WASHINGTON—From the 14-0 deficit to start the game to the trio of Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and D.J. Augustin scoring a total of two first-half points, nothing went right for the Bulls from the outset of Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 at the Verizon Center, a 98-89 loss to the Wizards.
Whether it was subconsciously relaxing because of the absence of the suspended Nene or simply not being ready to play, an occasional issue with the Bulls and early tip times, a gift-wrapped opportunity to tie the first-round series at two games apiece was squandered in Washington. Instead, the Bulls return to Chicago for Tuesday night’s Game 5 with their backs against the wall, a position they have no reason to be in.
“Well, it’s very disappointing to get in a hole like that, -0 to start a ballgame, a game like this. Obviously very disappointing, so I put that on me and I’ve got to get it right,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You know, it’s hard to say [if the Bulls underestimate the Nene-less Wizards]. I think our team has a good understanding of how good they are because they played so many games without him and we were following them closely. And I thought they played a great game. They came out with a great intensity. They got us in a hole. We fought like crazy to get out of it and then we didn’t close the second quarter as well as we would have liked. Second half, same thing. Third quarter, another big hole. Fight like crazy, try to come back and then you expend so much energy, you have maybe a crack at the end and we couldn’t get to the loose ball, the second shot.
“We’ve talked about it a lot: You’ve got to start fast, you’ve got to finish strong, do all those things. You have to play for 48 minutes and there’s a lot of things that lead to it. You’ve got to be ready for the speed and intensity of the game. We turn the ball over too much. That was a huge problem and when you look at how teams get three-point shots, it’s usually in transition and off the second shot. So that hurt us. Ariza had a huge game. Wall made plays,” the coach continued. “There’s so many different things. I think when you look at it, you’d say defensive transition first and then you go dribble penetration second, and probably pick-and-roll defense third. But if you have one guy that’s not doing what they should do, it’ll make everyone look bad. So in the end, you look at it and we outrebounded them, they shot 40 percent. But the hole we got into to start the game put us at such a big disadvantage and it gave them confidence off the bat.
“When you get in that type of hole you spend so much energy in trying to get out of it. The important thing is to try and play from a lead, and we did everything you don’t want to do. You’re down -0 and you’re giving them great confidence. Then it takes a lot to slow that down. That’s the biggest thing right there.”
All-Star center Joakim Noah concurred with his coach: “Disappointed. I think we’re all disappointed with the game today. Burt we’ve just got to keep our head up. It’s the first to four.
“That was definitely tough for us. I think they executed really well. We turned the ball over. The start of the game was really bad,” he added. “They’ve had that sense of urgency in the first quarter every time. It’s on us to change it. We’re getting punched in the mouth every time in the first quarter. We’ve got to find a way to change that. It’s really disappointing. But you can’t look backwards. You’ve just got to move on. Like I said, it’s the first to four.
“I think our issues are that we’re down 1-3. I think we’ve just got to move on, execute better offensively and defensively and try to find a way to win a ballgame.”
Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson, who had a career-high 30 points, chimed in: “Frustrating. We always talk about it, but the way we start the game, it’s been the same thing over and over again. They come out ,they always hit us first. Like Thibs said games are 15-round slugfests, but for it to go that far, you really have to have a good start. You’ve got to hit them first, especially on the road. It’s a hostile environment. They got the crowd into it really early and we were on our heels from jump.”
“I was more frustrated just sitting on the bench and seeing how they were just jumping on us. It’s really tough because you keep seeing the same kind of start for the last couple of games, and it’s frustrating because we have good shootarounds, we’re really licked in, we’ve had good practices. Thibs really tells us what’s going to happen. We’re supposed to know these things,” he continued. “It seems like at times we get overhyped with this thinking that we’re going to be OK, we’re just that good, but in this league it’s not about how talented you are. It’s about how hard you work and how much effort you put when you start the game off, man. I don’t think we did that.”
Throughout the course of the season, this Bulls team has almost made the ugly win an art form with its ability to rally from behind after starting poorly. But this Wizards team, obviously not as inexperienced as many observers believed going into the series, has mostly been able to withstand the Bulls’ challenges.
“It’s kind of been the theme of the series. We’ve struggled to get off to good starts. We’re conscious of it. We just weren’t able to do it again,” said Bulls’ veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich, who ironically has some knowledge of the opponent, having briefly played in Washington during the 2010-11 campaign. “We thought the mistakes we’re making, we could correct them. At this point, we haven’t. Saying that, I think they’ve been a real good first-quarter team all year. We knew that coming into the series and we really just haven’t done a good job of handling that.”
“They’re trying to deny wings, pressure and deny elbow catches. You have to give them credit. They’re doing a good job. We have to do much better as well. We knew we would have to take care of the ball and be very sharp offensively. And we just haven’t done that very well at times,” added Hinrich, responding to queries about the Wizards’ defense and the Bulls’ offensive woes. “That’s what they’re trying to do. Tonight was the fourth game. We know what they’re going to do. They know what we’re going to do. It’s going to come down to the will and determination and ability to make plays. They just did a much better job of it.
“You have to give them credit. We know they’re a steals team. They got a lot of guys with length and athleticism. We just have to do a better job,” the point guard went on to say. “The first thing is we have to get off to a better start. We can’t spot them 14 points to start the game. We have to compete harder at both ends.”
Now on the brink of elimination, bouncing back at home Tuesday isn’t a given, especially with Nene back in the lineup and the Wizards having already won the first two games of the series at the United Center. Thibodeau implied he has more adjustments up his sleeve and whether he was merely putting on a brave face or intends to make changes, the coach, while melancholy didn't show any sign of a defeatist approach.
"Well, we can do a lot of things," Thibodeau said. "I know to win a playoff series it takes four, so we’re going to concentrate on getting two, and then we’ll go from there."
Similarly, his players have no choice but to believe that once again, they can defy the odds.
“Well, you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to watch film. You’ve got to understand that you’ve got to come out the right way. Look at how we played last year. It’s all about the quickest to four. We really had Brooklyn down, 3-1, and they kind of just fought back. We’ve got to have that same mentality. It’s a one-game-at-a-time mentality. It’s hard because you’ve got to see these guys over and over and over again. Like every game, you already know what they’re going to do. They know what you’re going to do. It comes down to will and determination, and just because they didn’t have Nene, they just came out and played even harder. And it’s crazy because you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Is this the same team’ that we played earlier in the year when they didn’t have Nene? They came out, jumped on us right away and that’s how you’ve got to play when you’re defending home court,” Gibson explained.
“I don’t know. I really can’t speculate. We just follow Thibs’ lead. He watches film night and day, he’s in the office watching film all night. We trust what he says. If he doesn’t [make changes] we just have to come out with the right energy. The main thing is energy to start the game. Look at how we beat them the last game of the regular season, we really jumped out on them. Look at how the playoffs are going, they’re coming out with the right mentality, really jumping on us early, and putting us in big holes early. That’s a lot of energy we have to use, especially coming late in the third and fourth quarter when guys are resting and they have guys from the bench coming in full of energy, but it’s a slugfest. They just beat us to the punch tonight.”
As Noah put it, in a much more concise fashion, “It’s going to be exciting to come home. Big Game 5. It’s not over until it’s over.”