In the middle of a six-game homestand, the Chicago Bulls were outplayed for most of their 97-85 loss to the New Jersey Nets on Saturday afternoon at the United Center. The Bulls fell to 25-8, 11-2 at home, this season. The Miami Heat (24-7) now have the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets (9-23) had three players in double figures, two of which reached the 20-point plateau. Deron Williams took advantage of the fact that Derrick Rose missed his fifth straight game, dropping 29 points and eight assists while shooting 9-for-26 from the field in 42 minutes of action. Kris Humphries absued the Bulls' big men from start to finish en route to a 24-point, 18-rebound (seven offensive), five-assist outing. MarShon Brooks, whom the Bulls passed up in last June's NBA draft, missed the two teams' last game, but he impressed on this afternoon, with 19 points and five rebounds.
The Bulls placed five players in double figures. Carlos Boozer and Mike James scored 16 points apiece, while Luol Deng and Taj Gibson had 14 each. C.J. Watson poured in 10 points but missed 6-of-9 shots and sat out the final 13 minutes, 47 seconds due to an injury after being whacked in the head by Humphries.
Once again, the Bulls got off to a sluggish start and put themselves in a hole. The Nets took a 22-3 lead less than six minutes into the game and held a 34-19 advantage at the end of the first quarter. They shot 14-for-20 from the field, and 4-for-5 from three-point land, to the Bulls' 6-for-21. Chicago's starting lineup struggled to match the intensity of New Jersey's, and Tom Thibodeau promptly took all of his starters, even Deng, out at different points of the first quarter. The Bulls' coach ended the opening frame with a group of James, John Lucas III, Kyle Korver, Jimmy Butler -- who was the first reserve to check into the game -- and Gibson. Thanks to the "Bench Mob," the Bulls rallied in the second quarter and were within 52-45 with just over two minutes left, but the Nets responded with a 7-0 run to end the first half, all of which scored by Williams.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, not much changed in the third quarter when their starters again played listlessly and allowed the Nets to build a large lead. They trailed by as many as 19 points in the frame, and it could've gotten worse but Boozer made two baskets, sandwiched around his assist to Watson for a three-pointer, to give the home team some hope. The Nets led 73-56 through three periods.
While the Bulls were able to mount a few more rallies in the fourth quarter, they never appeared to have a chance to get over the hump and seemingly always missed baskets that would have helped them regain all the momentum and get the United Center crowd back on their side. Thibodeau's bunch wasn't necessarily outworked throughout the afternoon, but they clearly were a step slow and didn't have the same energy that propelled them to an 89-80 win over the Boston Celtics Thursday night.
Both teams shot around 40 percent for most of the game, but the Bulls missed 11 free throws 10-of-13 three-pointers and received close to nothing from Joakim Noah, who had zero points and missed all three of his field-goal attempts while being torched by Humphries and playing just 21 minutes. The visitors, meanwhile, connected on 10 three-pointers. The two teams each had 50 rebounds. Three men definitively brought a solid effort for the Bulls for most of the afternoon: James, Gibson and Boozer. Deng came on strong in the fourth quarter, when he scored seven points, but he shot 5-for-14 overall.
The Bulls got 40 points, 25 rebounds and 10 assists from the reserve corps. The starters had 45 points, 23 rebounds and seven assists.
Yes, the Bulls have had losses like this before during the compressed, 66-game season, but certainly not in Saturday's fashion, following a day off and at home. They trailed all day and didn't play with the type of intensity that Thibodeau has prepared them for on a game-to-game basis.
Next up, the Bulls have Sunday off before playing the Atlanta Hawks (19-11) on Monday afternoon at the United Center.