DENVER -- The Chicago Bulls fell into the trap again Thursday night.
As has been the case so often over the years, the Bulls came into the mile-high air in Colorado and allowed the Denver Nuggets to dictate the pace and tempo of the game -- especially in the second half -- resulting in a 97-87 defeat.
"It starts with our defense first," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Free games when nobody really plays D is really rough on us because we kind of lose focus on the defensive side. When we get stops, it kind of gets us in the right rhythm and gets guys good looks on their shots."
The problem for the Bulls in this game is the same one they've had for several years under Tom Thibodeau, though. If the Bulls don't set the tempo and don't play physically for 48 minutes ... they usually lose. If Derrick Rose isn't making shots against teams down the stretch ... they usually lose. The former MVP appeared to be on his way to the best game of his season in the first half by driving to the rim and scoring in traffic. He ended with 19 points on the night, but just four in the second half. When his production fell off, the Bulls didn't have other places to turn. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng, the Bulls' next-best scoring options, were a combined 10-for-36 from the field.
"We just couldn't make any shots in the second half," Rose said. "Shots wasn't falling so individually we tried to do things, but it wasn't working. But if anything, we can learn from this, come out and when we're playing against a team like this, we got to be disciplined and get back in transition because they're a team where anybody can shoot any random shot. And some of the guys came off the bench and produced big for them."
That is a serious understatement and reinforces another painful truth for this year's Bulls squad -- it is not deep at all. Not only do the Bulls not have the kind of offensive firepower that many Western Conference teams possess, they don't even have the kind of depth that can neutralize high-paced squads like the Nuggets.
The Bulls knew they were going to have to pick up the slack without Jimmy Butler (turf toe) in the fold, but even they couldn't have expected things to go this badly. Denver's bench outscored Chicago's 49-21.
"We're still finding our way," Thibodeau admitted. "We have enough. ... The one thing I do like about our bench, I think all of the guys that are on the bench have worked extremely hard to prepare themselves for the opportunity. I thought Marquis (Teague) did some good things, but I have a lot of confidence in all the guys that are on that bench."
The reality is that's just not the case. The only three guys Thibodeau has shown faith in off the bench this season are Mike Dunleavy, who is now starting in Butler's place, Kirk Hinrich and Gibson. Teague has the ability to score, but he still turns the ball over too much and struggles defensively. Nazr Mohammed has been a non-factor so far this season; same goes for veteran Mike James and rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy.
Thursday's contest was another reminder that the Bulls have to play a nearly flawless game when they meet a fast-paced, deep, Western Conference squad. When that doesn't happen, the Bulls can expect more of the same on this year's Circus Trip. In order to fix things, Rose knows what his team has to do starting Friday night in Portland.
"That's when we got to turn (it) into a grind game," he said. "We can't let go of the rope on the defensive end. And we just got to keep putting forth the effort. This is a learning game for us. I'm mad that we let this one go, but if anything we can just learn from it."