Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t mince words after his team’s 80-76 loss to the Pacers.
“In my eyes, he got wiped out,” the coach said Tuesday night, still trying to control his rage at the officials swallowing their whistle at the conclusion of the game. “He had a layup. It was a train wreck.”
“But I’m not going to put it on the officials. We’ve still got to get it done. A tough call went against us.”
Thibodeau is right, on both counts. His team’s lack of execution down the stretch, offensive droughts and inability to defend Pacers swingman Paul George—who had 34 points, nearly half of his squad’s output—killed them.
But in the end, that one play did them in. Trailing 78-76 with 14.1 seconds to go, Thibodeau drew up a beautiful play out of a timeout, with Luol Deng making a backdoor cut and receiving a pass from Joakim Noah on the baseline.
Everything was perfect. Deng caught the pass, went up for layup and was met by massive Pacers center Roy Hibbert, seemingly drawing a foul, except no whistles sounded.
“I’ve got to see it again, but I thought I got fouled. I haven’t seen it yet,” said a despondent Deng afterwards. “I’m mad at myself that I didn’t get a shot up. When he contacted me, I lost the ball, but if I would have got a shot up, even if I missed it, I think a teammate could have got the rebound. That’s the one thing I’ve got to do better with that play.
“We designed it for me to cut back door,” he continued. “Jo made a good play. I saw he overplayed me, I cut back door and it’s just something I could have done better.
“It was a great play. That’s my fault. I’ve got to finish that.”
Noah added: “It was a non-call. The refs thought that he was straight up. That’s the last play of the game, but we didn’t play well. We’ve got to win these games and it’s unfortunate, but we’ve got to come back and respond tomorrow.”
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel saw it differently, calling it “a heck of a defensive play” by Hibbert.
“He’s the biggest reason why we lead the league in field-goal percentage defense. It’s that play, that’s the biggest reason. He’s the best in the league at exercising the fundamental of verticality. He’s in his lane and off his feet, making a legal defensive play and earning a no-call,” he elaborated. “You’re allowed to jump straight up. No matter where you are, you’re allowed to jump straight up and absorb contact, and when he learned that and went away from trying to draw charges, like he was doing earlier in his career, he went from not being able to stay on the court to being one of the best defensive centers in the NBA.”
Regardless of that play, which certainly seemed like a foul to the naked eye at full speed and would have given Deng a chance to tie the game late, the Bulls compounded their issues with a host of mistakes throughout the contest. After backup point guard Nate Robinson led a fourth-quarter comeback to overtake the Pacers, unforced errors and difficulty getting quality shots became their biggest problems.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Thibodeau said of his team, which shot 38.4 percent from the field—Indiana was held to 36.3 percent shooting, but George was 14-of-25 form the floor by himself—and committed 19 turnovers on the evening. “They’re very good defensively. I knew it was going to be that type of game. They’re a very good help team and you’ve got to keep the ball moving, and if you try to go one-on-one against them, you’re going to have problems. They’ve got length. George is a great defender. We’ve got to do better.
“Usually, [turnovers] comes down to one or two things. Either it’s too much one-on-one or trying to make a risky pass and not recognizing what’s going on. You have to understand where you are in the game, how the game is being played, is it the fourth quarter, are you trying to thread the needle, are you dancing with the ball. If you’re doing those things, it’s going to lead to turnovers,” he added, before launching into why he would no longer tolerate the Bulls using a roster full of newcomers still familiarizing themselves with each other as a reason for their ball-security issues.
“We said that in training camp. We said it after the first two weeks. At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘Okay, we’ve been together 16 games, seven preseason games. You’re a pro player.’ We’re not using that as an excuse. We’ve got to do better.”
Robinson took the loss especially hard, blaming himself for the team’s lack of poise with the ball in their hands—his ill-timed alley-oop pass attempted for Joakim Noah stands out, but he wasn’t the only culprit. Still, he took the bulk of the responsibility for the Bulls’ late-game execution.
“[The no-call on Hibbert] doesn’t define the game. I think we had like 19 turnovers and I had four myself, so that’s something we’ve got to do, take care of the ball down the stretch and for this loss, I definitely take the blame for this one. Just down the stretch, I’ve got to be smarter with the ball, make the right plays and got to execute,” he said. “We got the shots that we wanted, we just didn’t make them. You’re not going to make every shot each game. You’ve got to play hard. We played through it, got stops when we needed them. Down the stretch, we’ve got to take care of the ball.
“We took the shots that they gave us, but I think we could have took better shots, as well, including myself. But for the most part, turnovers. Turnovers killed us today.
Just bringing energy to the game, that’s something that we all try to do. The game is interesting and you’ve just got to play it the right way. We try to do that. We try to make the right plays for guys, getting guys in spots where they can be successful and tonight, we just didn’t take care of the ball,” the diminutive scorer continued. “We got every shot that we wanted, each guy on our team. We just didn’t make the shots. They’re a hell of a team. I’m not taking that from them at all. But for us, we just didn’t make the shots. We got the stops when we needed them and we got buckets when we needed them. We just didn’t make them down the stretch.”
Countered Thibodeau: “I don’t want to put it all on him. We’ve just got to do better. The last five minutes, it’s got to be better. As a team. It’s not any one particular guy.
“You’ve got to make the right play, the right read. You’ve got to do your job. If your job is to set a screen, you set a great screen. If you’re job is to give yourself up and make a great cut; usually when you’re cutting hard, when you finish your spacing, you’re going to loosen the defense. I thought the second shot hurt us, so those are things. The turnovers, in a game like this, where it’s a low-scoring game, those possessions are huge,” the coach went on to say. “We can’t play loose with the ball. You’ve got to play strong inside. We’re doing a lot of tipping and that’s not going to get it done, not against the tough teams in the league, so we’ve got to do better.”
Noah chimed in: “We definitely turned the ball over too much. Can’t turn the ball over in the last five minutes of the game. We’ve just got to get good shots. Some good things, some bad things. But overall, the energy wasn’t very good tonight. As a whole, we have to play better. Too many turnovers. I think we could have rebounded the ball better.”
This loss stung hard in the Bulls locker room, particularly after they’d built some momentum with consecutive wins over two playoff contenders in Dallas and Philadelphia, closing out a home stand that begun so disappointingly—surrendering a 27-point lead to Milwaukee last week—on a similarly negative note. Making it even more poignant is the fact that Indiana is also missing their leading scorer, Danny Granger, and the Pacers are a rival that the Bulls prefer keep little-brother status instead of taking the reins of the Central Division this season, during the ongoing absence of Derrick Rose.
Deng stated the obvious: “Our games are always close. Give them credit, they came here and got what they wanted. I don’t think we played well.”
With two road games coming up against the dregs of the division, Cleveland and Detroit, the Bulls will have the opportunity to build up their confidence again. They’ll need it with a tough December stretch awaiting them upon their return to Chicago.
Tags: Tom Thibodeau
, Luol Deng
, Indiana Pacers
, Chicago Bulls
, Joakim Noah
, Nate Robinson
, Roy Hibbert
, Paul George
, Frank Vogel