After the Bucks came back from 27 points down late in the third quarter Monday night to beat the Bulls at the United Center, head coach Tom Thibodeau and All-Star Luol Deng were subjected to an expected litany of questions about the loss and what the team could do moving forward Tuesday afternoon. But the last thing Deng told the assembled media following the Bulls' practice at the Berto Center might have been the most salient point of all.
"We could have done a lot of things better and with that said, as bad as we played, we had the last shot to win the game and if that would have went in, it would have been a different story," Deng said. "But it didn't."
Losers of four of their last five games, the Bulls certainly have problems right now. Thibodeau's apparent lack of trust in his bench--though we can't forget, just a week ago, the story line was the coach didn't go to starters like Rip Hamilton, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich enough down the stretch, the antithesis of the criticism after Monday's game--has become a lightning rod and in addition to the team's periodic offensive droughts, something that has occasionally plagued the squad even when they won a league-high amount of regular-season games with injured superstar Derrick Rose in the lineup, the Bulls' once-vaunted defense is also a glaring issue.
But with the Mavericks--missing their own former league MVP in Dirk Nowitzki--in town Wednesday, there's no time for the Bulls to dwell on the defeat. Instead, they must have a short memory and find a way to get back on track against a quality opponent, one coming off a similarly gut-wrenching loss--Dallas lost in Philadelphia, 100-98, Tuesday night, when O.J. Mayo missed the first of two free-throw attempts with seconds remaining and after intentionally missing the second, rookie Jae Crowder was off on a desperation three-point attempt with the clock expiring--and also hungry for a win.
"Like every other game. You come in, you study, make your corrections, get ready for the next game," Thibodeau explained. "You have to learn, make your corrections and get ready for the next opponent. For us, it's about getting ready for Dallas.
"Dallas, they're tough. They've got a lot of guys who can score. They're fourth in the league in fast-break points, O.J. Mayo's having a great year for them, Chris Kaman can score the ball, Vince Carter's very explosive, Darren Collison's really pushing the tempo for them, so they've got a lot of weapons," he continued. "We all can do better and when you're facing some adversity, you've got to be mentally tough and as poorly as we played at the end of the third, to start the fourth, we were still in position to win and so, when things aren't going our way, I don't want us hanging our heads. Making the effort to get back, that shows discipline, discipline and effort, so those things, you can correct. Sometimes you aren't going to make shots, sometimes you may not have control, it may not be your night. But getting back, playing defense, playing together, executing on offense, those things you have control over, so I think you have to understand what your job is and I think you have to get your job done, and in the end, you have to find a way to win.
"It's floor balance. When the ball is shot, there's a responsibility of the perimeter players to be back and then, the fours and fives have to sprint back. Defensive transition is a five-man deal and we've got to get it done, and if one guy's jogging, we're going to break down, so we have to have the discipline, even if things aren't going our way, you can't take possessions off defensively and it doesn't take much to turn the game around."
Deng added: We have a lot to work on. It's a long season. Obviously there's a lot of frustration from last night's game. We're going to be in a lot of close games this year. We've got to get better. We've got to get better at playing the whole 48 minutes. I know you guys keep hearing the same things, but those are the answers that we have.
"I think the next few games will tell," he went on to say. "We're going to come out Wednesday and play hard, and hopefully, I'll have a better interview than I did Monday night. But we're trying to win and just trying to stay positive. I'm trying to stay as positive as I can be and I know there's nights I've got to be better, and each individual try to get better."
Deng joked about the team's practice session--"Yeah, it was terrible. Everyone had their ego showing. You could see their egos on the top of their heads," subtly referencing a popular car commercial--being filled with tension, but in reality, to a man, the entire Bulls roster shared a collective frustration from their performance Monday. At the same time, as the league's minutes-per-game leader, his own disappointment about the team's recent woes isn't the same as some of his teammates, who have to deal with inconsistent minutes or no playing time at all as of late.
"It was one of those days. No one was going to come in smiling. We lost a big lead and sometimes, you think back to the game and there's so many things that you could have done better, and you come in here and see the guys, and you feel like you let down a little bit, each individual. But at the same time, it's a quick turnaround and get ready for Wednesday," he said. "I know everyone wants to do well. It's tough. You're going to be frustrated. You've just got to keep working and try to stay positive. It's a lot easier said, but that's the way it is. That's the way the NBA is. You've just got to deal with adversity. It's a long season. We've still got so many games and so many things can happen, and you're going to get your opportunity."
Thibodeau gave terse responses when asked about his usage of the reserves and specific players not cracking his rotation. In fairness, the coach riding all of his starters--Deng and center Joakim Noah have been the Bulls' ironmen, but the same can't be said for the other regulars--Monday was an anomaly thus far in the young campaign.
"It's a team function. The team has to function well, so we have to do better," Thibodeau said. "We did go to the bench. We brought Taj and Jimmy in at the end of the third, and Nate to start the fourth.
"Everyone has to do their job. Our bench has to stay ready. They're capable, they've all proven they're good players," he added. "Jimmy's playing very well for us, I think Taj is starting to come around, Nate has had some very good games, so we still have some work to do and we've just got to keep our concentration on improving. We've got to get better. We've got to be able to close out games better."
Short rotation or not, the Bulls' struggles this season have not only highlighted Rose's absence, but the departure of the majority of the "Bench Mob"--with the exception of Gibson, who has been up and down in the campaign's early going--a unit that have become more myth than men as time has gone on. While former reserves like Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer were a strength of the team, especially during Rose's injury-plagued season a year ago, they weren't immediately a juggernaut upon arrival in Chicago.
"I thought it was a unique team, but it didn't start off the way everyone is talking about it now. It was something that they got better because of the way that they worked and the commitment they made to each other, and to improvement and to the team, and by doing it every day and they got better and better as time went on, and I'm hopeful that this group will do the same," said Thibodeau, who broke out his "we have more than enough" mantra when asked if the Bulls' front office would or should be active in looking to acquire more bench help. "You can use that as an excuse, but you've got to be ready. You've got to be ready and it's how quickly you can adapt to change. We can't keep using the excuse that 'we've got all these new guys and they're still learning,' and all that. We've got to get the job done. You've got to know what your job is and you've got to get it done.
Concurred Deng: "Honestly, I don't know what was expected. I don't know if you guys expected exactly the same bench. That bench, that "Bench Mob" was great. We won a lot of games because of them, but they're gone and some of them are struggling on their teams, some of them are doing well. But this is a new team. Not every team is going to be about a "Bench Mob." I've been here nine years and every team has a different story. I think for this team, there's going to be ups and downs until we all get our chemistry right and start playing the way we want to play, but we've got to find our identity. But it's a totally different year. It's not fair to the guys that are here, the new guys, to be compared to the guys last year. They're still getting used to it. Even the "Bench Mob," the first year we had them, it took a while to get going and when we got going, it clicked and the year after that, last year, what helped us a lot was we had a lot of guys returning, so we knew how we play and we knew how to play with each other. We're still learning how to play with each other."