The Bulls players, like many in the NBA, were supportive of now president-elect Barack Obama. So they should understand Obama's principal message of change.
Yes, it's time for change with the Bulls and time for change now.
Though just 2-3 after Wednesday's 107-93 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers here, it appears fairly obvious that it's time for a major change in the starting lineup. Not that the latest losses here and in Orlando are the fault of Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha. They are not. But in trying to establish a defensive identity and presence, the two in the starting lineup have continued to help put the Bulls in early scoring holes with their lack of offense.
Thomas had one point in 14:49 minutes Wednesday along with three rebounds while Sefolosha was scoreless with four misses. For the season, Thomas is now shooting 25 percent and Sefolosha 35 percent. Combined, they are 17 for 60, 28.3 percent.
"It's something we're going to look at," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said after the game. "I'm not at that stage yet (personnel changes), but we'll look at it (Thursday) and make a decision."
(An aside here: Vinny was wearing his almost all black dress outfit. I don't think it was a mourning thing. Certain people can get away with that look, and he is one. Hopalong Cassidy was another. End of meaningless aside.)
"It's not one guy, two guys," said Del Negro, who, unfortunately, was right. "We've got to move the basketball, play unselfishly, play smarter defensively, spread the court better and continually learn. At times I like our ball movement side to side. (But) we're not as consistent as we need to beat a good team, to beat any teams for that matter."
That much has been clear in this minitrip to Orlando and Cleveland. Both teams jumped on the Bulls, and neither, really, is that good. What they do have is a legitimate big time star. The Bulls are about to have one in Derrick Rose, who had 20 points and seven assists, but he's not there yet. And he doesn't quite have the trust of his veteran teammates yet as too many players still look him off when he's returning to get the ball back and take off on their own. I'm saying bad, old habits for now. It's still difficult to get accustomed to giving up the ball and going to a spot when you've taken it and gone before, and had success. Plus, the Bulls offense, primarily side and top pick and rolls for now, is fairly basic without much weak side action and players seem to remain uncertain where to be.
Though Luol Deng did respond reasonably well Wednesday to his shooting goose egg from Monday with 18 points on seven of 15 shots with seven rebounds and a pair of steals.
"I still don't feel like I'm playing (well)," said Deng. "Tonight I made some jump shots. I had the mind set of going to shoot jumpers. I made shots. I took more shots than I did in the last game."
We'll forget LeBron James abusing him primarily for 41 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals, the sixth consecutive game James had of at least 30 points against the Bulls.
"Our defense wasn't great," Deng acknowledged.
So it's hardly like only the new Bulls administration had difficulty with him. But Deng got little help on defense, and he's no match for James' quickness. Not that anyone is. The Bulls used to joke back in the giddy championship days of Craig Hodges being Route 14 because he wore No. 14 and everyone blew by him.
I liked when the Bulls used to put Andres Nocioni on James for a bit so Nocioni could flop himself into an offense foul or just hack James so hard that Mike Brown would begin to cry. But the Bulls left Deng pretty much on an island Wednesday, and you could almost hear Deng yelling, "The plane, boss, the plane." The fantasy was how to stop James, who comes at you like a 747. And the Bulls back-side defenders had a pretty nice view of James streaking to the basket and making layups as they seemed to be watching politely.
"We weren't talking enough on defense," said Rose, who got caught on several pick and rolls and isolated trying to guard James. "That's why we were messed up switching on him. I don't care if it's Michael Jordan out there. I'm going to guard him. It was fun guarding him. But he's just too big."
Rose will have to concentrate on his guys, and that didn't go that well, either, as Mo Williams and Delonte West got free often with nice screens set by old buddy Ben Wallace, who had a good, Wallace-type game with 14 rebounds, six offensive.
So where to go?
Home to play the Suns Friday, and you should have seen the look on Drew Gooden's face when someone walked into the locker room after the game and said Amare Stoudemire had scored 49 points. Gooden shook his head and smiled, apparently thinking, "Uh oh. We can't stick Deng on him, too. That might be me."
It's generally a quiet Bulls locker room, win or lose, except for the loud headphones in the ears of Thomas, who'll sing a few words to what he's listening to. Larry Hughes generally sits with Gooden as players mostly sit with their feet in buckets of ice or had ice wraps around their knees. Players rifled through about a half dozen pizza boxes as they prepared for the short flight back to Chicago. The interviews with waiting reporters were mostly brief and matter of fact, and not defensive despite the loss.
This doesn't appear to be a defensive team in many ways. I know Del Negro's focus is to make this a defensive team first, but I just don't see the talent there to do so. I suppose you could slow it into a walk-it-up game, like some coaches do in pretending they are coaching defense. You'd see that a lot from Brown when he first came to Cleveland as well as Mike Fratello at some stops and Rick Carlisle. But with Rose you cannot do that with this Bulls team. It has to be active in the open court, scoring in transition and attacking the basket.
Though the first thing I'd do is change the starting lineup.
Perhaps five games is not fair, but this thing could go badly quickly. After Phoenix Friday is the Cavs again, the improved Hawks, the Mavs and Pacers before opening an eight-game road trip with the Lakers. Eleven of the next 13 games are against likely playoff teams.
No, it's not the fault of Sefolosha and Thomas, but a team with such a small margin for error can't afford to be falling into these big holes with two non-scorers in the starting lineup.
There are two options:
1. Go small. Start Ben Gordon, who had 31 points on 11 of 19 shooting against the Cavs, along with Rose as Gordon is the team's best long distance shooter, with Deng at small forward, Nocioni at power forward, though one who will spread the court and Gooden at center (Larry Hughes probably goes to shooting guard when he's healthy in a few weeks). It is a miniature lineup, but let Shaq try to beat you. Maybe put Nocioni on him and let's see if he can still get 20. He wasn't even supposed to play Wednesday because the Suns are trying to keep him out of back to backs, but played with the team short-handed. It's risky, but should open the court, which the Bulls want for Rose, and maybe have the Suns worrying about matching up with the Bulls.
"When we go small, we've got to push the tempo," said Gordon. "We cannot jog or walk the ball up. We've got to try to catch the other team off guard. That's the only way to be successful right now because we have such a small team. At the same time we want to get good looks. We got to push tempo but be smart at same time. Defensively, we have to be a scrambling team. We are undersized, so we have to use our speed and quickness to our advantage. (And) it's imperative we get off to good starts and put teams on their heels early."
2. Go big. This is more the lineup I envisioned before the season with Rose, Deng at shooting guard, Nocioni at small forward now though I was talking about Thomas then. Thomas probably needs to come off the bench now and be more an energy guy after opening the season shooting too much, for some reason. Then Gooden at power forward, where he belongs and can hold his own, and, gasp, Joakim Noah or Aaron Gray at center. I'm not a big fan of either, but the Bulls play with so little size. They do hold their own in rebounding even with Gooden at center, but they may need to try on some size. Though Noah has barely played of late and been yanked out of games with foul trouble and apparent difficulty being in the right place at the right time, or just about any time.
No, not great choices.
I did like a nice, subtle change Del Negro made to open the game, and it helped get Rose off to a fast start with eight of the team's first 10 points. Del Negro had the screener coming out higher on top, enabling Rose to operate with more room. It left the middle open more and made it a longer way for help defenders to come, though they did a better job trapping him later to take the ball out of his hands.
Rose hit an 18 footer, drove and dunked, his a 19 footer and scored on a fast break layup blowing by Williams.
"I talked to him (saying) when you come off the screen rolls if they go under, if they give you the shot step up and knock it down," said Del Negro "If they go over on it penetrate and make plays. Continually put pressure on defense. At times he does it; at times he's probing a little bit. So he's still trying to find his way. He'll be doing that for awhile. It's part of the maturation of a young kid at the point guard position in the NBA. Its very difficult. Sometimes he's trying to be too unselfish, but he'll continue to get better. He didn't have any rebounds, rare for him. He's got to learn to take control of the game better and we've got to do better job getting him into sets where he has the ability to do that more."
The Bulls went to their three-guard set late in the first quarter, leaving Kirk Hinrich to guard James. And James is no Hedo Turkoglu, who was firing threes Monday with Hinrich on him. James drove right at and over Hinrich, but then had to leave the game with a slight sprain. The Cavs were plus-22 with James on the floor, and without him they clearly are not even a playoff team. It's why they worry so much about keeping him with a roster that doesn't have a single other player with the chance to be an All-Star.
So the Bulls stayed close, down six after one, in a game the coaches knew they had to keep within reach to have a chance.
The Bulls were within four with about two minutes when the Cavs went on a 10-2 run to close the half with Wallace making key defensive plays, three times tipping misses leading to a West three and the Bulls coming out of a timeout with a 24-second violation—sheesh!
The Bulls then began shooting a bit too quickly and way too wildly, restored a bit of order with their small lineup again to briefly cut it under 10 with Rose and Gordon attacking to open the fourth quarter. They got it within seven midway through the fourth after a sweet quick outlet to Hinrich from Deng and pass up to Gordon for a banker.
But James started beating up Bulls then, picking up a loose ball for a three-point play, seemingly pushing off for an offensive rebound and hitting a jumper and tipping in his own miss as the Cavs pulled away. James hit 15 of 16 free throws, but missed his only two threes and is now 0-13 on threes for the season.
So how do you make him shoot more of those?
"We could have moved the ball better," said Del Negro. "We got a little stagnant. They killed us with second chance points, And LeBron is LeBron."
So maybe it's time for a change. Can't be worse, as the U.S. apparently decided.
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