A sign above the Bulls locker room reads: Energy – Focus – No Excuses.
And while they lacked the first two parts of the mantra Saturday night at home, they held themselves accountable on the third end, not making excuses for the 105-83 loss to the Mavericks.
A quick glance at the box score revealed multiple areas that could have been the culprit for the loss: 18 turnovers committed; allowing the Mavericks to shoot nearly 53 percent from the field, including 13 of 26 from beyond the arc; allowing 61 points by halftime; playing without leading scorer Luol Deng for a fourth straight game.
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None of that by itself mattered to the Bulls. It was a collective loss that couldn’t be pegged on one sequence, one statistic or one players. As he usually does, Joakim Noah summed up the night accurately:
“We’ve just got to move on. That’s not what makes anybody in this locker room happy,” Noah said of his own 20-point, 10-rebound night. “We just want to win basketball games. We put ourselves in a hole. We’ve got to play with an edge every night and we will.
“We didn’t play well. We’ve got to be sharper.”
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In the early going it seemed as though the Bulls were digging in for yet another defensive battle, holding the Mavericks to 23 percent shooting midway through the first quarter.
But following a Jimmy Butler steal and layup that gave the Bulls a 17-15 lead, the Mavericks went on a 15-2 run to close the first quarter and outscored Chicago 31-15 in a decisive second quarter that put the game away.
The Mavericks were hitting shots – they connected on 7 of their first 10 3-pointers – but they were also beating the Bulls to 50-50 balls, passing with ease while Chicago threw the ball into the stands and remaining calm while the Bulls picked up foul after foul, culminating in a Tom Thibodeau technical foul.
“At times, we got lost and that’s a good 3-point shooting team. At times they were wide open and our rotations weren’t there,” Taj Gibson said. “And it hurt. Right when you’re feeling too good about yourself someone smacks you.”
The Bulls had reason to feel good entering Saturday. Despite the absence of Luol Deng, they had won two straight for the first time since November and squared off at home against a team that had gone 5-9 away from Dallas.
Instead, it was the Mavericks who felt good throughout, finding open passing lanes, staying stout on the glass and finding an answer for every run the Bulls had.
And it wasn’t just former Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. Monta Ellis and Vince Carter jumpstarted the Mavericks offense in the second quarter and combined for 40 points on 15-for-25 shooting in the win. Even Shawn Marion got to the lane with ease, scoring 14 points on 7 of 11 shooting while Nowitzki added 15, including a four-point play in the blowout second quarter.
“You concentrate on Dirk, but they have a lot of other guys who can contribute,” point guard DJ Augustin said. “That’s what happened tonight. We just dug ourselves a hole in the first half. They came out firing, making shots and we didn’t match offensively.”
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle kept his starters in during the majority of the fourth quarter, and when asked why he noted that the Bulls never stop working: “We knew they were going to hit us with physical play, aggression and eventually shot making. And they did.”
The Bulls opened the fourth quarter on a 16-0 run. The only problem? They still trailed by 14 after Joakim Noah’s layup that cut the lead to 86-72.
“It was tough. We really tried to make a push and we had a shot, but that lead was just too big,” Gibson said. “We dug ourselves in a hole. We can’t be frustrated about the calls. We just have to go out there and get it done.”
Even Jimmy Butler, who said he suffered a foot injury in the third quarter, wouldn’t make excuses for his poor play, which included 2-for-10 shooting and seven turnovers in 45 minutes.
“We can’t get down on ourselves, starting with myself,” Butler said. “We have to keep sticking together and playing our style of basketball. I’ve still got to bring it. If I’m on the floor, no matter what percent I’m at, I have to play better. (The foot injury is) not an excuse. There’s no excuse for that, toe 100 percent or toe 10 percent.”
Head coach Tom Thibodeau spoke highly of the Mavericks after the game, but also noted that the Bulls made mistakes that put themselves in tight situations. In particular, the turnovers allowed one of the best offensive teams in the league extra possessions that a Bulls team without Deng could not have afforded.
“When you turn the ball over and put them in the open floor like that, you give them the advantage, particularly with a team that can shoot like that,” Thibodeau said. “They put a lot of pressure on us, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”