In terms of injuries and sheer dumb luck, the Bulls haven’t caught many breaks this season. But last night at least, the bad breaks started going their way for a change. Seemingly.
After all, the Milwaukee Bucks showed up to the United Center without Andrew Bogut, who will miss the rest of the season recovering from surgery on his broken right hand. By the numbers — Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares in particular — Bogut is Milwaukee’s best and most important player. That’s a pretty big loss.
What’s more, the Toronto Raptors — the team standing between the Bulls and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference — lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers after their best player, Chris Bosh, suffered a “maxilla and nasal fracture to the right side of his face” during a collision with Antawn Jamison.
So all the Bulls had to do to tie the Bosh-less Raptors in the standings was win a home game against the Bogut-less Bucks. Considering the fact that Chicago is set to face the Raptors in Toronto on Sunday, it looked like the Bulls’ destiny was finally in their own hands.
Of course, they blew it.
Normally, playing at home and holding an opponent to 79 points on 36 percent shooting is enough to win an NBA game. But after starting the game on fire and leading 27-14 at the end of the first quarter, the Bulls were outscored 28-9 in the second. And yes, those 9 points were Chicago’s season low for a single quarter.
When Bulls players are sitting at home watching the first round of the playoffs on television, they’ll probably remember that 12 minutes as the quarter that cost them a shot at the postseason.
What in the world happened? The Bulls had the advantage. They had the momentum. They had the motivation. Can somone explain this to me?
Kirk Hinrich, who’s 4-for-16 shooting night was a big part of the problem, said: “They’re a good defensive team, but I think it was more than just the shots. We kind of had them going early in the game, we were relaxed and then they kind of outworked us in the second quarter and that kind of changed the momentum of the game. I think it’s more mental. I think we have a tendency to relax. We relaxed and they cranked it up and they got more aggressive defensively and we never really had an answer for them.”
Whaaaaaa?! How? How does a team “relax” against a vulnerable opponent when their entire season is on the line? That’s as stunning as it is unacceptable.
This was a prime time for Derrick Rose to back up his words. Instead, he ate them. Rose dished out a game-best 11 assists but also finished with a game-worst 6 turnovers. He scored 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting and got to the free throw line only once. That last fact is more damning than the turnovers and bad shooting. Granted, the Bucks were clogging the paint to prevent penetration, and Chicago’s outside shooters weren’t opening things up. But Derrick needed to be more aggressive. He needed to force the action and earn some whistles when his team needed him the most. That’s what franchise players must do.
Instead, John Salmons haunted his old team by earning a game-high eight foul shots and scoring a game-best 26 points. Salmons brought his A-Game on a night when the rest of the Bucks’ starters contributed only 16 points on 6-for-26 shooting. Chicago’s loss really was Milwaukee’s gain. For this season, at least.
Granted, the Bulls fought their way back to take a 65-63 lead with 6:13 left. But the Bucks immediately regained control as Chicago’s offense started sputtering down the stretch. The Bulls simply could not get a good shot. Credit some strong defense by the Bucks…and some downright bawful playcalling by Vinny Del Negro.
Now, I’ve been trying to take it easy on Vinny lately. After all, the Bulls overachieved last season and — despite a litany of injuries — are at least in the hunt for a playoff berth this season. But the garbage he was calling down the stretch cut three or four years off my life span.
Again, Milwaukee’s defense was stellar — what else would you expect from a Scott Skiles-coached team? — and maybe the Bulls players failed to execute. But down by three points with under 10 seconds to go, Brad Miller got called for traveling on one of the ugliest drives to the hoop I’ve ever seen. Why was Miller going for two when his team desperately needed three? Don’t ask me.
And don’t ask me why, after a forced foul of Brandon Jennings that put the Bulls down by four points, the Bulls came out of the timeout and got a two-point jumper from Hinrich, the coldest-shooting player on the floor.
This was a total failure by everybody. The players failed. The coaching staff failed. And of course management gave the Bucks the player (Salmons) who is helping send the Bulls to the lottery.
Said Rose: “We weren’t passing the ball enough, me making poor decisions, everyone just couldn’t get in a groove today. Nobody could get in the right groove to pull this team along. That’s why we struggled. We haven’t played this way in a while.”
Given those facts, and the importance of this game, maybe it’s better the Bulls don’t make the playoffs.
Update! Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald lumped a lot of blame on Chicago’s dreadful lack of outside shooting. I would like to extend that to the Bulls’ lack of offensive diversity. Look, I’ve said this so often this season I don’t always bring it up to avoid needless repetition, but the Bulls are a mid-range jumpshooting team. They don’t have an inside scoring threat, and they don’t have high percentage long-range shooters.
Yes, I think Vinny’s playcalling deficiencies exacerbate that. But, honestly, when the offense bogs down, shots aren’t falling, and the opposing team clogs the paint, the Bulls are rendered helpless. Like, turtle-rolling-around-on-it’s-back helpless. There’s no safety valve. No post player to dump the ball to. No lineup of marksmen that can open up driving lanes. The Bulls are often the victim of what they don’t have.