INDIANAPOLIS—Prior to Sunday night’s 97-92 loss to the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau simply said, “We have enough,” as opposed to his usual, “We have more than enough to win.”
It was just a slip of the tongue and it came in response to a pregame question about the status of starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, who missed the affair with a sore right foot, but when he trotted out a lineup featuring Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, Marquis Teague, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler in the second quarter, it appeared that the coach had taken his own mantra a bit too literally.
Except that group, which included a rookie, a fill-in starter, a second-year pro, a little-used backup center and an even less utilized reserve forward not only competed with Indiana, which had built a double-digit lead through the end of the opening period, but cut the deficit to single digits and got the Bulls back within striking distance by halftime.
“We were flat. Those guys got us back into it, so we rode them,” Thibodeau said. “It’s the NBA. We’ve got plenty in that locker room. We’ve got to get the job done.
“We didn’t play any defense to start the game,” he continued. “We got in a hole, we fought like crazy to get back, put ourselves in a position. There were a lot of good things out there. A lot of fight. I thought Marco was terrific. I thought Nazr did a very good job for us. Jimmy. Luol got going late; he kept working the game, turned around for him. Jo got going. I thought Marquis gave us some good minutes. But again, we’ve got to do better.
[RELATED: Pacers edge short-handed Bulls]
“There were different groups out there. We went pretty much down the whole bench. Starters, then we started mixing to see who could provide energy in a game like that,” the coach went on to say. “It’s going to be a hard-fought, tough battle. That’s what it’s going to be, so you want to be in position to win. That’s what you’re trying to do.”
It was a tribute to not only Thibodeau’s coaching ability, but his players’ preparedness and ability to rise to the occasion.
The entire visiting bench, consisting of starters—including Derrick Rose, who sat on the sidelines for the first time since tearing his ACL last April—cheered on their less-heralded teammates as they battled the Pacers tooth and nail.
“They played really well. We need team effort every night, everybody to be into it,” All-Star center Joakim Noah said. “Overall, I think it was good that a lot of guys stepped up.”
Fellow All-Star Luol Deng added: “Guys did a great job, especially in the second quarter, of keeping us in the game, I thought that they kind of got it going for us. Indiana came out, got a big lead and they did a great job.”
Belinelli, who started in place of the injured Rip Hamilton, became the unit’s primary ball handler and top scoring threat, pouring in 20 points, and Butler also asserted himself offensively to match that amount, while Teague, playing in his hometown, proved that he was a capable playmaker, Mohammed was a force inside as a defensive presence and finisher, and even Radmanovic had his moment, a baseline dunk that brought his teammates to their feet.
“I feel like whenever your name’s called upon, you’ve just got to be ready. I feel like [Thibodeau] puts us all in a great position. With practice, we work on everything,” Butler explained. “We had a little lapse at the end, but I like the way the team is going. Coming off the bench or starting, I feel like we’re all playing to win. We’re all playing to get wins.”
Belinelli agreed: “We played good, everybody. We moved the ball side to side, we played good defense and it was important for us. You never know sometimes. Jimmy did a great job tonight.”
Ultimately, the fact that players unfamiliar with being in end-of-game scenarios for the Bulls were in the contest after the visitors battled back to make it just a one-point deficit, 90-89, in crunch time, was their undoing.
The Bulls’ late-game execution was lacking, as they closed to 95-92 after a Butler triple with 19.9 seconds remaining, then turned the ball on their final possession.
“Not good enough. Came up short,” Thibodeau said. “We didn’t execute. It’s tough. We had to use timeouts. We put shooting on the floor. Got to execute.
It could be better. The thing is,
“We’ve got to find ways to win games. We’ve got more than enough in that locker room. Those guys are all capable of doing well and we played from behind most of the night, and it’s important to play with a lead. We’ve got to come out with more fire to start the game, more intensity. The level of intensity has to be a lot higher,” he continued. “They made plays down the stretch. We didn’t.”
Deng chimed in: “We’ve got to get better executing. There were a lot of guys out there that haven’t played together. We made a lot of mistakes. Still, we fought hard, gave ourselves a chance. It came down to a few plays at the end of the game.
“It’s tough, but we’ve been there many times. We’ve had a lot of victories where we come from behind and we rally. I thought we played really hard tonight, just couldn’t come up with it,” he added. “I mean, we lost. You always acknowledge the great things. that we did out there, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to get that win. It’s tough every time you lose.”
Belinelli and Butler, the two most experienced players in that bench brigade, who remained on the floor in the second half and down the stretch, after the regulars found their footing, didn’t take any solace in a moral victory, but did recognize some positives.
“We lost in the last couple seconds, so we’re mad right now. That’s one game we want to win,” Belinelli explained. “At the end of the day, we lost, so just keep going. I think it was important that we played hard, played tough, so get ready for the next one.”
Butler concurred: “I think that was the only thing. Guys weren’t used to being in certain positions, so obviously it looked bad. We messed up. It happens. Bounce back. We know, so we’ll try to get it straightened out for the next time.”
Noah, as intense of a competitor as there is in the NBA, arrived at the same conclusion.
“It’s always tough to lose, but we fought collectively. I think that we fought really hard,” he said. “On to the next one. I think that if we keep this mentality, though, I think that good things are going to happen for us.”
“I feel like it was a tough game. It’s always tough against Indiana. But I’m really proud of the way we competed. We came in this morning; long flight. I think that we fought really hard, gave ourselves a chance. We’ll be back.”