So we all know already that the Bulls’ next two games — against the beatable (read that: terrible) Clippers (10-34) and Kings (10-36) — are the team’s best (read that: only) chances to avoid returning home on February 10th (versus the Pistons) with an 11-game losing streak and a mob of angry fans rioting outside the United Center with torches and pitchforks. And since there’s no tomorrow in the NBA, that makes tonight’s matchup with the Clippers pretty much a must-win in my book. (Of course, I also rated the Toronto and Minnesota games as must-wins, so what do I know?)
Now, in the case of the Clippers, the Bulls have a very special (in that “short bus” kind of way) advantage: The “other” L.A. team currently resembles a really talented D-League squad. They’ve been playing without Zach Randolph (knee), Marcus Camby (ankle), Baron Davis (tailbone) and Chris Kaman (foot) for so long that I’d probably forget they were even on the team if Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy didn’t bemoan their absence after every loss. But, seeing as how they are indeed missing their four best players, it’s no surprise that — as of Monday night’s blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers — the Clips have dropped 16 of their last 18 games.
And we thought we had it rough in Chicago.
Still, bad teams (like our Bullies) can’t afford to get overconfident, even when they’re going up against a team that will probably trot out a starting lineup of Brian Skinner (an NBA journeyman in every sense of the word), DeAndre Jordan (3.5 PPG and 20 DNP-CDs this season), Fred Jones (whom the Clippers recently waived and then re-signed to a 10-day contract) and rookie Eric Gordon (who, last time I checked, is still a rookie). I guess what I’m saying is: This is both an opportunity to get a very important win and a chance to right some wrongs. So here’s a wish list of the things I’d like to see the Bulls do against the Clippers…in addition to pulling out a much-needed victory.
1. Play some freaking defense: I don’t care whether you’re looking at points allowed or more advanced stats like defensive efficiency, the Bulls are bad at preventing the other guys from putting scoring the basketball. They can’t get critical stops down the stretch and they’re in constant danger of surrendering season-highs and career nights to virtually anybody. (Just ask Zaza Pachulia.) We keep getting lip service from the coaching staff and players about getting things together on defense. Well, guys, you aren’t going to get many chances to shut down the likes of Brian Skinner and Steve Novak over the last half of he season. Make the most of it.
But those aren’t the Clippers I’m concerned about. Al Thornton dropped 20 in Chicago last December, and our interior defense hasn’t exactly improved since then. And Eric Gordon — who got victimized by Ben Gordon’s four-point play when the teams faced off earlier this season and might be seeking redemption — had a career-high 41 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week. Those are the two players the Vinny’s D needs to key on. Otherwise, they’ll kill us. I’m sure of it. If double-teams must be used, so be it, but I hope they’re fast an aggressive. You know, everything our double-downs were NOT against Al Jefferson the other night.
Update! Apparently, Baron Davis will return to the Clippers lineup tonight. And, uh, yeah…he dropped a career-high-tying 40 points on the Bulls last season. Sure it’s his first game back, but as Mickael Pietrus showed the Pacers last night: Beware of the returning player. Plus, I’m sure B-Diddy’s comeback will give the home team a boost. That’s just…wonderful.
2. Try something different: Last weekend, while making some noise about possibly modifying the starting lineup, Del Negro said: “The guys who are going to play hard and buy into the system, you put them out there. Sometimes that means maybe some of your better players aren’t going to play as much. That doesn’t help your chances of winning games. More important for us is building the right culture and finding the guys who want to work. And then we’ll make adjustments from there with personnel. We’ll just keep working.”
Now, see, a lot of people have wondered out loud and in print what Vinny said to John Paxson during his interview to land the Bulls’ head coaching job. And I’m sure that, in addition to something like “I’m holding your vintage Optimus Prime action figure hostage,” it was something (or some things) along those same lines: That he was going to implement a total culture makeover.
People like to hear that kind of corporate double-speak. And the Bulls really did need to do change their ways, because last season’s team ethos sucked. But if all those mopey faces, the continuing antics of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, and last week’s coach-versus-player spat between Vinny and Ben Gordon are any indication, things are no less windy in the Windy City. And Del Negro’s desire to reward hard workers who “buy into the system” probably explains why Aaron Gray (2 points, 2 rebounds, 4 fouls) and not Joakim Noah (14 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocked shots) was in at the end of that overtime loss in Minnesota. Hey, Vinny said up front that his method didn’t help the chances of winning games…so he got that right at least.
Now Del Negro is backing away from mucking with the starting lineup that has done so very well. “‘I’m not going to consider that right now. ‘I’m just going to see how the road trip goes and move forward from there.” Ooookay. Fine. Whatever. But even if he leaves the starting five intact, I’d love to see him make some quick substitutions, and here’s the lineup I’d like to see log some serious playing time: Derrick Rose, Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Andres Nocioni and Noah. I’m being completely serious.
I think the Bulls should go small. Swarm the ball on defense (hopefully causing turnovers) and run at the other guys on offense. Because, trust me, Chicago’s transition game is (at this point) far better than their halfcourt sets. Rose, Gordon and Hinrich provide a nice mix of shooting, playmaking and penetration. And if we’re going to get abused inside anyway, why not let Noc and Noah man the frountcourt? Their numbers might be up and down, but they’re tough, gritty, and know how to pound people. Vinny can use Thomas and Luol Deng in relief.
Now, I say all this knowing that it will never happen. But a blogger can dream a little dream, right?
Update! Even though Tyrus is, physically speaking, a better fit than Noah for a small-ball lineup, I would still choose Joakim because he’s a better rebounder, just as good at blocking shots (on a per-minute basis) and isn’t as reluctant to make physical contact with his opponents. Plus, he knows his limitations. So, unlike Tyrus, he doesn’t jack up a bunch of outside shots he has no place taking.
3. Fourth quarter execution: I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight. It might be another nail-biter. It might be a laugher, with the Bulls either up or down by double-digits. Whatever the case, the team needs to prove (more to themselves than anyone else) that they can get good shots and — more importantly — hit those shots during the last six minutes of the game. It’s always the latter half of the fourth quarter when the offense stalls out. And that kind of bad mojo can hold a team down until they break the spell.
Like I said, even if the Bulls are down 20 points with a few minutes left, they should leave their money players in the game and have them try to make a run. Momentum is a funny thing, and even momentum gained at the end of a blowout loss can carry over to the next game. Instead of settling for long jumpers with somebody right up in their face, how about getting some action going toward the hoop. Or at the very least, something other than a wild drive by Rose or a 27-foot fadeaway by Gordon.