This one had a bad feel from the outset, as San Antonio’s 7-0 start to Tuesday night’s matchup with the Bulls at the United Center quickly snowballed into an insurmountable Spurs lead.
It seemed incomprehensible that the game after Sunday’s triumphant overtime win over defending champion Miami, that the Bulls could look so unprepared for the other team in the 2013 NBA Finals. But it happened and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, as is his custom, blamed himself for the team’s lethargy to begin the contest.
“Readiness to play, that’s the biggest thing. I told them that’s completely on me. My job is to have them ready. We had no edge to us. That’s a championship-caliber team that’s playing on all cylinders and they’re going after it. So if you don’t match that intensity to start, you are going to get in a big hole. So I didn’t prepare them the way they need to be prepared for that, so that’s on me,” explained the coach of the league’s hottest team in the 2014 calendar year. “Readiness to play starts long before the game. So there has to be an edge in shootaround. There has to be an edge a day before in practice. There has to be a readiness to play, a concentration level to know what you’re trying to get done out there, and a speed and intensity to—you’ve got to match that. When one team is playing like that and you’re not, you’re in trouble and that part is on me.”
This loss isn’t a game to overreact to. The Bulls aren’t necessarily a championship-caliber team this season, but they’re much better than what they displayed Tuesday, as evidenced by not only the Heat win, but beating this very same Spurs team—albeit a banged-up version, but one featuring All-Star point guard Tony Parker and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan—back in late January, on the road no less.
Still, it fits the cliché of a teachable moment, as Thibodeau now has evidence that not having the proper approach can truly affect the final result.
“It’s a great lesson because they all count the same. You have to learn about that game—what did you do well, how did you win—and then you’ve got to get ready for the next one, and then you’re sitting there and you’ve got another team that’s similar. Deep, edge, playing great. They’re playing great on both sides of the ball,” he explained, before launching into examples of what he expects from the Bulls. “You’ve got to sprint to screen, you’ve got to set a great screen, you’ve got to cut hard, you’ve got to do all the things that will loosen up the defense. Get the ball moving, make quick decisions. You’ve got to play great defense. You’ve got to know what the strengths of the guy you’re guarding are. You’ve got to know what the strengths and weaknesses of the team are. We didn’t do that.”
Backup point D.J. Augustin, who scored a team-high 24 points and led an ultimately meaningless comeback that saw the Bulls trim what was once a 32-point deficit to eight in the game’s final minute, agreed.
“The first quarter, we got down big and in the NBA, when you get down big like that in the first quarter, it’s going to be catch-up the whole game. It’s going to be hard to get back, so that’s pretty much what happened tonight,” Augustin said. “We had a big win the other night, but we should have put that behind us and I thought that we were ready tonight. You can’t take a team like San Antonio lightly. They came out and played great, and we just couldn’t match their effort.
“We should bring the fire every night. It is hard. We play a lot, we practice. It’s a lot on our bodies. But we’ve still got to go out and perform every night, and that’s what we try to do,” he continued. “I don’t know. Just didn’t come out ready to play, I guess, and they got on us early.
“No matter who we beat before we play a team, we’ve got to put it behind us and get ready for the next team, no matter who they are, and just keep working and keep fighting. That’s all we can do.”
Thibodeau did take some solace in the effort of the second unit—including new fan favorite Jimmer Fredette—in the final stanza, but didn’t make too much of it.
“You get in a hole like that and the guys that finished up, I liked the fight. But you’ve got to play for 48 minutes in this league,” he said. “There’s nothing to take when you get down by 30 points and you make a run at the end. Other than those guys played hard and were doing their job out there, and so, we’ve got to get it straightened out.”