MIAMI, FL—Uncontested dunks.
Easy Sunday strolls to the basket.
Little resistance on the smallest of offensive plays.
That described the Bulls’ defense against the surging Miami Heat, as they let the arguably the conference’s best contender to LeBron James’ decade-long dominance put on a show for a 129-111 win at American Airlines Arena Tuesday night.
At 9:29 p.m. Eastern time, after the Bulls’ ninth turnover led to a corner triple from Miami’s No. 9, Luol Deng, the Heat went up 103-84, with nine minutes remaining—the final nine minutes they spent officially in the playoff standings to date.
“A lot of that was them making shots but it had to do with our lack of toughness, our lack to make them feeling us out there,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We had one turn that cut that thing back to six after getting down 19. We have to find a way to get some grit, toughness, determination, nastiness.”
Those words sound more like lip service than any attribute this team is capable of, because giving up over 90 points in the first 30 minutes produced a deserving result, leaving the Bulls in the ninth seed, with 23 games left and not much optimism for answers to come in enough time to fulfill preseason promise.
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“We’ve been talking about this for the last couple weeks, knowing we’d be in this position if we continued to lose,” Derrick Rose said. “I’m just wondering when we’re gonna say it’s enough.”
Clearly it wasn’t Tuesday, they put forth arguably their worst defensive showing in a season full of forgettable nights. The Heat had one glaring weakness—three-point shooting—and the Bulls didn’t even force anything there.
The Heat shot 68 percent and despite playing only eight guys, had four players with 18 points or more, starting with Hassan Whiteside, who dominated off the bench with 26 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.
Johnson scored 24, Dwyane Wade 18 with seven assists and former Bull Luol Deng put up 20 as a stretch four against his former team.
“It’s the thing, we talked about it. We seem to play harder defensively in practices,” Hoiberg said.
Pau Gasol seemed to downplay any carryover, being as blunt as ever.
“We had a good practice before we came here,” he said. “Segmented drills, where we can play with a lot of intensity. (But) we didn’t execute the gameplan, we knew this team is a high scoring team in the paint, and they pretty much picked us apart.”
Seventy-four points in the paint seemed to be a talking point of frustration in the locker room, although the Bulls didn’t seem concerned enough on the floor to deliver a hard foul, or any foul for that matter.
“Got to start hitting bodies and being a little bit more physical,” Gasol said. “A team shooting 68 percent from the field, that’s pretty outrageous.”
The Bulls’ reserves tried gamely for a stretch, bringing the Heat lead to just 108-102 with 5:14 left after a solid run brought a scare into the American Airlines Arena crowd. But upon checking back in, Rose was put in an impossible position—guarding Joe Johnson, who dazzled in his Heat home debut.
Johnson’s fadeaway from the baseline settled things for the Heat, along with signaling a couple uncomfortable truths for the Bulls.
Rose, in normal circumstances wouldn’t be guarding Johnson, just like the poor souls tagged with containing massive big man Hassan Whiteside had very little chance at being effective, as he took the majority of minutes over starter Amar'e Stoudemire.
Jimmy Butler would be doing that, and Taj Gibson or Joakim Noah would have to keep Whiteside off the glass. But Gibson joined Butler and Noah on the list of the wounded with a right hamstring injury he suffered in the second half, leaving rookie Bobby Portis as the only able-bodied athlete with any semblance of a shot against Whiteside.
“No excuses,” Rose said. “We’re still out there trying to play. Gotta figure it out pretty soon.”
“When a team scores 129 points on you, you can’t expect to win playing like that.”
And as for Johnson’s mere presence, it represents a Heat organization sparing no effort or expense in the effort to stay relevant for a shot in the finals, even with Chris Bosh’s injury still a question mark for the long term.
The Bulls simply didn’t have their best defensive personnel to combat the Heat, but this showing should be considered unacceptable.
As for Rose’s return, he was effective enough on offense, scoring 17 in 24 minutes with three assists, hitting his only triple attempt and getting to the line seven times.
The offense wasn’t a problem early, as Rose was clicking, getting to basket at will and finishing over Whiteside.
Doug McDermott hit a couple jumpers and Mike Dunleavy scored in double figures, but if you’re gonna play run and gun with a team that has a seemingly unlimited supply of versatile, shot-creating wings, you’re better off being at full strength.
And now the Bulls are sent scrambling for answers after an embarrassing showing, with as much doubt as ever.