ATLANTA -- Joakim Noah sat ruefully inside of his locker stall contemplating just poorly he and his team had just played. The young center's eyes were red with anger as he twisted the small hairs on his goatee.
Quite simply, the Bulls were outworked in a 109-94 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks that wasn't even as close as that score would indicate. Noah scored one point in just 17 minutes.
"The way we played tonight was just embarrassing," Noah said.
He was right.
Even when the Bulls played poorly over the past two weeks, they found ways to win. They proved that on Monday night against these same Hawks after exploding in the fourth quarter to steal a victory. That wasn't the case on Saturday night. From the opening tip, Noah and the Bulls looked tired. Aside from a second quarter surge from Luol Deng and the team's reserves, the Bulls got out-worked all night.
If Saturday's loss wasn't the single worst performance in the Tom Thibodeau era, it was right up there. Each member of the Bulls had a different reason as to why their team struggled so much, but In Noah's mind there's a clear cut reason.
"This one's on the people who started the game," he said. "Our second unit came in, got [the Hawks' lead] back to four, then we went back in and dropped it again. There's a pattern and we just need to find a way to play better because it was embarrassing tonight."
Just how bad were the Bulls' starters? Consider their plus/minus numbers for the game.
"This is the NBA," Thibodeau said. "You've got to come every night. You've got to bring great intensity. And if you let down just a little bit, this is what happens."
The Bulls let down more than a little bit. They didn't play to the standards Thibodeau has set for them. They had a bad night. Granted, over the course of any season, especially a lockout shortened one such as this, a night like this is almost inevitable. Still the Bulls were so consistent last season that nights like this seldom happened. Rose always found a way to turn things around and lead the way. Noah would make a defensive play to ignite the rest of his team. Nothing seemed to ignite the Bulls Saturday, aside from the bench's play in short spurts. Heck, John Lucas III, the guy who rarely sees many minutes even without C.J. Watson on the bench, led the Bulls with 16 points on the night.
"We lost this game tonight [because we played] no defense," Rose said. "Plain and simple."
Obviously, that was one of the main messages Thibodeau wanted to take away from the dreadful defeat. The Bulls have to bring it defensively every night they play and they simply didn't do that against the Hawks.
Aside from the defense, Thibodeau said the Bulls must play together. He didn't feel like his team did that against the Hawks and his players agreed. The fiery coach didn't have to spew anger to get his message across on this night, his players could see the problems and are confident that they can fix them.
"[Thibodeau] said there's no time to feel sorry for yourselves because the games just keep coming," Noah said. "But he said it's a wake-up call. We don't have anything figured out. So it's on us. I think the reality is we have to do better. We can't start the game like that, coming in a hole like that. And having our bench come back and bail us out every time."
The bottom line for the Bulls is that at some point, their starters have to start playing consistently well together. If they don't do that in the future, it won't matter who takes the blame or what Thibodeau says after the game is over. As several players noted in the quiet locker room, the Bulls can't keep digging themselves big holes against solid teams. Eventually the extra effort is going too much of a burden for them to bear.
"We have to stay committed to being a team even when things aren't going our way," Thibodeau said. "Settle down on defense. Settle down on offense. Do it as a team. Get the ball moving. Share the ball. We do that and then we play defense tied together, we're good. We don't do that ... this is a tough league. This is a tough league and every night you're facing someone who's really good.
The Bulls found that out the hard way on Saturday night.