Two straight wins at home after the All-Star break isn’t quite enough to keep the distress light off at the United Center, as the Bulls aren’t out of the woods yet in terms of playoff positioning, and likely won't be for some time.
Those wins haven’t diluted the facts that the Bulls have given up 100 points in seven straight games, hence Fred Hoiberg’s call for a little more nastiness on the defensive end.
“You gotta come out and play with great urgency and energy. The big thing is we gotta get a little nastier defensively,” Hoiberg said. “We’re not hitting guys. The Lakers would get a stop, get the loose ball or the offensive rebound. We need to do much better with the 50-50 balls. We’re losing that battle pretty much every night right now.”
Many will remember Spurs coach Gregg Popovich calling for his team to get “a little nasty” once in a playoff game a few years ago. Without Joakim Noah, and to be honest, the general makeup of this roster, it’s not surprising Hoiberg has noticed a lack of physical toughness.
Mental toughness has been more a focus given the Bulls’ slide over the last month or so. Allowing the Lakers to come back after a 100-81 lead in the opening minute of the fourth to cut it to three should be a cause for alarm.
“That’s gotta be a big thing is the toughness, both physically and mental,” Hoiberg said. “We got up either 19 or 21 the other night, and just kind of let off the gas. Again, that’s something you’ve gotta do. You gotta pounce on teams when you get them down and put them away. We didn’t do that the other night.’’
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With Washington coming in Wednesday, the Bulls still have a 14-point beating from last month fresh enough in their minds. The Wizards are 3.5 games back of the eighth playoff spot current occupied by these Bulls, and picked up talented but mercurial forward Markieff Morris from the Phoenix Suns in their push for a postseason berth.
Drew Gooden came off the bench to grab 12 rebounds with 10 points and the Bulls allowed Ramon Sessions to run wild for 16 off the bench in an easy 114-100 win where the Wizards were without big man Marcin Gortat.
“It’s got to come to a point where it bothers you,” Hoiberg said. “That’s the first thing is when you get out-hustled and outworked and knocked out of bounds, that’s where it starts. We did a drill today where you have to go hit, have to go make first contact. A lot of times we’re reacting.”
The Bulls out-rebounded the Wizards by one in that meeting but the Wizards shot 49 percent. This month as a whole, they’re being out-rebounded by an average of 47.9-42.7, which could be a direct effect of missing Joakim Noah.
“We get hit in the back first,” Hoiberg said. “Now we’re pushed underneath in the basket and you’re in terrible rebounding position. They don’t call that a lot. It’s physical. It’s a man’s game.”
If there is a player who has the nasty DNA, it’s Taj Gibson. And while he won’t call his team soft, he’s concerned about the state of the team’s physicality and the need to increase it.
“At times 50-50 balls are those plays where long 3-point shots just bounce around,” Gibson said. “We can be a little bit better closing out possessions. I feel like that’s where we need to pick it up a little better on. But we had a great practice today. Like I said every day is a learning curve.”
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That curve has extended to Hoiberg, who has been more vocal in practices recently with the players. While he can’t change who he is at his core, Gibson said he’s been a little more aggressive as far as getting his point across.
“He’s been even tougher. He’s been cursing guys out. It’s been fun. I’m enjoying it,” Gibson said. “It’s kind of weird because he really doesn’t want to get after guys. But lately he’s been in guys’ tails. It's been real fun. I appreciate it. That’s the kind of things we need, especially this morning in practice. And shootaround as far as watching film, that’s what we’re going to need. I told him I appreciate it.”
And it’s clear everybody involved would appreciate a little more nasty and a few more wins.