Bulls Show: Nillz Hitz (Vol. 5)

Bulls Cavs

Is this an overreaction or harsh reality?

When the Bulls lost to the New Orleans Hornets without 1st overall draft pick Anthony Davis in early November, the season was too young for the new pieces to mesh. When the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a 27 point deficit to defeat the Bulls less than a month later, maybe the collapse was simply a mental letdown. When the Charlotte Bobcats spoiled the Bulls’ new year’s eve, Kirk Hinrich out and Joakim Noah battling the flu seemed too large of a disadvantage. When  the Phoenix Suns ended their 12-game road losing streak at the United Center in January, perhaps the game was a trap for a Bulls team coming off an emotional, high-profile win in New York the night before. When the San Antonio Spurs’ junior varsity squad dismantled the Bulls on both ends of the floor, it was just a well-coached team that flawlessly executed their game plan.

How do you explain this one?

The Bulls’ 101-98 loss to the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers was the most unfathomable and deflating defeat in a season currently in a tailspin. In a brief analysis of the Bulls’ February free-fall prior to last night, several reasons surface for the Bulls’ recent struggles. The improved quality of opponents, the declining contributions from Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, and even the absence of Kirk Hinrich’s floor leadership were all logical arguments for the team’s  4-7 record this month.

None of the above applied last night, and there may be no more excuses left.

The Bulls found themselves outworked and outrebounded 39 to 34 by a Cavs team with the 5th worst record in the NBA on top of missing their two best players. Deng and Boozer led the Bulls with strong performances by shooting a combined 61% from the field and scoring 26 and 27 points, respectively. Hinrich (11 points, 11 assists) returned after a 3-game hiatus to nurse another injury and balanced the offense, especially in the 4th quarter before the Bulls’ comeback attempt fell short. As a team, the Bulls actually played pretty well last night (50% shooting, 15 turnovers), but still lost to a presumably inferior team.

Taj looking as sad as most Bulls fans right now.
Photo via ESPN.com

Maybe the Bulls don’t lose this game if the injured Taj Gibson plays. They certainly could’ve used the high-energy, blue-collared forward on the defensive end to counter the Cavaliers’ pick & roll attack. Maybe the Bulls were just collectively hungover after celebrating Joakim Noah and Jerry Reinsdorf’s birthdays Monday night. I assume the Bulls owner naturally purchased the cheap vodka, which possibly induced Tuesday’s lackluster performance.

Or maybe Reggie Rose is right. The Bulls’ just aren’t that good without his brother.

It might be a bit dramatic & premature to degrade a team that just posted a 12-4 record last month with impressive road wins against the Heat, Knicks, and Celtics. How can a team that features two Eastern Conference Players of the Week in addition to two NBA All-Stars fall so abruptly from the fringe of contending? Because the Chicago Bulls without Derrick Rose are regressing not only to their true identity, but an identity many fans anticipated when the front office made the financial decision to dismantle the Bench Mob. Without their MVP point guard, the Bulls as constructed are a .500 ball club possibly unworthy of the playoffs and now sit equidistant from the East’s 2nd and 8th seeds (4 games). No longer is this team feasting on mediocre talent, surprising elite teams with effort & execution, and ultimately overachieving. As the season progresses, savvy and athletic opponents can game plan and stagnate an offense predicated on screens, hard cuts, and ball movement. There may not be a Tom Thibodeau-led defense or rehabilitated superstar that can compensate for the Bulls’ material weaknesses.

Yes, I’ve hit the panic button and I hope to look back on these words in a week or month after Derrick Rose returns to ridicule myself for being too reactionary. But if the Bulls don’t right the ship, this city is in danger of witnessing a second sports franchise peak too early only to fizzle down the stretch. Much like our pigskin neighbors were once deemed, this Bulls team just might be who we thought they were.

(The good news is that the Bulls can fix things as soon as Thursday when they play a Philadelphia team that appears to be even more of a train wreck.)

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