More than just a flesh wound

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.

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8 Responses to More than just a flesh wound

  1. john@illiniboard.com'
    Peter Clayton A. Smith January 26, 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    Now, since this Bulls final play has been frustrating me since it happened, I started to think about it again. OK, so we have a play designed where we have Deng and Noce in the corners, with Gordon at the left elbow and Noah at the right block. Great starting point, and then someone effed it up, but I am not sure who, though my guess is it was Noah, since, well, he doesn’t seem like the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to executing a basketball play.

    Gordon seems to be waiting for Noah to make a move to set a pick to pop him out to the wing, but nothing comes, so he then just makes the cut himself.

    Rose seems to be sitting at the top waiting for this pick to actually happen, but it never does, so he gets visibly frustrated and screams at Noah. Now Noah comes up and sets a horrific pick for Rose, and Rose drives to the right block.

    While this is happening, Noah rolls to the left block. He is covered.

    Gordon gets a pick from Noce and is open on the left corner.

    Noce is also open a bit on the left wing.

    Rose, now beyond frustrated just chucks up a shot instead of hitting Gordon in the corner. Noah and Deng now crash the boards and miss the tip in. The game goes to overtime.

    Now, I cannot be sure this is the play they were running, I am just assuming it was based on the movements of players and the frustrations of certain players when things didn’t go their way. So either (a) the players didn’t understand the play or (b) they just didn’t execute it. My guess is (b).

    Now as an aside, why would you have Luol Deng as a decoy in the right corner doing nothing, instead of having that be Ben Gordon, because the defender from Gordon would never have sagged into the lane to double Rose on his drive?

    I know the team is trying to learn to execute in game closing situations, but their inability to execute is just inexplicable. I know the excuse from the top would be they are all trying to learn to play with Rose, but he doesn’t seem to be the guy that is screwing up and not executing, so that cannot be it. Gordon was a late-game assassin in previous years and now he just seems to get frustrated by people that don’t execute correctly.

    So is it that Vinny doesn’t do a good job explaining what he wants done? Does he just draw random Xs and Os on the white board, that don’t actually tell people what to do? Or do the players (specifically the big men, Noce, Noah, and Thomas) just not get the basics of basketball, and thus cannot execute in end of game situations?

  2. lebron_in_07@yahoo.com'
    Nick F. (Buck Nasty) January 26, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Screw it, I’ll read about the Bulls just for the in depth overview of a struggling team. I also love how we’re using your name now.

    It seems pretty much pointless to say at this point, but the Bulls could really stand to move some of those shoot first guys they have. Gordon can go after that smaller contract they signed him to after he stupidly held out of the summer, but you have to couple a draft pick if you want to get a big man. I get T-Thomas out of there. Occasionally really good, and young, and explosive means you can probably get more than he’s going to end up being worth, not to mention the contract makes him almost no risk.

    I probably go to Sac town and try to get Brad Miller. No, I’m kidding, he’s old and mostly useless. I really couldn’t say where to go. I would’ve said three-team featuring Bogut, but his new contract is too rich. I’d say Clips, but they have no need for a shoot first guard and mostly useless T-Time. Any thoughts Bawful?

  3. Hillmatic@gmail.com'
    Hillmatic January 26, 2009 at 11:50 pm #

    While I keep telling myself expectations were not high coming into the season (I thought .500 and maybe a run at the 8th spot), I find myself increasingly disgusted by this ballclub. I at least expected to see some flashes of things to come and at least be entertained. Right now it’s like the Ron Mercer years all over again. Who knew Deng, Noch, Hinrich and Gordon peaked 2 years ago. No one on this roster has improved their game at all since..they may have even regressed. VDN sounds like a broken record night in and night out, the guy has no solutions, just his diagnosis of what’s happening, which we can all do. It’s sad that we have to put so much on D. Rose’s plate, and it looks like it may be starting to wear on him. Meanwhile we gave 70 million dollars to a guy with no leadership qualities, won’t play when he has an ouchee, and is as soft as a wet Twinkie. Where do we go from here? What are the answers? Who knows, but I’m ready to gut these guys from the top down except Rose and rebuild. Lottery here we come…,

  4. JR January 27, 2009 at 9:31 am #

    Not saying they haven’t regressed, but is it possible the league has also progressed immensely over the last few years? We tend to assume that the quality of the league is pretty constant year to year, and that it is the teams within it that fluctuate, but imo the league is going gangbusters atm. There isn’t a team in this league who I really consider a complete write off with no good players.

    Look at the wizards, did it really surprise anyone that much that they took it so close to the lakers a while ago? People have always said in the nba you have to play hard every night but that may be true this year more than many others.

    I just wonder if Deng and co are as good as they were, and as good as they will ever be, its just that their competition is stronger.

    Just as an example, looking at the rankings and toronto and indiana are down the bottom! Granted the circumstances have been tough for these teams but when these are the games that are the ‘Gimmes,’ what chance does a team or players have of gaining confidence? Best chance you have is beating one of the big four, but that is almost no chance at all.

    Looking back the top dogs in those years never scared or awed me as much as these guys. Celtics can be downright terrifying…

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