Tom Thibodeau’s famous mantra — “More than enough to win” — turned out to be true last night. Only it was true of the Spurs instead of the Bulls.
San Antonio was without the services of Manu Ginobili (sore left hamstring), Tim Duncan (sprained left knee/sprained right ankle) and Tony Parker (swollen knee).
So the Spurs were on the road without their top three players — plus Stephen Jackson, who missed the game due to personal reasons — which should have more than balanced out the absences of Derrick Rose (left knee rehab) and Kirk Hinrich (sore right elbow). But it did not.
That’s how this season has gone. For every impressive win against a team like the Hawks, Heat, Knicks or Nets, there’s an equally depressing loss to the Bobcats, Hornets, Suns or Wizards.
And so, against the so-called “Spares,” the Bulls seemed to once again get caught playing down to the level of their competition. I mean, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker aren’t just three of the Spurs top players right now, they — along with David Robinson — are among the franchises top five players ever. With them out, it should have been advantage Bulls. Instead, it was just another in a series of mysterious losses that have been slowly piling up this season.
Nate Robinson was understandably mystified.
Said Robinson: “We didn’t make shots down the stretch and we couldn’t get stops for some reason. They have the best record in the NBA for a reason.”
Not making shots down the stretch is one thing, but the Spurs held a double-digit lead for long stretches of the game. That has nothing to do with clutch misses. And three of the reasons they have the best record in the league were wearing sports coats.
Maybe the Spurs simply caught the Bulls napping?
Said Taj Gibson: “I don’t think we took them for granted. I just think they came out and played harder than us.”
Played harder? That’s a little unthinkable given the Bulls owned an astronomical 49-26 edge in rebounding, including an equally cosmic 17-2 advantage on the offensive glass. Chicago outscored San Antonio 20-2 in second-chance points. So you can’t tell me the Bulls weren’t working hard.
Here are some of the problems as I see them.
The Spurs may not have played harder, but they certainly played smarter. To wit: The Bulls committed 19 turnovers to only 8 for the Spurs, and San Antonio finished with a 29-8 advantage in points off turnovers. Spotting your opponent that many bonus points off extra possessions makes it hard to win in the NBA.
Then there’s the issue of Chicago’s two All-Stars, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. They certainly did their job on the boards, considering they combined for 12 offensive rebounds and 26 rebounds overall. But they combined for only 18 points, including only 2 points in the final quarter, those coming off a 20-footer with 58 seconds left.
For the game, Deng was 4-for-13 and finished with more turnovers (3) than assists (1).
Look, I love Lu. He’s a character guy who gives 100 percent over long minutes night after night. He is a very good player. But sometimes it’s hard to see how somebody with a league average Player Efficiency Rating of 15.0 who is sixth on his own team in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes is an All-Star. Especially during games like these when the team needs a leader to step up and makes plays.
Deng is going through a mini-slump right now. In last week’s loss in Indiana, he scored 13 points on 4-for-18 shooting. Then he had only 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting in Denver. He was 6-for-14 in Utah and last night’s clunker has him shooting 18-for-58 (31 percent) over his last four games.
For the season, Deng is converting 42.5 percent of his field goals. That’s the second-worst mark of his career. His worst shooting percentage of 41.2 percent was compiled last season.
Thibodeau sees Deng’s problems as an issue of effort.
Said Thibs: “We have a lot of random possessions where guys don’t know what other guys are doing, leading to people being stuck with the ball, trying to make something out of nothing, going one-on-one. Then you have (four) guys staring at you and that leads to turnovers.”[Deng's] not getting any easy baskets right now. So part of that is the discipline to run the floor hard every time, to get five guys to do that. if you have two guys run hard and three are jogging, you’re not going to get easy baskets.”
That leads me to another of Chicago’s problems. The Bulls are currently ranked a dismal 18th in Offensive Efficiency. Their 100.8 points per 100 possessions is barely ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers (100.7) and Sacramento Kings (also 100.7).
I blame a lot of their offensive woes on a lack of three-point shooting.
Look, it’s no secret that three-point shooting is the key to proper floor spacing. It keeps the defense honest and opens up room for guys to drive to the hoop or get wide-open looks. The Oklahoma City Thunder lead the league in three-point percentage (.392) and also happen to lead the league in Offensive Efficiency (110.3). The Spurs are third in three-point percentage (.386) and fourth in Offensive Efficiency (107.5). The Miami Heat are fourth in three-point percentage (.386) and second in Offensive Efficiency (109.9). The New York Knicks are sixth in three-point percentage (.381) and third in Offensive Efficiency (108.9).
And sure, having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook helps the Thunder, just like having LeBron James and Dwayne Wade help the Heat, and so on.
Still, the Spurs were missing their big guns last night but still hit threes with a high rate of efficiency (8-for-16). That opened up space for Kawhi Leonard, who finished with a career-best 26 points on 11-for-18 shooting, and the Spurs scored at a rate of 117.3 points per 100 possessions (according to Basketball-Reference).
Five different Spurs players hit three-pointers last night. The Bulls — who went 2-for-12 from downtown — had only two players knock down threes: Nate Robinson (who was 1-for-5 from deep) and Marco Belinelli (1-for-3). Deng was 0-for-2, while Jimmy Butler and Rip Hamilton were both 0-for-1.
The Bulls currently rank 20th in three-point percentage (.348) and 29th in three-point attempts (704). Robinson shoots 40.6 percent on threes, but he’s streaky — Nate is as likely to go 3-for-4 as he is 1-for-5 — and many of his three-point attempts come off one-on-one moves that don’t really create opportunities for teammates.
After Robinson are Hinrich (38 percent), Belinelli (35 percent), Rip Hamilton (35 percent), Deng (31 percent) and Jimmy Butler (26 percent).
By contrast, the Spurs have several guys shooting 40 percent or better from beyond the arc, including James Anderson (45.5 percent), Matt Bonner (45.1 percent), Boris Diaw (43.9 percent), Danny Green (43.2 percent), Parker (40 percent) and Leonard (40 percent). Even Duncan is even hitting 40 percent of his threes this season (on only five attempts, but still).
All those three-point shooters create fantastic spacing for San Antonio’s offense. And the dearth of three-point shooters makes Chicago’s offense seem perpetually stuck in the mud.
Said Thibodeau: “This thing is going to be a fight. Our road is a tough one. If we are not committed to the grind, it’s not going to be good. … We can’t skip steps. If you skip steps that leads to shortcuts, that leads to losing basketball.”
That makes for a great quote, but the Bulls face an uphill battle every night. They have a great defense and a fundamentally flawed offense. The team has no three-point shooters and nobody other than Robinson who can create his own shot. They rely on execution and pinpoint passing, but when their ball-handling is off and/or their opponent has active hands — remember, the Bulls have poor spacing because they lack outside shooting — turnovers come in bunches.
So, in many ways, this game was a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the Bulls. Without Derrick Rose, there isn’t a single player who can consistently be counted on to step up and provide clutch scoring. Noah has never been much of an offensive player and Deng’s offense comes and goes. They can’t hit threes which creates bad spacing. And while they typically do a solid job of defending against threes — they rank first in three-point attempts against (814) and fifth in three-point percentage against (.342) — they will struggle if everybody on the opposing team can knock down triples, as was the case last night.
It’s the kind of loss that stings, not only because the Bulls lost at home to an undermanned team, but because it revealed so many fundamental flaws…some of which won’t be solved with the eventual return of Derrick Rose.