I started worrying about this game the night before it even happened. Not because the Bulls were facing a good team on the road, or because they had played so poorly in Los Angeles against the Lakers, or even because of their ugly history of losing on their annual circus trip.
No, I got nervous after watching the Denver Nuggets — Chicago’s Saturday night opponent — lose a nationally televised game to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.
Teams like the Nuggets (who entered the game 8-3, have a former Finals MVP in Chauncey Billups, and have a potential MVP candidate in Carmelo Anthony) don’t usually get beaten by teams like the Clippers (who are, after all, the Clippers). To make matters worse, it was Denver’s fourth loss in its last five road games. And you could tell the Nuggets players were none too pleased.
Said Billups: “It’s not like a few years ago, where you play the Clippers or somebody and it’s just another game. We have to somehow realize that we are everybody’s big game. It’s a very tough loss, but we have to forget about this game and focus on tomorrow night.”
Oh great, I thought. Now the Bulls have to face a pissed off team playing at home with something to prove.
Simply put, it wasn’t good news for a squad that’s gone 96-191 on the road over the past seven seasons and 9-56 on their circus trip this decade. So imagine my surprise when the Bulls were leading 27-14 after the first quarter.
It didn’t last.
The Bulls got exploited on defense by explosive players, whether it was Billups (who helped get the Nuggets back in the game by scoring 14 second-quarter points), ‘Melo (30 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists), or J.R. Smith (who scored 12 of his 19 points in the four quarter).
Said Derrick Rose: “”Chauncey went off on us in the second quarter and got them back in the game and then J.R. started hitting shots in the fourth. He’s tough to guard. It’s hard to guard him when he’s shooting from everywhere.”
Chicago kept things close for 36 minutes and even took a 71-70 lead when D-Rose hit a 12-footer with 53 seconds left in the third quarter. But the Nuggets outscored the Bulls 37-22 in the fourth quarter to win going away. So the Chicago’s 14-point lead turned into a 19-point loss. Ugly.
It was the second consecutive time the Bulls were simply outplayed by a superior opponent. Depending on your perspective, that could be good or bad. Good because at least they didn’t lose to a crappy team, bad because they aren’t really ready to play with the big boys yet.
The Four Factors:
Chicago got only two dunks, hit only half of their layup attempts (11-for-22), shot 39 percent on jumpers (22-for-56), and missed nine of their 11 three-point attempts. Not surprisingly, Denver won Effective Field Goal Percentage (52.9 to 45.6). The Nuggets also won Turnover Percentage (12.2 to 16.3), Offensive Rebounding Percentage (26.1 to 21.7), and Free Throw Rate (only 30.2 to 29.6, but still).
When a team gets swept in all four of the Four Factors, that team is probably going to lose.
Pluses and Minues:
The Bulls were -3 in points from free throws, -5 in points from three-pointers, -17 in points from field goals, and -18 in points in the paint. They were +3 in fast break points and +2 in points off turnovers.
Derrick Rose vowed to become more aggressive, and he has been. Against the Nuggets, Rose scored a team-high 28 points (4-for-7 on layups, 7-for-13 on jumpers, 0-for-1 from downtown and 6-for-7 from the line). He also had 6 rebounds. However, he dished out only 3 assists while committing a game-high 5 turnovers. I’m encouraged that Derrick is creating opportunities for himself on offense. Now he needs to create for his teammates too.
Luol Deng continued his comeback with 22 points (9-for-19), and 4 blocked shots. That last number is even more impressive when you consider the Bulls had only 5 blocks in the game (Taj Gibson). Deng stuffed ‘Melo three times and even swatted Nene once.
Gibson also had a decent game, all things considered. He grabbed a game-high 12 boards (5 offensive) to go with 9 points, 2 steals, an assist and that block.
It was another rough night for John Salmons, who went 2-for-11 from the field and finished with only 5 points and not much of anything else. And since misery loves company, Kirk Hinrich joined Salmons in his shooting woes by going 3-for-10 and ending up with the team’s worst plus-minus score (-20).
Pain in the Paint:
The Bulls can probably be forgiven for once again getting exploited by an opposing froncourt player, because Carmelo Anthony has been doing that to everybody this season. But Chicago was outrebounded 47-41 and outscored 52-34 in points in the paint. They also gave up eight dunks and 14 layups.
Don’t worry about that clanging sound you keep hearing. It’s just Chicago’s three-point shooting. Wait. On second thought, worry. The Bulls are currently 26th in Three-Point Percentage (.290). Only the Grizzlies, Bobcats, Nets and Timberwolves are shooting worse from long range. Take note that those four teams have a combined record of 9-43. I’ll go ahead and let you draw your own conclusions.
Oddly enough, despite adding Ben Gordon, the Detroit Pistons are only ranked 25th (.305). In fact, Gordon is shooting 39 percent, which is a career-low. You know, in case you were interested.