“I missed the layup.”
Not that he could have, but Luol Deng made no excuses. With 6.8 seconds left Monday night, the Bulls finally got back into the game against the Magic, closing to within two points after Orlando swingman Arron Afflalo split a pair of free throws.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau drew up an exquisite play during a timeout, with Deng inbounding to Joakim Noah and the center, perhaps the best big-man passer in the game, threw a perfect backdoor pass to the All-Star small forward — who somehow missed the game-tying layup with 2.9 seconds to go, leading to an eventual 83-82 defeat at the United Center.
“I had a good angle, great pass by Jo. I missed the shot. I knew I missed it when it left my hand,” a dejected Deng explained. “I couldn’t really grab it back. I was falling, and I couldn’t get the offensive rebound. Just a bad, bad miss on my part.
“Guys played hard. We fell behind. Give Orlando credit. Guys played hard, and we played hard enough to win the game,” he went on to say. “I missed the layup, and it’s on me. Jo made a great play. Coach drew a great play, trusted me to make that shot, and I make it most of the time. I missed it today.”
And he’s right. A shot he finishes 99 times out of 100 doesn’t go and the Bulls lose for the 11th time in 14 tries and fourth consecutive home game, and after falling to the likes of Milwaukee, Toronto, New York and Orlando recently, they’re faced with a two-game road trip, where they will take on much more powerful opponents in Houston and Oklahoma City.
It isn’t the best of stretches the Bulls are experiencing right now and could get worse before it gets better. But Thibodeau had a different take on both the game and the team’s overall outlook.
“We missed the layup. Sometimes that happens, but there were a lot of plays before that that hurt us more than that, that put us in that position. We’re missing a lot of layups right now, as a team. That’s on me. We’ve got to work harder in practice on that, so we will. We’ll get that straightened out,” the coach explained. “The rebounding, I thought, cost us. So the thing that bothered me — it wasn’t going our way — and as I said, as a team we missed a lot of layups and then we jogged back. In the end, when you lose by a point or two points or a possession, you look back at the game and that’s part of the game. There are going to be some misses, there’s going to be some mistakes. But the one thing we can control is sprinting back, so that’s something that has to be taken care of. We’ve got to have the toughness to get through tough times. So the ability to pick yourself up, not to hang your head, to keep fighting, to fight the good fight, that’s what we’ve all got to do.
“We were down big, and I thought we started grinding. When we did that, we started playing a lot harder and we came back, and we had a shot at it. But you hate to be playing from behind all the time. I think it’s important to be playing with the lead, so I think readiness to play is critical. I think right now, we have some different combinations out there and we haven’t had a lot of practice time,” he continued. “So when we do practice, when we get into our shootarounds and stuff, I think the intensity of the shootaround has to be greater because essentially, that’s our practice, and so we’ve got to make sure that we do our drills in practice with the intensity that we’re going to have to do them in the game, so that it’s not something different and so I think we can do that. The one thing I do know is that when this team practices well, they play well. So we’ve got to get back to that.”
All inspiring, motivating stuff, but what really sticks out is how Thibodeau attempted to take the blame for not only Deng’s miss but the entire squad’s ineffective finishing around the basket. Read it again: “We’re missing a lot of layups right now, as a team. That’s on me. We’ve got to work harder in practice on that, so we will. We’ll get that straightened out.”
When asked exactly how he, a coach, was responsible for his players’ missed layups, Thibodeau was ready with an answer.
“Because my job is to make sure we’re ready to make our layups, so we obviously have to work harder in practice on taking layups and making layups and doing them at a game-like speed. So I’m going to put more into that. So that part is on me,” he explained. “We usually do it (practice layups) all the time. Usually, every practice we do it, and so we’ve gotten away (from it) in the past couple of days and it shows, so that part is on me and I’m going to get that corrected.”
When that explanation was posed to Noah, the All-Star center was confused.
“Correct us missing layups in practice?” he repeated.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls can't complete comeback in loss to Magic]
But his resolve about how to get the team out of its funk, particularly after his pointed comments following Saturday’s loss to Toronto, was clear.
“You win together, you lose together. It’s not pointing fingers at anybody when things get hard. It’s what we can do better as a team. I’d never point any fingers at any player or any coach or anybody. It’s just all of us as a unit. We have to do a better job of getting this done,” Noah said. “I think we’ve got a resilient group. Losing is really hard, there’s adversity right now, but we’ve got to find a way to correct it. Nobody has all the answers. I just know our spacing is terrible right now, we’re not getting any easy baskets and we’ve just got to find a way to do better.”
It sounds good, and because they've done it before, you want to believe them. But right now, even though their honesty is admirable, there's no telling when good intentions will turn into on-court results.