AUBURN HILLS, MICH.—While the Bulls added Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli to their bruised and battered lineup, the absence of Luol Deng stood out as glaring in Sunday night’s 99-85 loss to the Pistons, a team they had previously beaten in 18 consecutive outings.
“The one thing about Luol is he gives you that edge. When he’s out, we need people to step up to give us that edge. We have to get that back and get it back quick,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of the two-time All-Star, who missed the game at the Palace at Auburn Hills with a right-hip injury suffered in last Tuesday’s loss at Washington. “You guys are around. You see what that guy brings to the team. He’s got great stats too. People say he’s struggling. Struggling where? Look at what he’s done the last 10 games.
"He’s playing great for us and our team was playing great. You don’t measure that guy by his stats. You measure him by what he brings to winning and the toughness and intangibles and leadership he brings to the team. Sometimes I think we all tend to overlook that and you can’t. That’s what that guy brings to the team. When he’s out, we need other people step up and do those things.”
Prior to the contest, Thibodeau said that Deng was sitting out more for precautionary reasons, something the team’s leading scorer echoed when talking to CSNChicago.com.
“If this was a playoff game, I would play,” he said. “It’s just we don’t want to get it any worse and I’d be sitting out longer.”
[MORE: Pistons top Bulls in Noah's return]
“It almost feels like—I wouldn't say bruised—it’s nothing serious, but it’s almost locked, kind of. I feel it on my right side, on my back and I’m doing all these stretches on the bench. It’s just been locking up on me in the games,” the small forward continued. “Really, it started in Washington. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but after the Washington game, I thought about sitting out in Brooklyn. But it was a big game, we had a lot of guys out, so I just played through it and then yesterday made the decision. Today we got some guys back and I just thought it was the right time to try to get it right, try to get healthy, instead of trying to play through it now and it gets worse.”
Meanwhile, Noah was his typically energetic self in his return to the lineup after missing eight consecutive games with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, though he wasn't pleased with the game’s end result.
“Just a tough loss. We needed this one bad. We let one get away. Just got to regroup and get ready for Tuesday,” he said. “I haven’t played in a while so I think the more I play, the more I’ll get into a rhythm, the better I’ll feel out there.’’
“It felt okay. It’s something that’s going to linger on, so I got to keep getting all the treatments and fight through,” Noah, who scored 13 points, snatched seven rebounds and dished out three assists in 21 minutes of play, continued. “I’m doing everything. Massage, sleep in a splint, ice. If you've got any remedies you want to give me, I’ll probably do it.
“I did PRP [platelet-rich plasma therapy] a couple of weeks ago. Probably have to do it one more time, but we’ll see, we’ll see.’’
Thibodeau didn’t harshly evaluate the play of Belinelli and Noah, as he was more disappointed in his team’s performance.
“Some good and some bad. Marco the same. You can’t miss the amount of time that they missed and hot-show it. Unfortunately, the games keep coming and come quick. We have to be ready. That’s my job. Defensively, we were very poor,” he said. “I want to see how they feel tomorrow. I thought, overall, both guys’ first time back, extended absence, some rust, but some good stuff. It’s a starting point. Now you have to build on that.”
Belinelli didn’t fare as well, going scoreless in 20 minutes of action, but cited the need to simply be back on the court prior to the playoffs, as the Bulls have only six regular-season games remaining.
“Yeah, for sure. That’s important to me. Tonight, I played really bad, so I need to get ready for the next one, try to run. I was a little bit tired on the court, so just run because I didn’t play for two weeks,” he said. “I need to work on my conditioning and get ready for the next one. I feel pretty good. I didn’t play much, but I was feeling really good and I didn’t play well, I know that. I didn’t score the ball, so I wasn’t very aggressive.
"I’m mad at [myself], but maybe that’s part of the game. I didn’t play for two weeks, so maybe that’s part of my injury. So I need to work more and get ready for the next one,” continued Belinelli, who appeared to injure himself upon being hit by Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey, though he denied that he re-aggravated his abdominal strain, which kept him out of the lineup for seven straight games. “Yeah, I think he hit me in my stomach or something like that. It was pain immediately, but after two minutes, it was okay.”
Moving forward, with a day off Monday before a stretch of three games in four nights beginning with Tuesday’s home tilt against the Raptors, Thibodeau is hoping for some improvement to close out the regular season, regardless of injuries, something the Bulls have dealt with all season.
“That’s the challenge. Any time you change, the challenge becomes how quickly can you adapt to that change. For us, we want to be playing our best down the stretch,” he said. “We were playing great basketball going into the game tonight. Because there’s a change, you can’t use that as an excuse. We have to be ready. Whoever is out there, we have to get the job done. We responded the other way when guys went out. And now with guys coming back, we have to respond the proper way. We have to be focused, concentrate and give maximum effort. We have to have that edge. We have to play with great intensity. If we don’t, we’re in trouble.”
“You have to play 48 minutes. I thought they missed some shots early. We were very flat. We made it an offensive game from the start. You’re not going to win like that,” the coach continued. “The rebounding was poor. The first quarter, we moved the ball and got quality shots. Then we settled and took quick shots and didn't move the ball the way we need to move the ball. That part is on me. In the walk-through, I have to make them understand who our opponent is and what we’re trying to get to.“