CHICAGO -- Perusing the box score, a reporter looked at the Chicago Bulls' 50 percent shooting on 3-pointers, thought back to all of the Los Angeles Clippers' lob plays and had a sobering thought about the Bulls: This looked like a mid-major college team playing a ranked team, and it ain't March Madness.
Facing a bigger, faster, stronger team, the Bulls could shoot 3s, rely on their ThibsBall defense and pray Blake Griffin would stick to missing long 2-pointers.
It didn't work. The better team won Tuesday night 94-89, and that team wasn't the Bulls.
It wasn't a blowout like the previous time these teams met, in Los Angeles, and the Bulls (11-9) had their chances late. So, how could the Bulls have won this game?
"Don't dance with the ball," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. Growled, actually.
Yes, ol' Thibs was in fine form after the game.
Asked how to prevent Lob City from landing on one's arena, Thibs said, "Don't turn it over. Stay disciplined. Stay disciplined. Protect your basket first. Stay disciplined."
So ... do you think he had a problem with the Bulls' discipline?
Thibodeau was especially angry going into halftime. The Clippers ended the first half with a 12-2 run to take a 47-40 lead. Blake Griffin, who scored a team-high 22 points and added 10 rebounds, had consecutive fast-break dunks off Bulls' turnovers in that run, and DeAndre Jordan added two more. That run epitomized the Bulls' struggles and changed the game.
In the end, the Clippers not only outscored the Bulls in fast-break points 17-16, but also had a sizable advantage in scoring in the paint, 50-38.
Carlos Boozer had a good offensive game, scoring 24 points and picking up five offensive rebounds -- 13 in all. But the Bulls shot only 40.2 percent from the field and had 16 turnovers. Marco Belinelli had 18 points, but it came on 6-of-22 shooting. Luol Deng went 3-for-14 from the floor with four turnovers.
Interestingly, the Bulls stayed in the game with long-range shooting, making 10 of 20 3-pointers. No team was shooting fewer 3-pointers a game than the Bulls (12.4) coming in, and with good reason. They were making only 4.1 per game. But Thibodeau's scouting report obviously highlighted the Clippers' difficulties in guarding the 3; Los Angeles came in allowing 37.6 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Chicago made 5 of 6 3-pointers in the first half and 8 of 10 before falling off. They finished by missing 8 of 10. Some would look at that number and say that's regression to the mean. Thibodeau sees red, and I'm not talking about the old team slogan.
"When the ball moved, we were fine," Thibodeau said. "When we started going one-on-one, we are not going to beat good teams doing that. That put them in the open floor. When you give a team like that layups and dunks, you are making your job twice as hard."
The best defense is a good offense.
I asked guard Nate Robinson, who always displays a monastic approach to court discipline, about the Bulls' getting victimized by the Clippers inside. He said the Bulls "shot ourselves in the foot today," but he wasn't beating himself up over it. Game respects game and all that.
"That's the best fast-break team in the NBA," he said. "They've got jumping beans over there, man. Their transition play, man, is unbelievable. Honestly, everybody is NBA players. I think we could've done a better job, but if we miss, they're going. And they finish with the best in the NBA. They've got the high flyers, Chris Paul passes the ball well. If they throw it at the rim, they're dunking."
Thibodeau doesn't want to hear about how good the Clippers are or how the Bulls were playing Paul without Derrick Rose. He wants perfection.
"Nobody's perfect," Robinson said. "Only Jesus."
I'm guessing Thibodeau doesn't accept that as an answer when they're watching film.
The Bulls get the scouting reports, which Thibodeau is famous for, but they have to turn that knowledge into near-flawless basketball to beat the upper-echelon teams, even at home. With Rose on the shelf, and Rip Hamilton out again, this team just isn't going to overpower opponents on a regular basis.
Compared to the low-flying Bulls, the Clippers are the Globetrotters. Besides Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, you don't see a lot of Bulls dunks. Jimmy Butler would have to shoot first. Boozer is good for one a game.
It's not the dunk that matters, but rather how they get them. This is the NBA. No one gets rattled by Griffin thundering home lobs. But the divide between these two teams, at this point, is clear. The Bulls, still my clear favorite for the Central Division title, which should probably take 45 wins, just don't have the athletes to win these kind of games. A coach can only take you so far.
We've raved a lot about Thibodeau since he got here, and you can see why with the way this team is in nearly every game despite a serious offensive deficit. And in the previous two years, we've compared him quite favorably to his predecessor Vinny Del Negro, who was on the opposite sideline Tuesday.
Before the game, I chatted with Caron Butler about Del Negro, who finds himself in a rare position for December: No one's talking about firing him. The Clippers have won seven in a row for the first time since 1991. They are 15-6 and a very serious contender in the Western Conference.
Yes, Thibodeau is coaching the scrappy team fighting to stay above .500 and Hollywood Vinny is running the team gunning for the Finals.
"I think he's gotten a lot better, with just knowing his players," said Butler, who is in his second year of playing for Del Negro. "I'm a strong believer in players make coaches better coaches. I feel like he's learned a lot from us and we've learned a lot from him. We figuring out this thing together."
Butler noted that Del Negro gets a lot of criticism, but said, "He's done a great job because he's winning. That's easier said than done."
Butler had a lot of compliments to throw at Del Negro, but his main point stands. Good players make good coaches. The Bulls have a good coach, some nice players and, on some nights, that gives them more than enough to win with.
But on Tuesday, Del Negro, the coach whom the Bulls fired after two playoff seasons of .500 ball, was able to leave the United Center with his coiffure held high. He had the players and he got the victory.
It's a players' league, and don't ever forget it.