Expectations change it all for Bulls
Rose & Co. must believe they are underdogs because no one else does anymore
OAKLAND, Calif. -- This isn't the start anybody envisioned. No reasonable expectation predicted desperate struggles with the short-handed and suddenly reduced Los Angeles Lakers and the inconsequential Golden State Warriors. No responsible forecast had the Chicago Bulls, two games into the new season, shooting 41 percent and stinking out the joint on the defensive end.
Nothing we saw last season, not even that Eastern Conference finals loss to the Miami Heat, suggested that the Bulls would start the first two games looking like a middle-of-the-pack team in this new season of great promise, in need of a longer training camp or more preseason games or ... something.
But here they are, one fabulous Derrick Rose jump hook from being 0-2, "searching," to use coach Tom Thibodeau's word, for answers as to why they don't yet look like the team we all expect or, more importantly, like the team they all expect.
As is his way, thankfully, Rose looked inward for a solution. He was very efficient in Game 1 in Los Angeles, even before the winning shot. He vowed over the summer to score less, look to set up his teammates more often and earlier in the game. Rose scored prodigiously last season because he had to, not because he believed that's the way the position should be played. But after watching that strategy fail for the second straight night, Rose became introspective.
The locker room was pretty empty by the time he said, "I don't want another one of these nights any time soon. I know it's just the second game, but there aren't enough easy baskets. In the first quarter, I might need to establish myself earlier." With each sentence, Rose was replaying the sequences in his mind, the 16 turnovers in the first half, the missed opportunities around the basket.
"Sitting back," Rose said, now more convinced than a minute earlier, "isn't getting it done. I can see that approach is not working."
There was a question about expectations and the weight of them on a team still with no real pedigree, but Rose was on to something now. "I think I've got to push the ball, get to the rim, be more aggressive ..."
Forgive me for going where I'm going, but it so sounded like conversations with Michael Jordan in 1989, maybe 1990, when MJ vowed to pass more, get himself involved later, then after a couple of terrible offensive efforts reverted to type and torched whatever opponent was on deck. I can smell that coming in Sacramento in Game 3, with Rose taking matters into his own hands from the opening tip.
As understandable as Rose's early frustration is, he's going to have to stay the course with his original instinct, that any long-term success the Bulls have is tied to his commitment to scoring less and passing more. Two games is too small a sample size. The offense is going to have growing pains, yes, and Deng/Hamilton/Carlos Boozer are going to have to be so much more assertive, particularly early in games. But the notion that the Bulls can simply ride Rose as an offensive juggernaut and beat teams like Miami and Oklahoma City is deeply flawed. It ain't gonna work, plain and simple. And Rose knew that by the end of last year's conference finals. A few early season losses, as annoying as they are, should -- make that simply cannot -- deter Rose and the Bulls from diversifying the offense. They can't go back to last year and make it work long term.
Anyway, it's not just the offense that's broken two games in. "Defense, defense, defense," Rose answered immediately after the game when somebody asked his impressions of the season two games in.
And that's certainly what Thibodeau feels. "We can't play like that," he said. "We have to rebound, we have to play defense, we have to take care of the ball."
Soon enough, Thibodeau calmed down. Players could recall him being as upset at any time last season. His antennae had been up for just this kind of thing. He didn't want any presumption and preached to his players during the abbreviated training camp that this season has nothing to do with all those good things that happened last season. He had told them that in a compacted season, with 66 games in about 120 days, with little time to practice, "you have to establish your defense first and know who you are."
I don't want another one of these nights any time soon. I know it's just the second game, but there aren't enough easy baskets. In the first quarter, I might need to establish myself earlier.” -- Derrick Rose
Had they not been listening? Not necessarily. The encore season is hard. Expectations, though they might not know it, are heavy. Not our expectations, theirs. They probably think they're playing as hard as they did last season but aren't really. They think they're fighting to get over screens but aren't really. They think they're cutting to the basket as hard as they did a year ago but aren't really. They're bobbling the ball when it comes off the rim instead of grabbing it. They're settling for longer shots instead of pounding it inside. They're getting to spots late and committing fouls, rotating late and giving up easy baskets. Last season, their opponents' big scorers were discouraged; through two games this season, their confidence is soaring.
Normally, in a customary 82-game season, this is of little concern. The season is too long to overreact to anything. But as one NBA player told me Monday night, "The thing that concerns you this season is that a slump in a shortened season can lead to a loss of confidence, and then you're in trouble ... fast."
Yes, it can happen to good teams, even a team as good as the Bulls, who if a preseason poll had been taken of players and coaches would have probably been ranked No. 2 in the NBA, behind only Miami ... at worst No. 3 behind Miami and Oklahoma City.
The first thing they'll seek to do, presumably in practice on Wednesday, is figure out how to prevent big scorers from getting into a rhythm to start the game. They allowed Kobe Bryant to do it Christmas Day, then allowed both of Golden State's big scorers, Monta Ellis (26 points) and Stephen Curry (21 points) to do it to start the game Monday night. "We're not stopping guys we know can score, and you can't let scorers get confidence," Rose said.
I told Rose I thought this was a good thing, struggling out of the gate. The worse thing that could have happened to the Bulls was cruising to a couple of victories on the road, settling into some false sense that this season would be easy when the Bulls aren't that kind of team. Truth is they're grinders. Most of their games are fistfights. They're ugly. Getting to the conference finals this past spring isn't going to change that. Quite the contrary; it confirms how the Bulls have to play, which is to play great defense, win the rebounding battles, get to all the loose balls and force turnovers that result in transition baskets. They don't have much margin for error, and certainly the Bulls need Luol Deng's fingers to be OK. Another injured digit -- isn't Jay Cutler's enough for one year? -- would do to the Bulls' chances of knocking off Miami what it did to the Bears' of knocking off Green Bay.
Presuming Deng is OK, it's probably nothing much wrong that the Bulls won't figure out over the next two weeks. Incorporating Richard Hamilton is more difficult than most thought. And it's quite likely that the way the Bulls play requires a precision that can be reached only with much preparation, meaning camp and preseason games, which simply weren't available.
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The best news coming out of the team's dressing room late Monday night was that the Bulls are 1-1, and they were in a calm state of alert after the loss to the Warriors. It's the perfect condition for listening to the coach. "Grinding," Rose said, managing a smile, "is something I know how to do. I've done it all my life."
They're best suited to the role of underdog, especially Rose and Thibs. Rose says he has every intention of going through this season, at least in his own mind, an underdog. And he's asked his teammates to cling to the same mentality that has served them so well.
Problem is, the other teams aren't hearing that. The Warriors don't see the Bulls that way. Neither did the celebrated Lakers. Neither will the Kings. Expectations, whether the young Bulls know it or care, change everything. And because the Bulls can't change that and shouldn't waste a moment trying, the thing they can figure out is how to do what they do well, no matter what. The sooner they figure out how, the quicker they figure out what's possible in this new season.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.