NEW YORK—The slow start and even second-half struggles may have not been alarming to usual observers, given their tendencies to be resilient and make comebacks—especially in this series and against this opponent—but to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, the writing on the wall was clear from the outset.
“Right from the start of the game, I knew they were reacting to the ball quicker than we were, so I was concerned about that right from the beginning and it never changed,” Thibodeau said Monday night, after his team’s 110-91 Game 5 loss to the Nets at the Barclays Center. “Now, we worked our way back and put ourselves in a position [to win], but if you defend fairly well and you give a team a second and a third crack at it, it’s hard to win like that.”
It was an uncharacteristic performance from the Bulls, as they allowed Brooklyn to shoot 50 percent from the floor, have a 44-33 rebounding advantage and be the aggressor the entire evening.
“I think we went into the game lackadaisical and we didn’t throw the first punch. I feel like we came out really slow and that was a steady pace all game for us, on both ends of the floor,” Jimmy Butler observed. “I feel like we made a lot of mental mistakes. We didn’t get to all the loose balls, we didn’t rebound, we didn’t execute and on the defensive end, we just made mistakes that we normally don’t make because we got away from ourselves. It’s very correctable and we know what we have to do for the next game.
[NOTES: Rebounding an issue; Butler continues to grow]
“They were getting to all the loose balls, so many offensive rebounds and they were getting to wherever they wanted to get on the floor. I feel like we weren’t pressuring enough and everybody knows we can fix it, but we shouldn’t be saying we can fix it. We should have handled it from the very beginning,” he went on to say. “I think we’ll bounce back. It’s at home. Of course we want to end the series. We want to end it at home, but I feel like we know what we did wrong and a lot of it was the rebounding and the loose balls and the hustle, so when we get back to being that grimy team, we’ll be okay.”
The silver lining is that up 3-2 in the first-round series, the Bulls return to Chicago and will host Thursday’s Game 6 at the United Center, but they understand that they can’t back on the raucous crowd at the “Madhouse on Madison” to simply carry them to victory.
“Going home is a good thing, but you can’t take that for granted. You’ve got to go out there and do it,” said Joakim Noah.
Thibodeau concurred: “Home court’s not going to win it for us. We’re going to have to play well. The important thing is it’s good to be home, we have great support there, but we’ve got to put the work into the game to give our fans something to cheer about, so we can’t get it clouded. We have to get things corrected.”
[MORE: Nets pull away late, force Game 6]
The absence of injured starting point guard Kirk Hinrich loomed large in the defeat.
While Nate Robinson had a good night statistically, scoring 20 points and dishing out eight assists, the Bulls didn’t enjoy their usual balance, as leading scorers Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng—after dominating all series, Boozer only got eight shot attempts Monday—struggled to get going, not to mention Brooklyn floor general Deron Williams having a big evening with 23 points and 10 assists of his own, without Hinrich to hound him defensively.
“Well, he’s not out there, but I think it was a three-point game with seven minutes to go,” said Thibodeau, refusing to use the veteran’s absence as an excuse. “We’ve got to find a way to get it done, so we didn’t play our best, the rebounding was a big problem and then defensively, we’ve got to get it together.
“We shot a fairly high percentage. It’s a different game—each game is different—so I’ll take a look at the film and see where maybe we can have better floor balance, too, when we shoot the ball,” he continued. “Again, I’m disappointed because of the way we played. We lost by a lot, so when we win, we win together. When we lose, we lose together.
“This is the playoffs. They’re going to be hard fought. You’re not dealing with back-to-backs, so you can find an excuse if you want one, but you have to have mental toughness.”
Noah added: “Kirk’s a big part of this team. That’s obvious. We have to find a way. We all have to compete a little bit harder. We got our [expletive] kicked on the boards tonight. We’re not happy about that. Got to bounce back.
“I’m not sure what they did differently, but we’ll be fine. Overall, I think we can play better. I think they hit shots today, a lot of shots, [more] than they did in the last couple games. We’ve got to understand that things happen. we’re disappointed in the way we played tonight. But [it’s] no time to put our heads. Get ready for a big Game 6 at home,” he went on to say. “I don’t think we let up. Just disappointing because I feel like we beat ourselves in a lot of ways. Missed assignments, missed defensive assignments, just not being in the right spot offensively, sets. We let frustration get to us a little bit, so we’ve got to move on and get ready for Game 6.
“I think we’ll respond very well.”
As long as these Bulls are the team we think they are, that’s a fact.