The Bulls hung tough against the red-hot Clippers last night, but a couple stretches of wretched play helped lead to their demise.
Truth be told, it was hard to be all that upset about the Bulls' 94-89 loss at the hands of the Clippers last night. The Clippers at this juncture are clearly the better team, while the Bulls were short-handed and didn't really even play all that well. And yet, the Bulls never let the Clippers run away and fought hard until the very end. The fact that the Bulls did this while their two best players in Luol Deng and Joakim Noah struggled the majority of the night was pretty impressive.
Of course, losing is still disappointing, and there were a couple of really bad stretches that killed the Bulls in this game. And they both came after stretches of excellent play that had the Bulls in really good position. After the extremely sluggish start that featured Blake Griffin and Marco Belinelli trading bricks and some real clown college play by both sides early in the second quarter, the Bulls' second unit started to make some things happen. And by second unit I mean like two guys, because with the injuries and lack of quality depth, there really isn't much of a second unit at this point.
Anyway, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson provided a big spark, with Nate doing Nate things and Taj playing one of his best games of the season. Gibson had a thunderous dunk in traffic to start things off, then Nate hit two threes to get the crowd into it. Minutes later, Gibson knocked down TWO straight jumpers and a couple of free throws (maybe this will become a thing?), and the Bulls were hanging tough with the much-heralded Clippers second unit and their stupid new nickname.
But then, things started getting ugly, and it was with the starters back on the floor. The Bulls got sloppy with turnovers and forced things on the offensive end. The result was a barrage of dunks by Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, part of a 12-2 run that took the spirit out of the United Center crowd. Tom Thibodeau summed up the brutal couple of minutes pretty well (via the Chicago Tribune):
"The end of the second quarter changed the game," Thibodeau said. "We started dancing with the ball. And when you do that, it leads to turnovers, live-ball transition buckets. We shot ourselves in the foot there. And the end of the third was pretty much the same. You can't do that against good teams."
The Bulls did come out strong in the third quarter, with the surprisingly hot three-point continuing. Belinelli and Kirk Hinrich (!!!!) both knocked down two threes, and the Bulls somehow surged ahead once again. But then the ugliness returned, with forced shots from the outside and a couple more key turnovers leading to Clippers points on the other end. After a Belinelli three put the Bulls up 63-61 with 4:20 left in the quarter, they scored just two points the rest of the quarter and trailed by four going into the fourth.
[I'll add a corresponding important stretch of play, from ClipsNation:
The box score doesn't seem to indicate that Eric Bledsoe had one of his better games, but don't be fooled. While he scored just six points with three assists, his production came at a crucial juncture of the game. At the start of the fourth quarter, after the Clippers' lead had been cut to two points, Bledsoe manufactured eight points on the Clippers next four possessions. He made a layup, fed Griffin for an alley oop dunk, made a floater and finished with a step back jumper. After his flurry the Clippers were up eight and the Bulls spent the rest of the game swimming up stream.
At that point, the Bulls were playing from behind the rest of the night, the threes predictably stopped falling and the late surge fell just short. Oh, and this happened, of course off a turnover:
All told, the Bulls turned the ball over 17 times, which led to 22 Clippers points. You really can't afford to be turning the ball over like that against most teams, but it's especially bad when you're facing a team like the Clippers that can really get out and run in transition. But that's part of what makes the Clippers so good. Chris Paul has always been a wizard when it comes to steals, and the rest of the team uses their length and athleticism to generate turnovers and easy opportunities on the other end (Clippers are tops in the NBA in opponent turnover rate). The Bulls got themselves some easy buckets in transition themselves, although they certainly weren't as fun as the Clippers' lobs/dunks/nuts in your face display.
- For how well Gibson played (10 points, six rebounds), it was really disappointing to see him get just 13 minutes of action. Carlos Boozer deserved his 40 minutes of action, but Noah played nearly 43 minutes of mostly crap basketball. Noah did end up with a double-double and also notched six assists, but a lot of that was very late in the game. And his turnovers and forced shots were key in the Clippers' second quarter run. Is it really too much to ask to get Gibson a little more burn in order to limit Jo's minutes somewhat? Especially on the first night of a tough back-to-back?
- The insertion of Belinelli into the starting lineup and his subsequent indoctrination to the "Deng and Noah Minutes Plan" has certainly led to the uptick in three-point attempts (The Bulls went 3-of-21 on twos from 16-23 feet. So please, keep taking the threes) . Belinelli shot 10 of them last night and hit four, including a couple in key moments. That was very good. Unfortunately, he was pretty wretched from all other distances, going just 2-of-12 on two-pointers. His defense on Jamal Crawford in the second quarter also left plenty to be desired, although I'm not going to blame Marco for that, as that's just a bad matchup. Crawford didn't do nearly as much in the second half when Jimmy Butler drew the assignment.
- And speaking of Crawford, there were some interesting quotes on ESPN Chicago about him nearly becoming a Bull during the 2011 offseason. Apparently the Bulls did not offer enough years.
- I've bashed the guy all season long, but I have to give credit where credit is due: Kirk Hinrich played a pretty nice game. Hinrich did as good a job as you could ask staying in front of Paul, playing him physical and not allowing too many easy forays to the rim. Paul did finish with 18 points and had that dagger bucket late, but he shot just 6-of-15 and had only three assists. I guess you could chalk some of that up to Paul being passive (nine of his 15 shots were over 16 feet), but Hinrich's physicality had something to do with that. Also, Kirk's threes in the third quarter were huge.
- Also have to give credit to Carlos Boozer. We always complain about how much he plays on the perimeter, but Boozer did most of his work down low last night, hitting 9-of-12 shots at the rim. For reference, he had been taking just over four shots per game at the rim entering the night. Now we just need to see that type of aggressiveness more often. Boozer only went to the line four times despite that aggressiveness. Though the refs were pretty bad (I noticed a lot of griping here) and the Bulls probably could have gotten a few more calls overall, I'm not going to say it directly cost them the game.
- Besides the three-point shooting and Boozer's offense, the Bulls also kept themselves in it with their offensive rebounding. They grabbed 36.7 percent of their misses, with Boozer (five) and Gibson (four) doing the majority of the work. The Bulls scored 16 points off those second chance opportunities, although none of those points were as impressive as this.