In Sunday’s updated Eastern Conference standings, the Bulls will have one more win than they did entering Saturday night’s tilt against the 76ers. Losers of 23 straight games, Philadelphia never really posed much of a 48-minute threat to knock off Chicago, and the Bulls, 16-point favorites, were able to pull away late for a 91-81 win.
But it was more of the way the Bulls performed, specifically in the first half, that brought up a reoccurring theme of issues on the glass and, in general, defensively, that have given them some cause for concern as the regular season winds down and they prepare for the postseason.
The Bulls allowed the Sixers to shoot just 34 percent, but Brett Brown’s group corralled 19 offensive rebounds, which turned into 22 second-chance points. Third-year center Henry Sims, who had grabbed 13 rebounds on Friday night against the Knicks, finished with nine offensive boards – he also had a game-high 15 rebounds – while forward Thaddeus Young added four more offensive boards.
“It’s a concern,” said Joakim Noah, who finished with eight rebounds to go along with his team-high 20 points and four assists, said of the rebounding issues. “We’ve got to come back with a better effort. Overall, I think the last five, six games our rebounding hasn’t been great. But it’s definitely something we can correct.”
The Bulls, in fact, have only out-rebounded their opponents one time in the last six games – Wednesday night they held a 52-38 advantage on the glass in Philadelphia against this same Sixers team.
Philadelphia entered Saturday’s action with the fourth worst rebounding differential in the NBA, but they beat the Bulls, 48-44, on the glass and, had it not been for their one 3-point make on 20 tries, the Sixers may have stopped their historic losing streak against a Bulls team that head coach Tom Thibodeau says needs to increase their energy late in the season.
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“90 percent of the rebounding is going to be will and determination: Are we going to go get it? S when that ball’s in the air, are we going to get it? The great rebounders are the ones that keep going,” Thibodeau said, “and the more you keep going the more you get. And so right now we’ve got to hit, hold and go, and if we do that we’re going to be great.”
Noah concurred, adding that mentally preparing to attack the glass on a nightly basis is what gives the Bulls a distinctive advantage, and that they need to get back to those ways: “Teams who are mentally strongest, those are the teams that usually win. The team with the edge, the team that comes with that competitive spirit and wants it more."
The Bulls have been great on the glass as a whole this season, ranking ninth in rebounds per game (44.7) and fourth in differential (+3.4), and teams have taken notice. According to Taj Gibson, who led the Bulls on Saturday with 10 rebounds, opponents understand how hard the Bulls work on the glass and make a concerted effort to match that intensity.
“Teams know that in order to beat us they really have to attack the rebounding. They’ve got to try to limit our second-chance shots because that’s what we really count on, is our second-chance looks, offensive rebounding (and) defensive rebounding,” he said, “and teams are really locking in on that and trying to bring the physicality to us.”
Saturday night that team was one that the Bulls, at least publicly, feared. Though the Seattle Seahawks have won more recently (Feb. 4) than the 76ers (Jan. 31), Thibodeau reiterated to his team before the game and at halftime, when the Bulls led by just three, that the Sixers were dangerous because they had nothing to lose.
And he was right. The Sixers have lost 24 straight games, but five of those last six defeats have come by single-digits, and they were within striking distance of the Pacers twice, and only lost to the Knicks by one on Friday.
“Every game they’re right there, all the way to the end. They fight like crazy,” Thibodeau said. “They’re hanging tough, so you’ve got to beat them to beat them. They were into us and the rebounding still wasn’t good, so we’ve got to get that corrected.”
Gibson said the Sixers’ tenacity felt like “playoff style” basketball, and that such a matchup can get a team prepared for the second season – the Bulls are currently tied for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with the Toronto Raptors. And if a battle against a 15-win club hungry for a win can get the Bulls ready, imagine what Monday’s matchup against the Pacers will do.
Indiana, the top seed in the East, has lost two of its last three and is just 7-6 in March. Though they hold a three-game lead on the Heat for the home-court advantage in the East, they’re sure to come in hungry for a win after Saturday’s 82-71 loss in Memphis. That, and they beat the Bulls by 12 on Friday, out-rebounding Chicago by 15 (51-36) in the process.
“Indiana’s a great rebounding team, very physical,” Noah said, “and we’re going to have to execute very well and battle on the boards for us to have a chance.”
Added Thibodeau: “To do the things we want to do, we’ve got to be great defensively, we’ve got to be great rebounding, and we’re going to have to do better than what we’re doing right now.”