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Time for Bulls to find the next gear

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Here are your choices, none of which would be found under any definition of the word
“heartening’’:

1. The Bulls are playing down to the competition.

2. The Bulls think they can toy with opponents.

3. The Bulls simply aren’t that good.

Six games into this postseason, the answer is leaning decidedly toward Door No. 3, which is hard to believe about a team that won a league-high 62 games during the regular season.

The Bulls looked very, very human in a 103-95 loss Monday to the Atlanta Hawks in front of a stunned crowd at the United Center.

In the previous playoff series, it was the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers giving the Bulls more than they wanted — or even considered. The Bulls won it in five games, but the series was closer than that number suggests.

Apparently, this is how it’s going to be. This is a team that prided itself on being ready every single night during the regular season. But late Monday, coach Tom Thibodeau — just hours removed from an NBA coach of the year ceremony — was complaining that his players had come out flat in Game 1.

His players didn’t disagree.

‘‘We weren’t ready .  .  . and they were,’’ Bulls forward Luol Deng said.

How is that possible, especially after the wake-up call against the Pacers?

I don’t have an answer, but I think the Hawks’ Joe Johnson just made another jumper over Deng. Unless that was the Hawks’ Jamal Crawford scoring over Bulls guard Kyle Korver.

‘‘We weren’t challenging shots,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘We weren’t keeping the ball in front. We weren’t finishing our defense. We played low-energy offense. You can’t do that, not in the playoffs.’’

Rose needs help

See if this story sounds familiar: The Bulls struggle against a supposedly inferior opponent. They play bad defense. They can’t shoot. Derrick Rose scares everybody by limping off the court.

If it’s a blueprint, this structure isn’t going to stand up in the playoffs.

‘‘I really don’t know what’s going on,’’ Rose said.

This won’t be an epiphany to anyone, but when Rose’s shooting is off, the Bulls are in big trouble. He shot
11-for-27 from the field Monday. He missed his first seven shots. He just didn’t have it.

The trouble for the Bulls is that his team expects him to win the game even when he’s having a horrendous shooting night. That much was obvious Monday. He made 5 of 9 shots in the fourth quarter, and the Hawks weren’t fazed. That should scare the heck out of the Bulls.

Stay close and let Rose win the game in the end. It’s the formula they followed during the regular season and into the playoffs. But he couldn’t Monday, not by himself, not on this night.

It’s not as if the Hawks did anything exotic defensively. Their big men jumped out on screens whenever Rose had the ball. It’s what every other team does against him.

‘‘Just trying to contain him,’’ Hawks coach Larry Drew said.

Rose will be better in Game 2 on Wednesday because he almost always is good after a bad game. But that doesn’t make what happened Monday any more understandable. Somebody else needs to step up for this team. Actually, more than one somebody needs to step up. Deng had 21 points. Carlos Boozer had 14 points. Not nearly good enough.

The truth is, as long as Rose is shooting well, the Bulls can win like this — at least against the Hawks. It’s how they won the series against the Pacers. But LeBron James has Dwyane Wade and vice versa. Paul Pierce has Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.

Now, not later

Who else can the Bulls count on besides Rose?

They have picked a bad time to come down to earth. If you’re an optimist, you’re saying, ‘‘Better now than later.’’ If you’re a pessimist, you’re saying, ‘‘Later? There’s not going to be a later if the Bulls keep playing like this.’’

Except for their Game 5 scorching of the Pacers to end that series, they have looked nothing like a top seed.

The Hawks likely aren’t going to shoot 51.3 percent from the field, as they did Monday, every game in this series. And the Bulls likely are going to play better as a team.

But they’re human. Even if you weren’t sold that this was a 62-victory team, you couldn’t have thought they would look so human in the playoffs.

All the film work in the world won’t help Thibodeau motivate his team. He’s going to have to appeal to his players’ pride. Whatever that was they were serving up Monday isn’t going to work. Time to coach ’em up, Thibs. Game 1 was about effort, and the Bulls were found lacking.

Unless they’re just not that good.



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