HOUSTONBecause theyve never experienced it before, you knew it was genuine. The frustration and bewilderment on the faces of Joakim Noah and Luol Deng -- two players who hadnt been through the phenomenon of losing three straight games under Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau -- was real.
Noah and Deng, along with a then-rookie Taj Gibson, are the active holdoversthe sidelined Derrick Rose was also present, as was Kirk Hinrich, toward the end of his original stint with the Bullsfrom the last time the team had a streak like this. In fact, that unfortunate occurrence eventually reached 10 consecutive defeats in current Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negros final season. But that was a different time, before the Bulls regained their status as one of the leagues upper-echelon squads.
Now, following two campaigns in which the Bulls recorded league-best regular-seasons marks, it was expected that they wouldnt be as dominant without Rose in the lineup, but while some rough stretches, ugly games and various getting-to-know-you struggles were expected, nobody thought the team would be this lost, this early.
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Its a lot of things we need to do. Weve got to put a whole 48 minutes together. Just got to stay mentally strong. Got to get a win and get it rolling again. Just got to stick with it, stick with what we do. Its tough right now losing. You dont want to lose, but weve got to keep working and stick with it, and try to get a win, Deng said in the aftermath of the Bulls 93-89 loss to the Rockets, themselves losers of three straight prior to Wednesday evening.
Added Noah: Weve got to do better. Weve just got to do better. Losing three in a row is unacceptable. Were better than that.
Thibodeau himself, a steadfast proponent of consistencyfrom his principled philosophy to his rotation, which he altered a bit Wednesday, perhaps hoping to stave off his first three-game skid as a head coachindicated that change might be the answer. The coach shortened his rotation in Houston, his old stomping grounds as a Rockets assistant, and inserted second-year swingman Jimmy Butler into the contest earlier than usual, ahead of backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli, resulting in giving Deng, the NBAs minutes-per-game leader, an earlier break than usual.
Thibodeau went with Butler, who shifted over to shooting guard, down the stretch, along with opting for Taj Gibson in place of Carlos Boozer, something observers have grown used to over time, as well as completely taking reserve center Nazr Mohammed out of the mix and playing instant-offense sub Nate Robinson for extended minutes over starter Kirk Hinrich. Afterwards, he hinted at the possibility of more lineup changes.
Well see, he said. I mean, right now, Im looking at a lot of things.
When informed about Thibodeau considering shaking up the rotation, Noah said, Those arent things that I can control as a player, but to me, I dont think changing the lineup is going to make a difference. Weve got to execute better down the stretch. Thats what it comes down to. Thats what I think.
Chimed in Deng: When youre losing, you see a lot of things. Sometimes you win and those things are there. Whatever decisions the coaching staff makes, as players, when youre losing, you cant really question that. If were winning and we make changes, then youve got the right to question it, but if were not getting the job done, whatever changes are made, youve just got to wait and see what the result is. But the coaching staff, they spend hours and hours trying to figure it out. Our job is to get the work in, work as hard as we can and try to execute the game plan and right now, weve got to get better at that.
Whether or not Thibodeau makes a change to the Bulls starting lineup, the Bulls still have issues to address, such as outside shooting, ball security and most glaring as of late, fourth-quarter execution. Even without Rose, the Bulls have been a team that mostly executes precisely, on both ends of the floor, in the clutch, something thats been lacking from this seasons newcomer-filled team.
Weve got to execute better in the fourth quarter. These games are close, man, and were not executing in the fourth quarter. Weve got to play better, together. Were not playing great together right now, Noah said. I think weve just got to trust each other a little bit more on the court. Weve just got to play together a little bit more and execute. Were a team thats always been great at executing down the stretch and were not in the right positions, and its frustrating.
Added Deng: We could do a lot better. Ive got to watch the tape again. We will as a team. We know we didnt execute well enough. We know weve got to do a better job of that. Weve got to make smarter plays, whether its turning the ball over or fouling for no reason, and getting stops, finishing the plays. Weve just got to do a better job.
In the last two losses, narrow defeats to Portland and Houstonthe first loss of the negative streak, to the Clippers, was the only game in which they didnt have a chance down the stretchthe Bulls struggled with decision-making and made crucial, often unforced errors at the worst possible moments. The catalyst of late comebacks in both of those games was Robinson and although his occasionally wild tendencies can cause consternation, nobody can doubt his determination, unbridled enthusiasm and desire to win because even if it manifests itself in a turnover here or rushed shot there, hes also the only player on the roster with the ability to truly create.
Whatever it is we need to do, we need to do it. I cant pinpoint one thing. weve just got to play hard and play through adversity, play through frustration and play basketball, man. I think at times, we want to win so bad and do good for each other, and its just not going our way right now. Weve just got to play through it, a dejected Robinson, whose play Thibodeau described as some good, some bad, said. Weve just been beating ourselves, pretty much. Its like other teams are finding ways to win and were just finding ways to lose, so weve got to go back to the drawing board and get this next one.
Just thinking too much. I think weve got to go out and just play, man. Whatever happens, happens. Were just thinking too much, trying to make the right play, let it happen. Each guy is pulling for each other, I think a little bit too much, that everybodys just trying to do the right thing instead of just playing basketball and let whatever happens, happen.
Rip Hamilton, who didnt take part in any of the late-game festivities against the Trail Blazers or Rockets, supposedly due Thibodeaus policy of units that function well together and have the team playing well being given the chance to finish games, expressed a similar sentimentto a man, including Thibodeau, theyre all pretty much saying the same thing, if in different words, right?about the Bulls late-game problems.
Weve just got to be better in the fourth, know time and possession. Weve got to keep the floor spaced, weve got to know who we want to get the ball to. We need to defend. The fourth quarters totally different than the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter. Its really time to knuckle down, so every possession counts and we dont do a good job of valuing every possession at the end of the game, Hamilton said. Weve just got to play a little smarter. We have opportunities and its kind of like the same old story the last couple games, so I just think weve got to be smarter. Weve just got to keep the guys heads up and hopefully, stuff will change and well get a win.
Then, theres their vaunted defense, which hasnt been up to snuff lately. Keeping the Rockets, a team capable of putting up triple digits, under 100 pointsthe first time theyve done so in seemingly forever; actually, they did end one streak Wednesday, as their previous four opponents each scored over 100 points against themwas a start, but defensively, theyre still a far cry from the feared unit that was able to win games even when they struggled offensively.
Ive been here with Tom, with the system we have, for the last three years. As a player, you never worry about how you shoot, as long as youre getting your work in and youre taking shots within your game. That comes and goes. The one thing is stopping teams to win. Thats how we win. Weve never been a team that tries to out-shoot teams. We cant get into that. Thats not our style, thats not what we practice, Deng explained. We do a lot of good things and then we have a period of time where teams are making their run. Weve just got to get back to what we do and finish games. All five players have got to be on the same page on the floor. Its tough. The way our defense is, weve all got to be on the same page.
Concurred Thibodeau: Houston is a tough team to guard and at times, I thought we were pretty good and I thought we forced them into some turnovers. We couldnt get some key stops late, so thats something we have to correctI thought we did some good things for most of the game and then, our defensive discipline got us at the end of the game.
Noah more bluntly stated: The defense is not what it used to be. Its not what it was last year, thats for sure.
At the same time, its important to keep everything in perspective. Maybe the annual Circus Trip wasnt a success, but even in the heyday of the Michael Jordan era, its historically been a difficult proposition for the Bulls to get through that portion of the schedule relatively unscathed.
Thus, just because the Tom Thibodeau era has seen different results in its first two seasons, that doesnt mean it will be the norm, nor does the teams first sub-.500 record since immediately after the first game of the 2010-11 campaigna loss at Oklahoma City, for those who dont remember the days when Thibodeau couldnt instantly turn water into winemean that this will be an ultimately unsuccessful season. The previous two years have spoiled people, from the media to fans and observers around the NBA, but even with the lowered expectations borne from Roses injury, the teams strategic expertise, nucleus of players and intestinal fortitude is not something to be taken lightly just yet.
I dont think its time to panic yet. Weve got a lot of guys that want to win. We dont have any guys in this locker room that are dogging it or are okay with losing. Its tough, especially because weve been winning the last two years, so this is something were not used to, Deng concluded, head held high as he finished addressing the media. The best way is to just go out and work as hard as you can. Whatever you want to call it, a slump or whatever, youre not going to get out of it just talking. Guys understand that we need to do better.