CLEVELAND—It looked like a scene from a movie we’ve seen before, as in last season.
The Bulls let an inferior Cavaliers team take a 15-point lead, then made a fourth-quarter comeback and appeared to have the momentum to cruise in for the win. But it didn’t unfold like that Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena, as the Bulls fell, 97-93, after neither Joakim Noah nor Carlos Boozer could convert offensive rebounds that would have tied the game.
But while those misses ultimately proved to be the difference in the loss, what really failed the Bulls was their once-vaunted defense. Andrew Bynum, in his best outing of the season—20 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in 30 minutes of play, all season-highs—dominated in a flashback effort, though Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau insisted it was a systematic issue and refused to lay the blame at the feet of All-Star center Joakim Noah.
“We’ve got to get our concentration back, our edge back defensively. I think everyone’s worried about, offensively, how we’re going to score, and I like what we’re doing offensively. I thought guys shared the ball, made plays for each other, turnovers were low, shot a good enough percentage, but the defense and the rebounding really hurt us, so we’ve got to get that straightened out,” Thibodeau explained.
“It’s just post-up and then we’ve got to give the appropriate help. We’ve got to have the discipline, when to get in, when to get out. You have to make a second, third and fourth effort, and the ball pressure’s got to be better. I think it’s a tough matchup, but we’ve got to help more appropriately.
“It’s a tough matchup, but the thing is, I don’t want to put it on him because whether it’s low-post defense, pick-and-roll defense, catch-and-shoot defense, it’s all tied together. So I’m watching our ball pressure and they’re whizzing the ball into the post, and I’m like, ‘If you had that matchup, you wouldn’t want that type of ball pressure.’ So we’ve got to get our ball pressure better. If it’s in the paint, we’ve got to give the appropriate help—get in, slide in, sprint out, challenge shots—and right now, we’re not playing defense the way we’re capable of and I know we can be a great defensive team. They’ve already showed me that,” the coach went on to say. “Jo had a tough matchup. Jo passed the ball very well. Sometimes when it’s not going well, you’ve got to do some other things that can help. I thought he made some hustle plays that really helped us get back in the game.”
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Noah, for his part, took full responsibility, as he hasn’t truly been himself for the entirety of the “Circus Trip,” minus the second half of Wednesday’s win in Detroit, the only Bulls win of the road swing.
“I’ve got to do a better job defensively, holding the paint down. They scored a lot of easy baskets in transition and a lot of easy baskets in the paint. We’ve got to be more vocal defensively. It starts with me and I’m just disappointed in the loss tonight,” the dejected big man said. “We have to do better. We have to do put out a better effort out there, rebounds and it’s going to get better.”
Now that the Bulls are returning home, one would assume that things will get easier for them, especially with time to process the loss of Derrick Rose for the season. But Thibodeau, who is showing a more nurturing, positive side as the team endures its struggles, believes the best way to get through it is to keep a consistent approach.
“That’s the challenge for all teams, is to be able to sustain your effort and concentration for a long period of time, and so, I think we’re still building those habits and I think as guys get more comfortable with the rotation, there will be improved play,” he said. “I thought our bench had played extremely throughout training camp and preseason and the regular season, and then we changed that up, so we’re still adjusting there. But we’ve got to get both units playing well, playing to their strengths and covering up their weaknesses, but the core values of our defense and our rebounding and taking care of the ball and sharing the ball, I think we’re capable of doing that every night and that’s what we have to do.”
Taj Gibson, the team’s top reserve, concurred: “We’ve got to do better. We’ve learned a lot, just being on the road. Guys have got to play a lot harder. Too sluggish to start games and we’ve just got to do better. That’s the main thing. Just because we’re going home doesn’t mean anything. It’s even harder when you go home because teams tend to come in with a chip on their shoulder, to come to Chicago to prove they can get a win. We’ve just got to get our stuff straight, watch a little bit more film and get things right. Just because we’re going home doesn’t make it easy.”
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But in the end, it all comes back to the Bulls’ defense and getting it back to an elite level, especially without Rose or even Nate Robinson to play offensive savior. The good news is that they seem to understand how to fix things and aren’t shying away from taking personal responsibility.
“It takes good chemistry. It takes guys just being there for one another, guys talking. We talk at times, but at times, it’s like breaks in the defense,” Gibson explained. “We’ve just got to better. Guys just have to take the initiative, including myself.”
Noah added: “I think we just have to hold ourselves more accountable and I think it just starts with me. I have to do a better job. I’ve got to play better defense.”
Still, the squad returns to Chicago a different team, one without Rose and for the time being, Jimmy Butler, and reeling after losing five out of six games. Thibodeau doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of undermanned, however, and if they’re going to get out of their current funk, it’ll be because of his prompting a collective effort.
“How’s it look different? We’re minus Rose, so I guess that’s different. But the core of the team is the same,” he said, almost incredulously before realizing the grim truth. “Hopefully we’ll get Jimmy back in the near future. But I love the way Luol’s playing. I think Luol’s playing at an unbelievably high level. I know Jo and Carlos are going to be strong when we get home. Tony, that’s a big plus. Hinrich, we’ve got more than enough. I thought Mike James was solid. Taj has been terrific, terrific from training camp throughout.
“We’re going to need everybody. We’ve got to keep grinding, we’ve got to keep working and I think it’s important for us to understand how hard we have to play, and if we do that, we’ll be successful,” the coach continued. “We’ve got to do better down the stretch and we will. But we need some work in the gym. You’ve got to put the work in, but the big thing is to keep moving forward.”
“It’s the end of a long trip, we have to gather ourselves. We don’t have much time, coming right back on Monday. We’ll be tested again, but the important thing is to understand why we either win or lose, make the necessary corrections and move forward.”
If there’s anything we know about this team, it’s that they’ll do just that.