CHICAGO -- Luol Deng looked the way Chicago Bulls fans are feeling these days as he sat in front of his locker late Monday night. His head was down and both knees had big ice packs on them, while his feet sat in a vat of ice. The proud veteran had just played 42 minutes, scoring 26 points and grabbing eight rebounds, but it was the two points that he missed late that raced through his mind as a box score floated in the icy water.
With 2.9 seconds left to go, Bulls center Joakim Noah delivered a beautiful pass to Deng as he sliced down the lane. The Bulls were down by two as the All-Star forward caught the ball and made a beeline for the basket. The only problem is that Deng, who had been the Bulls' lone offensive weapon for most of the night, went up for the shot and couldn't convert.
"When it left my hand I knew I missed it," Deng said. "I couldn't really grab it back. ... Just a bad, bad miss. My fault."
Deng's admission is admirable. It shouldn't come as a surprise given how well respected he is throughout the Bulls' locker room. But the miss served as a microcosm of what the Bulls have been going through as a team over the past few weeks. They are playing hard enough to win games -- they are just finding new ways to lose them down the stretch.
"I think guys are playing hard, giving everything they got," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "But we just got to do a better job of finding ways to put the ball in the hole. Everything seems to be hard right now. We're not getting any easy baskets. Our spacing isn't very good. We just got to find a way to correct it, stay positive; we're going through a rough stretch right now."
This is without question the roughest stretch of the Tom Thibodeau era. The Bulls are now 3-11 over their past 14 games. Deng's missed layup served as a reminder that this team's biggest problem is that they can't find ways to score. As Noah pointed out, everything is a battle for the Bulls offensively. They can't get into a rhythm and they continue to get frustrated while trying to run through the offense. It's an issue that is driving Thibodeau even crazier than usual.
"The mental part of it is critical," Thibodeau said. "We have to understand what we’re doing. We have to have everyone do their job, understand what their job is. It’s really all the little things, that’s what separates teams. It’s the intensity in which you do all those little things."
The intensity that has come to define Thibodeau's teams in Chicago is missing. Not so much by the fact that the Bulls aren't putting forth a good effort, but more by the fact that the precision by which they used to run and execute offensive sets hasn't been the same.
"So if you’re asked to set a screen, take your screen to the man," Thibodeau said. "If you’re asked to cut, finish your cut to the basket and finish your cut outside the 3. Keep the ball moving. If you’re asked to set three screens, set three, don’t set two. Set three. If the ball goes into the post, get down to the baseline, get outside the hash, help your team. Don’t get wrapped up in any personal dilemmas. If you’re not shooting the ball well, there are a lot of other things you can do to help your team win and that’s all anybody should be thinking about. So I think we have more than enough."
The problem for Thibodeau is that as far as offensive talent goes, that's just not the case. His team still hasn't gotten completely down on itself, but the time will come soon if the Bulls can't find a way to win some games -- and quick.
"It's a little bit of stuff here, a little bit of stuff there," Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy said. "But if we can just string together a couple and start feeling a little bit better about ourselves, we're going to hang in there, we're going to grind, but we can see the results with some wins. This team, we're right there. I don't think anybody will deny that. We're not getting wins right now, it's not showing up in the win-loss record, but we're closer than you think and we get a little rhythm and do that I think we'll be all right."