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Thursday, May 3, 2012

After Game 2 meltdown, Bulls facing moment of truth

Tom Thibodeau surely has put much thought into the message he must deliver when the Bulls reconvene Thursday after rolling over in the second half of a loss Tuesday to the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center that knotted their first-round playoff series at one game apiece.
What Bulls fans witnessed during what might have been one of the most disappointing third quarters in team history wasn’t what Thibodeau often describes as ‘‘slippage.’’
The problems that plagued the Bulls are unacceptable in the 68th game of any season — and a playoff game, at that. They weren’t the product of failed execution, poor halftime adjustments or even general weariness. There are suddenly deep cracks in a once-solid foundation.
The importance of the Bulls playing their brand of basketball was a point of emphasis leading up to the game. ‘‘Just do your job’’ had been Thibodeau’s mantra since Derrick Rose tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Saturday in Game 1.
Nobody did his job. As a result, the Bulls played a brand of basketball that was foreign to what Thibodeau teaches, which is why he might be facing his biggest challenge in two seasons as their coach.
I’ve been the first to defend the Bulls after rare off nights during the regular season. Those things happen, especially during the death march the NBA announced after the lockout, but this is the playoffs. The Bulls were coming off two days of rest, which is like an eternity during a season littered with back-to-back games.
A collective fatigue, both mentally and physically, shouldn’t have been totally unexpected. But a total collapse was shocking to see from a team that has had so much resolve. Instead of fighting for their playoff lives, the Bulls looked like a team that wanted their long grind of a season to end.
Thibodeau breaks the game down to essential components his team must accomplish to win. Even without Rose, his priorities were achievable against the 76ers. Consider:
1. Defense: The Bulls allowed a 76ers team that shot 45 percent from the floor during the regular season to shoot 59 percent in Game 2. That’s the highest field-goal percentage the Bulls have allowed in 68 games. An average offensive team scored 109 points, which is tied for the second-highest total the Bulls have allowed this season.
2. Rebounding: The 76ers outrebounded the Bulls 38-32 for the game and 22-12 in the second half.
3. Low turnovers: The Bulls committed an acceptable eight turnovers.
4. Inside-out: Thibodeau preaches the ball has to go into the paint, either on the dribble or through the post, for his offense to work. The Bulls were outscored 52-32 in the paint.
5. Share the ball: The Bulls had 23 assists, which matched their regular-season average.
6. Multiple-effort mentality: For one of the few times this season, the Bulls were outhustled and outworked.
The Bulls failed miserably in four of his six categories. Most troubling were the defense and rebounding because they have been staples of Bulls basketball since Thibodeau arrived. The Bulls ranked first in the league in rebounding this season and allowed the second-lowest field-goal percentage in the league.
The loss of Rose can’t be blamed for those wretched stats, either. Low turnovers and sharing the ball are the two areas he would affect most, and the Bulls were moderately successful in those areas.
Don’t misunderstand: The backcourt was a disaster defensively. Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams combined for 65 points. But what happened in Game 2 can’t be written off as Rose not being on the floor.
This was a total system failure, a core meltdown, a performance that makes you wonder how the Bulls will respond when things get tough in Game 3 on Friday.
Some people claim anything short of a championship means the Bulls have been unsuccessful this season. I disagree. Everyone on the roster, except Rose, improved his game. How can 2011-12 be anything but a success after the Bulls finished tied for the best regular-season record despite their training room looking like a Civil War hospital?
Here’s how: They turn in three more performances like the one they did Tuesday and slink into the offseason.

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