Ugly start, but Bulls have been through this before
By Mike McGraw
Ugly losses, inconsistent defense, players who don't seem to fit the system — the Bulls have seen all of this before.
We're not talking about the Tim Floyd era, though. Just go back two years to Tom Thibodeau's first season with the Bulls, when they had a half-dozen new faces on the roster and a sidelined star (Carlos Boozer, broken hand) in November.
It's mostly forgotten now, but the Bulls weren't very good at the start of that season. They gave up an average of 99.8 points in the first 10 games and dipped below .500 briefly.
After coming back from a so-so circus trip, they were blown out at home by Orlando in Boozer's debut, then lost at Boston two days later, dropping their record to 9-8.
Of course, they finished that season 62-20. The point is, while Thibodeau has set the bar high the past two years, it's unrealistic to expect a new group to perform flawlessly without Derrick Rose.
After losing badly to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday — the Bulls' first 20-point defeat since that 2010 blowout against Orlando — the Bulls were more competitive Sunday in Portland but lost again, 102-94.
Now they'll spend two days off in Houston, before taking on former teammate Omer Asik, ex-Thunder guard James Harden and the Rockets on Wednesday.
After getting off to a good start against the Trail Blazers, the same familiar problems bothered the Bulls.
The bench didn't play well, the defense failed at key times, and the rotating fourth-quarter lineup couldn't get the job done.
"The defense, the rebounds and the turnovers, all three are a problem right now, so we've got to correct that," Thibodeau told reporters after Sunday's game. "Those three things put you in a position to win."
Luol Deng (18.1 points) and Joakim Noah (14.8 points, 10.0 rebounds) have played consistently well, but both are being maxed out, logging around 40 minutes per night.
Kirk Hinrich (4.9 points) has seemed tentative offensively, which might be one reason why Thibodeau has used Nate Robinson so often in fourth quarters. Boozer and Richard Hamilton usually sit in the fourth, but no one else has stepped up to be a consistent scorer in crunchtime.
Hamilton hit 7 of 10 shots against Portland but still sat out the fourth quarter. Second-year forward Jimmy Butler seems to be earning more playing time. Taj Gibson, Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed haven't been able to match their career scoring averages.
"Guys are still learning each other," Hamilton said Sunday. "Not just offensively, but defensively. At times we're good and at times we're bad.
"We've got to get better at playing at a high level for 48 minutes and understanding how we're going to be great."
Stat-wise, the Bulls haven't reached their usual standards. Through Sunday, they ranked 15th in defensive field-goal percentage at .440.
The 3-point shooting, horrendous in the preseason, has improved slightly to .306, good enough for 25th in the league. Still, the Blazers outscored the Bulls by 15 points from the 3-point line.
Things aren't looking great right now. History has shown, though, that Thibodeau's defense isn't built in a month. It will take some time to recreate the past success.
"We've got to learn to put stops together," Deng said. "I don't like comparing teams, but that's what we did well last year. The second unit just came in and got stops in a row.
"Everyone talks about offense, but it's the defense and the stops we got. That's how we win games; that's what we've got to get back to."
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