The Chicago Bulls are in big trouble.
After an inexplicably poor performance against the New York Knicks resulted in a 106-94 defeat, the Windy City representatives dropped even further out of the playoff picture. Entering the night with a 36-34 record, they were already looking up at the 38-34 Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference's race for No. 8. Now, they're 1.5 games back and at risk of being caught from behind by the Washington Wizards.
In Chicago, this is big news.
The Bulls haven't missed the playoffs since the 2007-08 season, when Scott Skiles was fired midway through the campaign and eventually replaced at head coach by Jim Boylan. A lot has changed since then, but Chicago's postseason presence has been a staple on the NBA calendar. That could all be shifting if these Bulls don't remedy some major issues rather quickly.
Since winning three of four games after the All-Star break, they've fallen apart. Beginning with a blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 26, they went just 6-8 over the 14 outings prior to the latest loss while posting a putrid net rating of minus-4.7.
In particular, the defense has utterly fallen apart:
Despite an offense that's trending in the right direction, the Bulls have uncharacteristically failed to slow any opponent. They've chosen not to contest shots, proved incapable of forcing turnovers and struggled to assert themselves on the defensive glass while so many bigs are injured. As Bleacher Report's Thomas Duffy noted, the effort just isn't there:
ESPN.com's Nick Friedell agrees, though he's not going to limit the woes to one end of the floor:
"You see the way I've been playing lately," Jimmy Butler recently told Friedell. "It's saddening. It's piss-poor. It's terrible. My teammates won't say it, my coaches won't say it, but I'm a realist. If I continue to play like this I'm hurting this team."
The shooting guard isn't lying. In the six games before dropping 19 against the Knicks on Thursday night, Butler had averaged only 13.8 points while shooting 36.4 percent from the field and failing to knock down a single three-point attempt.
But these problems are bigger than any one player, and they're still predominately emerging on the point-preventing end.
Even before this latest loss, the Bulls were allowing 111.3 points per 100 possessions in March. For perspective, the Los Angeles Lakers have the worst season-long defensive rating at 111.5, and they've been a historically porous bunch.
But playing without Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah isn't an excuse against a Knicks squad that has struggled to play with any sort of consistency in recent weeks. And it's even worse that this marks back-to-back losses against New York in the span of two days.
After Kristaps Porzingis dropped 29 points and 10 rebounds on Wednesday night, he provided a Thursday encore with 19 points, 10 boards and three blocks during the 12-point victory. Chicago's overmatched frontcourt had no idea how to slow him down, allowing far too much space on the perimeter for triples like the one below but also letting him do damage around the hoop:
If you looked only at the lines produced by the Bulls starters, you'd be shocked to hear Chicago lost again. In particular, Derrick Rose had a vintage performance on the offensive end, exploding for 30 points on 23 shots from the field.
But the thinned-out bench was atrocious. It combined for just 20 points on 7-of-28 shooting from the field (25 percent) and made just one of its 11 attempts from beyond the arc.
This dearth of depth and the overall defensive ineptitude are the primary culprits behind the recent downward swing, and that has to change if Chicago is to overcome a tough schedule down the stretch:
|Chicago's Remaining Schedule|
|72||@ Orlando Magic||29-42|
|74||@ Indiana Pacers||37-33|
|75||@ Houston Rockets||35-37|
|77||@ Milwaukee Bucks||30-42|
|78||@ Memphis Grizzlies||41-31|
|79||@ Miami Heat||41-30|
|81||@ New Orleans Pelicans||26-44|
|Records accurate through games on March 23.|
Closing the regular season against the decimated New Orleans Pelicans and the lowly Philadelphia 76ers allows for some semblance of optimism. But will the Bulls be in the postseason hunt by the time they're playing their 81st and 82nd games?
Nothing about the above schedule is easy, and back-to-back losses against the Knicks should strike fear into the hearts of the Chicago faithful—especially with the Wizards quickly improving, the Pistons currently on a four-game winning streak and the Indiana Pacers only dropping games to contenders, pessimism should reign supreme.
It's an upward climb from here, and the path to the mountaintop is littered with hurdles and superior opponents attempting the same hike.
Cleveland's Tenuous Hold on No. 1
Speaking of losing to teams you're supposed to beat, how about the Cleveland Cavaliers?
After a 104-95 loss to the bottom-feeding Brooklyn Nets, the East's presumptive top seed dropped to 51-21 on the season. All of a sudden, its hold on the No. 1 spot and home-court advantage throughout the postseason looks a lot more shaky.
The Toronto Raptors were off Thursday, but they gained a bit of ground just by sitting on their couches. At 48-22, they're now only two games behind the Cavaliers.
Toronto's remaining schedule is tough. It also doesn't feature any matchups against Cleveland, which will prevent it from closing the gap too easily. However, the very fact the ultra-talented Cavs haven't put away the rest of the Eastern field is cause for concern during a season that's already featured way too much drama.
If the cries about LeBron James' Twitter behavior were so loud before a shocking loss to the Nets, what happens now? Does it matter that the four-time MVP put together a fantastic individual showing, punctuated by this split of a double-team and subsequent reverse slam?
James did his part Thursday, finishing with 30 points, six rebounds, five assists and a steal while shooting 13-of-16 from the field. And even though he couldn't get it done down the stretch, he was the one reason his team was even in the game after he led it to a reasonable halftime deficit with an unstoppable stretch of bursts to the rim.
Even in the wake of a Brooklyn defeat, let's avoid pinning too much blame on the shoulders of this particular forward. Some of his off-court actions have been questionable this season, but he's still checking every box as an on-court leader: playing well as an individual, helping his teammates succeed with his passing, trying on defense, etc.
Now, it's time for the rest of the Cavaliers to decide they're tired of making the quest for the No. 1 seed an actual competition.
Even though the 2007 Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals before bowing out at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, that's not a favorable comparison for anyone but James. The very fact that it sounds legitimate at this late-season juncture is cause for serious concern.
Streaking in OKC
The incredibly versatile point guard had recorded triple-doubles in four of his last five games, including each of the last three. But after dropping "only" 15 points, seven rebounds and nine assists against Utah, he'll have to wait for another opportunity to post four consecutive trip-dubs:
Perhaps the streak would've continued if the margin hadn't forced Westbrook into a permanent seat on the pine after just 27 minutes of action.
But fear not. More triple-doubles will come. Westbrook already has 15 such performances during the 2015-16 campaign—one fewer than the combined efforts of Draymond Green (11) and Rajon Rondo (five), who sit directly behind him on the leaderboard.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant experienced no such end to his personal streak.
By scoring exactly 20 points against the overmatched Jazz, he now has 57 consecutive games hitting at least that benchmark. He entered the night tied with himself for the longest streak of the last five years.
The last players to produce longer stretches of 20-point outings? You have to go back an entire decade to find Kobe Bryant (63 consecutive games spanning 2005-06 and the beginning of 2006-07) and Allen Iverson (57 straight in 2004-05).
It's almost like this Durant guy is kinda good at scoring. Historically good, you could say.
You Never Know When a Shot-Making Clinic Could Begin
LAC, still tired from the previous night's contest against the Golden State Warriors, had trouble generating points with anyone but Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford. Rip City was also completing a back-to-back, and it showed.
But in the last minute, these two teams dazzled us with one spectacular shot after another, proving that it's never a good idea to turn off a close NBA game before the final buzzer sounds.
After the Clippers stormed back from a six-point deficit to take an 89-88 lead on a Crawford triple with 51 seconds remaining, Damian Lillard responded with a three-point play of his own, this one coming the old-fashioned way. And once Paul had evened things up with a pair of free throws, the Portland point guard responded by making a remarkably difficult trey to give his squad a three-point advantage:
Naturally, Crawford responded with a deep three at the end of a scrambled possession:
Just like that, the score was tied with 11 seconds to go.
LAC successfully denied Lillard the ball, forcing Maurice Harkless into an ill-fated drive against DeAndre Jordan. But instead of accepting overtime, the Clippers then inbounded the ball to J.J. Redick with 1.1 seconds remaining and watched as one of the league's best shooters did his thing:
Just like that, a sloppy contest filled with bad offense turned into an unforgettable late-game show filled with some of the league's best offensive players strutting their stuff.
When you follow the NBA, never sleep. You don't know what you could be missing.
Talent Ultimately Wins for Indiana
The talent discrepancy was too large for the New Orleans Pelicans to overcome on Thursday night. The injury-riddled squad used standout showings from Alexis Ajinca and Tim Frazier to keep things tight against the Indiana Pacers, but the final buzzer still sounded to ring in a 92-84 defeat.
Is this really a surprise?
The better players usually win NBA games, and Indiana had all of them in this matchup, even after Paul George left with a lower leg contusion midway through the third quarter. Just take a gander at the starting lineups, because they tell you all you need to know:
|Position||Indiana Pacers||New Orleans Pelicans|
|Point Guard||George Hill||Toney Douglas|
|Shooting Guard||Monta Ellis||Alonzo Gee|
|Small Forward||Paul George||Dante Cunningham|
|Power Forward||Myles Turner||Alexis Ajinca|
|Center||Ian Mahinmi||Omer Asik|
Given the glaring disparity, it's tough to draw too many takeaways, even as the Pacers are fighting to stay comfortable in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
They can at least focus on the stellar play of Myles Turner, who celebrated his 20th birthday by recording 24 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks. Whether he was baffling defenders in the post, crashing to the hoop or knocking down mid-range jumpers, the Texas product was fantastic:
Turner will face far tougher frontcourt matchups going forward, but the talent is there—just as it's been throughout his rookie season. If he keeps playing like this, Indiana only gets more dangerous.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and accurate through games played on March 23.