All good things come to an end, so it’s no surprise that the Bulls’ five-game winning streak and undefeated mark in 2014 came to a halt Monday night at the United Center, with a 102-88 loss to Washington, the Eastern Conference’s new fifth-place team.
Losing to the Wizards, an improved team this season, is nothing to be ashamed of, but just as the previous five games revealed that the Bulls were capable of grinding out victories in a familiar fashion, the defeat showed that they were equally capable of falling to any team in the league if they didn’t execute expertly. Keep in mind that the squad’s last three wins were likely somewhat inspired by showing the vast majority of observers that they refused to tank in the aftermath of last week’s Luol Deng trade, just as their miserable stretch last month was at least partly brought on by the hangover of Derrick Rose’s season-ending injury; a more accurate gauge of the team is probably somewhere in between the two extremes.
Regardless of the circumstances, however, one thing that’s obvious about this Bulls team, just like last season’s edition, is that they have to play extraordinarily hard or execute extraordinarily well, or have a combination of both, to win most nights, something Tom Thibodeau acknowledged.
“I didn’t think we had an edge tonight, so that part, I’ve got to make sure we understand what we need to do to win. We’ve got to come out with a very high intensity level to have a chance to win. That’s the first part of it,” the Bulls head coach explained. “Sometimes when you start to feel good about yourself, you don’t play quite as hard.
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“It’s all the little things. That’s what separates teams and when you start looking past them, and thinking that it’s not necessary, the result’s not going to be good,” he continued. “You have to have the discipline, when things aren’t going well, to still do all the right things and then, you continue to work the game and then usually, you’ll have a shot to turn it around.”
“I think when you allow frustration or perhaps your own personal dilemma, if you’re not shooting the ball well, to take away from your defensive intensity—missed shots are part of this game, so if you’re missing shots, do something else to help the team. It’s pretty simple and when we do that, we’re successful. But overall, we didn’t play well, I didn’t coach well and that started this morning, so we’ve got to get back to do doing the right things.”
Thibodeau also continued his trend of blaming himself for his team’s poor on-court performance, citing the Bulls’ lack of preparation.
“We kept saying, ‘We’ll work our way out of it.’ Well, you can’t keep saying it. We’ve got to do it. I’ve got to make sure that we’re ready,” he explained. “Just readiness to play. When you start a game like that, I have to ask myself, ‘Okay, we didn’t start with the right intensity.’ My job is to have them ready, so I look at the shootaround and I say, ‘Was the message clear enough about: How good they were, how they play and how hard we have to play for us to be successful,’ and to me, I didn’t think we did anything to make the game hard on them.
“We can’t play like that. We just can’t.”
Starting out against the Wizards in an 8-0 hole, uncharacteristically allowing them to shoot 53 percent from the field—a much gaudier total earlier in the game—and not controlling the boards, the coach’s words rang true and were echoed by his players.
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“We got punched in the mouth right away. We didn’t start the game off with the right kind of intensity. They got a lot of confidence. A team like that, you really can’t let them get confidence,” Taj Gibson said. “I think we could’ve been a lot more focused. Games like this are kind of like a wake-up call. It humbles you. Right when you’re feeling too good about yourself and feeling invincible, a team comes in and smacks you and wakes you up to reality.
“I don’t think we ran out of emotion. We’re going to always have emotion because everyone on this team is focused and believes in each other,” he added. “We believe what the locker room says. We understand we can do a lot of great things. I just think at times our defense just fell short and we didn’t have the energy at times. It’s going to happen. You’re going to have bumps in the road. But it’s always good to get humbled. The task now is to bounce back against Orlando.”
Kirk Hinrich chimed in: “I felt like maybe we were a little soft early. They got going and there are going to be nights like that. We just have to make sure we don’t have a lot of nights like this. We have to go on the road and get back to who we are.”
Who the Bulls are is a team that has no room for error, slippage on defense or a loss of identity on any given night, if they expect to prove that without Rose and Deng, tanking still isn’t an option.