CHICAGO — The story was going as scripted.
Halfway through the first game of the mourning-after period, the Chicago Bulls were rallying behind their limping leader and providing inspiration to a city of devastated fans holding a wake for Derrick Rose‘s torn ACL.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bulls looked confused defensively at times during Game 2.
Joakim Noah was stepping up offensively, John Lucas III was scoring at will and Rose even made a Willis Reed appearance before the game. Sans the actual playing, of course. Rose delivered the game ball and sat in his luxury suite. But still, what a moment.
However, after 24 inspirational minutes, the Bulls had a crisis of faith and dropped Game 2 of the first-round playoff series to the Philadelphia 76ers 109-92. It’s only one game, and the Bulls have shown an uncanny propensity for dodging losing streaks under Tom Thibodeau. But if you had wondered whether it could get worse than watching Rose go down with a blown-out knee, well, the second half showed the ugly reality of a Rose-free existence.
I should apologize for being so optimistic earlier in the week. In retrospect, it was like when Jay Cutler went down following Week 11 of the football season and everyone hoped the rest of the team could make up for the star’s absence.
But unlike the fall, when we were unfairly optimistic about Cutler’s backup, Caleb Hanie, there was reason to trust this Bulls team, which went 18-9 without Rose. Certainly the players seemed fired up for this game. Thibodeau was full-metal Thibodeau.
And everyone bought in to the optimism, some embarrassingly so.
As the city read Scottie Pippen‘s motivational letter, lived and died on Kyle Korver‘s heartfelt inspirational greeting-card material on Facebook, and debated whether the Rose-less Bulls could compete with Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, the 76ers got ready to take advantage of a golden opportunity.
And they finished like Andre Iguodala on a fast break.
“This game, we kind of caught fire, and it’s pretty hard to put it out,” said Jrue Holiday, who scored 26 points.
The Bulls led 55-47 at the half, keeping pace with Philadelphia offensively, but they were blitzed like Hanie in the second. A 36-14 third quarter for the Sixers took the life out of the United Center, and there was no fourth-quarter magic as they evened the series, which moves to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Friday night.
“The bottom line is the fight,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to fight.”
Rebounding would help, too.
If Rose limping to half court was the emotional high of the game, the low was looking at Luol Deng as reporters entered the locker room. He sat at his locker, knees wrapped in ice, feet soaking in an ice bath, staring straight ahead. He was the picture of postgame gloom.
“We gotta play better defense,” he said. “Offense is not who we are. We’ve got to take pride in our defense and step it up. We got a lot of different guys who can score, but this is the playoffs. Defensively we’ve got to be better. You’ve got to take the challenge, each individual.”
You know, we’ve dealt with adversity all year. There’s really no excuses at this point. We got our [butts] kicked.
” – Joakim Noah
The Sixers shot 64.3 percent in the second half and outrebounded Chicago 22-12. For the game, those numbers were 59 percent and 38-32. It’s rare to find a game in which the Bulls get outrebounded, and in Game 2 of a playoff series, it’s inexcusable.
“They didn’t miss a lot of shots,” Deng said. “There weren’t a lot of rebounds out there.”
But he’s not accounting for the 15 missed shots in the third quarter. The Bulls, the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA, grabbed one offensive rebound in that span. They had eight in the first half.
Let’s give these guys a break in one regard. Rose is irreplaceable, and stars like him make up for a lot of deficiencies. After missing much of the past six weeks, Rose nearly had a triple-double in Game 1 before his season ended on an errant jump stop with just more than a minute to play. The injury was psychically scarring to the fans and maybe the team.
But Deng’s assessment is honest, and obvious. The Bulls need individuals to step up and play better team defense. That’s how this Bulls team will win. It’s easily correctable.
“The Sixers are a really good team, but it’s about us,” Noah said in a news conference in which he set a playoff record for saying the phrase “team defense.”
“We can’t let guys go one-on-one,” Korver said. “We’ve got to be there to help. We’ve got to play as a team. We’ve been saying all along we’re a great team. We’ve got to come out and play like a team and not try to go one-on-one and not leave guys one-on-one. We’ve got to play together.”
Championship-caliber teams always put the onus on themselves, but the Bulls aren’t a championship team anymore, which is pretty sad if you like to watch good, team basketball. But it’s the truth. Without Rose, this is a very good defensive team that didn’t play good defense and a democratic offensive team that couldn’t make shots.
Get all the news and commentary on the Bulls-76ers matchup on ESPN.com’s matchup page.
“Derrick is not here, so this is a different team,” Deng said.
While the Bulls didn’t play very good defense on Holiday in the first half (he scored 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting), offensively, they weren’t bad. Noah hit all seven of his shots and Lucas scored 11 off the bench, including several Rose-esque drives.
Philadelphia shot 52.8 percent in the first half, which should have been a warning sign. Once the Sixers solved the Bulls’ pick-and-roll and shut down the offense, Philadelphia romped to a win.
Halfway through the third, Philadelphia erased the deficit and led 68-61. A 12-0 run capped a 21-6 start to the quarter. Chicago got it down to 70-66 on a C.J. Watson 3 a few minutes later, but that’s as close as it’d get.
“You know, we’ve dealt with adversity all year,” Noah said. “There’s really no excuses at this point. The way we started the third quarter was unacceptable.”
You can slice and dice the game any way you wish. But after he sat down at the interview table, Noah had a more succinct explanation.
“We got our [butts] kicked,” he said.
After a couple days of white lies, Noah spoke the truth. We’ll see what truths lie ahead.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.
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