Commentary

No rest for the weary

Bulls running out of time to get healthy and back in sync before playoffs start

Updated: April 17, 2012, 2:09 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- How weary are the Chicago Bulls?

So weary that Derrick Rose's limp has a limp.

So weary that Luol Deng aged nine years on his birthday.

Not so weary, however, that coach Tom Thibodeau was willing to make excuses for one of his team's worst performances of the year. With the playoffs drawing ever closer and home-court advantage still in doubt, the Bulls collapsed under the weight of one of the NBA's bottom-feeders, losing 87-84 Monday night to the Washington Wizards in a game closer than it had any right to be.

"What are you, 36?" teammate Rip "Von" Hamilton joked before tipoff with Deng on his 27th birthday, a day after former teammate Ben Gordon elbowed him in the ribs hard enough in the Bulls' overtime win at Detroit to make him temporarily forget about his sore wrist.

It was no joking matter minutes later, however, when it became clear that Deng would be joined on the bench by Rose, suddenly limping on a sore right foot, the same leg as his sprained ankle, which caused him to miss one game last week (in New York on April 8).

Thibodeau had no official update on Rose after the game, nor would he say for sure whether Rose would travel to Charlotte on Wednesday for the Bulls' next game. But while the coach admitted to being "concerned" that Rose has missed 24 games this season, the guess -- considering that Rose participated in a pregame shootaround and was allowed to walk around before the game without a boot -- is that it is not a serious setback.

[+] EnlargeChicago Bulls
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireThe Bulls' Rip Hamilton, Joakim Noah and Kyle Korver walk back to the bench during the second half on Monday.

More serious to Thibodeau is the way the Bulls played Monday, particularly an ongoing problem with turnovers (seven in the first quarter, 17 for the game) that there may not be enough time to remedy.

"Huge, huge, huge," said a terse Thibodeau. "I mean, we're 60 games into it. You have to eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourselves first, then you establish who you are as a team."

Listen to Thibodeau enough and you know that as much credit as he receives for being one of the brighter basketball minds around, he also preaches simplicity, repetition, a fundamental approach to the game upon which his team typically thrives. And he shared his favorite mantras as he expressed his frustration.

"When you're on the floor, everyone has a responsiblity to do their job," he explained through clenched teeth. "Everyone has to do their job. Do. Your. Job."

Dominated by the Wizards in fast-break points (20-2), points in the paint (48-22) and the aforementioned turnovers, which led to 27 Washington points while the Bulls forced 15 by the Wizards leading to just 12 points, left the Bulls looking that much less energized.

"That's what turnovers do," Thibodeau said. "They sap your energy."

Even more galling to him, though, was the reason for the turnovers, an apparent stubbornness that does not bode well for a team that has to be smart to be good.

"Just make the simple pass," Thibodeau said, his facial muscles tighter than his players, who shot 38 percent on the night . "We're not deterred by the result, I can tell you that. We keep making the same play -- trying to thread the needle. First open man. Hit the first open man, that's all you have to do."

The Bulls erased an 11-point deficit early in the fourth with a 13-0 run. But they would allow the Wizards to shoot 60 percent in outscoring them 30-21 in the fourth quarter, putting them on the foul line 10 times, where they connected on eight.

Still, amazingly, the Bulls trailed by one point after a 3-pointer by C.J. Watson with 16.5 seconds left in regulation. And following two free throws by Maurice Evans, they had 15.9 seconds to send the game into overtime with another 3-pointer. Hamilton, who finished with a game-high 22 points, had a 3 partially blocked with 5.9 seconds left and the Bulls got the ball back, but Watson's 26-footer fell short.

And Thibodeau did not want to hear that the Bulls' preferred starting lineup of Rose, Deng, Hamilton, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has actually occurred in just 13 games and that Monday's lineup of Hamilton, Boozer, Noah, Watson and Ronnie Brewer has never started together.

"The thing is, you can say that . . . but these guys have been around all year," he said. "The season is coming to an end very quickly and then you have to be ready. So you keep putting things off, putting things off. It's not good."

You can also say that the coach is a perfectionist, that he worries too much, that he is too hard on himself and his team. And you would probably be right on two of the three. But the worrying?

Asked if he was more upset or confused, Thibodeau could not have been more decisive.

"It's clear to me why we're not playing well," he said. "That never changes. Readiness to play, defense, rebounding, low turnovers -- that never changes, that should be a staple. That should be a constant whether you're in practice or a game, those three things have to happen. Then it's inside-out and share the ball.

"When we do that, we're a good team. When we don't, we're not very good. Believe me, there's clarity on that."

Oh, and on one more thing.

"We're making the game hard right now," Thibodeau said.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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