Games like Thursday night's narrow home loss to the Thunder illustrate both the ceiling and floor of this season's edition of the Bulls. Certainly a good team, one that can be penciled into the playoffs at this early juncture and depending on the matchups, one that could potentially make some noise--the top-heavy nature of the East, with presumed Central Division favorite Indiana now missing a key piece in Danny Granger for an extended absence, Boston starting slow out of the gates with its retooled roster and the two New York teams having major question marks only reinforces the Miami and everybody else assumptions many made before the campaign began--but clearly one with flaws.
Not that they weren't before, even with Derrick Rose's game-changing ability as an equalizer, the size of Omer Asik looming as a defensive presence underneath the basket, sharpshooter Kyle Korver's elite marksmanship and an experienced, deeper, more cohesive bench, but this season will tests the team's discipline on both sides of the ball, as well as the commitment to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's oft-stated principles. Indeed, more than ever, low turnovers, strong rebounding, unselfish play, inside-out offense and last but definitely not least, stout defense.
The thing is, while Thibodeau could nit-pick about which of those tenets weren't being followed after contests during the past two seasons, when the Bulls won a league-high number of regular-season games, they didn't fall on deaf ears, but they were much less of a concern, due to the effort being displayed on the floor, a high level of overall execution and superior talent. When facing the league's elite teams, there wasn't necessarily room for deviation from the plan, but the Bulls could eke out wins without completely following the game plan to the letter.
That's no longer the case, as the Oklahoma City loss proved. It was just one game, but little things here and there, as well as superstars Russell Westbrook and especially Kevin Durant asserting themselves down the stretch, was an early example of the fact that even when the Bulls come to play, they won't always have enough when it comes to the league's true contenders.
"Theyre hard to guard, they made some tough plays and we couldnt close it out," Thibodeau observed. "I thought we battled.
"The game was there. The game was there to be had," he went on to say. "Our turnovers hurt us. We had a good start to the game. Our defense was very good at the start of the game, but it was nowhere near a 48-minute game for us defensively."
"You have to give them credit. Theyre a good team."
Joakim Noah added: "It was a frustrating loss because we really had a chance to win this game. Theyre obviously very talented, but a couple of our shots down the stretch just went in and out. Overall, I felt like we played hard, but those turnovers definitely haunted us.
"At the end of the day, its all about Ws and Ls, so we got an L tonight. Weve got to learn from it. We always feel like we can play against anybody and its just frustrating because you do two or three things differently and you win the game. I guess you can always look back at games like that, but when you lose by such few possessions, its tough," he continued. "Were definitely capable. I think everybody who saw the game could see that were capable. Twenty turnovers against some high-scoring team, you cant do that. Those guys get out on the break, its two points.
"I think you have to look at it and learn from your mistakes because these games are won by one or two possessions, and theres obviously things throughout the game that you feel that you could have done better as a team. Its frustrating right now because we lost, but you have to learn from it and get better, and I think that we can definitely get better...I think we did a good job on KD. Hes just a great player. He hit some tough shots at the end of the game, off one leg. I think on one of his shots, he was behind the backboard. Youve got to give credit where credit is due, but we feel like we could have played better."
Rip Hamilton chimed in: "We were right there. We came out slow early in the fourthit was all about a game of runs. I thought, late in the game, we defended real well. I thought Kevin hit two great shots. There was nothing you could do about them. But we were right there. We really feel as though we let one slip away.
"Theyre the defending Western Conference champs and any time youve got an opportunity to play against one of the teams thats considered the best, youve really got to bring your A game because if you dont, theyll show you up, so that was the biggest thing. We wanted to come out, take care of home and we just couldnt get it at the end."
It's hard to take solace in simply playing the Thunder close and the Bulls aren't a team that accepts moral victories, but there were some positives in the defeat. Hamilton and All-Star Luol Deng both had it going simultaneously, and while neither is a player that will beat a team by themselves as a scorer on a nightly basis, the two-pronged wing attack is extremely difficult for opposing teams to deal with, particularly when Noah is playing with such a high activity level, regardless of his point production, reserve swingman Jimmy Butler continues to make strides as a defender and the feisty Kirk Hinrich plays one of the top point guards in the game, Westbrook, to a virtual draw.
But with the team's offense-by-committee approach, if one primary scorer--in this case, Carlos Boozer, who did make his presence felt on the glass--doesn't have it going, then the Bulls will have issues, as certain matchups, such as Westbrook, who has great size for his position, basically nullify diminutive energy player Nate Robinson and fellow backup guard Marco Belinelli, a player with defensive shortcomings, doesn't have his shot falling. Still, give Thibodeau, a tireless strategist, and his heady, veteran squad, time to figure out how to get over the hump against the supposed glamour teams on a regular basis.
"Its still early. Weve just got to get rolling," Deng said. "Normally, we start rolling. We start putting wins together. I know its early, but the last two games we lose were at home.
"Theres always a positive in every game. Our mindset is just finding a way to win somehow. Theres a lot of positive stuff out there, but theres still a lot of stuff weve got to do better. At home, the game is close, weve got to find a way to win," he added. "Weve just got to find ways without having Derrick there, even if youre having a bad night.
"We cant be surprised when its a close game. Theres going to be a lot of those games. Just got to be tough-minded in winning those games at the end, but theres going to be a lot of those games."
Against Saturday's visitor to the United Center, Minnesota, a team the Bulls are already quite familiar with, having split two exhibition contests with the Timberwolves, expect the hosts to come out with energy and focus, traits they're apt at showcasing following losses, especially since they haven't lost a trio of consecutive games during Thibodeau's tenure. While they tend not to overlook teams like Minnesota--an improved group themselves, but not a club that presents the proverbial measuring-stick game--their subsequent opponent, the Celtics, are more the type of marquee squad the Bulls would like to get redemption by beating.
But in the meantime, expect an adherence to Thibodeau's beloved principles, particularly his ball-security edict, as that was perhaps the aspect of Thursday's loss that stuck in the coach's craw the most. In fact, while Thibodeau isn't one to reflect upon past failures, he was surprisingly candid about the defeat following the team's Saturday-morning shootaround at the Berto Center.
"You never have it figured out. It's something that you constantly have to work on. It got us. That really was the difference in the game, in a hard-fought close battle, giving buckets away. In many ways, they're very similar to Miami. If you turn it over and it's a live ball, you're basically giving them a layup and that's what we did, so that, more than anything, is what hurt us and that being said, we did a lot of good things in that game. Disappointing," he explained, adding "today's a new day," just in case the assembled media decided to make a habit of dissecting an event that occurred two days prior. "We're up six going into the fourth, 87-87, with three minutes to go. We've got to find a way to win that. But that's gone, we've got to focus in on Minnesota, get better. We had a good shootaround today and hopefully we'll be ready tonight."