The first-round matchup between the Bulls and Wizards pitted two of the NBA's best defensive teams against one another. Sunday night at the United Center, only one team brought the intensity and toughness on that side of the ball and, surprisingly, it wasn't the Bulls.
Tom Thibodeau's defense allowed the Wizards to shoot better than 48 percent, attempt 35 free throws and top the century mark in a 102-93 loss, allowing the visitors to capture home court advantage and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. It was an uncharacteristic performance from the usually defensive-minded and mentally prepared Bulls, who hadn't allowed 102 points in a loss in more than a month — and for the second time since the All-Star break.
"Our defense wasn't very good," Thibodeau said after the game. "We can’t allow frustration to get in the way of what we’re trying to do. You’ve got to play for 48 minutes, so we have to bounce back."
Much of that frustration came from the quick whistles from Monty McCutchen's crew. In total, the Bulls and Wizards were called for 51 personal fouls, including 29 in the first half. The Wizards held a 9-1 advantage at the free throw line in the first quarter, and the Bulls committed four fouls in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the second quarter, putting the visitors in the penalty.
And though DJ Augustin's 8-for-8 mark at the free throw line in the second quarter helped, the early foul trouble changed the way the Bulls defended the Wizards, who shot 47 percent in the first half and had 18 points in the paint on 9-for-16 shooting. Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed and Tony Snell all committed three fouls in the first half.
"We can’t allow it to take away from our aggressiveness," Thibodeau said of the foul calls. "You have to play hard without fouling and you have to be disciplined."
Thibodeau said he had no problem with the Game 1 officiating — "It was the same for both sides, so we’re not going to put it on them" — as the Bulls were called for one fewer foul than the Wizards despite Washington's nine-attempt advantage at the free throw line.
Instead, the common theme inside the Bulls locker room Sunday night was admitting that there was a certain intensity lacking on the defensive side of the ball. Though Washington's backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal shot just 7-for-25 from the field, they combined for 13 assists to three turnovers and helped facilitate an offense that, outside of those two, shot nearly 60 percent.
"Just more intensity. That’s nothing that you can really work on. That’s just something we have to bring, especially on defense," said Augustin, who was overpowered by the 6-foot-4 Wall in his 32 minutes. "I think we all were excited about the game, but we didn’t bring it on the court. So we’ve just got to do a better job next game and Game 2 is very important for us."
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Wall and Beal didn't score much, but they had the privilege of finding a red-hot Nene and Marcin Gortat, who combined for 39 points on 17-for-27 shooting and 21 rebounds. It was the rarest of sights to see Joakim Noah, the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, bullied inside by Nene, who had his way inside, scoring eight first-quarter points and adding six more before halftime.
Nene added 10 more after halftime, while Gortat scored a pair of big buckets down the stretch as the Wizards pulled away from the ice-cold Bulls offense, which scored six points in the final six minutes of the game.
The Bulls have gone through those offensive cold stretches before, but most of the time a stout defensive effort is there to bail them out. That didn't happen Sunday, as the Wizards scored 30 points in the final stanza, knocking down all 12 free throws and turning the ball over just two times.
"That’s going to happen in the game, it’s playoffs, there’s going to be times when you can’t score," Taj Gibson said. "But that means two different teams are going at it on defense. We can deal with going through that drought but we’ve got to give them the same kind of drought (when the Bulls are on defense)."
The defense limited the up-tempo Wizards to nine fast-break points and actually won the second-chance advantage, 17-13, but were out-rebounded by six and allowed four offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter when they were desperate for offensive possessions to break out of their funk.
So now it's back to the drawing board for a resilient Bulls team that hasn't lost back-to-back games in more than two months. That'll start with intensity and looking like the defense that led the NBA in points-per-game allowed and was second in defensive efficiency.
"We need to get back on defense better," said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with three steals to go with his 15 points and seven rebounds. "All our mistakes that we made tonight are correctable. We have already started to talk about that. If we do that and get back on defense and rebound, we'll be fine."