PHILADELPHIA — A 1-2 start in an 82-game season isn’t a disaster, by any means.
But in a campaign that has championship aspirations attached to it, it’s easy to overreact to a disappointing season-opening loss to the defending champions and in the next road game, surrendering a 20-point lead to lose to the team predicted by many to be the league’s worst squad, the 76ers, in Saturday night’s 107-104 defeat at the Wells Fargo Center. The worst thing about the loss, however, wasn’t Derrick Rose’s early-season struggles continuing, Sixers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams outplaying the former league MVP or the Bulls’ vaunted defense not living up to expectations.
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It’s that the Bulls, known as one of the harder-playing teams in the league on a nightly basis, regardless of personnel, are getting outworked. It’s less evident against a talented squad like the Heat or even the Knicks, who the Bulls managed to hold off in their home-opening win, but when an inexperienced team like Philadelphia hangs around, makes a comeback and holds off an alleged title contender in confident fashion, there are some issues at hand.
[WATCH: Bulls-Sixers highlights]
“We’re not happy with the way we played tonight. We can’t let teams play harder than us. That’s the disappointing thing. But it’s a learning experience and there is a lot of basketball left, and when the [expletive] hits the fan, I think we’ll be ready,” All-Star center Joakim Noah explained. “They played really hard. They played harder than us tonight. We went up a lot of points and I think we exhaled.”
Teammate Taj Gibson, when asked if the Bulls let up when their commanding lead seemed insurmountable, chimed in: “I think so a little bit. That’s the NBA. When guys get a big lead you tend to lack off a little bit. But it’s no excuses. We just dropped the ball on this one.”
[Rose: Blame tonight on me]
Rose added: “[The Bulls] took a breath. They’re a good team, where they kept going. Michael [Carter-Williams] and Evan [Turner] fired them up. They played a great game.”
Admitting what went wrong Saturday is a start. But after the game, while there was a definite tone of disappointment in the locker room, the Bulls seemed as if they simply didn’t want to push the panic button so early in the season, rather than be livid about the embarrassing loss.
“Yeah, we’re mad,” Gibson insisted. “One thing about our team, we have a lot of character. We really care about everything, we even care about the small things. Everybody was frustrated about their defense, about certain plays. Everybody was picking on each other. We were mad at ourselves, not pointing fingers. That’s the thing you like, guys going hard and wanting to do well for each other.”
But there was more rationalizing than anger, which is perhaps the technically correct way to approach things, not getting too emotional so early in the long grind. Still, it’s as if they believe they can simply flip the switch and instantly turn things around, which is absolutely the wrong way to regard the situation.
[Noah: Disappointed in the way we played tonight]
“Oh, hell yeah. It’s early in the season. It’s only three games. But like I said, we’re totally disappointed in us losing the two games. But the only thing we can do from it is learn from it and keep working hard,” Rose said when asked if the Bulls are committed enough to fix things. “Of course you’re disappointed because you’re [not] winning games, but at the same time, we can only control what we can control, and that’s working hard every day and just trying to become a better team.
“We know it’s one game. Like I said, they’re a great young team. They were making all the right plays, getting to all the loose balls and for us, I think that we’re good. We blew a big lead, so anything we can learn from it is when we get the lead, keep pushing hard and play like we’re down.”
Noah concurred: “Yeah, definitely fixable, but still disappointed with the way we played tonight. We can’t let teams play with more edge than us. Kind of disappointed. We’ve got to do better, we’ve got to do better. There’s a lot of basketball left and I believe in this group, but I know that I’ve got to play better personally. We’ve got to trust each other more, and we will.”
[Gibson: We have to learn from this]
At least when they diagnose matters, they’re coming to the right conclusions about the execution part of things.
“Our defense. Our defense has to get better. We’re letting teams score way too many points. Our defense is all based on trust, and we’ve got to trust each other defensively. I think we scored enough points tonight. I mean our offense has to get better, but this is a game in there’s no way they should have scored that many points in the second half,” Noah explained. “Right now, we’re a group that works really, really hard, but we just have to play better defensively. That’s just how I feel. We have to trust each other more on the defensive end. There’s a lot of basketball left. We’ve got a couple days of practice right now and get better.”
Gibson added the Bulls’ offensive inconsistencies to the equation, saying: “I would think it’s both. At times we score the ball well, at times we’re kind of stagnant. At times we lock up, at times we give up easy buckets. We’ve just got to tighten it up a little bit. It’s a long season, and there will be dips in the road. I’d rather go through this early than have things like this late in the season, but we just have to push through. It’s going to take all 13 of us, but we’ve got to push through.”
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Not only do the Bulls need that collective effort to improve, but they need a sense of urgency in doing so. As much as it seems, on paper, that they have a squad equipped for success, none of that will matter if their trademark blue-collar mentality is no longer the biggest part of their winning formula.