Bulls won't accept losing

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Bulls won't accept losing

HOUSTONBecause theyve never experienced it before, you knew it was genuine. The frustration and bewilderment on the faces of Joakim Noah and Luol Deng -- two players who hadnt been through the phenomenon of losing three straight games under Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau -- was real.

Noah and Deng, along with a then-rookie Taj Gibson, are the active holdovers the sidelined Derrick Rose was also present, as was Kirk Hinrich, toward the end of his original stint with the Bulls from the last time the team had a streak like this. In fact, that unfortunate occurrence eventually reached 10 consecutive defeats in current Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negros final season. But that was a different time, before the Bulls regained their status as one of the leagues upper-echelon squads.

Now, following two campaigns in which the Bulls recorded league-best regular-seasons marks, it was expected that they wouldnt be as dominant without Rose in the lineup, but while some rough stretches, ugly games and various getting-to-know-you struggles were expected, nobody thought the team would be this lost, this early.

Its a lot of things we need to do. Weve got to put a whole 48 minutes together. Just got to stay mentally strong. Got to get a win and get it rolling again. Just got to stick with it, stick with what we do. Its tough right now losing. You dont want to lose, but weve got to keep working and stick with it, and try to get a win, Deng said in the aftermath of the Bulls 93-89 loss to the Rockets, themselves losers of three straight prior to Wednesday evening.

Added Noah: Weve got to do better. Weve just got to do better. Losing three in a row is unacceptable. Were better than that.

Thibodeau himself, a steadfast proponent of consistency from his principled philosophy to his rotation, which he altered a bit Wednesday, perhaps hoping to stave off his first three-game skid as a head coach indicated that change might be the answer. The coach shortened his rotation in Houston, his old stomping grounds as a Rockets assistant, and inserted second-year swingman Jimmy Butler into the contest earlier than usual, ahead of backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli, resulting in giving Deng, the NBAs minutes-per-game leader, an earlier break than usual.

Thibodeau went with Butler, who shifted over to shooting guard, down the stretch, along with opting for Taj Gibson in place of Carlos Boozer, something observers have grown used to over time, as well as completely taking reserve center Nazr Mohammed out of the mix and playing instant-offense sub Nate Robinson for extended minutes over starter Kirk Hinrich. Afterwards, he hinted at the possibility of more lineup changes.

Well see, he said. I mean, right now, Im looking at a lot of things.

When informed about Thibodeau considering shaking up the rotation, Noah said, Those arent things that I can control as a player, but to me, I dont think changing the lineup is going to make a difference. Weve got to execute better down the stretch. Thats what it comes down to. Thats what I think.

Chimed in Deng: When youre losing, you see a lot of things. Sometimes you win and those things are there. Whatever decisions the coaching staff makes, as players, when youre losing, you cant really question that. If were winning and we make changes, then youve got the right to question it, but if were not getting the job done, whatever changes are made, youve just got to wait and see what the result is. But the coaching staff, they spend hours and hours trying to figure it out. Our job is to get the work in, work as hard as we can and try to execute the game plan and right now, weve got to get better at that.

Whether or not Thibodeau makes a change to the Bulls starting lineup, the Bulls still have issues to address, such as outside shooting, ball security and most glaring as of late, fourth-quarter execution. Even without Rose, the Bulls have been a team that mostly executes precisely, on both ends of the floor, in the clutch, something thats been lacking from this seasons newcomer-filled team.

Weve got to execute better in the fourth quarter. These games are close, man, and were not executing in the fourth quarter. Weve got to play better, together. Were not playing great together right now, Noah said. I think weve just got to trust each other a little bit more on the court. Weve just got to play together a little bit more and execute. Were a team thats always been great at executing down the stretch and were not in the right positions, and its frustrating.

Added Deng: We could do a lot better. Ive got to watch the tape again. We will as a team. We know we didnt execute well enough. We know weve got to do a better job of that. Weve got to make smarter plays, whether its turning the ball over or fouling for no reason, and getting stops, finishing the plays. Weve just got to do a better job.

In the last two losses, narrow defeats to Portland and Houston the first loss of the negative streak, to the Clippers, was the only game in which they didnt have a chance down the stretch the Bulls struggled with decision-making and made crucial, often unforced errors at the worst possible moments. The catalyst of late comebacks in both of those games was Robinson and although his occasionally wild tendencies can cause consternation, nobody can doubt his determination, unbridled enthusiasm and desire to win because even if it manifests itself in a turnover here or rushed shot there, hes also the only player on the roster with the ability to truly create.

Whatever it is we need to do, we need to do it. I cant pinpoint one thing. weve just got to play hard and play through adversity, play through frustration and play basketball, man. I think at times, we want to win so bad and do good for each other, and its just not going our way right now. Weve just got to play through it, a dejected Robinson, whose play Thibodeau described as some good, some bad, said. Weve just been beating ourselves, pretty much. Its like other teams are finding ways to win and were just finding ways to lose, so weve got to go back to the drawing board and get this next one.

Just thinking too much. I think weve got to go out and just play, man. Whatever happens, happens. Were just thinking too much, trying to make the right play, let it happen. Each guy is pulling for each other, I think a little bit too much, that everybodys just trying to do the right thing instead of just playing basketball and let whatever happens, happen.

Rip Hamilton, who didnt take part in any of the late-game festivities against the Trail Blazers or Rockets, supposedly due Thibodeaus policy of units that function well together and have the team playing well being given the chance to finish games, expressed a similar sentiment to a man, including Thibodeau, theyre all pretty much saying the same thing, if in different words, right? about the Bulls late-game problems.

Weve just got to be better in the fourth, know time and possession. Weve got to keep the floor spaced, weve got to know who we want to get the ball to. We need to defend. The fourth quarters totally different than the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter. Its really time to knuckle down, so every possession counts and we dont do a good job of valuing every possession at the end of the game, Hamilton said. Weve just got to play a little smarter. We have opportunities and its kind of like the same old story the last couple games, so I just think weve got to be smarter. Weve just got to keep the guys heads up and hopefully, stuff will change and well get a win.

Then, theres their vaunted defense, which hasnt been up to snuff lately. Keeping the Rockets, a team capable of putting up triple digits, under 100 points the first time theyve done so in seemingly forever; actually, they did end one streak Wednesday, as their previous four opponents each scored over 100 points against them was a start, but defensively, theyre still a far cry from the feared unit that was able to win games even when they struggled offensively.

Ive been here with Tom, with the system we have, for the last three years. As a player, you never worry about how you shoot, as long as youre getting your work in and youre taking shots within your game. That comes and goes. The one thing is stopping teams to win. Thats how we win. Weve never been a team that tries to out-shoot teams. We cant get into that. Thats not our style, thats not what we practice, Deng explained. We do a lot of good things and then we have a period of time where teams are making their run. Weve just got to get back to what we do and finish games. All five players have got to be on the same page on the floor. Its tough. The way our defense is, weve all got to be on the same page.

Concurred Thibodeau: Houston is a tough team to guard and at times, I thought we were pretty good and I thought we forced them into some turnovers. We couldnt get some key stops late, so thats something we have to correctI thought we did some good things for most of the game and then, our defensive discipline got us at the end of the game.

Noah more bluntly stated: The defense is not what it used to be. Its not what it was last year, thats for sure.

At the same time, its important to keep everything in perspective. Maybe the annual Circus Trip wasnt a success, but even in the heyday of the Michael Jordan era, its historically been a difficult proposition for the Bulls to get through that portion of the schedule relatively unscathed.

Thus, just because the Tom Thibodeau era has seen different results in its first two seasons, that doesnt mean it will be the norm, nor does the teams first sub-.500 record since immediately after the first game of the 2010-11 campaign a loss at Oklahoma City, for those who dont remember the days when Thibodeau couldnt instantly turn water into wine mean that this will be an ultimately unsuccessful season. The previous two years have spoiled people, from the media to fans and observers around the NBA, but even with the lowered expectations borne from Roses injury, the teams strategic expertise, nucleus of players and intestinal fortitude is not something to be taken lightly just yet.

I dont think its time to panic yet. Weve got a lot of guys that want to win. We dont have any guys in this locker room that are dogging it or are okay with losing. Its tough, especially because weve been winning the last two years, so this is something were not used to, Deng concluded, head held high as he finished addressing the media. The best way is to just go out and work as hard as you can. Whatever you want to call it, a slump or whatever, youre not going to get out of it just talking. Guys understand that we need to do better.

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Corey Crawford will start but Marcus Kruger won't play yet when the Blackhawks host the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.

Scott Darling is coming off a 30-stop shutout in the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory over Boston on Friday night. Coach Joel Quenneville said there was some consideration given to start Darling in this one, too, but, "at the same time we want Crow playing as much as he can to get back to the great pace he had prior to being away."

"He hasn't been bad. But certainly that's what we're looking for him to get back to," Quenneville said on Crawford. "I like giving Darls some consideration. We'll see but [Darling] certainly enhanced his positioning."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Meanwhile, Marcus Kruger skated with the Blackhawks for the first time since hurting his hand against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 30. He took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice but was not among the line rushes. Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is for either Tuesday or Thursday but, "knowing we have that [All-Star] break, we'll see how he feels and what our options are."

Kruger said he felt, "pretty close."

"I tried to take it day by day and prepare to play," Kruger said. "Obviously not tonight, but the next game we will see." 

BLACKHAWKS VS. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
6:30 p.m.
TV: WGN
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Chicago Blackhawks
Forward lines

Ryan Hartman-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Vinnie Hinostroza-Tanner Kero-Marian Hossa
Andrew Desjardins-Dennis Rasmussen-Nick Schmaltz

Defensive pairs
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Michal Kempny-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Goaltender
Corey Crawford

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Marcus Kruger (right arm).

Vancouver Canucks (via Canucks)
Forward lines

Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Loui Eriksson
Sven Baertschi-Bo Horvat-Alex Burrows
Markus Granlund-Brandon Sutter-Jayson Megna
Brendan Gaunce-Michael Chaput-Jack Skille

Defensive Pairs
Alex Edler-Troy Stecher
Luca Sbisa-Chris Tanev
Alex Biega-Nikita Tryamkin

Goaltender
Ryan Miller

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Anton Rodin (knee), Ben Hutton (hand), Jannik Hansen (knee), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Philip Larsen (upper body), Derek Dorsett (back).

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

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USA TODAY

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

Remember when the season began and we were talking about the likelihood of Illinois ending a three-year NCAA tournament drought?

Yeah, about that.

The Fighting Illini were again walloped on the road Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, their fourth road defeat in as many games during conference play. Against Michigan, Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, the losses have come in extreme fashion, by a combined total of 73 points, an average of 18.3 points.

And those numbers would be much bigger if not for a garbage-time 18-6 run to close out Saturday's 66-57 loss to the Wolverines. The game saw Michigan's lead grow as big as 21 with fewer than six minutes to play. It was another blowout, even if the final margin of defeat was in single digits.

How this continues to happen is frankly somewhat mind boggling. Illinois entered the season with experience, health and depth and have kept all of those traits throughout the campaign. But the experienced players who were believed to lead the Illini to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, Groce's first season, simply haven't shown up.

Malcolm Hill has, and he deserves a pass in this critique. Hill, the only Illinois player who scored in double figures Saturday, ranks fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 17.8 points a game. He also ranks in the top 20 in rebounding (5.9 rebounds a game), free-throw percentage (79.4 percent) and minutes played (32.4 minutes a game).

Maverick Morgan, too, has been a bright spot. He's shooting 60 percent from the floor, good for fourth in the Big Ten, and is averaging 13 points a game over the last 10 games.

But where has everyone else gone? After a stellar non-conference season, Tracy Abrams' production has fallen off a cliff, and he's just 1-for-21 from 3-point range against Big Ten competition. Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn't been very reliable, averaging almost two points fewer per game and shooting almost five percent lower from 3-point range than he did during his freshman season a year ago. Mike Thorne Jr. was supposed to be the team's starting center, but he's not even averaging 15 minutes a game. Second-year guys like D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan have barely seen the floor. Michael Finke has had good games and quiet games. This veteran team is more and more reliant on freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols for sparks that only rarely come.

The biggest issue has been the defense, with the team allowing opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field. That number has been significantly worse in conference play, up to 50.8 percent. Saturday was better, Michigan shooting only 45.1 percent and only 40 percent in the second half, when its lead grew largest. But the Wolverines, also a poor defensive team, clamped down on the Illini, who only shot 45.8 percent and more importantly turned the ball over a whopping 17 times, leading to 22 points for the home team.

With consistently subpar defense and inconsistent offense — a win over the same Michigan team just 10 days earlier saw Illinois drop 85 points on red-hot 64.2-percent shooting; where was that Saturday? — has been a recipe for disaster.

Coming into the conference season, it seemed Illinois was a prime contender for a spot in the Big Dance's field of 68. After all, only one disastrous week prevented the non-conference season from being a success. The Illini scored wins over name-brand opponents North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri, with that nightmarish week featuring losses to West Virginia and Florida State, the current Nos. 7 and 10 teams in the country.

But despite the high rankings of the Mountaineers and Seminoles, that resume has weakened. North Carolina State is just 2-5 in ACC play, and Missouri has just five wins this season, a nasty record that includes 10 straight losses. BYU and VCU aren't at the top of their respective mid-major conference standings.

That has made Illinois' conference showing all the worse as the tournament hopes flicker. The two wins have come at home against Ohio State and Michigan teams that stumbled out of the gates themselves. The losses, as chronicled above, have been convincing to say the least, and the one that came at the State Farm Center, against Maryland, featured an ugly second-half collapse after Illinois went to the locker room with a lead.

With typical bottom-feeders like Penn State and Nebraska improving their play this season, there aren't many noticeably winnable games remaining on Illinois' schedule, with just the season-finale at Rutgers looking like a surefire win, though the Scarlet Knights are no longer winless in Big Ten play after beating the Huskers on Saturday. What it means is a gauntlet the rest of the way for the Illini. There are plenty of home games, but does the venue matter when the Illini are playing like this and their opponents are of a significantly higher caliber?

Groce's seat is undeniably warm, and the heat could crank up if the campaign progresses as it has played out to this point. Would a fourth straight season without an NCAA tournament invite mean Groce's tenure would be over in Champaign? That's difficult to say, as Groce has secured one of the best recruiting classes in the country for next season. Illinois' best recruiting work in years would be in real danger if he's axed before his Class of 2017 arrives on campus.

But the on-court results are starting to get predictable, and not in the way games were predictable back during Illinois' glory days a decade ago. 

How about this: Last week's 23-point shellacking at Purdue was the 12th loss by 20 or more points of the Groce Era, which is in its fifth season. Bruce Weber, who coached the Illini for nine seasons, had three such losses during the course of his entire tenure. Prior to Weber, it was Bill Self, who had one such loss in his three seasons. Prior to Self, it was Lon Kruger, who had four such losses in his four seasons.

You have to go all the way back to 1980 to find the last time Illinois missed the NCAA tournament in four straight years.

Right now, the future is a mystery. What we do know is that the present is not going well.