SAN ANTONIO—Consciously or not, at this point in an NBA season, teams in postseason contention begin to look around and start studying their competition, as well as assessing what kind of shape they’re in, heading into the campaign’s stretch run.
Following Wednesday’s 101-83 loss to the Western Conference-leading Spurs, the Bulls fell to sixth place in the East, not that that’s what their focus was after the tough defeat.
Instead, the short-handed squad was preoccupied with evaluating how they fared against a bonafide championship contender, regardless of the fact that they play in different conferences.
“Shot selection, lack of discipline got us,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards, for starters. “You can’t hold onto the ball against them. The ball’s got to move side to side. They’re too good defensively. They’re active, multiple effort, they’re disciplined. They made it tough. The first half, the ball moved side to side and the second half, it didn’t. We settled, took some poor shots and against a team like that, that has the depth that they have, they’re going to make you pay.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls suffer late meltdown in San Antonio]
“We’ve got to play a lot tougher,” he went on to say, clearly disappointed in how his team faded as the game entered its final stanza. “In the first half, I thought we played fairly well, but against a team like this, you’ve got to play 48 minutes. You start feeling good and you start playing to show. If you don’t compete against them, you don’t have a chance.
“The end of the third [quarter] got us. Actually, we got hurt at the end of the second, too. We had a pretty good cushion and we were reckless.”
The list of mistakes Thibodeau rattled off doesn’t bode well for the Bulls’ immediate future, but most people would argue that without the starting backcourt of Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, top reserve Taj Gibson and of course, Derrick Rose, the Bulls could be excused for dropping a game against one of the league’s elite teams.
[MORE: Bulls optimistic about Rose's progress]
But the Bulls—not just Thibodeau, but the players—refuse to use their undermanned status as an excuse, no matter the competition.
“I think tonight we played against one championship team. They played well, they played tough, especially in the second part of the game. But I think we played hard,” said Marco Belinelli, who had a team-high 21 points and seven assists filling in for Hamilton, who remained in Chicago with lower back spasms. “We fought until the end of the game. I think we were very good in the first part of the game, the first two quarters, and I think the second part of the game, we let them get good offense, we didn’t move the ball the right way, we didn’t get back on defense and we made some stupid mistakes on defense, me first of all. We just need to see our mistakes, be better and be ready for the next game.”
All-Star Luol Deng, who scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds, added: “They’re a very good team and they execute. They use everyone’s strengths and move the ball real well. It’s a very tough team to beat if you don’t stay disciplined the whole game. I thought we lost our discipline a little bit. I thought in the first half, we moved the ball well, got good shots. Second half, I don’t think we stayed disciplined enough to beat a team that good. They’re so good at executing and once they started making their run, they never looked back.”
Deng went on to address the reality of the situation, knowing that while the Bulls remained focused on winning each individual game, time is ticking when it comes to playoff positioning, even as everyone surrounding them continues to openly wonder about Rose’s eventual return.
“It’s about that time when you start to [look at the standings], but our whole thing right now is, in the past, our biggest thing has been consistency going into it [the playoffs]. I think right now, we’ve got to find a rhythm, a way, we want to play with every time. The last few years, we’ve been so solid in knowing what we want to do and a big part of it is having a guy like Derrick, you know what the game plan is. Now, we kind of shift a little bit. We’ve used Booz a lot; lately we’ve been using Marco a lot on the pick-and-roll. So, we’ve got to make that adjustment, where we’re understanding what we’re trying to do, what the game plan is and stick with that,” he told CSNChicago.com. “I keep telling everyone that we have to have the mindset like at the beginning of the year. We came into this year knowing that this is the team we have and Derrick is supposed to take care of what he has to do. You can’t keep looking over your shoulder of what’s going on.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but as a team, we haven’t talked about it [Rose’s return] or relied on that. Our main focus is how good can we be with what we have in here and when we have Kirk healthy and Taj healthy and Rip healthy, I think we can play with anyone. We all believe that.”
Belinelli chimed in: “We don’t need to use that like an excuse. We played really good this game and the game against without Kirk, without D-Rose, without Rip. Of course we miss them, but at the same time, that’s the reality, so we just need to play as hard as we can.”
Balancing not worrying about if and when Rose will come back, anticipating the more imminent returns to health of their other injured players and keeping an eye on the Eastern Conference standings, in which they slipped from fourth to sixth in a blink of an eye, as their loss was coupled with both Atlanta and Brooklyn both winning Wednesday evening.
It’s easy to forget that this is a team that’s undefeated against second-place New York and has split with defending-champion Miami so far this season, but as Thibodeau frequently says, good health and playing well heading into the playoffs separates team when the postseason comes around.
If they can have those things going for them, find a consistent style of play—poor shot selection and defensive lapses simply cannot be the norm—then the Bulls will be a team nobody wants to face, whether or not Rose returns.
But if not, they’re simply average, first-round fodder for a team that advances to the second round and possibly beyond, something that after the past two seasons, just isn’t acceptable, not with the potential they’ve displayed.