Monday, November 12, 2012
Flaws in the blueprint
By Jon Greenberg ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- Rookie point guard Marquis Teague, he of the every-month-is-Movember wispy mustache, had played a grand total of 10 minutes through the Chicago Bulls' first six games.
But after playing 6 minutes, 8 seconds in the second quarter, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau picked the fourth quarter as Teague's baptism by Celtic. Teague played the entire quarter against perhaps the best point guard in basketball, Rajon Rondo.
The results were encouraging, if not immediately rewarding.
With Teague running the point, the Bulls (4-3) made a valiant, though ultimately failed comeback attempt against the Boston Celtics, losing 101-95 to end a five-game homestand. It was the first time the Bulls had given up 100 points this season. Do the Bulls owe the United Center crowd a Big Mac?
If you're surprised Thibodeau left Teague out there, you shouldn't be. Thibodeau has proved he'll play anyone at crunch time. Well, except usually Carlos Boozer, who sat for the entire fourth quarter for the fifth straight game. And definitely not Vladimir Radmanovic. We might need a zombie war for that to happen.
Thibodeau's decision to play Teague was out of necessity. Kirk Hinrich is hobbled, Nate Robinson was nothing special as the emergency starter. And Derrick Rose, who was at the game, is rehabbing and shilling Chicago-style pizzas.
Marquis Teague scored five points in the fourth quarter.
Teague had 5 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 fouls in 18:08. He was aggressive and showed his straight-line penetration abilities. Can he run an NBA team right now? Not a good one. Not yet. But the Bulls were playing well with him in there and, like any good gambler, Thibodeau knows how to ride out a hot streak.
"I like the way he matched up with speed," Thibodeau said. "[Leandro] Barbosa is extremely quick. Rondo is obviously super-quick also. I like that matchup. He got us going, he got us playing with some energy."
Of course, it helped that the Celtics stopped making shots. They shot 59.5 percent in the first half, 47.4 percent in the third quarter and 35 percent in the fourth. Some of that was Chicago's defense tightening up, some of it was Boston just missing shots.
"The difference in the fourth quarter, we tried," Thibodeau said.
Yeah, that too. The Bulls used a 14-5 run to cut their deficit 87-84 in less than four minutes to open the fourth. Noah scored seven points in the run. Noah (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Luol Deng (game-high 26 points and 11 rebounds) each had nine in the quarter.
"It was unfortunate we couldn't play with that kind of energy for 48 minutes," Noah said. "We got kind of desperate at the end. We came close. They're a very well-coached team. They made some great plays down the stretch. We're going to get better. We've just got to keep fighting, not point fingers right now, just stay together as a group."
After Noah made those two free throws to cut it to a three-point deficit, both teams went on a 3½-minute scoring drought. Thibodeau said the Bulls were settling for "the home run" trying to tie it.
A few starters didn't even get a cut. Boozer, Robinson and Rip Hamilton sat for the fourth. Boozer was subbed out with 2:51 left in the third and the Bulls trailing 76-62, which matched Boston's biggest lead of the game.
"I wanted to go to more trapping to get some energy into the game, so we went to more of a full-court trap," Thibodeau said. "So I thought the speed and quickness of Taj [Gibson] and Marquis would help us in that area."
The coaching decision almost paid off. But Teague couldn't help on a pair of late Rondo-to-Kevin Garnett alley oops. The first one made it 95-89, and the second made it 97-93 with 42 seconds left. Those kinds of plays are unacceptable when you know they're coming, even against a duo like Rondo and Garnett.
"We covered that play in the pregame," Thibodeau said. "They're good at it. We got hung up a little bit."
Rondo had 20 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, as every Celtics starter scored in double figures. Hamilton (8 points) was the only Bulls starter not to score in double figures.
I asked Thibodeau why he sat Boozer, even though his offensive game was solid early, with 10 of his 15 points coming in the first quarter. But I knew the answer. I've watched just about every game the past two-plus seasons.
The difference between the past two seasons and now is the Bulls don't have a lockdown bench to make up for a lack of scoring late in the game when Thibodeau wants to go with defense. While center Nazr Mohammed played six unproductive minutes, our old friend Omer Asik had 19 points and 14 rebounds against Miami. Think the Bulls could use him this season?
Yeah, yeah, I know it's all about salary. But one thing this organization has showed us is that it's not so good with using cap space and thinking outside of the box to get deals done. All that space clearing got them Boozer in 2010.
But drafting Asik and bringing him along with a master stroke, and ah, it's all in the past now. Why dwell on things we can't change?
It's like asking why Thibodeau played Rose in the fourth quarter against the Sixers. OK, now I've really got to stop before we get into why the team hard-capped itself this summer.
While many people, from fans to reporters to NBA die-hards, are giving the Bulls a pass this season, you're seeing what happens when you "have to" disassemble your biggest luxury, a dependable bench, for financial reasons. The margin for victories, sans Rose, is quite thin. But you won't hear players making excuses.
"Our record should be better, especially being at home," Gibson said. "We gave up three games at home."
That's true. The Bulls are 3-3 at home and go on a five-game road trip over the next two weeks, starting in Phoenix on Wednesday and ending in Milwaukee on Nov. 24. In between are some difficult games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.
Now, the Bulls aren't as horrible as you might think, especially if you only dwell on the early struggles. This team has been in every game and still has the benefit of being well-coached and having a solid veteran core. Deng and Noah are playing like franchise players, Hinrich is solid at everything but shooting, and Boozer and Hamilton will get you points in bunches. Rose started cutting again on his surgically repaired knee but we're months away from being able to discuss his return with any kind of optimism.
Even as the Bulls compete harder in the fourth quarters, you can clearly see the difference between them and the likes of Oklahoma City and Boston.
After two years of mixing and matching and winning, I think it's finally time to say the Bulls don't have more than enough to win with. They have just enough to win the Central Division, but only if everyone's healthy. Thibodeau might have to retire that favorite phrase. Of course, he really does have enough clichés to speak with, so he'll be fine.
If you're watching every Bulls game, though, you might want to stock up on some of that pizza Rose is selling, and settle in for some long nights.