I had just settled into my seat at the United Center when Chicago’s starting lineup was announced. And starting at power forward was…Taj Gibson? Whaaaaaa…?! It took a few minutes of furious texting to discover that Tyrus Thomas was out with — you guessed it! — flu-like symptoms.
The timing of Ty’s outbreak is a more than a little dubious, considering it happened the day after he failed to reach a before-the-deadline contract extension agreement with the Bulls. Given Thomas’ history, it’s understandable that some people are calling shenanigans. Regardless of the circumstances, all I could think was, “Uh oh.” It was definitely one of those I-sense-a-disturbance-in-the-Force moments.
Of course, Ty’s absence shouldn’t have mattered, not with the Bulls playing at home against a bad team (the Bucks) missing its best player (Michael Redd). But whether it was missing a starter or just an extension of everything that’s been wrong with the team since their season opening win over the Spurs, the Bulls flat-out sucked in the first half.
Chicago fell behind 25-13 after one quarter and 43-29 by halftime. They couldn’t shoot. They couldn’t defend. They couldn’t hold onto the ball. In all honesty, the Bulls looked like a group of guys at the YMCA who had never played together before. Even when somebody was able to break free for an open shot, passes were delivered so poorly that the player receiving it lost that crucial split-second advantage.
By the time Brandon Jennings (who had a game-high 25 points) nailed a triple at the 5:39 mark of the third quarter, the Bulls were down an astonishing 18 points (56-38). It was unthinkable. The Bulls were getting blown out at home by the Bucks? Really?!
If you look at the final stats, you might wonder how the Bulls pulled this one out. They shot 39 percent as a team, bricked nine free throws (including six in the fourth quarter), and gave up 23 points off 19 turnovers. Thank goodness the Bucks really are so bad they failed to capitalize against a team in a funk. But more than that, thank goodness for Luol Deng and Jannero Pargo.
Deng was, without question, the player of the game. He didn’t have the best shooting day (7-for-16), but oh man was he aggressive. How aggressive, you ask? Well, he grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds (including 7 on the offensive end) and earned 11 free throw attempts (of which he hit nine). If there are any Bulls fans still questioning Luol’s physical and mental toughness, they should go back and re-watch this game. His effort kept the Bulls alive.
And how about Jannero Pargo, huh? The dude wasn’t even supposed to play against the Bucks because of a sore back. But the Bulls needed him. And badly. Not only because he’s a natural spark plug, but because the team’s lack of three-point shooting was allowing Milwuakee to clog the paint and hover in the passing lanes. Pargo was in the game just over a minute before drilling his first three, and after that the Bucks’ defense was finally forced to scramble around.
Pargo finished with 10 points (4-for-5, 2-for-3 from downtown) in 14 minutes, but those numbers tell only part of the story. His plus-minus score (+18) tells the other part.
Derrick Rose was soundly outplayed by Jennings until the fourth quarter. Fortunately, Rose came alive, scoring 10 of his 16 points in the final stanza, which included a couple long jumpers (from 16 and 17 feet out) and two dunks (courtesy of sweet dishes from Brad Miller). It was good to see the kid come through in the clutch. That’s the future of Chicago Bulls basketball. It has to be.
Of course, there was added drama as Chicago’s poor foul shooting gave the Bucks a chance to steal the game. The normally reliable Brad Miller — an 80 percent career foul shooter — went only 4-for-8. And Joakim Noah bonked two freebies with 13 seconds left that could have iced the game. Instead, the Bulls had to sweat out an ugly miss by Ersan Ilyasova before victory was assured.
Was it good to win? Absolutely. But the Bulls still played very, very poorly and, in some ways, deserved to lose. If they don’t get their act together, things could get really ugly in Cleveland on Thursday night.
The slump continues:
John Salmons scored only 7 points on 3-for-15 shooting. He was 0-for-2 on layups and 2-for-12 on jumpers. And watching his body language, you can tell it’s in his head now. At times, he was trying to guide the ball into the basket instead of just shooting it. Take a few deep breaths and relax, John. It’s going to be okay.
The Bulls were 5-for-16 (31 percent) on layup attempts against the Bucks. That makes them 37-for-85 (43 percent) for the season.
Jeremy from Bucksketball: “Things were so perfect. The Bucks were up 18 with 6:56 left in the third quarter, the defense was swarming, every loose ball was going the Bucks way, turnovers were being forced and the Bucks were hanging in their offensively. But when things were their bleakest for the Bulls, Deng, Brad Miller and Jannero Pargo led the Bulls all the way back when Pargo hit a three with six minutes to go in the fourth. As described above, the Bucks had a shot in the end, but were unable to convert.”