For two consecutive games in their first-round playoff series against the Wizards, the Bulls have been let down by their scoring-challenged offense down the stretch.
The Game 1 Easter Sunday was supposed to be an aberration, but Tuesday’s 101-99 Game 2 overtime loss to the Wizards at the United Center proves that it’s a real issue. Furthermore, for all of the miraculous, dramatic finishes the Bulls presided over during the regular season, it now appears that whatever mojo they had was missing, resulting in a 0-2 deficit heading into Friday’s Game 3 in Washington.
“Oftentimes, it comes to scramble plays. They got to loose balls that resulted in some open threes and we didn’t. So we dug ourselves a big hole early and expended a lot of energy to get out of that hole, and came up short,” a dejected Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau rationalized afterwards. “You have to look at the shots you can get. Are you making the right plays? Are you screening well? I thought we had some good looks. We’ve got to do better.
“The fourth quarter and the overtime are going to be different. The intensity of the game changes during that time. You’ve got to be ready to respond, you’ve got to screen better, got to make quick decisions. They put [Trevor] Ariza on him. He did a good job, more size and you’ve got to make plays,” the coach continued, discussing how the 6-foot-8 Wizards swingman blanketed the previously unstoppable D.J. Augustin in the late stages of the game. “We had the lead in both fourth quarters. We didn’t close it out. It’s the playoffs. You’ve got to play for 48 minutes.”
Augustin, who poured in a playoff career-high 25 points — though none after the 8:39 mark of the fourth quarter — to go along with seven assists wore a similar facial expression as his coach.
“It was disappointing,” the diminutive backup point guard said. “I definitely think we played hard. We had intensity tonight. They’re a great team so we didn’t get the win.
“It’s tough. He’s 6-foot-8, 6-foot-7, so it’s tough for me to get open and get shots off. It was a good strategy for them and I think we went to some counters to get some guys open and they were smart and they played good tonight,” he went on to explain about his struggles when Ariza was assigned to defend him. “They’re a good defensive team, so I don’t think it’s [the Bulls’ offense is] stalling. We’re just missing shots and they’re playing good defense at the same time. It’s a battle out there. Nothing is easy, nothing is easy.
“It’s real disappointing. It’s a tough loss because I feel like we played hard, we all left it out there on the court and not to get the win really hurts. It sucks.”
Naturally, observers will point to two key plays: Bulls’ sixth man Taj Gibson calling for a timeout but not being granted one after the second of two offensive rebounds with 10.5 seconds to go in regulation, turning into a jump ball that the Wizards won; and Bulls veteran point guard Kirk Hinrich, with a chance to tie the game, missing a pair of free throws with 2.4 seconds left in overtime.
But it’s equally valid to reference the bigger picture, the Bulls’ periodic offensive ineptitude, which seemingly hasn’t reared its ugly head, but is now
“Tough loss. Frustrated, just looking back on playas thinking about things we could have done better. Just really frustrated but it’s the first one to four. So we’re not going to back done. We feel like we let two games go at home and we feel we’re capable of winning on the road, so we’re not happy with the results down 0-2, but we’re going to come back and keep fighting,” said Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. “It sucks. I hate losing. Everybody on this team is giving everything that they have. Disappointed. Both times we had leads and we let them slip away. I feel like they hit big shot after big shot, and you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. They’re playing at a high level and we’ll be all right.
“This is really disappointing. Both times we were up in both games. To lose tonight was tough, we’ve had our chances, the refs are part of the game. I’ve got nobody to blame buy myself. I think I made some bad turnovers down the stretch. Just got to play better and find a way to win,” he continued. “Throughout the year, it hasn’t been pretty at times, but we’re a team that finds a way. The last two games we fell short. So we’re disappointed, we’re not going to stop fighting.”
Gibson chimed in: “I just guess that sometimes we kind of rush. Other times, we take good looks and it comes up short. It’s going to happen that way. That’s the way we’ve been rolling all year long. Guys aren’t afraid to step in and take big shots. It’s just tough because you’re slugging away the whole game. It’s a constant battle and at times the basketball doesn’t go the way you want it to go. That’s the way I look at it.”
The sixth man, however, took umbrage to the suggestion by a reporter that suggested one of the Bulls’ issues could be the Wizards’ willingness to engage with them physically, a Chicago trademark.
“Have you watched us play all year?” Gibson asked, before getting an answer in the affirmative. “All right, that answers your question. Everybody knows we’re a rugged team, we don’t shy away from contact. It’s like the game was kind of up and down. It would be physical one minute, and then not physical another minute. The game kind of gets altered, I guess. It was a couple tough plays. We didn’t shy away from anything. We felt good in the fourth. We had a solid lead, coming back. The way we started the game, they just jumped on us, so it was up and down. It’s the playoffs, it’s a 12-round fight. Nobody is going to get knocked out right away. Players are going to have a lot of emotions in the game, but I’ll never say that we’re going to shy away from the physicality of the game. That was a crazy question.”
The team that’s championed its response to adversity all season must now rebuke the logical conclusion—losing to the lower-seeded Wizards—again, but with the added hurdle of having to play on the road.
“It’s tough, but its’ not over with. We still have that mindset that we can win and that’s what we’re going to Washington with. We have to keep fighting and keep working,” Augustin said. “Just got to keep playing. It’s still a long series. It’s not over. We still have that mindset that we do believe that we can, so we’re just going to go with that mindset and keep fighting.”
Gibson concurred: Just regroup, go back to the film. It feels like we’re a fingernail short every time. A loose-ball couple plays here and there, a couple tough calls, but got to play through it. Just like Dikembe [Mutombo, the former NBA star, who once played for Thibodeau in Houston and presented Noah with his award before the game] just told us: head up, we get paid to play basketball. We just got to try and come back, try and get one on the road. First things first, try and get one.”