By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – The Bulls and Grizzlies are inter-conference mirror images of one another, so much as that’s possible in this NBA climate of the high-scoring West and mind-numbing East.
Both teams are directed by defensive-minded coaches in Tom Thibodeau and Dave Joerger. They prefer to play at a crawl, Chicago ranking 29th in the league in pace and Memphis last. Neither has a real star who’s suiting up these days, so they’re often at their best offensively running sets through multi-skilled big men Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol in the high post.
And more than anything, both squads play with a physical toughness that leaves opponents heaping them with praise.
“Both teams want to be physical, get their hands on you, win the rebounding game, not give up offensive rebounds … solid defensively,” Joerger said. “Have good core balance.
“I’d say there’s a lot of similarities.”
So when they met Friday at the United Center, after Chicago escaped Memphis with a 95-91 win in late December, you figured it’d come down to the final minutes.
And when it did and Memphis returned the favor with a big 85-77 road win in its quest for the playoffs, one of Chicago’s imperfections was exposed for all to see.
The Bulls (34-28) aren’t inclined to admit it, but their major challenge in the coming months – especially with the playoffs in mind, which is what they so often remind us is all that matters – is getting quality shots down the stretch of close games.
Because Chicago is so sound defensively, because it slows games down in averaging just 90 possessions per 48 minutes, because it doesn’t often get beat on the fast break or with second-chance points, it will hang with most any foe. Inevitably, that means close games will follow.
Problem is, that’s when Chicago is at its ugliest. At 34.4 percent, the Bulls are 28th in the NBA in field-goal percentage in final five minutes of games that are within five points, known as one version of clutch situations. Chicago only outpaces the titans known as the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.
This plague really reared its ugliness Friday, when the Bulls were outscored 8-2 in the final 5:54 of regulation, shooting just 1-of-9 and committing two turnovers in that stretch.
Their late looks could be placed into three categories: garbage, rushed and open-but-ugly.
Here’s the rundown of Chicago’s nine possessions inside of five minutes, at which time the score was 79-75 in favor of Memphis:
— Missed 26-foot 3-pointer by D.J. Augustin with seven seconds left on the shot clock
— Missed 16-foot jumper by Taj Gibson with seven seconds left on the shot clock
— Turnover by Noah on a pass forced inside
— Gibson tip-in of a missed Augustin 10-foot runner over outstretched arms of defense with two seconds left on the shot clock
— Air-balled 25-foot 3-pointer by Augustin in transition, a clean look early in the shot clock
— Missed 4-foot driving shot by Kirk Hinrich with one on the shot clock
— Noah turnover via traveling
— Augustin layup blocked in transition, then Gibson follows with a missed 14-foot turnaround jumper
— Missed 14-foot jumper by Gibson
Asked if he liked the shots the Bulls were getting late, Noah predictably took blame, backed his teammates and downplayed the issue.
“We’re fine,” Noah said. “We’ll be fine. I think overall, yeah, we missed shots. I tried to sneak some passes in I shouldn’t have.”
For all the soul-soothing words of Noah, this is what could well undo the Bulls. This isn’t just an issue when they lose. Without going through all the details, late-game chaos was also evident, to varying degrees, for Chicago in recent wins at Toronto and Atlanta.
Against the Raptors, the Bulls survived a horrendous possession in the final 30 seconds in which the ball didn’t hit the rim in 24 seconds, giving Toronto a chance for the win.
Late against the Hawks, it took a savvy lean-in move by the veteran Hinrich to get the benefit of the doubt and a foul called while shooting a 3-pointer with one second on the shot clock. His three free throws then proved to be the go-ahead points.
The 2012-’13 Bulls were constructed with the knowledge that Derrick Rose would be out for the season. Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli weren’t stars, but they could create plays with the ball in their hands, and each seemed to relish the moment. Back then, Chicago was a middling offensive team in clutch situations.
Now, the scary aspect is that short of Thibodeau brilliantly drawing up the right plays time and again, there’s no easy fix. Augustin has filled in admirably, but there’s a reason he was available midseason. Against foes with a strong four man like the Grizzlies, Gibson is apt to get pushed more out of the paint, creating a live-or-die situation on jumpers.
Hinrich, Dunleavy and Jimmy Butler are all limited offensively in creating for others, and Noah can only do so much out of the high post when foes that have already been fooled three times on backdoor cuts lock in with the game in the balance.
It’s only a matter of time before this imperfection catches up with Chicago, perhaps again on this brutal homestretch that includes games against Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
For as long as Rose is out, these Bulls will be in search of a closer.
Cody Westerlund is sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.