PHILADELPHIA -- Taj Gibson has a theory as to why the Bulls have started out the season so poorly after dominating the preseason and playing like a team with serious championship aspirations.
"It's just tough when you're projected to be so high and everybody [believes] you are one of the top, elite teams -- you're going to get everybody's best shot," Gibson said after the Bulls blew a 20-point lead Saturday night in a 107-104 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. "Even when you think you're better than a certain team, in this league, everybody's team has talent. You got to realize that, and you got to put guys away. I'm happy that this happened to us early, because we got to learn from this and get better."
That seemed to be the prevailing thought from within a disappointed Bulls locker room late Saturday night. The players don't feel as if the sky is falling, but they know no matter how people want to break things down, they only have themselves to blame.
The fact is that the Bulls have played poorly for three straight games now. After a solid first half against the Sixers, the Bulls fell asleep in the second half and allowed the upstart team to fight its way back into the game. Yet again, the Bulls' offense stalled out late and the defense couldn't make stops when it had to do so. Yet again, Derrick Rose looked like a shell of his old self.
The Bulls can use any theories they want as to why they have struggled early, but the truth is that one of the biggest reasons they've struggled as a group is because Rose is struggling badly in his return to regular-season games after a year and a half off while recovering from knee surgery. He is 15-for-52 over his past three games and is making poor decisions on the floor.
"The missed shots I can deal with," Rose said. "My rhythm is going to come, but turnovers -- I had like two or three of them in a row, which we couldn't afford them at the time. But all I could do is work hard, and it's going to come to me."
Obviously, better days are ahead for Rose and the Bulls. There's no reason to think that the former MVP won't return to form at some point -- and, to his credit, he took the blame after this loss. But what has to scare Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau the most is Rose is struggling defensively as much, if not more, than he is offensively. Rose got torched numerous times by Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams on Saturday and has not been as quick to react on that side of the floor. Although none of his teammates or coaches wanted to say it, it seems clear that Rose is pressing in his return early on -- a fact he alluded to on Saturday.
"Me just doing too much," Rose said. "Overthinking the play I'm thinking too much, but it could easily be fixed. We blew a lead, and, at the end, they got to almost every loose ball and hit almost every shot they needed to to win the game.
"It's early in the season," he continued. "It's only three games. But we're totally disappointed in us losing the two games, but the only thing we can do from it is learn from it and keep working hard."
Perspective is key in a small sample size of this nature -- the Bulls have played only three games -- but, as Gibson said, it's not as if teams are going to let up when they see the Bulls. Thibodeau's team is dealing with the expectations that come from being a title contender. The Bulls have long outgrown the try-hard image that has defined them under the veteran coach. They can't just outwork hungry teams anymore. They need to play a complete game on both ends of the floor. Most of all, they need to find a way to get Rose to relax and get back to playing his own game while getting his teammates involved.
"We just got to work our way through it," Thibodeau said. "We got to keep getting reps. We got to practice. It's hard to execute when you don't practice, so we need time in the gym. [Rose will] work his way through it."
Thibodeau referenced the fact that his team hasn't played together much since the preseason. Rose (sore knee), Joakim Noah (groin), Kirk Hinrich (concussion) and Jimmy Butler (sore knee) have all missed time because of various injuries. The Bulls need to get their pacing and rhythm back, but they also need to remember not to let up. For a team that has been praised league wide for how hard it plays, it was jarring to hear Gibson admit that he felt his team got a little complacent against the Sixers.
The good news for the Bulls is there are plenty of games left in the season and plenty of room for improvement. If they don't get things turned around soon, though, there will be plenty of other issues to deal with on the horizon.
"We're not happy with the way we played tonight," Noah said. "We can't let teams play harder than us. That's the disappointing thing. But this is a learning experience, and there's a lot of basketball left. When s--- hits the fan, I think we'll be ready."