Thursday, November 22, 2012

Game 8 Recap: Houston, We Have A Problem

You didn't have to cutttt me offf leavveeee in restricted free agencyyyyy

Bulls 89 (5-6), Rockets 93 (5-7)

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After notching a win in Phoenix, the first stop on the circus trip, the Bulls have been reeling of late, getting destroyed in the Staples Center against the Clippers and then failing down the stretch at the Rose Garden in Portland. In order to avoid falling below .500 for the first time this season, the Bulls needed to get a win in Houston, something that should ostensibly be a difficult thing to do if you ignore Houston's record for a moment. On a note topical to Big Ten fans, Kelvin Sampson was the head coach for the Rockets this game, filling in for Kevin McHale (absent for family reasons).

As Bulls fans know, the Rockets also acquired former Bull Omer Asik after the Bulls decided to let him walk in restricted free agency.  Of course, after his time in Chicago where his lack of offensive ability was a liability, he's averaged 10.0 ppg thus far this season in Houston. Naturally.

 Even so, the Rockets entered the game at just 4-7 after grabbing a pair of wins to start the season. Still, the Rockets came into this one 10th in the league in points per game, always a disconcerting stat to see coming into the game, especially for a Bulls offense for which scoring points is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone at times.

After starting the season near the top of the PER rankings, Harden has cooled down quite a bit (he entered this game at #50). After scoring 37 and 45 against the Pistons and Hawks to start the season, Harden has only score 30 or more once since then (he scored exactly 30 against New Orleans last Wednesday). The Rockets have some other nice options --namely the second-year player out of Florida, Chandler Parsons-- but without Harden having a big game, the Rockets' chances of winning go down by a not insignificant percentage (as demonstrated by their slide since games uno y dos). 


With Deng checking Harden early, the latter had a bit of a difficult time getting his offensive game going. Unfortunately, Rip Hamilton was no match for Chandler Parsons, who was running all over the place undeterred. Parsons started off the game going 3-5 for 7 points within the first five or six minutes. Of course, you can imagine what would happen if Rip was forced to switched onto Harden if he couldn't even handle Parsons; actually, we saw just that, as Harden drove to the basket for an easy score later in the quarter, just as if Rip wasn't even there.

On the other end, Deng and Hinrich started the game a combined 4-4, which they needed to as Rip was mired in a horrific 1-6 start from the field.

Otherwise, it was not a notable quarter in any way except for one meeting at the basket between Mssrs. Noah and Asik, resulting in an Asik block of Noah's dunk attempt (aw hamburgers). I guess Hinrich notching five assists in the first quarter also somewhat notable. Anyway, the Bulls went in to the second quarter up 22-20, i.e. on a pace for holding the Rockets to well under their season average in points. If only they could just stop the games at this junctures where people are inclined to mention things that are "on pace" to be good. 

Alas, things fall apart. The Bulls' 2-point lead turned into a 7-point deficit in less than two minutes of 2nd quarter play. Of course, as we all know, this is the NBA, where any lead is not safe at basically any point in the game, let alone the 2nd quarter. Still, it's disheartening to see the Bulls go on those rough stretches with the reserves in the game after years past, when the bench often carried the Bulls to victory when the starters weren't on. 

However, the Bulls battled back, with two straight basket from Gibson giving the Bulls a 33-30 lead. It was an encouraging series for Taj, who has for whatever reason not been the same player the he was last year. The Bulls will continue to need points from the hard work of guys like Gibson, as they continue to languish away as one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league; the Bulls were 0-5 from beyond the arc in about 1.5 quarters of play.

Luckily for the Bulls, Jeremy Lin wasn't on either. He was 1-5 from the field as of the 6-minute mark of the 2nd quarter. After missing a three and then a put back attempt, he also managed to get beat on a nice backdoor pass from Noah to Robinson on the ensuing possession. Robinson beat him off the dribble on the next possession to set himself up to hit a 15-footer from the left side. This isn't exactly news, but guards with any sort of quickness to their game can have great success against Lin on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, the story of the 2nd quarter was essentially Robinson taking it to Lin, on both ends of the floor (Robinson even managed a block on a Lin attempt at the basket in transition).

For the second time in the game, Noah was able to initiate the ol' finger guns, hitting a jumper from the top after Asik failed to challenge him. The Bulls were up 39-31, only about five minutes after being down seven. 

The Bulls managed to keep the lead going into the half, but a couple nothing-you-can-do-about-that plays from Harden cut the Bulls lead down to 46-42 heading into the intermission.

Halftime Stats
Team: 0.83 PPP (points per possession)
  • Harden: 6/9, 16 points, 5 steals (!)
  • Lin: 1/6, 2 points, 3 assists, 2 turnovers
  • Patterson: 4/7, 9 points, 5 rebounds

 Team: 0.95 PPP
  • Deng: 4/7, 10 points, 4 rebounds
  • Noah: 5/7, 11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks
  • Gibson: 3/4, 7 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals
Joakim Noah played literally the entire first half, and, naturally, he was back out there for the start of the second. No rest for the weary, I guess. 

It was Houston's turn to go on a run. They went on a 9-1 dash early in the third quarter to give them a 51-47 lead, shortly erased after back-to-back buckets from Rip and Boozer. 

A lull in the game saw the Bulls up 55-54 with about four and a half minutes to go in the quarter. A pair of bunnies from Boozer in the final minute of the quarter made it Bulls 65, Rockets 66 heading into the final period. 

The Bulls played well early in the fourth, and even maintained a 5-point lead as late as the 3:44 mark. However, once again the Bulls were plagued by the same thing that plagued them against OKC and against Portland: nobody could score down the stretch when it truly mattered. 

Nate Robinson hit a trey to put the Bulls up 84-79 with 4:41 to go. The Bulls didn't score again until there was 7 seconds left in the game, when it was a 2-score affair and was basically out of reach unless the Rockets completely derped it away at the free throw line, which they didn't. 

With the Bulls up 84-83 with a little over a minute to go, the Rockets got a clutch 3-pointer from former Knick Toney Douglas (of all people). The Bulls couldn't score a meaningful basket after that the rest of the way. 
There's not much use in going into great detail about what happened in this one. The Bulls played well in stretches and not so well in other stretches leading up to the fourth quarter, but that is simply the nature of the NBA game. Being up by 9 and then down by 9 less than 5 minutes later is not an uncommon occurrence, and is just symptomatic of how the professional games is played. 

What is disturbing, however, albeit not exactly unsurprising, is that the Bulls will fight all game and seemingly hit a wall with about four minutes to go. That four minutes would be Derrick Rose time, plain and simple. 

As such, it looks like we're going to be in for a long season full of these sorts of performances. The Bulls will fight their way through games and various swings going for or against them, simply because their defensive philosophy and commitment to the offensive and defensive glass will keep them in games against a majority of teams in the league. 

And yet, at the end of the day, this isn't college basketball. Without Derrick Rose and when the game is on the line, the Bulls have shown that they are not up to the challenge thus far. The Bulls don't get enough consistent defense from their starters but at the same time don't get enough consistent offense from their revamped bench. It's a constant battle of mitigating weaknesses that Thibodeau is forced to play, and it is never ideal. Even the Bulls' vaunted defense has looked fairly pedestrian of late.

Until Derrick Rose returns, it appears that we will be stuck with this precarious setup for the foreseeable future. With the Bulls falling to below .500 for the first time this season, the only hope is that they can somehow remain in the neighborhood of .500 come February/March so that there is a shred of hope with respect to attaining a decent seed for the playoffs...if they make it that far.

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