Time to face facts: The Bulls are officially a bad team, at least at the moment.
“Bad,” of course is relative, as they do play in the Eastern Conference and this current stretch, in which they’ve lost eight of their last 10 games, can partly be blamed on a decimated roster. No Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler makes Tuesday’s 78-74 loss to the sad-sack Bucks, the worst team in the lowly East, a bit more explainable.
The problem is, last season’s inspired run, featuring Nate Robinson’s heroics, Marco Belinelli’s clutch performances, Butler’s emergence and Noah’s debut All-Star campaign, spoiled us. We forget the bad times and take it for granted that the Bulls should be able to summon those type of outings on a nightly basis, in a season where they unprepared to have to do so.
“Well, there’s a way to win every game, so you have four starters out. If you defend and rebound and take care of the ball, you’re going to be in position to win. It doesn’t matter. Everyone who was called upon is capable of doing their job. Eighteen turnovers hurt us,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. “We’ve got to do better.”
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He’s right about some of that, but perhaps discounts the emotional toll it takes on a team, even one as tough-minded as his squad. Not that his players were willing to admit it either.
“We’re struggling a little bit right now, these last couple games and we’ve got to bounce back. Me personally, I haven’t given us anything these last two games offensively, so if I do that, we probably have a chance to win both these games. So I’m going to try to play better myself, get my mind right and do better,” said Kirk Hinrich, who struggled through an 0-for-10 shooting night. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s something we’ve got to deal with. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. This was a winnable game. We just didn’t play well enough to do it.
“It takes an extremely high effort and we’re short-handed, but it’s no excuse. We’re all pros. We’ve got to go out there and do what we can do.”
Mike Dunleavy Jr., who poured in a team-high 24 points, concurred: “As far as performance and skill and all that, the main thing is you’ve got to play hard and compete and grind it out. You can do that whether Joakim Noah or Luol Deng or Derrick Rose is in the lineup. They’re not. That’s a mindset thing. That’s not a skill thing.”
Milwaukee’s zone defense posed a problem for the Bulls and second-year big man John Henson—the long youngster had a huge night, going for 24 points, 15 rebounds, six blocked shots and an improbable jumper to beat the shot-clock buzzer and help the Bucks hold on down the stretch—teamed with third-year point guard Brandon Knight to form a duo that was effective.
But it wasn’t and isn’t about personnel for the Bulls, as evidenced by their win over the defending-champion Heat last week. It’s about somehow willing themselves past this stretch, getting back some of their walking wounded and then separating themselves from the pack of bottom-feeders in the conference.
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“Listen, we’re down four starters right now and it’s frustrating, it’s tough,” Carlos Boozer explained. “We need everybody we can, but we’re doing the best we can. It’s unfortunate when you’re missing the guys that we’re missing
“My job is to try to keep everybody positive. It’s still early in the season,” he continued. “Stay positive because we’ll start getting guys back. We’ll get Jimmy back soon. Lu will be back soon. Jo’s going through something, he’ll be back.”
Unlike many of their peers, the Bulls aren’t actively trying to tank and while the likely acquisition of point guard D.J. Augustin off waivers isn’t a blockbuster move, it shows that they’re still thinking about the present and not focusing on the future. Wednesday night’s road game against the Knicks—a disaster of a team, along with their fellow New York City dwellers, the Nets, neither of whom have the built-in excuse of being down a franchise player—is an opportunity to feast upon a similarly desperate team, albeit a talented one, though without an identity.
“We’ll be in every game because we play hard,” Boozer said. “That’s what it’s going to be. Each game is going to have a different challenge.
“We’ve got another game tomorrow night against a good team, in their building, and hopefully we can grind out a win.”