NEW YORK -- The Chicago Bulls have been “playing with fire” over the past week because of a lack of defensive intensity that creeps up on them at various points in games.
On Sunday night against the lowly New York Knicks, they got burned.
Tom Thibodeau's team played without the edge that has come to define it. The Bulls did not execute the defensive schemes properly and did not take care of the ball.
For a team that prides itself on attention to detail, it was an odd time to have that type of performance.
After it was over, Thibodeau and his players talked more about their mental preparation than they did about what happened on the floor.
“I think it was more our mindset," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "Our mindset wasn’t really good. It should have been better. We had a golden opportunity. We let a big game slip. It was probably the biggest game of the season. Disappointing. Our mentality wasn’t good. But overall we just don’t have time to we just got to let this one go and get ready for [Monday]."
Thibodeau echoed those sentiments, although it's worth noting that he wasn't as angry as he usually is after losses.
"Re-establish the mental part of the game," he said. "The ball pressure has to be great. We can't fall behind and think we're going to make a big rally to come back and win it. You're playing with fire when you do that, so it's important for us to start quickly, be ready for the beginning of the game, be into the ball.
"Right now we've got to play for 48 minutes and we're not doing that."
The Bulls are having problems with their consistency at the wrong time in the season. They are finding ways to win games -- a fact that is lost on nobody within the locker room -- but they are going through too many stretches when the defense goes missing, or the offense can't find its rhythm.
They know over the next week they must find ways to tighten up those mistakes, because those errors in judgment become even more prominent on the playoff stage.
"We’ll be all right, but this is the time of the year that it’s OK to be critical," Noah said, "We’re trying to be the best that we can be. A team that’s playing for nothing ... we’re playing for something big and we didn’t have the right mindset [Sunday night].
"Overall, I feel like we had a shot, we fought hard at the end, shots didn’t go down. But for 48 minutes we didn’t play with the edge that we’re supposed to in a game this important."
The truth for Noah and his teammates is that Sunday's win could serve as a blessing in disguise depending on how the final playoff seedings shake out.
As of now, the Bulls are the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference and would have a first-round rematch against the Brooklyn Nets. While the Bulls would rather not face an improving Nets team, they still believe they can beat them.
The Pacers picked up a big win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, but that isn't going to change the Bulls' mindset in any way. They've always believed they could beat the Pacers -- even before they struggled to win games late in the season.
The only team that remains in the Bulls' collective head is the Heat, the team that's knocked them out of the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.
If the Bulls play like they did Sunday night, they won't have to worry about playing the Heat because they won't get to the conference finals.
However, Sunday's loss did not leave this proud team down in the dumps. They know they can play better and they trust that they will when the bright lights come on. If they can get through the first round and avoid Miami in the second, a loss to the Knicks late in the year will be viewed more as a positive than a negative.
"Games like this are going to happen," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "We feel like we were lackadaisical at times, but it's going to happen. It's a long season. We can't complain about what we did tonight. We just got to bounce back, sharpen up.
"Playoffs are around the corner. You don't know who we're going to play, which seed is which; we just got to stay optimistic."