Resiliency is a trait the Bulls (33-9) have prided themselves on during Tom Thibodeaus tenure as head coach and Thursday night, it was put to the test, as his squad battled back from an early 18-point deficit, but ultimately didnt have enough to pull off the comeback, falling to the Magic (26-15), 99-94, snapping their eight-game winning streak.
On an evening when All-Star duo Derrick Rose and Luol Deng both struggled shooting the ball, the Bulls valiantly attempted to gut out one of their trademark ugly wins, but hot shooting from Orlando, a rebounding disadvantage and an atypical defensive performance were too much to overcome, despite a strong outing from Carlos Boozer.
Thibodeaus concerns about his squads defensive slippage manifested themselves early in the contest, as the Magic jumped out to an 8-0 lead. Orlando bombarded its host with a barrage of three-pointers, putting the Bulls in a tough position, as they also had to be concerned with All-Star center Dwight Howard (29 points, 18 rebounds, three blocked shots) and a game of matching basket for basket doesnt suit their normally defensive-oriented style of play.
When you get in that big of a holestart of the game: 37 points, first quarteryou cant win like that, a dismayed Thibodeau explained afterwards. Weve got to be ready to play and that comes back on me. Ive got to get them ready to play. We got in a hole that we shouldnt have been in and you cant do that against this team. They got their confidence early, I think they had six threes in the first quarter, they outworked us, they crushed us with the second shot. You get what you deserve in this league.
Rose chimed in: Its tough, when you have someone like that whos got to commit everyone to the paint because hes so dominant in the paint and theyre a tough team to guard. Theyre a unique team, probably the only team in the league that runs that type of offense and thats what makes them so tough.
Came out sluggish, but some of the shots that they were hitting were contested shots. It was pretty tough, but they were pretty hot, gave them confidence and you cant do that to that team, he continued. Theres no excuses. If thats the case, every night we could have an excuse, like traveling and who were playing.
Despite a pair of timeouts called by Thibodeau to rectify the situation, his team didnt immediately respond and fell into a double-digit hole, with the likes of Jason Richardson (18 points), Hedo Turkoglu (13 points, six rebounds, six assists), Jameer Nelson (nine points, seven assists) and Ryan Anderson (11 points, 10 rebounds) draining long-range attempts.
Were capable of playing much better defense, from how we play the ball, how we get back in transition, how we challenge shots to how we finish. Every aspect, said Thibodeau. Were capable of much better, we have to have discipline and weve got to get back to that.
In a game like this, its a scramble game, Howards a load inside, and theyre a great shooting team, so you have to take care of the ball, you have to pressure the ball, you have to take care of the paint, you have to react out and then take care of the line, then youve got to challenge shots and youve got to finish. Youve got to pursue the ball, he continued. You have to give the appropriate help. Hes much improved offensively. I dont think he gets the credit. Theyve done a great job with him. Hes done a great job. Each year hes gotten better and youre not going to be able to guard him one-on-one, but youve got to make his catches hard, dig in at the appropriate time and get out at the appropriate time, without getting twisted around, closing short, recklessly foulingall the stuff that gets you beat.
Added Joakim Noah: Defense, its not great. We definitely have to do better, learn from your mistakes and know theres another level that we have to take it to.
Though they did get production out of Rose (17 points, nine assists) and the power-forward combination of Boozer (26 points, seven rebounds, four steals) and Taj Gibson (14 points), the Bulls trailed at the conclusion of the opening frame, 37-22.
The visitors offensive brilliance continued in the second quarter, as Howard began to dominate the interior, logging a double-double in the first half alone, with the Bulls being more conscious of Orlandos remarkable outside marksmanship. Though the Magic cooled down as shooters, the Bullswith the exception of Gibson, who played with his typical high energy, as well as rookie swingman Jimmy Butler, who was aggressive in rare extended minutes outside of fourth-quarter garbage timewere unable to capitalize offensively and still faced a healthy deficit.
I like what our second unit did in the second quarter. They got us within striking distance. They brought the game back and when our starters came back, I thought they played much better, said Thibodeau, who cited Butlers individual effort. But weve got to be ready from the start of the game. We cant ease into these games. Thats a quality team. Theyre all quality teams and if youre not ready to play, youre just asking for trouble.
Added Luol Deng: We didnt come out with the right mindset. We didnt really take anything away from them early. Our second unit did a good job with getting us back in the game. I thought Jimmy was great, got us back into it.
Deciding to fight fire with fire, the Bulls turned to designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver to spark them and he delivered, knocking down a trio of shots in short succession, although the home team couldnt make any serious inroads and allowed the Magic to regain the games momentum. A late push, capped by a Rose three-pointer on the move at the halftime buzzer, brought the Bulls to within 57-52, and brought the crowd to its feet.
Despite Howard remaining dominant inside and a sprinkling of perimeter shootingthough a far cry from the torrent of the first halfthe Bulls kept it close early in the third period, as Rose fought through a rough shooting night, Boozer made his presence felt on offense and until he picked up his third foul, Noah (nine points, 10 rebounds, three steals, three blocked shots) was effective. Thibodeau went to a small lineup, pairing Boozer and Gibson in the post, and it worked, as Boozers mid-range game took Howard out of his shot-blocking comfort zone, leading to the Bulls briefly taking their first lead of the contest.
"With a guy like Dwight, you want to keep him as far away from the basket as possible, so you put him in pick-and-rolls. If you keep him by the basket, hell get 10 blocks in a game, said Boozer. Sometimes you get the open jumper, sometimes you get the roll to the hoop. Tonight the jumper was rolling and we just kept going to the same kind of plays to get the jump shot wide open.
Added Thibodeau: Carlos, I thought he played a terrific game. Very effective in the pick-and-roll, I thought he battled Howard well. Unfortunately, it wasnt enough.
Gibson also continued to impact the game with his energetic play and offensive efficiency, but the home team didnt have enough of the latter as a team, which permitted the visitors, who found their overall shooting touch once again, obtaining some breathing room toward the end of the quarter. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were still behind, 79-71.
Boozer remained the Bulls offensive focal point at the outset of the fourth quarter, as the much-maligned power forward exploited Orlandos defense with a blend of mid-range jumpers and a polished low-post game, while the timely scoring and playmaking of backup point guard John Lucas III was also key in helping the hosts stay in close contact with their guests.
We probably had some tired legs, but we fought back. Our team is very tough. We fought through it, said Boozer. Were a tough team. We play through everything.
The game became a close-knit affair heading into its stretch run, but the Bullswho vastly stepped up their defensive intensity, though they remained mired in offensive struggleshad all of the momentum, with a raucous partisan audience celebrating every positive, such as Boozer breaking an 89-89 tie with just under three minutes to play with yet another mid-range jumper.
However, a monstrous Howard dunk over Noah seemingly took the wind out of the hosts sails and a subsequent Anderson triple, followed by a pair of free throws gave the visitors the push they needed to finish the rare road victory at the United Center.
We had our chances tonight. Im disappointed to lose the way that we lost. We know that they have a real tough player in the middle and that theyve got a lot of great shooters, and unfortunately, they got both going tonight. Tough loss. We had our chances. Got to learn from it and move on, said Noah. No excuses. We had our chances, so to look at that game and say, Oh, it was four and five nightswe fought hardI think thats what I love about this team is that were resilient and were just going to keep fighting. We had our chances. Thats why its tough right now, but weve got another one in a couple days.
Concluded Thibodeau: We got what we deserve.