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CHICAGO -- It's something of a stunner when the team that always demonstrates a sense of urgency looks emotionally empty in Game 1 of the playoffs. When the team that knows it has to rebound doesn't. When the team that knows it has to move bodies and the ball to generate offense doesn't. When the team that knows its calling card is defense doesn't play much of it. It's not often in the Tom Thibodeau era that the Bulls are a flat-out disappointment, but they were in their 102-93 Game 1 loss to the Wizards.
|Nene outplayed Joakim Noah in Game 1 and that has to change if the Bulls are to advance.|
There wasn't a single department where the Bulls played up to their standard in the opener, causing Thibs to say afterward, "You have to make your adjustments quickly."
The adjustments couldn't be more obvious. The first one, if the Bulls are going to salvage a split at home, is to not let the Wizards hit 49 percent of their shots again. On a night when Washington's two most explosive offensive players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, missed 18 of 25 shots and looked every bit like two guys making their playoff debuts, the Bulls allowed Trevor Ariza, Nene, Marcin Gortat and Andre Miller to make 64 percent of their shots. The Bulls got suckered time and again in the fourth quarter by back cuts that produced layups, whether from Gortat to Beal or Miller to Nene or Nene to Gortat. The NBA's No. 2-ranked defense (which allowed opponents 43 percent shooting for the season) looked slow, uninspired and confused. And if that was the only issue confronting the Bulls between now and Tuesday's Game 2, it might not be all that big a deal.
But it isn't.
They whined the entire game about calls on a night when referees' calls weren't worth discussing. One former NBA player who watched the game in person said, "They whined all night and there were no hard fouls, no controversial calls. The number of foul calls was pretty even [26 against the Wizards, 25 against the Bulls], but they didn't play through anything. They need to shut up."
It was duly noted by Thibodeau, who himself said, "We can't allow frustration to get in the way of what you're trying to do."
The checklist extends beyond bad defense and temperament. The Bulls didn't pass the ball. The first thing Kirk Hinrich went looking for on the stat sheet was team assists. The Bulls had 13.
"That's an uncharacteristically low number for us," he said. The Bulls average 22.6 assists per game, so 13 at home is an abomination. Bodies didn't move, neither did the ball.
The number of assists, for the Bulls, is hugely important because they don't have a player (Derrick Rose) who can take the ball by himself and create offense. It's a team that can score only by moving bodies and the ball, which is why the Bulls scored a grand total of six points the final six minutes.
"The movement without the ball," Thibs said, "was bad. The screens were weak."Some of this might be Thibs' fault. Look, nobody's a bigger Thibodeau fan than I am, but his devotion to a specific rotation probably cost him in Game 1. Carlos Boozer has been affixed to the bench for the entire fourth quarter 46 times by unofficial count. But Boozer is the only reliable frontcourt scorer the team has and Boozer had no trouble getting his jump shot off cleanly over Gortat, who is a stout defender but not particularly scary in space.
The Bulls needed Boozer on the floor at times in the fourth, and Mike Dunleavy, who was in the lineup when the Bulls stretched their lead to 64-51 and presumably thought the game was over. If playoff series are about adjustments, then Thibs might very well have to adjust his rotation because the Wizards were just fine with Boozer and Dunleavy, the Bulls' two most consistent shooters and floor spreaders, sitting in the fourth.
Throw on top of that a general lack of spirit. Thibs noted the number of times at the rim when his players finished meekly, when they missed bunnies or fumbled around from point-blank range. "Flipping the ball up is not gonna make it in the playoffs," he said. "We've got to go up stronger."
The lack of edge, to which several of the players referred, is a delicate subject because so much of it night-to-night seems to flow from Joakim Noah, who had just returned from New York where he mourned the loss of his basketball mentor, Tyrone Green. It must be said it was a toned-down, subdued Noah, who not surprisingly shouldered the blame for the offense not being what it usually is.
Strangely enough, but reflective of how important Noah is to the Bulls' offense even though he plays center, is that his four assists in Game 1 would be a great total for 28 of the centers in the NBA, but it's inadequate if the Bulls are going to generate enough offense to win.
Many of us who picked the Bulls (I did, in six games) did so under the presumption that Noah would be the best player on the floor in this series. Noah very possibly will finish fourth in the MVP voting, could be defensive player of the year and first-team All-NBA center, so big things are expected of him ... things he's already delivered in the playoffs in recent years.
But not only was he not the best player on the court, he was completely engulfed in the series opener by his opposite number, Nene, whose 24 points on 11-for-17 shoot and eight rebounds made him the best player. It's virtually impossible for the Bulls to win this series if Noah gets outplayed like that because Wall and Beal are not going to be ice-cold forever.
|Tom Thibodeau's ability to make adjustments will be put to the test in Game 2.|
In fact, the Wizards' collective confidence has to be soaring after covering for their young stars by getting exactly what they needed from their veterans who do have playoff experience. Miller (5-for-7 shooting in 13 minutes off the bench) recognized what Wall didn't -- that D.J. Augustin could be overpowered in the post by a bigger guard.
Miller played so well that Wizards coach Randy Wittman abandoned his usual rotation and left the 14-year vet in the game (in place of franchise player Wall) until only 4:33 remained because Miller's recognition of what needed to be done was ruining the Bulls defense.
Ariza, whose résumé includes helping the Los Angeles Lakers win a championship in 2009, was scary efficient with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. And Gortat, who was playing in his 48th playoff game, had 15 points and 13 rebounds and along with Nene's return to the starting lineup gave the Wizards a pretty formidable inside tag team.
So much for the Wizards being inexperienced in the context of the NBA playoffs.
So much for the Bulls being 29-6 in Game 1s at home. And so much for the Bulls not having lost back-to-back games since Feb. 1 and 3.
One clunker can rearrange the basketball universe, and the Bulls have precious little time to figure out how to fix all that ailed them Sunday by Tuesday.
Before Game 1, Wittman was asked whether he felt like his team was the underdog and Wittman answered in a very definitive tone, "No." He went on to say of his team, "They're ready. They're ready. This is something we've talked about all year, this day."