- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls are exhausted. That's not the type of excuse that coach Tom Thibodeau loathes -- it is a fact.
After playing as hard as they could most of the season, the Bulls have hit a wall. It's evident on the faces of Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, and it was evident in a lifeless 101-98 loss to the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night. The Bulls are tired, and it appears that all the physical and emotional ups and downs of the past few weeks, including injuries, Derrick and Reggie Rose's comments, and a brutal schedule over the last month, have finally caught up to this beleaguered team.
Of course, Thibodeau doesn't want to hear it.
"We are not the only team that has played this much time," Thibodeau said. "Every team in the league has. This is what separates the teams in the league. The teams that can get it done when they are not feeling their best and still be committed in doing the job and getting it done, those are the teams that have success."
Thibodeau forgot a crucial component in his commentary -- only one team has him as a coach. In his three years in Chicago, Thibodeau has proven that he is one of the best coaches in the league. He consistently gets the most out of his players and has them playing at a high level most nights. But there is no question that some of his domineering ways are starting to wear on his players more than usual.
The Bulls aren't necessarily tuning out the coach, they still respect him because they win, but they are losing confidence in themselves because they have been unable to play at the same high level that Thibodeau demands recently. The mental strain of the season has gotten to them.
"We got to find a way," Noah said. "We got to find a way. We got to play with more urgency and play together. I think it's disappointing right now. We've been in a long stretch where we haven't been playing great basketball and we just got to find a way."
If Bulls fans have learned anything about Thibodeau's tenure it's never to count this team out, but the problem is that this loss felt different Tuesday night. Yes, the Bulls have played up and down to the level of their competition throughout the year, and surely they let off the gas a little in seeing a Cleveland team without Irving, but the difference was that when they needed to hit another gear … it wasn't there. Without Taj Gibson on the floor, the Bulls defense looked weak and couldn't get a stop when it needed one most.
"Tonight the offense was fine," Thibodeau said. "The defense was terrible."
The players didn't want to admit their fatigue but it was palpable throughout the locker room. Luol Deng soaked his aching body in the cold tub. Gibson hobbled around in a huge knee brace. Kirk Hinrich talked about finding a way to play through his elbow injury. There are going to be nights when the Bulls simply don't have enough and Tuesday night was one of them. The issue for the Bulls is that their schedule only gets tougher in the next few weeks with road games against the Indiana Pacers, a rejuvenated Los Angeles Lakers team and the Golden State Warriors.
"We just got to get back right," Hinrich said. "We haven't been playing up to our standards. We just got to get back to that -- sooner than later. This time of year teams are jockeying for playoff position and just trying to finish strong. No excuses. We just got to keep grinding and play better."
As fans watch the Bulls’ record continue to slide, many wonder what impact Reggie Rose's words had on this team. While there's no question players have talked about the comments amongst themselves, I believe that’s just part of the reason the Bulls have been struggling. Between Derrick admitting before the All-Star break that there was a chance he still may sit out the season if his leg didn't feel right and Reggie blasting the organization for not putting enough pieces around his brother to succeed, it was if the players in Thibodeau's locker room realized that making a real run this season may not be in the cards. All the hard work and determination was for naught, especially given the constant injuries the Bulls have dealt with all season.
It's not an excuse that the comments and the injuries have had an impact on this group -- it's a fact.
"Until we get the level of intensity up, play with high energy at both ends of the court, and play for 48 minutes the results are not going to be good," Thibodeau said. "You get what you deserve in this league and we are getting what we deserve right now. Until we change that we are going to have problems. We are short-handed. We have to play with great intensity and you have to do it for the entire game. We are not doing that right now."
The Bulls may play better Thursday night against a fading Philadelphia 76ers team but that shouldn't change the issue at this moment in time -- the Bulls are tired and it is showing up repeatedly in their lackluster play. Contrary to Thibodeau's often-stated belief, the Bulls do not have more than enough to win with right now.
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