Friday, November 24, 2006

Bulls a bust so far

Hinrich: We're not that far away


— So who had the Bulls at 3-8 by Thanksgiving in the office pool?

"I still don't think we're that far away," Kirk Hinrich was saying late Tuesday night after the Bulls blew a 13-point third-quarter lead in losing their fifth straight, 113-109 to the Denver Nuggets. "If just a couple of things click. But I think everyone in this (locker) room feels we're going to get this together and turned around and still have a good year. It's early and we're not panicking, but it is time to start making some strides."

So what is the problem for a team that many believed would be among the elite, at least in the Eastern Conference, with the summer signing of free-agent center Ben Wallace?

Several players and coach Scott Skiles pointed to defensive deficiencies with the conclusion of the Western Conference portion of the circus road trip in Denver.

"We didn't get stops when we needed to maintain the lead," Ben Gordon said.

Some noted mental breakdowns.

"We settled for a lot of jumpers, especially when (Denver's best shot blocker, Marcus) Camby was out of the game," Luol Deng said. "We've got to recognize that and attack."

Actually, it's just been bad basketball.

"We've come out of it the last two years, so it's not that worrisome," Skiles said. "But against Dallas our defense was poor, against Houston we got in too big a hole, against San Antonio it was turnovers, the Lakers we could not make a shot. Each game it has been something."

That could summarize a team closer to splintering than streaking.

The schedule now will turn in the Bulls' favor as they probably have played the toughest schedule in the NBA thus far. They lead the NBA in road games played with eight in their first 11.

Nine of the 11 games have been against teams with winning records.

Sixteen of the Bulls' next 20 games are against teams with losing records, starting in Philadelphia tonight.

When the Bulls return home to play the Knicks on Tuesday night, they will start a string of 14 home games in a 19-game span.

But the schedule hardly guarantees anything.

The Bulls haven't won any games on this road trip because they didn't play well enough to win any.

Perhaps of most concern is the lack of interior defense.

Against the Nuggets, Wallace had his first double-double of the season, but it's become clear that no team fears attacking the Bulls at the basket.

The Bulls have been outrebounded in seven of 11 games this season with one even. They've been outscored in the paint seven times, including every game on this trip by an average of more than eight per game.

They've been outscored on second-chance points the last three games and by an average of about three per game on this trip.

Opponents are in the top 10 in the league in shooting against the Bulls as opponents have shot better than them in five of the last seven games.

The Bulls' defense against three-point shooters has been among the bottom third of the league as they've failed to chase out and close on long-distance shooters. They've trailed by double digits at some point in the last seven games. They haven't had a double-digit lead in the last seven games and have had one just three times in the first 11.

For the most part, these are areas in which the hustling, aggressive, unselfish Bulls teams have excelled the last few seasons.

They haven't been a great scoring team but could compromise the opponent by driving and shooting, usually leading their opponent in baskets through assists. The Bulls have had more assists than their opponents just once in the last seven games.


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