PORTLAND, Ore. -- Tom Thibodeau is a man who prides himself on always being able to come up with an answer for what ails his team. No matter what the problem has been over the past two seasons, no matter which player has been out of the lineup, Thibodeau has always found a way to fix whatever problem arose.
After watching the Chicago Bulls struggle for the second consecutive night in a 102-94 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, even the veteran coach is searching for answers. His team continues to struggle offensively, but it's his tried-and-true defense that has become the larger issue. For the fourth consecutive game, the Bulls gave up more than 100 points.
"The defense right now, the intensity, we got to get that part right," a frustrated Thibodeau said. "We got to get that right. The rebounding's not good, the turnovers so the defense the rebounding and the turnovers, all three are a problem right now so we got to correct that. Those three things put you in position to win. Then the inside out and sharing the ball. So we got to correct that."
The issue for Thibodeau and his players is that they just don't know how to do that right now. They've tried everything they can think of and they still can't turn things around. What's clear, and has been throughout the season, is that the Bulls' reserves are not playing well together. For the second straight contest, the Bulls got crushed in the second quarter, as the Blazers outscored Thibodeau's bunch 28-13. After two seasons of consistent bench play, the Bulls' new "Bench Mob" has fallen flat over the first month. No matter which players, or groups, are on the court the Bulls look discombobulated.
The rhythm and timing, which was such a luxury in the past, has been replaced by uncertainty.
"We got to learn how to play together," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "Just the simple stuff; knowing what our strengths are and sticking with that."
Deng and Bulls center Joakim Noah have played heavy minutes throughout the season as Thibodeau has tried different lineups that combine those two with reserves. The results have been sub-par at best.
"We got to learn to put stops together," Deng said. "I don't like comparing teams but that's what we did well last year. The second unit just came in and got stops in a row. Everyone talks about offense, but it's the defense and the stops we got. That's how we win games, that's what we got to get back to."
Taj Gibson agreed with those sentiments. The leader of the second group knows that he must play better and lead the way for his new teammates. The real problem is that the new group won't be able to regain the one thing the old group had in spades: chemistry. Obviously, that comes with time and the Bulls' front office is banking on that, but through the first month of the season it appears as if the Bulls' new bench is comprised on puzzle pieces that don't fit together.
"We just got to play harder," Gibson said. "We got to be more solid on defense. Even if we can't score we got to recognize our defense, that's one thing about the last bench we had, even if we couldn't score, we made sure the other unit didn't score on us, so that's one of the things we have to adjust to."
But therein lies the rub for this new Bulls' group. Without Derrick Rose on the court, and without the talented group of reserves at Thibodeau's side, the Bulls can try all they want, but on some nights they still won't be able to get the job done.
"You can play as hard as you want but if mentally you don't have an understanding of it, it doesn't matter how hard you run because you'll still end up making the same mistakes that you would make if you're not playing hard," Veteran guard Richard Hamilton said. "I think mentally we've just got to be better in understanding what's our advantages out on the floor. And we don't do a good job of that."
That's the biggest issue for this 5-5 Bulls team as they stare down the next few months without Rose. They don't know how to play together.
"Guys are still learning each other," Hamilton admitted. "Especially on the floor. Not just offensively, but defensively. At times we're good and at times we're bad. We got to get better at playing at a high level for 48 minutes and understanding how we're going to be great."
Thibodeau and his players better figure out how to do that fast or else there are going to be a lot more nights just like this.