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Bulls down a level in NBA, hoping ‘D’ can bring them back

Coach Tom Thibodeau wants Joakim Noah Bulls shut teams down. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

Coach Tom Thibodeau wants Joakim Noah and the Bulls to shut teams down. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

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TONIGHT

TIMBERWOLVES
AT BULLS

The facts: 7, Ch. 9, 1000-AM.

Updated: December 11, 2012 6:12AM



So this is what life in NBA mediocrity looks like — not the ZIP code the Bulls are used to by any means. The last two seasons, they were NBA elite. Back-to-back best regular-season records, top seed in the playoffs, top dog.

Now?

They’ve been forced to move down the block a bit, across the street from the New York Knicks and next door to the Atlanta Hawks. These are the same teams that fight to be seeded four through seven in the playoffs — that neighborhood.

It comes with an adjustment period, and it comes with some frustration.

‘‘I think you have to look at it, learn from your mistakes, because these games are won on one or two possessions,’’ Bulls center Joakim Noah said in the wake of Thursday’s 97-91 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. ‘‘There’s obviously things throughout the game that you feel you could have done better as a team. It’s frustrating because we lost, but you have to learn from it and get better, and I feel like we can definitely get better.’’’

They can. But how much?

The six-point loss to the Thunder might have been the Bulls’ best all-around game of the season so far. By no means did it include the offensive efficiency shown in Cleveland last week, but it was an all-around game against an elite NBA team, with victory right there for the taking.

Now coach Tom Thibodeau is asking for more. Maybe that’s why the Bulls were given Friday off — to collect their thoughts and get ready for another push that again starts with focusing on defense.

‘‘We had a good start to the game, our defense was really good to start the game, but it was nowhere near a 48-minute game for us defensively,’’ Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau knows that without injured star Derrick Rose on the floor until maybe February, shutting opposing teams down is the best way this team can get wins.

‘‘You defend, you rebound and you have low turnovers — that puts you in position to win,’’ Thibodeau said.

Notice he didn’t say, ‘‘You score.’’

With the Minnesota Timberwolves and then the Boston Celtics coming to town before the Bulls hit the road for the “circus trip’’ next week, including a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, two of the next four games will continue to test how well this group can shut down teams with multiple stars.

The Bulls had the Thunder in trouble twice Thursday, up five points with just over a minute before halftime, then up six at the start of the fourth quarter. But both times the Bulls fell asleep at the wheel.

‘‘Pretty much the whole season so far, when we’ve got a lead, we’ve got to try and increase it, rather than just keep playing,’’ guard Richard Hamilton said. ‘‘We’ve got to increase leads.’’

It starts there. As much as Thibodeau doesn’t want to talk offense, the Bulls did finally show Thursday they could be a threat from the outside, hitting 5 of 15 from beyond the three-point line after averaging an NBA-low 2.8 three-pointers per game through the first four games.

Starting point guard Kirk Hinrich also had his best game of the season with 12 points, which is more than double the 5.5 he had been averaging.

‘‘He was great, and we need that from him,’’ Hamilton said of Hinrich. ‘‘At times he got guys involved, and other times he was aggressive in looking for his shot, and we need that.’’



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