SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a whirlwind for the Bulls, embarking upon the annual “Circus Trip,” starting off with a stretch of four games in five nights.
Consider that the ongoing road trip began with a defeat in Denver, in which the Bulls were overmatched in the second half against the up-tempo Nuggets, not exactly the cream of the crop in the West. Then, the following evening, after cooling off the red-hot Trail Blazers in the first half, they surrendered a huge lead and saw Derrick Rose go down with an injury to his right knee, not even the one he previously had surgery on.
Saturday, which should have been a day of rest in Los Angeles, was spent awaiting Rose’s MRI results, revealing that he had a torn medial meniscus and resulting in speculation over what procedure he would have, as well as the immediate future of both the former league MVP and his team. Sunday afternoon, they were run out of the Staples Center by the high-powered Clippers, as Rose returned to Chicago to have surgery Monday morning.
After the Bulls’ announcement of a successful procedure and an end to Rose’s comeback campaign, the rest of the team visited Energy Solutions Arena to face the young Jazz, the worst team in the NBA. Given their frazzled collective mindset, the result, an 89-83 overtime defeat, their fourth consecutive loss, shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise, regardless of the opponent.
“It’s something that we didn’t expect to happen. It just happened all of a sudden and sometimes, when things like that happen, it takes some time to adjust. But I’m confident that we’ll be fine. We’ve got guys in here that want to win. We’ve got winners. I think it’s just an adjustment period right now and even when we lost Derrick the first time, we went through it with Philly. It takes time to adjust, but I believe in the guys in here. We’re going to get it done because we’ve got winners,” an emotional Luol Deng explained to CSNChicago.com. “When it comes to basketball, it’s you guys [the media] that ask questions about him. But for us, it’s a friend that’s going through a rough time and even if we’re losing every game, we’re not nearly going through what he’s going through and it just hurts. It’s tough and it’s someone that we care about, and it’s really emotionally affecting us.
“We’ll get it together. We’ve got to get back to our defense. I think we’ll get there. As bad as it is for Derrick and as bad as it is for us, it’s almost like a shock and I’m not making excuses. We’re going to make adjustments and get there, but emotionally, it’s tough. For me, personally, it’s hurting because I really care about Derrick,” he continued. “Basketball will be fine. We’re going to play hard, we’re going to work hard and we’re going to live with the results. We’ll be fine on that. There’s a lot of stuff going on, but we’ll make the adjustment.”
Like Deng, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t the excuse-making type. Thibodeau, however, wouldn’t even accept that the players getting over losing Rose is a reason for losing to Utah or the Bulls’ four-game winning streak in general, the longest run of consecutive defeats he’s experienced during his tenure.
“My job is to make sure we’re ready, make everyone understand what their job is, get out there, do your job and this is the nature of an NBA season. We started slowly, we did that together. We won five in a row, we did that together. So now we’re struggling, we’ve got to get out of that together,” he insisted. “I’ll say this again about the team: I think we have the right guys and I think there’s a lot of toughness in that locker room. We’re going to keep pushing and fighting and grinding, and we’ll find a way. We’ll find a way.
“I’m concerned always, about everything. I think that’s what a coach does. You think about all the possibilities, you think about all the things that you can do better, you have to make sure that the team keeps improving and they understand what it takes to win. There’s a way to win every game and the question becomes, ‘Are we going to have the concentration and effort?’ Sometimes you get hit with tough blows and I think you have to be mentally tough when you face adversity,” Thibodeau went on to say. “The easy way out is to say, ‘Oh, Derrick’s not here.’ Well, he’s not. So you don’t replace Derrick individually. We have to do that collectively, so everybody has to share in the responsibility of playing as a team. So team defense, everyone can contribute to that. Team offense, everyone can contribute to that. Set a great screen, make the extra pass, make a hustle play, do whatever it takes to help your team succeed. It’s simple.”
Joakim Noah, the team’s emotional leader, was subdued after the game, following an outing in which he fouled out and drew a technical foul for arguing with a game official.
“We’ve got to snap out of it, you know? We’re human, so I think we’re disappointed in the way we’re playing, disappointed in everything that’s been going on. But the games just keep on coming and I, personally, I’ve got to snap out of it and be a better leader,” he said. “I’m not worried. I know there’s tough character in this locker room and we’re going through tough times right now, but you’ve got to move on.
“I think it’s both,” Noah added, when asked if the Bulls’ poor play was compounded by the emotional effect of not having Rose. “It’s a tough blow. We lost our best player, but you know we’ve got lots of guys here who are capable players. We’ve just got to play with more fire.”
Carlos Boozer chimed in: “Who knows? It could be a combination of both. Obviously we’re putting forth the effort and obviously it’s a big loss. We’ve had a tough couple of days here, our franchise. But nobody else is going to feel sorry for us. We’ve got to get over it.”
That might be easier said than done.