Commentary

Resilient Bulls in familiar territory

After losing members along the way, Bulls know how to respond to Game 1 loss

Updated: April 21, 2014, 11:40 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It was Nene, the Brazilian warrior philosopher of the low post, who said Sunday, "Who can control our present is ourselves. Who can control our future is only God."

That's startlingly similar to the Chicago Bulls' prevailing ideology, except replace God with Tom Thibodeau.

[+] EnlargeBulls/Wizards
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMarcin Gortat's bullying interior presence trumped D.J. Augustin's perimeter work in Game 1.

And Thibs knows how Thibs will respond in the film room Monday. Probably not with a lot of prayerful words.

To a man, the Bulls knew they let the present slip through their fingers in a playoff-opener dud Sunday, losing a second-half lead and falling 102-93 to the Washington Wizards.

Chicago led by 13 early in the third quarter and seemed poised to grow the lead before riding out an inevitable Washington comeback, but the Wizards' big men and their old man, Andre Miller, finished off the Bulls in a sluggish finish for the 4-seed.

Bulls fans came into this series with dreams of watching a once-dead team making an Eastern Conference finals run. But they were met with the reality: This is an offensively challenged team facing a team that can answer it in the post. This is a team that can't slack on defense.

This isn't a team that can win when Joakim Noah isn't, in his words, "hyped," and D.J. Augustin can't buy a jump shot.

The past 3½ months of the Bulls' regular season have been a revelation, but the playoffs, as you might have heard, don't follow the same script.

After the disappointment of another Derrick Rose injury subsided, Chicago's love affair with Noah bloomed, but his impact is the result of 30-plus minutes of dervish activity. When he's off, the Bulls are off.

And when he gets pushed around in the post, it's trouble.

The bad news was that the bruising veteran frontcourt duo Nene (24 points, 8 rebounds) and Marcin Gortat (15 points, 13 rebounds) had their way with Noah (10 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists) and the Bulls, overshadowing a slow playoff start for guards John Wall and Bradley Beal.

But the good news is the Bulls haven't lost consecutive games since Feb. 1 and 3. When they do lose, it's because they play like matzo -- flat and flavorless.

But this is a mature team that rises to challenges, such as, say, losing Rose. It typically bounces back with an inspired effort.

That's how you go two months without dropping two in a row with a seven-man rotation.

It certainly helps when your coach is a preparation maniac.

"We know what we did wrong," a dejected Taj Gibson said. "We just let up on the gas. We can't let up on the gas when we worked so hard to get a lead on a good team. That's a good team over there. It hurts because we worked so hard to put them away. But this is the playoffs. It's just one game. We've got to get it back."

Asked by a TV reporter what the Bulls need to do in Game 2, Noah said, "We need to win."

In a follow-up question, he said, "We'll figure something out."

That's code for "Thibs is going to yell at us while we watch film, and we'll transfer that rage to the court."

Yes, it's going to be a long series. Most in Chicago, and around the league, predicted the Bulls to win in six games. That's still a fair guess.

But that's not to say the Bulls won't lose this series to a feisty Wizards team. A first-round defeat was always in the mix for this team, which, yes, could also make it to the Eastern Conference finals by beating either the Atlanta Hawks or Indiana Pacers in the next round.

It's just that the margin between wins and losses is thinner than Tony Snell.

During the regular season, Chicago was one of two teams to average fewer than 100 points in victories (99) and one of two to average fewer than 90 in losses (86). The Bulls were last in both categories.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY SportsIt was a tough night offensively for a grieving Joakim Noah despite another double-double.
With Rose in street clothes, there is no takeover artist on the roster. The Bulls win by sharing the ball. In this loss, they had just 13 assists on 34 baskets. The made shots are in line with the team average, but the Bulls average almost 23 assists per game.

Augustin, credited by most as the key to the team's post-Rose, post-Luol Deng success, missed 12 of 15 shots and five of six in the second half.

Mike Dunleavy was the only Bull to score in double figures in the second half, and all 11 points came in the first 5:06 of the third quarter.

The Bulls led consecutively for 23:36, stretching from the final 3:53 of the first half until Washington retook the lead with 4:17 to go on a Trevor Ariza free throw.

After that, the Bulls just couldn't score and didn't really defend, either. That's the key here. Washington got key offensive rebounds late and always seemed to have that answer basket in the fourth.

"Guys weren't where they were supposed to be in a lot of plays, and it showed late," Gibson said.

Thibodeau thinks the team's offensive struggles bled into the defense.

"We can't allow frustration to get in the way of what we are trying to do," Thibodeau said. "We have to play for 48 minutes. We have to bounce back."

With 34 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Al Pacino appeared on the United Center video board giving his "Any Given Sunday" speech as a Bulls highlight reel played on.

It was an awkward time for movie magic. The Bulls trailed by six, and fans had started to trickle out.

There was no Hollywood ending for the Bulls in their playoff opener, but at the same time, their story isn't written yet.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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