During Chicago’s ongoing post-All-Star break slump, I’ve repeatedly asserted that what this team needs most are more warm bodies. I figured the Bulls would return to their usual hard-nosed and competitive selves as soon as one or two players returned from injury.
Apparently, I misjudged the situation.
Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson were back. The Bulls were playing in the friendly confines of the United Center against a Portland team that began the night only 9-25 on the road. Between the iffy competition and the emotional lift of having actual depth, I really believed the Bulls could come out with one of their strongest efforts of the season.
Again, I misjudged the situation.
The team’s usual offensive woes were in full effect. Normally when a team scores 22 fast break points and 54 points in the paint, you would assume things went well, but they did not. The Bulls had to score 36 points on 15-for-23 shooting in the fourth quarter just to make the final numbers look not-completely-horrible. And that happened only because the Trail Blazers pulled back on the throttle. A so-so first quarter (21 points on 10-for-24 shooting) was followed by a miserable second (16 points on 7-for-17 shooting) and an embarrassing third (16 points on 7-for-25 shooting).
The Bulls look so bad on offense it’s often painful to watch. They did a decent job of getting to the rim, where they were 24-for-32 (according to Hoopdata). But from everywhere else? Ugh, ugh, and ugh again. Here’s the breakdown: 1-for-6 from 3-9 feet, 4-for-10 from 10-15 feet, 6-for-26 from 16-23 feet and 4-for-14 from three-point range.
This team cannot shoot jump shots. They just can’t. And other teams know this.
Meanwhile, the Blazers were shooting hot from the outside. They attempted only 12 shots at the rim and went 3-for-10 from 3-9 feet, but they were 14-for-30 from 16-23 feet and 10-for-21 from three-point range. And these numbers include their relaxed fourth quarter, during which they shot 7-for-21 and 1-for-5 on threes.
But by the fourth quarter, the game was essentially decided.
In case you’re wondering, the Blazers aren’t normally a strong three-point shooting team. They currently rank 22nd at 35.3 percent. But they were 9-for-16 through the first three quarters.
So yes, Portland was shooting hotter than usual, but it’s worth noting that the defense has something to say about how well an opposing offense shoots.
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “We have to be up on them more than we were. You give them space, they are going to score. We need to play better.”
Added Gibson: “Our defense was terrible,” Gibson said. “We couldn’t stop them. They were hot. The ball pressure wasn’t good enough. They were knocking down jump shots from every single part of the court.”
The obvious question: What’s wrong with the Bulls?
Replied Joakim Noah: “I don’t know.”
Carlos Boozer had a little more to say: “Every game is a grind right now. We’re so short-handed. Every game is a grind-out game. It felt great to have Taj back out there, Kirk back out there, and we’ll see if we can get some more guys back, but every game is a grind for us right now.”
For what it’s worth, here’s my take. The team itself — especially without Derrick Rose — is flawed. The Bulls don’t have enough high-percentage outside shooters to make opponents pay for sagging into the paint and double-teaming. They don’t have enough athletes or team speed to be a truly good transition team. They don’t have a superstar at the moment. Add in all the injuries, the long minutes (especially for Noah and Luol Deng), the emotional drama of Derrick Rose’s comeback, and the constant whip-cracking of a coach who will not (or cannot) accept less than 100 percent every night…
…and you have a team that seems a little out of it.
The Bulls are still trying. They’re working hard. Nobody has quit. Not even remotely. But — and I know I say this a lot — basketball is a game of split seconds. When a team is emotionally and physically fatigued, as the Bulls clearly are, they lose those split seconds. This effects every area of the game. Like maybe a player makes the right pass, but it may be a split second late or a few inches off. Maybe a defender rotates correctly, but just a split second too late to get in a shooter’s face. Things like that.
And don’t forget: This is a team that has been driving hard for the past three seasons, basically ever since Thibodeau picked up his Bulls-themed clipboard and whistle. And their have been significant injury problems during all three of those years. So three seasons of going all out every night, injuries, lots of PT for the main guys, the loss of Rose, the uncertainty of when Rose will be back, on and on.
Players are frustrated. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do, they’re playing hard, but nothing is working. Shots aren’t falling. Opponents are lighting them up.
Even more frustrating — for the Bulls and their fans — these problems may not be fixable this season. Even if and when Rose returns.
It’s a rough time in Bulls land. And nobody knows when things are going to get better.