturday. I hope they got plenty of rest on Sunday and slept in today. Because this season just got real.

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