CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmy Butler saw this coming. He could sense in the way the Chicago Bulls have been playing lately that his team was destined for a defensive clunker. But few, if any, figured the Bulls could play as poorly as they did in a 130-105 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night.
“We ain’t been playing no defense,” a frustrated Butler said after the game. “Other teams have just been missing shots to tell you the truth, to be honest. [Shoot] we score enough points, that’s not the problem. But when you don’t stop nobody, they put up 130 or whatever they did, we got to nip that in the bud now because that’s not winning basketball. It will never be winning basketball here and it never has been winning basketball here. We’ve always prided ourself on playing hard and not being pretty. Tonight, we were pretty, we were soft. Got our asses whipped.”
The intriguing part about Butler’s comments are that the numbers didn’t back up the notion heading into the night. The Bulls actually came into the game giving up just 91 points per 100 possessions, good for fourth in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. The Bulls are seventh in points allowed per game at 95.0, sixth in opponents’ field goal percentage at 39.6 and first in opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage at 24.7 percent.
As angry as Butler was after the game, that’s how surprised Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg seemed after the destruction had come to an end.
“I’m shocked because we had a great shootaround this morning,” Hoiberg said. “We were as energetic in shootaround as we’ve been all year and I guess I’ve been around long enough to know that doesn’t always carry over, but I loved our energy and spirit in shootaround. Obviously that did not carry over into the game tonight.”
The difference in answers between Butler and Hoiberg is noteworthy. Both men acknowledge that their team played terribly and lacked the right amount of effort, but Butler saw something that his new coach either didn’t see or didn’t want to acknowledge publicly.
“I think the root comes from everybody that can score on the roster,” Butler said. “When you got guys that can put the ball in the basket they want to play basketball and try to outscore teams, instead of trying to get more stops than that other team. We ain’t never going to have a problem scoring because everybody knows all the freedom that we get on offense.”
When the Bulls play as poorly as they did on Tuesday, the comparisons between Hoiberg’s new system and that of former coach Tom Thibodeau are inevitable. Especially when the Hornets are coached by a close Thibodeau friend and confidan, Steve Clifford. But what can’t get lost in that comparison is that the Hornets, a team that came into the game with an 0-3 record, shot the lights out of the ball. They shot 51.6 percent from the field, 60.9 percent from the beyond the arc (14-for-23) and 95.7 percent from the free-throw line (22-for-23). They became just the fourth team since 2013 to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 60 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the free-throw line in a single game.
The concerning part for Hoiberg and the Bulls is that they got outworked all night, a trait rarely seen in the Thibodeau era. They were out-rebounded 52-33 and beat them up and down the floor all night.
“It was a complete domination from the tip,” Hoiberg said. “And they just had their way with us. We didn’t have any fight, no resolve, we didn’t try and go back at them. We just kind of accepted it tonight.”
Every team is going to have bad games over the course of an 82-game season, but it was the way in which the Bulls lost that gave the players pause.
“It’s frustrating,” Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. “Knowing that we could have stopped it in the first quarter. Right when they were going on their run we could have did something to adjust. It took too long, but I really think it was just the effort. Just having that competitive edge. We didn’t come out and compete tonight. The great thing about this league is we got a lot of games and we got a game in a couple days.”
Rose is right about that. The Bulls play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night and can show that Tuesday’s performance was just an aberration. But Butler and the rest of his teammates know if they continue playing like this things will get “ugly” against Kevin Durant & Co. Butler said he wants to be more vocal with his teammates but he also knows that after a game like this, talk can be cheap. The solution is simpler in his eyes.
“Effort,” Butler said. “Effort will fix all of that on the defensive end. It’s all if you want to do it or not, to tell you the truth. I think we got guys capable of it. I think we focus too much on offense a lot of the time. Not most of the time, a lot of the time. And we forget about what you got to do on the other end of the floor. Speaking for myself, speaking for a lot of guys on this team, we got to guard. That’s where it’s got to start for us. We got to be the dogs that everybody in Chicago knows we are, we’ve always been. Just some hard-playing guys that play harder than everybody.”