CHICAGO (CBS) – In a hoarse voice Friday night at the United Center, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau served up one of his favored lines.
“The game tells you the play,” Thibodeau said.
The words tried to explain the offensive approach after Chicago’s lackluster 91-74 loss to Portland, but it’d been so ugly, the words seemed bereft of meaning, and you were left with but one thought after Thibodeau uttered his.
Sometimes, the game tells you your place as well.
Four nights after turning in one of their most complete, most inspired efforts of the season in an 89-77 win against the Pacers, the Bulls were reminded (again) of how precious their margin of error is, of how varied success comes for average teams from night to night. Or put more adeptly, how terrible they’re capable of being offensively.
The celebrations were muted Friday from the Bulls, no flying chest bumps after third-quarter run-outs or exuberant roars after hitting second-quarter jumpers.
There was just clang after clang, a series of wayward outside shots finding nothing but iron against the NBA’s 19th-best defense, a quintet of Blazers everyone yearns to believe in if they could ever string stops together.
Chicago shot an abysmal 3-of-17 from 3-point range, while Portland shot 10-of-22, including 7-of-11 to start. And this was all that mattered, rendering everything else about the 48 minutes moot.
“Offensively, we were just so bad tonight,” Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy.
The main culprits were the Chicago guards and wings. Starters Dunleavy (1-of-9), Kirk Hinrich (0-of-6) and Jimmy Butler (3-of-9) shot a combined 4-of-24 and scored 12 points collectively. This has long been the Bulls’ concern, and it becomes magnified when the foe is the league’s second-most efficient offense.
When the shots are falling within the system at a somewhat regular rate – a loaded line, given the Bulls are second-to-last in the NBA in field-goal percentage – Chicago’s lack of playmakers can be covered up. When the shots aren’t falling, Friday happens, and there’s no recourse.
A most telling stat was that the Bulls were just 5-of-7 at the free-throw line. There was little aggression, Blazers big man Robin Lopez blocking five shots the few times there was. The tepidness screamed for Derrick Rose, whose last game action was in November against these Blazers when he tore his right medial meniscus.
“We didn’t have the edge we usually do,” Joakim Noah said.
Like Thibodeau, Noah has his go-to lines. One is “give credit where credit is due,” and he complimented the Blazers in that fashion Friday night.
Noah could only look forward, knowing it gets easier to regular season’s end. At 40-32, a game back of the Raptors for the third seed in the East, the Bulls still have a quality opportunity to set themselves up for first-round playoff success.
Chicago’s final 10 opponents – including Boston twice, on the road Sunday and at home Monday – sport a collective .381 winning percentage. Only Washington has a winning record.
While the East would seems to be mostly has-beens behind Miami and Indiana, it’s still worth the fight for Chicago to nab the third seed. It would likely keep the Bulls away from the Nets, who despite early turmoil have the best record in the East since Jan. 1 and have a higher ceiling than most other potential first-round foes.
So given what’s ahead, the only team that can get in the Bulls’ way the rest of the regular season is themselves.
“We pay attention to everything,” Noah said of the playoff jostling. “It’s our job to pay attention to what’s going on. What’s important is us. We got to focus on what we can do to get better.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.