Not again? How about never before?
With 8:49 left in the third quarter, John Salmons hit an 11-footer to help the Bulls go up 79-44 on the Kings. For those who enjoy simple math, that represented a 35-point lead with less than 21 minutes to go. Completely and utterly insurmountable, right?
Historically speaking, it should have been. But, of course, it was not.
Sacramento outscored Chicago an astounding 58-19 the rest of the way, including 33-10 in the fourth quarter. No home team had ever lost after building a lead that huge. It was the biggest come-from-ahead loss in Bulls franchise history. Conversely, it was the largest come-from-behind win in Kings franchise history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the biggest comeback since Utah overcame a 36-point deficit to beat Denver on November 27, 1996.
That’s some pretty epic fail right there. As John Jackson of the Chicago Sun-Times said: “There’s no way of knowing for sure, but the Bulls might be the first team in NBA history to be booed off their home court in a game in which they had a 35-point lead.”
What makes this loss even more stunning is that things started off so well. The Bulls began the game by playing some of their best, most confident basketball of the season. In the first quarter, they shot lights out (71 percent), took care of the ball (zero turnovers), and played inspired defense (forcing the Kings into 39 percent shooting and 7 turnovers). Chicago went ahead by 24 at halftime and then opened the third quarter with a 12-1 run that seemed to put the game hopelessly out of the Sactowners’ reach.
Frankly, it was the kind of performance that people have been expecting from the Bulls all season: efficiently and rather mercilessly taking care of business at home against a lesser team. And I’m sure coach Vinny Del Negro had to be thinking about getting his starters some rest for tomorrow night’s game in New York.
Well, they got their rest all right…by going to sleep in the court. May I suggest some narcolepsy medication? Some 5-Hour Energy, perhaps?
My mind is still boggled by what happened. The Kings committed their fifth personal foul with 7:45 to go in the fourth quarter, which meant the Bulls would be shooting free throws on every foul from that point forward. After Salmons knocked down his freebies from that foul, Chicago was still up 94-79. All the Bulls had to do to secure the win was be aggressive, attack the basket, and force Sacramento to foul them. You want to know how many foul shots they earned in the next seven minutes? Four. And they missed two of them.
Instead of pressing their advantage, the Bulls got sloppy. How sloppy? Chicago gave up 23 points off 20 after the first quarter. They committed nine of those turnovers in the fourth quarter, including two shot clock violations, a three-second violation and a carry. They went 2-for-10 from the field during the fourth while giving up 17 points in the final 3:08. The Bulls also surrendered four huge offensive rebounds in that final period, including two in the final 1:12 that led to 1) Evans’ 22-footer that made it 99-96 with 50 seconds left and 2) Evans’ free throw that made it 100-98 with 15 seconds left. Obviously, those boards were critical.
What in the world happened?
Said Luol Deng: “I think we relaxed. We were making mistakes defensively. We were just not aggressive and that carries over to offense. It’s frustrating.”
Added Del Negro: “It was a matter of us not being smart at either end. It’s frustrating. It’s difficult. But what are you going to do, put your head down and feel sorry for yourself?”
Oh, I don’t know, Vinny…how about making some defensive adjustments? Tyreke Evans absolutely killed the Bulls down the stretch. In the final 2:13, Evans outscored the Bulls 9-3 by himself. He started by bolting past Kirk Hinrich and converting a layup while also drawing a foul from Deng. (And of course he knocked down the ensuing free throw.) He hit another driving layup on Sacramento’s next possession, tying the game in the process.
On the Kings’ next trip down the floor, Evans got past Hinrich again, drawing the foul. He hit the first foul shot to put Sacramento up by a point. Evans bricked the second freebie, but the Bulls couldn’t corral his miss. The Kings milked the shot clock before Evans drilled a 22-footer in Deng’s face to put his team up 99-96 with 50 seconds left.
That was a dagger.
Here’s what I want to know. Once it became obvious that the Bulls couldn’t contain Evans with single coverage — the dude was leaving skid marks on poor Hinrich — why didn’t Vinny switch things up? Maybe throw a few double teams at him, try to get the ball out of his hands. Wouldn’t it be better to make, say, Beno Udrih or Jon Brockman try to beat you?
Here’s another thought. Once it became obvious the Bulls were sleepwalking through the fourth quarter, why not insert Jannero Pargo? And I mean before there are only five seconds left in the game. The guy is a spark plug. I can guarantee you Pargo would have been aggressive even if everybody else was standing around twiddling their thumbs. If you have somebody who can come off the bench shooting, what better time to use him than to counter a case of group lethargy?
Look, I’ve tried to cut Vinny some slack. I mean, we all know he’s not Phil Jackson. We also know he’s had to deal with a brutal schedule, a variety of injuries and a group of underperforming players. But it’s the coach’s job to make the necessary adjustments when his team starts to let down. Defensive switches, strategic substitutions, demanding that his players attack the rim on every single possession to take advantage of being in the penalty. Any one of these things might have saved the Bulls from this catastrophe.
And make no mistake: my use of the word “catastrophe” is not an overstatement. The team’s psyche has been fragile all season. After a handful of strong performances last week, they were finally getting a little swagger back. I saw it in the first half. But this kind of loss is a confidence killer.
How will the players respond tomorrow night against the Knicks?
Go here to read a Sacramento fan’s breakdown of the game with links to several related writeups.