Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Halves as Bulls Get Blown Out in Game 2

What a difference a half makes. The Bulls, coming into their first game without Derrick Rose, knew they had to play as a team. They had to bank that the sum of their parts was going to carry them through the playoffs, at least against Philadelphia. And from the onset of Game 2, it looked like that was going to be the case. The Bulls came out firing in the first half after an emotional appearance at center court by Derrick Rose in the pregame. Joakim Noah led the way, providing scores of intensity, rebounds, and even scoring. The Bulls entered halftime confident that all the questions were answered about whether they could win without Rose, whether the Bulls could get a basket when it counted without their best player, or any of the other questions that come after losing your MVP. And that was it. Once the second half started, the Bulls were finished, with perhaps their worst half of the season.

Noah was one of the few highlights
It truly was a tale of two halves. You have to admire the effort of the team in the first half, and you can be sure that it was a reflection of what Tom Thibodeau had been telling his guys since they first found out about Rose's injury. With Noah leading the way, the Bulls got off to a fast start, trading baskets with the 76ers to eventually hold an 8 point half time lead. Noah was, simply, a sight to be seen. The unquestioned emotional leader of the Bulls with Rose out needed to step up, and he did. He even had a moment where he crossed up a Philly defender with a crossover. He was on fire. He faded with the rest of the team in the second half but still ended up 21 points and 8 rebounds. His energy was infectious in the first half, though, and that was the most important thing we needed from him.

It was interesting to see Thibs handle the point guard situation. The de facto starter is of course CJ Watson, but he had a miserable game even after playing the entire first quarter. So Thibs went with John Lucas for the entire second quarter, and he proved to be a spark plug. He was great, hitting tough shots and facilitating the offense. Of course, he struggled in the second half as Philly compensated for him on defense, but it was great to see him bring the kind of intensity that is going to be needed from the Bulls right now. With CJ, it was lacking. He needs to step it up here. I love John Lucas, but can we really expect him to continue playing well for an entire series? Or better yet, do we want to have to rely on that? CJ knows that this was his time to shine, and perhaps he buckled under the first game's pressures, but he most definitely needs to step it up in Game 3.

I have no idea what happened at halftime. The Bulls were playing so well and were on such a roll at the end of the second quarter that the sequence of events in the second half is mind-boggling. The Bulls may have picked the worst time to play their worst quarter of the season, getting outscored 36-14. Gone was all the energy exerted in the first half, and that's what worries me the most. Does this team realize their chances now without D Rose? Because it sure showed on their face. The team needs to come out, even if it is exhausting, and play with a fire that can spread throughout the team. And beginning with the third quarter, there can be no doubt that there was no intensity. The Bulls were outworked, outhustled, and the results showed on the floor.

The 76ers blew the doors off the Bulls
We wondered what the Bulls were going to do when they badly needed a shot. Who were they going to go to? If D Rose was healthy and playing, the stretch the Bulls endured in the third, where the 76ers couldn't miss and the Bulls couldn't buy a shot, would be ended with a D Rose shot or drive to the hole. This time? It turned into Lucas fumbling the ball around the three point line, or bad shot selection, or just plain missed shots or lack of energy. We still don't have an answer as to who is going to step up. In a game where the Bulls needed everyone the most, barely anyone showed up. Luol Deng had a bad game, with only 8 points on 3/12 shooting. Carlos Boozer, who started well, wasn't much better, with only 9 points and 5 rebounds. And Rip Hamilton, a player who could be key to the success of the team? Only 10 points. So for those keeping score at home, 80% of the starting lineup played like pure garbage.

It's not like the bench was much better. The only contributor was John Lucas, and he had most of his production in the first half. Ronnie Brewer was nonexistent, Taj Gibson played a bad game, and Kyle Korver was minimally effective at best. Who's left?

For me, this game is on the defense. And because defense falls largely on hustle, energy, and effort, you already know that when things started unraveling in the second half, it led to the problems on defense. And wow, did they get their doors blown off. The killer, as I said previously, is fast break points. The Bulls only had 8 fast break points the entire game, compared to 25 for Philly. Against an athletic team like Philly, you simply cannot allow them to get off and running. We all saw the results - alley oops, easy dunks, and easy baskets. The Bulls just did not get back on defense. That comes down to effort and hustle, but it's also compounded by the problems the Bulls were having on offense. Taking bad shots makes it much more difficult to grab offensive rebounds and makes it easier for an offense to get into transition. That's exactly what happened. And even worse? The Bulls got dominated in the paint too, surrendering an ungodly 52 points in the paint compared to the Bulls' 32. That means that Philly was able to just get much easier baskets. That falls on the defense.

What makes me upset is that in the second half, Philly pounced on the Bulls using the same things - hustle, heart, effort, and defense - that is at the core of the Bulls' identity. Could it be now that the Bulls are going to have a problem defending the PG position? I know that Derrick isn't known for his defense, but he made great strides in the past couple years, especially under Thibs, and his absence was felt as Lucas and Watson were torched by Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday for 20 and 26 points respectively. Even Evan Turner, who so famously talked trash about the Bulls prior to the series, lit up the Bulls for 19. Sure, transition defense killed the Bulls, but so many times they were just out of position or rotated late on defense as well. The only one who deserves any kind of favorable mention on defense was Noah.

Uh, not exactly
The problem here is that the Bulls gave up at the first sign of trouble. They don't have anyone on the roster who can take over a game by himself when it's needed, and it showed. And that's what makes winning in the playoffs such a different animal: when the games and defenses tighten up, and the opposing team makes a run, you need a superstar to suck it up and will the team back into the game. The Bulls don't have one right now. It's crazy for me to think that the Bulls, such a mentally-strong team, collapsed once Philly made a run in the third quarter. Perhaps the weight of the D Rose injury and all that added pressure finally caved in. Maybe they just needed a game to adjust without him. Who knows, but I'm more inclined to believe the former. They just got dominated for an entire half without their best player, and it cost them the game. Think that might be playing in their heads right now?

Who knows where the team goes from here. I believe that this game answers the whole "Bulls have the bench and can win with their depth" argument. No, not in the playoffs. The starters have to play better. If they do, the bench can then still be effective in spurts, like they are designed to be. Where was the production from Deng, Boozer, Watson, and Hamilton? It's the first game after you lose your best player, and the only one who can get up and amped is Joakim Noah? That's the most alarming thing to me. It tells me that perhaps these Bulls players, as strange as it sounds, already feel that they can't win. It's going to take a major effort for Thibs to regroup this team and get them to believe that they can get out of the first round without Rose. Don't even think about the next round, or anything like that. Right now for the Bulls, in the immortal words of Bob Wiley, it's best to just take baby steps.

I wrote recently that this team is special. With their interactions with the fanbase and the city, it's like we're all one big family. That's hard to understand for outsiders, but it's true. It's like we watched them grow up as the team formed and developed these past 18 months. Watching Derrick go down was like one of your family members of friends getting hurt; it's hard to watch. So that's what upset me, hell it even angered me, that this team couldn't get up for the full 48 minutes. Yeah, it sucks that D Rose is hurt. Wanna play for him? Get it done. Suck it up and play with a vengeance for your fallen team member. Lackadaisical, apathetic, and horrible play isn't going to take this team anywhere but an embarrassing first round exit. When a family member goes down, you try to digest it, but you get out and do something to honor him. What we all saw in the second half is the exact opposite.

The Bulls are going to have to get up for Game 3, only this time it's on the road. In front of Philadelphia fans, known for their brutal treatment of opposing teams. Thibs has his work cut out for him to get this team back in gear, but can it even happen? The players must have wondered how they would play without D Rose, a weak mentality that now has to be even worse after the second-half meltdown. What could possibly make this team think they can regroup now? It's going to take guys stepping up, hustling, playing with energy, and exercising good old fashioned leadership. The team will have a few days to stew and think about it, but the fact remains: if the Bulls can't get it together and fight together for their fallen teammate, they'll be joining him on the sidelines sooner rather than later.