Monday, April 2, 2012 Updated: April 3, 10:25 AM ET
No substitute for No. 1
By Jon Greenberg ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- Two streaks ended Monday night at the United Center.
Richard Hamilton's (I've lost count of the games) streak of "DNP-Gametime Decision" ended when he actually appeared in the starting lineup for the first time since the Indiana Pacers game on March 5.
Luckily, announcer Tommy Edwards remembered his name and didn't call him Alexander Hamilton or Rip Van Winkle.
Despite Hamilton's fairly successful 20-minute guest appearance, the Chicago Bulls' streak of 86 games without consecutive losses, the second-longest in NBA history, ended when the Houston Rockets won, 99-93.
While it was good to see Hamilton play, the streak that really needs to end is Derrick Rose's 11 straight absences. John Lucas and C.J. Watson are capable backups, but this team needs Rose, and fast.
But don't get Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau started on excuses. He likes Rose, sure, but if Thibodeau's said it once, he says it every game, the Bulls have "more than enough to win with."
"Well, I think, to me, that's the convenient excuse," Thibodeau said. "You know, at this time of the year you can say injuries, you can say condensed schedule. What else is there? Four in five, back to back, three in a row. Fact of the matter is we lost the last two games because of our mistakes. Not because of injuries, not because of Derrick, not because of any of that."
Thibodeau had an edge in his voice after the loss, one reserved for his players, not the media. Though he spared us from his colorful vocabulary and kept his tone below Sam Kinison.
Rip Hamilton finally returned to the lineup, playing 20 minutes, but the Bulls still are sorely missing Derrick Rose.
It wasn't because he's off to an 0-2 start after being named the Eastern Conference coach of the month in March. No, Thibodeau's standards are set even higher than those of Bulls fans. While the latter won't be satisfied without a trip to the NBA Finals this season, Thibodeau is looking for maximum effort. Not the perfect game, but at least professional attention to detail.
Most NBA teams fade in and out during a season, but the Bulls have mostly played to Thibodeau's Omer Asik-size expectations.
Coming off a lethargic loss in Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon, I asked him if this was the worst two-game stretch he has seen in two seasons. After a pause, he agreed and rattled off a coaching cliché that is, to the best of my knowledge, new to his repertoire.
"I would say yeah," Thibodeau said. "You know, I felt like we let go of the rope. Usually we're a team that [shows] great fight all year, great resolve. Get down, fight back, never let go of the rope. The last two games I've felt we let go of the rope. We've got to get that fight back. We've got to get that edge back. Right now, we're not playing well. We've got to work our way out of it."
Asked about the team's lack of energy in the second half, Thibodeau said, "First half. First half. We started the first quarter the same way. We finished the second quarter same way and started the third quarter same way. No edge and no defense."
About that second quarter the Bulls had five turnovers in the last 4½ minutes. And while they still led Houston 51-40 at the break, it was a harbinger of the slop to come. Thibodeau showed his biting humor and his good memory when someone asked him what happened at the end of the half.
"Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, turnovers," he said.
That's right, he was probably thinking of each one as he rattled them off. The Bulls had 19 turnovers, compared to just eight for Houston, and 14 came from Hamilton, Watson, Lucas and Kyle Korver, who had three himself in the fourth.
The Bulls outrebounded Oklahoma City and Houston, but the defense was suspect. The Rockets shot 47.2 percent. Goran Dragic, perhaps still salty for Stacey King turning his proud name into a dunk punchline, led Houston with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Tiny Earl Boykins, who makes Lucas look elongated, scored nine off the bench.
"The thing is, for our team, we feel if we do three things -- you defend, you rebound and you keep your turnovers down -- if you do those three things, regardless of how you shoot the ball, you're going to be in position to win," he said. "So right now, we're bogged down scoring. And if we do those other three things, we'll be in a position to win. But right now, we're not defending, we're turning the ball over and we're not scoring. You can't win like that so we gotta correct that. That's the first step, we've got to get that down."
The Bulls hadn't lost two straight games since falling to Golden State and Portland on the road, on Feb. 5 and 7, 2011. They had only four more regular-season losses after those games last season. The Utah Jazz went an NBA record 95 games without consecutive losses from November 1997 to March '99.
Of course, the Jazz didn't win a title in either of those seasons. The Bulls lost three in a row for the first time in the Eastern Conference finals, when Miami won four straight. So regular-season streaks are really nothing more than the sign of a great regular-season team, which is to say, nothing more than a footnote to history.
But with Hamilton and Rose healthy, the Bulls have a real chance to advance to the Finals and maybe "avenge" Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City. That's not exactly a secret.
Watson and Lucas have played solid in relief of Rose lately, but in the 11 games Rose has missed, the two are a combined 88-for-233, a 37.8 shooting percentage. Rose would've been helpful, to say the least, in the fourth quarter on Monday.
Watson went 1-for-7 with three turnovers, and played only 2:44 in the fourth. Lucas was OK, he hit four of nine shots for eight points and added five assists, but also committed three turnovers, one in the fourth. (Off topic, his one-on-one showdown with Boykins was the stuff of legend. That's the rare duo I can look in the eye.)
Korver played the entire fourth, and that wasn't a good thing. He went 1-for-6. Hamilton, who had missed 14 straight games with a bum shoulder, sat. If you're looking for a bright spot, when he was in the game in the first quarter, the ball moved very well.
Thibodeau is right to say it's convenient to blame losses on a dearth of Derrick. The Bulls are 14-7 without him with wins over big-time teams like Miami and Boston. But Rose's absence can't last the rest of the regular season. Not if the Bulls want to go into the postseason on a good note.
The Bulls, whose 42-13 record is the best in the league, proved Monday night they are fallible. Boston's coming to town Thursday and there's no reason to believe we'll see Rose back.
March Madness is over for one sport. But NBA fans know April is when teams show what they're made of.