I guess we should have seen this coming.
Sure, the Bulls had been winning — five in a row and 14 of their last 16 games — but there have been reasons for concern ever since Joakim Noah went down with a thumb injury. There was that loss to the Clippers in Noah’s first game on the shelf. Then there were narrow wins against sub-.500 teams (Washington, Detroit, New Jersey and Cleveland) in which the Bulls played poorly but still managed to eke out the victory.
Yes, it’s nice to win an ugly game here or there, but the Bulls were playing with fire. And when a team continues to give inferior opposition chances, that team is going to get burned.
That’s what happened last night. It’s tempting to shrug off this loss as a case of Sasha Vujacic being at the right place at the right time. But it’s not fair to say the Bulls lost on a fluke play in the final seconds.
No. The Bulls played poorly and deserved to lose. There are numbers to back this up. As I mentioned in my game preview, the Nets are one of the worst offensive teams in the league. They came into the game ranked 27th in Offensive Rating (101.2) and 28th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (46.7). Against the Bulls — who began the night ranked second in Defensive Rating — New Jersey compiled an O-Rating of 108.7 and an eFG% of 52.6.
What’s more, Chicago gave up 50 points in the paint and got outscored 21-5 on the fast break. And I’ve already discussed how important fast break points are to the team’s success.
It also didn’t help that the Bulls missed 10 of their 30 free throw attempts. Worst of all were the two freebies that Luol Deng bricked with 33.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter that could have tied the game. Again, we should have seen this coming. After all, a dirty little secret about the Bulls is that they rank 28th in the league in Free Throw Percentage (70.8). And Deng’s FT% is at a career-low 68.8.
Said Deng: “I expect myself to make those free throws. I’ve been struggling with my free throw shooting this year. But it’s something, I got to get on it. I can’t be in that position and miss those free throws.”
And while we’re discussing Chicago’s inadequacies against the Nets, we might as well bring up the fact that New Jersey played with more intensity and urgency. Take Kris Humphries. Here’s a guy who averages 8.1 PPG but burned the Bulls for 20 points on 10-for-15 shooting of the Nets bench. He also finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, including five offensive boards. Humpries was 3-for-3 on layups and 3-for-3 on dunks.
Watching Humphries fight and scrap around the rim made me really miss Noah. After all, Joakim is Chicago’s energy guy. The Bulls could have used his spark last night. Not to mention his interior defense, considering the Nets converted nearly 80 percent of their shots around the rim.
Bad defense. No fast break points. Poor free throw shooting. Lack of intensity. That’s a pretty solid formula for a loss to one of the league’s worst teams. And I haven’t even mentioned how Carlos Boozer was benched for the entire fourth quarter. What was up with that?
Said Boozer: “You got to talk to Thibs about that. That was a coaching decision.”
Replied coach Tom Thibodeau: “The big thing was we were behind big and they were zoning. And so the group that went in, playing Luol [Deng] at the 4, gave us another perimeter player. So it was more effective for us against the zone. So that’s why we did it. And when that group cut the lead down and now we were in position, they tied the game up so we just were going to finish with the group that was going well.”
Far be it from me to question Thibs. Still…can you imagine the uproar if Vinny Del Negro had benched Boozer in a loss to the Nets? Or played Deng 40 minutes on consecutive nights, especially when the first of those two nights was a blowout in Chicago’s favor.
Oh well. I guess Thibodeau has earned a little benefit of the doubt.
Still, if Thibs doesn’t addess the ongoing problems, and if the Bulls don’t stop playing down to the level of their opponents, all the good vibes that have been building up this season could go south in a hurry.