NBA games last for 48 minutes.
I know, I know. I’m stating the obvious. But I have to bring the obvious up after this one, right? I mean, the Bulls were dominant for 24 minutes last night. They scored the game’s first 14 points. They went up by as many as 19 points in the second quarter. They led 50-33 at the half.
After the half? Chicago got outscored 50-30. The offensive completely flamed out and the defense couldn’t control Al Horford (31 points, 13-for-20, 16 rebounds) or get key stops down the stretch.
As badly as the Bulls struggled to score during the third and fourth quarters, they still managed to go up 79-75 on a three-pointer by Kyle Korver with 1:37 to go. The Hawks then went on an 8-1 run over the final 1:16. While the Bulls were bumbling, stumbling and turning the ball over, the Hawks were making smart plays and hitting clutch shots.
But, to me, this game was lost in the third quarter. Chicago entered the second half with a 17-point lead. If the Bulls could have come out with a really strong effort to start the third, they could have buried the Hawks. Instead, they had three times as many turnovers (6) as points (2) in the first six and a half minutes of the second half.
That sloppy play opened a door the Bulls should have slammed shut.
Suddenly, the Atlanta crowd started getting excited. And so did the Hawks. So much so that Al Horford drilled his first three-pointer of the season to cut the lead to 54-48 with 5:07 left in the third. In fact, it was only the second triple of Horford’s career, the other one coming on November 16, 2009.
That aberration felt like a bad omen. The Hawks went on to win that quarter 25-13. Now they were down only 63-58. At home. With momentum.
The fourth quarter was scrappy. And the Bulls led the whole way until Horford tied the score on a free throw with 56 seconds left. Chicago closed out that final minute by hitting one of two free throws, turning the ball over and missing a couple threes. Atlanta worked their offense, going 2-for-2 and registering an assist on both buckets.
There’s been a lot of talk the last few days about how the Bulls might just be championship contenders. Not next year, or over the next couple years, but right now. Just ask ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. But as good as this team has been, as much as I’ve enjoyed watching them this season, I don’t think they’re ready to make that leap.
The reason? Inconsistent play on the road. They’re 15-14 outside of Chicago. They’ve lost to good teams (Atlanta, Boston, Denver, L.A., New York, Oklahoma City, Portland, San Antonio) and they’ve lost to bad teams (Charlotte, Golden State, New Jersey, Toronto).
In general, championship teams are win consistently on the road. The Bulls do not.
Last night’s game was the perfect example of the kind of game a contender should have won. The Hawks were without Josh Smith. Smith, based on Player Efficiency Rating, is Atlanta’s second-best player. To me, that meant: Advantage Bulls. And, like I said, they ran with that advantage for 24 well-played minutes.
But, again like I said, the game lasts 48 minutes.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau agrees: “We couldn’t get stops and we couldn’t score. Beat ourselves at the end. Fouls 94 feet from the basket. Turning the ball over. But the game was lost long before that. When we got the big lead I thought we got real loose at the end of the second quarter. It carried over to start the third. … You got to play 48 minutes. You don’t do that, you’re not winning in this league.”
Added Joakim Noah: “It’s a tough way to lose, but it just shows, you’ve got to play the game for 48 minutes. I take full responsibility for not coming out with the right juice in the beginning of the third. They kind of got whatever they wanted to start that third quarter. And I think we’ve just got to bounce back quick.”
It didn’t help — and, actually, it hurt quite a lot — that Chicago’s MVP was (as Charles Barkley would put it) turrible. Derrick Rose scored only 12 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He dished out a game-high 12 assists, but he went 0-for-6 from three-point range and committed a game-worst 6 turnovers. His shot was so off I’m betting plants would have withered and died at his touch.
Said Rose: “Missing shots that I normally hit, I think. I made some careless passes where they led to fast breaks. This game was definitely on me, but I think I’m definitely going to learn from it and get better for it.”
I sure hope so.
Actually, the Bulls have a lot to learn. If Horford used and abused them like that, what’s Dwight Howard going to do to the Bulls in Orlando on Friday night? Anybody else feel those cold chills or was it just me?
Rose continued: “We just have to learn from it. When we’re up like that, we just have to put people away. Our defense has to get tougher, and no turnovers. I made some dumb passes, some careless passes, but I guarantee it won’t happen again.”
That’s the kind of talk I like to hear…but is Derrick right about that? Jeff Fogle of Hoopdata writes that Rose has been slumping since the All-Star break (30-for-72 on two-pointers and only 6-for-29 on threes). Fogle suggest that the constant pressure of carrying a team as a small man in a big man’s game is wearing Rose down. Especially against playoff-caliber teams.
I don’t know whether that’s the case. It’s a five-game sample. But I will say this: I wasn’t happy that Derrick didn’t focus on getting to the line last night. He was 2-for-3 at the charity stripe, and one of those attempts came on a technical free throw. Rose earned a trip to the line only once (with 43 seconds left in the first half).
All players, even the great ones, have bad shooting games. Michael Jordan had plenty of them. But MJ, when he wasn’t hitting, put his head down and drove his body into the competition. Take the 1998 NBA Finals. Jordan’s shooting went to hell over the final three games of that series. But he went to the line 41 times. He earned 15 foul shots in Game 6 in Utah.
Superstars have to earn freebies in these situations. Tight game on the road against a lesser but still playoff-bound opponent? A grind-it-out affair?
Draw fouls, young man.
But hey, this loss isn’t all on Derrick. As a team, the Bulls missed eight free throws and gave up 18 points off 17 turnovers. And they lost by three points. If they could have avoided a mistake here or there, knock down a few more foul shots or hold on to a few more possessions, they would have been celebrating a big win instead of bumming out over a tough loss.
Redemption can come in Orlando.