With away games against the Suns, Rockets, Hornets and Mavericks looming darkly on the horizon like the creeping shadows of Mordor — yes, it’s a Tolkien reference, deal with it — this weekend’s two matchups were about as critical as they come. Friday’s game against the Raptors was the Bulls’ last at home until February 10th while Sunday’s battle with the Timberwolves was the first of a seven-game road trip that could officially flatline the season.
And they lost them both.
The Toronto game was actually closer than the final score (114-94) indicates — the Bulls pulled to within a point (91-90) when Luol Deng nailed a 21-footer with 6:22 left in the fourth quarter — but the end result was still a 20-point home loss that earned the team little love (and a lot of boos) from an increasingly cranky home crowd. Turnovers (23 for 27 points going the other way) and an inability to defend (the Raptors shot 56 percent) or finish (the Male Cows were outscored 23-4 down the stretch) were the lowlights of the loss.
As for the game in Minnesota, well, it was pretty important for the Bulls to start this trip off on the right hoof, especially against a Western Conference bottom feeder like the Timberwolves. (Although, to be fair, the Wolves have been surging lately.) But even though the Bulls limited their turnovers to 15 (giving up “only” 15 points to the Wolves in the process), the team still lost the Battle of the Paint to Al Jefferson (a season-high 39 points and 9 rebounds) and Kevin Love (19 points and a career-high 15 boards). Surrendering 15 offensive boards for 24 second-chance points didn’t help either.
And Jefferson’s 39 felt more like 60. Poor Joakim Noah had a double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds) plus a career-high 7 blocked shots but got used like a movie prop by Jefferson. Said Noah afterward: “I don’t even know what to say. I was playing as hard as I could and he just kept scoring the ball. He’s just a great offensive player and we just couldn’t slow him down tonight.” Yeah, that was a problem, all right.
The Bulls actually took a seven-point lead (95-88) off two Tyrus Thomas free throws with 3:54 left in regulation but — Shock Alert!! — couldn’t hold on. Here’s a summary of their next eight possessions to close out regulation: Missed jumper by Luol Deng; missed jumper by Ben Gordon; loose ball foul on Thomas; missed jumper by Thomas; missed jumper by Derrick Rose; offensive rebound/layup by Joakim Noah; missed driving layup by Rose; missed jumper by Rose. To recap: 1-for-6 and a turnover. And that’s the story of the season: The Bulls can’t get good shots in the end game.
I mean, they hit almost 58 percent of their field goals (34-for-59) through the first three quarters and had scored 82 points going into the fourth. That’s great! Then they eked out only 15 points on 5-for-19 shooting (26 percent) in the final period, including just two points in the last four-ish minutes. That’s not great. It’s enough to make me want to lobby Vinny to bring Big Shot Larry back off the bench. Because, seriously, as much as I detest him, when Kirk Hinrich is going 0-for-7, it might be worth taking a fresh look at…oh no. I’m calling for Larry Hughes to get back into some games for his clutch shooting. You know clutch situations have gotten bad when…
And Vinny Del Negro sure noticed the fourth quarter collapse, even if he couldn’t coach the Bulls out of it: “We didn’t convert down the stretch. In regulation and then a couple of plays on overtime, we just couldn’t get the ball in the basket.” If you try and tell me that quote — and the game in general — didn’t give you a sick feeling of déjà vu, you’re lying.
I’d say the bright side is that the team’s next two games are against the Clippers (10-32) and Kings (10-35), but at this point, Vinny and the boys can’t afford to take anything for granted. Particularly since they’re 5-17 on the road this season. And at this point, I’m not even sure what to suggest. Block out? Play better defense? Hit a few shots in the final five or six minutes of the game? It sounds so simple and easy. But for the Bulls, right now anyway, it feels impossible.