The Chicago Bulls appeared to have gotten out of their funk by beating the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks on back-to-back nights. The two impressive victories had the Bulls feeling good about themselves in advance of a six-game road trip, but first, there was some business to take care against the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon.
But instead of taking care of business against Miami, Chicago laid an egg, continuing a frustrating trend this season of playing poorly against lesser opponents at the United Center.
The Heat entered play Sunday with a record of 19-24, but they led nearly the entire game and took home a 96-84 victory. Dwyane Wade led the way with 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, but the real story was the play of Hassan Whiteside off the bench. Whiteside recorded his first career triple-double with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks in just 25 minutes, and the 12 blocks were both a career high and a franchise record.
Whiteside’s defense helped stymie the Bulls, who shot only 35.6 percent overall and 41.7 percent in the paint. Chicago also shot just 7-of-24 from beyond the arc, with Derrick Rose’s 0-of-6 from deep really bringing that percentage down. The starting trio of Rose, Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell combined to shoot 1-of-12 on threes, and Butler only had five points total in the game. It’s safe to say the absence of Mike Dunleavy due to an ankle injury that has held him out nearly all month really hurt on Sunday.
It would be easy to chalk up the Bulls’ poor showing to just a bad game at a weird time in the day, but the problem is there have been too many of these kinds of performances, especially at home. Chicago is just 13-11 at the United Center this season, by far the worst home record of any of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Out of those 11 home losses, six have come against teams with a record currently under .500. In addition to the loss to the Heat on Sunday, the Bulls have also lost to the Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics. The losses to the Jazz and Nets weren’t even competitive, and there have been a few other close calls against poor teams, including an overtime victory over the Celtics and a tight win over the New York Knicks.
It must be frustrating for Chicago to consistently have so many of these let downs considering the talent on the roster. Injuries have played a role, but the Bulls have typically been able to overcome health problems in the past thanks to effort and elite defense. The last two years, which were mostly without Rose, Chicago went 51-31 at the United Center.
But this year, the effort hasn’t always been there, and that has led to struggles on both ends of the floor in these games against weaker teams. At this point, the only explanation for these problems that seems reasonable is that Chicago simply plays down to the competition. It feels like a cop-out to resort to that kind of an excuse, especially with Tom Thibodeau as the head coach, but the pattern is there.
In the big picture, these losses may not be a huge deal as long as the Bulls play well against the elite teams, which has typically happened this year outside of a few ugly stretches. (There have been some rough losses to good teams in the last three weeks.) Chicago likely has the effort problems in the postseason when every game matters so much, and this roster, when healthy, is tough to beat when they bring it. You could also try and spin this issue into a positive by arguing that some of these losses are due to the Bulls preserving energy for the postseason, but that may be a bit of a stretch.
Although some of these struggles can be swept under the rug, it doesn’t make them any less annoying. There’s also the matter of seeding and matchups in the postseason, and down the road, Chicago may look back at these defeats and regret them.
Next up for the Bulls is the league-best Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, and since the Warriors are where they are, we should probably expect a better effort from Chicago.