BOSTON -- Fred Hoiberg isn't sure what else to say right now. He's frustrated. He's angry. He's sick of watching his team fall into early holes it can't climb all the way out of late. He's tired of seeing the same issues pop up night after night: lack of hustle, lack of offensive movement, lack of defensive rotations. The same flaws that have hampered the Chicago Bulls all season reared their ugly heads again in a disappointing 110-101 loss to the Boston Celtics, their sixth in the past eight games, on Friday night. They got outworked and out-hustled most of the night.
When asked if it was upsetting how many times his team seems to come up soft at certain points in the game, the first-year head coach was blunt in his assessment.
"Yes," Hoiberg said. "Yeah, I am. I am."
Out of all the usual cliches that came out of the dejected postgame locker room, the fact that Hoiberg would acknowledge that kind of major inconsistency is telling. He knows his team can play better, and his players know they can play better, but nobody seems to know how to get everyone back on the same page.
"We're not giving that extra effort to be a championship team right now," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said.
As has been the case so often this season, the Bulls went through spurts in which it appeared they wanted to play hard and others in which they didn't. They were down by 16 in the third quarter and pulled all the way back to within one with 4:58 left in the fourth. The scariest part for the Bulls is they aren't sure which team is going to show up night after night. Some nights the intensity is there, and some nights it's not.
"We've been digging ourselves a huge hole a lot of these games because we know how talented we are, how well we can score the ball," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. "But defense is all about grit, the will and the want to do so. I don't feel like we want to do so right now."
Why is that?
"I don't know," Butler said. "If you look at our roster, we got guys that can really score the ball. We've got guys with the potential to play defense. We just go out there, and we don't do it. We talk about it, we talk about it a lot, but we got to correct it. It's time to stop talking about it. We've been talking about this all year long."
Aside from lack of communication, the other serious problem is that the Bulls roster that executives Gar Foman and John Paxson built just doesn't seem to be as deep as originally thought. Any team would struggle without Joakim Noah (out for the year after left shoulder surgery), Mike Dunleavy (hasn't played a game this year because of offseason back surgery) and Kirk Hinrich (who missed his third straight game because of a left quad injury), but injuries are part of the game. They happen to everybody at some point.
The problem for Hoiberg is that Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott have struggled all season, and all three appear to be playing with little confidence these days. They were supposed to be the poster children for Hoiberg -- the players who weren't given enough of a chance to produce under Tom Thibodeau -- but all three have struggled all year to make an impact and have hurt the Bulls' chances to win games. The trend continued Friday. Snell and McDermott only took a combined two shots in 40 minutes. Mirotic was 1-for-7 Friday and is 6-for-35 in his past five contests.
"I just tell them to keep being aggressive," Butler said. "We need you to shoot, we need you to be aggressive. So what if your shot's not falling? But you'll never know if they're going to go in if you continually pass them. If you get open shots, you got to take it, you got to stay aggressive. You got to make them guard everybody on the floor. Everybody goes through slumps. I have, Derrick has, Pau [Gasol] has, but it's whenever you get in that gym in your spare time and get yourself out of [the slump]."
Mirotic sat quietly in his locker staring into space after the game. Hoiberg has repeatedly tried to give him chances to produce late in games, and aside from a handful of good performances, the proud 24-year-old has failed to live up to the hype he created with his offensive performances at times the past season. It's gotten to the point where Hoiberg should keep him off the floor, but without Dunleavy's stabilizing presence, there aren't a lot of other options for Hoiberg. McDermott and Snell haven't produced, and Hoiberg has shown no desire to try rookie Bobby Portis in a wing position.
"The thing with Niko, working with him the last couple of days, he's shooting the heck out of the ball in practice," Hoiberg said. "It's continuing to work with him. When he's out on the floor, they guard him. That opens up things. That creates space out on the floor when he's out there. Look, we believe in him, I know his teammates believe in him, and it's going to take a game to see that ball go in the hoop and hopefully get him off and running."
The problem for the Bulls is they've been saying the same thing all year about all three players -- and it hasn't happened.
The bigger issue with this group remains the same as it ever was: They haven't shown the consistency to suggest they can get themselves on track for the rest of the season. Talk is cheap -- something Hoiberg, a basketball lifer, and his players know very well.
"There's such a fine line in this business of being a great team and a very average team," Hoiberg said. "And we teeter on that line."