It’s certainly not the time for the Bulls to panic, even after another home loss that should be deemed inexcusable, which occurred two nights after another inexcusable home loss.
But still, while it’s not time to take a trip down Panic Street, they are nearing the intersection of extreme concern and panic at this point in the season, one which can shouldn’t be called “early” any longer.
One can seek solace in the fact that the Eastern Conference is a tightly-wound group, that the difference from being a top seed to being lottery-bound is two games. In a sense, the season is young with more than three quarters left to determine playoff positioning and such.
But it’s not early to see which teams are developing certain identities, hallmarks in select instances that will let you know which direction they’re trending even before the record bears it out.
“Hell, you either got it or you don’t. Right now we don’t have it,” said Jimmy Butler when asked about a killer instinct, something that hasn’t been present the last two years.
The Bulls, unfortunately, are becoming known for patterns that inevitably will be increasingly hard to shake as time goes on. At some point, blown leads will become as much a part of their DNA as their once fortress-like defense.
Or maybe it already has.
Teams, no matter if it’s the San Antonio Spurs or the Philadelphia 76ers, will know no lead is safe, no job too insurmountable on a given night because the Bulls don’t have the mental concentration in them to handle their business over 48 minutes.
“I really don’t know. That’s tough,” Butler said. “I think we got complacent, thinking they were going to lay down. In this league, that never happens.”
One wonders if the Bulls have too much freedom after years of the iron-fisted Tom Thibodeau, and now don’t know what to do with themselves with the new free-flowing offensive system employed by Fred Hoiberg.
“We’re still learning each other,” Taj Gibson said. “We believe in ourselves and Fred. We just have to get some things right.”
It was surprising to see Nikola Mirotic in the game late against Phoenix, as Hoiberg wanted his offense in the game for a two-for-one situation, as well as Mirotic being a +11 overall, second to Tony Snell.
But it backfired a bit when Mirotic had a weak dribble and turnover when Hoiberg began subbing offense for defense and vice-versa, which left Gibson on the bench for the final play when Mirza Teletovic crashed the offensive glass for the winning play.
“(We have to) Want to win games more than anybody else,” Butler said. “You have to have that mentality that no matter what, you continue to build on leads.”
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They scored better and defended better last year, though that’s an 82-game sample size, and that was with Mike Dunleavy on the floor, so it’s only worth but so much.
But Wednesday’s opponent, the Boston Celtics, don’t seem to have a better personnel group than the Bulls, yet average over 103 points a game and the Bulls, who expected to be the offensive-minded unit, are second to only the Miami Heat in terms of fewest points scored per game (98.8) amongst the top eight teams in the East.
At a point differential of +0.6, the Bulls have the lowest margin for victory of the top eight, which could change over 24 hours given the jumbled nature of the top 10.
And while their early-season shellacking they took against the Hornets played a part in that statistic, they hit the 76ers with a 23-point win that evened things out. In other words, the Bulls are playing far too many close games so far.
In fact, eight of them have been decided by five points or fewer, and although the Bulls are 6-2 in those games it’s been very rare occasions where they’ve walked away saying they executed down the stretch, particularly on offense.
Last season, the Bulls played just 19 games decided by five points or less and went 12-7, so for all their struggles a year ago, they put teams away better than they’re doing now.
There’s a school of thought that these heartbreaking losses will harden this bunch into learning they can’t take teams or moments for granted.
But didn’t they supposedly learn that lesson in last spring’s playoffs?