CLEVELAND -- After three years of consistency under Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls are in the midst of an issue that few could have foreseen when Derrick Rose went down again with a season-ending knee injury.
They are having an identity crisis.
What used to be a solid defensive team under one of the league's best coaches has become a porous group that continues to allow big shots to opponents down the stretch in games. That was the case again Saturday night as the Cleveland Cavaliers shot 59 percent from the field in the first half and closed strong enough down the stretch to salt away a 97-93 victory over Thibodeau's ragged bunch.
The fact that the Bulls have struggled emotionally after Rose's latest injury shouldn't come as a surprise given all the championship expectations that they had before the season, but the fact the Bulls aren't playing nearly as hard on the defensive end as they are used to is a cause for concern throughout the organization.
"It's like a whole new season," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said Saturday morning, in reference to the leadership role veterans must fill without Rose in the lineup. "It's like starting over again in the middle of the year, where we are right now, so we're still trying to find our new identity without Derrick for this season, because each season is very different. Each team is very different. But the heart and soul is still here and the character is still here. So it is up to us, it's up to us to lead the way. Myself, Jo [Joakim Noah], [Luol Deng], Taj [Gibson] has been here for a long time and Nazr [Mohammed]'s been through almost everything. So we do have great leadership and we'll help the young guys along."
But the Bulls still look shell-shocked at times on the court and have not played with the type of consistency fans are used to seeing from a Thibodeau-coached team.
"I think we got to get our concentration back and our edge back defensively," Thibodeau said. "I think everyone's worried offensively about how we're going to score. And I like what we're doing offensively. I thought guys shared the ball, made plays for each other, turnovers were low. We shot a good-enough percentage, but the defense and the rebounding really hurt us so we got to get that straightened out."
"Right now we're not playing defense the way we're capable of. And I know we can be a great defensive team, they've already shown me that."
But that's the problem for the Bulls as they enter December without Rose. Do they want to play as hard as a group as it will take to win games when they know their championship dreams are already gone? It's the question Thibodeau and his players must find an answer to with 67 games left to play.
"We got to do better," Gibson said. "We learned a lot being out on the road. Guys got to play a lot harder. We've been too sluggish to start games and we just got to do better, that's the main thing. Just because we're going home doesn't mean anything. It's even harder when you go home because teams tend to come in with a chip on their shoulder to come into Chicago and prove they can get a win. We just got to get our stuff straight, watch a little bit more film and get things right because just 'cause we're going home doesn't make things easy."
Thibodeau and his team have set such a high standard over the years that to see them struggle on one end of the floor so much is jarring. The Bulls are not used to being out-worked and out-hustled on the defensive end -- and they sure aren't used to losing games where they can't make a stop in the waning moments. Thibodeau is trying to make his players realize the identity that Boozer was talking about hasn't changed -- but anybody who has watched this team over the past few years knows different.
"I think you have to have core values and things that you believe in to win games," Thibodeau said. "So your philosophy shouldn't change; however, your personnel depending upon what the strengths and weaknesses of the new guys that are playing, you obviously want to play to those strengths and cover up whatever weaknesses there may be. So sometimes that does change, but philosophically you have to defend, you got to rebound, you got to keep your turnovers down, play inside out, share the ball, and know who you're playing with. And you want to lead guys to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses and that's what smart teams do."
The Bulls haven't figured that out yet. If they don't do it in the next few weeks, it's going to be an even longer season than any of them could have imagined.