Even in the good times, as they entered Friday winners of nine out of their previous 11 games, the Bulls (21-21) will always be vulnerable to certain teams’ styles of play, something that the athletic Clippers (30-15) proved at the United Center by handing their hosts a decisive 112-95 defeat.
Compared to the last time they faced the Clippers—a depressing, thorough dismantling in L.A., a day after learning Derrick Rose’s fate for the season—the Bulls came out of the gates entirely different. Carlos Boozer (22 points, nine rebounds), who missed Wednesday’s victory in Cleveland, look spry at the outset of the contest and All-Star center Joakim Noah (12 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) had a similarly high activity level in helping the Bulls keep pace with their more offensively-oriented opponents.
Further evidence of the Bulls’ first-quarter offensive rhythm was displayed when a D.J. Augustin airball was converted into a Noah dunk to beat the shot clock, but it didn’t make much of a difference on the scoreboard, as the Clippers, propelled by sharpshooter J.J. Redick’s (18 points) outside marksmanship and All-Star power forward Blake Griffin’s (26 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) aerial antics, built a slim cushion. Darren Collison (17 points), starting in place of injured All-Star point guard Chris Paul, ran the Clippers’ show masterfully, leading to 73.7 percent shooting in the opening period.
By the end of the frame, things looked a lot more like that November matchup in California, with the Bulls facing a 41-26 deficit and seemingly having no answer for the high-octane visitors’ scoring onslaught, which included 7-for-8 three-point shooting, following a left-handed scoop by familiar face Jamal Crawford (19 points) with 0.9 seconds remaining, capping an 11-2 spurt.
Gradually, the Bulls made it a single-digit affair in the beginning portion of the second quarter, as a second-unit effort led by Taj Gibson (18 points) helped to make things competitive again. But not for long apparently, as Clippers head coach Doc Rivers regrouped his squad and in the arena not far from his hometown of Maywood, Ill., the guests to Chicago got comfortable once more.
Redick and Matt Barnes ensured that the Clippers’ torrid outside shooting persisted, while Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan (10 points, 12 rebounds) brought the “Lob City” aesthetic into play, while Crawford did his usual instant-offense act off the bench, culminating in Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau drawing a technical foul for venting his frustrations to the game officials. The lead ballooned to as many as 21 points, though the Bulls managed to trim the gap to 68-55 at the intermission, thanks to the competitiveness of Noah and the wing tandem of Mike Dunleavy Jr. (17 points) and Jimmy Butler.
After the break, the Bulls attempted to mount third-quarter challenges, with Noah’s work on the interior and Dunleavy’s shooting ability in the forefront of the separate pushes.
The first one, to start the period, didn’t take, as efficient offense couldn’t be sustained and stringing together consecutive defensive stops simply wasn’t happening. The second time around, midway through the frame, the Clippers again answered, just as it seemed the Bulls would make a game of it.
In particular, Butler’s ongoing scoring struggles hampered the Bulls, who faced a 92-80 hole heading into the final stanza.
Jordan, Crawford and the Clippers’ reserves, including the likes of Willie Green and the recently-signed Hedo Turkoglu, widened the gap between the two teams even further early in the fourth quarter. But the Bulls would persevere for the umpteenth time and with a lineup featuring veteran Mike James, signed to a 10-day contract earlier in the week, made yet another charge.
Like the rest of the Bulls’ attempted comebacks, it would ultimately stagnate and down the stretch, Thibodeau’s equivalent of waving the white flag came out, as James, Nazr Mohammed, Cartier Martin and rookie Erik Murphy finished the contest against the Clippers, who placed six scorers in double figures and shot 13-for-21 from deep.