It seemed like the Bulls finally had turned a corner, a season best equaling four straight wins, moving firmly into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with reasonable possibilities for moving up in the playoff race, playing tougher on the boards with speed and shooting, ranking among with the league’s best three-point shooting teams the last several weeks.
And then as the Bulls Tuesday rounded that proverbial corner, they ran smack into a blue and orange dump truck headed for the landfill.
The garbage spread all over was the Bulls poor effort in a 100-91 defeat in which they still trailed by 20 points with nine minutes left before the Knicks remembered who they were.
It’s the 30-48 Knicks playing without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Kristaps Pozingis who completed a season sweep of the Bulls—yes, the same Bulls just coming off a season sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers—and started two guys who’ve spent much of the season in the D-league and famed center Willy Hernangomez.
But along with reserve center Kyle O’Quinn dominating the Bulls with a dozen rebounds and five blocks, the Knicks led by at least 20 points in each of the last three quarters, including by 25 at 74-49 late in the third quarter. A late Bulls run led by deep reserve Anthony Morrow got the deficit to nine with 2:14 left. But the Bulls never truly threatened a Knicks team out of the playoffs and testing out mostly spare parts.
‘They had their way with us,” acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “One guy beating three guys to the ball (O’Quinn), 53-36 overall (rebounding),16 offensive rebounds, 15 turnovers. We got our (butts) kicked on the boards and you are not going to win with an effort like that.”
Jimmy Butler led the Bulls with 26 points. Nikola Mirotic had 21 points and 10 rebounds and Morrow had a personal Bulls high of 15 points, 10 in the fourth quarter. Robin Lopez had 11 points and Rajon Rondo had five points, seven rebounds and nine assists, eight of those assists on the first eight Bulls baskets.
That was the last time in the game the Bulls were competitive, trailing by one point before the Knicks closed the first quarter with a little run for a 29-24 lead. The reserves, who had been holding and building leads lately, collapsed in a rush of turnovers and forced jumpers to start the second quarter. It was a 15-3 Knicks domination to start the second quarter and the Bulls never much seemed otherwise interested in this game until the last few minutes.
It was another tough game for Paul Zipser, scoreless on five shots as he, Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams were a combined one of 16 shooting for three points. Hoiberg said one pattern for the team in these sorts of games—wins against good teams, losses to the poorer ones—often results when the young players miss shots and then let down with their defense.
The Bulls were six of 27 on threes, but it was more because of an aggressive Knicks group, pressuring, contesting shots. Not something they said in New York much this season. The Knicks with a 16-point lead opened the fourth quarter pressuring and trapping, forcing the Bulls to call a timeout six seconds into the quarter to preserve the possession.
It was emblematic of a game in which the often feeble Knicks played like the team with playoff aspirations and the Bulls played like they already had their reservations for Cancun.
“No sense of urgency,” agreed Rondo. “We were playing for something bigger than the team we played tonight and we stooped down to their level.
“We were scoring, but they were scoring right with us. They got their looks, got their shots right where they wanted. We didn’t make them uncomfortable. They destroyed us on the glass and that’s what we take pride in. Zero points on the fast break in the first half. When you are taking the ball out of bounds every time you can’t create fast break points.”
It sounds counterintuitive, but the Bulls are finding out it’s not necessarily to their benefit to have this so called “easy” schedule to close the season with no playoff teams. While contending teams could clinch a seeding and rest players, losing teams have players trying to get resigned or show for a new team. The no name Knicks had the Bulls chasing them on fast breaks so much that at least the Bulls learned their names by seeing the backs of their jerseys so often.
“We didn’t come out with the fire we needed to,” said Butler. “They came out like they were playing for something and we didn’t. All the cliché things to say, but they whipped our tail in every aspect of the game.”
And now instead of eying sixth or even fifth in the East with Milwaukee being blown out losing to the Thunder Tuesday, the Bulls suddenly are back tied with Indiana for the last playoff spot in the conference and just a half game ahead of ninth place Miami. The Bulls own the tiebreakers over the Pacers and Heat. But here’s the worrisome news: It’s now Philadelphia, Brooklyn twice and Orlando.
“The next three teams we are playing are going to play as hard as any teams in the league,” warned Hoiberg. “Brooklyn twice; they scored 140 tonight (141, actually). Philadelphia played hard (scoring 117 in Chicago). They are going to come in and play free, play loose and play hard with effort. We have to match that. We have to come prepared and be ready. There’s a lot of disappointment there (in the Bulls locker room), but you have to find a way to put it behind and move on to the next one.”
Yes, the Knicks had defeated the Bulls twice this season, but that was with Noah having perhaps his best game of the season and then big efforts from Rose and Carmelo Anthony. A discouraged Anthony was left with what seemed like the detritus of the game. But those castoffs and castaways dominated the Bulls after that clever first quarter of Rondo assists.
With the Knicks shooting 55 percent in the half, it was difficult to run, the familiar lament of taking the ball out of the basket. But the Knicks missed 20 shots in the first half. Zero fast break points after averaging about 15 the last month? It was because of Knicks you never heard of, like Chasson Randle and Mindaugas Kuzminiskas, grabbing double the amount of offensive rebounds in the second quarter as the entire Bulls team.
“Effort. That is what it comes down to, guard, rebounding, myself, everyone included. We have to come out with a lot more energy and do what you are supposed to do. It’s happened before, but we can’t let it happen again in these last four; we need these. Just like we needed this one tonight; nothing we can do now, next one up. Actions speaks louder than words. If we win, nothing to talk about. I don’t think there’s a level of concern; we just didn’t show up.”
Well, that’s sort of a concern if the playoffs mean something.
It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate your talent; it’s not like the Bulls roster is filled with guaranteed contracts and All-Stars. Guys should be playing for the futures, as well.
But within the first three minutes of the second half, the Knicks had one possession with two offensive rebounds that led to a layup for Maurice Ndour. I’m sure the Windy City guys know who he is. And then on the next Knicks possession, there were three offensive rebounds leading to a Courtney Lee jumper. Hey, at least they’d heard of him.
“I’m still positive; obviously we still control our own destiny,” Rondo pointed out. “The time is now. We let one slip away; very disappointing. But you have to understand the playoffs are right there.”
Rondo had a couple of third quarter scores and a lob to Butler for a dunk, but future Hall of Famer O’Quinn—if he plays the Bulls more often—was taking balls away from Bulls players like a schoolyard bully. Hoiberg tried some desperate moves with Morrow and Grant, but nothing was working. After the Knicks forced that timeout six seconds into the fourth, Kazminskas had a layup and dunk and Justin Holiday a dunk as the Bulls moved out of the way like good guests with the Knicks going ahead 88-68 with nine minutes left.
Aberration? You’d say you’ve seen this before as the Bulls have lost as many games to teams with losing records as they have to teams with winning records.
Of course, time to guarantee a win.
“No drama,” said Mirotic. “Just one game, we lost, didn’t lose by 30, lost by nine. Have four games left; depends on us we win those games we will be in good shape, so it’s nothing. Try to forget it was not our day. The guys were very concerned with what happened, but it was, ‘Let’s move on. Don’t listen to anybody; just stay focused.’ Once we win the next one we will be good. We definitely are going to come with more effort, especially because those guys beat us at home by 20 (10, actually, but the 76ers led by 26). So there is no way, no doubt about that. We will jump on them early in the game.”
Sounds like a plan, though Butler says it’s just time for results.
“Just want to see a win. I don’t care how we do it. We can make all of our shots, miss all of our shots and guard. Guard to where it’s 0-0 and 16 overtimes and somebody scores a layup on our team. As long as we win, I don’t care how we do it.”
Haven’t seen that one yet. But you never know with this Bulls team.