OKLAHOMA CITY — The 29.1 percent field-goal shooting — including 22.2 percent in the first half, when the game still held a semblance of competitiveness — was just a symptom of a bigger problem.
The Bulls, known for their selflessness, toughness and determination, have become vulnerable.
This has nothing to do with last week’s trade deadline — or the comments made last Thursday by Derrick Rose’s older brother regarding the team’s inactivity, which were supported by at least one player — or even their injured superstar’s absence.
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What’s ailing the Bulls right now is the inability to consistently simply will their way to wins or at least close games against certain types of teams, the ones that play focused, possess superior athletes, execute on both ends and refuse to be cowed by the hard-nosed squad’s usual persistence.
“We’ve got enough. We have to do our jobs. Do our jobs. We’ve shown when we do that, we’re capable of beating anyone. We have to be mentally tougher, we have to be stronger. When you face a little bit of adversity — whatever — if you’re short-handed, you have to dig down and get the job done,” a clearly disappointed Tom Thibodeau explained. “We just had a stretch where we had 10 out of our last 12 on the road, but our road doesn’t get any easier. We go home and we’ve got to play a lot tougher. Our level of intensity has to be much higher. We’ve got to get that part right. We’ve got to get it right quickly.”
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By late in the third quarter of Sunday evening’s 102-72 massacre at the hands of the Thunder, the Bulls head coach, a non-stop whirling dervish on the sidelines virtually every night, had his hands in his pockets and a look of perpetual disgust at what he was witnessing.
His players were just as chagrined at their atypical lack of fight, inability to stop Oklahoma City’s offensive onslaught and their own dysfunction on offense.
“Our intensity, it was bad tonight. We took steps backwards. That’s what’s frustrating. We’ve played a lot better this year, so there’s really no excuse. We’ve just got to bounce back, ASAP,” All-Star center Joakim Noah said. “The way we competed, it’s just embarrassing. The way we competed was bad. It’s not time to feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve got a little home stretch coming up. Things move fast in this league and we’ve got to bounce back fast.”
Noah was asked about whether the Bulls were simply mentally spent after playing without Rose, the lone player on the team with the ability to create for himself and others, take over games and keep them in games with his individual brilliance, just as the superstar returned to the locker room and retrieved his belongings from the stall beside his teammate.
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“Offensive execution, everybody can do that and I’m just thinking about the game. Thinking about the shots that I was taking. Maybe they weren’t the right shots. We’ve all got to sacrifice for one another and execute better. We’re not playing well,” he said, after briefly glancing at Rose. “It starts with myself. I’ve got to play better. Everybody’s got to look at themselves in the mirror. We’ve had a tough stretch right now. It’s very humbling to lose like that. We’ve just got to look at ourselves in the mirror and do better. This isn’t getting it done and it’s tough.”
Noah can put the onus on himself, a trait possessed by good leaders, but just as the Bulls have won collectively throughout this campaign, when they lose, no one player is completely responsible.
“I thought we took the wrong shots. We were quick-shooting the ball, we didn’t get the ball moving side to side. We got 48 shots in the first half, made 10,” Thibodeau, who noted that “everything” disappointed him about his team’s performance, said. “We’ve got to execute.
“The defense was okay in the first half. Our offense hurt us. I thought we had a shot to get back in it at the end of the second quarter. Then, we started off the third quarter low energy, tough shots, no defense and the game was over,” he continued. “Against good teams, you’ve got to get to the second and third option. The ball has to move, it has to be high energy, you have to sprint into screens, you have to separate screens, you have to pass the ball on target, have to have timing and spacing. You have to do all those things. You have to what’s best for the team, not necessarily what’s best for yourself, to get yourself going. You can’t get stuck in whatever problems you’re having individually.
“You have to do your job — for the team — first.”
It’s that simple.
Until the Bulls get back on the same page — and certainly, Kirk Hinrich’s absence due to his lingering right-elbow injury has affected them, in terms of both his floor general and defensive abilities — on a nightly basis, this is a team that can look very average.
Against the Hornets and Bobcats of the NBA, Thibodeau’s mantra of having “more than enough to win” is accurate, but unless they execute precisely and play the intense brand of hoops they’ve been known for, the Bulls aren’t a team capable of keeping up with elite teams like the Thunder and Heat, let alone second-tier, but still dangerously athletic teams, such as the Clippers and Nuggets.
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That doesn’t bode well moving forward, but with a three-game homestretch where the Cavaliers, 76ers and Nets visit Chicago before taking on the Central Division rival Pacers in Indiana, they not only have a chance to lick their wounds, but play gradually increasingly level of opponents in an effort to rebuild their collective confidence and chemistry.
With the season’s stretch run approaching, if that doesn’t occur and a replay of the lackluster effort displayed Sunday — unforced turnovers, defensive lapses, poor shot selection, individuals trying to get it done on their own and a troubling lack of spirit — happens anytime soon, then perhaps the perception of the Bulls as tough-minded overachievers was inaccurate in the first place.