Wanted: A scorer at crunch time
CHICAGO -- It's the 12 minutes that ought to drive Bulls management to extreme action in an offseason coming sooner than any of them expected.
Twelve minutes, four baskets. Twelve minutes of missed shots, turnovers, 24-second violations, confusion, ineptitude and, ultimately, a missed free throw.
Twelve minutes, the equivalent of a full quarter of basketball, and all the Bulls got, playing at home, was a hard drive to the basket by Joakim Noah, a Kirk Hinrich jumper, a Taj Gibson dunk that rattled seemingly every part of the rim and a Noah layup.
Eight minutes without a single basket for the Chicago Bulls, 12 minutes with just four. It's the blueprint for how to blow a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of Game 2, a mere 48 hours after blowing a 13-point lead late in the third quarter of Game 1.
If romancing Carmelo Anthony isn't at the top of the Bulls priority list, one would ask, why the hell not? Free agents, trades, draft picks, players stashed in Europe -- every option ought to be explored to death to avoid another season of this. Two straight games playing at home the Bulls couldn't get a basket when they needed one, and now they're halfway to summer.
The Wizards knew in their hearts this would be the case when they hustled from seventh place to fifth in the final days of the season to chase a first-round matchup with the Bulls. They knew they could smother D.J. Augustin defensively with Trevor Ariza. They knew two of the most polished offensive players the Bulls have, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy, are usually affixed to the bench in the fourth quarter because of their defensive deficiencies. The Wizards knew the Bulls routinely go six minutes, eight minutes, 10 minutes without being able to score a basket.
You can defend and scrap to the heavens, and the Bulls do that as well as any team in the NBA, better than most of them. They're well coached and disciplined. But they're still only two-thirds of a team, limited and flawed when they have to play an opponent with a full deck. Goodness, nobody is saying the Bulls don't miss Luol Deng.
At 87-77 with 6:58 to play in the fourth, a team with a competent offense should be smelling a series tied at a game apiece. But Gibson, who did have a playoff career-high 22 points off the bench, missed in close. And Noah, who did make eight of 14 overall, missed. Then Noah committed an offensive foul trying to drive and kick. Gibson committed an offensive foul attempting a handoff to Augustin.
You could feel it slipping away, the Bulls falling into one of those prolonged stretches where it looks like the opponent is on a power play. Augustin missed a three, then a fadeaway. Noah committed a terrible turnover. Hinrich missed a long deuce, then another jumper. You get the picture. They were just hoping the ball up to the rim. Any way a team can blow an offensive possession, the Bulls had it covered.
See, Noah is a very worthy Defensive Player of the Year. But he still needs to play alongside a true offensive star -- a player who all by himself can come up with a basket here, free throws there and the plays that prevent a team from going scoreless for eight minutes in the fourth quarter and overtime on its home court in a playoff game.
The Bulls, with Derrick Rose hurt, haven't had that in a while. They don't have a single player who can command a double-team to open the floor for a teammate.
Augustin was a wonderful find early in the regular season. There's no way, particularly after trading Deng, the Bulls win 48 games and finish fourth in the Eastern Conference without him. But in the playoffs, guards as small as Augustin, who is 6 feet tall, have to be exceptional talents. With 6-foot-8 Ariza all over him, Augustin didn't score in the final 13 minutes. He started 8-for-14 but finished 2-for-8, and said afterward, "They're just a good defensive team."
The Wizards are good defensively. Good, but not so good the Bulls should go eight minutes without scoring. The Wizards ranked 10th among the NBA's 30 teams in defensive efficiency. They have, increasingly over the season, learned how to stop opponents late in games.
"The last two years we have been in a lot of top two defensive categories," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "This team has the belief, and I am an old-school coach. I come from Bobby Knight.
"You had to play defense. I still think defensive wins at this stage."
It does. But Wittman also has a lineup that features five fully capable offensive players who are a threat to score, plus three players who can come off the bench (Trevor Booker, Martell Webster and Andre Miller, who combined to shoot 10-for-15) and keep the offense humming while the starters rest. Those three Wizards reserves each had more baskets than Bulls starters Boozer and Jimmy Butler.
Take away Augustin's 4-for-8 3-point shooting and the Bulls were 1-for-9 from beyond the arc. That's not the offense of a contending team; John Paxson and Gar Forman have to radically address that failing this offseason, which could begin as early as Monday.
The Wizards are starting, at just the right time, to figure out what they're onto here. Bradley Beal played much better in Game 2 than he did Sunday in Game 1. Wall stalled out a bit; he went 0-for-5 in the second half and overtime after making six of his 10 shots before halftime. But he figures to be in full attack mode back at home in Washington on Friday night.
Young teams have a way of feeling pressure when faced for the first time with expectations and lavish praise, but the Wizards also have the incentive of knowing the prize for finishing off the Bulls is a likely date with the Indiana Pacers, who still have plenty of time to fall back into a funk during their first-round series with Atlanta.
The Bulls, it would appear, are stuck. They doubled the Wizards in points-in-the-paint, 44-22. The Bulls piled up an 18-10 advantage in second-chance points in Game 2. Augustin's 25 points were nine clear of his previous career playoff high. Noah returned to form with 20 points and 12 rebounds. And Gibson helped lead the big second-quarter comeback and ended up with 22 and 10.
Yet, the Bulls lost again. At home. You can't figure the Wizards to miss 12 of their first 24 foul shots back in D.C. on Friday night or Sunday afternoon, as they did in Game 2. Wall and Beal are slowly learning what it takes to survive these playoff wars.
The Bulls, mostly, are reminded of what they can't do anything about: their offense. Butler played all 53 minutes and Noah logged 46; Dunleavy and Boozer are lost to the team in the fourth quarter. They need points and they know by now they have no place to turn for enough of them. Worst of all for the Bulls, the Wizards know that, too.