HOUSTON -- The Chicago Bulls have been so consistent over the past two seasons that even they can't believe what they've become.
A mediocre team.
They can't score enough points to win games, they can't execute when they need a big play, but most concerning to Tom Thibodeau and his players is that their defense, which has been so stout over the last two years, is failing them too. Thibodeau's team forced 23 turnovers Wednesday night, but that still wasn't enough to win the game.
"The defense is not what it used to be," Bulls center Joakim Noah admitted. "It's not what it was last year, that's for sure. We got to do better. We just got to do better. Losing three in a row is unacceptable. We're better than that."
For the first time in the Thibodeau era, the Bulls dropped three in a row. It's was a streak the players and coaches took great pride in. Now it's another lasting memory of days gone by. The Bulls are 5-6 on the year and they face a cold reality in the months ahead without Derrick Rose. They aren't good enough to win games anymore unless they execute well ... on both sides of the ball.
"I've been here with Tom, with the system we've had for the last three years," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "There's games when we didn't shoot well. As a player, you should never worry about how you shoot as long as you're getting your work in and you're taking shots within your game. That comes and goes. The one thing (to count on) is stopping teams to win. That's how we win. We've never been a team that tries to out-shoot teams. We can't get into that, that's not our style, that's not what we practice."
For the past two years, whether Rose was on the floor or not, the Bulls would usually find a way to win games by being tougher than their opponents. They would execute better down the stretch and find ways to steal games that they had no business being in. Now it's the other way around. The Bulls are giving away games that they should be winning, and they know it.
"We're just beating ourselves pretty much," Bulls guard Nate Robinson said. "It's like other teams are finding ways to win and we're just finding ways to lose."
For his part, Thibodeau admitted that he would consider making changes to his lineup. The issue for the Bulls is that a move like that won’t change the real problem facing this team. The problem is that this group isn't the same group that won 111 regular-season games the last two years. Obviously, losing Rose is part it what's ailing the Bulls, but it's not as big of a part as some would have you believe. The Bulls just don't execute well in late stretches anymore and the holdovers from the past two seasons know it, even Thibodeau.
"These games are hard-fought and they're going to (be decided on) one or two possessions down at the end," he said. "You got to make tough plays. It's hard to win on the road. And the first thing you have to eliminate is all the ways in which you beat yourself. So you start with your defense. The rebounding is OK, it's average at best. The turnovers are high. It's difficult to win. Particularly when you're shorthanded. We have to play real hard, we have to play real smart and we have to be tied together."
Sometimes, against elite level teams, even that won't be enough. But against another mediocre team like the Rockets, the Bulls just don't have an excuse.
"I think we just got to trust each other a little bit more on the court," Noah said. "We just got to play together a little bit more and execute. We're a team that's always been great at executing down the stretch and we're not in the right position. It's frustrating."
As problematic as the defense has been for the Bulls at times, it has to be disconcerting for Thibodeau to watch his team make the same mistakes over and over. While the defense is the issue at hand, the focal point is that there are so many flaws with this roster, compared to where it has been over the last two years, that even the players are having a hard time pinpointing what's wrong.
"There's a lot of things we need to do," Deng said. "We just got to put a whole 48 minutes together. We just got to stay mentally strong. We got to get a win and get it rolling again. Just got to stick with it, stick with what we do. It's tough right now losing. You don't want to lose, but you just got to keep working and stick with it and try to find a way to get a win."
Deng admitted that it might be time for him, or another veteran player, to stand up and speak to the team. Deng is a realist, though. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the reality is that a speech also won't fix the type of flaws the Bulls have.
"I don't think it's time to panic yet,” Deng said. “I think we got a lot of guys that want to win. We don't have any guys in this locker room that are dogging it and are OK with losing. I think it's tough. We've been winning the last two years, so this is something we're not used to. And the best way to (bounce back) is just go out and work as hard as you can. Whatever you want to call it, a slump or whatever, you're not going to get out of it (by) just talking. Guys understand that we need to do better."