The Bulls have been in this position before, at a disadvantage after losing the series opener of a playoff series—just a year ago, in fact, when they lost Game 1 at Brooklyn—so the requisite sense of urgency to bounce back shouldn’t be a problem in Tuesday night’s Game 2 of their first-round series against the Wizards at the United Center.
That said, some of the occurrences in the Easter Sunday loss, from giving up a 13-point second-half lead to their vaunted defense not being up to the task of slowing down Washington, are a bit disturbing, not that the Bulls aren’t aware of that fact.
“We’ve got to make a lot. We’ve got to be ready to go. We have to play for 48 minutes. We’re up 13 and we start playing loose,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. “It’s a 4-5 matchup. You’re looking at two pretty evenly matched teams. You look at their conference record and their road record and how they played down the stretch, you know how good they are. To win a game, you have to play for 48 minutes. You get up 13 and you can’t relax and let your guard down. You have to keep playing. If certain things don’t go your way, you have to find other things you can do to help the team win. That’s the big thing. You have to maintain an edge for all 48 minutes. We’re capable of playing much better than we did.
“To put it on one guy, that’s not how we do it here. I could go from start to finish. There’s an endless list of things that we didn’t do correctly. We’re capable of doing much better. And we’re going to have to. They’re a good team. In the playoffs, you have to play for 48 minutes and be disciplined. You have to stick to it. Some plays, they made tough plays. Give them credit. Others, we made mistakes. And we have to correct those mistakes,” the coach went on to say, after initially being asked about backup point guard D.J. Augustin’s defensive size disadvantage against Washington’s tandem of All-Star John Wall and veteran Andre Miller, both bigger guards. “It was a compilation of all those things. To me, if one guy is not doing their job, it’s going to make everyone look bad. We have to be tied together. We have to have the proper amount of intensity and concentration. And we have to finish our defense. That’s one thing that we could do a lot better.
“Your will and determination are important. I felt like they got to the loose balls. The 50-50 balls, they got to. So it’s going to be how badly do we want it and are you going to be willing to fight? Are you going to allow yourself to be pushed around? Those things all factor into it.”
Mike Dunleavy Jr. concurred with his coach: “I can’t get into too many specifics, but I just think our overall intensity needs to be better. Our alertness, our awareness. We’ll tinker with a few things here and there, but most of it is kind of an effort thing.
“We played with an edge all year long. We just went too many spurts last night without it. We came out with an edge at the beginning of the game, but we were a little flat. First playoff game, I guess that stuff happens, but once we got stuff together and got that 13-point lead in the second half, we dropped off again, so we can’t have too many of those in the next one,” added the veteran sharpshooter, who endured an 0-for-5 first half before an 11-point third quarter in his first playoff game for a higher-seeded team after brief postseason forays with eighth-seeded Indiana (ironically, against the Bulls, back in 2011) and last spring with Milwaukee, losing to eventual champion Miami. “Yeah, I think with the playoffs things can go different ways. Sometimes you can come out and have all the energy in the world and just be overexcited, overzealous, fumble the ball away and miss open shots. Sometimes you can try and be a little too calm and not have enough, so hopefully we’ve got our Game 1 uneasiness out of the way and be ready to go Game 2.”
Still, the Bulls acknowledged that the Wizards deserved credit, particularly big man Nene, who was effective scoring in the post or stepping outside to hit mid-range jumpers.
“You look at the different ways that he scored. Some are in the post. Some are off pick-and-roll. Some are off rotation. We have to clean all those areas up. He’s a hard player to guard because of his skill set. He can post. He has great touch. He can pass the ball. And he can put it on the floor. Those type of guys present problems. You have to make him work for his points. Much too easy for him,” Thibodeau observed. “They played very well. They kept grinding. They challenged shots and rebounded the ball. When the ball was in the air, that game was decided.
“Well, they’re a well-balanced team. I think it’s a combination of things---what shots are there. They have a lot of shooting. That makes them hard to guard, their shooting and the post presence. You can’t overlook what Gortat did, very physical, hurt us with his rebounding, deep post position, he has great hands. Nene is the same. Booker came in and did a good job. And Miller hurt us in the fourth,” he went on to say. “As I said, obviously we’re not pleased with the way we played defensively and so, you’re looking at what they did with—I thought Nene and Gortat were very, very physical, and that led to second shots and deep post-ups, and I think we’ve got to do a better job with that. But it’s not any one particular area. I thought Ariza was very good for them. Under the radar and he guards, he scores, he does a little bit of everything and you don’t pay attention to him, all of a sudden, he’s got a big game on you. And then, what Miller did in the fourth quarter and Miller’s a good player. He’s a smart player.”
Dunleavy chimed in: “Obviously for us to give up 102 points in a playoff game, for us is unacceptable. But you give them credit, they played pretty well, they did some good stuff, and they’re going to play better on Tuesday, so our defense is going to have to be a whole lot better.
“He’s tough. He’s as strong as they come down on the block, and he’s long, too. He’s 6-10, 6-11 with long arms, so he presents a lot of problems with the rebounding, the post-ups. It’s not just one man’s job to get him stopped, so we’ll have to get a bunch of bodies down there,” he continued, referencing Nene. “He’s a big difference. I don’t know if he’s the difference, but he makes a big difference in there. Certainly the first couple times we played them in Chicago he played, and he’s a load. He’s another force for us to deal with, so we have to be ready to handle it.”
On the bright side, the Bulls did manage to keep the Wizards’ explosive backcourt of Wall and second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal in check in the duo’s first postseason game.
“Nah, we definitely didn’t underestimate them in any way, certainly knowing how well they did the first couple times around with us. I would just like to think that we did a good job on the two perimeter guys, and didn’t do a good enough job on the other two. Hopefully we can flip that,” Dunleavy said. ““Look, they’re a good team, this is the NBA. You take one or two things away, other guys are going to get stuff. It’s almost impossible to take everything away unless guys aren’t playing well. It’s give and take, we’ll make our adjustments and see how they react.”
To an extent, Thibodeau agreed with that assessment, though he also pointed out more negatives from his team’s performance.
“Well, you’re always concerned because—and to their credit, they did other things. Like Beal played great defense and Wall, when he has the ball he’s a threat. His speed is something you’ve got to deal with. He came up with a couple offensive rebounds that hurt us, had a couple steals that hurt us, deflections,” he explained. “They’re a deep team. They’re a talented team. So we’ve got to know what the strengths and weaknesses are. There are certain things, certain shots—anytime you put two on the ball, what you’re doing is committing to one area, but you’re also opening up another and you have to go into a game deciding what you’re willing to live with. And so for us, there’s a lot of things—I thought they shot a high percentage, they got to the free-throw line. We’re a team that normally doesn’t foul, so that’s concerning.
“You’re in the playoffs. Games will be called differently. You have to adjust accordingly. It shouldn’t take away from our technique. That’s something we work on every day. Concentrate on your body position. Do your job. Get it done. Offensively, if you feel like you’re driving the ball and not getting calls, you have to make sure you drive it harder. Some of them are 50-50 calls. I thought the game was officiated the same way for both teams. It was called tightly. And you have to adjust accordingly,” the coach insisted. “We had three or four bad possessions where we took tough shots and it led to fast breaks. That got them back in the game. You miss a shot or you think there’s a lack of a foul call, you can’t complain to the official while they’re racing the ball down the floor. There’s an appropriate time to make a point to an official if you think he missed something but you have to wait for a dead ball. You don’t do it during the course of the game. These officials are good. They’ll talk to you. But it’s got to be at the appropriate time.
“We have to make shots. That’s a big part of the game. We’re not going to get away from the guys who have gotten us there. But there are certain things we can do to help each other get open. And we’re going to have to do that.”