The numbers were alarming and the way it was done is even more a cause of concern for the Bulls, five games into the season.
But Monday’s non-competitive blowout 130-105 loss to the then-winless Charlotte Hornets exposed some flaws that were covered up in the first few games, ones that looked like fool’s gold in hindsight.
In some twisted way, Jimmy Butler has been expecting a game like this since the preseason began, when the Bulls showed some bad habits they didn’t have any urgency on fixing.
“It was gonna happen sooner or later,” Butler said as he got dressed inside the Time Warner Cable Arena locker room, still smarting from a shocking loss in which he scored a quiet game-high 26 points. “Fifth game in? We can fix it. I can tell you one thing, Thursday it can get ugly very quickly if we don’t guard.”
Ahh, Thursday. That only brings in the two most dynamic scorers not named Stephen Curry in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder on the national TV stage, a team that can light the Bulls up for 130 without having a special night.
It’ll just be a random Thursday.
“We didn’t stop nobody, they put up 130,” Butler said, referring to the actual 130 points the Hornets put on the Bulls. “We gotta nip that in the bud now. That’s not winning basketball, it’ll never be winning basketball here, never has been winning basketball here. We always prided ourselves on playing hard and not being pretty. Tonight we were pretty, we were soft. Got our (butts) whipped.”
The recent Bulls teams wouldn’t dare allow themselves to be called soft, let alone allow it to have a grain of truth to it. The Hornets drove to the basket without feeling an opposing player breathe on them, much less fear retribution at the rim, much less being misdirected to take another route to their destination.
Bulls’ basketball used to be about detours, and Butler fears the muscle memory is disappearing way too easily. It’s a simple solution, he feels.
“Effort. Effort will fix all of that on the defensive end,” Butler said. “It’s all if you want to do it, to tell you the truth. We have a lot of guys capable of it. I think we focus too much on offense a lot of the time.
“Not most of the time, a lot of the time and we forget about what you gotta do on the other end of the floor. Speaking for myself and a lot of guys on the team, we gotta guard, that’s where it’s gotta start for us. We gotta be the dogs that everybody in Chicago knows we are and always been. Just some hard-playing guys that play harder than everybody.”
The paradigm shift that’s taking place hasn’t been an easy transition, going from a primarily defensive team to one that tries to outscore people. The lineup change that puts Joakim Noah on the bench for the talented Nikola Mirotic is exhibit A in the change.
The freedom that comes with a change on the sidelines from a buttoned-up Tom Thibodeau to a buttoned-down Fred Hoiberg can be intoxicating. And right now the Bulls are drunk off the hooch, perhaps seduced by the numbers that said they were just as potent a defensive team through four games as they had been last year.
“We haven’t been playing (any) defense,” Butler said. “Other teams just been missing shots, to tell you the truth. We (have to) get to guarding, we score enough points, that ain’t the problem.”
Telling from their defensive effort Tuesday, one wouldn’t think they treat defense serious enough from the roots, but Butler said they go after each other harder in practice than they do against an actual opponent, when the games count.
Wednesday’s noon session sounds like a showdown at the O.K. Corral, which from the looks of their recent performance, is a necessary expense.
“It’s more important to go in practice and compete,” Butler said. “Man up, roll that ball out and be dogs, y’all go dive on that ball, y’all play one on one, get a basket, get a stop.”
“Until we start competing the way we’re supposed to compete, ain’t no film, no talking gonna get you to do that. You gotta go out there and compete. The way we compete in practice, everybody’s going hard, hitting each other, fouling, we gotta do that to the opposing team not just each other.”
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In his comments, Butler made sure to include himself in his assessments, as not to separate himself from his teammates. And he didn’t give the slightest indication about individual agendas, but the transition is indeed a transition.
“I know what everybody’s mindset is, it’s to win,” Butler said. “At times people take it on themselves, ‘I’m gonna get this basket, I’ma do this, do that’. We gotta focus on team. On offense, on defense, it’s five guys out there.”
“We got a play for one another. We can never get lost in the fact we’re all good players, we’re a really good team, a deep team. When we buy into that team aspect, and everybody goes toward that common goal, we’re gonna be tough.”
Considering Butler has made such a big to-do about being more of a vocal leader this season, he was asked if this was his time to speak up, but he said he has to be the change he wants to see in everyone else—before expecting it of his teammates.
“This is the time most definitely,” Butler said. “But I think it’s gonna start for me on the floor. You can talk about it all you want, yadda, yadda, yadda, until I man up and start locking my man down and set the example, this is how you do it, I can’t say too much.”