I’m a little conflicted as to whether or not I want the Bulls to make the playoffs, because on one hand, even an eight seed means at least a few more games and a chance to surprise Cleveland in the first round, but on the other hand, it seems like continuing to lose in the waning weeks of the season exposes the troubles of this team in a way that hopefully leads to change. The trouble with the losses is that watching games like last night’s against Detroit is increasingly difficult. These two teams have been pretty evenly matched all season, so it is no surprise that this game stayed close throughout, but it remains frustrating to watch the Bulls continue to lose, as they did 94-90 at the United Center last night, dropping to an even 38-38 and now two games out of the eighth seed. The patterns to their losses are very familiar now, but there are a few things that stood out to me last night, so let’s take a look:
- This was their 22nd different lineup last night. This is an effect, of course, of injuries to key players throughout the season, but that kind of inconsistency has plagued them all year when it comes to who starts each game. Some shifting in the starting five is natural, but not necessarily to this degree. Last night they started with E’Twuan Moore, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Bobby Portis, and Pau Gasol. Moore was an important factor in keeping their defense somewhat solid – the lack of which was plainly evident when some of the bench players came in last night.
- Derrick Rose was still out with his injured elbow that was hyper-extended on Thursday in Houston. Rose might be able to return against the Bucks today, but that will depend on his level of soreness. Despite the struggles of the team around him, Rose has quietly put together a very quality season, as our own Drew Hackman wrote here just a few days ago. Rose has consistently shot well in 2016 and is a key part of the scoring attack, as he has changed his approach to the rim.
- The Bulls were also without Taj Gibson, who has not played since Tuesday against the Pacers. Like Rose, Gibson could return against the Bucks today, but that is unclear so far.
- Speaking of players who have put together solid seasons, Gasol had another strong night, scoring 16 and grabbing 14 rebounds. As recently as the February trade deadline, Gasol has been named as a probable part of the Bulls future as they move on from this season, but of late, this stance has changed. He wants to compete for a championship, and at 35 years old, his opportunities to do so are fleeting, so sticking with a Bulls team that looks to be in need of a massive overhaul makes less and less sense for him and for Chicago. He’s often been a bright spot this year, but it might be time for him to go when he’s officially a free agent in July.
- Last night, Butler ran the offense. Jimmy has been casual about the role of point guard in the past, but while Aaron Brooks presents trouble for the Pistons on defense, he offers little defense of his own and especially last night, was rarely consistent about actually running the offense. Though Brooks was able to score 14 points, he had just two assists. He regularly drove to the bucket last night without bothering to even look to see if passes could be made to set up a better shot, and then left the perimeter open to outside shooting on the other end of the floor. Brooks’ time on the floor probably should have been kept to shorter stints in order to offer scoring bursts and in order for Moore to keep the defense solid.
- The Bulls bench, which has shown just flashes of its former greatness throughout the season this year, greatly outscored the Pistons bench last night, but not enough to turn the tide of the game. Here’s where Brooks’ lack of reliable defense probably outweighed his offensive contributions.
- Though last night’s game was yet another microcosm of the frustrations of the season as a whole, Butler had an absolutely career night. His performance evoked the likes of Michael Jordan in some ways last night, particularly his team leading rebounding. In the end, he had his first career triple double with 28 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. He was brilliant to watch, and probably the key reason the Bulls didn’t get blown out of their home arena last night. Butler has somehow been a name mentioned in trade rumors for the summer, though I am quite skeptical. The Bulls probably do need an extensive overhaul, but trading Butler means they are essentially scrapping the whole team as we know it, and the front office in Chicago has not shown a propensity for those kinds of extreme measures.
- Coming up: with just six games left, the Bulls have a chance to grab a win tonight in Milwaukee.
A 115-107 loss to the Knicks at the United Center on Wednesday moved the Bulls to 36-34, and a game behind the Pistons, who currently hold the last playoff spot. With just a few weeks of the regular season remaining, the Bulls badly need to capitalize on a chance to at least sneak into the playoffs, though it could be argued that they are not sitting in an advantageous spot no matter what happens in these next few weeks, and maybe missing the playoffs is better for them in the long run. Let’s take a look at how last night’s game played out, and what ultimately led to the loss:
- I don’t know that this is a trend per se, but the third quarter was the dagger in this game. This is something that has popped up more than once for the Bulls, and was ultimately too much to overcome last night. They shot poorly, scoring just 18 points and getting killed in the paint. In the third quarter alone, they missed eight scoring opportunities just in the paint, while allowing the Knicks to go 5/7 from three point range. New York ended up scoring nearly twice as many points, and it would be too wide of a gap for the Bulls to narrow in the fourth, even though they outscored the Knicks 34-23.
- In general, the Knicks had a quality shooting night, going nearly 52% from the field, but it was their 56% three point shooting that helped seal this one for them. After the game, Carmelo Anthony gave us a tease of what could have been if he came to Chicago, and he was mentioned as a possible member of a one day “super team” that is the mastermind of LeBron James. Keep an eye out for The Decision: Part 3 sometime soon. Nick Friedell had this from Anthony after the game:
- I hadn’t seen much of Kristaps Porzingis firsthand, so even as he was killing my team, it was fun to appreciate his 29 point, 10 rebound performance.
- The Bulls were essentially at full strength last night, with their regular lineup and prolific scoring from Nikola Mirotic, who led the team with 35 points and grabbed 6 rebounds along the way. Derrick Rose turned in a nice 21 points and four assists. Rose has quietly put together a fairly respectable season this year.
- I was impressed at the way that Jimmy Butler found a way to contribute, even as he wasn’t shooting well, going 3/11 from the field last night and scoring just seven points. He still managed a team leading eight assists and grabbed three rebounds. Butler didn’t commit a turnover, either. On a night when his shooting is better, he’d have been the star of the game. Butler, of course, doesn’t feel the same, and hasn’t been satisfied lately with his own performance:
- I’m perhaps a bit too forgiving of what he’s done lately, but I think there’s been value in how he’s done on the court, even without the scoring that we are used to.
- In general, I wonder about fatigue and the quality of defense with this team. The deep roster that used to be a Bulls cornerstone isn’t there anymore, and with injuries to key players that keep popping up, it looks at times as though they are just gassed. It’s hard to find the same motivation as the beginning of the season, I’m sure, and the waning weeks of this year might just be a labor of love at this point. With just 12 regular season games left, their sights have to be set on where the team goes from here. That said, giving up over 100 points on even a somewhat regular basis is not something we’ve been used to seeing from this team for a while.
- In an effort to find a positive in last night’s game, the Bulls did not give up a turnover in the first half, and ended up with just six for the night. Somehow, they were still down by two points at halftime. They staged that fourth quarter comeback, but it wasn’t enough.
- Coming up: the Bulls actually head to New York for a rematch with the Knicks tonight.
I wrote about the last time the Bulls and Heat squared off against each other, and it’s unfortunate that the Bulls have not trended in a better direction since then. In fact, they remain solidly at .500, losing last night in Chicago, 118-96 to drop to 32-32. This marks their second loss in a row after having won two in a row. Granted, Thursday’s loss in San Antonio is about as tough of a matchup as a team will get, but returning to the United Center last night should have proven to be an opportunity to keep the winning going. And they looked fairly well positioned to do so through the first half, even with a somewhat weak second quarter, but the second half was all Miami. With just 18 regular season games left, the odds of an eighth seed are looking ever out of their favor, but let’s take a look at what led to this loss:
- Fatigue. Sure, it’s an easy thing to point to so late in the season on a team that’s not very deep to begin with, but after traveling back from San Antonio the night before, it’s no wonder. Back to backs are especially tough in the NBA because of the travel involved, and it certainly seemed to be affecting the Bulls last night. Their scoring dropped off quarter by quarter during the course of the game, and by the fourth, they could only muster 15 points. By then, the Heat had trended the opposite direction, increasing their scoring as the game progressed.
- They were down four players. Cameron Bairstow and Joakim Noah were both inactive, and Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler didn’t dress. Bairstow and Noah may not have a massive impact on a game like this, but they would have at least helped keep the starters fresh. The real loss is Rose and Butler, and by now, I have some concern about what’s happening with Butler’s knee. The Bulls’ medical staff being what it is, I fear that this could develop into a much more serious problem. With the season being so close to its end, the best long term decision for Butler might be to shut him down, but I’m digressing.
- The absence of Rose and Butler mean that Fred Hoiberg had to rely on E’Twaun Moore and newly acquired Justin Holiday. The University of Washington product played rather well last night though, leading the team in minutes played and adding 14 points on 6/15 shooting from the field. Holiday is playing in just his second full season in the NBA, and after having bounced around quite a bit, perhaps he can find his niche in Chicago. I’m a fan of Moore’s as well, and he played pretty decently (six points and five assists), but a guard duo of Holiday and Moore just isn’t going to lead the Bulls to a victory, even against the Heat at this point. Holiday did provide some reallly nice moments, like this one:
- Pau Gasol nearly had a triple double. He led the team in scoring with 17, pulled down 12 rebounds, and had nine assists. I joked on Twitter a while ago about Gasol and the idea that he thinks he can be a part of the Bulls’ long-term future, but he’s having a rather impressive season and his devotion to Chicago is admirable. The Bulls are certainly heading into a rebuilding phase in the coming years, and though Gasol isn’t likely to be a part of the next truly successful Bulls team by the time they come around, he’s at least giving us something good to watch, for the most part, in the time being. His defense was a little suspect, and he led the team in turnovers with six, but he’s a vital piece of any chance at success this season.
- The Heat are a changing team too. The days of the Big Three feel like a distant memory, and Miami is still in the process of figuring out where to go from there. Dwyane Wade is a shell of his former self, and a Chris Bosh return remains unclear, but they have players like Hassan Whiteside who might be reason enough to muster some excitement. Whiteside has turned into a fun player to watch, especially the way he can dominate the boards like he did last night. He was on nearly every defensive play, and 13 of his 16 total rebounds last night game on the defensive side of the court. The problem for Miami is that their roster outside of Whiteside gets pretty old. Wade and Bosh, of course, but even their recent acquisition in Joe Johnson has a lot of mileage on him already. Though Johnson’s arrival in Miami has corresponded with wins, he’s not a long term piece of their future either.
- Coming up: the Bulls will get two days of rest over the weekend before heading to Toronto on Monday night.
In the not so distant past, a Bulls-Heat matchup, even in the regular season, would have been on an epic scale worthy of the Greeks, but now, it looks more like if Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr. got into the ring together. So much that used to be great, but they are essentially just shells of their former selves. Especially with Jimmy Butler and Chris Bosh absent. The Bulls used this game as an opportunity to continue their slide, getting trounced 129-111 and dropping to 30-29 and out of the playoffs if the season ended today.
- The Heat set a franchise shooting record last night (67.5%), riding the scoring of Hassan Whiteside, Joe Johnson, and even Luol Deng. I feel like I should start there because it could be viewed two different ways. The optimist in me wants to say that shooting that well is just hard to beat, and on the bright side, the Bulls put up 111 points of their own. But the pessimist wants to acknowledge the fact that not so long ago, the Bulls were known for their stifling defense, and 129 points would just never happen. Truth be told, it’s probably a mixture of both things.
- Jimmy Butler’s absence is very, very hard to overcome. Butler has not played in nearly a month, and he is still probably about a week away. The Bulls have gone 4-7 in his absence, and on a team not built at all to survive the loss of such a key player with their lack of real depth, his continued absence will only mean more losses.
- Derrick Rose is really like the flirty ex-girlfriend who just keeps us hanging on to the past when the best part of what we had was probably over before we were ready to admit it to ourselves. With his team-leading 17 points, Tuesday’s game was a great example of the glimpses of what Rose can do when he is still his best self. Moves like this remind us of the MVP player who dominated the NBA not that long ago:
- The Bulls had a whopping seven players score in double digits against the Heat (which would normally nearly guarantee a win, but as I said earlier, allowing 67.5% from the field and 129 points pretty much negates whatever your offense does).
- The mild resurgence of Mike Dunleavy has been interesting to follow. Since his return about a month ago, he has played consistently in about half of the minutes of those games, and has posted a +/- that has typically stayed well on the plus side of the ledger. Last night he was among the double digit scorers with 10 points, chiefly on a pair of three pointers.
- Dwyane Wade was nearly overshadowed by the nights that Whiteside and Johnson had for the Heat, but he tallied 18 points himself to go with seven assists and two rebounds. Like Rose, Wade’s best days are behind him, but he can still put together an impressive night.
- Coming up: the Bulls will stay in Florida to take on the Orlando Magic tonight.
Some games have a rhythm that sways back and forth rather extremely, and they don’t allow one team or the other to ever really dominate or establish control of the game. This felt like the case between the Bulls and the Nuggets in Denver last night through at least the first half. Somehow, though, the Bulls entered the second half absolutely on fire and looked to make the game theirs. But, as games like last night’s tend to, momentum swung back in Denver’s favor in the fourth quarter and the Nuggets ultimately took advantage of the Bulls’ lackluster play in the waning minutes to seize back the victory after it looked as though Chicago would walk away with this one pretty easily. With the 115-110 loss, the Bulls move to 27-22 and slowly creep toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff grouping. As it stands now, they would be the sixth seed, but only by a slim margin over the Pistons and Pacers. With that said, a few notes on one of the more frustrating losses of what is proving to be a very weird season:
- No Pau. After calling out his teammates and motivating them to a win over the Kings earlier this week, Pau Gasol had to sit out last night because of a left hand injury, but fear not, Mike Dunleavy is making his glorious return tonight against the Timberwolves. Dunleavy has not played at all this season, so this will be a breath of fresh air. Cameron Bairstow got the start in his place, but this aspect of the game became more about Bobby Portis, ultimately.
- Jimmy Butler left the game with a knee injury. It was unclear during the game just how bad it was, as he was able to shoot his free throws before being wheeled off for the night. Trainers worked on him for a few minutes on the sideline, but it became clear after a while that he was not going to be in condition to return. Afterward, Fred Hoiberg said that he would have it checked today, but considering that Butler missed his first game of the season on Wednesday night because of this knee, his status is likely to be uncertain for a while.
- Missing some guns. Really, with both Pau and Nikola Mirotic out for this game, the Bulls were not firing with their strongest weapons at the posts. When you have to start the game with Bairstow and give any minutes whatsoever to Cristiano Felicio, maybe the bar should be kept pretty low. Felicio has barely spent a quarter’s worth of minutes on the floor all season and has been in as many games in the D-league as he has on the court for the Bulls. This really is no excuse, however, as the Bulls were able to outscore the Nuggets by 20 points in the second and third quarters.
- It was an abominable fourth quarter where they surrendered a whopping 42 to Denver that did them in. Something about shooting 9/24 in that quarter and giving up practically a half’s worth of points in one quarter just doesn’t translate to wins very often.
- I can’t not mention that Derrick Rose scored 30 last night. It’s ultimately pretty meaningless in a loss like this, but it’s those flashes of brilliance that seem to draw me in. Even on two legs that have been decimated by injury, every so often he can still drive to the hoop and make a layup that flirts with defying the laws of physics and gravity. It’s the kind of shot that makes someone a fan, if they didn’t know any better. Rose also grabbed nine rebounds and had eight assists, so in fairness, he did just about all that he could to bring this win home. Even in the face of losing Butler for the night, Rose showed that he can still put this team on his shoulders, if just for a little while.
- Danilo Gallinari went 18/18 from the free throw line. Denver’s forward might look just a little bit like he was born in the wrong decade and missed his calling to play the villain in every bad 1980s movie, but he roasted the Bulls for 33 points last night. Only Emmanuel Mudiay also had double digit free throw attempts for the Nuggets, but he didn’t come close to shooting as well from the line as Gallinari did.
- What about the coaching? I have resisted the urge to be really critical of Hoiberg in his first year, but in a game like this one, I can’t help but wonder just for a bit about his role in pushing his team to maintain what was a very winnable game. It was in their hands. Some of it might be conditioning, some might be lack of adjustments as things go south, and some could just have been the shorthandedness of the roster last night. That can’t always be helped.
- Coming up: It’s back to back nights on the road for the Bulls from here, as they will be in Minnesota against the Timberwolves, who should, should serve up a nice opportunity to recuperate with a win.