I think we can all agree on one thing: This was bound to happen.
The Bulls keep playing on without Derrick Rose (groin) and The Ghost of Rip Hamilton (shoulder). Somehow, despite these conspicuous absences and that torn ligament in Luol Deng’s left wrist, they’ve forged the NBA’s best record (40-11). And, thanks to Miami’s back-to-back losses to the Thunder and Pacers, there’s still a little cushion in their Eastern Conference lead.
But those back-to-back come-from-behind wins over the Raptors — which came courtesy of a crazy 20-0 run in one game and a lucky buzzer beater in the other — somewhat camouflaged the fact that the Bulls have been playing poorly.
As Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau likes to point out, playing poorly almost always comes back to bite a team in the butt. And there are some nasty teeth marks in the Bulls’ collective behind today.
Denver’s defense dominated this game in a variety of ways. For starters, the Nuggets forced 16 turnovers, which robbed the Bulls of precious possessions and ignited Denver’s transition game. To wit: The Nuggets finished with 23 fast break points…usually with hapless Bulls players in distant pursuit.
The Bulls lead the league in rebounds per game and rebounding differential. That didn’t matter last night as the Nuggets won the battle of the boards 45-32, which included a 14-5 edge on the offensive glass. Denver point guard Ty Lawson — who blistered the Bulls with a game-high 27 points — finished with more offensive rebunds (2) than Chicago’s entire starting lineup (1).
Denver also forced the Bulls into a steady diet of outside shots. The Bulls attempted only 28 shots from 15 feet and in while launching 42 shots from 16 feet and beyond.
Contrast that with the aggressiveness of the Nuggets: They took 54 shots from 15 feet and in while hoisting 34 shots from 16 feet and beyond. Basically, the reverse ratio of what Chicago did.
And here’s the kicker: The Bulls attempted 20 shots at the rim. The Nuggets attempted 37. And although the teams had similar conversion rates — Denver completed 56 percent of their at-the-rim shots to 50 percent for the Bulls — those 17 extra attempts around the hoop combined with their domination of the boards is proof positive that the Nuggets completely outworked the Bulls all night long.
Said Joakim Noah: “We just laid an egg. We didn’t play good basketball tonight … both ends of the court.”
In possibly related news, Noah finished with fewer rebounds (5) than Lawson (9). Who, I will point out again, is a point guard. And Jo barely outrebounded Denver’s backup point guard Andre Miller (4).
Added Kyle Korver: “We didn’t have it tonight.”
Korver continued: “Not making excuses. We’ve shown that whomever we put out there can win. But it all starts with playing hard. We just didn’t have our edge tonight.”
I wonder if that loss of an edge — which has been missing for at least three games now, maybe more — wasn’t somewhat inevitable. The Bulls have been forced to play consistently shorthanded all season. Constantly picking up slack for teammates who were either playing hurt or hurt and not playing. Like Korver said, no excuses, but realistically, that takes a toll in the long run. You can only go to the well so many times before the water starts to run out.
The Bulls have been making up for missing personnel with desire and intensity. But how long can a team go all-out every night without wearing down a little? The Bulls haven’t been sharp for a handful of games now. They’re a step slow when closing out on open shooters and chasing opponents in transition. They’re either missing rebounds or having them taken away. And they aren’t taking care of the basketball.
Said Luol Deng: “We got to focus better throughout the whole game. I think things weren’t going our way and we kind of just allowed it to happen, that’s not what we do. We just got to get back. There’s nights when you’re not going to shoot well, but every night we’ve got to play hard. I thought tonight they played harder than us. They were more focused throughout the game and that’s what we do. We can’t allow that.”
When a team isn’t playing well, they usually turn to their best players. Deng is an All-Star, but last night he played more like an All-Nobody, finishing with 9 points on 3-for-9 shooting to go with 3 boards, zero assists and 4 turnovers.
C.J. Watson compiled some decent stats filling in for Rose — 17 points and 8 assists — but the Bulls were outscored by 28 points during his 34 minutes.
The Bulls got a combined 28 points from Korver and John Lucas III — Kyle was 4-for-4 on threes while Lucas was 4-for-7 — but the Bench Mob never really unleashed that killer defense the team is used to.
Like Korver said, the Bulls simply didn’t have it last night.
The Bulls are 12-5 without Rose this season, including 5-2 during his current seven-game sabbatical. But they need him back. Rip too. And soon. There are only 15 games left in the regular season. This team needs a lift.