It's a good thing the Chicago Bulls aren't into finger-pointing.
If they were, there would be opportunities aplenty for apportioning fault after a 98-89 loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday moved Chicago to within just one game of playoff elimination.
We'll get to the specifics in a moment, but almost everyone associated with the Bulls bears responsibility for their current predicament. Basically, Chicago did everything wrong.
That's a simple assessment.
The solution, though, is complicated. It involves figuring out what needs to be fixed and who needs to be blamed. Rest assured, there's no shortage of candidates.
Out of Character
The Bulls lost Game 4 by a final score of nine points, but they were outdone in the effort department by a much wider margin. We expect Chicago to play at a disadvantage when it comes to things like offensive talent and shooting accuracy, but it's hard to remember the last time it was outworked.
It's rare to see a team play with more fire than the Bulls -- but that's exactly what's happening right now.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) April 27, 2014
There were defensive lapses, turnovers and a seemingly endless streak of loose balls that wound up in Wizards' hands.
As is the case whenever one team outhustles the other, credit belongs to the Wizards. Chicago was sluggish from the start, and Washington took advantage.
But for a Bulls team that so rarely gives up an edge in intensity, some blame has to go to head coach Tom Thibodeau, not just because the aforementioned low-effort play likely had its roots in fatigue—something Thibodeau's brutal playing-time demands created—but also because he's the man responsible for mentally preparing his team.
Perhaps the only silver lining of an early playoff exit for Bulls fans is hope of never having to watch Boozer/Hinrich get over-played again— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) April 27, 2014
In typical blue-collar, non-nonsense fashion, Thibs accepted responsibility for his club's performance.
Thibodeau: "You can't put it on any one guy. It's our team. Readiness to play is me." #CHIvsWAS— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) April 27, 2014
Thibodeau is, perhaps, being too hard on himself. For all the damage Chicago's lack of effort did, the team's offense was just as integral in sealing its fate.
Oh, That Offense
There's not a lot Thibs can do about the offensive talent on his roster. When a team relies on D.J. Augustin—a man who was out of work earlier this season—to be the primary scoring presence, that signals trouble.
Augustin came off the bench to score just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting in 22 minutes. He pounded the dribble relentlessly, eating up unproductive seconds of Chicago's offensive possessions without creating easy shots for himself or his teammates.
Kirk Hinrich was no better, catastrophically mixing conservative play with mistakes. He scored seven points on 3-of-12 shooting and committed four turnovers.
This, as much as anything, encapsulated the problems with Chicago's offense. All season long, the Bulls have ranked near the bottom of the league in efficiency. Combine a lack of scoring talent and an extremely conservative scheme, and that's what you get.
It's like the Bulls rallying cry on offense is "We CAN be more incompetent! WE CAN BE!!!!"— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) April 27, 2014
But the turnovers are simply inexcusable.
Chicago gave the ball away 16 times against Washington on Sunday, a truly perplexing stat given the Bulls' vanilla offensive style. During the year, the Bulls were tied with Boston for the league's third-worst turnover ratio, per NBA.com.
A conservative, limited offense is bad enough without unforced errors. With them, scoring at a respectable rate becomes almost impossible.
Again, some blame for Chicago's putrid attack belongs to Thibodeau. But the lack of talent on the roster and the front office's decision to jettison Luol Deng are also culprits. Deng was hardly an elite scoring talent, but trading him away for nothing but future cap relief and draft picks earlier this season robbed the Bulls of a steady hand on offense.
I suppose this is also where we curse fate for knocking Derrick Rose out for another season. At the risk of understating things, he likely would have engineered a better offense than Hinrich or Augustin.
Taj Gibson: Blameless
If you're looking to spread some more blame around, forget about pointing to Taj Gibson.
Taj Gibson has put all of CHI on his back. He's been a beast this game #wizards— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) April 27, 2014
The backup forward piled up 32 points on 13-of-16 shooting in 32 minutes. At halftime, he was responsible for 20 of the Bulls' 40 points and eight of their 15 field goals. While it's fair to note that many of Gibson's buckets were set up by guys such as Hinrich and Augustin, he was still the only real threat on the floor for most of the game.
Naturally, a nice game by Gibson came at the expense of Carlos Boozer, who scored just eight points in 24 minutes.
Taj Gibson scores every time Trevor Booker tries to guard him, Carlos Boozer can't even get open or near the ball.— Taco Trey Kerby (@treykerby) April 27, 2014
The Bulls' soon-to-be-amnestied forward caught his usual share of heat on Twitter throughout the game.
Solid production. Will be tough to keep up this pace though. RT @JeffGurt: Carlos Boozer has committed 5 fouls in the last 3:30.— Bulls by the Horns (@BullsbytheHorns) April 27, 2014
So, just to affirm a season-long trend is still very much alive: Yes, Boozer gets plenty of blame.
The Right Things
Randy Wittman said the right things after his team took a 3-1 advantage.
The Wizards are smart enough to know that even a Bulls team that looked as bad as they did on Sunday is still a dangerous one.
Wittman made that clear in his postgame comments.
Wittman: "We've yet to do anything. And we've got to keep that mindset as we head back to Chicago." #CHIvsWAS— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) April 27, 2014
That's solid diplomacy from a coach on the verge of advancing to the next round, but it's also something we should all keep in mind. Remember, these Bulls have made a habit of looking terrible before bouncing back.
They've risen from the dead before, and defying expectations is basically built into the team's identity. But just as Wittman is saying all the right things, the Bulls must start to do the right things in order to survive.
They can't depend on offensive talent, but it wouldn't hurt to give Gibson and Augustin more minutes together, seeing as they're the team's only offensive weapons. And it might not be a bad idea to hunt down a few more shots for Mike Dunleavy, who followed up his epic long-distance barrage in Game 3 with just eight field-goal attempts in Game 4.
There's no guarantee the Bulls can recover from the hole they've dug for themselves. And frankly, the Wizards are a more talented and balanced team.
There's good reason to apportion fault to every member of the Bulls organization (Gibson excluded), but we'll only have ourselves to blame if we completely count Chicago out.