Bulls are running on empty

CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau slowly walked into his postgame news conference Thursday night with a hand in his pocket and a head full of thoughts.

The veteran coach headed to his customary table in the middle and began answering questions the same way he always does -- though this time instead of the usual pep and vigor fans have come to expect from the baritone-voiced coach, Thibodeau looked and sounded the way his team played: tired and frustrated.

The cliches came out the same way, but the delivery was different. After watching his injury-plagued team lose for the sixth time in its past eight games, this time to the Portland Trail Blazers, even Thibodeau didn't seem to have any answers. The Bulls were bad and they knew it.

"We got smacked," Bulls center Joakim Noah said.

Yes, they did. The Trail Blazers did whatever they wanted on the court, as evidenced by the fact the Bulls were outscored 60-32 in the second and third quarters combined. The Blazers controlled the tempo and knocked down 10 3-pointers. The fact Portland had that kind of success shouldn't come as that much of a surprise though, given how much the Bulls have struggled the last few weeks. Their offense isn't moving well, and their defense -- even with Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson back in the lineup -- looks as if it's starting to break.

The bigger issue for the Bulls is that they don't seem quite sure how to fix their own problems right now. When asked what needs to change, Noah didn't hesitate.

"I don't know," Noah said.

At this point in the season, the answer appears to be a combination of different things. The minutes racked up by the starters and the problems with injuries appear to have taken their toll. The constant speculation regarding whether Derrick Rose will return hasn't helped keep the team's mindset focused.

Most of all, the players, and their demanding coach, appear to be mentally fatigued. The Bulls have hit a wall and can't seem to break their way through it. They gas tank is on empty and the only thing that would fill it up again -- a Rose return -- appears to be a pipe dream at this point.

Thibodeau's team is stuck in a bad place right now, but for the first time in a long time they don't know how to get out of it. The edge and energy that Thibodeau always preaches about is gone.

"Every game is a grind right now," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "We're so short-handed. Every game is a grind-out game. It felt great to have Taj back out there, Kirk back out there, and we'll see if we can get some more guys back, but every game is a grind for us right now."

The frustration on the floor and within the locker room is palpable for the Bulls these days. They know that if they don't play close to a perfect game, the way they did in a win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, they aren't going to win. That's not to say they've tuned out Thibodeau, because that's not the case. However, the players are no longer blindly buying into his notion that they always have more than enough with which to win. The Bulls know what the truth is … and the truth is that right now they don't.

"We haven't been playing as well of late and we've got to get it turned around," Hinrich said. "We want to be playing our best basketball going into the playoffs, and right now it's just not the case."