NEWARK, N.J. -- After playing with fire for weeks, the Bulls finally got burned by their bad habits in Wednesday night's 96-94 defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Nets.
Most notably, the Bulls once again played down to their competition. Only this time, they dug themselves too big a hole to completely climb out of. The Bulls looked lifeless throughout most of the first three quarters and simply didn't have enough juice to close out the game when they needed to. They couldn't make the key plays down the stretch to secure a win over the lowly Nets, and that's the biggest reason there was so much frustration in the team's locker room after the game.
"If anything, it hurts because we played very bad and we still had a chance to win," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "And we had a lot of possessions where we could have took the lead or tie the game but we didn't."
No, they didn't. Sure, the Nets shot the lights out most of the game, shooting 49 percent from the floor (68 percent in the third quarter) but the Bulls simply didn't match New Jersey's intensity level before it was too late. It looked like the Nets just wanted the game a little bit more.
"We didn't establish ourselves defensively to start the game so it was a long night for us," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We allowed them to shoot 49 percent and they got the big loose ball at the end that won the game for them so, you got to defend and rebound on the road. And you got to be low turnover. And we didn't defend, we didn't rebound well. And we were low energy most of the game."
This is an ongoing problem for Thibodeau's bunch. Since Joakim Noah left the lineup after having thumb surgery, the Bulls haven't played with the type of consistent energy you'd expect from a team that's won 14 of its last 17 games. What's the problem?
"Not starting off well really hurts us," Rose said. "Where teams get confidence and we can't do this in this league. Anybody can beat you.No matter what their record is."
The Nets proved that on Wednesday night. In the process, they also exposed a few of the flaws that continue to haunt the Bulls:
No charity at the stripe: The Bulls have not been a good free-throw shooting team all season. It finally came back to haunt them against New Jersey. They were just 20-for-30 from the line, including two big misses by Luol Deng with 33.1 second left in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game up.
"I expect myself to make those free throws," Deng said. "I've been struggling with my free throw shooting this year. But it's something, I got to get on it. I can't be in that position and miss those free throws."
Thibodeau response to his team's continued problems at the stripe was a little shorter.
"We got to do a better job at the line."
Deng tired?: While Deng didn't want to use his back to back 40-plus minute nights as an excuse, it was pretty clear to see that he looked a little fatigued at the end of the game. With his recent injury history, it will be interesting to see how he responds in the next few weeks.
"I'm fine. I'm fine," he said. "I just got to keep playing. It's just how some games go. We went small today and we were able to make a run and I'm fine with that."
So, obviously, is Thibodeau.
"You look at the lineup that's playing well," Thibodeau said. "Every night you could, it's easy after the fact to say he's playing too many [minutes]. He's playing effectively. So if he's playing effectively he plays. We were searching for something to get us going, put us in position to win, and that group [with Deng] played extremely well."
No run and gun anymore: Aside from the continued lack of energy, the Bulls haven't played close to the same uptempo style without Noah on the floor. That was the case again Wednesday night as the Nets outscored the Bulls 21-5 on fast break points.
"It's hurting us right now," Rose said. "Where we got to get out and run, get easy baskets. We're not getting easy baskets anymore where everything has to be tough, contested and everything. We don't want that. We got to make the game easy again."
No Booz: The Bulls have a few issues on the floor that have to concern Thibodeau, but it's one off the floor that may give him an even bigger headache in the next couple of days. That's the issue of Carlos Boozer not being on the floor at all down the stretch Wednesday night. The veteran forward was understandably upset by the decision, but didn't elaborate on his feelings except to stay "it was a coach's decision." Thibodeau explained that he liked the matchups more without Boozer on the floor because he wanted to go smaller. That's fine, but Rose surely spoke for a number of players when he admitted that even he was surprised that Boozer didn't come back in the game late. Boozer said he didn't talk to Thibodeau about the decision after the game, but the last thing the first-year head coach needs at the moment is a disgruntled star. How he handles this potentially combustible situation could have an impact on how his team performs on the floor in the near future.