The Bulls are now 2-6 in their last eight games after a deflated, uninspired, pathetic, disgusting (you get the picture) loss to LeBron’s Cavs. They had just gotten some momentum going, winning 13 of 15 games, then followed it up with this stretch of disappointing losses. Joakim Noah is injured, along with Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott, Pau Gasol seems to be getting owned on the defensive end; the entire Bulls defense is like swiss cheese, and they’re not pulling in rebounds like they normally do. Is it time to panic? No, at least not yet. But it’s hard to watch – the All-Star break can’t come soon enough.
Here’s what has not happened in this last eight game stretch (and some even before that) and what needs to start happening…
– Energy and intensity. The Bulls are expecting wins to come to them, and they’re not coming. This is a professional league – teams aren’t just going to roll over because you’re the favorite. In fact, some of these teams get more pumped up to play the Bulls because of the reputation and the challenge. Unfortunately, having this much talent comes with a price: You have to be on top of your mental game every single time. The Bulls have this nasty habit of getting down early in the game and having to dig themselves out of a hole. They have to start the games better.
– This carries over to defense and rebounding. The Bulls got out-rebounded 54-40, and this seems to be a recurring theme. They’re also allowing 102.4 points per 100 possessions, 12th in the league (prior to last night). This is uncharacteristic of a Thibs team, who are always in the top four defenses. It’s not the schemes – Thibs is a defensive mastermind. Defense often comes down to effort, communication, and focus. You lose focus, you lose your man. You don’t communicate with your teammate, the guy gets an open look or a cut to the basket. You don’t put in the effort, and baskets come too easily, and to compound it, you’re often out of position for rebounding. The Bulls have been lacking the mental fortitude, presumably and reportedly because offense is coming so easily. They need to step up the intensity on the defensive end. Plain and simple.
– Pau, Taj, and Niko need to play big minutes to make up for Noah’s absence. Even an injured Jo is better than no Jo at all. He brings the fire, and without even a hobbling Noah, the Bulls seem to lack motivation. Time to dig deep for these three; Pau did have a 40-point game against the Bucks, but it was a game the Bulls barely won. Niko has had a couple of big threes in late game situations, but overall he has struggled with his shot. Taj tends to go to work once he gets position in the post, but fails to recognize when help is coming and he gets double teamed. He’s no longer the best kept secret in the NBA – teams are planning for him – he will need to start having better recognition and work inside-out when help comes.
– The offense has been stagnant. The ball isn’t “hopping,” the Bulls are getting sucked into too many isolation plays, and they’re settling for jumpers and contested shots instead of working the ball inside out. The high screen and rolls have been effective with Pau (Rose and Gasol connected five times on this play against the Hawks), but they tend to fall in love with the PNR. The Bulls need to utilize all of their offensive weapons instead of settling for the two-man game. Guys don’t need a ton of shots, but they do need touches. The Bulls were great at this earlier in the season, but they’ve gotten complacent lately. Watch the Spurs (or, dare I say it, the Hawks) play a game and you’ll see what ball movement is supposed to look like.
Here’s the good news:
– Derrick Rose looks great. His shooting has been hit or miss, but he’s had a couple of 30-point games, has been penetrating, finishing and-one’s, and he was close to a triple double against Atlanta. Health is no longer a concern, and that’s incredibly important. His confidence is peaking, and the team is better when Rose is playing well, and he’ll only get better. Side note: I love it when Rose shoots those half-courters at the buzzer. He doesn’t care about stats, he cares about winning. He was quoted recently after the near triple-double game saying he doesn’t care if he scores 0 points and has 20 turnovers as long as the Bulls win. There you go, Derrick.
– Aaron Brooks is still producing, shooting lights out from 3-point distance, with range that knows no bounds.
– Noah and Dunleavy will be coming back soon. Dunleavy’s presence is underrated. He’s a lengthy forward, a savvy veteran, and affects the game in more ways than just 3-point shots. Perhaps most importantly, his shooting opens the floor for the other players to get to work. He takes up space on the defensive end and has a good all-around game. I never thought I would say it, but it’ll be great when he’s back. Same goes for the defending DPOY, Joakim Noah.
– As fans, we haven’t even seen what this team looks like when McDermott plays well. It’ll be exciting to have a new face in there, even if he does make some rookie mistakes when he comes back.
– The Bulls may have four All-Stars – Rose, Gasol, Noah, Butler. And the All-Star break is almost here, which the Bulls need. Pau and Jimmy are the only two likely to get the nod.
– E’Twaun Moore and Tony Snell have both given solid minutes (except for Snell’s pass to David Blatt tonight. Blatt is the Cavs head coach. He was on the sidelines. Out of bounds. Tony, welcome to SportsCenter’s “Not Top 10”). I think I would prefer to see E’Twaun or Snell over Hinrich at this point. Kirk is just getting older and slower and more useless with every game that passes.
Bottom line, the Bulls need to fix this, and quickly, before their confidence gets too low, and losing becomes a habit. They’ve got all the tools they need, they just need to put it back together.