Commentary

Time for a show of passion

Bulls' loss to Nets stunning, but predictable

Updated: December 9, 2009, 11:53 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Three nights later, it wasn't going away.

Thanks to the power of replay, the memory of sports writers and the sheer audacity of the act, the image of Toronto guard Jarrett Jack bending down to tie his shoe undeterred while holding the basketball during a play in the third quarter of the Bulls-Raptors game continued to resonate Tuesday.

Part of that, of course, was due to Raptors coach Jay Triano's comment to Toronto reporters Monday that if the situation was reversed, "I would expect our guy to go over and knock him on his [behind]."

The not-too-subtle insinuation in all of this was that the Bulls, in losing seven of their previous eight games going into Tuesday night's game against the 1-19 New Jersey Nets, were lacking more than last season's leading scorer, more than two of their top defenders, more even than a consistently strong inside presence for which they have been crying out for too long to remember.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
AP Photo/Jim PrischingDerrick Rose scored 27 points on 13-of-23 shooting with 10 assists and seven rebounds Tuesday night against the Nets.

The Bulls are missing all of that, to be sure. But for the second extended period in two seasons under Vinny Del Negro, the Bulls are also exhibiting the troubling tendency of looking like they simply don't care enough to overcome their shortcomings. And they haven't been good enough to get away with that in a long time.

Still, you figured at least the Bulls could temporarily regain their footing against the woeful Nets at home, much like the Bears did in facing the Rams on Sunday, and get a win in the first of a four-games-in-five-nights set amid a two-week period in which they will play six consecutive games at the United Center.

The Bulls' 103-101 loss to New Jersey was as stunning as it was predictable. Chicago suffered through a 16-point third quarter, 19 turnovers and a too-little, too-late effort encapsulated by the Bulls' last gasp, down one point with 7.1 seconds remaining.

Following a 20-second timeout in which the play was designed to go to Derrick Rose, John Salmons instead missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key.

Del Negro offered a technical reason his best player's identity once again was blurred beyond recognition, why a player with 27 points on 13-of-23 shooting never saw the ball.

"They overplayed and we did not set very good screens," Del Negro said. "Derrick was unable to get open and we went to John Salmons on the high screen. He did not attack on that and pulled back for the jumper. We have to look at the film."

The film will not be kind.

"We're not giving 100 percent for 48 minutes," said Joakim Noah, who finished with seven points and nine rebounds in 41 minutes. "We just have to play with more energy -- things we can control, things we can do as a unit."

Theoretically, even bad teams should be able to play spirited defense. But the Bulls are not a consistently spirited team. And they are a really bad offensive team: 28th in the NBA in points scored, 27th in field goal percentage. The Bulls are seemingly content to be a perimeter team even though they can't shoot.

"There's not one particular thing," Del Negro said before the game. "It's growing together as a team. You're going to have bumps in the road; it's how you handle them. And we have great character, I think, and I expect us to play hard and find ways to win."

Expecting it and somehow getting it out of them, however, are two different things.

Despite the Bulls' odd history of firing coaches [Scott Skiles and Tim Floyd] on Christmas Eve -- which even more oddly had some speculating that Del Negro's job security was in particular danger this holiday season -- there was no reason to think that was going to be the case.

With one season remaining on his contract after this one and in just his second full season after an impressive playoff performance last spring, Del Negro appeared to be in a position to weather some rough patches.

But this particular patch is especially troubling.

Asked directly about his job security after his team suffered its eighth loss in the past nine games, Del Negro did not appear to flinch.

"I don't worry about that," he said. "I just go to work every day and do my best to develop these guys. Those are questions for [general manager] Gar [Forman] and Pax [vice president of basketball operations John Paxson] and [chairman] Jerry [Reinsdorf]. We're fighting with what we have. Those decisions are not up to me."

"Fighting with what we have" was not a chance choice of words.

The Bulls are missing two of their top defenders in Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas. They have played a tough early-season schedule, and even at full strength, Del Negro needed to pull the most out of a team not exactly loaded with talent.

In early December; it's still early to draw any grand conclusions, just like it was too early last season at 9-11 or at 18-27 or at 29-37. But looking ahead at a home stretch that includes consecutive games against the Celtics and the Lakers, Christmas could once again lack much merriment.

There is always the 2010 trade deadline. But can the Bulls attract top-shelf free agents with the only real draw being the chance to help build a playoff-caliber team with Rose? It has taken Rose a while to bounce back from his preseason ankle injury. But as evidenced Tuesday night, he is not yet ready to lead the team in ways expected of franchise players. He still looks tentative in establishing his identity, but it would help if he were given more isolation plays.

Del Negro said it is simply a process.

"What happens to younger players, when they have a little success, now other teams watch film and they make adjustments and they take their strengths away," Del Negro said of Rose. "Some guys adapt to it quicker than others. Derrick's a hard worker, he's a great kid and he just has to go through the process of making his adjustments on the fly."

And evidently, the Bulls must go through the process of losing to teams they should beat at home.

"Even great teams have bad stretches," Luol Deng said before Tuesday's game. "It's just how you control those stretches. We're in a bad stretch now. You have to try to get out of it as fast as you can."

If only it were that easy.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.