Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls can struggle to make shots on any given night, but the veteran coach has repeatedly emphasized three aspects of the game that he believes must be a constant if the team is going to be successful and in a position to win: Defense, rebounding and ball control.
He has drilled the message into his players’ heads constantly over the past two years and expects them to bring a high level of intensity even when they are without a teammate or two, which was the case Monday night when Derrick Rose (foot) and Luol Deng (ribs) sat out against the Washington Wizards. For the Bulls, the contest served as the second of a three-game slate against lowly squads, a stretch they were expected to capitalize on.
Throughout this season, the Bulls have continually proven that they have “more than enough to win with,” as Thibodeau often puts it and did so again on Monday, when Chicago was expected to blow the Wizards – virtually the same bunch that allowed John Lucas III to flirt with a triple-double in mid-January – out of the gym. But Washington entered the United Center and thoroughly outworked their way to a stunning 87-84 win.
By their own admission, the Bulls were out-competed and deserved to lose, deserved to be humiliated on their home court by one of the NBA’s perennial bottom dwellers over the past few seasons.
The fact that the Bulls squandered an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter is one of the major reasons why the defeat was so disheartening. For the second straight game, they failed to shut the door and paid the price for allowing their opponent to hang within striking distance as the game wore on.
The Bulls had Monday’s game in the bag at a crucial juncture of the game when fans expected their sound offensive execution and ferocious defense to prevail – not crumble at the hands of the Wizards.
“The game wasn’t lost at the last possession,” Rip Hamilton told reporters after the game. “We’ve got to do a better job during the game when we’ve got a team down. [When] we had a lead by 10, we got to put them away. It’s not just tonight. It’s been happening the last couple games so we’ve just got to get better at it.”
While Hamilton and his teammates took a calm approach with the big picture in mind, Thibodeau was livid afterward, preaching that his team lacked the principles he expects on a nightly basis.
Yes, it was just one loss, and the Bulls still hold the best record in the league at 46-15, but there are only five games left in the regular season – a point where Chicago should be building momentum and taking steps in the right direction toward ironing out its kinks before the playoffs.
“It’s clear to me why we’re not playing well: readiness to play, defense, rebounding, low turnovers,” Thibodeau said. “That never changes. That should be a staple, that should be constant, whether you’re in a practice or in a game. Those three things have to happen. Then, it’s inside-out and share the ball. When we do that, we’re a good team. When we don’t, we’re not very good. Believe me, there’s clarity on that.”
For Thibodeau, it all goes back defense, rebounding and limiting miscues. The Bulls gave up 22 fast-break points and 30 fourth-quarter points and committed 17 turnovers, which the Wizards turned into 27 points. Yet again, the Bulls played such a sloppy outing that they were fortunate, in some ways, to even be a C.J. Watson three-pointer away from forcing their third overtime game in a row.
“When you’re on the floor, everyone has a responsibility to do their job,” Thibodeau told the assembled media. “Everyone has to: Do. Their. Job. Do. Your. Job.
“We put them in the open floor – 17 turnovers, 27 points – and beat ourselves. Beat ourselves. … We’re making the game hard right now.”
Then, Thibodeau emphatically pinned the loss on none other than himself.
“[I’m] disappointed,” he said. “We’ve got to play a lot better. That part is on me. I’ve got to get the team to play well. We have more than enough to win with. We didn’t do our job tonight. I didn’t do my job. It starts with me; I’ve got to have them ready.”
Joakim Noah was one of the players who expressed his disappointment with the loss, somberly shaking his head as he walked off the court. Noah provided plenty of energy for the second consecutive tilt, piling up six points, 11 rebounds (five offensive) and five blocks. But his fellow big man on the French national team, Wizards forward Kevin Seraphin, crushed the Bulls all night, with 21 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds as the Nene-less Wizards outscored Chicago 48-22 in the paint.
With the loss, the Bulls are now 2½ games ahead – two in the loss column – of the Miami Heat (43-17), who earned a come-from-behind win in New Jersey Monday, atop the Eastern Conference standings. Fans can rest assured that Chicago’s locker room remains confident.
But the players’ focus has slipped, as little as it may seem, and they’re only human. Still, the Bulls fully understand the time is now to gain some traction entering the postseason, which is right around the corner.
“We don’t need to coast into the end of the season,” Bulls guard Kyle Korver said. “So we’ve got to win our games. Let’s go win them. We can win them. We can win every single one. We’ve got to get healthy, we’ve got to get some timing, guys are beat up … but after the New York game it was like the world was crashing down on us and then we won two big games and everything was amazing. We’ve just got to get back to playing good basketball.”