For once, the Bulls couldn’t blame being short-handed.
Tuesday night’s 85-79 loss to a surging Toronto team — the Atlantic Division leaders are suddenly somewhat of a juggernaut, at least in the Eastern Conference, since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento — at the United Center wasn’t due to being the injury-riddled bunch they’ve been seemingly all season, as All-Star small forward Luol Deng returned to the lineup after missing the team’s last five games due to a lingering left Achilles injury. True, chemistry isn’t something instant, and with the likes of Deng, starting shooting guard Jimmy Butler and veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich all returning from various ailments as of late, not to mention backup point guard D.J. Augustin learning a new system, there’s definitely something of a learning curve.
But at the same time, even despite a disappointing defeat following a solid win Monday in Memphis, there’s room for hope heading into the calendar year of 2014.
“We’re capable of doing better. I do like some things. Defensively, I think we were pretty good. Offensively, we’ve got to get into rhythm,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. “The bench — I liked the way Taj (Gibson) and Mike Dunleavy played. D.J., I thought was good early, (Nazr Mohammed) gave us some real solid minutes.
“What you’re also doing is you’re changing the rotation of both units, so that changes things up, but we’ve got to get comfortable, where everyone’s comfortable with playing with each other because there’s going to be situations in which the bench guys will play,” he went on to say. “Some bench guys will play with the starters, some starters will play with the bench guys. But I like that we have everyone back. I think it’s something — it gives us a baseline. It gives us something to work on.”
Jimmy Butler concurred: “It feels good. I think when everybody gets their rhythm back and gets back into the groove of things, we’ll be all right.”
Now, don’t get the impression that the coach or his players are satisfied after squandering a comfortable third-quarter lead, as a Raptors’ spurt to start the final stanza changed the entire complexion of the contest. The Bulls’ defense, which had been solid all evening, failed them and offensively, not only were their perimeter shots not falling, but they struggled to finish on the interior.
The problem, too, that you have is that when guys miss that amount of time and then they come back, it takes a while to get some rhythm and that’s what opens up the inside. We had a hard time scoring. The second quarter, we scored well. Other than that,” Thibodeau said, before briefly trailing off. “The fourth quarter’s got to be your best quarter. The fourth quarter requires a different intensity, your decisions have to be quicker and I thought, again, we had a lot of plays in the paint where we’ve got to finish stronger. You can’t just flip the ball up there.
“Toronto’s been playing real well. We had the lead and we didn’t play as tough as we needed to with the lead, so we’ve got to take a hard look at that. We still scored in the paint, but we didn’t score as much as we could have, particularly in the fourth quarter,” he continued. “I think a big part of that is practice. When you practice well, you’re going to play well. That’s the bottom line. It’s the same with shooting. Great shooters shoot. That’s what they do and you’ve got to do it every day. You’ve got to do it every day. You’ve got to get there early, you’ve got to stay late. A big part of shooting is confidence and concentration, so we’ve got to get back in there. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Taj Gibson chimed in: “Some nights we look fantastic, some nights we just don’t get it. I don’t understand. It’s just tough. We’ve just got to do better. Everybody has to put in more work. Everybody has to step up and do big things. Nobody’s going to give us anything easy. Nobody’s going to feel sorry.
“It’s different stuff different nights. We’ve just got to look back at the film, see how the game went,” the big man added. “We kind of just tried to turn it on late and I feel like, at times you can’t wait so long.”
That sense of urgency is shared by Deng, who believes the Bulls have an opportunity to make a push in the wide-open East now.
"I think so. I think we’ll get our rhythm. I know nobody wants to lose and we keep saying it will come, but we’ve got to get going," he said. "Guys are healthy now. We’ve just got to keep working hard and be patient. We’ve got to get going now, now that we’ve got guys healthy. It’s been a lot of up and down this year. It’s still a long season. We’ve got to get our rhythm right, keep practicing and get going."