“It’s not disheartening. They beat us. You’re going to get beat sometimes by teams that are better than you, and they’re better than us. I can’t sit here and be like, ‘Well, they’re not better than us, I think we’re better.’ No, they’re better than us. They beat us. They smoked us once and then they beat us again today.”
Believe it or not, those words were not uttered by a member of the Chicago Bulls. That rather fatalistic statement came from the mind and mouth of Chris Bosh after his Toronto Raptors were thumped at home 111-89 by the Atlanta Hawks. But it just feels Bulls-like, doesn’t it? Which makes it kind of fitting that Bosh is one of the players on Chicago’s “Summer of 2010 Wish List.”
At any rate, Bosh certainly could have been speaking for the Bulls after what happened this weekend. It seems so obvious now, especially in light of Chicago’s 106-80 loss to the Celtics at the United Center on Saturday night: This is not the same Bulls team that pushed Boston to the brink in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Not even close.
Of course, it’s worth noting that the Celtics aren’t the same team, either. Kevin Garnett was conspicuously absent from that legendary near-upset. With a healthy KG in the lineup, Boston is a championship contender. Without him, they are not. Which goes a long way in explaining why the Bulls looked as good as they did against the Celtics once upon a time.
Don’t get me wrong. Chicago was downright plucky for the first two quarters. They were sharing the ball, playing spirited defense, and Brad Miller even thugged Rajon Rondo. (Sorry, Brad. I don’t care what you say, that shot was payback for the time he whacked you across the face in the playoffs. It’s okay, though. At least you showed some actual, honest-to-goodness fire. Bulls fans haven’t seen a lot of that this season.)
But all those good vibes gave way to the fact that, despite playing about as well as they could, Chicago was behind 54-46 at halftime. What happened in the third quarter felt downright inevitable. The Bulls — who have been losing by almost 27 PPG in the second game of back-to-backs this season — looked spent from the previous night’s overtime win against the Golden State Warriors and the first half’s rare show of emotion. The Celtics simply wore the home team down with their defense and superior execution. And the Bulls looked like a pale shadow of the team that looked so promising late last spring. And it made their prospects for playing late next spring look pretty grim.
Of course, when Chicago management let Ben Gordon — only the team’s leading scorer, one of the league’s best three-point shooters, and the only truly consistent player on the entire roster — bolt for Detroit without making a single attempt to keep him, it was a sign that they were planning for the future. Of course, it didn’t seem like they’d given up on the season at hand. After all, John Salmons had played pretty well all last season, and even more so after he arrived in Chicago via a before-the-deadline trade with the Sacramento Kings. The numbers said he could score about as well as Gordon. And with Luol Deng coming back from injury, and with Kirk Hinrich and free agent signee Jannero Pargo bolstering the backcourt depth, and with rookies James Johnson and Taj Gibson backing up an established and upcoming frontcourt of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas…
…I mean, the Bulls were still supposed to be pretty good, even without Gordon. Right?
But some things simply look better on paper than they do in practice. With the all-out effort they showed in the first half of the Boston game, the Bulls could probably beat teams like, say, the Toronto Raptors or New Jersey Nets. Only they didn’t show that kind of fire during back-to-back losses to those very two teams last week.
After losing to the Celtics, Noah said: “We got down on ourselves a little bit when they started hitting some shots. We’re getting down on each other a little bit. We have to stick together as a group and deal with adversity a little better. But we’re not even close to being as good as they are right now. When you see the way they run their offense, the way they run their defense and the weapons that they have, they’re a totally different team from last year.”
Just like the Bulls.
It has become quite clear how badly the loss of Gordon has affected Chicago’s offense. It’s not even Gordon’s 20 PPG the Bulls miss, per se. It’s the threat of him. I mentioned last week that NBA basketball is a game of split-seconds. Gordon provided everybody on the Bulls extra split seconds they can’t get on their own. When he was running around helter-skelter trying to get open, players on the opposing team knew it. Sometimes they only glanced, sometimes they were forced to turn their heads or jump out to show a little help. Gordon never racked up gaudy assist numbers, which led many people to conclude he didn’t create for his teammates. But, as it turns out, he did. Just not in a way that is measured by box scores.
Players aren’t turning their heads against these Bulls players. And the offense — which always relied a little too heavily on contested two-point jumpers — is even more reliant on two-point jumpers that are even more hotly contested. It’s no wonder the Bulls are one of the worst shooting teams in the league…and they showed that in depressing fashion against Boston, hitting season-low 32.6 percent (30-for-92) of their shots, including 1-for-9 from three-point range.
So what’s next for the Bulls? Besides an almost inevitable home beatdown by the Lakers on Tuesday night? I don’t know. But don’t expect a quick turnaround, even when Tyrus returns from injury, which could be soon. A midseason trade might bring the team back to life the same way it did last season. It might not. Maybe Chicago management can lure a big-time free agent into what has become a losing situation next summer. Dwyane Wade didn’t look too happy when his Heat got blown out at home by the Memphis Grizzlies this weekend. The Heat are now 6-7 when playing in Miami. Playing alongside Derrick Rose back in your hometown would be better than that, right, Dwyane?
Sorry. I’m just following the lead of Chicago’s front office. I’m thinking about the future.