SACRAMENTO—On a night when injuries suffered to the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony made fans in Los Angeles and New York have feelings of panic, the Bulls’ 42-point loss to the lowly Kings have Chicago loyalists experience feelings of doom.
The 121-79 drubbing at the hands of the league’s worst defensive team, minus their best offensive player, center DeMarcus Cousins, was an absolute embarrassment that, for the Bulls, felt like a nightmare that would never end.
Wednesday’s performance wasn’t one where the team could take solace in certain aspects of the game or individual outings from specific players; rather, it evoked thoughts that didn’t seem possible from a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, who suffered through his worst defeat as an NBA head coach.
“Just about everything,” Thibodeau responded, when asked what he was most disappointed in. “Our level of intensity is very poor. Our readiness to play, very poor. I’m probably most disappointed in myself. My job is to have them ready. We can’t come out like that. That’s on me. I didn’t like our intensity in the Laker game and I didn’t like it tonight.
[WATCH: Thibodeau disappointed in himself]
“I’ve got to drive harder. And I will,” he continued. “There’s a fine line right now because we’re down people, so the people that are there, for us, being short-handed, we can never forget how hard we have to play. So, the guys that are there, I’ve got to get that intensity up. And I will.
“And I will. Trust me on that.”
Indeed, there’s no reason to doubt that Thibodeau will kick things up a notch. But whether it’s due to fatigue, injuries to key players or just a serious lull during the course of an 82-game regular season, these Bulls aren’t showing that resiliency, that ability to will their way to victories that’s defined them in the past.
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls blown out by Sacramento]
“I think we’ve all got to look at each other in the mirror and understand that we’re not competing the way we’re supposed to be competing. We’ve got a lot of guys out, our margin for error is very small and if we’re not going into games with the right mindset, we have no chance,” All-Star center Joakim Noah explained. “Right now, it’s about us. Each and every single one of us has got to really look in the mirror and say, ‘You know what? It starts with me. I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to work harder. I’ve got to come more prepared.’ We know that we’re capable.”
Carlos Boozer, the lone Bull who could truly claim to have had a solid night, chimed in: “Just the fact that we lost. We were embarrassing, man. It’s just hard to put into words. We’ve just got to step up, man. We’ve got a lot of people out. when you’ve got people out, everybody’s got to play a little bit harder, do a little bit more. We know that we’re capable of doing that because we’ve done it before.
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“Nobody cares about that [the Bulls’ injuries]. Every team’s got somebody out. They’re not going to feel sorry for us, so we can’t use that as an excuse. We’ve got to win games,” he added, before, like Noah, suggesting a possible remedy. “We get our spirits up. We get in the gym, we work hard, get our swag back, get our confidence back. We do it for each other, do it together. Every player in this league, once you’ve been in this league for a long time, you go through lulls like this and the only people that can fix it are the people in this room. You all can’t help us, our families can’t help us. We’ve got to help each other. That’s the only way to get out of it.”
Thibodeau focused on his team’s lack of preparedness coming into the contest, again blaming himself for the Bulls’ struggles.
“We played poorly. We played poorly, I coached poorly. My job is to have them ready,” he said. “You go on the road, you have to defend, you have to rebound, you have to take care of the ball, you have to play inside-out, you have to share the ball, you have to do your job. But the most important thing is being ready to play. You have to be ready to play. This is a competition. It’s not a show; it’s a competition. You’ve got to compete, you’ve got to play with an edge, you’ve got to go after people.
“Well, there’s two things that you have to have to get intensity: You have to have to great concentration and you have to give great effort. That’s what gives you great intensity, so when you’re lacking in intensity, you have to go back to those two things and you have to ask yourself, ‘Are we as well-prepared as we need to be?’ And that’s my job, so I’m going to make sure that happens,” he continued. “We have enough to win with. We’ve shown we’re a good road team. We have to get back to doing the things that we did earlier, that allowed us to have a chance to win. If we do the right things, we’ll have a chance to win.
“The big thing is we’re down more people, so we’re going deeper and we have to have everyone ready. Everyone has to be capable of doing their job and that’s not happening right now,” the coach went on to say. “We have to go back and look at it. The thing to me is when you’re not making them miss, you’re not getting any easy baskets, you’re taking it out of the net and you’re playing low energy, you make them miss and you rebound the ball well, you can get into the open floor and get some easy baskets, so we haven’t done that.”
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When asked about specific ways to cure their ails, his players were less definitive in their answers, but just as resolute about breaking out of their slump.
“It’s something we’ve got to fix. I think if we can make teams miss in the first quarter and make it tough for them in the first quarter, then we’ll have confidence throughout the game,” Boozer said. “I hope it [the loss] does [help the team rally during the season’s stretch run]. We need it to because the playoffs will be here in a blink of an eye and we’ll have a quick exit if we’re playing like this in the playoffs.”
Noah added: “We’ve just got to stick together. We’re not playing good basketball right now. We’re not playing well offensively, we’re not playing well defensively. It’s no time to make excuses right now. We just have to find a way and bounce back fast. We don’t even have time to think about it. We’ve just got to move on fast and just get ready for Golden State, that’s a lot better than this team.
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“It’s tough, but we’ve still got to go out there and play, and the disappointing thing is not the winning and the losing, it’s the way we’re playing because we know we’re capable of so much better,” he continued. “I wish I knew. We’re not playing basketball with the right edge right now, that’s for sure.
“I don’t know, man. Just got to come and bring it. That’s it.”
And that’s what it boils down to.
At this point, the Bulls aren’t beyond technical fixes for their problems—better ball movement and ball security, and a greater focus on the defensive end and rebounding are just two things that could help—but it’s more about their mental fortitude at this time of the season, when teams are jockeying for playoff position, hoping to enter the postseason while playing their best basketball.
Sure, the eventual returns of Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Rip Hamilton—let’s leave Derrick Rose out of the equation for now, as the expectations placed on his shoulders to be the team’s savior would be both overwhelming and unrealistic for a player, even of his unique abilities, coming back from a serious injury and layoff—will help the situation.
But they won’t be the Bulls’ magic elixir and while they’re virtually guaranteed a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs—barring major catastrophes or unprecedented, Miami-like winning streaks from teams currently on the outside looking in, the eight postseason teams are pretty much locked in, with the order of the bottom-seven squads still to be determined—playing with a sense of urgency every night would do wonders, even while they’re still undermanned.
Because if things don’t change soon, the most negative preseason predictions about this being a wasted season for the Bulls will ultimately come true, but due to inferior motivation, not a lack of talent.