Questions abound after Bulls loss in New Jersey

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Questions abound after Bulls loss in New Jersey

Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011
Posted 8:45 PM Updated 10:45 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

NEWARK, N.J.In a game that will be examined for its myriad subplotsfirst and foremost, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus decisions will be scrutinizedit came down to Chicago finally getting burned after playing with fire (as Thibodeau and All-Star point guard Derrick Rose each have quipped following too-close-for-comfort losses to inferior opponents) over the past few weeks. A reserve-led comeback and a typical Rose clutch performance wouldnt be enough to overcome a lackluster effort Wednesday night, as the Bulls (23-11) fell to the Nets (10-25), 96-94, in the two teams second matchup in less than a week.

After a better-than-usual start to the previous nights winalthough Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau wasnt entirely satisfiedChicago was once again lethargic to open a contest. Facing the inferior Nets for the second time in less than a week, the Bulls opponent appeared clearly motivated, not easily intimidated and ultimately effective in the games early going.

Finally deciding to clamp down on defense, New Jerseys easy opportunities ceased for the time being and on the other end, a pair of consecutive circus layups by Rose (21 points)who else?sparked the visitors offense, enabling Chicago to make it a neck-and-neck affair. That being said, the Nets clung to a one-point lead following the first quarter, 25-24.

All the games are tough. They got some guys back, they play hard and they played us well in Chicago, so I knew it was going to be a tough game. We didnt establish ourselves defensively to start the game, so it was going to be a long night for us, said Thibodeau.

Added Rose: Not starting off well really hurts us. Teams get confidence. We cant do this in this league. Anybody can beat you, no matter what their record is.

Luol Deng (17 points, eight rebounds), continuing his recent spate of hot starts to gamesperhaps a byproduct of his growing comfort level with Carlos Boozer (12 points, nine rebounds, five assists)but his efforts were countered by the strong finishing and rebounding of Nets reserve Kris Humphries (20 points, 11 rebounds)typically New Jerseys starting power forward; top draft pick Derrick Favors got his first career start.

The rookie departed after picking up two quick foulswho brought the Prudential Center crowd to its feet with his explosive dunks and blue-collar production. Chicagos bench, however, rallied, quickly erasing the deficit and turning the tables on the home team to snatch the lead out of the young Nets grasp.

With Thibodeaus regulars back in the contest, the Bulls werent quite able to pull away from New Jerseydespite a clear advantage in talentdue to those dreaded defensive lapses. Through two periods of play, the Bulls held a 47-46 lead.

A 4-0 Nets run to start the third quarter immediately raised Thibodeaus ire, resulting in a 20-second Bulls timeout. New Jerseys onslaught didnt stop, however, as Bulls turnovers, easy transition opportunities and displays of athleticism from Humphries and Favors contributed to Chicagos woes.

Continued defensive breakdownsNets point guard Devin Harris (18 points, 11 assists) was seemingly able to penetrate the lane at will to either score or find an open teammate, while center Brook Lopez (14 points) gradually found his groove against wily veteran Kurt Thomasexacerbated the situation, permitting New Jersey to build a slight cushion. Humphries personal exhibition, in particular, was surprising to see, but Chicagos overall defense was subpar, as the likes of Stephen Graham (11 points) and Sasha Vujacic (13 points) did damage.

With poor shot selection, a lack of cohesiveness and general ineptitude all playing roles in the Bulls nightmarish three quarters, New Jersey took a 78-65 lead into the final period.

Deng and an all-reserve unit, started to gradually chip away at New Jerseys winning margin in the fourth quarter by playing with more energy, attention to detail on defense and focus on offense, with Deng, reserve swingman Ronnie Brewer and backup point guard C.J. Watson leading the charge. Thibodeau stuck with his bench for extended minutes for a second consecutive nightalbeit in vastly different circumstances; Deng played with the second unit on the previous evening, toobefore reinserting Rose into the contest with 4:02 to play.

Boozer, the teams major offseason free-agent acquisition was noticeably absent from the fourth-quarter comeback. Thibodeau shared his thought process afterwards.

We struggled all night and at the end, we were in such a big hole, we were searching for anything that could get us going, so we went small to see if the guys could generate something and it worked pretty effectively. When youre doing that, youre sacrificing some defense, too, Thibodeau reasoned. We were in such a big hole and they were playing zone, so we had to keep shooting on the floor. That was the main reason we put Lu at the four, to get more range shooting out there to see if we could spread them out and take advantage of them that way.

They were small on the perimeter. They were playing Jordan Farmar and Harris and Vujacic, and we had a hard time matching up. Thats why we went small, to see if that would helpI thought Humphries played with a lot of energy off the bench. Their rebounding of second shots hurt us badly, he continued. Well, the big thing was they were behind big and they were zoning, so the group that went inwe were playing Luol at the four, which gave us another perimeter playerso it was more effective for us against the zone. Thats why we did it and when that group cut the lead down and we were in positionthey tied the game upwe were just going to finish with the group that was going well.

Obviously offensively, Boozer helps a lot more, but also the matchup with Lopez. Thats what I was concerned with going down to the other end.

A quiet Boozerin sharp contrast to his usual upbeat demeanorspoke with reporters following the games conclusion.

Youve got to talk to Thibs about that. That was a coaching decision, said Boozer, whoas he did when he was injured to start the seasonsupported his teammates wholeheartedly from the sidelines. I want us to win and Im always going to cheer my teammates on, no matter what.

Rose, along with Boozer, one of four Bulls captains, tried to quell any controversy in the aftermath.

Of his own extended stint on the bench, he said, Of course its going to be hard, but they were out there doing good. They got us back into the game. There were a couple possessions where we could have got the lead, but we didnt. But we had a lot of opportunities to win this game.

Regarding Boozer, Rose remarked, Yeah, we were surprised, but were not going to try to coach. Were going to go out there and do our job and thats to play. Were just going to leave all the subbing and everything up to him.

Although the Nets, propelled by Harris ability to get to the rim and New Jerseys rebounding margin, didnt wilt instantly, Roses knack for stepping up in the clutch began to manifest itself down the stretch. A swashbuckling jaunt to the rimplus the foulhere, a 3-pointer there, a fast-break assist and the Bulls were back in it, cutting their deficit to a single point as quickly as the All-Star point guards first step blows past defenders.

After the Bulls an errant Watson 3-pointer, Lopez was fouled and split a pair of foul shots to give New Jersey a two-point lead with under a minute to play. Following a Chicago timeoutthe teams last, called with 49.7 seconds to goDeng was eventually fouled, but missed both of his chances from the charity stripe.

Ive got to make them. They fouled and in a position like that, I expect myself to make those free throws. Ive been struggling with my free-throw shooting this year, said Deng, who denied fatigue was an issue, despite playing over 40 minutes on back-to-back nights. I cant be in that position and miss clutch free throws.

On the subsequent possession, the Nets were unable to capitalize and on the ensuing trip, Watson was fouled on a long-range jumperruled to be a two-point shotwith 11.1 seconds remaining. Watson calmly buried both attempts.

I thought it was a three, but Lu told me it was a two, so I was kind of disappointed, said Watson. I wasnt really looking, but I thought it was a 3-pointer. I didnt really know; I couldnt tell.

Out of a timeout, Lopez couldnt convert a lob pass and Vujacic gathered the carom to hit a miraculous shot in traffic with 5.3 seconds on the clock.

Youve got to come up with the loose ball. C.J. made a good play to get a piece of the ball and weve got to scramble and come up with it, and we didnt. Give them credit. They came up with it, said Thibodeau.

Rose chimed in: It was like a blur, where they threw the oop, C.J. hit ittapped it awayI thought that we were going to get the rebound for sure, but Sasha got it and he made a great layup over Kurt.

Rose pushed the ball down the floor and attempted a contested triple to try to escape Newark with a win, but it fell short.

We allowed them to set instead of getting the ball in quick and obviously, if you can attack before theyre set, you have more room and space. But that was a tough play at the end of that game, Thibodeau explained. We allowed them to shoot 49 percent. They got the big loose ball at the end that won the game for them. Youve got to defend and rebound on the road.

We didnt defend, we didnt rebound well and we were low energy most of the game. In the fourth quarter, we dug down, we got some stops and we played with more energy. That gave us a chance.

Rose elaborated about the final shot: The way that they were playing me, it was going to be hard for me to drive. They were cutting down the elbows, just forcing me to pass and I just took the shot.

They tried to trap meBrook and Devin tried to trap me at the half-court lineI had to get past them and by that time, my mind was rushing. Im like, What to do? What to do? I picked up the ball, I pump-fakedI was going to passthen I just shot it. Next time, I should know what to do, he continued. It hurt, not having the timeout, but if anything, I can get up the court in a couple of seconds. I think I took a bad shot towards the end, but things like this help you for the long run, when you get into situations like this again. I think I could have got all the way to the basket.

Rose went on to say: This is the second game we lost a team thats under .500, but right now, it hurts. But we cant hang our heads down. Weve got to continue to play. Weve got to get off to good starts againweve got to get out and run, get easy baskets. Were not getting any easy baskets. Everything has to be tough, contested and everything. We dont want that. Weve got to make the game easy again.

Im going to shake this off, go out there and try to win the next game.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.