Over the course of this season, Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly stated his Chicago Bulls must make a concerted effort on a game-to-game basis to play at a high level from the outset of games. That mindset had sunk into his players' locker room and guided the team to an 17-1 record against sub-.500 squads. For the most part, the Bulls have jumped all over and imposed their will on the bottom feeders.
However, amidst a six-game homestand, the Bulls received a taste of their own medicine on Saturday afternoon when the New Jersey Nets strolled into the United Center and delivered the home team a disappointing, almost improbable, 97-85 defeat. And it was the type of loss that warranted the United Center's first boo birds -- as mild as they were -- of the season.
New Jersey had lost eight games in a row and was again playing without starting center Brook Lopez -- but none of that mattered as the Nets thoroughly outplayed a Bulls team that had beaten them by 21 points last week.
Uncharacteristically against a lowly team, the first quarter was not the Bulls' best friend on this afternoon. They allowed the Nets to take a 22-3 lead and shoot 8-for-9 from the field less than six minutes into the game, and to make matters worse, both Joakim Noah and Omer Asik missed two-handed dunks in the opening frame. The Bulls never recovered from their lackadaisical start and trailed by double-digits for the majority of the game. The visitors shot just 40 percent from the field for the day but connected on 10 three-pointers, five of which in first.
"They play everyone tough," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "They're a hard-playing team. We just played them a little over a week ago, and they were ready. They were ready. Deron Williams came out, he set the tone for them, and we were back on our heels. And you get what you deserve in this league.
"The last four minutes of the second quarter were disappointing; the start of the third quarter was disappointing. And I want to give them credit. They played well, they played hard. We didn't cover the line ... that's a lot of ground to make up. [It was] disappointing."
The Nets had several uncontested dunks in transition and ended up with 18 fast-break points. Whether it was due to the fact that the Bulls played a Saturday matinee or were once again minus star point guard Derrick Rose, they were a step slow from start to finish and didn't muster up the level of consistent, lasting effort that fans have watched them exhibit throughout the season, especially when facing a team that many around the NBA consider as one of the worst in the league.
"We dug a big hole to start a big game and couldn't get out of it," Thibodeau said.
"I think if you believe in preparing yourself for each and every game, you should be ready to go. You can deal with a tough, hard-fought game where you play well and they make a tough shot at the end. But to dig a hole like we did, it's disappointing, quite honestly. And that's more my responsibility to make sure we're ready."
For the second time in as many weeks, Thibodeau's starters struggled to keep pace with their counterparts and continually put the Bulls in large deficits. Carlos Boozer poured in 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting and had a third-quarter in which he found his scoring rhythm. But his fellow starters, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, shot a combined 10-of-32 for 29 points. The starting lineup had a chance to redeem themselves in the third quarter, but the bunch continued to have a tough time and saw Nets' lead extend to 19 points.
The Bulls' starters put up a similarly lackluster effort on Feb. 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Although, fans would expect a clunker like that one from time to time as opposed to the sluggish, listless outing versus a Nets team that improved to just 9-23 after the win.
With or without Rose, the Bulls have become so used to annihilating poor clubs that Saturday's predicament put them in an awkward position. They were constantly forced to dig themselves out of a deep hole and had short-lived rallies that ended because they either missed wide-open shots or had a defensive breakdown.
"Things like this happen," Taj Gibson told the assembled media. "You can't just beat a team down by  in their hometown and expect them to come down and just lay down for you the first five minutes of the game. Basically, they just came out, hit us in the mouth first and we couldn't really counter after that."
With the loss, Thibodeau's bunch dropped to 25-8 on the campaign, which now places them behind the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference standings. The Bulls are still trying to figure out how to stay focused, prepared and energized for their foe night in and night out, and the issue is one that they know they must fine-tune if they want to reach the next level. But, yes, Saturday's game was only one out of 66 and this compressed season gives the team a chance to bounce back quickly, as stunning of a loss as Saturday's may seem.
"The important thing is -- and it was was concerning going in -- when you have an extended homestand, like we do, and the All-Star break coming up to stay focused, to be ready, to go step by step. I know you guys hear that a lot from me, but that's the way it is. And when you skip steps, this is what happens," Thibodeau said. "The important thing for us: I believe in our character. We have the right guys and hopefully we'll respond well."