Winning nine of 11 games without Derrick Rose and, for the most part, Luol Deng has been a warm and fuzzy story during a freezing month of January for the Bulls and their fans.
But an overlooked obstacle threatened to smash this little run like a falling icicle. The Bulls had played just 12 of 30 games against Western Conference teams.
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Reality set in Friday, when the Los Angeles Clippers sent a reminder that Eastern Conference competition might be closer to D-League level than what is played out West.
The Bulls barely knew what hit them as the Clippers scored 41 points in the first quarter, knocked down 10 of their first 11 attempts from 3-point range and rolled to a 112-95 victory. The Bulls never got closer than 8 after the first quarter as the Clippers improved to 11-2 at the United Center since the 2000-01 season.
"That was pretty much the story of the game," coach Tom Thibodeau said of the first quarter. "We were chasing our tail the rest of the game."
Carlos Boozer, back after sitting out in Cleveland with a calf injury, led the Bulls with 22 points. Kirk Hinrich (right hamstring strain) missed his second straight game and is not expected to make the trip for Saturday's game in Charlotte.
After facing the Bobcats, the Bulls must navigate a stretch where 15 of 23 games are against teams from the West, including the six-game ice show road trip. The scrappy underdog angle may not last much longer if they can't play better than they did Friday.
"We made it real hard on ourselves because we gave them confidence to start the game," Thibodeau added. "Offensively, I thought we were good enough. Defensively, I thought we were very poor. I don't think there was any aspect of our defense that was up to what our standards are."
Blake Griffin led the Clippers with 26 points, 13 rebounds and didn't hit any 3-pointers. Ex-Bull Jamal Crawford (3-for-5 from long range) scored 19 points and J.J. Redick (4-for-7) added 18. Overall, the Clippers drained 13 of 21 shots from behind the 3-point line.
"We strive for 5 or less (per game)," Taj Gibson said. "That was just crazy. Once you give a team like this confidence, it's hard to turn it off."
Another interesting part of this game was the battle between Griffin and Joakim Noah (13 rebounds, 12 points). The two players were battling and shoving each other all night. Both led their respective teams in assists with 7 each and after the game, greeted each other like lifelong friends.
"He's strong and he's active," Griffin said of Noah. "Always moving, always having his hands going. You can never relax. You can never assume you have an open shot or rebound."
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