Game Recap: Cavaliers 101, Bulls 98

Is this what Jackson Browne was thinking when he wrote Running on Empty?

Is this what Michael Ray Richardson meant when he infamously said: “The ship be sinking”?

Because the Bulls are in a serious funk. There’s no denying it anymore.

After going 12-4 in January — which no doubt helped in getting Joakim Noah and Luol Deng selected as reserves to the NBA All-Star Game — the Bulls are a dismal 4-8 in February and have lost seven of their last 10 games.

Before last night’s debacle, the Bulls had the old schedule excuse going their way. Sure, they had lost six of nine, but four of those losses had been on the road against the Pacers (36-21), Nuggets (36-22), Celtics (30-27) and Thunder (41-15), and the other two losses has been to the Spurs (45-13) and Heat (41-14).

According to the Basketball-Reference simple rating system, five of those losses came to five of the league’s top seven teams (Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami, Denver and Indiana). John Hollinger’s stats-based power rankings concur.

That’s a tough stretch by any team’s standards. So the losses — while humbling — were at least understandable.

Last night’s flame-out against the Cavaliers? Not so much.

Cleveland is a lower-tier team at the best of times. In this case, the Cavs were missing their top two players in Kyrie Irving (sore right knee) and Anderson Varejao (out for the season due to right knee surgery and a blood clot on his right lung). For what it’s worth, they were also missing reserves Daniel Gibson (personal reasons) and Omri Casspi (out indefinitely after an appendectomy).

So all things being equal, that should have more than balanced out the absence of Taj Gibson (sprained left knee) and the continuing absence of Derrick Rose (left knee surgery), right?

But all things are not equal. And the Bulls lost at home to a lousy team.

Despite the return of Kirk Hinrich (11 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds).

Despite the fact that Carlos Boozer (27 points on 13-for-20 shooting) and Deng (26 points, 9-for-16, 7 rebounds, 5 assitsts, 2 steals) pulled out of their respective slumps.

Despite a solid (if sluggish and unspectacular) all-around game from Noah (9 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, 1 steal).

Despite the fact that the Bulls somewhat righted their recent offensive woes by scoring at a rate of 115.7 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference).

What when wrong, you ask? Defense. Or the lack thereof.

Cleveland — a team that is strictly middle-of-the-pack in terms of Offensive Efficiency even with Irving — scored at a rate of 119.3 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference again).

Given that Gibson was missing in action, it’s not surprising that the Cavs converted 14 of their 20 shot attempts at the rim and scored 40 points in the paint. What is a little shocking was that the Cavaliers shot 11-for-20 (55 percent) from 16-23 feet. Mind you, this is a team that normally converts only 38.2 percent of their field goal attempts from that particular zone (per Hoopdata). Luke Walton hit one of those long twos…a 20-footer with 1:21 left that pushed Cleveland’s lead to 97-92. That was a dagger. Possibly a fatal one.

Still, true to form, Cleveland left the Bulls an opening. In this case, Chicago was down only two points (98-96) after Dion Waiters whiffed on a three-pointer from 27 feet out. Tom Thibodeau called a 20-second timeout — the team’s last — and in theory drew up some sort of score-tying or game-winning play. What happened in reality looked like something out of the Vinny Del Negro playbook: Deng took a contested 20-foot jumper with a full 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

All I could think afterward was, “Is that really the best shot the Bulls could have gotten?”

After that, Deng was forced to foul Shaun Livingston, who knocked down both freebies to put the Cavs up 100-96 with 15.8 seconds left. Adding insult to injury, Boozer bungled the inbound pass, giving the ball back to Cleveland. One free throw by Waiters and a meaningless layup by Noah later, the game was over. All that was left now were the questions.

Like why the Bulls failed to contain Waiters, who scored 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting. Waiters hit three layups. He went 4-for-4 from 16-23 feet. He hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the third quarter. The Bulls apparently needed a GPS to track this guy, because they couldn’t find him all night.

No offense to Waiters, but we’re talking about somebody who averages 14 points on 40 percent shooting. What was he doing lighting up the league’s fourth-best defense?

Then there was Shaun Livingston, who’s averaging 5.2 points this season, blitzing the Bulls for 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting. Two months ago, Livingston was out of the league. Seriously. The Cavaliers picked him up off waivers on Christmas day. And he showed absolutely no fear against what was once considered a fearsome defense. When he got the ball, he was looking to shoot, especially against Nate Robinson.

In addition to the defensive lapses, I was also disturbed by the lackadaisical rebounding. Cleveland out-boarded the Bulls 39-34 and had a 13-10 advantage in offensive rebounds. That, in turn, led to a 22-18 edge in second-chance points. Add in the troubling facts that Chicago turned the ball over more often (15 turnovers to 12) and gave up more points off turnovers (18 to 14), you can see that the Cavs outperformed the Bulls in pretty much every category.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau? Not happy.

Said Thibs: “Until we get the level of intensity up and play with high energy on both ends of the floor, play for 48 minutes, the results are not going to be good. You get what you deserve in this league and we’re getting what we deserve right now, so until we change that we’re going to have problems.”

I get what Thibodeau is saying. I do.

But I also wonder how much blood he can continue to squeeze out of this turnip of a season. Derrick Rose hasn’t played a single game and may not return until next season. It feels like Hinrich has been a game-day decision most of the year. Deng continues to lead the league in minutes per game (39.0), and his shooting (a near career-worst 42.8 percent) makes you wonder whether those torn wrist ligaments ever healed properly. Noah is eighth in minutes per game (38.3) despite an ongoing case of plantar faciitis, and last night’s stuck-in-the-mud performance sure made it look like he’s both tired and hurting.

As for the bench, Jimmy Butler (6 points, 1-for-3, 3 rebounds) had regressed to the mean, Nate Robinson (5 points, 2-for-6, 2 assists) looked like a minimum contract player, and can we all just agree once and for all that Marco Belinelli (3-for-10) is no Kyle Korver?

And don’t even get me started on Nazr Mohammed.

The Bulls genuinely looked like they were running on empty last night. And, per usual, Thibodeau doesn’t want to hear any of it.

Said Thibs: “We are not the only team that has played this much time. Every team in the league has. This is what separates the teams in the league. The teams that can get it done when they are not feeling their best and still be committed in doing the job and getting it done, those are the teams that have success.”

Thibodeau’s players are toeing the company line.

Said Noah: “We got to find a way. We got to find a way. We got to play with more urgency and play together. I think it’s disappointing right now. We’ve been in a long stretch where we haven’t been playing great basketball and we just got to find a way.”

Added Hinrich: “We just got to get back right. We haven’t been playing up to our standards. We just got to get back to that — sooner than later. This time of year teams are jockeying for playoff position and just trying to finish strong. No excuses. We just got to keep grinding and play better.”

It all sounds great. It’s what they’re supposed to say and it’s what fans want to hear.

But the reality seems to be less optimistic. The Bulls are hurting. They’re tired. They’re without their superstar. They’re going through a brutal stretch of games.

And if you look at their upcoming schedule, don’t be surprised if things get worse before they get better.

Recap, Box Score, Advanced Box Score, Play-by-Play, Shot Chart.

One Response to Game Recap: Cavaliers 101, Bulls 98

    Jason February 27, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Nice summary and analytics here. Some of the best I’ve seen on the web on any blog site.

    Still, I know losing to the Cavs w/out Kyrie and Varejao isn’t wonderful, but in case you failed to notice, and from your comments, you have, the Cavs have been pretty good lately.

    The bench has been seriously upgraded with Livingston pickup and getting Ellington and Speights (and a future first) form Memphis. The Cavs are a respectable 12-13 in 2013, which coincides with Livingston’s playing tenure in Cleveland. Moreover, since the Speights/Ellington acquisition, the Cavs are 8-6 and have blown late leads to Miami and San Antonio.

    The Livingston/Ellington/Miles/Walton/Speights bench brigade has been, I believe, the 3rd most productive in the NBA during it’s brief existance. The Cavs are now winning the TO battle almost nightly (something like 27 out of the last 32 games with equal or fewer turnovers). And while the offensive efficiency was putrid early, it’d been pretty darn good lately, and assists (led by Walton/Livingston) are also way up. Thompson and Waiter are decidedly better than early in the year.

    We’ve been a .500 team for two months now.

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