LOS ANGELES -- The opponent was only part of the equation, one that resulted in a 90-81 loss Sunday afternoon at the Staples Center.
More emblematic of the Bulls’ defeat at the hands of the Lakers was their 37.1 percent shooting from the field, a 50-46 rebounding deficit -- it was bigger than that throughout most of the game, but evened out a bit toward the end -- and more significant than any statistic, a lack of cohesion.
For all of the talk about the Bulls being undermanned this season -- they were missing Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton and of course, Derrick Rose, in Sunday’s contest -- Sunday’s setback had more to do with the team not completely embracing the core concepts that have made them able to withstand multiple absences in the lineup.
“We’ve got enough. We’ve got to do the right things. You do the right things; you’ll be in position to win. I think our level of intensity has to go up, especially on the road,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The Lakers are playing very good basketball right now. They’re not going to beat themselves. You’ve got to come in and play well. It’s got to be a well-balanced game, high energy on offense, the ball is moving, bodies are moving and then defensively, you’ve got to be tied together. They put a lot of pressure on you. Howard’s rolling to the rim, they’ve got a lot of shooting on the floor, so it requires multiple effort. If you take a shortcut, you’re going to pay.”
All-Star Luol Deng -- who suffered through another tough scoring night, scoring 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting, though he did a solid job defensively on Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant -- added: “We never make any excuses. [Thibodeau is] right. We’ve got enough. We’ve beaten teams with the guys that we have. We have enough to win.
“We could play a lot better. We’ve played better before on both ends of the floor. We can do a lot better than we’re doing right now,” he went on to say. “I just think we could do a better job of just getting guys into it early and getting rhythm shots. We’re getting a lot of random shots right now.”
Bryant was held to 19 points -- 13 of those coming in the second half, although he did have nine assists and was clearly focused on his playmaking at the game’s outset -- but the hosts got solid contributions from the likes of a scoring-oriented Steve Nash and role players Metta World Peace, Earl Clark and Jodie Meeks, not to mention the much-maligned Dwight Howard, who scored 16 points, blocked four shots and corralled 21 rebounds on the afternoon.
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“Howard, in particular, in the first half, just dominated the paint. Shot-blocking, rebounding, physicality. That set the tone for the game. They dominated us on the boards from the start,” Thibodeau said. “Kobe came out as a playmaker. They played well…you’ve got to give them credit. They played good defense.”
Joakim Noah, who had 18 points and 17 rebounds of his own in a great matchup of All-Star centers, concurred: “They beat us on the glass. Frustrating. I feel like we could have played better. I think we’re capable of better, but you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. A lot of great scorers and they definitely controlled the boards.”
“Our ball movement wasn’t too bad. We’re always in each other’s way, so we’ve got to find a way to spread the court a little bit more. It’s just disappointing because we’re not executing our offense very well right now,” he continued. “There’s still a long way to go and guys are going to come back healthy, and we’re going to make our run.”
As presently constructed -- and even upon the eventual returns of Hinrich and Gibson, who are both on the trip; predicting when Rose and even Hamilton, who remains in Chicago with a back ailment, will come back is a guessing game at this point -- the Bulls are a team without a large margin for error, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
When they don’t defend or rebound at a high level, it would be foolhardy to think of them as a team capable of matching up with elite opponents. Likewise, when one of their periodic offensive droughts basically extends throughout an entire contest, it’s hard to imagine them competing with upper-echelon foes.
Therefore, even with key players out of the lineup, it’s the same old song as the season heads into its stretch run: The Bulls have to execute unselfishly and almost flawlessly on offense, give or take, and if the shots don’t fall or the opposition beats tough defense with better offense, then so be it. But anything short, even they admit, isn’t enough to win, to paraphrase a Thibodeau mantra.
“No question,” Noah agreed. “But I feel like we could still do better defensively and we can definitely do better offensively. It’s just hard sometimes when we’re not used to seeing Lu play [power forward] or guys have to play out of position right now. No excuses, though. It’s tough, but you’ve got to bounce back and get a ‘W’ against Sacramento.
“Nobody cares [about their injuries]. It’s no time for excuses. We’ve still got to go out there and play the game -- play the game the right way -- and I think a lot of it is mental with us,” he continued. “We just get frustrated very easily right now and I think that if we stick together through these hard times, I think it’s going to make our team that much better.”