Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly stated the formula for success that will keep his team "in position to win regardless of how we shoot the ball": Defend at a high level by making the proper rotations; control the glass; and take care of the ball. For the most part, the Bulls have done a masterful job of executing the reigning Coach of the Year's game plan, holding opponents to under 85 points in eight of their last 10 games.
However, Thibodeau's bunch clearly didn't do that in Monday afternoon's 102-86 drubbing at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum.
Of course, they were without their star, Derrick Rose -- who dropped his first and only career triple-double of 22 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds against the Grizzlies a season ago -- because of an aggravated sprained left big toe. But the reigning NBA MVP wasn't the sole reason why the Grizzlies shot 54 percent from the field, around 70 percent for much of the first half, and outrebound the Bulls -- who lead the league in rebounds per game -- 46-34. His absence did affect the Bulls' ball control, though, as the Grizzlies scored 26 points off the visitors' 19 turnovers. John Lucas III made his second start of the season in Rose's place, and he and C.J. Watson, who returned from a nine-game absence, combined for 25 points. But the two point guards had four turnovers apiece.
The Bulls' defensive anchor, Joakim Noah, like most of his teammates, had a fairly lethargic performance, on both ends of the court, scoring just two points, missing 3-of-4 field-goals, grabbing five rebounds and committing three turnovers while playing only 22 minutes, sitting the final 16 minutes and 41 seconds. Carlos Boozer was strong early and appeared to be heading toward a monster outing minus Rose, even getting his hands in the passing lane and finishing on a left-handed layup in transition, but he had just three points following a 10-point first quarter. He missed five of his last six shot attempts.
From Rudy Gay to Marreese Speights to Mike Conley (20 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) to Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies, seeking revenge, were able to get whatever they wanted in the lane time and time again. They racked up a whopping 62 points in the paint. Speights and Gasol had a combined 35 points and 22 rebounds, severely outperforming the Bulls' starting big men.
Speights may have been overlooked by Bulls fans heading into the game, but the Florida alum was able to do plenty of damage inside and outside against his former teammate, Noah. As the Grizzlies got off to a fast start, Speights had an emphatic two-handed dunk and nailed two 20-footers while being defended by Noah.
"They played well, I give them credit," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "Conley was great, Speights played extremely well, Gasol played well, Gay played well. We didn't really take anything away from them."
The Bulls admittedly were dominated on the glass, made careless turnovers and could not stop a Grizzlies offense that scored a paltry 64 points on 31 percent shooting New Year's Day in Chicago. Obviously, Gay has turned the corner, pouring in a game-high 24 points after being held to a season-low five points on Jan. 1.
But in Thibodeau's mind, the Bulls' inability to rebound, defend and take care of the ball is what cost them the most.
"They got great shots, they killed us on the boards, they turned us over," he said. "So if you don't defend, you don't rebound and you turn it over, you don't give yourself a chance to win.
"When you allow easy shots early on, it allows them to get confidence. Now, once a player has confidence in this league, it's much harder to slow them down. They made some tough shots later in the game but that was after they had gotten a ton of easy shots."
Both Noah and Boozer sat out the entire fourth quarter for the third time in four games. Although, a lot of that had to do with the fact that Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, yet again, again gave Thibodeau energetic minutes. Gibson scored 12 second-half points and finished with 16 on 6-for-8 shooting in 25 minutes. Asik had six blocks and two blocks in just 18 minutes. There's no question Gibson's post-up game is much more polished this season, which led to three baskets in the paint and 4-for-4 free throw shooting. Picking up right where he left off Saturday night, the 6-foot-9 forward had a put-back dunk to end the third quarter as the Bulls, using a 24-8 run, cut a 27-point deficit to nine early in the fourth quarter.
Thibodeau began to implement a full-court press in the third -- and it worked. Trailing 75-58 with one minute, 36 seconds left in the stanza, the Bulls forced Gay into a bad pass leading to a pair of free throws for Gibson. Then, Watson and Gibson double-teamed Grizzlies rookie Shelvin Mack to get a steal that Luol Deng -- who scored nine of his 20 points in the third -- corralled for a dunk.
The Bulls had been within 83-74 with just over eight minutes left, however, the aforementioned turnovers again reared their ugly head -- and the home team capitalized off each one. After an 11-foot jumper by Gasol, Deng turned it over and Gay connected on a three-point play after being blocked by Gibson on his first try. On the next Bulls' possession, Conley intercepted Gibson's pass to Watson and took it all the way for a right-handed layup. Watson followed that with a travel and the Grizzlies put the game away, taking a 92-74 lead as Conley fed Gasol for a close-range jumper.
"[Gibson] provided some really good energy. C.J. provided energy," Thibodeau said. "That whole group, I thought, played well. We were scrambling around, and usually you make a run, and it was too big of a hole to get out of, though.
"They were really aggressive, more aggressive than we were to start the game."
The Bulls made a valiant in the second half -- but their defense, or lack thereof, was a big-time issue through the first two quarters. In all three of their losses this season, Thibodeau's squad fell behind by double-digits at halftime. It was only one loss, and the Bulls still hold the best record in the Eastern Conference at 12-3, but their mindset heading into games might need some tweaking as they move forward.
"You can't say a overall lack of energy, because [in] the second half the energy was good," Thibodeau said of his team's problems. "I think readiness to play, early start -- we've got to be ready. I've got to do a better job of getting them ready."
Added Deng, when asked of the Grizzlies' potential retaliation: "I don't think we did a good job mentally preparing for them. We should have been ready for that. We should have known that anytime you beat a team like that in the NBA, next time, they can't wait to see you. We should have been more prepared."
The Grizzlies were certainly prepared for a team that was missing its best player. "Without having D. Rose out there, we had to take advantage of it," Conley told the assembled media.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, their top-flight defense was porous and also taken advantage of on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.