Tom Thibodeau made what seemed like a crazy claim two weeks ago when he said that, “We have to get better, we are not playing well.” Heck, the team had just finished winning their 10th game out of 11. It seemed even crazier when the Bulls managed to beat the Miami Heat without Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson just two nights later. On Monday night, the rest of the country got to see what Thibs was talking about. The loss to Portland earlier this month could be justified as a letdown game after an emotional win over Miami, but in the games that followed, the Bulls overcame shaky defense (except against Orlando) to win 4 straight games. They weren’t so lucky against the Denver Nuggets. Denver used a 10-0 run to open the second half to propel them to a 108-91 victory over the NBA’s top team. Clearly, the coach has felt like the team had this coming. “We let our guard down and you can’t do that,” explained Thibodeau. “We never got established defensively. Our rebounding effort was poor from start to finish. When we started missing some shots, we had nothing to fall back on. We have to correct that.”
Not having Derrick Rose might be adding to some of the Bulls’ poor play, but the players and coach have refused to use that as an excuse. “We’ve proven we have more than enough to win,” asserted Thibodeau. “We count on the guys who are here. We did not play the way we should have. Derrick had nothing to do with that.” Kyle Korver seconded that sentiment when asked if the team was missing their MVP out there: “We miss him every night. We miss him when we win. C’mon, it’s Derrick Rose. We’ve won lots of games scoring 91 points or less. We’ve just got to play better defense. We can do that with or without Derrick.” One thing that’s for sure is that the team struggled in some areas that they usually dominate when Rose is in there. The Bulls were beaten on the offensive boards 14-5 and in points in the paint 54-24. D-Rose’s aggressive, attacking style usually creates plenty of points in the paint he scores himself, and plenty more 2nd chance points in the paint because the defense is out of position to try and stop Rose. Without him, the Bulls have been settling for more jump shots that they usually want to, and maybe some adjustments need to be made to get some easier baskets inside.
On Monday night, the jump shooting actually served the Bulls well on the offensive end. The team shot 13-for-20 from beyond the arc, and 47.3% overall from the field. C.J. Watson and John Lucas led the way with 17 points apiece, and Watson chipped in 8 assists as well. Carlos Boozer scored the game’s first 6 points and ended with 14 on 7-of-9 shooting, while Kyle Korver also scored 14 and hit all 4 of his triple tries. Joakim Noah had a very quiet night coming off the ejection from the Toronto game on Saturday, but did block 4 shots, and his backup Omer Asik had a strong game with 7 points, 6 boards, 5 blocks and 3 assists. Despite all those things going well for the team, lights out shooting is no replacement for defense and rebounding.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, did play some defense and certainly crashed the boards. Even their point guard, Ty Lawson managed to pull down 9 rebounds, which matched a season high. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee set the tone on the glass to open the second half, as Denver grabbed 3 offensive rebounds on the first possession of the second half, and the duo totaled 7 boards (5 off.) in the first 3:07 of the third quarter and ended with 6 and 8, respectively. The defense also did a great job of creating turnovers and transition opportunities with 10 steals and 23 fast break points on the night. The defense and rebounding of Denver were enough to frustrate any Bulls fan, but their strong play didn’t end there. Denver was also lights out shooting the ball, hitting 50% both from 3 and from the field overall. Lawson matched another season high with 27 points, and Arron Afflalo dropped in 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Al Harrington added 17 off the bench, and veteran Andre Miller had a huge game with 12 points, 10 assists and 4 rebounds. The game was Miller’s 8th double-double of the season.
Things started smoothly enough for the Bulls in this one, as they rolled out to an 8-0 lead to open the game, but Denver’s three point shooting quickly trimmed the lead down to 2. The teams traded leads for much of the first half, but the storm was already brewing for Chicago despite just a 2 point deficit at the break. “I was concerned right at the start of the game even though we started 8-0,” mentioned the Bulls’ coach. “That was not our type of game. It was up and down, free and easy.” The up and down pace caught up with Chicago in the third quarter, and when their shots stopped dropping, Denver pulled away. The 10-0 run to open the half helped Denver go into the 4th up by 13, and the Bulls never got it closer than 7 in the final quarter. Every time the Bulls strung a couple of hoops in a row together, Denver had an answer and pulled back away. “We kind of traded baskets with them back and forth, and we can’t do that with a team like that,” claimed Taj Gibson. “We got out to a good start, but they just kind of hung in. In the second half, they just blew us away. Once we gave them too much confidence, it was just hard to shut them off.” The Bulls normally hang their hat on defense and rebounding, but those were the two areas that really got away from them on Monday. When you add in that Chicago turned the ball over 12 times between the second and third quarter, the end results were disastrous.
The win was huge for the Nuggets, who are in a hotly contested playoff race in the Western Conference. At the end of Monday night, they stand in a three-way-tie for the final 2 playoff spots with Houston and Utah, who both also won on Monday. There’s not much breathing room for any of the three with Minnesota, Phoenix, Portland and Golden State all lurking within striking distance. Coming off two straight losses to open a 7-game road trip, this was a game the Nuggets had to have, and they played like it. “We want this to snowball from here as we move on to play Toronto and Charlotte,” gushed Nuggets head coach George Karl. “We regained our momentum tonight. It’s the best we’ve played in a 2nd half in a long time.” The Nuggets are certainly good enough to use this win to propel them to a strong finish to the season. It took them a few games to adjust to the trade of Nene for JaVale McGee, but it seems to be a positive switch for the team. McGee is 5 years younger than Nene, and despite his distaste for passing the ball, he and rookie Kenneth Faried complement each other nicely in the post and McGee’s athleticism is a huge asset to the team when they go with a small lineup with Al Harrington at power forward. If this team starts clicking down the stretch, they could be a real threat to win a series or two in the playoffs, even as a lower seed. The Nuggets play unselfish basketball, and unselfish basketball is winning basketball.
It’s never fun to lose, but this kind of thrashing might be just what the doctor ordered for the Bulls. The Bulls will be fine; they just needed this wake-up call to get their edge back. The Nuggets were desperate for this win to keep pace in the playoff hunt, but you don’t get to 40-10 without playing with a sense of urgency every night. “A desperate team definitely has an advantage,” said a dejected Joakim Noah after the game,” but just because we’re the number one team in the NBA doesn’t mean we don’t play desperate. I think that’s the strength of this team is that we play with that desperate edge. We didn’t play our game tonight.” Luol Deng backed up Noah, saying: “We’re a desperate team too. We’re trying to win every game.” With a trip to Atlanta on tap for Wednesday night, I think we’ll see a Bulls team that has that edge back.
The most positive thing to take away from Monday night’s game is how hard the Bulls take every loss. It shows that they still care. After just about every win, no matter how ugly, the players are all smiles in the locker room, quick to dish out praise for one another after a strong individual performance. After a loss, the attitude is completely different. None of the players said a thing about what anyone did right (like Omer’s great hustle plays or John Lucas’s scoring off the bench), only how poorly the team played. When one loss bothers the team this bad, especially given their 3 and a half game lead over Miami for the number one seed, it has to be a good thing. While the team would love to have D-Rose back on Wednesday, they won’t use him as an excuse to lose if he’s not back. The Bulls are not the type of team to hit the snooze button when they get a wake-up call like the one the Nuggets gave them. I expect they will come back with a vengeance and get right back on track Wednesday night. I almost feel sorry for the Hawks.